By John Angell James, 1859


"If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable." 1 Corinthians 15:19

This passage has been, to some pious people, a source of perplexity as seeming to suggest the idea that all the happiness which Christianity brings to people, belongs to the eternal world—and that if this hope fails us, the life of the infidel and the worldling is to be preferred to that of the believer. This is contrary to the views and feelings of all true Christians—for they are ever ready to acknowledge that, even should Christianity be a fable and there were no heaven to come, they have found more true peace of mind and felicity in a life of piety—than they once did, or ever could, in a life of sin. This is very true, and the passage does not intend to assert that there is no real happiness in the present practice of piety. The apostle teaches in another place, that "Godliness is profitable for all things, having the promise of the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come"—and millions have found it so!

Paul therefore does not mean, in this passage, to contradict the testimony of Solomon, "That wisdom's ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace." There is a pure and solid happiness in piety, compared with which the pleasures of sin are as muddy streams, compared to the water of the clear flowing spring. So that even if there were no future state, there is more pleasure in the way of holiness, than of transgression.

Some have supposed the apostle alludes exclusively to himself and his fellow-laborers in the cause of Christ, whose life was one constant and dreadful martyrdom. And truly, apart from the hope of immortality, and the final possession of eternal glory—they were the most miserable of men, especially when to their sufferings we add the self-reproach and agonies of conscience they must have sometimes endured, under the consciousness, if Christ did not rise, of being false witnesses for God, in testifying his resurrection. They must, in that case, have been not only the greatest of sufferers—but the basest of criminals. But though in a 'special manner' it was applicable to them, and to all others who have drank to its dregs the bitter cup of persecution, this passage does not apply exclusively to them. That there was a special and primary reference to them is, I think, evident from what Paul said in his former epistle—chap. 4:9-14. And from his mention of his own case, in the 31st and 32nd verses of this chapter.

But still there is also a general principle contained in this passage—and that is, that the chief happiness of the Christian is to be waited for—in faith and hope—and is to come in the eternal world. It is of great importance to bear this constantly in remembrance, as it would check that too great eagerness after amusement, and that impatience under self-denial, which are manifested by many professing Christians. We are not so much to seek for perfect happiness here in this present world—as to prepare for perfect happiness hereafter. There can be no doubt that the Christian life, whatever felicity it yields, and much it does yield—is, notwithstanding, a constant state of self denial. We are to "mortify our members which are upon earth," and to "crucify the flesh with the affections and lusts thereof." There are many sources of enjoyment forbidden to the children of light, to which the children of this world repair without scruple or reluctance. Christians see the joyous countenances of the lovers of pleasure, and hear their merry voices, and feel sometimes a sense of sacrifice in retiring from the forbidden fruit. They are often called to take up a 'cross'—while others grasp a 'garland of delight'.

That man knows not his own heart, or has forgotten its history and its occasional yearnings, who denies that he has never felt the motions of the flesh, after some of the purest of the works of the flesh. What is it that enables the believer to carry on this life of sacrifice—and to separate himself from gaieties and delights which others enjoy? To retire, and sometimes to retire amid the anger, ridicule, and persecution of his friends and companions? To be laughed at as a puritan, precisionist, or hypocrite? The hope of eternal life! He deems many things which those around him approve, to be contrary to his expectations of eternal glory. Take from him this hope therefore—and he is in some respects a pitiable man. In proportion to the elevation of our hopes, are we to be commiserated for their final disappointment. And no one has such hopes as the Christian—so high, so vast, so sublime. Is it not a deplorable condition to be in—to embrace a cross, to become ridiculously peculiar, obnoxious to many, and often to be disturbed in ourselves—by the chase of a bubble, and in contemplation of a vision?

It does not, follow however, we again say, that Christians would be in fact more unhappy than other men, if there should be no future reward. For even then their expectations of it, and the consolation they have thence derived—would counterbalance their peculiar trials, self-denials, and hardships. No! No! The apostle did not intend to teach that apart from a future world, a man would be more happy in vice than in virtue. In the love of God, in purity of life, in the means of grace, in the fellowship of the saints—he has far more real happiness than the sinner has in his evil courses. The apostle does not refer so much to their personal feelings—as to their final condition and their hopes.

At the same time we would most emphatically remark, that the Scriptures do not represent as the only or chief motive to good conduct—that virtue is its own reward. It is so, we know, as we all must have experienced who have practiced it. But this is too much opposed in some cases to the temporal interests of mankind, and therefore too feeble a motive for promoting its practice with the generality of men. Mr. Hall has most correctly, as well as most eloquently argued that "the system of infidelity is not only incapable of arming virtue for great and trying occasions—but leaves it unsupported in the most ordinary occurrences. In vain will its advocates expatiate on the tranquility and pleasure attendant on a virtuous course; for though you may remind the offender that in disregarding them he has violated his nature, and that a conduct consistent with them is productive of much internal satisfaction; yet if he replies that his taste is of a different sort, that there are other gratifications which he values more, and that every man must choose his own pleasures, the argument is at an end.

"Rewards and punishments assigned by infinite power, afford a palpable and pressing motive, which can never be neglected without renouncing the character of a rational creature—but tastes and relishes are not to be prescribed.

"As the present world is to infidelity the only place of recompense, whenever the practice of virtue fails to promise the greatest sum of present good; cases which often occur in reality, and much oftener in appearance; a deviation from rectitude becomes the part of wisdom; and should the path of virtue, in addition to this, be obstructed by disgrace, torment, or death—to persevere would be madness and folly, and a violation of the great and most essential law of nature. Virtue being on these principles in numberless instances at war with self-preservation, never can, or ought to become, a fixed habit of the mind."