2. And, then, in all that universe of things that fills that bottomless pit and shoreless sea the human heart, there is nothing deeper down in it than just its deep and unsearchable atheism. The very deepest thing, and the most absolutely inexpugnable thing, in every human heart is its theism; its original and inextinguishable convictions about itself and about God. But, all but as deep as that--for all around that, and all over that, and soaking all through that--there lies a superincumbent mass of sullen, brutish, malignant atheism. Nay, so deep down is the atheism of all our hearts, that it is only one here and another there of the holiest and the ripest of God's saints who ever get down to it, or even get at their deepest within sight of it. Robert Fleming tells us about Robert Bruce, that he was a man that had much inward exercise about his own personal case, and had been often assaulted anent that great foundation truth, if there was a God. And often, when he had come up to the pulpit, after being some time silent, which was his usual way, he would say, "I think it is a great matter to believe there is a God"; telling the people that it was another thing to believe that than they judged. But it was also known to his friends what extraordinary confirmations he had from the Lord therein, and what near familiarity he did attain to in his heart- converse with God: Yea, truly, adds Fleming, some things I have had thereanent that seem so strange and marvellous that I forbear to set them down. And in Halyburton's priceless Memoirs we read: "Hereby I was brought into a doubt about the truths of religion, the being of God, and things eternal. Whenever I was in dangers or straits and would build upon these things, a suspicion secretly haunted me, what if the things are not? This perplexity was somewhat eased while one day I was reading how Robert Bruce was shaken about the being of God, and how at length he came to the fullest satisfaction." And in another place: "Some days ago reading Ex. ix. and x., and finding this, "That ye may know that I am God" frequently repeated, and elsewhere in passages innumerable, as the end of God's manifesting Himself in His word and works; I observe from it that atheism is deeply rooted even in the Lord's people, seeing they need to be taught this so much. The great difficulty that the whole of revelation has to grapple with is atheism; its whole struggle is to recover man to his first impressions of a God. This one point comprehends the whole of man's recovery, just as atheism is the whole of man's apostasy." And, again, in another part of the same great book, Halyburton says: "I must observe, also, the wise providence of God, that the greatest difficulties that lie against religion are hid from atheists. All the objections I meet with in their writings are not nearly so subtle as those which are often suggested to myself. The reason of this is obvious from the very nature of the thing--such persons take not a near-hand view of religion, and while persons stand at a distance neither are the advantages nor the difficulties of religion discerned." And now listen to Bunyan, that arch- atheist: "Whole floods of blasphemies both against God, Christ, and the Scriptures were poured upon my spirit, to my great confusion and astonishment. Against the very being of God and of His only beloved Son; or, whether there were, in truth, a God and a Christ, or no. Of all the temptations that ever I met with in my life, to question the being of God and the truth of the Gospel is the worst, and the worst to be borne. When this temptation comes it takes away my girdle from me, and removeth the foundation from under me."
"Fool, said my Muse to me, look in thy heart and write."
And John Bunyan looked into his own deep and holy heart, and out of it he composed this incident of Atheist.
3. It may not be out of place at this point to look for a moment at some of the things that agitate, stir up, and make the secret atheism of our hearts to fluctuate and overflow. Butler has a fine passage in which he points out that it is only the higher class of minds that are tempted with speculative difficulties such as those were that assaulted Christian and Hopeful after they were so near the end of their journey. Coarse, common-place, and mean-minded men have their probation appointed them among coarse, mean, and commonplace things; whereas enlightened, enlarged, and elevated men are exercised after the manner of Robert Bruce, Thomas Halyburton, John Bunyan, and Butler himself. "The chief temptations of the generality of the world are the ordinary motives to injustice or unrestrained pleasure; but there are other persons without this shallowness of temper; persons of a deeper sense as to what is invisible and future. Now, these persons have their moral discipline set them in that high region." The profound bishop means that while their appetites and their tempers are the stumbling-stones of the most of men, the difficult problems of natural and revealed and experimental religion are the test and the triumph of other men. As we have just seen in the men mentioned above. Students, whose temptations lie fully as much in their intellects as in their senses, should buy (for a few pence) Halyburton's Memoirs. "With Halyburton," says Dr. John Duncan, "I feel great intellectual congruity. Halyburton was naturally a sceptic, but God gave that sceptic great faith."
Then again, what Atheist calls the "tediousness" of the journey has undoubtedly a great hand in making some half-in-earnest men sceptics, if not scoffers. Many of us here to-night who can never now take this miserable man's way out of the tedium of the Christian life, yet most bitterly feel it. Whether that tedium is inherent in that life, and inevitable to such men as we are who are attempting that life; how far that feature belongs to the very essence of the pilgrim life, and how far we import our own tedium into the pilgrimage; the fact remains as Atheist puts it. As Atheist in this book says, so the Atheist who is in our hearts often says: We are like to have nothing for all our pains but a lifetime of tedious travel. Yes, wherever the blame lies, there can be no doubt about it, that what this hilarious scoffer calls the tediousness of the way is but a too common experience among many of those who, tediousness and all, will still cleave fast to it and will never leave it.
Then, again, great trials in life, great straits, dark and too- long-continued providences, prayer unanswered, or not yet answered in the way we dictate, bad men and bad causes growing like a green bay tree, and good men and good work languishing and dying; these things, and many more things such as these, of which this world of faith and patience is full, prove quite too much for some men till they give themselves up to a state of mind that is nothing better than atheism. "My evidences and my certainty," says Halyburton, "were not answerable to the weight I was compelled to lay upon them." A figure which Goodwin in his own tender and graphic way takes up thus: "Set pins in a wall and fix them in ever so loosely, yet, if you hang nothing upon them they will seem to stand firm; but hang a heavy weight upon them, or even give them the least jog as you pass, and the whole thing will suddenly come down. The wall is God's word, the slack pin is our faith, and the weight and the jog are the heavy burdens and the sudden shocks of life, and down our hearts go, wall and pin and suspended vessel and all.
When the church and her ministers, when the Scriptures and their anomalies, and when the faults and failings of Christian men are made the subject of mockery and laughter, the reverence, the fear, the awe, the respect that all enter so largely into religion, and especially into the religion of young people, is too easily destroyed; and not seldom the first seeds of practical and sometimes of speculative atheism are thus sown. The mischief that has been done by mockery and laughter to the souls, especially of the young and the inexperienced, only the great day will fully disclose.
And then, two men of great weight and authority with us, tell us what we who are ministers would have found out without them: this, namely, that the greatest atheists are they who are ever handling holy things without feeling them.