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heaven, but without the least assignable reason of any description whatever; for, if the preternatural vision be denied which he himself constantly adduced as the reason of his conversion, no other reason can be discovered: that is to say, they must believe in the existence of an effect without a cause.
They must believe, that in his new principles and practice he persevered with the utmost constancy for a long term of years, despised and persecuted and reviled and harassed ; though he himself knew them to be founded solely on a falshood of his own fabrication, and though they were in the highest degree adverse to his temporal interest and comfort.
They must believe, that, although he invariably stated the occurrence of the vision to have taken place in broad day-light, in the public high-way between Jerusalem and Damascus, and in the presence of several other persons who were travelling with him on the same errand of persecution ; yet not one of these persons, all of whom were enemies of Christianity and therefore well inclined to detect every attempt at imposture, ever came forward to confront him by declaring that the whole story was an impudent fabrication,
They must believe, in short, that a man both of eminent learning and of strong prejudices against Christianity, to the amazement of the whole world, suddenly and unaccountably commenced a career altogether opposite to his former principles; that, in this career, without any assignable cause, he persevered through his whole life; and that at length he submitted to be put to death, rather than he would give up a set of opinions, which contradicted all the sentiments imbibed during his education, and which he had adopted wholly without reason
* For a full discussion of this important subject, see Lord Lyttelton's Observations on the conversion and apostleship of St. Paul. I have selected and illustrated what seems to me the main strength of the argument : but the subsidiaries, so well urged by his lordship, ought not to be passed over without due attention by any really candid and serious inquirer.
Should it be said by an infidel, that the alleged vision, which effected the conversion of St. Paul, was merely a luminous meteor attended with a loud explosion ; a solution of the difficulty, which, I believe, has sometimes been resorted to: it will be found, that such a mode of accounting for the matter is hampered with scarcely fewer impediments, than an absolute denial of any extraordinary appearance whatever.
1. For, in the first place, if this solution be adopted, the whole charge of imposture, in the case of St. Paul, is at once virtually relinquished : and he must henceforth be set down as a truly honest man, who, having unluckily mistaken a natural for a supernatural phenomenon, was in consequence led to embrace and propagate the Christian system. Let such a theory then be adopted ; and let us allow,'for the sake of argument, that the apostle was innocently deceived : still every other proof, that the Gospel was a divine revelation, remains in full force ; nor will the harmless mistake of St. Paul, which happened to be the moving cause of his conversion, invalidate a single argument which has been independently adduced.
2. But, in the second place, the solution is inadequate to account for the result. Paul verily believed, that, in the persecution of the Christians, he was doing God laudable service. Hence, had he mistaken a natural for a supernatural phenomenon, and had he viewed what he beheld as an omen or token from heaven; he would, in his frame of mind and with his strong convictions that he was doing his duty, have deemed it a manifest sign, not of the divine disapprobation, but of the divine approbation. The sight itself he would have turned his own way, and would have interpreted it in accordance with his own prepossessions. It would have confirmed him in his purpose, not have diverted him from it. Or, if the circumstance of his being struck with blindness should be alleged as a matter likely to give his thoughts a different turn: in that case, be it observed, his blindness cannot be admitted without a concomitant admission of his miraculous and sudden restoration from blindness at the prayer of the Christian Ananias ; an event; which no persuasion of the truth of the Gospel on the part of Paul could in itself have been sufficient to bring about.
Now the persons, who can bring themselves to believe such a monstrous tissue of absurdities rather than admit the reality of an occurrence vouched for by a man at the expence both of his comfort and of his life, may, I think, be justly charged with being under the influence of a blind credulity: and, as the rejection or admission of the Gospel is suspended upon the alternative, it may be safely asserted, as it has already been more than once asserted, that there is greater credulity in the disbelief of Christianity than in the belief of it.
That Christianity is now received, as an undoubted revelation from heaven, by the greater part of the civilized world; and that it spread, in a wonderfully short space of time from the death of its original founder, not only over the Roman Empire, but likewise through nations without the verge of that mighty sovereignty: are facts, which, as they cannot be dissembled, are not attempted to be denied by the infidel.
If then Christianity were an imposture, we are naturally led to ask, how it happened to have such extraordinary and permanent success, and how it could command a vitality so unlike the brief duration of most other impostures.
I. An inquiry of this nature could not easily be omitted by an historian, who himself had unhappily imbibed the principles of Infidelity. The fact of the rapid spread of Christianity was not to be dissembled: consistency therefore required, that by such a writer it should be accounted for, independently of every idea of the divine support and concurrence.
In pursuance of this project, Mr. Gibbon undertakes to assign five reasons, why the Christian religion might easily diffuse itself far and wide, even if we suppose it to have been nothing more than a specious imposture.
The reasons, alleged by him as sufficient to account for such a circumstance, are the following: 1. the inflexible and intolerant zeal of the Christians, derived, it is true, from the Jewish religion, but purified from the narrow and unsocial spirit, which, instead of inviting, had deterred the Gentiles from embracing the Law of Moses; 2. the doctrine of a future life, improved by every additional circumstance which could give weight and efficacy to that important truth; 3. the miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive Church; 4. the pure and austere morals of the Christians; and 5. the union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman Empire.
Such are the reasons assigned by Mr. Gibbon for the success of Christianity: the question therefore is, whether we have sufficient grounds for believing them to be adequate; since it is evident, that to deem them adequate without sufficient grounds is a mark, not of wisdom, but of credulity.