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Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. Not merely the physical world, and man's conceptions thereof, but the spiritual world, and man's conceptions of that likewise.
How have our conceptions of the physical world been shaken of late, with ever-increasing violence! How simple, and easy, and certain, it all looked to our forefathers ! How complex, how uncertain, it looks to us! With increased knowledge has come—not increased doubt—that I deny; but increased reverence; increased fear of rash assertions, increased awe of facts, as the acted words and thoughts of God. Once for all, I deny that this age is an irreverent one. I say that an irreverent age is an age like the Middle Age, in which men dared to fancy that they could and did know all about earth and heaven; and set up their petty cosmogonies, their petty systems of doctrine, as measures of the ways of that God whom the heaven, and the heaven of heavens, cannot contain.
It was simple enough, their theory of the
universe. The earth was a flat plain; for did not the earth look flat? Or if some believed the earth to be a globe, yet the existence of antipodes was an unscriptural heresy. Above were the heavens : first the lower heavens in which the stars were fixed and moved ; and above them heaven after heaven, each peopled of higher orders, up to that heaven of heavens in which Deity—and by Him, the Mother of Deity—were enthroned.
And below-What could be more clear, more certain, than this—that as above the earth was the kingdom of light, and joy, and holiness, so below the earth was the kingdom of darkness, and torment, and sin? What could be more certain ? Had not even the heathens said so, by the mouth of the poet Virgil? What could be more simple, rational, orthodox, than to adopt (as they actually did) Virgil's own words, and talk of Tartarus, Styx, and Phlegethon, as indisputable Christian entities. They were not aware that the Buddhists of the far East had held much the same theory of endless retribution several centuries before; and that Dante, with his various bolge, tenanted each by its various species of sinners, was merely re-echoing the horrors which are to be seen painted on the walls of any Buddhist temple, as they were on the walls of so many European churches during the Middle Ages, when men really believed in that same Tartarology, with the same intensity with which they now believe in the conclusions of astronomy or of chemistry.
To them, indeed, it was all an indisputable or physical fact, as any astronomic or chemical fact would have been; for they saw it with their own eyes.
Virgil had said that the mouth of Tartarus was there in Italy, by the volcanic lake of Avernus; and after the first eruption of Vesuvius in the first century, nothing seemed more probable. Etna, Stromboli, Hecla, must be likewise, all mouths of hell; and there were not wanting holy hermits who had heard within those craters, shrieks, and clanking chains, and the shouts of demons tormenting endlessly the souls of the lost. And now, how has all this been shaken ? How much of all this does any educated man, though he be pious, though he desire with all his heart to be orthodoxand is orthodox in fact-how much of all this does he believe, as he believes that the earth is round, or that if he steals his neighbour's goods he commits a crime ?
For, since these days, the earth has been shaken, and with it the heavens likewise, in that very sense in which the expression is used in the text. Our conceptions of them have been shaken. The Copernican system shook them, when it told men that the earth was but a tiny globular planet revolving round the sun. Geology shook them, when it told men that the earth has endured for countless ages, during which whole continents have been submerged, whole seas become dry land, again and again. Even now the heavens and the earth are being shaken by researches into the antiquity of the human race, and into the origin and the mutability of species, which, issue in what results they may, will shake for us, meanwhile, theories which are venerable with the authority of
nearly eighteen hundred years, and of almost every great Doctor, since St. Augustine.
And as our conception of the physical universe has been shaken, the old theory of a Tartarus beneath the earth has been shaken also, till good men have been glad to place Tartarus in a comet, or in the sun, or to welcome the possible but unproved hypothesis of a central fire in the earth's core, not on any scientific grounds, but if by any means a spot may be found in space corresponding to that of which Virgil, Dante, and Milton sang.
And meanwhile—as was to be expected from a generation which abhors torture, labours for the reformation of criminals, and even doubts whether it should not abolish capital punishment—a shaking of the heavens is abroad, of which we shall hear more and more, as the years roll on—a general inclination to ask whether Holy Scripture really endorses the Middle-age notions of future punishment in endless torment ? Men are writing and speaking on this matter, not merely with ability and learning, but with a piety, and