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The Unanswerable Question – Part I

Category Articles
Date February 13, 2004

Mark 8:36&37 “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”

There was an occasion on which John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, was preaching at Pinner’s Hall, London. Whenever it was announced that Bunyan was preaching somewhere crowds of people flocked to hear him. On this occasion he announced this very text and he said to the packed congregation, “I have chosen at this time to handle these words among you, and that for several reasons.” Then he told them why he wanted to speak on this theme, and his reasons are also mine:

1] The soul and its salvation is a wonderfully great thing. Nothing is more important for each one of you than this. Houses and lands, works and honours – what are these compared to salvation?

2] This fact is amazingly neglected in our day. Who is there in our town who is concerned about the salvation of his soul? Is there one Aberystwyth sinner in a thousand today who has gone to hear the word of God with a longing that his soul be saved?

3] I have pitched upon this text at this time that God would help me by this message to awaken you, rouse you from your bed of ease, and bring you to your knees before the Lord, to beg him for his grace that you might be concerned for the salvation of your soul.

4] I am preaching on this theme to deliver myself from any responsibility for your damnation, to be clear of your blood, so that you yourselves will answer to God for your refusal to be saved.

We are told that 180 years after the death of the Emperor Charlemagne, around the year 1000, his tomb was opened by order of the Emperor Otho, and when they looked inside it this is what they saw. Charlemagne had been buried sitting upright on a throne, a crown was on his skull, and a copy of the gospels was on his lap, and he had directed that his finger be pointing to this very text of ours. Indeed it was! A bony finger of what had been the most powerful and wealthy man in the world rested on these words, “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” There is an old saying, “He captured Venice, and then was hung at its gate.” In other words, men may achieve all their goals for wealth, fame and power but just as quickly be stripped of everything. May the life-giving Spirit of God enable us all to feel the power of these words of the Lord Jesus Christ.


Each one of us is body, and each one of us is soul (sometimes this latter is referred to as the ‘spirit’ and that emphasises that it was made by God and for him. The word ‘soul’ emphasises our unique personhood and identity.). Each one of us, as well as obviously being body, is also soul and is spirit – the same part of our beings is being referred to. You are not merely body – like a slug, or a fly, or an animal, or a starling. You are soul! You can communicate profoundly to another. You can love. You can deny yourself for others. A man will choose lay down his life for his friends. Parents will choose to make many sacrifices that their children become healthy and get educated. The Titanic hit the iceberg and there followed scenes of extraordinary bravery as scores of fathers and husbands made the conscious decision to drown in those icy waters that their wives and children might first enter the lifeboats. If that had been a cattle ship would the bulls have drawn back and let the cows clamber onto a rescue ship? Would the cows have drawn back to let the calves get on before them? Never! Because they are not souls. But you are. You deny yourself for the sake of your loved one. You can meditate, you face up to the future, you are overwhelmed by the beauty of creation and music and literature. You are soul. You as spirit can contemplate the sun, moon and stars: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou has made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour” (Psa. 8:3-5). You can know God the Creator; you can comprehend the Sermon on the Mount, the gospel of John, the letter of Paul to the Romans – because you are soul and spirit.

Consider when God made Adam, he formed him from the dust of the earth – as he had made the animals before him. So there are many parallels between the body of a man and the bodies of animals. God in his divine economy does not spread diversity unnecessarily. But that body which God had designed needed something more before it had the life of a man. We are told that God came so near, almost kissing this dust, and he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and then man became a living creature in God’s image. Then man became soul and spirit as well as body. Let us establish this fact in our minds, that we are all so made as souls and spirits so that we shall never die. This body of ours which we look after, and clothe and feed, which we wash and powder and cream and spray and perfume. . . this body which we examine for lumps appearing and moles changing their shape and colour, which we will hurry off to the doctor if there is anything wrong . . . this body alone is not you. You are more than your body; you are also soul. The death which each one of us must die doesn’t make an end to man. All is not over when the doctor makes his last call, when the last breath is taken, and the last flicker of electrical activity is extinguished in the brain, when the coffin is screwed down, and the funeral schedule is complete, when the flames of the crematorium have devoured the body and turned it to ashes, when another voice is soon sounding from our old office desk, and other people live in our homes and we become forgotten. I tell you that all is not over at the moment of death. The spirit of a man lives on. Every one is also an undying soul.

Remember the last words of Jesus Christ, “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit!” Had our Lord thought much about life, and death, and the soul, and God? Yes, much. Could he have thought more about it than you? Yes, more. Was there something utterly divine about him? Yes. Who are you going to trust? Him, or your own theories – “well, I think of life and death like this . . .”? At the end of Jesus’ life his commended his spirit to God. His body was taken down by his friends and wrapped in graveclothes and laid in a sepulchre, but his soul was not annihilated at that moment. It went to the one Jesus knew to be his Father in heaven. On the third day his body was resurrected and his soul was reunited to it for ever. You have a voice within you that tells you that this was so. What I say to you is truth. When we have accompanied the bodies of our loved ones on that last journey of their lives, and seen their coffins lowered into their graves, who then does not know something rising in our hearts to say, “There is a life to come! All men and women from the mightiest to the lowest are souls.”

You go to every culture and civilisation and you find that this is so. Their temples and pagodas and funeral rites all speak of the same thing, from the time of the pharaohs until today. They testify to the ineradicable consciousness of man that death never succeeds in snuffing us out. Look around you! J.C.Ryle says, “You see an endless struggle about temporal things. Hurry, bustle, and business hem you in on every side. I can well believe you are sometimes tempted to think that this world is everything, and the body is all that is worth caring for. Resist the temptation, and cast it behind you. Say to yourself every morning when you rise, and every night when you lie down, ‘The fashion of this world passes away. The life that I now live is not all. There is something beside business, and money, and pleasure, and trade. There is a life to come’” (J.C.Ryle, “Old Paths,” ‘Our Souls!’ p. 43). You are soul as well as body.

The Lord Jesus is saying here that your soul is more valuable than the whole world. Don’t you agree with him? A burglar comes into your house and he seizes your Old Master oil painting worth six million pounds, a family heirloom. He has a gun in his hand. “I am having this,” he says and he points the gun at you. What do you say? “Take it!” Your life is more valuable than an oil painting. It is of more value than all your possessions, than all the money in the bank, than all the oil of the North Sea. “Take it all,” you cry, “but spare my life.” What does your wife say? Does she agree? Is it you your children want rather than your things? Of course they do. Your life is far more valuable than all the world. There is no immortality to works of art, to champion race horses, to luxury liners, to mighty skyscrapers – moth and rust destroy them. Thieves break in and steal them. Terrorists bomb them. One little child nursed by its mother is going to live longer than all those things. There shall be a time when all New York will crumble to nothing, when Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey shall be cast down and pass away. The Welsh language and all the works of English literature will be no more. The soul of one farmer is more enduring than all that. Though the universe expires, melting with fervent heat, his soul shall live on in eternity. You may be poor in this world, but you are soul. You may be sickly and weak in body, but you are soul. You may be a nobody, but you are soul, and that soul is what God chiefly regards. The soul is you, and it is the most important thing about you. Reckon on it. Believe that you were not sent into the world to work for the Council, and pay off your mortgage, and leave a few thousand to your children. Your end as man – who is soul as well as body – is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever. Come to church every Sunday. Listen to the preaching of the word. Cry mightily to God that he will show you who you are and who God is. Keep Sunday special: give God his day, and if your fellow students or the people in work ask you why you are acting like that then tell them, “I do these things because I am a soul as well as a body.”

There was once a country minister who bumped into a young man. It was a beautiful spring morning and they commented about that fact. “We ought to be so thankful to God our creator,” said the minister. “Do you leave your house without praying?” The young man said, “I never pray. I’ve got nothing to pray about.” “Do your parents pray?” asked the minister. “If they like, they do,” he said. “But you never pray?” “Naa.” The minister knew that he was a superstitious kind of fellow, and so he put his hand in his pocket and took out a ten pound note. “I’ll give you this note,” he said to the young man, “if you promise me that you’ll never pray again, as long as you live.” “All right,” said the young man, “I don’t know what I’ve got to pray about. I promise I’ll never pray again,” and he took the money gratefully.

He went home, and then the thought struck him, “What have I done?” He thought that one day he was going to die and then what? One day he might be in an accident his lifeblood leaking away, or his wife might be ill while expecting a baby, or he might fall into the river. Many thoughts like that came crashing into his brain and sleep went. He had promised that he would never pray. One day he might meet God, and he had never spoken to him, and he got more and more desperate. He went into a depression that week, and his parents asked him what was wrong: “I met a devil,” he said to them. He felt he had sold himself to the evil one. But that preacher knew what he was doing, and there was a hall in the village where that young man lived, and he was going to be preaching there that next week, and he was sure the young man was there. When he stood up at the lectern and faced the congregation there he saw him, in the back row. The minister announced his text. It was our text today, “What will it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” The young man thought, “Yes, what will it profit a young man to sell his soul for a ten pound note?” He went straight on to him after the service the ten pounds in his hand, “Take it back! Take it back!” he said to the preacher, thrusting the note in his hand. “You said you didn’t pray and wouldn’t pray,” said the preacher. “I must pray . . . I must pray . . . If I don’t pray I am lost,” he said. That easy promise he’d made not to pray was the means of arousing him to meet the God who inspires and hears and answers prayer. Every one of us is an undying soul, so every one of us must pray.


I would identify entirely with J.C.Ryle and say, “I am one of those old-fashioned ministers who believe the whole Bible – and everything that it contains. I can find no scriptural foundation for that smooth-spoken theology, which pleases so many in these days, and according to which everybody will go to heaven at last. I believe that there is a real devil. I believe that there is a real hell. I believe that it is not charity to keep back from men that they may be lost. ‘Charity’, shall I call it? If you saw your child drinking poison, would you hold your peace? ‘Charity’, shall I call it? If you saw a blind man tottering towards the edge of the cliff, would you not cry out ‘Stop!’? Away with such false notions of charity! Let us not slander that blessed grace by using its name in a false sense. It is the highest charity to bring the whole truth before men. It is real charity to warn them plainly that they are in danger. It is charity to impress upon them that they may lose their own souls for ever in hell” (J.C. Ryle op cit, p. 45).

God has loved the world, yes, but men may lose their souls. God has sent his own Son, yes, but men may be lost. God has imputed sin to Christ and his righteousness to sinners, thank God, but some men may still lose their souls. Full atonement has been paid for all for whom Christ died; he has cried, ‘It is finished!’ Yes it is true, but men may still lose their souls. There is a narrow path that leads to life with just a few upon it, and a broad road that leads to destruction and many find it. Christ has said that he will separate mankind into two groups, like a shepherd separates his sheep from his goats. To some he will say, “Come ye blessed,” and to others he will say, “Depart from me!” The souls of some are saved while the souls of others are lost.

Is there one man in the world who has a natural inclination to save his soul? No, not one. If you went into any school in our county and asked the children in those schools what is the most important thing they have, that they must never lose, you would get a fascinating and merry assortment of answers but which child would look back at you big-eyed with seriousness and say, “My soul sir!” And if there were one in whose life grace was operating who replied, “My soul,” the rest of the children and the teachers would think her raised by fanatics, and mock her. None of us have any natural desire to have our souls saved. We are weak, corrupt and inclined to sin. We call evil good, and good evil. Imagine taking a diamond the size of a peach stone, worth a million pounds, and putting it in the hand of a seven year old child, and saying to her, “I want you to walk to London taking this diamond to the Queen.” Is it not very doubtful whether she would ever arrive at London, and her majesty never receive that treasure? Yet this is a faint image of setting out on a journey through life with a careless view of your soul.

How do men lose their souls? The chief way is by neglect. Think of the people in Aberystwyth who pamper their bodies, who go on special diets, and take regular visits to health farms, and have even had plastic surgery, and employ their own personal trainers, and will run to the doctor with the slightest problem, and yet they will do nothing at all about their souls. They never think of their inner man, of the invisible and eternal world, of God, of dying, of the Bible, of Jesus Christ, of prayer. Your mortal body is garnished and cosseted, but your soul is ignored. If I could painlessly extract your soul this moment and show it to you now it would look like that hard little prune at the bottom of the packet, dark and shrivelled, scarcely any different from a stone. Your neglected soul.

What folly, to pamper the dying body and neglect the eternal soul! It reminds me of the parable of a man who owned two shops, one was a little Post Office in a Welsh village with an additional three shelves of basic groceries and a small freezer of frozen food and ice cream. Five or six people an hour entered that shop. His other store was on Regent Street. It was a vast store, with hundreds of shop assistants and buyers and window designers and a fleet of vans taking goods across London. Thousands of people entered that shop each hour. Yet that man spent more time and energy planning how to take care of his little Welsh Post Office than his store at the heart of London, and down and down it was plummeting. He would give his staff no guidance and no permission to do anything because he was fussing over his postage stamps and tins of tomato soup back in Aberboyo. What a fool, to neglect what was worth millions for something worth little. Yet multitudes do this day by day. They are obsessed with trivia, with sport, and fashion, and bands, and they neglect their souls! I am not saying to the Post Office keepers of rural Wales to neglect your shops, and I am not saying to anyone here to neglect your body. I am pleading for a sense of priority. Important as your body is your soul is far more important. Would a captain set sail across the Pacific with a hold full of paint for the crew to paint the ship, but with no food to feed them? Would a teacher be content to start a school term with nothing in his school – no books, no blackboards, no chalk – nothing but two rubber balls and a bat? Does he not want to feed the minds and understanding of his children? Look to your souls as well as your bodies!

But many are not merely neglecting their souls they are positively murdering them. They fill their minds with television watching, the worst sort of programmes, dulling their minds with inanity and soaps. They fill their bellies with alcohol, and their lungs with nicotine smoke, and their veins with heroin, and their nostrils with glue vapours. Their talk is adultery and fornication, dishonesty, greed and deceit, and easy money. All those things are a band of vandals whose one aim is to destroy your soul.

Please continue with Part II of this article.

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