Chapter V

The Last Judgement (From the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.)

While the above scientific discussions were taking place at Paris, meetings of a similar character were being held at London, Chicago, St. Petersburg, Yokohama, Melbourne, New York, and in all the principal cities of the world, in which every effort was made to throw light upon the great problem which so universally preoccupied the attention of humanity. At Oxford a theological council of the Reformed church was convened, in which religious traditions and interpretations were discussed at great length. To recite, or even to summarize here the proceedings of all these congresses would be an endless task, but we cannot omit reference to that of the Vatican as the most important from a religious point of view, just as that of the Institute of Paris was from a scientific one.

The council had been divided into a certain number of sections or committees, and the then often discussed question of the end of the world had been referred to one of these committees. Our duty here is to reproduce as accurately as possible the physiognomy of the main session, devoted to the discussion of this problem.

The patriarch of Jerusalem, a man of great piety and profound faith, was the first to speak in Latin. “Venerable fathers,” he began, “I cannot do better than to open before you the Holy Gospel. Permit me to quote literally.” He then read the words of the evangelists[2] describing the last days of the earth, and went on:

2. St. Matthew, xxiv. and xvi.; St. Mark, xiii.; St. Luke, xvii. and xxi.

“These words are taken verbatim from the Gospels, and you know that on this point the evangelists are in perfect accord.

The Patriarch of Jerusalem Addressing the Council

“You also know, most reverend fathers, that the last great day is pictured in still more striking language in the Apocalypse of St. John. But every word of the Scriptures is known to you, and, in the presence of so learned an audience, it seems to me superfluous, if not out of place, to make further citations from what is upon every lip.”

Such was the beginning of the address of the patriarch of Jerusalem. His remarks were divided under three heads: First, the teachings of Christ; second, the traditions of the Church; third, the dogma of the resurrection of the body, and of the last judgment. Taking first the form of an historical statement, the address soon became a sort of sermon, of vast range; and when the orator, passing from St. Paul to Clement of Alexandria, Tertulian and Origen, reached the council of Nice and the dogma of universal resurrection, he was carried away by his subject in such a flight of eloquence as to move the heart of every prelate before him. Several, who had renounced the apostolic faith of the earlier centuries, felt themselves again under its spell. It must be said that the surroundings lent themselves marvellously to the occasion. The assembly took place in the Sistine chapel. The immense and imposing painting of Michael Angelo, like a new apocalyptic heaven, was before every eye. The awful mingling of bodies, arms and legs, so forcibly and strangely foreshortened; Christ, the judge of the world; the damned borne struggling away by hideous devils; the dead issuing from their tombs; the skeletons returning to life and reclothing themselves with flesh; the frightful terror of humanity trembling in the presence of the wrath of God—all seemed to give a vividness, a reality, to the magnificent periods of the patriarch’s oratory, and at times, in certain effects of light, one might almost hear the advancing trumpet sounding from heaven the call of judgment, and see between earth and sky the moving hosts of the resurrection.


Scarcely had the patriarch of Jerusalem finished his speech, when an independent bishop, one of the most ardent dissenters of the council, the learned Mayerstross, rushed to the tribune, and began to insist that nothing in the Gospel, or the traditions of the Church, should be taken literally.

“The letter kills,” he cried, “the spirit vivifies! Everything is subject to the law of progress and change. The world moves. Enlightened Christians cannot any longer admit the resurrection of the body. All these images,” he added, “were good for the days of the catacombs. For a long time no one has believed in them. Such ideas are opposed to science, and, most reverend fathers you know, as well as I do, that we must be in accord with science, which has ceased to be, as in the time of Galileo, the humble servant of theology: theologiæ humilis ancilla.

“The body cannot be reconstituted, even by a miracle, so long as its molecules return to nature and are appropriated, successively, by so many beings—human, animal and vegetable. We are formed of the dust of the dead, and, in the future, the molecules of oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, sulphur, or iron, which make up our flesh and our bones, will be incorporated in other human organisms. This change is perpetual, even during life. One human being dies every second; that is more than 86,000 each day, more than 30,000,000 each year, more than three milliards each century. In a hundred centuries—not a long period in the history of a planet, the number of the resurrected would be three hundred milliards. If the human race lived but a 100,000 years—and no one here is ignorant of the fact that geological and astronomical periods are estimated by millions of years—there would be gathered before the judgment throne something like three thousand milliards of men, women and children. My estimate is a modest one, because I take no account of the secular increase in population. You may reply to me, that only the saved will rise! What, then, will become of the others? Two weights and two measures! Death and life! Night and day, good and evil! Divine injustice and good-will, reigning together over creation! But, no, you will not accept such a solution. The eternal law is the same for all. Well! What will you do with these thousands of milliards? Show me the valley of Jehoshaphat vast enough to contain them. Will you spread them over the surface of the globe, do away with the oceans and the icefields of the poles, and cover the world with a forest of human bodies? So be it! And afterwards? What will become of this immense host? No, most holy fathers, our beliefs must not, cannot, be taken literally. Would that there were here no theologians with closed eyes, that look only within, but astronomers with open eyes, that look without.”

These words had been uttered in the midst of an indescribable tumult; several times they wished to silence the Croatian bishop, gesticulating violently and denouncing him as schismatic; but the rules did not permit this, for the greatest liberty was allowed in the discussion. An Irish cardinal called down upon him the thunders of the Church, and spoke of excommunication and anathema; then, a distinguished prelate of the Gallican church, no less a person than the archbishop of Paris himself, ascended the rostrum and declared that the dogma of the resurrection of the dead might be discussed without incurring any canonical blame, and that it might be interpreted in entire harmony with reason and faith. According to him one might admit the dogma, and at the same time recognize the rational impossibility of a resurrection of the body!

“The Doctor Angelicus,” he said, speaking of St. Thomas, “maintained that the complete dissolution of every human body by fire would take place before the resurrection. (Summa theologica, III.) I readily concede with Calmet (on the resurrection of the dead) that to the omnipotence of the Creator it would not be impossible to reassemble the scattered molecules in such a way that the resurrected body should not contain a single one which did not belong to it at some time during its mortal life. But such a miracle is not necessary. St. Thomas has himself shown (loco citato) that this complete material identity is by no means indispensable to establish the perfect identity of the resurrected body with the body destroyed by death. I also think, therefore, that the letter should give way to the spirit.

“What is the principle of identity in a living body? Assuredly it does not consist in the complete and persistent identity of its matter. For in this continual change and renewal, which is the very essence of physiological life, the elements, which have belonged successively from infancy to old age to the same human being, would form a colossal body. In this torrent of life the elements pass and change ceaselessly; but the organism remains the same, notwithstanding the modifications in its size, its form and its constitution. Does the growing stem of the oak, hidden between its two cotyledons, cease to be the same plant when it has become a mighty oak? Is the embryo of the caterpillar, while yet in the egg, no longer the same insect when it becomes a caterpillar, and then a chrysalis, and then a butterfly? Is individuality lost as the child passes through manhood to old age? Assuredly not. But in the case of the oak, the butterfly, and the man, is there a single remaining molecule of those which constituted the growing stem of the oak, the egg of the caterpillar or the human embryo? What then is the principle which persists through all these changes? This principle is a reality, not a fiction. It is not the soul, for the plants have life, and yet no souls, in the meaning of the word as we use it. Nevertheless, it must be an imponderable agent. Does it survive the body? It is possible. St. Gregory of Nyssus believed so. If it remains united to the soul, it may be invoked to furnish it with a new body identical with that which death has destroyed, even though this body should not possess a single molecule which it possessed at any period of its terrestrial life, and this would be as truly our body as that which we had when five, fifteen, or thirty, or sixty years of age.

“Such a conception agrees perfectly with the expressions of holy writ, according to which it is certain that after a period of separation the soul will again take on the body forever.

“In addition to St. Gregory of Nyssus, permit me, most reverend fathers, to cite a philosopher Leibnitz, who held the opinion that the physiological principle of life was imponderable but not incorporeal, and that the soul remains united to this principle, although separated from the ponderable and visible body. I do not pretend to either accept or reject this hypothesis. I only note that it may serve to explain the dogma of the resurrection, in which every Christian should firmly believe.”

“This effort to conciliate reason and faith,” interrupted the Croatian bishop, “is worthy of praise, but it seems to me more ingenious than probable. Are these bodies, bodies like our own? If they are perfect, incorruptible, fitted to their new conditions, they must not possess any organ for which there is no use. Why a mouth, if they do not eat? Why legs, if they do not walk? Why arms, if they do not work? One of the fathers of the early church, Origen, whose personal sacrifice is not forgotten, thought these bodies must be perfect spheres. That would be logical but not very beautiful or interesting.”

“It is better to admit with St. Gregory of Nyssus and St. Augustin,” replied the archbishop, “that the resurrected body will have the human form, a transparent veil of the beauty of the soul.”

Thus was the modern theory of the Church on the resurrection of the body summed up by the French cardinal. As to the objections on the score of the locality of the resurrection, the number of the resurrected, the insufficiency of surface on the globe, the final abode of the elect and the damned, it was impossible to come to any common understanding for the contradictions were irreconcilable. The resultant impression was, however, that these matters also should be understood figuratively, that neither the heaven or the hell of the theologian represented any definite place, but rather states of the soul, of happiness or of misery, and that life, whatever its form, would be perpetuated on the countless worlds which people infinite space. And so it appeared that Christian thought had gradually become transformed, among the enlightened, and followed the progress of astronomy and the other sciences.

The council had been held on Tuesday evening, that is to say on the day following the two meetings of the Institute, of which an account has been given above. The Pope had made public the advice of the president of the Institute to leave Italy on the fatal day, but no attention had been paid to it, partly because death is a deliverance for every believer, and partly because most theologians denied the existence even of inhabitants upon Mars.

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