“The causes, acting from without, are his surroundings—what Mr. Herbert Spencer calls his ‘environment’. Now the point I want to make clear is this, that a man is responsible for his act of choosing, but not responsible for his environment. Hence, if these two men make, on some given occasion, when they are exposed to equal temptation, equal efforts to resist and to choose the right, their condition, in the sight of God, must be the same. If He is pleased in the one case, so will He be in the other, if displeased in the one case, so also in the other.”
“That is so, no doubt: I see it quite clearly,” Lady Muriel put in.
“And yet, owing to their different environments, the one may win a great victory over the temptation, while the other falls into some black abyss of crime.”
“But surely you would not say those men were equally guilty in the sight of God?”
“Either that”, said Arthur, “or else I must give up my belief in God’s perfect justice. But let me put one more case, which will show my meaning even more forcibly. Let the one man be in a high social position—the other say, a common thief. Let the one be tempted to some trivial act of unfair dealing—something which he can do with the absolute certainty that it will never be discovered—something which he can with perfect ease forbear from doing—and which he distinctly knows to be a sin. Let the other be tempted to some terrible crime—as men would consider it—but, under an almost overwhelming pressure of motives—of course not quite overwhelming, as that would destroy all responsibility. Now, in this case, let the second man make a greater effort at resistance than the first. Also suppose both to fall under the temptation—I say that the second man is, in God’s sight, less guilty than the other.”
Lady Muriel drew a long breath. “It upsets all one’s ideas of Right and Wrong—just at first! Why, in that dreadful murder-trial, you would say, I suppose, that it was possible that the least guilty man in the Court was the murderer, and that possibly the judge who tried him, by yielding to the temptation of making one unfair remark, had committed a crime outweighing the criminal’s whole career!”
“Certainly I should,” Arthur firmly replied. “It sounds like a paradox, I admit. But just think what a grievous sin it must be, in God’s sight, to yield to some very slight temptation, which we could have resisted with perfect ease, and to do it deliberately, and in the full light of God’s Law. What penance can atone for a sin like that?”
“I ca’n’t reject your theory,” I said. “But how it seems to widen the possible area of Sin in the world!”
“Is that so?” Lady Muriel anxiously enquired.
“Oh, not so, not so!” was the eager reply. “To me it seems to clear away much of the cloud that hangs over the world’s history. When this view first made itself clear to me, I remember walking out into the fields, repeating to myself that line of Tennyson ’There seemed no room for sense of wrong!’ The thought, that perhaps the real guilt of the human race was infinitely less than I fancied it— that the millions, whom I had thought of as sunk in hopeless depths of sin, were perhaps, in God’s sight, scarcely sinning at all—was more sweet than words can tell! Life seemed more bright and beautiful, when once that thought had come! ‘A livelier emerald twinkles in the grass, A purer sapphire melts into the sea!’ ” His voice trembled as he concluded, and the tears stood in his eyes.