From ROBERT INGERSOLL (1880)
The Great Agnostic
If God made us, he will not destroy us. Infinite wisdom never made a poor investment, Upon all the works of an infinite God, a dividend must finally be declared. Why should God make failures? Why should he waste material? Why should he not correct his mistakes, instead of damning them? The pulpit has cast a shadow over even the cradle. The doctrine of endless punishment has covered the cheeks of this world with tears. I despise it, and I deny it.
I made up my mind, I say, to see what I had to do in order to save my soul according to the Testament, and thereupon I read it. I read the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and found that the church had been deceiving me. I found that the clergy did not understand their own book; that they had been building upon passages that had been interpolated; upon passages that were entirely untrue, and I will tell you why I think so.
THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
ACCORDING to the church, the first gospel was written by Matthew. As a matter of fact he never wrote a word of it — never saw it, never heard of it and probably never will. But for the purposes of this lecture I admit that he wrote it. I will admit that he was with Christ for three years; that he was his constant companion; that he shared his sorrows and his triumphs: that he heard his words by the lonely lakes, the barren hill, in synagogue and street, and that he knew his heart and became acquainted with his thoughts and aims.
Now let us see what Matthew says we must do in order to be saved. And I take it that, if this is true, Matthew is as good authority as any minister in the world.
The first thing I find. upon the subject of salvation is in the fifth chapter of Matthew, and is embraced in what is commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. It is as follows:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Good!
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Good! Whether they belonged to any church or not; whether they believed the Bible or not?
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” Good!
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Good!
In the same sermon he says: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” And then he makes use of this remarkable language, almost as applicable to-day as it was then: “For I say unto you that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Good!
In the sixth chapter I find the following, and it comes directly after the prayer known as the Lord’s prayer: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your father forgive your trespasses.”
I accept the condition. There is an offer; I accept it. If you will forgive men that trespass against you, God will forgive your trespasses against him. I accept the terms, and I never will ask any God to treat me better than I treat my fellow-men. There is a square promise. There is a contract. If you will forgive others God will forgive you. And it does not say you must believe in the Old Testament, or be baptized, or join the church, or keep Sunday; that you must count beads, or pray, or become a nun, or a priest; that you must preach sermons or hear them, build churches or fill them. Not one word is said about eating or fasting, denying or believing. It simply says, if you forgive others God will forgive you; and it must of necessity be true. No god could afford to damn a forgiving man. Suppose God should damn to everlasting fire a man so great and good, that he, looking from the abyss of hell, would forgive God, — how would a god feel then?
Now let me make myself plain upon one subject, perfectly plain. For instance, I hate Presbyterianism, but I know hundreds of splendid Presbyterians. Understand me. I hate Methodism, and yet I know hundreds of splendid Methodists. I hate Catholicism, and like Catholics. I hate insanity but not the insane.
I do not war against men. I do not war against persons. I war against certain doctrines that I believe to be wrong. But I give to every other man-being every right that I claim for myself.
The next thing that I find is in the seventh chapter and the second verse: “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” Good! That suits me!
And in the twelfth chapter of Matthew: “For whosoever shall do the will of my Father that is in heaven, the same is my brother and sister and mother. For the son of man shall come in the glory of his father with his angels, and then he shall reward every man according …” To the church he belongs to? No. To the manner in which he was baptized? No. According to his creed? No. “Then he shall reward every man according to his works.” Good! I subscribe to that doctrine.
And in the eighteenth chapter: “And Jesus called a little child to him and stood him in the midst; and said, ‘Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’” I do not wonder that in his day, surrounded by scribes and Pharisees, he turned lovingly to little children.
And yet, see what children the little children of God have been. What an interesting dimpled darling John Calvin was. Think of that prattling babe, Jonathan Edwards! Think of the infants that founded the Inquisition, that invented instruments of torture to tear human flesh. They were the ones who had become as little children. They were the children of faith.
So I find in the nineteenth chapter: “And behold, one came and said unto him: ‘Good master, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?’ And he said unto him, ‘Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He saith unto him, ‘which?’”
Now, there is a fair issue. Here is a child of God asking God what is necessary for him to do in order to inherit eternal life. And God said to him: Keep the commandments. And the child said to the Almighty: “Which?” Now, if there ever has been an opportunity given to the Almighty to furnish a man of an inquiring mind with the necessary information upon that subject, here was the opportunity. “He said unto him, which? And Jesus said: Thou shalt do no murder; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not bear false witness; honor thy father and mother; and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
He did not say to him: “You must believe in me — that I am the only begotten son of the living God.” He did not say: “You must be born again.” He did not say: “You must believe the Bible.” He did not say: “You must remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” He simply said: “Thou shalt do no murder. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness. Honor thy father and thy mother; and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” And thereupon the young man, who I think was mistaken, said unto him: “All these things have I kept from my youth up.”
What right has the church to add conditions of salvation? Why should we suppose that Christ failed to tell the young man all that was necessary for him to do? Is it possible that he left out some important thing simply to mislead? Will some minister tell us why he thinks that Christ kept back the “scheme”?
Now comes an interpolation. In the old times when the church got a little scarce of money, they always put in a passage praising poverty. So they had this young man ask: “What lack I yet? And Jesus said unto him: If thou wilt be perfect, go, and sell that thou hast and give to, the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.”
The church has always been willing to swap off treasures in heaven for cash down. And when the next verse was written the church must have been nearly bankrupt. “And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Did you ever know a wealthy disciple to unload on account of that verse?
And then comes another verse, which I believe is an interpolation: “And everyone that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundred fold, and shall inherit everlasting life.”
Christ never said it. Never. “Whosoever shall forsake father and mother.”
Why, he said to this man that asked him, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” among other things, he said: “Honor thy father and thy mother.” And we turn over the page and he says again: “If you will desert your father and mother you shall have everlasting life.” It will not do. If you will desert your wife and your little children, or your lands — the idea of putting a house and lot on equality with wife and children! Think of that! I do not accept the terms. I will never desert the one I love for the promise of any god.
It is far more important to love your wife than to love God, and I will tell you why. You cannot help him, but you can help her. You can fill her life with the perfume of perpetual joy. It is far more important that you love your children than that you love Jesus Christ. And why? If he is God you cannot help him, but you can plant a little flower of happiness in every footstep of the child, from the cradle until you die in that child’s arms. Let me tell you to-day it is far more important to build a home than to erect a church. The holiest temple beneath the stars is a home that love has built. And the holiest altar in all the wide world is the fireside around which gather father and mother and the sweet babes.
There was a time when people believed the infamy commanded in this frightful passage. There was a time when they did desert fathers and mothers and wives and children. St. Augustine says to the devotee: Fly to the desert, and though your wife put her arms around your neck, tear her hands away; she is a temptation of the devil. Though your father and mother throw their bodies athwart your threshold, step over them; and though your children pursue, and with weeping eyes beseech you to return, listen not. It is the temptation of the evil one. Fly to the desert and save your soul. Think of such a soul being worth saving. While I live I propose to stand by the ones I love.
There is another condition of salvation. I find it in the twenty-fifth chapter: “Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was an hungered and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye took me in; naked and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me; I was in prison and ye came unto me.” Good!
I tell you to-night that God will not punish with eternal thirst the man who has put the cup of cold water to the lips of his neighbor. God will not leave in the eternal nakedness of pain the man who has clothed his fellow-men.
For instance, here is a shipwreck, and here is some brave sailor who stands aside and allows a woman whom he never saw before to take his place in the boat, and he stands there, grand and serene as the wide sea, and he goes down. Do you tell me that there’s any God who will push the lifeboat from the shore of eternal life, when that man wishes to step in? Do you tell me that God can be unpitying to the pitiful, that he can be unforgiving to the forgiving? I deny it; and from the aspersions of the pulpit I seek to rescue the reputation of the Deity.
Now, I have read you substantially everything in Matthew on the subject of salvation. That is all there is. Not one word about believing anything. It is the gospel of deed, the gospel of charity, the gospel of self-denial; and if only that gospel had been preached, persecution never would have shed one drop of blood. Not one.
According to the testimony Matthew was well acquainted with Christ. According to the testimony, he had been with him, and his companion for years, and if it was necessary to believe anything in order to get to heaven, Matthew should have told us. But he forgot it, or he did not believe it, or he never heard of it. You can take your choice.
In Matthew, we find that heaven is promised, first, to the poor in spirit. Second, to the merciful. Third, to the pure in heart. Fourth, to the peacemakers. Fifth, to those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Sixth, to those who keep and teach the commandments. Seventh, to, those who forgive men that trespass against them. Eighth, that we will be Judged as we Judge others. Eighth, that they who receive prophets and righteous men shall receive a prophet’s reward. Tenth, to those who do the will of God. Eleventh, that every man shall be rewarded according to his works. Twelfth, to those who become as little children. Thirteenth, to those who forgive the trespasses of others. Fourteenth, to the, perfect: they who sell all that they have and give to the poor. Fifteenth, to them who forsake houses, and brethren, and sisters, and father, and mother, and wife, and children, and lands for the sake of Christ’s name, sixteenth, to those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter to the stranger, clothes to the naked, comfort to the sick, and who visit the prisoner.
Nothing else is said with regard to salvation in the gospel according to St. Matthew. Not one word about believing the Old Testament to have been inspired; not one word about being baptized or joining a church; not one word about believing in any miracle; not even a hint that it was necessary to believe that Christ was the son of God, or that he did any wonderful or miraculous things, or that he was born of a virgin, or that his coming had been foretold by the Jewish prophets. Not one word about believing in the Trinity, or in foreordination or predestination. Matthew had not understood from Christ that any such things were necessary to ensure the salvation of the soul.
According to the testimony, Matthew had been in the company of Christ, some say three years and some say one, but at least he had been with him long enough to find out some of his ideas upon this great subject. And yet Matthew never got the impression that it was necessary to believe something in order to get to heaven. He supposed that if a man forgave others God would forgive him; he believed that God would show mercy to the merciful; that he would not allow those who fed the hungry to starve; that he would not put in the flames of hell those who had given cold water to the thirsty; that he would not cast into the eternal dungeon of his wrath those who had visited the imprisoned; and that he would not damn men who forgave others.
Matthew had it in his mind that God would treat us very much as we treated other people; and that in the next world he would treat with kindness those who had been loving and gentle in their lives. It may be the apostle was mistaken; but evidently it was his opinion.