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Herman Kittredge Bio Ingersoll Chapter 14

[Back To Chapter 13]

A Biographical Appreciation of

Robert Green Ingersoll

by Herman E. Kittredge




Did He Endeavor To Destroy the Hope of Immortality?

In dealing with the specific charges of iconoclasm that have been so insistently pressed by the theological indicters of Ingersoll, there yet remain to be considered his views of at least one other subject, — the immortality of the soul. Holding as they do so prominent and so essential a place in his life-work, — running like threads of gold through the very warp and woof of his philosophy, — their presentation is not merely desirable: it constitutes a task which no conscientious reviewer could avoid.

It is asserted by Ingersoll’s critics, that his monistic and agnostic teachings, in general, and his rejection of supernatural purpose and design and the bodily resurrection and ascension of Christ, in particular, utterly destroy the hope of immortality, leaving mankind without the shadow of a consolation that the unspeakable wrongs of this life will be righted in another.

Now, clearly to understand Ingersoll’s views concerning the immortality of the soul, that is, concerning the mind after the death of the body, it is first absolutely necessary to understand his views concerning the mind before the death of the body. What were they?

Reiterating so much only of his philosophy as is essential to a comprehensive presentation of the views in question, and avoiding the “double words” of the metaphysician and the psychologist, I may state that Ingersoll believed in what is called the natural; that the universe is the uncreated and indestructible, the infinite and eternal, all. Without pretending either to define or to distinguish them, he believed that this all consists of what are called substance and force. He did not believe that there is any power, force, or essence behind the universe, because, even to think of such power, force, or essence, he would have been necessitated to think of some form or phase of substance or force, that is, of some part or phase of the universe. In other words, he would have been necessitated to think of something as existing behind itself. This being impossible, the supernatural was excluded from his belief. Incapable of conceiving of anything but the natural, he believed that every phenomenon is a natural phenomenon. Though the original development of organic life from inorganic substance and force was to him an insoluble problem, he believed that, from the monera or some even more simple protoplasmic mass, through countless ages, had evolved by a series of purely natural, interrelated chemical, physical, and psychological processes. He held that by no conceivable possibility could the human organism have become different from what it is. Confident that there was no more trustworthy informant concerning that organism, he accepted the conclusions of the representative biological and anthropological scientists of his day. He believed, for example, that, without what are termed the voluntary muscles, it would be absolutely impossible for an individual voluntarily to exert force; that, were it not for the heart and the rest of the circulatory mechanism, it would be impossible either to supply with food the several tissues of the body or to remove from them the various deleterious products of waste; that, in the absence of certain nerve-tissues, there would be no sensation. He was satisfied as to the inevitable and invariable functional integrity of these structures. He believed, that, between the highly specialized and widely differentiated tissues or organs just mentioned, there is no vicarious action; that voluntary motion is invariably effected through the muscles; circulation, through the heart; sensation, through the nerves. He was convinced that the quality and the degree of functional activity in the organs concerned depend absolutely and inevitably upon their own physiological condition, plus the conditions of their environment. In short, he believed that the organs of motion, circulation, and sensation naturally developed, under natural conditions, and are natural organs, acting in a natural way.

Did he believe to the contrary concerning any other organ — concerning the brain? In my judgment, there is no better way of initiating a reply to this question than by asking another — than by asking simply this: Could he?

To him, the brain was either natural or supernatural: it could not be both. It was either a purely natural organ, manifesting the purely natural phenomena called mind, or it was a purely supernatural organ, manifesting the purely supernatural phenomena called mind. Which of these would he declare it to be? Holding, as already indicated, that every other organ is purely natural, could he declare that the brain, chemically the most complex, and anatomically and physiologically the most wonderful, of all, is purely supernatural, manifesting purely supernatural phenomena?

He knew that the source and origin of thought had been removed by modern science from the maze of metaphysics to the domain of the physical, the natural. He knew, that, superseding the theories of such dualistic thinkers as Plato and Descartes, according to the last of whom the ego sat an inexorable autocrat on its throne in the pineal gland, we have a physicochemical mechanism within whose wondrous substance is an epitome of all the past and a hint of all the future — an organ constantly reacting to external stimuli, like all other organs, and subject to the same immutable forces or conditions — an organ whose function is the production and manifestation of thought. And he knew, that, were there no such organ, there would be no thought, — just as he knew, that, were there no muscles, heart, nor nerves, there would be no motion, circulation, nor sensation. He knew, that, if this were not the case, — if that marvelous organ called the brain were merely a sort of play-ground for some “absolute” immaterial essence, — mental vigor would not increase directly (pari passu) with physiological vigor, as revealed by the scalpel and the microscope, nor wane like a fading flower with the progress of disease. He saw, that, if the brain be not the real and only source of mental phenomena, there is no reason why, when a part or all of its essential cells and fibers are destroyed by accident, experiment, disease, or age, the individual concerned should not continue to think with as much facility as he did before, — to think with some other organ, — with the spleen, for example.

Of course, Ingersoll was well aware that so-called scientists had produced many volumes to show, that, although a certain more or less definite connection between the mind and the brain must be admitted, there is no absolutely necessary and inevitable relation between the physicochemical constitution of that organ and either the quality or the quantity of the phenomena it manifests. He was perfectly familiar with such arguments, all of which amount to no more than this, namely, that the relation between brain and mind is, at best, only a parallel relation, that is, the relation between the natural and the supernatural! So the assertions of the dualist made upon him no impression, save that they were, for the most part, untrue: —

“Thought is a form of force. We walk with the same force with which we think. Man is an organism, that changes several forms of force into thought-force. Man is a machine into which we put what we call food, and produce what we call thought. Think of that wonderful chemistry by which bread was changed into the divine tragedy of Hamlet!”

It must not be inferred, however, that Ingersoll regarded mind and consciousness as solved problems; — that he was chargeable with the crudity usually attributed to materialistic psychology. For he was not a pure materialist. Nor was he a pure “energist”: rather was he what I venture to term an agnostic monist. He said:

“I believe there is such a thing as matter. I believe there is a something called force. The difference between force and matter I do not know. So there is a something called consciousness. Whether we call consciousness an entity or not makes no difference as to what it really is. There is something that hears, sees and feels, a something that takes cognizance of what happens in what we call the outward world. No matter whether we call this something matter or spirit, it is something that we do not know, to say least of it, all about. We cannot understand what matter is. It defies us, and defies definitions. So, with what we call spirit, we are in utter ignorance of what it is. We have some little conception of what we mean by it, and of what others mean, but as to what it really is no one knows. It makes no difference whether we call ourselves Materialists or Spiritualists, we believe in all there is, no matter what you call it. If we call it all matter, then we believe that matter can think and hope and dream. If we call it all spirit, then we believe that spirit has force, that it offers a resistance; in other words, that it is in one of its aspects, what we call matter. I cannot believe that everything can be accounted for by motion or by what we call force, because there is something that recognizes force. There is something that compares, that thinks, that remembers; there is something that suffers and enjoys; there is something that each one calls himself or herself, that is inexplicable to himself or herself, and it makes no difference whether we call this something mind or soul, effect or entity, it still eludes us, and all the world we have coined for the purpose of expressing our knowledge of this something, after all, expresses only our desire to know, and our efforts to ascertain.”

Believing, then, that mind, in some unknown way, is, like physiological motion, circulation, and sensation, a function or manifestation of the organ with which it is related, could Ingersoll logically accept the popular view, that it shares at death a different fate than they? Since to reply in the negative would be entirely gratuitous, let us pass, at once, to the paramount question, Did he deny that it shares a different fate? And let us have the answer in the Great Agnostic’s own words: —

“I have said a thousand times, and say again, that we do not know, we cannot say, whether death is a wall or a door — the beginning, or the end, of a day — the spreading of pinions to soar, or the folding forever of wings — the rise or set of a sin, or an endless life, that brings rapture and love to every one.”

In a letter to Mr. David S. Geer, president of the Oakland Literary Club, Chicago, the same conviction is reiterated, and its foundation concisely stated. Mr. Geer had addressed to Dr. E. B. Foote, Sr., of New York, a birthday greeting that contained, among other things, a positive assurance of immortality: —


“117 East Twenty-first Street,

“Gramercy Park, April 24, ’99

“My Dear Mr. Geer:

“What you said to Dr. Foote is beautiful and for all I know it may be all true. Still, I have no evidence that human beings are immortal. Neither have I any evidence that ‘there is any wise and beneficent power back of all creation.’ In fact, I have no evidence of creation. I believe that all matter and all force have existed from, and will exist, to eternity. There is to me no evidence of the existence of any power superior to Nature. In my opinion the supernatural does not exist. Still, we can wish in spite of, or against, evidence, and we can hope without it.

“Yours always,

“R.G. Ingersoll.”


And elsewhere: —

“* * * it is no more wonderful that we should live again than that we do live. Sometimes I have thought it not quite so wonderful for the reason that we have a start. But upon that subject I have not the slightest information. Whether man lives again or not I cannot pretend to say. * * *

“My opinion of immortality is this:

“First. — I live, and that of itself is infinitely wonderful. Second. — There was a time when I was not, and after I was not, I was. Third. — Now that I am, I may be again; and it is no more wonderful that I may be again, if I have been, than that I am, having once been nothing.”

“It is natural to shun death, natural to desire eternal life. With all my heart I hope for everlasting life and joy * * * .”

As indicated in the beginning of this chapter. it has often been asserted by his critics, that the destruction of the Bible and the Christian religion, through the universal acceptance of Ingersoll’s teachings, would blot out of the human heart the hope of immorality. Passing over the fact that, as has just been shown, Ingersoll, far from denying the possibility of a future life, himself ardently hoped for it, it must be noted that the assertion in question (doubtless unwittingly, but nevertheless unavoidably) implies, that, had it not been for that book and that religion, there would now be no such hope. Ingersoll, as would be expected, clearly perceived this unfortunate corollary of his adversaries; and we accordingly find him dwelling with insistence upon the fact that the hope of immortality existed, not only thousands of years before Christ is supposed to have been born, but thousands of years before the time of Moses; that, for many thousands of years, the very cross itself has been a symbol of the life to come; that it has been found carved in stone above the graves of a people who lived and loved and hoped and dreamed beneath the same “sunny skies” long before either the Romans or the Etruscans — carved in the walls of the ruined temples of Central America — carved upon Babylonian cylinders. He further declares, with undoubted consternation to many, that, although the doctrine of a future life was taught in Egypt, India, and China thousands of years before either Christ or Moses is supposed to have been born, and is still taught there, it is not taught in the Old Testament. He insists that, as a matter of fact, while the Old Testament tells us how man lost immortality through Jehovah’s preventing Adam from eating of the tree of life, there came from the top of Sinai no hope of a hereafter; that no one in the Old Testament “stands by the dead and says, ‘We shall meet again.’ “And, finally, he declares that, notwithstanding the “one little passage in Job which commentators have endeavored to twist into a hope of immortality,” the Old Testament does not contain, “from the first mistake in Genesis to the last curse in Malachi,” a burial service, nor even a single word about another world. Indeed, he goes even further when he asserts, that, “if we take the Old Testament for authority, man is not immortal.”

To present just here, in what might seem to be natural and logical sequence, Ingersoll’s views as to whether the doctrine of immortality is taught in the New Testament, and if so, the kind of immortality there contemplated, would be premature, if not altogether irrelevant. The fact, as pointed out by him, that the hope of another life, although not recorded in the Old Testament, was held among many nations of antiquity, thousands of years before either Christ or Moses is supposed to have been born, and is now held in heathen and other non-Christian countries, is a sufficient refutation of the assertion, that, since in the absence of the Bible and of Christianity there would have been, and would be, no such hope, universal unbelief in them as divine institutions, in accordance with his teachings, would destroy it. And this refutation is at the same time a demonstration, — a demonstration of the fact, that, contrary to the apparent understanding of his Christian critics, the hope of immortality is something with which neither the Bible nor Christianity necessarily has anything whatever to do. That hope is not dependent upon either. As a matter of fact, the relation is precisely the other way. Take from the New Testament and Christianity their teachings of immortality, and the Bible and Christianity would perish; but destroy every copy of the Bible, and erase from the tablet of memory the last trace of Christian thought, and the hope of immortality would still ‘spring eternal in the human breast.’ And what is true of the Bible and Christianity in this regard is true of every other so-called sacred book and supernatural religion.

The weakness — the falsity — of the criticisms of Ingersoll’s views of immortality lies in their failure to distinguish between terms. His critics confound hope with belief, and regard belief as equivalent to realization, or as a force capable of bringing about realization. It is therefore natural that they should place the utmost importance in belief, which, by a strangely erroneous consistency, they consider to be a mere puppet of caprice, — a result of the so called will. They seem to think that even feigned belief is better than none; and so, ignoring the natural operations of the mind, they say to the rationalist: “The doctrines of Ingersoll may be good enough to live by, but they are poor doctrines to die by. Whatever your doubts, if you desire immortality you would better believe and be ‘on the safe side.’ “As though a chemist should say to a navigator who occupied an agnostic attitude toward the theories of chemistry: “If on your next voyage you wish the hydrogen and the oxygen which form the sea-water to remain united as such, not to spurn each other, and, returning to dissociate gases, allow your ship to fall to the ground, you would better believe in chemical affinity.”

To such reasoning, — to the sophistical theological assertion that belief can change the fact, — the Great Agnostic, never doubting the uniformity of nature, replied: —

“If we are immortal it is a fact in nature, and we are not indebted to priests for it, nor to bibles for it, and it cannot be destroyed by unbelief.”

And again: —

“Is man Immortal?

“I do not know.

“One thing I do know, and that is, that neither hope, nor fear, belief, nor denial, can change the fact. It is as it is, and it will be as it must be.”

A question of profound interest here presents itself. As indicated in the preceding pages, it was apparent to Ingersoll, although he was far from either affirming or denying, that mind, like every other organic function, ceases at the death of the organ in which it is manifest. He was not aware that any mind had survived the death of the brain. Of one fact he was aware, however — that in the idea of immortality there is something fundamentally human — that, in every age, it had been almost universal to mankind. How did he account for this? Did he conceive it to be a gift from the supernatural? I have shown that he held it to be impossible even to think of the supernatural. Did he believe that the idea was an a priori one, as Kant believed some ideas to be? To hold that an idea is a priori is merely one way of saying that it is supernatural. Besides, Ingersoll specifically declared that all of man’s ideas are a posteriori; that they were born of experience here in this world. How, then, did he account for the idea of another life?

Like all other individuals of genius, Ingersoll possessed a profound knowledge of human nature. With him, despite his stern and sometimes implacable logic, two factors entered into all mental operations, — heart and brain. He declared that whoever came to a conclusion without consulting his heart would make a mistake. And it was because he followed his own advice — it was because “his brain took counsel of his heart” — that his conclusions were almost never wrong. He knew that those who have suffered most have thought most; that those who have lain in the lowest dungeons of despair and gloom have soared to the loftiest, sunniest, most ecstatic heights. In endeavoring, therefore, to account for that loftiest of ideas, he consulted not only reason but feeling. Finding that the brain could give no satisfactory explanation, he looked in the heart; and he found that human affection, the foundation of nearly everything else of value, is no less the foundation here. He said: —

“The idea of immortality, that like a sea ebbed and flowed in the human heart, with its countless waves of hope and fear beating against the shores and rocks of time and fate, was not born of any book, nor of any creed, nor of any religion. It was born of human affection, and it will continue to ebb and flow beneath the mists and clouds of doubt and darkness as long as love kisses the lips of death. It is the rainbow — Hope, shinning upon the tears of grief.”

Were it possible to doubt that this exquisite paragraph contains the very kernel of the Great Agnostic’s convictions on the subject concerned; were it possible to doubt that it came ingenuously, spontaneously, from his heart and brain together, — not from his brain alone, as an artful attack upon theology, — our questioning would be instantly silenced by the last clause of the following passage, which was delivered many years later at the bier of a brother (as indicated in Chapter 5), and which, I may remark in passing, has been frequently misrepresented and misunderstood. I have italicized the particular clause: —

“Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of our wailing cry. From the voiceless lips of the unreplying dead there comes no word; but in the night of death hope sees a star and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing.”

Thus did Ingersoll find in human love, wrung by vain and impotent anguish, the secret of man’s dearest wish. Thus did he, in a moment of grief, with a phrase as subtly delicate as the first tints of a summer dawn, — as gentle as hope itself, — unconsciously silence the loud pretensions of theology. As Newton, savant of the physical realm, divined in the falling apple the secret of the universe, so Ingersoll, savant of the mental realm, saw in the falling tear the radiant image of that hope of hopes. “Love,” said he, taking even a deeper view, “Love is a flower that grows on the edge of the grave.” Well might he have added, “and the hope of immortality is its fragrance.”

But there is another side to this hope; and it was on that side that Ingersoll uttered the most Ingersollian of his anti- theological views. What is the side to which I refer?

Without entering into credal differences, it may be stated, as a general truth, that, according to the teachings of Christianity, those who believe and practice certain things will, either at death or subsequently, be awarded everlasting joy, and that those who do not so believe and practice will, at the same time, be consigned to everlasting misery.

A logical analysis of this doctrine, especially if we accept the other alleged fundamental truths of Christianity, reveals the following absolutely unavoidable implications: (1) That an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient being created, — called into consciousness from the unconscious elements, — billions of human beings, knowing that they were destined to everlasting misery; (2) that individuals will be held everlastingly responsible for their beliefs; (3) that finite acts will be awarded infinite punishment; (4) that the time will come when an infinitely wise, just, and merciful God will cease to be even just, — will refuse to allow his children to repent and be righteous; and (5) that human beings will be infinitely happy in heaven, knowing that those who loved them, and whom they loved, on earth are in everlasting misery.

It was against this phase of Christian immortality, and against this phase alone, that Ingersoll, with every fiber of his being, with every unit of his moral and intellectual force, waged war. This doctrine of everlasting punishment for the many and everlasting bliss for the few was the real center round which his lifelong battle raged. It made him an implacable enemy of the Christian religion. It was the one dogma that stirred the utmost depths of his being. Its bottomless pit became a receptacle for the gall and wormwood of his indignation. But for this dogma, many hundreds of pages of Ingersoll’s discussions and controversies would never have been produced; a large part of the lectures which were delivered to hundreds of thousands, and which were read by hundreds of thousands more, would never have left his lips; and Voltaire would have remained the most aggressive and formidable enemy of Christianity whom the world had ever known.

If we reflect that hatred of the idea of everlasting pain is necessarily born of human sympathy and the sense of justice, and that these exist from birth, if at all, as a part of the individual’s temperament (as does poetic feeling, for example, in the temperament of the poet) we may not be surprised to learn that Ingersoll’s opposition to that idea began during boyhood; but we shall be at least interested in learning under precisely what circumstances it did begin — doubly interested, I trust, because we shall, at the same time, be afforded a glimpse of the evolution of a great mind: —

“I heard hundreds of * * * evangelical sermons — heard hundreds of the most fearful and vivid descriptions of the tortures inflicted in hell, of the horrible state of the lost. I supposed that what I heard was true, and yet I did not believe it. I said: ‘It is,’ and then I thought: ‘It cannot be.’

“Those sermons made but faint impressions on my mind. I was not convinced. * * *

“But I heard one sermon that touched my heart, that left its mark, like a scar, on my brain. [Ingersoll was then about ten years old.]

“One Sunday I went with my brother to hear a Free Will Baptist preacher. He was a large man, dressed like a farmer, but he was an orator. He could paint a picture with words.

‘He took for his text the parable of ‘the rich man and Lazarus.’ He described daves, the rich man — his manner of life, the excesses in which he indulged, his extravagance, his riotous nights, his purple and fins linen, his feasts, his wines and his beautiful women.

“Then he described Lazarus, his poverty, his rags and wretchedness, his poor body eaten by disease, the crusts and crumbs he devoured, the dogs that pitied him. He pictured his lonely life, his friendless death.

“Then changing his tone of pity to one of triumph — leaping from tears to the heights of exultation — from defeat to victory — he described the glorious company of angels, who with white and outspread wings carried the soul of the despised pauper to Paradise — to the bosom of Abraham.

“Then, changing his voice to one of scorn and loathing, he told of the rich man’s death. He was in his palace, on his costly couch, the air heavy with perfume, the room filled with servants and physicians. His gold was worthless then. He could not buy another breath. He died, and in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torment.

“Then, assuming a dramatic attitude, putting his right hand to his ear, he whispered, ‘Hark! I hear the rich man’s voice. What does he say? Hark! ‘”Father Abraham! Father Abraham! Father Abraham! I pray thee send lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my parched tongue, for I am tormented in this flame.”

“‘Oh, my hearers, he has been making that request for more than eighteen hundred years. And millions of ages hence that wail will cross the gulf that lies between the saved and lost and still will be heard the cry: “Father Abraham! Father Abraham! I pray thee send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my parched tongue, for I am tormented in this flame.”‘

“For the first time I understood the dogma of eternal pain — appreciated ‘the glad tidings of great joy.’ For the first time my imagination grasped the height and depth of the Christian horror. Then I said: ‘It is a lie, and I hate your religion. If it is true, I hate your God.’

“From that day I have had no fear, no doubt. For me, on that day, the flames of hell were quenched. From that day I have passionately hated every orthodox creed. That Sermon did some good.”

Fortunate hour, indeed, when infinite injustice sows the seeds from which it is to reap annihilation! Wondrous circumstance, when blind ignorance and heartlessness so touch the brain and heart of a child as to bring forth a flood of light and tears to dissipate the gloom and quench the fires of hell!

Not to the day of his death did the impression which Robert Ingersoll received on that Sunday ever leave him. Instead, it grew deeper. It was a poisoned wound which, never healing, became more and more sensitive to the environment of its possessor. As proof of this, we find, that, while in his earliest lectures he freely expressed his hatred of the dogma of everlasting punishment, it was not until the high noon of his anti-theological career that he publicly vowed never to deliver a lecture without attacking it, and that it was not until the very ending of that career that he declared that as long as he had life, as long as he drew breath, he should hate with every drop of his blood, and would deny with all his strength, that “infinite lie.” Pursuant to this determination, it is in his latest discourses that he dwells most insistently upon the dogma of eternal pain, obviously not because earlier in his career he had neglected to bestow upon it what the orthodox regarded as adequate attention, nor yet because he entertained the least fear of its gaining ground, but because it was his profound conviction, that, just as long as a thing so terrible found lodgment in a human brain, it was his duty to oppose it to the utmost extent of his power.

Those who cherish as sacred the memory of his friendship, — who have basked in the illimitable sunshine of his nature, and felt the genial warmth of his heart, — and even those who only know him through the cold medium of lead and ink, will be reluctant to believe that Robert Ingersoll was capable of hate. And, indeed, if we apply the latter word solely to the individual, we shall be obliged to yield to their reluctance. That he was capable of hating institutions and ideas, however, no one, we think, will deny; and if there was any idea that he did hate, — if, in the boundless realm of thought, there was any idea that had dropped the plummet into the depths of his detestation, — it was the idea of everlasting punishment.

He declared it to be the one idea the infamy of which no mind could conceive, no language express. refusing even to allow that it was an original conception of the human brain, he declared that it was born of infuriated revenge in the lowest of the animal world. It was a certificate that our remote progenitors were the vilest of beasts. Only from the leering eyes of enraged hyenas and jackals — from the glittering eyes and throbbing fangs of arboreal serpents awaiting in pendent coils their unsuspecting prey — could such a thought have sprung; and only through the slanting foreheads and the cacophonous jargon of unclean baboons could it have reached the age of man. The doctrine of everlasting punishment had blighted the flower of pity in countless hearts, and put out the light of reason in countless brains. It had mocked at hope, and, in the place of honest doubt, it had thrust upon mankind the loaded dice of predestination and free will. It had made of the grave a bottomless, shoreless sea of flame, and for cradles it had put rockers on coffins. It had shrieked in the ears of maternity: “Your child will be the fuel of eternal fire!” Over the sweet countenance of Mercy, it had spread the scowl of Typhon, and in her hand it had placed the cross-hilted sword of persecution. It had invented the auto de fe, the thumbscrew, and the rack. It had built dungeons, forged chains, driven all the stakes — cut, carried, and lighted the fagots. It had robbed the peasant, robed the hypocrite, crowned and sceptered the tyrant, and stained the fair face of Europe with ashes, blood, and tears. It had driven Justice from her throne of “eternal calm,” and put behind the universe an infinite fiend.

The doctrine that an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient being called into consciousness from the unconscious elements billions of human beings, knowing that they were destined to everlasting misery, was to Ingersoll the infamy of infamies, the one “unpardonable sin” against mankind. To the assertion that God has the right to damn us, because he made us, Ingersoll replied: “That is just the reason that he has not a right to damn us.” Above, below, nor beyond this reply, reason and justice cannot go. It would not do to say that God made man “a free moral agent,” — gave him a “free will.” An all-knowing God gave man a free will, not knowing how he would use it!

That phase of the doctrine which asserts that individuals will be held responsible for their beliefs — that one will be everlastingly punished for failing to believe a thing to be true, when his reason, having heard the testimony both for and against, tells him it is false, and that another will be rewarded with everlasting bliss for believing the same thing to be true, when his reason, having likewise heard the testimony both for and against, tells him it is true — received, as we should expect, the full measure of Ingersoll’ denunciation: —

“This frightful declaration, ‘He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned,’ has filled the world with agony and crime.”

That he regarded it as scarcely more pernicious than absurd and unpsychological, however, is evident from the following: —

“The truth is, that no one can justly be held responsible for his thoughts. The brain thinks without asking our consent. We believe, or we disbelieve, without an effort of the will. Belief is a result. It is the effect of evidence upon the mind. The scales turn in spite of him who watches. There is no opportunity of being honest or dishonest in the formation of an opinion. The conclusion is entirely independent of desire. We must believe, or we must doubt, in spite of what we wish.”

Still more objectionable was that feature of the “plan of salvation” which arbitrarily attaches infinite consequences to finite acts. Of course, no thinker of Ingersoll’s subtlety and profundity could fail to recognize, that, in the ethical realm, as in the physical, all acts are related, if only remotely and vaguely. Nevertheless, the idea that any act of this brief life — this glint and shadow on the dial of eternity — could merit everlasting misery was to him “a proposition so monstrous” that he was “astonished that it ever found lodgment in the brain of man.”

Equally “monstrous” was that feature of the “plan” which implies that the fate of the soul is everlastingly fixed at death. If, during this life, there is more rejoicing in heaven over one soul that repents, than over ninety and nine not gone astray, why, reasoned Ingersoll, should the chance of repentance be denied in the next? Why should infinite goodness there stand between the repentant soul and righteousness? How could infinite mercy have an end? Why should the love that counts every falling sparrow and numbers every hair turn to hate on the verge of the grave? Why should the smile of infinite beneficence wrinkle to a frown on the somber face of Death? —

“Strange! that a world cursed by God, filled with temptation and thick with fiends, should be the only place where hope exists, the only place where man can repent, the only place where reform is possible! Strange! that heaven, filled with angels and presided over by God, is the only place where reformation is utterly impossible! Yet these are the teachings of all the believers in the eternity of punishment.”

And again: —

“All I insist is, if there is another life, the bassist soul that finds its way to that dark or radiant shore will have the everlasting chance of doing right. Nothing but the most cruel ignorance, the most heartless superstition, the most ignorant theology, ever imagined that the few days of human life spent here, surrounded by mists and clouds of darkness, blown over life’s sea by storms and tempests of passion, fixed for all eternity the condition of the human race. If this doctrine be true, this life is but a net, in which Jehovah catches souls for hell.”

And even ignoring all of the points which we have shown to have met with the Great Agnostic’s opposition, there is one which would alone have made him an aggressive opponent of the Christian plan of salvation. It is the one which implies that human beings, — beings of perfect goodness, — will be perfectly happy in heaven, knowing that those who loved them, and whom they loved, on earth are in everlasting misery. For if, to him, there was anything intrinsic, — anything that should endure and bind after all else had evanesced, — it was the golden chord of human affection. “Heaven,” he said, “is where those are we love, and those who love us. And I wish to go to no world unless I can be accompanied by those who love me here.” He declared, that, although, according to one of the alleged fundamental truths of Christianity, eternal happiness was rendered possible by infinite love, there would, under the Christian doctrine of immortality, be no love in heaven. For, did not that doctrine compel the father to say: “I can be happy with my daughter in hell”? Did it not compel the son to say;” I can be happy in heaven when my mother, — the woman who would have died for me, — is in everlasting pain”? Did it not compel the believing mother to say: “I can be supremely happy knowing that my generous and brave but unbelieving boy is in hell”? To those who would evade this extremity by assuming that the elect would be oblivious of the fate of the lost, he replied: “Another life is nought, unless we know and love again the ones who love us here.”

Thus did the Great Agnostic again take counsel of his heart. As he had already found in human affection the secret, the origin, of the hope of hopes, so now did he find the magic essence that keeps it bright and pure. Thus did he find that the fairest flower is soil and light and dew unto itself, and that by its own fragrance it stills the very thorns that threaten its existence, — the vines that venomous clamber to destroy. —

“And suppose after all that death does not end all. Next to eternal joy, next to being forever with those we love and those who have loved us, next to that, is to be wrapped in the dreamless sleep. Upon the eternal peace. Next to eternal life is eternal sleep. Upon the shadowy shore of death the sea of trouble casts no wave. Eyes that have been curtained by the everlasting dark, will never know again the burning touch of tears. Lips touched by eternal silence will never speak again the broken words of grief. Hearts of dust do not break. The dead do not weep. Within the tomb no veiled and weeping sorrow sits, and in the rayless gloom is crouched no shuddering fear.

“I had rather think of those I have loved, and lost, as having returned to earth, as having become a part of the elemental wealth of the world — I would rather think of them as unconscious dust, I would rather dream of them as gurgling in the streams, floating in the clouds, bursting in the foam of light upon the shores of worlds, I would rather think of them as the lost visions of a forgotten night, than to have even the faintest fear that their naked souls have been clutched by an orthodox god. I will leave my dead where nature leaves them. Whatever flower of hope springs up in my heart I will cherish, I will give it breath of sighs and rain of tears. But I can not believe that there is any being in this universe who has created a human soul for eternal pain. I would rather that every god would destroy himself; I would rather that we all should go to eternal chaos, to black and starless night, than that just one soul should suffer eternal agony.

“I have made up my mind that if there is a god, he will be merciful to the merciful.

“Upon that rock I stand. —

“That he will not torture the forgiving. —

“Upon that rock I stand. —

“That every man should be true to himself, and that there is no world, no star, in which honesty is a crime.

“Upon that rock I stand.

“The honest man, the good woman, the happy child, have nothing to fear, either in this world or in the world to come.

“Upon that rock I stand.”

That this was, indeed, the “rock” upon which he stood, and that it and such other of his conclusions as have been presented in this chapter were founded in the depths of moral and intellectual conviction, are made doubly evident by the private letter which I introduce with the following explanation.

In the summer of 1885, a lady of San Francisco lost, by sudden and unexpected death, her only child, a son. Her grief, in itself overwhelming, was greatly intensified by the terrors of the Calvinistic creed in which she had been reared, and according to which she well knew that there was, for her unconverted son, no hope. Such was her anguish that her reason, if not her life, was almost despaired of. Among those who vainly tried to console her was Mrs. Sarah B. Cooper, a lady very prominent in Bible-class and other church work. One would naturally suppose that Mrs. Cooper, under the circumstances, would have appealed to some member of the clergy; but instead, she turned straightway to Ingersoll, begging that he endeavor, by written word, to relieve the bereaved mother of her terrible apprehension. His letter was given to a reporter for publication, on condition that the name of the recipient be withheld: —


“My Dear Madam:

“Mrs. Cooper has told me the sad story of your almost infinite sorrow. I am not foolish enough to suppose that I can say or do anything to lessen your great grief, your anguish for his loss; but may be I can say something to drive from your poor heart the fiend of fear — fear for him.

“If there is a God, let us believe that he is good; and if he is good, the good have nothing to fear. I have been told that your son was kind and generous; that he was filled with charity and sympathy. Now, we know that in this world like begets like, kindness produces kindness, and all good bears the fruit of joy. Belief is nothing — deeds are everything; and if your son was kind he will naturally find kindness wherever he may be. You would not inflict endless pain upon your worst enemy. Is God worse than you? You could not bear to see a viper suffer forever. Is it possible that God will doom a kind and generous boy to everlasting pain? Nothing can be more monstrously absurd and cruel.

“The truth is, that no human being knows anything of what is beyond the grave. If nothing is known, then it is not honest for anyone to pretend that he does know. If nothing is known, then we can hope only for the good. If there be a God your boy is no more in his power now than he was before his death — no more than you are at the present moment. Why should we fear God more after death than before? Does the feeling of God toward his children change the moment they die? While we are alive they say God loves us; when will he cease to love us? True love never changes. I beg of you to throw away all fear. Take counsel of your own heart. If God exists, your heart is the best revelation of him, and your heart could never send your boy to endless pain. After all, no one knows. The ministers know nothing. And all the churches in the world know no more on this subject than the ants on the ant-hills. Creeds are good for nothing except to break the hearts of the loving.

“Let us have courage. Under the seven-hued arch of hope let the dead sleep. I do not pretend to know, but I do know that others do not know. Listen to your heart, believe what it says, and wait with patience and without fear for what the future has for all. If we can get no comfort from what people know, let us avoid being driven to despair by what they do not know.

“I wish I could say something that would put a star in your night of grief — a little flower in your lonely path — and if an unbeliever has such a wish, surely an infinitely good being never made a soul to be the food of pain through countless years.

“Sincerely yours,

“R.G. Ingersoll.”


The reply: —


“Dear Colonel Ingersoll:

“I found your letter inclosed with one from ______ [Mrs. Cooper] at my door on the way to this hotel to see a friend. I broke the seal here, and through blinding tears — letting it fall from my hands between each sentence to sob my heart out — read it. The first peace I have known, real peace, since the terrible blow, has come to me now. While I will not doubt the existence of God, I feel that I can rest my grief-stricken heart on his goodness and mercy; and you have helped me do this. Why, you have helped me to believe in an all-merciful and loving Creator, who has gathered (I will try to believe) my poor little boy — my kind, large-hearted child — into his tender and sheltering arms. There is genuine ring in your words that lifts me up.

“Your belief, so clear and logical, so filled with common- sense, corresponding, so far back as I can remember, with my own matter-of-fact ideas; and I was the child of good and praying parents; and my great wondering eyes, questioning silently when they talked to me, — my strange ways, while I tried to be good, — caused them often great anxiety and many a pang — God forgive me!

“I am writing, while people are talking about me, just a line to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the comfort you have given me to-day. You great good man; I see the traces of your tears all over your letter, and I could clasp your hand and bless you for this comfort you have given my poor heart.”


And so, at last, we find that Ingersoll did not seek to destroy the hope of another life, but that he merely sought “to prevent theologians from destroying this”; that he did not seek to disparage the idea of a heaven in which rewards should be based upon the principles of eternal justice, but that he did seek “to put out the ignorant and revengeful fires of hell.” We find that he did not affirm, that he did not deny, but that, because he lived, the great bow of hope, springing from the depths of human affection, arches with brighter radiance the darkness of honest doubt.

[NOTE: The Mrs. Cooper mentioned in the text and letters was president of the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association and Free Normal Training School. She was a second or third cousin of Ingersoll. Eleven years after the occurrence of the incident above related, — that is, after eleven more years of experience in the church, — she wrote to Ingersoll, in part as follows: “Were I to pass away before you, dear cousin Robert, I would rather have you say a few words over my sleeping dust than any one in the world. I believe in you. I believe less and less in theologians. Experience has forced this upon me. There are some true, good men in the ministry. There are many false-hearted men, who do not deserve to be respected. Of this I am sure.”]

[Chapter 15]