IF the Conflagration of the World be a reality, as, both by Scripture and Antiquity, we are assur’d it is: If we be fully perswaded and convinc’d of this: ’Tis a thing of that nature, that we cannot keep it long in our thoughts, without making some moral reflections upon it. ’Tis both great in it self, and of universal concern to all Mankind. Who can look upon such an Object, A World in Flames, without thinking with himself, Whether shall I be in the midst of these flames, or no? What is my security that I shall not fall under this fiery vengeance, which is the wrath of an angry God? St. Peter,2 Epist. 3. 11. when he had deliver’d the doctrine of the Conflagration, makes this pious reflection upon it: Seeing
then that all these things shall be dissolv’d, what manner of persons ought you to be, in holy conversation and godliness? The strength of his argument depends chiefly upon what he had said before in the 7th Verse, where he told us, that the present Heavens and Earth were reserv’d unto fire, against the Day of judgment, and the perdition of irreligious men. We must avoid the crime then, if we would escape the punishment. But this expression of irreligious or ungodly men, is still very general. St. Paul, when he speaks of this fiery indignation, and the Persons it is to fall upon, is more distinct in their characters. He seems to mark out for this destruction, three sorts of men chiefly, The Atheists, Infidels, and the Tribe of Antichrist. These are his words:2 Thess. 1. 7, 8. When the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from Heaven, with his mighty Angels, in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that known not God: and that obey not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Then as for Anti-christ and his adherents, he says, in the 2d. Chapt. and 8th. Verse, The Lord shall consume that Wicked one with the Spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy him with the brightness of his coming, or of his Presence. These, you see, all refer to the same time with St. Peter: namely, to the coming of our Saviour, at the Conflagration; and three sorts of Persons are characteriz’d as his Enemies, and set out for destruction at that time. First, those that know not God: that is, that acknowledge not God, that will not own the Deity. Secondly, those that hearken not to the Gospel; that is, that reject the Gospel and Christian Religion, when they are preach’d and made known to them. For you must not think that it is the poor barbarous and ignorant Heathens, that scarce ever heard of God, or the Gospel, that are threaten’d with this fiery vengeance. No, ’tis the Heathens that live amongst Christians; those that are Infidels, as to the existence of God, or the truth of Christian Religion, tho’ they have had a full manifestation of both. These are properly the Adversaries of God and Christ. And such adversaries, St. Paul says in another place,Heb. 10. 27. A fearful judgment, and fiery indignation shall devour: which still refers to the same time, and the same Persons we are speaking of. Then as to the third sort of Men, Anti-christ and his Followers, besides this Text of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, ’tis plain to me in the Apocalypse, that Mystical Babylon is to be consum’d by fire: and the Beast and False Prophet to be thrown into the Lake that burns with fire and brimstone: Which Lake is no where to be found till the Conflagration.
You see then for whom Tophet is prepar’d of old. For Atheists, Infidels, and Anti-christian Persecutors. And they will have for their Companions, the Devil and his Angels, the heads of the Apostasie. These are all in open rebellion against God and Christ, and at defiance, as it were, with Heaven. Excepting Anti-christ, who is rather in a secret conspiracy, than an open rebellion. For, under a pretended Commission from Jesus Christ, He persecutes his Servants, dishonours his Person, corrupts his Laws and his Government, and makes War against his Saints. And this is a greater affront and provocation, if possible, than a barefac’d opposition would be.
There are other Men, besides these, that are unacceptable to God: All sorts of sinners and wicked persons: but they are not so properly the Enemies of God, as these we have mention’d. An intemperate Man is an Enemy to himself, and
an injust Man is an Enemy to his Neighbour: But those that deny God, or Christ, or persecute their Servants, are directly and immediately Enemies to God. And therefore when the Lord comes in flames of fire to triumph over his Enemies: To take vengeance upon all that are Rebels or Conspirators against him and his Christ; these Monsters of Men will be the first and most exemplary Objects of the divine wrath and indignation.
To undertake to speak to these three Orders of men, and convince them of their errour, and the danger of it, would be too much for the Conclusion of a short Treatise. And as for the third sort, the Subjects of Antichrist, none but the Learned amongst them are allow’d to be inquisitive, or to read such things as condemn their Church, or the Governors of it. Therefore I do not expect that this English Translation should fall into many of their hands. But those of them, that are pleas’d to look into the Latin, will find, in the Conclusion of it, a full and fair warning to come out of Babylon: which is there prov’d to be the Church of Rome. Then as to those that are Atheistically inclin’d, which I am willing to believe are not many, I desire them to consider, How mean a thing it is, to have hopes onely in this Life: and how uneasie a thing, to have nothing but fears as to the Future. Those, sure, must be little narrow Souls, that can make themselves a portion and a sufficiency out of what they enjoy here: That think of no more, that desire no more. For what is this life, but a circulation of little mean actions? We lie down and rise again: dress and undress: feed and wax hungry: work, or play, and are weary: and then we lie down again, and the circle returns. We spend the day in trifles, and when the Night comes, we throw our selves into the Bed of folly, amongst dreams and broken thoughts and wild imaginations. Our reason lies a-sleep by us; and we are, for the time, as arrant Brutes, as those that sleep in the Stalls, or in the Field. Are not the Capacities of Man higher than these? and ought not his ambition and expectations to be greater? Let us be Adventurers for another World: ’Tis, at least, a fair and noble Chance: and there is nothing in this, worth our thoughts or our passions. If we should be disappointed, we are still no worse than the rest of our fellow-mortals: and if we succeed in our expectations, we are eternally happy.
For my part, I cannot be perswaded, that any man of Atheistical inclinations can have a great and generous Soul. For there is nothing great in the World, if you take God out of it. Therefore such a person can have no great thought, can have no great aims, or expectations, or designs: for all must lie within the compass of this Life, and of this dull Body. Neither can he have any great instincts or noble passions: For if he had, they would naturally excite in him greater Ideas, inspire him with higher notions, and open the Scenes of the Intellectual World. Lastly, He cannot have any great sence of Order, Wisdom, Goodness, Providence, or any of the Divine Perfections. And these are the greatest things that can enter into the thoughts of man, and that do most enlarge and ennoble his mind. And therefore I say again, That, He that is naturally inclined to Atheism, being also naturally destitute of all these, must have a little and narrow soul.
But you’l say, it may be, This is to expostulate rather than to prove: or to upbraid us with our make and temper, rather than to convince us of an error in speculation. ’Tis an error it may be in practice, or in point of prudence; but we seek Truth, whether it make for us or against us: convince us therefore by just reasoning and direct arguments, that there is a God, and then wee’l endeavour to correct these defects in our natural complexion. You say well; and therefore I have endeavour’d to do this before, in another part of this Theory, in the Second Book, ch. 11. Concerning the Author of Nature: where you may see, that the Powers of Nature, or of the Material World, cannot answer all the Phænomena of the Universe, which are there represented. This you may consult at leisure. But, in the mean time, ’tis a good perswasive why we should not easily give our selves up to such inclinations or opinions, as have neither generosity, nor prudence on their side. And it cannot be amiss, that these persons should often take into their thoughts, this last scene of things, The Conflagration of the World. Seeing if there be a God, they will certainly be found in the number of his Enemies, and of those that will have their portion in the Lake that burns with Fire and Brimstone.
The Third sort of persons that we are to speak to, are the Incredulous, or such as do not believe the truth of Christian Religion, tho’ they believe there is a God. These are commonly men of Wit and Pleasure, that have not patience enough to consider, coolely and in due order, the grounds upon which it appears, that Christian Religion is from Heaven, and of Divine Authority. They ought, in the first place, to examine matter of Fact, and the History of our Saviour: That there was such a Person, in the Reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, that wrought such and such Miracles in Judæa; taught such a Doctrine: was Crucified at Jerusalem: rise from the dead the Third Day, and visibly ascended into Heaven. If these matters of Fact be denied, then the controversie turns only to an Historical question, Whether the Evangelical History be a fabulous, or true History: which it would not be proper to examine in this place. But if matter of Fact recorded there, and in the Acts of the Apostles, and the first Ages of Christianity, be acknowledged, as I suppose it is, then the Question that remains is this, Whether such matter of Fact does not sufficiently prove the divine authority of Jesus Christ and of his Doctrine. We suppose it possible, for a person to have such Testimonials of divine authority, as may be sufficient to convince Mankind, or the more reasonable part of Mankind; And if that be possible, what, pray, is a-wanting in the Testimonies of Jesus Christ? The Prophecies of the Old Testament bear witness to him: His Birth was a miracle, and his Life a train of Miracles: not wrought out of levity and vain ostentation, but for useful and charitable purposes. His Doctrine and Morality not only blameless, but Noble: designed to remove out of the World the imperfect Religion of the Jews, and the false Religion of the Gentiles: All Idolatry and Superstition: and thereby to improve Mankind, under a better, and more perfect dispensation. He gave an example of a spotless innocency in all his Conversation, free from Vice or any evil; and liv’d in a neglect of all the Pomp or Pleasures of this Life, referring his happiness wholly to another World. He Prophesied concerning his own Death, and his Resurrection: and concerning the destruction of Jerusalem: which all came to pass in a signal manner. He also
[paragraph continues] Prophesied of the Success of his Gospel: which, after his Death, immediately took root, and spread it self every way throughout the World: maugre all opposition or persecution, from Jews or Heathens. It was not supported by any temporal power for above three hundred Years: nor were any arts us’d, or measures taken, according to humane prudence, for the conservation of it. But, to omit other things, That grand article of his Rising from the Dead, Ascending visibly into Heaven, and pouring down the miraculous Gifts of the Holy Ghost, (according as he had promis’d) upon his Apostles and their followers: This alone is to me a Demonstration of his Divine Authority. To conquer Death: To mount, like an Eagle, into the Skies: and to inspire his followers with inimitable gifts and faculties, are things, without controversie, beyond all humane power: and may and ought be esteemed sure Credentials of a person sent from Heaven.
From these matters of Fact we have all possible assurance, that Jesus Christ was no Impostor or deluded person: (one of which two Characters all unbelievers must fix upon him) but Commission’d by Heaven to introduce a New Religion: to reform the World: to remove Judaism and Idolatry; The Beloved Son of God, the great Prophet of the latter Ages, the True Messiah that was to come.
It may be you will confess, that these are great arguments that the Author of our Religion was a Divine Person, and had supernatural powers: but withal, that there are so many difficulties in Christian Religion, and so many things un-intelligible, that a rational man knows not how to believe it, tho’ he be inclin’d to admire the person of Jesus Christ. I answer, If they be such difficulties as are made only by the Schools and disputacious Doctors, you are not to trouble your self about them, for they are of no Authority. But if they be in the very words of Scripture, then ’tis either in things practical, or in things meerly speculative. As to the Rules of Practice in Christian Religion, I do not know any thing in Scripture, obscure or unintelligible. And as to Speculations, great discretion and moderation is to be us’d in the conduct of them. If these matters of Fact, which we have alledg’d, prove the Divinity of the Revelation, keep close to the Words of that Revelation, asserting no more than it asserts, and you cannot err. But if you will expatiate, and determine modes, and forms, and consequences; you may easily be puzled by your own forwardness. For besides some things that are, in their own nature, Infinite and Incomprehensible, there are many other things in Christian Religion that are incompleatly reveal’d; the full knowledge whereof, it has pleased God to reserve to another life, and to give us only a summary account of them at present. We have so much deference for any Government, as not to expect that all their Councels and secrets should be made known to us, nor to censure every action whose reasons we do not fully comprehend; much more in the Providential administration of a World, we must be content to know so much of the Councels of Heaven and of supernatural Truths, as God has thought fit to reveal to us. And if these Truths be no otherwise than in a general manner, summarily and incompleatly revealed in this life, as commonly they are, we must not therefore throw off the Government, or reject the whole Dispensation: of whose Divine Authority we have otherways full proof and satisfactory evidence. For this would be, To lose the Substance in catching at a Shadow.
But men that live continually in the noise of the World, amidst business and pleasures, their time is commonly shar’d betwixt those two. So that little or nothing is left for Meditation; at least, not enough for such Meditations as require length, justness, and order. They should retire from the crowd for one Month or two, to study the truth of Christian Religion, if they have any doubt of it. They retire sometimes to cure a Gout, or other Diseases, and diet themselves according to rule: but they will not be at that pains, to cure a disease of the mind, which is of far greater and more fatal consequence. If they perish by their own negligence or obstinacy, the Physician is not to blame. Burning is the last remedy in some distempers: and they would do well to remember, that the World will flame about their heads one of these days: and whether they be amongst the Living, or amongst the Dead, at that time, the Apostle makes them a part of the Fewel, which that fiery vengeance will prey upon. Our Saviour hath been true to his word hitherto: whether in his promises, or in his threatnings; He promis’d the Apostles to send down the Holy Ghost upon them after his Ascension, and that was fully accomplish’d. He foretold and threaten’d the destruction of Jerusalem: and that came to pass accordingly, soon after he had left the World. And he hath told us also, that he will come again in theMatt. 24. 30. &
25. 31, &c. Clouds of Heaven, with power and great glory; and that will be to judge the World. When the Son of Man shall come in his glory, and all the holy Angels with him, then shall he sit upon the Throne of his glory. And before him shall be gather’d all Nations, and he will separate the good from the bad; and to the wicked and unbelievers he will say, Depart from me ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the Devil and his Angels. This is the same Coming, and the same Fire, with that which we mention’d before out of St. Paul.Ver. 41. As you will plainly see, if you compare St. Matthew's words with St. Paul's, which are these,2 Thess. 1. 7, 8, 9. When the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven, with his mighty Angels: In flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that hearken not to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Who shall be punished with everlasting destruction, from, or by the presence of the Lord, and the glory of his power. This, me-thinks, should be an awakening thought, that there is such a threatening upon record, (by one who never yet fail’d in his word) against those that do not believe his Testimony. Those that reject him now as a Dupe, or an Impostor, run a hazard of seeing him hereafter coming in the Clouds to be their Judge. And it will be too late then to correct their errour, when the bright Armies of Angels fill the Air, and the Earth begins to melt at the Presence of the Lord.
Thus much concerning those three ranks of Men, whom the Apostle St. Paul seems to point at principally, and condemn to the flames. But, as I said before, the rest of sinners and vitious Persons amongst the Professors of Christianity, tho’ they are not so directly the Enemies of God, as these are; yet being transgressors of his Law, they must expect to be brought to Justice. In every well-govern’d State, not onely Traitors and Rebels, that offend more immediately against the Person of the Prince, but all others, that notoriously violate the Laws, are brought to condign punishment, according to the nature and degree of their crime. So in this case, The fire shall try every man's work, of what sort it is. ’Tis
therefore the concern of every man to reflect often upon that Day, and to consider what his fate and sentence is likely to be, at that last Trial. The Jews have a Tradition that Elias sits in Heaven, and keeps a Register of all Men's actions, good or bad. He hath his Under-Secretaries for the several Nations of the World, that take minutes of all that passes: and so hath the history of every man's life before him, ready to be produc’d at the Day of Judgment. I will not vouch for the literal truth of this, but it is true in effect. Every man's fate shall be determin’d that Day, according to the history of his life: according to the works done in the flesh, whether good or bad. And therefore it ought to have as much influence upon us, as if every single action was formally register’d in Heaven.
If Men would learn to contemn this World, it would cure a great many Vices at once. And, me-thinks, St. Peter's argument, from the approaching dissolution of all things, should put us out of conceit with such perishing vanities. Lust and Ambition are the two reigning Vices of great Men: and those little fires might be soon extinguish’d, if they would frequently and seriously meditate on this last and universal Fire; which will put an end to all passions and all contentions. As to Ambition, the Heathens themselves made use of this argument, to abate and repress the vain affectation of glory and greatness in this World. I told you before the lesson that was given to Scipio Africanus, by his Uncle's Ghost, upon this Subject. And upon a like occasion and consideration, Cæsar hath a lesson given him by Lucan, after the Battle of Pharsalia; where Pompey lost the day, and Rome its liberty. The Poet says, Cæsar took pleasure in looking upon the dead Bodies, and would not suffer them to be buried, or, which was their manner of burying, to be burnt. Whereupon he speaks to Him in these words:
These are mortifying thoughts to ambitious Spirits. And surely our own Mortality, and the Mortality of the World it self, may be enough to convince all considering Men, That, Vanity of Vanities, all is Vanity under the Sun: any otherwise than as they relate to a better Life.