A study of George MacDonald’s perspectives on death, fire, hell, and God’s ultimate victory, by Michael Phillips, with quotes from MacDonald’s works, from Leben 11, 2006
George MacDonald harmonized his belief in the triumphant Fatherhood of God into a grand unity of purpose that went far beyond what traditional theology was capable of envisioning. With the foundations of universal Fatherhood, salvation, atonement and sanctification in place, we are in a position to move on to a greater understanding of MacDonald’s perspective in further lofty regions that probe the reaches of God’s eternal plan for mankind and the universe.
This larger and more expansive purpose is possible, in George MacDonald’s view, because growth does not stop at death. Death does not represent a final and unequivocal closed door to the operation of man’s free will, or therefore to the possibility of repentance. God’s spiritually redemptive work does not suddenly stop because the physical component of life ceases. The process continues.
The distinction between may and can is illuminating. Their distinction raises intriguing questions about repentance in the afterlife. Will people be capable of repenting after death, but God won’t permit it? Or will they be incapable of it and so the question of God’s permitting it won’t come up?
Imagine that after death, even in hell, a man or woman gains an audience with God, or prays (haven’t we all wondered if prayer in hell is possible), “God, I see my sin for what it is, I repent of it.”
If the repentance is genuine and real, what would be God’s response? “Too late, you are not permitted to repent now…it is not allowed.” Or would he say, “You only imagine yourself repentant, but now that your earthly life is past, you are no longer capable of true repentance.”
In other words, does the commonly held theology that would prohibit post-death repentance fall under the purview of can not or may not?
Consider what infinite love and infinite forgiveness must mean. Is it possible for them to ever stop, ever reach an end? Will God do his utmost to draw men to his hearts? What else would infinite Forgiveness do but its utmost…forever…infinitely? The Scriptures are full of confirmations of God’s unceasing love. At what point does God stop?
The traditional argument is that physical death represents a final barrier to God’s omnipotence. If death is the final end to the active outworking of God’s love, then where is the infinity of that Love? The Scriptures draw no such ultimate line at earthly death. Where did this idea originate that physical death ends spiritual activity?
Infinite means limitless—without boundary or end…for ever and ever. How far will God’s unceasing attempts to redeem extend? Is not the very question swallowed up in that “Infinity.” What can the answer possibly be but: Forever!
As long as a sinner remains who is capable of repenting, or a sin capable of being repented of—throughout all the aeons of eternity—George MacDonald would say that such sinners will be given that opportunity to repent.
As to the potential mechanism of such repentance after death, we can only guess. While we are yet in the flesh, repentance is intrinsically connected to that fleshly nature (introspection, emotion, self-awareness, sorrow, remorse.) What might be the different characteristics of “repentance” when the fleshly nature no longer exists? Who can say? It might be a very different form of repentance than those thoughts and emotions and responses and lifestyle changes we associate with the word here. These are deep theological waters. Yet how can we say that it lies in the nature of the character of God to reject, turn away, and say no to any repentant heart…ever?
If God’s work continues after death, the effect will be as great on Christians as non-Christians. The afterlife will not simply involve the distribution of rewards and punishment and that be the end of it—eternal bliss or eternal misery. The work of growth toward Christlikeness remains a progressive one. This is a view shared by C.S. Lewis, as illustrated in The Great Divorce, and as illustrated by several comments in Mere Christianity.
Though the parameters dramatically change on the other side of death’s door, and though God’s intent is certainly that man begin the salvationary process of living in obedient childship in this life, the possibility remains of exercising free will to grow toward obedience in the next. Much of the repentance that may be required in the next life will be from those calling themselves Christians who imagine that their beliefs are alone sufficient to get them into heaven but who do not make obedience to the commands of Jesus their highest life’s priority.
MacDonald writes: “Think what it must be for a man counting himself religious…to perceive suddenly that there was no religion in him, only love of self…What a discovery—that he was simply a hypocrite.”
This post-death growth into Christlikeness might be called God’s “Plan B.” It may involve consequences excruciating and painful—urging repentance and obedience there more vigorously than the Spirit’s quiet whispers do here.
MacDonald says that we must be made pure. After death, God will of necessity employ increasingly more stringent means to accomplish his ends, compelling us by what MacDonald calls the eye-opening power of pain to do what in this life we had the opportunity to do by free choice—allowing God to purge sin out of us by purging it out of ourselves.
It was this “post death opportunity” that first landed George MacDonald in controversy. His expressed belief, as the deacons of his church described it, in “a future state of probation” for the heathen, was the primary reason given for his dismissal in 1853 from the first and only pulpit he held.
The preceding, then, is my perception of George MacDonald’s perspective on death in God’s redemptive plan.
It is commonly assumed that fire in Scripture is exclusively a symbol of destruction and judgment. But as George MacDonald makes repeatedly clear, fire is also used throughout Scripture as an image of purification. To understand the full imagery, we have to look at the whole picture. Because of sin’s entry into the world, man’s reconciliation with God necessarily involves a two-step process—a negative and a positive, a tearing down and a building up. Sin must be destroyed in the world and in us, so that we and the universe can be restored and become what God created us to be. As sinners, we must repent…so that we can grow into Christlikeness.
Restoration is always a process containing these two aspects. Throughout Scripture fire provides an image of both. God’s judgment will indeed fall on sin…so that his creation may be purified, healed, and restored. The fire of judgment burns away dross, so that the fire of purification can produce gold.
The ultimate purpose of God’s fire, therefore, is purposeful, chastening, and redemptive, not vengeful or punitive. Its aim is growth, redemption, and cleansing. Whatever punishment is involved points toward that ultimate redemption.
God’s true perspective of the purpose of fire is found in the Old Testament prophets, rising to a climax in Malachi. There we see clearly that fire is always primarily a means of purification. We further note that it is not a purification reserved for sinners alone, but for God’s people and priests.
The Old Testament prophets understood this purpose of fire:
“I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities. I have refined you…I have tested you in the furnace of affliction. (Isaiah 1:25; 48:10)
“This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold.” (Zechariah 13:9)
“For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord…For behold, the day comes, burning like an oven…the day that comes shall burn …But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” (Malachi 3:2-3; 4:1-2)
Misunderstanding this principle, as did the Children of Israel at the foot of Sinai, much Christian theology has mistakenly interpreted the fire of Scripture as exclusively a vehicle of judgment and punishment. But this is wrong. God’s purpose is not to punish sin, but to eradicate sin from his creation. In “Justice” MacDonald writes, “Primarily, God is not primarily bound to punish sin; he is bound to destroy sin.”
Judgment and punishment may be required in the process, but they are not in themselves the objective nor the final result. And note this imperative point: The fire does not burn forever. Malachi’s purifying fire burns until the sons of Levi present right offerings to the Lord…after which the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. In Scripture there is always something that follows the fire of judgment—healing.
The minor prophets are key in understanding the prophetic restoration that lies ahead. To grasp their message one must read their words on several levels, and perceive temporal, future, and eternal frames of reference.
A word like “forever,” for example, might be used, and then be followed by a description of what will happen after that forever, as in a statement along the lines of, “I will punish my people Israel forever…until they repent of their sin and I restore them in the land I gave their fathers.” This is the way the prophets wrote. Duration of time may mean something different than is obvious at first glance. Healing always follows judgment. “Forever” doesn’t always mean literally forever.
In Malachi 3, after asking “who can endure the day of the Lord’s coming,” the prophet goes on, with that oft-used word that signals the shift from judgment to restoration, “Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness.”
In Zephaniah 3, we see first judgment: “I have decided to assemble the nations…to pour out my wrath upon them—all my fierce anger. The whole world will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.” But everything is not consumed, for the judgment is followed by healing: “Then I will purify the lips of the peoples that all of them may call on the name of the Lord.” It is one more example of this “forever…until” progression.
Examples of this progression in the prophets are literally legion. Once you see it, the reconciliatory purposes of God begin jumping off the page everywhere you look. The ninth and final chapter of Amos is wonderfully illustrative. For ten verses Amos prophesies the destruction of Israel. Then he shifts to healing and restoration: “In that day I will restore…I will repair…and build…I will bring back my exiled people Israel…never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them.”
Those who interpret such passages in the context of physical, temporal Israel, and the “land” as physical, temporal Palestine, have not yet begun to recognize the true high theme of prophecy in Scripture. God is here speaking through the prophets of the restoration not of temporal Israel alone, but of his entire creation! Once the fire has done its work, the season for healing has come.
From the failure to recognize this imperative progression, along with a subtle but damaging mistranslation of Matthew 25:46, a completely erroneous doctrine of hell has emerged that has miscolored the entire Christian message in the eyes of the world. It has caused most of Christ’s Church to misunderstand the true purposes of God in the universe and in the heart of mankind.
How astonishing it is that Christians do not read the New Testament prophecies with the perspective of this scriptural progression, nor ask what wonderful healing and reconciliation will take place in Malachi’s purifying furnace between Revelation 20:15 and 22:3. What comes after the lake of fire and the second death—God’s defeat, or God’s triumph in the hearts of the billions of souls of his creation?
God’s eternal purpose is to bring his children home. Nothing will satisfy and fulfill his love but to see them pure and perfect as he is pure and perfect. So now it is time to ask how Malachi’s furnace of purification actually works. What does the fire do to accomplish its cleansing? The fire of God’s purification does not burn us, our essential being created in his image. That’s why we need God’s purifying fire. It burns away the parasites of sin that cling so close that they suffocate our true selves.
The purpose of fire in the economy of God is to purify the heart of saint and sinner alike. Recognizing the nature of the Lord’s sacrifice (Not my will, but yours be done), we appropriate God’s cleansing by making the same sacrifice. By obedience we make ourselves the executioner of our own sin. Sin will be eradicated from the universe by being eradicated from each individual human heart. The fire is not the enemy, but is the agent of God’s work. We lay our self on God’s altar, and then beseech him with all the desperate hunger of a will that desires to be pure, “Come, fire of God, and burn me clean!”
The fire in MacDonald’s economy, however, is not merely for the burning out of sin. It is also the fire of light, the fire of God’s love, the fire of comfort, the light of purity—what he calls “the fire-core of the universe.” The child of God who desires to be pure and clean will thus welcome God’s fire.
MacDonald writes: “The fire of God, which is his essential being, his love, his creative power, is a fire unlike its earthly symbol in this, that it is only at a distance it burns—that the farther from him, it burns the worse, and that when we…approach him, the burning begins to change to comfort.” MacDonald amplifies his thoughts on the purifying nature of God’s fire throughout his writings, most notably in the sermons entitled, “The Consuming Fire” and “The Fear of God.”
Because the fire of God has been so sorely misconstrued by Christian theologians, a doctrine has grown up through the centuries which, according to George MacDonald does not represent the intent of the New Testament writers, nor of Jesus himself, at all. It is a doctrine which views hell as entirely the devil’s domain, whose only purpose is retribution against sin. In hell, maintains the doctrine, God will punish sin and sinner alike, tormenting them forever. Insofar as sin and sinners are concerned, the Bible ends at Rev. 21:8. There is no final making right.
It is all wrong, this notion that hell is either Satan’s domain, or has been invented by God for no purpose other than everlasting torment. Jesus did not believe it, MacDonald would insist, because he taught just the opposite concerning his Father’s work. Paul did not believe it. It is not a doctrine taught or supported by the Bible except by turning the eternal truths of God’s character completely upside down. It is entirely the historical invention of men who did not understand God’s purposes. As MacDonald says of this view, “God is triumphantly defeated.”
Can there be a more degrading, demeaning blasphemy against the love of God than this—to believe that he would intentionally devise such a cruel system? MacDonald’s passions reached their height against Christians who willingly, even eagerly, believe such about the Father of Jesus Christ: “Was there ever such a confusion, such an inversion of right and wrong… There is but one thing lower than deliberately to believe such a lie, and that is to worship the God of whom it is believed…”
Then he adds, in the words of Robert Falconer: “We must forgive them that they can contemplate with calmness the damnation of a universe, and believe that God is yet more indifferent than they.”
In its most succinct, MacDonald’s perspective on hell can be stated thus: “Hell is God’s and not the devil’s.”
Hell is God’s final workplace to accomplish what this life could not, his Malachi’s furnace for the purging out of sin and for the refining and purifying of his children to become his sons and daughters. “For hell is God’s and not the devil’s,” he writes in “Salvation from Sin,” going on, “Hell is on the side of God and man, to free the child of God from the corruption of death.”
What is the purpose of hell? It is a question far too few Christians have paused to ask. There are two possibilities: That hell is punitive, or that hell is corrective. In the first view, hell accomplishes nothing. It simply represents an eternal life sentence of endless punishment. In the latter view, hell serves a larger end, a higher purpose, leading toward corrective, chastening, redemptive change, betterment, and growth.
The debate between these two possibilities is long-standing. This is not the place to engage in an extensive discussion of the two. Suffice it to say that George MacDonald was convinced that Scripture entirely supported a redemptive purposeful hell, and that such is the only possible interpretation consistent with the character of God. Indeed, MacDonald says as plainly as is possible to say that the idea of an eternal punitive hell is an affront to God.
Once hell is seen in the corrective light of Malachi’s purifying furnace, at last the grievous mistranslation of Matthew 25:46 can be placed in perspective and properly understood. Though half a millennium of Protestant hell-theology is based on this verse, and though nearly every translation available supports that theology, the fact is this: The translation (“And they will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”) is wrong.
The two words translated “everlasting” and “eternal punishment” are kolasin aionion. They literally mean chastening, pruning, or remedial punishment (kolasin) for the age, age-lasting, or for the duration of the age (aionion.) Kolasin is not punitive punishment at all. Aionion does not mean eternal in the sense of forever. By completely omitting the nuances of the true Greek meanings of both words—corrective punishment for an age—the translators of this verse have erected one of the most horrendous stumbling blocks in history to a true knowing of God’s purpose and intent. And the stumbling-block continues to be perpetuated from translation to translation.
Once the true meanings of these two important words are seen, much in MacDonald’s expanded perspective becomes immediately clear.
The word aionion (“for/of the age”) illuminates the multiple distinction of time so utilized by the minor prophets: I will punish them forever for the age…until the age of restoration is come.
MacDonald occasionally calls hell God’s “prison” where payment must be made and out of which those who resist him will not come until they have paid the uttermost farthing of what God is due.
This can be understood as follows: We “owe” certain debts. These are not debts against God’s holiness. It is not the debt of damnation, but debts we have incurred throughout life against childness, against God himself, against others, against ourselves. These must be paid. We must forgive and ask forgiveness. To pay the debt is to become a child.
This is no mere Law-ish “debt of sin” that Jesus pays for us. We are responsible, like Zacchaeus, to make right, by making ourselves “one” with God, others, and ourselves. We make at-one-ment by paying our due.
One of MacDonald’s repeated themes to explain how God will effect repentance in the hearts of the most stubborn is by compelling repentance. “Do not drive Justice to extremities,” he says in “The Last Farthing.” “Duty is imperative; it must be done. It is useless to think to escape the eternal law of things; yield of yourself, nor compel God to compel you…Putting off is of no use. You must. The thing has to be done; there are means of compelling you.”
The argument brought by traditional theology against the idea of post death repentance under the force of compulsion is that it renders free will meaningless. God must, says the argument, honor the choice of free will that man makes in this life.
MacDonald’s idea, however, is a compulsion which does not override free will at all, but which makes use of the will. It is the will itself that shall be compelled. To our fleshly intellects perhaps it seems like an either-or exclusivity where compulsion and free will cannot mutually coexist. In God’s post-death economy, however, both God’s compulsion and man’s will will be operative.
“’Another has made you,” MacDonald writes in Lilith, “and can compel you to see what you have made yourself…Compulsion [against free will] would be without value. But there is a light that goes deeper than the will, a light that lights up the darkness behind it: that light can change your will, can make it truly yours and not another’s…Into the created can pour itself the creating will, and so redeem it!” It is “compulsion” without coersion, and without the weakening or mitigation of will.
MacDonald maintains that while in the flesh men are incapable of recognizing the true stakes of their choices. To thus make man eternally accountable for weak fleshly choices is unfair. God will never base eternity on an unjust foundation.
To those who ask how repentance could come about in the outer darkness of hell, MacDonald offers the following image: “So might I imagine a thousand steps up from the darkness,” he writes, “each a little less dark, a little nearer the light… Repentance once begun, however, may grow more and more rapid! If God once get a willing hold, if with but one finger he touch the man’s self, swift as possibility will he draw him from the darkness into the light. For that for which the forlorn, self-ruined wretch was made, was to be a child of God…. Out of the abyss into which he cast himself…he must rise and be raised. To the heart of God, the one and only goal of the human race—the refuge and home of all and each, he must set out and go.” (“The Last Farthing”)
God’s ultimate victory
George MacDonald’s common sense is often too much for the theologically minded to take in. If to our human sensibilities something would be unfair or unjust, to couch it in contorted theological legalisms and then say that God is capable of such, defies reason. If, says MacDonald, we see something as unjust, how much more, not less, will God see it so. We must look further into such doctrines to discover the deeper truth God intends.
As God himself created our imaginations, it is impossible for them to imagine him better, more loving, more forgiving, than he is. It would be for the created thing to rise above its creator. It is such a simple argument, but the further one probes into the sense of it, the more it simply has to be so. If our imaginations can conceive a higher Goodness, a more far-reaching Forgiveness, a more infinite Love than our theologies say exist in God’s being, then by definition that theology is not infinite. The “god” of such a non-infinite theology is not truly God at all.
In his sermon entitled “Justice,” MacDonald writes: “More is required of the Maker, by his own act of creation, than can be required of men. More and higher justice and righteousness is required of him by himself, the Truth—greater nobleness, more penetrating sympathy…”
MacDonald’s insight has, with disarming simplicity, plunged straight to the heart of the infinitude of Love that must define the Godhead. God can only be defined by infinite love, infinite goodness, and infinite forgiveness. Anything less and he would not be the infinite Almighty God.
Therefore, MacDonald asks in an oft-repeated theme in many of his books: Can man be more merciful than God?
If man recoils from the idea of a hell of retribution and torment, how much more must God recoil from it? Indeed, the only people who seem comfortable with the evil idea are those Christians bound to paganistic ideas of God’s vengeance. Of all those who through the centuries should have insisted that God is larger than such low theologies, it is Christians. Yet they have been the most reluctant to see it. Is it any wonder that MacDonald’s strongest language is reserved for the unbelief of so-called “believers”? (Oh ye hidebound Christians…some of you need the fire!)
God, then, must be infinitely more, higher, better, more loving, more forgiving, more merciful, than the best man who ever lived could imagine. MacDonald places this conviction poignantly in the mouth of What’s Mine’s Mine Ian Macruadh: “’The whole idea of such atonement is the merest subterfuge, a figment of the paltry human intellect to reconcile difficulties of its own invention. Once, when Alister had done something wrong, my father said, ‘He must be punished—except some one will be punished for him!’ I offered to take his place, partly that it seemed expected of me, partly that I was moved by vanity, and partly that I foresaw what would follow.’
“’And what did follow?’ …
“’He scarcely touched me, mother,’ answered Ian. ‘The thing taught me something very different from what he had meant to teach by it. That he failed to carry out his idea of justice helped me afterwards to see that God could not have done it either…’” (What’s Mine’s Mine, Ch. 15)
Though its dark and sometimes weird imagery is not to the taste of everyone, George MacDonald’s second to last book, Lilith, offers an intriguing though unsettling imaginative interpretation of the post death repentance of Adam’s mythical first wife Lilith who turned to evil and became a demon and tormentor of small children. Because it is fiction, the response can be made that the book’s content does not actually represent a position of belief. It is simply a story.
But…is anything entirely “story” with MacDonald? Are not all his writings alive with windows into his own mind and heart? In Lilith we see numerous representations of ideas MacDonald often expressed in his non-fiction writings. His imaginative interpretation of “the worm that dieth not” is both chilling and remarkable. While it would be a mistake to read Lilith as doctrine, there is no doubt that it illuminates much of George MacDonald’s perspective at the end of his life.
As I read Lilith, I see clear imagery that seems to suggest what MacDonald believes hell will accomplish in the end, even to the point of the ultimate repentance of the “Shadow,” which I take to be Satan: When the Shadow comes here, it will be to lie down and sleep also.—His hour will come, and he knows it…he will be the last to wake in the morning of the universe.
There is, however, an alternate conclusion which carries great weight simply because it was espoused by C.S. Lewis and doubtless represents his own personal view as well as his interpretation of MacDonald’s. Lewis says that MacDonald “hopes” all will be saved, but he then also imputes to MacDonald the belief that “omnipotence cannot save the unconverted,” calling such an “eternal impossibilit[y].”
I entirely concur that MacDonald indeed hopes that all will be saved. But if by that second perspective of his view he thinks that MacDonald believes that omnipotence will not be able to save everyone in the end, then at that point I believe Lewis mistaken. It is my feeling that MacDonald’s view went beyond mere “hope.”
Here we see Lewis’s imaginary postulation (The Great Divorce) that people will be capable of repenting, and allowed to…but that most simply won’t want to. They will prefer to remain below. Basing too much of Lewis’s view on The Great Divorce may be as inappropriate as to doctrinalize Lilith. Yet The Great Divorce does illustrate Lewis’s belief that many will forever “choose” to remain separated from God’s love—thus making an eternal hell inevitable.
Of MacDonald (and perhaps reflecting his own “hopeful” but not altogether optimistic view, Lewis writes: “I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself. Hence his Christ-like union of tenderness and severity. Nowhere else outside the New Testament have I found terror and comfort so intertwined…Inexorability—but never the inexorability of anything less than love—runs through it like a refrain: ‘escape is hopeless…compulsion waits…the uttermost farthing will be extracted.’…MacDonald shows God threatening…terrible things if we will not be happy…He hopes, indeed, that all men will be saved; but that is because he hopes that all will repent. He knows (none better) that even omnipotence cannot save the unconverted. He never trifles with eternal impossibilities.”
We climb at last to the mountain peak of our inquiry, to ask the question with which we began: Did George MacDonald believe, in the end, eternal aeons from now—through fire; through the purifying, chastening, refining, repentance-producing effects of God’s hell; through free will compelled but not coerced; through the eye-opening power of loving, chastening, redemptive punishment to see the hideous self fully for what it is—that all creation—every creature, every sinner, every man, every woman, every child, would be restored and reconciled in the repentant humility of obedient and joyful childness, to God, the Father of the universe?
Did he believe in universal reconciliation?
Though I am reluctant to do so for the sake of stumbling those whose personal journeys of faith have not yet grown accustomed to the spiritual mountain air of these high regions of scriptural inquiry, for the sake of those who have been reading MacDonald for years, I am compelled to answer yes. My reading of MacDonald is that ultimately (no matter how many aeons of purifying fire it takes), all created souls will ultimately (under the operation of infinite love and divine compulsion) avail themselves of the ceaseless wooing of Infinite Love. But I emphasize that this is an opinion…my interpretation of MacDonald’s position.
In making this assertion, I recognize that some will disagree—both with the doctrinal conclusion itself, and disagree with my assessment of MacDonald’s view. With so much written evidence before us, that MacDonald’s view remains so difficult to pin down is a remarkable reminder of what I said at the beginning, that he did not intend for his perspective to be defined and doctrinalized into a definitive position on either side of this controversial theological fence.
With respect to universal reconciliation itself, wide latitude and diversity of viewpoint and inter-pretation will surely continue. Even at this stage of my personal journey, do not know if I agree with MacDonald myself. I may agree, but I do not know of a certainty whether I agree. I have come to the point where I am convinced that I finally have a fairly clear idea where MacDonald stood. I am still not altogether certain where I stand myself. I continue to grow.
With MacDonald’s perspective as the foundation, we are now able to view the closing chapters of Revelation through the progressive lens of reconciliation: “The dead were judged…death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them…Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire…Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and…they will be his people…and God himself will…be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning.”
It is true that the preceding can be read from varying points of view. Some will point out that even afterward there are those “outside” the city of Life. But like the Old Testament prophecies, Revelation is a shadowy and incomplete vision of the future, and one which must be read as a progressive revelation with reconciliation as its ultimate message. In the end we will each read the final chapters of Revelation as confirming what we believe to be God’s eternal purpose, whether those outside will ultimately be brought in…or not.
I find MacDonald’s conclusion to the sermon “The Consuming Fire” as offering an intriguing window into his own heart concerning God’s potential ultimate redemption of all men. The window opens but momentarily. Yet as I read it, it reveals huge insight into MacDonald’s perspective.
After quoting, And Hell itself will pass away, MacDonald writes, “For then our poor brothers and sisters, every one, shall have been burnt clean and brought home.” This would seem to state it plainly and definitely: Every one…burnt clean…brought home.
Yet in the middle of the sentence, as an intensely personal aside, MacDonald cries out in prayerful plea, revealing his “hope,” as Lewis calls it, or perhaps the faint whisper of remaining question. He cries out (in my own amplification of his actual words)—We trust you, God, to bring them home…surely you will bring them home…you must bring them home!
The actual passage reads: Then indeed wilt thou be all in all. For then our poor brothers and sisters, every one—O God, we trust in thee, the Consuming Fire—shall have been burnt clean and brought home.
Then he adds the words that arise so frequently in his writings, probing the very heart of God: Shall a man be more merciful than God? Shall, of all his glories, his mercy alone not be infinite? Would he not die yet again to save one brother more?
I find this one of the most enduring, tantalizing, illuminating passages to flow from MacDonald’s pen, summarizing and climaxing this entire discussion in the single word trust.
When we recognize that these words were written almost thirty years before Lilith, almost at the beginning of MacDonald’s writing career, we observe that he too continued to grow in his outlook. Perhaps as I have expressed concerning myself, he harbored lingering uncertainties in the 1860s that had disappeared by the end of his life. We cannot know. But we do know that trust characterized the foundation of his perspective throughout all the years of his growth.
In that trust we can all rest. We do not know the answers to every scriptural puzzle nor every question about God and his eternal purposes. But we know that our God is our Father. He is a good Father, a loving Father, a forgiving Father.
And we may trust him.
MacDonald thus concludes: As for us, now we will come to thee, our Consuming Fire. And thou wilt not burn us more than we can bear. But thou wilt burn us. And although thou seem to slay us, yet will we trust in thee.
In the end we each have to read the tremendously varied words of George MacDonald, interpret them for ourselves, draw our own conclusions, and then be faithful to MacDonald’s legacy in our use of them.
Though the selections in Part 1, and these here, are numerous and lengthy, they but scratch the surface. They are by no means comprehensive. But they are hopefully sufficiently varied and extensive to provide you the means to prayerfully search these high matters through for yourselves.
In these days, when men are so gladly hearing afresh that “in Him is no darkness at all;” that God therefore could not have created any man if He knew that he must live in torture to all eternity; and that his hatred to evil cannot be expressed by injustice; itself the one essence of evil,—for certainly it would be nothing less than injustice to punish infinitely what was finitely committed, no sinner being capable of understanding the abstract enormity of what he does,—in these days has arisen another falsehood—less, yet very perilous: thousands of half-thinkers imagine that, since…hell is not everlasting, there is then no hell at all. To such folly I for one have never given enticement or shelter, I see no hope for many, no way for the divine love to reach them, save through a very ghastly hell. Men have got to repent; there is no other escape for them, and no escape from that.
(From George MacDonald’s Preface to Letters From Hell, by Valdemar Thisted)
George MacDonald Speaks on…
We are the sons of God the moment we lift up our hearts, seeking to be sons—the moment we begin to cry Father. But as the world must be redeemed in a few men to begin with, so the soul is redeemed in a few of its thoughts and wants and ways, to begin with. It takes a long time to finish the new creation of this redemption. Shall it have taken millions of years to bring the world up to the point where a few of its inhabitants shall desire God, and then shall the creature of this new birth be perfected in a day? The divine process may indeed now go on with tenfold rapidity, for the new factor of man’s fellow-working, for the sake of which the whole previous array of means and forces existed, is now developed. But its end is yet far below the horizon of man’s vision (Your Life In Christ, “Abba, Father,” edited)
Thus death may give a new opportunity—with some hope for the multitude counting themselves Christians… who stand well in their church… (Unspoken Sermons Second Series, “The Hardness of the Way”
We dare not say that this or that man would not have come to the light had he seen it. We do not know that he will not come to the light the moment he does see it.
God gives every man time. (The Truth in Jesus, “Light,” edited)
Who is our God? It is he who is ever uttering himself in the changeful profusions of nature. It is he who takes millions of years to form a soul that shall understand him and be blessed. It is he who never needs to be, and never is, in haste. It is he who welcomes the simplest thought of truth or beauty as the return for seed he has sown upon the old fallows of eternity. It is he who rejoices in the response of a faltering moment to the age-long cry of his wisdom in the streets. (The Truth in Jesus, “The Truth in Jesus,” edited)
There is no excuse for this refusal. If we were punished for every fault, there would be no end, no respite—we should have no quiet wherein to repent. But God passes by all he can. He passes by and forgets a thousand sins, yea, tens of thousands, forgiving them all—only we must begin to be good, begin to do evil no more.
He who refuses must be punished and punished—punished through all the ages—punished until he gives way, yields, and comes to the light, that his deeds may be seen by himself to be what they are, and be by himself reproved, and the Father at last have his child again. For the man who in this world resists to the full, there may be, perhaps, a whole age or era in the history of the universe during which his sin shall not be forgiven. But never can it be forgiven until he repents. How can they who will not repent be forgiven, except in the sense that God does and will do all he can to make them repent. Who knows but such sin may need for its cure the continuous punishment of an æon? (The Truth in Jesus, “Light,” edited)
Must we believe that Judas, who repented even to agony, who repented so that his high-prized life, self, soul, became worthless in his eyes and met with no mercy at his own hand,—must we believe that he could find no mercy in such a God? I think, when Judas fled from his hanged and fallen body, he fled to the tender help of Jesus, and found it—I say not how. He was in a more hopeful condition now than during any moment of his past life, for he had never repented before. (Unspoken Sermons, First Series, “It Shall Not Be Forgiven”)
If God sees that heart corroded with the rust of cares, riddled into caverns and films by the worms of ambition and greed, then your heart is as God sees it, for God sees things as they are. And one day you will be compelled to see, nay, to feel your heart as God sees it; and to know that the cankered thing which you have within you, a prey to the vilest of diseases, is indeed the centre of your being, your very heart. (Unspoken Sermons, First Series, “The Heart With the Treasure”)
A Christian who looks gloomy at the mention of death, still more, one who talks of his friends as if he had lost them, turns the bushel of his little-faith over the lamp of the Lord’s light. Death is but our visible horizon, and our look ought always to be focused beyond it. We should never talk as if death were the end of anything. (The Hope of the Gospel, “The Salt and the Light of the World”)
For this vision of truth God has been working for ages of ages. For this simple condition, this apex of life, upon which a man wonders like a child that he cannot make other men see as he sees, the whole labour of God’s science, history, and poetry has been evolving truth upon truth in lovely vision. From the time when the earth gathered itself into a lonely drop of fire from the red rim of the driving sun-wheel until now, the truth of inexorable love has been growing. And for this will the patience of God labour while there is yet a human soul whose eyes have not been opened, whose child-heart has not yet been born in him.
For this one condition of humanity, this simple beholding of love, has all the outthinking of God flowed in forms innumerable and changeful from the foundation of the world. And for this too has the divine destruction been going forth, that his life might be our life, that in us, too, might dwell that same consuming fire which is essential love. (Unspoken Sermons, First Series, “The Consuming Fire”, edited)
Arrange what claim lies against you; compulsion waits behind it. Do at once what you must do one day. As there is no escape from payment, escape at least the prison that will enforce it. Do not drive Justice to extremities. Duty is imperative; it must be done. It is useless to think to escape the eternal law of things; yield of yourself, nor compel God to compel you.
To the honest man, to the man who would fain be honest, the word is of right gracious import. To the untrue, it is a terrible threat; to him who is of the truth, it is sweet as most loving promise…what but the last farthing would those who love righteousness more than life pay? It is a joy profound as peace to know that God is determined upon such payment, is determined to have his children clean, clear, pure as very snow; is determined that not only shall they with his help make up for whatever wrong they have done, but at length be incapable, by eternal choice of good, under any temptation, of doing the thing that is not divine, the thing God would not do.
There has been much cherishing of the evil fancy…that there is some way of getting out of the region of strict justice, some mode of managing to escape doing all that is required of us; but there is no such escape. A way to avoid any demand of righteousness would be an infinitely worse way than the road to the everlasting fire, for its end would be eternal death. No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little of hell in it—no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Our Satan must go, every hair and feather! Neither shalt thou think to be delivered from the necessity of being good by being made good…There is no clothing in a robe of imputed righteousness, that poorest of legal cobwebs spun by spiritual spiders. To me it seems like an invention of well-meaning dulness to soothe insanity; and indeed it has proved a door of escape out of worse imaginations…Christ is our righteousness, not that we should escape punishment, still less escape being righteous, but as the live potent creator of righteousness in us, so that we, with our wills receiving his spirit, shall like him resist unto blood, striving against sin; shall know in ourselves, as he knows, what a lovely thing is righteousness, what a mean, ugly, unnatural thing is unrighteousness. He is our righteousness, and that righteousness is no fiction, no pretence, no imputation…
I read, then, in this parable, that a man had better make up his mind to be righteous, to be fair, to do what he can to pay what he owes, in any and all the relations of life…Arrange your matters with those who have anything against you, while you are yet together and things have not gone too far to be arranged; you will have to do it, and that under less easy circumstances than now. Putting off is of no use. You must. The thing has to be done; there are means of compelling you. (Unspoken Sermons, Second Series, “The Last Farthing)
Who shall set bounds to the consuming of the fire of our God, and the purifying that dwells therein?(Unspoken Sermons First Series, “It Shall Not Be Forgiven”)
Love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds…
Love strives for perfection, even that its own love may be perfected—not in itself, but in the object. As it was Love that first created humanity, so even human love, in proportion to God’s divine love, will go on creating the beautiful for its own outpouring. There is nothing eternal but that which loves and can be loved. Love is ever climbing towards the consummation when such shall encompass the entire universe, imperishable, divine.
Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of Love’s kind, must be destroyed.
And our God is a consuming fire. (Unspoken Sermons, First Series, “The Consuming Fire”, edited)
The nature of God is so terribly pure that it destroys all that is not pure as fire. His nature demands like purity in our worship. He will have purity.
It is not that the fire will burn us if we do not worship thus, but that the fire will burn us until we worship thus. Yea, it will go on burning within us after all that is foreign to it has yielded to its force, no longer with pain and consuming, but as the highest consciousness of life, the presence of God.
When evil, which alone is consumable, shall have passed away in his fire from the dwellers in the immovable kingdom, the nature of man shall look the nature of God in the face, and his fear shall then be pure. (Unspoken Sermons, First Series, “The Consuming Fire”, edited)
It was not often that Falconer went to church; but he seemed to have some design in going oftener than usual at present. The Sunday after the one last mentioned, he went…and calling for Hugh took him with him…
“I seldom go to church,” said Falconer; “but when I do, I come here: and always feel that I am in the presence of one of the holy servants of God’s great temple not made with hands. I heartily trust that man. He is what he seems to be.”
“They say he is awfully heterodox.”
“How then can he remain in the church, if he is as honest as you say?”
“In this way, as I humbly venture to think,” Falconer answered. “He looks upon the formulæ of the church as utterances of living truth…I had a vision of him this morning as I sat and listened to his voice, which always seems to me to come immediately from his heart…Shall I tell you my vision?–
“I saw a crowd-—priests and laymen-— speeding, hurrying, darting away, up a steep, crumbling height…Every one for himself, with hands and feet they scramble and flee, to save their souls from the fires of hell which come rolling in along the hollow below…But beneath, right in the course of the fire, stands one man upon a little rock which goes down to the centre of the great world, and faces the approaching flames. He stands bareheaded, his eyes bright with faith in God, and the mighty mouth that utters his truth, fixed in holy defiance. His denial comes from no fear, or weak dislike to that which is painful. On neither side will he tell lies for peace. He is ready to be lost for his fellow-men. In the name of God he rebukes the flames of hell. The fugitives pause on the top, look back, call him lying prophet, and shout evil opprobrious names at the man who counts not his own life dear to him, who has forgotten his own soul in his sacred devotion to men…Be sure that, come what may of the rest, let the flames of hell ebb or flow, that man is safe, for he is delivered already from the only devil that can make hell itself a torture, the devil of selfishness–the only one that can possess a man and make himself his own living hell. He is out of all that region of things, and already dwelling in the secret place of the Almighty.”
“Go on, go on.”
“He trusts in God so absolutely, that he leaves his salvation to him–utterly, fearlessly; and, forgetting it, as being no concern of his, sets himself to do the work that God has given him to do, even as his Lord did before him…Let God’s will be done, and all is well. If God’s will be done, he cannot fare ill. To him, God is all in all. If it be possible to separate such things, it is the glory of God, even more than the salvation of men, that he seeks. He will not have it that his Father in heaven is not perfect. He believes entirely that God loves, yea, is love; and, therefore, that hell itself must be subservient to that love, and but an embodiment of it; that the grand work of Justice is to make way for a Love which will give to every man that which is right and ten times more, even if it should be by means of awful suffering–a suffering which the Love of the Father will not shun, either for himself or his children, but will eagerly meet for their sakes, that he may give them all that is in his heart.”
“Surely you speak your own opinions in describing thus warmly the faith of the preacher.”
“I do. He is accountable for nothing I say…”
“How is it that so many good people call him heterodox?”
“I do not mind that… To these, theology must be like a map–with plenty of lines in it. They cannot trust their house on the high table-land of his theology, because they cannot see the outlines bounding the said table-land. It is not small enough for them. They cannot take it in. Such can hardly be satisfied with the creation, one would think, seeing there is no line of division anywhere in it…”
“Does God draw no lines, then?”
“When he does, they are pure lines, without breadth, and consequently invisible to mortal eyes; not…walls of separation, such as these definers would construct…
“But can those theories in religion be correct which are so hard to see?”
“They are only hard to certain natures.”
“But those natures are above the average. You have granted them heart.”
“Not much; but what there is, good.”
“That is allowing a great deal, though. Is it not hard then to say that such cannot understand him?”
“Why? They will get to heaven, which is all they want. And they will understand him one day, which is more than they pray for. Till they have done being anxious about their own salvation, we must forgive them that they can contemplate with calmness the damnation of a universe, and believe that God is yet more indifferent than they.”
“But do they not bring the charges likewise against you, of being unable to understand them?”
“Yes. And so it must remain, till the Spirit of God decide the matter, which I presume must take place by slow degrees…Till then, the Right must be content to be called the Wrong, and–which is far harder–to seem the Wrong. There is no spiritual victory gained by a verbal conquest.” (David Elginbrod, A Sunday With Falconer)
Although he loves them utterly, he does not tell them there is nothing in him to make them afraid. That would be to drive them from him for ever. While they are such as they are, there is much in him that cannot but affright them; they ought, they do well to fear him. It is, while they remain what they are, the only true relation between them. To remove that fear from their hearts, save by letting them know his love with its purifying fire, a love which for ages, it may be, they cannot know, would be to give them up utterly to the power of evil. (Unspoken Sermons Second Series, “The Fear of God”)
While men take part with their sins, while they feel as if, separated from their sins, they would be no longer themselves, how can they understand that the lightning word is a Saviour? How can they possibly understand a fire which pierces to the dividing between the man and the evil, which will slay the sin and give life to the sinner?
Can it be any comfort to them to be told that God loves them so that he will burn them clean? Can the cleansing of the fire appear to them anything beyond what it must always, more or less, be—a process of torture?
They do not want to be clean, and they cannot bear to be tortured. Can they then do other, or can we desire that they should do other, than fear God, even with the fear of the wicked, until they learn to love him with the love of the holy? To them Mount Sinai is crowned with the signs of vengeance.
And is not God ready to do unto them even as they fear, though with another feeling and a different end from any which they are capable of supposing? He is against sin. In so far as, and while, they and sin are one, he is against them—against their desires, their aims, their fears, and their hopes. Thus he is altogether and always for them…(Unspoken Sermons, First Series, “The Consuming Fire”, edited)
When we say that God is Love, do we teach men that their fear of him is groundless?
No. For as much as they fear will come upon them, possibly far more…The wrath of God will consume what they call themselves. Then the selves God made shall appear, coming out with tenfold consciousness of being…That which is immortal in God shall remain in man. The death that is in them shall be consumed.
It is the law of Nature—that is, the law of God—that all that is destructible shall be destroyed…The destructible must be burned out of it, or begin to be burned out of it, before it can partake of eternal life. When that is all burnt away and gone, then it has eternal life. Or rather, when the fire of eternal life has possessed a man, then the destructible is gone utterly, and he is pure.
Many a man’s work must be burned, that by that very burning he may be saved—so as by fire.
Away in smoke go the lordships, the Rabbihoods of the world. The man who acquiesces in the burning is saved by the fire—for it has destroyed the destructible…If still he cling to that which can be burned, the burning goes on deeper and deeper into his bosom, till it reaches the roots of the falsehood that enslaves him…
The man who loves God, and is not yet pure, courts the burning of God. Nor is it always torture. The fire shows itself sometimes only as light. Yet even then it will still be fire of purifying The consuming fire is just the original, the active form of Purity. It is that which makes pure, that which is indeed Love. It is nothing less than the creative energy of God. (The Consuming Fire, edited)
There are three conceivable kinds of punishment.
First, that of mere retribution, which I take to be entirely and only human. Therefore, indeed, it would more properly be called inhuman, for that which is not divine is not essential to humanity, and is of evil, and an intrusion upon the human.
Second, punishment which works repentance.
And finally, there is that punishment which refines and purifies, working for holiness. But the punishment that falls on those whom the Lord loves because they have repented, is a very different thing from the punishment that falls on those whom he loves indeed but cannot forgive because they hold fast by their sins. (The Truth in Jesus, “Light, edited)
He taught that hell itself is yet within
The confines of thy kingdom; and its fires
The endless conflict of thy love with sin,
That even by horror works its pure desires. (Poetical Works of George MacDonald, “Thanksgiving for F. D. Maurice”)
For now arose within him, not without ultimate good, the evil phantasms of a theology which would explain all God’s doings by low conceptions…In such a system, hell is invariably the deepest truth, and the love of God is not so deep as hell. Hence, as foundations must be laid in the deepest, the system is founded in hell, and the first article in the creed that Robert Falconer learned was, “I believe in hell.” Practically, I mean, it was so; else how should it be that as often as a thought of religious duty arose in his mind, it appeared in the form of escaping hell, of fleeing from the wrath to come? For his very nature was hell, being not born in sin and brought forth in iniquity, but born sin and brought forth iniquity. And yet God made him. He must believe that. And he must believe, too, that God was just, awfully just, punishing with fearful pains those who did not go through a certain process of mind which it was utterly impossible they should go through without a help which he would give to some, and withhold from others, the reason of the difference not being such, to say the least of it, as to come within the reach of the persons concerned. And this God they said was love. It was logically absurd, of course, yet, thank God, they did say that God was love; and many of them succeeded in believing it, too…
Robert consequently began to take fits of soul-saving, a most rational exercise, worldly wise and prudent—right too on the principles he had received, but not in the least Christian in its nature, or even God-fearing. His imagination began to busy itself in representing the dire consequences of not entering into the one refuge of faith. He made many frantic efforts to believe that he believed; took to keeping the Sabbath very carefully—that is, by going to church three times, and to Sunday-school as well; by never walking a step save to or from church; by never saying a word upon any subject unconnected with religion, chiefly theoretical; by never reading any but religious books; by never whistling; by never thinking of his lost fiddle, and so on—all the time feeling that God was ready to pounce upon him if he failed once; till again and again the intensity of his efforts utterly defeated their object by destroying for the time the desire to prosecute them with the power to will them. (Robert Falconer Ch. 12)
This is and has been the Father’s work from the beginning—to bring us into the home of his heart, where he shares the glories of life with the Living One, in whom was born life to light men back to the original life. This is our destiny. And however a man may refuse, he will find it hard to fight with God—useless to kick against the goads of his love. For the Father is goading him, or will goad him, if needful, into life by unrest and trouble. Hell-fire itself will have its turn if less will not do. (The Truth in Jesus, “The Truth in Jesus,” edited)
Nor will God force any door to enter in. He may send a tempest about the house; the wind of his admonishment may burst doors and windows, yea, shake the house to its foundations; but not then, not so, will he enter. The door must be opened by the willing hand, ere the foot of Love will cross the threshold. He watches to see the door move from within. Every tempest is but an assault in the siege of love. The terror of God is but the other side of his love; it is love outside the house, that would be inside. (Unspoken Sermons, Second Series, “The Cause of Spiritual Stupidity”)
No prayer for any revenge that would gratify the selfishness of our nature, a thing to be burned out of us by the fire of God, needs think to be heard…”Vengeance is mine,” he says: with a right understanding of it, we might as well pray for God’s vengeance as for his forgiveness; that vengeance is, to destroy the sin—to make the sinner abjure and hate it; nor is there any satisfaction in a vengeance that seeks or effects less. The man himself must turn against himself, and so be for himself. If nothing else will do, then hell-fire; if less will do, whatever brings repentance and self-repudiation, is God’s repayment. (Unspoken Sermons, Second Series, “Man’s Difficulty Concerning Prayer”)
It is true that Jesus came, in delivering us from our sins, to deliver us also from the painful consequences of those sins. But these consequences exist by one law of the universe, the true will of the perfect God. When that law is broken and disobeyed by the creature, suffering is inevitable. It is the natural consequence of an unnatural relation. And in the perfection of God’s creation, the result tends toward the cure of the cause. The pain works toward the healing of the breach.
The Lord never came to deliver men from the consequences of their sins while yet those sins remained. That would be to cast out of the window the medicine of cure while yet the man lay sick. It goes directly against the very laws of being. Yet men, loving their sins, and feeling nothing of their dread hatefulness, have, consistent with their low condition, constantly taken this word concerning the Lord to mean that he came to save them from the punishment of their sins.
This idea—which I would rather call a miserable fancy—has terribly corrupted the preaching of the gospel. The message of the good news has not been truly delivered. Unable to believe in the forgiveness of their Father in heaven, imagining him not at liberty to forgive, or incapable of forgiving freely, not really believing him God our Saviour but rather a God bound, either in his own nature or by a law above him and compulsory upon him, to exact some recompense or satisfaction for sin, a multitude of teaching men have taught their fellows that Jesus came to bear our punishment and save us from hell. They have represented a result as the object of his mission. And this result is one that would not even be desired by true men unless it produced fulfillment of the Lord’s higher objective.
The mission of Jesus came from the same source and had the same objective as the punishment of our sins. He came to work along with our punishment. He came to side with it, and thus set us free from our sins.
No man is safe from hell until he is free from his sins. But a man to whom the evil in him is a burden, while he may indeed sometimes feel as if he were in hell, will soon forget that ever he had any other hell to think of than that of his sinful condition. To him his sins are hell enough. He would gladly go to the other hell to be free of them. Free of them, hell itself would be endurable.
For hell is God’s and not the devil’s. Hell is on the side of God and man, to free the child of God from the corruption of death. Not one soul will ever be redeemed from hell but by being saved from his sins, from the evil in him. If hell be needful to save him, hell will blaze, and the worm will writhe and bite, until he takes refuge in the will of the Father. “Salvation from hell” is salvation as conceived by such to whom hell and not evil is the terror. But if even for dread of hell a poor soul seek the Father, he will be heard by him in his terror, and taught by him to seek the immeasurably greater gift. And thus in the greater will he also receive the less. (The Hope of the Gospel, “Salvation From Sin”, edited)
The…supremely terrible revelation is that of a man to himself. What a horror will it not be to a vile man…that knew himself such as men of ordinary morals would turn from with disgust, but who has hitherto had no insight into what he is—what a horror will it not be to him when his eyes are opened to see himself as the pure see him, as God sees him! Imagine such a man waking all at once, not only to see the eyes of the universe fixed upon him with loathing astonishment, but to see himself at the same moment as those eyes see him! What a waking!—into the full blaze of fact and consciousness, of truth and violation!…
Or think what it must be for a man counting himself religious…to perceive suddenly that there was no religion in him, only love of self…What a discovery—that he was simply a hypocrite. (Unspoken Sermons Third Series, “The Final Unmasking”)
I believe that justice and mercy are simply one and the same thing; without justice to the full there can be no mercy, and without mercy to the full there can be no justice; that such is the mercy of God that he will hold his children in the consuming fire of his distance until they pay the uttermost farthing, until they drop the purse of selfishness with all the dross that is in it, and rush home to the Father and the Son, and the many brethren—rush inside the centre of the life-giving fire whose outer circles burn. I believe that no hell will be lacking which would help the just mercy of God to redeem his children. (Unspoken Sermons, vol. 3, “Justice”)
A man may sink by such slow degrees that, long after he is a devil, he may go on being a good churchman…and thinking himself a good Christian. Continuously repeated sin against the poorest consciousness of evil must have a dread rousing. There are men who never wake to know how wicked they are, till, lo, the gaze of the multitude is upon them! (Unspoken Sermons Third Series, “The Final Unmasking”)
Justice then requires that sin should be put an end to; and not that only, but that it should be atoned for; and where punishment can do anything to this end, where it can help the sinner to know what he has been guilty of, where it can soften his heart to see his pride and wrong and cruelty, justice requires that punishment shall not be spared. And the more we believe in God, the surer we shall be that he will spare nothing that suffering can do to deliver his child from death. If suffering cannot serve this end, we need look for no more hell, but for the destruction of sin by the destruction of the sinner. That, however, would, it appears to me, be for God to suffer defeat…for he has created that which sinned, and which would not repent and make up for its sin. But those who believe that God will thus be defeated by many souls, must surely be of those who do not believe he cares enough to do his very best for them. He is their Father; he had power to make them out of himself, separate from himself, and capable of being one with him: surely he will somehow save and keep them! Not the power of sin itself can close all the channels between creating and created. (Unspoken Sermons Third Series, “Justice”)
While it is at root caused by sin, suffering acts for the benefit of the sinner, helping toward his deliverance from his sin.
Jesus is in himself aware of every human pain. He feels it also. In him too it is pain. With the energy of tenderest love he wills his brothers and sisters free, that he may fill them to overflowing with essential joy. For that they were indeed created… (The Hope of the Gospel, “Salvation From Sin”, edited)
We have a good while given us to pay, but a crisis will come…sooner than those expect it who are not ready for it—a crisis when the demand unyielded will be followed by prison.
The same holds with every demand of God: by refusing to pay, the man makes an adversary who will compel him—and that for the man’s own sake…There is a prison, and the one thing we know about that prison is, that its doors do not open until entire satisfaction is rendered, the last farthing paid.
The main debts whose payment God demands are those which lie at the root of all right, those we owe in mind, and soul, and being. Whatever in us can be or make an adversary, whatever could prevent us from doing the will of God, or from agreeing with our fellow—all must be yielded. Our every relation, both to God and our fellow, must be acknowledged heartily, met as a reality. Smaller debts, if any debt can be small, follow as a matter of course.
If the man acknowledge, and…accepts the will of God, he is the child of the Father, the whole power and wealth of the Father is for him, and the uttermost farthing will easily be paid. If the man denies the debt, or acknowledging does nothing towards paying it, then—at last—the prison! God in the dark can make a man thirst for the light, who never in the light sought but the dark. The cells of the prison may differ in degree of darkness; but they are all alike in this, that not a door opens but to payment…
I think I have seen from afar something of the final prison of all, the innermost cell of the debtor of the universe; I will endeavour to convey what I think it may be.
It is the vast outside; the ghastly dark beyond the gates of the city of which God is the light…The time of signs is over. Every sense has its signs, and they were all misused: there is no sense, no sign more—nothing now by means of which to believe. The man wakes from the final struggle of death, in absolute loneliness— such a loneliness as in the most miserable moment of deserted childhood he never knew. Not a hint, not a shadow of anything outside his consciousness reaches him. All is dark …In the midst of the live world he cared for nothing but himself; now in the dead world he is in God’s prison, his own separated self…
Misery will beget on imagination a thousand shapes of woe, which he will not be able to rule…a whole world of miserable contradictions and cold-fever-dreams.
But no liveliest human imagination could supply adequate representation of what it would be to be left without a shadow of the presence of God….
The most frightful idea of what could, to his own consciousness, befall a man, is that he should have to lead an existence with which God had nothing to do…I believe the man would be glad to come in contact with the worst-loathed insect: it would be a shape of life, something beyond and besides his own huge, void, formless being…His worst enemy, could he but be aware of him, he would be ready to worship. For the misery would be not merely the absence of all being other than his own self, but the fearful, endless, unavoidable presence of that self…It is the lovely creatures God has made all around us, in them giving us himself, that, until we know him, save us from the frenzy of aloneness—for that aloneness is Self, Self, Self…
So might I imagine a thousand steps up from the darkness, each a little less dark, a little nearer the light…Repentance once begun, however, may grow more and more rapid! If God once get a willing hold, if with but one finger he touch the man’s self, swift as possibility will he draw him from the darkness into the light…Out of the abyss into which he cast himself, refusing to be the heir of God, he must rise and be raised. To the heart of God, the one and only goal of the human race—the refuge and home of all and each, he must set out and go…There is no half-way house of rest, where ungodliness may be dallied with, nor prove quite fatal. Be they few or many cast into such prison as I have endeavoured to imagine, there can be no deliverance for human soul, whether in that prison or out of it, but in paying the last farthing, in becoming lowly, penitent, self-refusing—so receiving the sonship, and learning to cry, Father! (Unspoken Sermons Series Two, “The Last Farthing”)
The man whose deeds are evil, fears the burning. But the burning will not come the less that he fears it or denies it. Escape is hopeless. For Love is inexorable. Our God is a consuming fire. He shall not come out till he has paid the uttermost farthing.
If a man or woman resists the burning of God, the consuming fire of Love, a terrible doom awaits him, and its day will come. He who hates the fire of God shall be cast into the outer darkness. What sick dismay shall then seize upon him…When the man feels himself abandoned, hanging in a ceaseless vertigo of existence upon the verge of the gulf of his being…then at last will he listen in agony for the faintest sound of life from the closed door. If the moan of suffering humanity ever reaches the ear of the outcast of darkness, then he will be ready to rush into the very heart of the Consuming Fire to know life once more, to change this terror of sick negation, of unspeakable death, for that region of painful hope.
Imagination cannot mislead us into too much horror of being without God—that one living death…
But with this divine difference: that the outer darkness is but the most dreadful form of the consuming fire—the fire without light—the darkness visible, the black flame. God hath withdrawn himself, but not lost his hold. His face is turned away, but his hand is laid upon him still. His heart has ceased to beat into the man’s heart, but he keeps him alive by his fire. And that fire will go searching and burning on in him, as in the highest saint who is not yet pure as he is pure. (The Consuming Fire, edited)
Therefore, while a satisfied justice is an unavoidable eternal event, a satisfied revenge is an eternal impossibility. For the moment that the sole adequate punishment, a vision of himself, begins to take true effect upon the sinner, that moment the sinner has begun to grow a righteous man…Behold the meeting of the divine extremes—the extreme of punishment, the embrace of heaven! They run together; “the wheel is come full circle.” For, I venture to think, there can be no such agony for created soul, as to see itself vile—vile by its own action and choice. Also I venture to think there can be no delight for created soul—short, that is, of being one with the Father—so deep as that of seeing the heaven of forgiveness open, and disclose the shining stair that leads to its own natural home, where the eternal father has been all the time awaiting this return of his child. (Unspoken Sermons Third Series, “The Final Unmasking”)
God’s Ultimate Victory
At last…Lilith’s hour has been long on the way, but it is come! Everything comes. Thousands of years have I waited—and not in vain…This woman would not yield to gentler measures; harder must have their turn. I must do what I can to make her repent…
“Will you hurt her very much?”…
“Yes; I am afraid I must; I fear she will make me…It would be cruel to hurt her too little. It would have all to be done again, only worse…She loves no one, therefore she cannot be with any one. There is One who will be with her, but she will not be with Him…
“Will you turn away from the wicked things you have been doing so long?’ …
“I will not,” she said. “I will be myself and not another!”
“Alas, you are another now, not yourself! Will you not be your real self?’”…
“I will do as my Self pleases—as my Self desires.’”…
“Then, alas, your hour is come!”
“I care not. I am what I am…Another shall not make me!”
“But another has made you, and can compel you to see what you have made yourself. You will not be able much longer to look to yourself anything but what he sees you…”
“No one ever made me. I defy that Power to unmake me from a free woman! …You may be able to torture me…but you shall not compel me to anything against my will!”
“Such a compulsion would be without value. But there is a light that goes deeper than the will, a light that lights up the darkness behind it: that light can change your will, can make it truly yours and not another’s… Into the created can pour itself the creating will, and so redeem it!…—See your own self!”…
A soundless presence as of roaring flame possessed the house…I turned to the hearth: its fire was a still small moveless glow. But I saw [a] worm-thing come creeping out, white-hot, vivid as incandescent silver, the live heart of essential fire. Along the floor it crawled…going very slow…The shining thing crawled on to a bare bony foot…Slowly, very slowly, it crept along her robe until it reached her bosom, where it disappeared among the folds.
The face…lay stonily calm, the eyelids closed as over dead eyes; and for some minutes nothing followed. At length, on the dry, parchment-like skin, began to appear drops as of the finest dew: in a moment they were as large as seed-pearls, ran together, and began to pour down in streams…from the poor withered bosom…But…no serpent was there—no searing trail; the creature had passed in…and was piercing through the joints and marrow to the thoughts and intents of the heart. [She] gave one writhing, contorted shudder, and I knew the worm was in her secret chamber…
[She] bent her body upward in an arch, then sprang to the floor, and stood erect. The horror in her face made me tremble lest her eyes should open, and the sight of them overwhelm me. Her bosom heaved and sank, but no breath issued. Her hair hung and dripped…and poured the sweat of her torture on the floor…
“She is far away from us, afar in the hell of her self-consciousness. The central fire of the universe is radiating into her the knowledge of good and evil, the knowledge of what she is. She sees at last the good she is not, the evil she is. She knows that she is herself the fire in which she is burning, but she does not know that the Light of Life is the heart of that fire. Her torment is that she is what she is…No gentler way to help her was left. Wait and watch.”
It may have been five minutes or five years that she stood thus—I cannot tell; but at last she flung herself on her face…
“Will you change your way?”
“Why did he make me such?” gasped Lilith…
“But he did not make you such. You have made yourself what you are.—Be of better cheer: he can remake you.’
“I will not be remade!”
“He will not change you; he will only restore you to what you were…Are you not willing to have that set right which you have set wrong?”
She lay silent…
The strife of thought, accusing and excusing, began afresh, and gathered fierceness. The soul of Lilith lay naked to the torture of pure interpenetrating inward light. She began to moan, and sigh deep sighs…
“Those, alas, are not the tears of repentance…The true tears gather in the eyes. Those are far more bitter, and not so good. Self-loathing is not sorrow. Yet it is good, for it marks a step in the way home, and in the father’s arms the prodigal forgets the self he abominates. Once with his father, he is to himself of no more account. It will be so with her.”…
Gradually my soul grew aware of an invisible darkness, a something more terrible than aught that had yet made itself felt. A horrible Nothingness, a Negation positive infolded her…
With that there fell upon her, and upon us also who watched with her, the perfect calm as of a summer night. Suffering had all but reached the brim of her life’s cup…—What was she seeing?
I looked, and saw: before her, cast from unseen heavenly mirror, stood the reflection of herself, and beside it a form of splendent beauty. She trembled, and sank again on the floor helpless. She knew the one what God had intended her to be, the other what she had made herself…
She rose…and said, in prideful humility,
“You have conquered. Let me go into the wilderness…”
“Begin, then, and set right in the place of wrong.”
“I know not how,” she replied with the look of one who foresaw and feared the answer…
A fierce refusal seemed to struggle for passage, but she kept it prisoned.
“I cannot,” she said…
“I have told you I cannot!”
“You can if you will—not indeed at once, but by persistent effort. What you have done, you do not yet wish undone…”
“I will not try what I know impossible. It would be the part of a fool!”
“Which you have been playing all your life! Oh, you are hard to teach!”
Defiance reappeared on [her] face…
“I know what you have been tormenting me for! You have not succeeded, nor shall you succeed! You shall yet find me stronger than you think! I will yet be mistress of myself! I am still what I have always known myself—queen of Hell, and mistress of the worlds!”
Then came the most fearful thing of all…I knew only that if it came near me I should die of terror! I now know that it was Life in Death—life dead, yet existent…
She stood rigid…I gazed on the face of one who knew existence but not love—knew nor life, nor joy, nor good; with my eyes I saw the face of a live death! She knew life only to know that it was dead, and that, in her, death lived…She had killed her life, and was dead—and knew it… Her bodily eyes stood wide open, as if gazing into the heart of horror essential—her own indestructible evil…
“I yield,” [she] said… “I am defeated…”
“I will take you to my father. You have wronged him worst of the created, therefore he best of the created can help you.”
“How can he help me?”
“He will forgive you.”
“Ah, if he would but help me to cease…I am a slave! I acknowledge it. Let me die.’
“A slave thou art that shall one day be a child…Verily, thou shalt die, but not as thou thinkest. Thou shalt die out of death into life…”
Lilith lay and wept…
Morn, with the Spring in her arms, waited outside. Softly they stole in at the opened door, with a gentle wind in the skirts of their garments. It flowed and flowed about Lilith, rippling the unknown, upwaking sea of her life eternal…She answered the morning wind with reviving breath, and began to listen. For in the skirts of the wind had come the rain—the soft rain that heals the mown, the many-wounded grass—soothing it with the sweetness of all music, the hush that lives between music and silence. It bedewed the desert places…and the sands of Lilith’s heart heard it, and drank it in…
When we reached the door, Adam welcomed us…
“We have long waited for thee, Lilith!” he said.
She returned him no answer….
“She consents to…restore: will not the great Father restore her to inheritance with His other children?”
“I do not know Him!” murmured Lilith, in a voice of fear and doubt.
“Therefore it is that thou art miserable,” said Adam…“Come and see the place where thou shalt lie in peace….And now Death shall be the atonemaker; you shall sleep…”
“I shall dream…?”
“You will dream.”
“That I cannot tell, but none he can enter into. When the Shadow comes here, it will be to lie down and sleep also.—His hour will come, and he knows it will.”
“How long shall I sleep?”
“You and he will be the last to wake in the morning of the universe.”…
I grew aware of existence, aware also of the profound, the infinite cold. I was intensely blessed—more blessed, I know, than my heart, imagining, can now recall. I could not think of warmth with the least suggestion of pleasure…
How convey the delight of that frozen, yet conscious sleep!…
Then the dreams began to arrive—and came crowding.—I lay naked on a snowy peak. The white mist heaved below me like a billowy sea. The cold moon was in the air with me, and above the moon and me the colder sky, in which the moon and I dwelt. I was Adam, waiting for God to breathe into my nostrils the breath of life.—I was not Adam, but a child in the bosom of a mother white with a radiant whiteness. I was a youth on a white horse, leaping from cloud to cloud of a blue heaven, hasting calmly to some blessed goal. For centuries I dreamed…time had nothing to do with me; I was in the land of thought—farther in, higher up than the seven dimensions, the ten senses: I think I was where I am—in the heart of God….the wind and the water and the moon sang a peaceful waiting for a redemption drawing nigh…the solemn, æonian march of a second, pregnant with eternity.
Then, of a sudden, but not once troubling my conscious bliss, all the wrongs I had ever done, from far beyond my earthly memory down to the present moment, were with me. Fully in every wrong lived the conscious I, confessing, abjuring, lamenting the dead, making atonement with each person I had injured, hurt, or offended. Every human soul to which I had caused a troubled thought, was now grown unspeakably dear to me, and I humbled myself before it, agonising to cast from between us the clinging offence. I wept at the feet of the mother whose commands I had slighted; with bitter shame I confessed to my father that I had told him two lies, and long forgotten them: now for long had remembered them, and kept them in memory to crush at last at his feet. I was the eager slave of all whom I had thus or anyhow wronged. Countless services I devised to render them!…Love possessed me! Love was my life! Love was to me, as to him that made me, all in all! …
Now I knew that life and truth were one; that life mere and pure is in itself bliss; that where being is not bliss, it is not life, but life-in-death. Every inspiration of the dark wind that blew where it listed, went out a sigh of thanksgiving. At last I was! I lived, and nothing could touch my life…we were on our way home to the Father!…
It was a glorious resurrection-morning. The night had been spent in preparing it! (Lilith, chapters 38-45)
Oh, the sweet winds of repentance and reconciliation and atonement, that will blow from garden to garden of God, in the tender twilights of his kingdom! Whatever the place be like, one thing is certain, that there will be endless, infinite atonement, ever-growing love…The light which is God, and which is our inheritance because we are the children of God, insures these things…God is; let the earth be glad, and the heaven, and the heaven of heavens! Whatever a father can do to make his children blessed, that will God do for his children. Let us, then, live in continual expectation, looking for the good things that God will give to men, being their father and their everlasting saviour. If the things I have here come from him, and are so plainly but a beginning, shall I not take them as an earnest of the better to follow?…God is, and all is well. (Unspoken Sermons Third Series, “The Inheritance”)
“He [Wingfold] was a servant of the church universal, of all that believed or ever would believe in the Lord Christ, therefore of all men, of the whole universe….”(There and Back, Ch. 31)
The whole history is a divine agony to give divine life to creatures. The outcome of that agony, the victory of that creative and again creative energy, will be radiant life, whereof joy unspeakable is the flower. Every child will look in the eyes of the Father, and the eyes of the Father will receive the child with an infinite embrace. (Unspoken Sermons, Second Series, “Life”)
But at length, O God, wilt thou not cast Death and Hell into the lake of fire—even into thine own consuming self? Death shall then die everlastingly,
And Hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.
Then indeed wilt thou be all in all. For then our poor brothers and sisters, every one—O God, we trust in thee, the Consuming Fire—shall have been burnt clean and brought home.
For if their moans, myriads of ages away, would turn heaven for hell for us…shall a man be more merciful than God?
Shall, of all his glories, his mercy alone not be infinite? Shall a brother love a brother more than The Father loves a son?—more than The Brother Christ loves his brother? Would he not die yet again to save one brother more?
As for us, now will we come to thee, our Consuming Fire. And thou wilt not burn us more than we can bear. But thou wilt burn us. And although thou seem to slay us, yet will we trust in thee. (The Consuming Fire, edited)
As the greatest orbs in heaven are drawn by the least, God himself must be held in divine disquiet until every one of his family be brought home to his heart. There they will become one with him in a unity too absolute, profound, far-reaching, fine, and intense, to be understood by any but the God from whom such unity comes. Such a high reconciliation is to be guessed at, however, by the soul from the unspeakableness of its delight…
For God is the heritage of the soul in the ownness of origin. Man is the offspring of his making will, of his life. God himself is his birthplace. God is the self that makes the soul able to say. I too, I myself. This absolute unspeakable bliss of the creature is that for which the Son died, for which the Father suffered with him. Then only is life itself. Then only is it right, is it one. Then only is it as designed and necessitated by the eternal life-outgiving Life. (The Truth in Jesus, “The Truth in Jesus,” edited)