Is the spiritual opportunity given by Christianity, or by one or other of the higher religions that have been forerunners of Christianity and have partially anticipated Christianity’s gifts of illumination and grace to men on Earth, an indispensable condition for salvation –meaning by ‘salvation’ the spiritual effect on a soul of feeling after God and finding Him in its passage through life on Earth?
If this were so, then the innumerable generations of men who never had the chance of receiving the illumination and grace conveyed by Christianity and the other higher religions would have been born and have died without a chance of the salvation which is the true end of man and the true purpose of life on Earth. This might be conceivable, though still repugnant, if we believed that the true purpose of life on Earth was not the preparation of souls for another life, but the establishment of the best possible human society in this world, which in the Christian belief is not the true purpose, though it is an almost certain by-product of a pursuit of the true purpose.
If progress is taken as being the social of Leviathan and not the spiritual progress of individual souls, then it would perhaps be conceivable that, for the gain and glory of the body social, innumerable earlier generations should have been doomed to live a lower social life in order that a higher social life might eventually be lived by successors who had entered into their labours. This would be conceivable on the hypothesis that individual human souls existed for the sake of society, and not for their own sakes or for God’s.But this belief is not only repugnant but is also inconceivable when we are dealing with the history of religion, where the progress of individual souls through this world towards God, and not the progress of society in this world, is the end on which the supreme value is set.
We cannot believe that the historically incontestable fact that illumination and grace have been imparted to men on Earth in successive instalments, beginning quite recently in the history of the human race on Earth, and even then coming gradually in the course of generations, can have entailed the consequence that the vast majority of souls born into the world up to date, who have had no share in this spiritual opportunity, have, as a result, been spiritually lost. We must believe that the possibilities, provided by God, of learning through suffering in this world have always afforded a sufficient means of salvation to every soul that has made the best of the spiritual opportunity offered to it here, however small that opportunity may have been.
But, if men on Earth have not had to wait for the advent of the higher religions, culminating in Christianity, in order to qualify, in their life on Earth, for eventually attaining, after death, the state of eternal felicity in the other world, then what difference has the advent on Earth of the higher religions, and of Christianity itself, really made? The difference, I should say, is this, that, under the Christian dispensation, a soul which does make the best of its spiritual opportunities will, in qualifying for salvation, be advancing farther towards communion with God and towards likeness to God under the conditions of life on Earth, before death, than has been possible for souls that have not been illuminated, during their pilgrimage on Earth, by the light of the higher religions. A pagan soul, no less than a Christian soul, has ultimate salvation with its reach; but a soul which has been offered, and has opened itself to, the illumination and the grace that Christianity conveys, will, while still in this world, of the narrower opportunity here open to it. The Christian soul can attain, while still on Earth, a greater measure of man’s greatest good than can be attained by any pagan soul in this earthly stage of its existence.