by Heinrich Zschokke
(translated by Frederica Rowan)
Johann Heinrich David Zschokke, evangelist, theologian, and writer, was born in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1771. After studying philosophy and theology at the University of Frankfurt, he lectured for a time on philosophical and theological subjects at Frankfurt. In 1795 he journeyed to Switzerland, becoming a Swiss citizen in 1798 and later became an advisor to Aargau Canton on management and preservation of forest resources. His principal effort in life was to reorganize and improve public education. He also published a whole set of magazines and works, the most important of which was the weekly The Swiss Messenger, which was published from 1804 until 1879. From 1809 to 1816, he authored weekly devotions, which became popular far beyond national borders and were often published in book form. Declining health caused him to withdraw from public life after 1843, and he was bed-bound from the winter of 1847 to his death in June of 1848.
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“Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called, and hast professed a good profession before many withesses” (1 Tim. 6:12).
Even the most frivolous mind cannot laugh away the thought of eternity. Even the most lukewarm Christian, who lives in this world as though he were to dwell in it forever, cannot always escape from thoughts of the grave. Even the reprobate who brings forth every possible argument to disprove the existence of God and to throw discredit on the belief in the immortality of man’s soul—even he is sometimes involuntarily compelled to think of God and eternity. He thinks and shudders. “The devils also believe and tremble!” says James (2:19).
There are three testimonies in favor of the truth that man was not created for this short life alone, and that he belongs not only to earth, but also to a higher existence, which no frivolity, no wit, no power of argument, can destroy. And these testimonies, which are found among all nations of the world, are: the universal belief in a God, the universal presence of a conscience, or an inward judge in man, and the universal faith in eternity. These intuitive ideas are indeed the educators and the preservers of the human race.
In truth, what would the world be without these three great ideas? Picture to yourself the human race, with its wild, all-consuming desires, left to itself, without faith in God, without the feeling of right and wrong, and without the conception of a continued existence after death. What safety would there be for life or property? No, all the horrors of hell would be perpetrated under the heavens. Violence, cunning, and cruelty would reign supreme. Assassination would precipitate ruler and subject alike into the grave.
If the thought of eternity can produce so powerful an effect, even on the savage, what influence must it not exercise over the Christian, who, having received the revelation of Jesus, and being admitted into His kingdom, has little to hope on earth, but everything to look forward to in eternity? What must it be to the Christian who can say with Christ, My kingdom is not of this world, and not on this earth is my home, but in the eternal dwelling-place of God, in the high heavens, in my Father’s house?
In what manner, then, ought my mind to be occupied with the subject? To every Christian the thought of eternity should be as an intimate friend, whose presence is far from irksome. But if it is to be this we must in reality first endeavour to make ourselves quite familiar with it. We must be intimately acquainted with it. We must know what we have to fear or to hope from it. Only an intimate friend is received with a smiling welcome, whether he come often or come seldom.
A Christian ought never repel the thought of the future life when it approaches. It will never be to him other than a reminder of the eternal, unalterable destination, to which each hour that passes, each step we take, draws us so much nearer.
But our endeavors to learn more of our eternal home ought not to indulge in useless speculations as to the nature of the future life, and the exact conditions to which our souls will there be subject. It is not necessary to do this in order to become familiar with the thought of eternity—nor is it possible. The veil which the hand of God has drawn before that future is impenetrable and no ponderings of yours will enable you to lift it until God calls you.
Instead of futile efforts to pierce this veil, becoming familiar with the thought of eternity means to remind ourselves as often as an opportunity occurs, that we are born into everlasting life; that God’s inexhaustible fatherly love is infinite, like the existence of our souls; that His hand, which has already bestowed on us here on earth so many joys, will not be less generous of its gifts when we have rendered ourselves worthy and capable of still higher enjoyments; that in the mercy of the almighty and all-loving Creator any fate that may befall us, including the change in death, must be for our good.
That is what the Holy Scriptures teach us. This is what Jesus, the Savior, the Judge of the world, teaches, when He says, “And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrections of damnation” (John 5:29). “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).
If we join these considerations to the thought of eternity, each time our thoughts dwell upon the solemn future will come the question: “But have I done anything to merit a more glorious existence on the other side of the grave? Has my soul sanctified itself through Jesus, so that I may look forward joyfully to the lot that awaits me there?”
For to think of the eternal life hereafter, without at the same time determining to qualify ourselves for it, would be but self-delusion, dead faith. But when it stimulates us to goodness and noble action in this world, it is an angel that leads us on in the ways of Jesus, in the ways of the Lord; and as we progress in amendment and perfection, it will gradually become more and more to us a thought full of quiet satisfaction, of heavenly calm.
We cannot meditate on our future existence without at the same time thinking of how fleeting and perishable is everything here below. We shall thus be led to contemplate with composure that which previously caused us poignant grief, and to feel more strongly than before that it is folly to give ourselves up to never-ending regret for things which were not given, but only lent to us. For all that we possess, earn, or enjoy on earth, does not belong to us, but to God. We are only allowed temporary use thereof, in order to bring our spirits to maturity.
But though the thought of eternity ought to awaken in us the consciousness of the nothingness of life, it ought not to render us indifferent to the beauties and attractions of our present existence. Why should we despise this life we have received from the hand of a loving Creator? Should we condemn a world which God has created and adorned with countless wonders, merely because our expectations look ahead to still greater joys?
Nay, the thought of eternity ought to bind us closer to this life. For here on earth, amid happiness and unhappiness, is the school in which we are to be formed for eternity. Whether we gain for ourselves friends, honors, and riches, or meet with hatred, poverty, and shame, let us love this earth as the school in which we are preparing to take our place in a higher rank. Let us contemplate without fear the termination of life’s journey.
“O death! where is thy sting? O grave! where is thy victory? But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Cor. 15:55,57).
When once my spirit, freed from dust,
Flies to my Savior whom I trust,
What, then, is mine? What bliss unbounded!
With what bright world am I surrounded?
What am I? Say, what shall I be?
I am transformed, released from dust.
Whose throne is there? Who calls me now?
Ah! it is God, in whom I trust--
Oh, my Messiah, it is Thou!
My foe subdued, in chains doth lie.
Death’s swallowed up in victory.
Hail, Lord! All honor, might, are Thine.
Savior! from Thee my life doth spring!
The angelic choir I haste to join,
And loudest hallelujahs sing.