From The Archives
ROBERT INGERSOLL (1833 – 1899)
The Great Agnostic
I have concluded that I will never deliver a lecture in which I will not attack the doctrine of eternal pain. That part of the Congregational creed would disgrace the lowest savage that crouches and crawls in the jungles of Africa. The man who now, in the nineteenth century, preaches the doctrine of eternal punishment, the doctrine of an eternal hell, has lived in vain. Think of that doctrine! The eternity of punishment! I find in this same creed—in this latest utterance of Congregationalism—that Christ is finally going to triumph in this world and establish his kingdom. This creed declares that “we believe in the ultimate prevalence of the kingdom of God over all the earth.” If their doctrine is true he will never triumph in the other world. The Congregational Church does not believe in the ultimate prevalence of the kingdom of Christ in the world to come. There he is to meet with eternal failure. He will have billions in hell forever.
In this world we never will be perfectly civilized as long as a gallows casts its shadow upon the earth. As long as there is a penitentiary, within the walls of which a human being is immured, we are not a perfectly civilized people. We shall never be perfectly civilized until we do away with crime. And yet, according to this Christian religion, God is to have an eternal penitentiary; he is to be an everlasting jailer, an everlasting turnkey, a warden of an infinite dungeon, and he is going to keep prisoners there forever, not for the purpose of reforming them—because they are never going to get any better, only worse—but for the purpose of purposeless punishment. And for what? For something they failed to believe in this world. Born in ignorance, supported by poverty, caught in the snares of temptation, deformed by toil, stupefied by want—and yet held responsible through the countless ages of eternity! No man can think of a greater horror; no man can dream of a greater absurdity. For the growth of that doctrine ignorance was soil and fear was rain. It came from the fanged mouths of serpents, and yet it is called “glad tidings of great joy.”
Some Who are Damned.
We are told “God so loved the world” that he is going to damn almost everybody. If this orthodox religion be true, some of the greatest, and grandest, and best who ever lived are suffering God’s torments to-night. It does not appear to make much difference with the members of the church. They go right on enjoying themselves about as well as ever. If this doctrine is true, Benjamin Franklin, one of the wisest and best of men, who did so much to give us here a free government, is suffering the tyranny of God to-night, although he endeavored to establish freedom among men. If the churches were honest, their preachers would tell their hearers: “Benjamin Franklin is in hell, and we warn all the youth not to imitate Benjamin Franklin. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, with its self-evident truths, has been damned these many years.”
That is what all the ministers ought to have the courage to say. Talk as you believe. Stand by your creed, or change it. I want to impress it upon your minds, because the thing I wish to do in this world is to put out the fires of hell. I will keep on as long as there is one little red coal left in the bottomless pit. As long as the ashes are warm I shall denounce this infamous doctrine.
I want you to know that according to this creed the men who founded this great and splendid Government are in hell to-night. Most of the men who fought in the Revolutionary war, and wrested from the clutch of Great Britain this continent, have been rewarded by the eternal wrath of God. Thousands of the old Revolutionary soldiers are in torment tonight. Let the preachers have the courage to say so. The men who fought in 1812, and gave to the United States the freedom of the seas, have nearly all been damned. Thousands of heroes who served our country in the Civil war, hundreds who starved in prisons, are now in the dungeons of God, compared with which, Andersonville was Paradise. The greatest of heroes are there; the greatest of poets, the greatest scientists, the men who have made the world beautiful—they are all among the damned if this creed is true.
Humboldt, who shed light, and who added to the intellectual wealth of mankind; Goethe, and Schiller, and Lessing, who almost created the German language—all gone—all suffering the wrath of God tonight, and every time an angel thinks of one of those men he gives his harp an extra twang. Laplace, who read the heavens like an open book—he is there. Robert Burns, the poet of human love—he is there. He wrote the “Prayer of Holy Willie.” He fastened on the cross the Presbyterian creed, and there it is, a lingering crucifixion. Robert Burns increased the tenderness of the human heart. Dickens put a shield of pity before the flesh of childhood—God is getting even with him. Our own Ralph Waldo Emerson, although he had a thousand opportunities to hear Methodist clergymen, scorned the means of grace, lived to his highest ideal, gave to his fellow-men his best and truest thought, and yet his spirit is the sport and prey of fiends to-night.
Longfellow, who has refined thousands of homes, did not believe in the miraculous origin of the Savior, doubted the report of Gabriel, loved his fellow-men, did what he could to free the slaves, to increase the happiness of man, yet God was waiting for his soul—waiting to cast him out and down forever. Thomas Paine, author of the “Rights of Man;” offering his life in both hemispheres for the freedom of the human race; one of the founders of this Republic, is now among the damned; and yet it seems to me that if he could only get God’s attention long enough to point him to the American flag he would let him out. Auguste Comte, author of the “Positive Philosophy,” who loved his fellow-men to that degree that he made of humanity a god, who wrote his great work in poverty, with his face covered with tears—they are getting their revenge on him now.
Voltaire, who abolished torture in France; who did more for human liberty than any other man, living or dead; who was the assassin of superstition, and whose dagger still rusts in the heart of Catholicism—he is with the rest. All the priests who have been translated have had their happiness increased by looking at Voltaire.
Giordano Bruno, the first star of the morning after the long night; Benedict Spinoza, the pantheist, the metaphysician, the pure and generous man; Diderot, the encyclopedist, who endeavored to get all knowledge in a small compass, so that he could put the peasant on an equality intellectually with the prince; Diderot, who wished to sow all over the world the seed of knowledge, and loved to labor for mankind, while the priests wanted to burn; who did all he could to put out the fires—he was lost, long, long ago. His cry for water has become so common that his voice is now recognized through all the realms of heaven, and the angels laughing, say to one another, “That is Diderot.”
David Hume, the Scotch philosopher, is there, with his inquiry about the “Human Understanding” and his argument against miracles. Beethoven, master of music, and Wagner, the Shakespeare of harmony, who made the air of this world rich forever, they are there; and to-night they have better music in hell than in heaven!
Shelley, whose soul, like his own “Skylark,” was a winged joy, has been damned for many, many years; and Shakespeare, the greatest of the human race, who did more to elevate mankind than all the priests who ever lived and died, he is there; but founders of inquisitions, builders of dungeons, makers of chains, inventors of instruments of torture, tearers, and burners, and branders of human flesh, stealers of babes, and sellers of husbands and wives and children, and they who kept the horizon lurid with the fagot’s flame for a thousand years—are in heaven to-night. I wish heaven joy!
That is the doctrine with which we are polluting the souls of children. That is the doctrine that puts a fiend by the dying bed and a prophecy of hell over every cradle. That is “glad tidings of great joy.”
Only a little while ago, when the great flood came upon the Ohio, sent by him who is ruling the world and paying particular attention to the affairs of nations, just in the gray of the morning they saw a house floating down and on its top a human being. A few men went out to the rescue. They found there a woman, a mother, and they wished to save her life. She said: “No, I am going to stay where I am. In this house I have three dead babes; I will not desert them.” Think of a love so limitless—stronger and deeper than despair and death! And yet, the Christian religion says, that if that woman, that mother, did not happen to believe in their creed God would send her soul to eternal fire! If there is another world, and if in heaven they wear hats, when such a woman climbs the opposite bank of the Jordan, Christ should lift his to her.
The doctrine of eternal pain is my trouble with this Christian religion. I reject it on account of its infinite heartlessness. I cannot tell them too often, that during our last war Christians, who knew that if they were shot they would go right to heaven, went and hired wicked men to take their places, perfectly willing that these men should go to hell provided they could stay at home. You see they are not honest in it, or they do not believe it, or as the people say, “they don’t sense it.” They have not imagination enough to conceive what it is they believe, and what a terrific falsehood they assert. And I beg of every one who hears me to-night, I beg, I implore, I beseech you, never to give another dollar to build a church in which that lie is preached. Never give another cent to send a missionary with his mouth stuffed with that falsehood to a foreign land. Why, they say, the heathen will go to heaven, any way, if you let them alone. What is the use of sending them to hell by enlightening them? Let them alone. The idea of going and telling a man a thing that if he does not believe, he will be damned, when the chances are ten to one that he will not believe it, is monstrous. Do not tell him here, and as quick as he gets to the other world and finds it is necessary to believe, he can say “Yes.” Give him a chance.