Consuming or Everlasting Fire?

Greetings, Michael! I am beginning a journey to discover the truth of what I’ll call for now, MacDonald’s “Consuming Fire” as opposed to what I’ll call for now, “Everlasting fire,” or more simply, “Is what MacDonald says about God true?” (This of course is much wrapped up with the “hell” question.) I first need to know what MacDonald says about God (I think I know, but I bet I have much to learn.)

So my question is: what book of his should I read first? Thank you so much for your thoughtful response.

Michael: What a wonderful question! I could just answer you by recommending a book or two, and leave it at that. But your question is so important that you deserve more. I hope I can give you sort of a roadmap that will serve you well as you continue your quest. I will recommend several books. MacDonald doesn’t really address the issue of hell directly and succinctly in a single book—his perspectives are scattered and embedded throughout his writings, both fiction and non-fiction. So there isn’t really a single title of his that precisely serves the purpose. That is one of the reasons I have devoted much of my own writing life to compiling and editing and producing new editions and compilations and anthologies of MacDonald’s work—to help people assimilate and sift and sort through his far-reaching ideas. So actually the most helpful books will be some of my own publications. I’ll explain more in a minute.

First let me take the liberty of giving you a word of encouragement born out of my own experience. This is an exciting journey you are embarking on. Be in no hurry to resolve everything in your mind. It takes time to get used to these new ideas. It took me years and years to be comfortable enough even to admit to myself what I was actually thinking! But it’s a wonderful journey that you will look back on and treasure. So treasure it now…treasure the process…the ups and downs and questions and side roads. Things will come clear…just read, and pray, and think, and enjoy the learning curve.

Along with that, depending on what kind of church or fellowship you are in—if any—I would recommend being circumspect about your quest and the kinds of questions you are talking to God about. Most Christians won’t understand. Many may condemn you for even asking if God might be bigger than we have imagined. Misunderstandings go with the territory when you embark on this road. At least if you are involved in any sort of “traditional” Christianity as I was. It is a solitary and inward journey. Some people like to talk about everything they are experiencing. I happen to think that this is a spiritual quest that is best NOT talked about overmuch. Most of the discussion with those of a more traditional mindset will accomplish nothing but cause division, dispute, and argumentation. I have been involved with MacDonald’s writings and MacDonald studies for forty years and have written several books about hell and the afterlife and universal reconciliation. Yet most of my closest friends have no idea. They don’t know about my books, and I don’t share these ideas with them. I value the relationships too much to bring controversial things into them. It is my own private quest, with MacDonald and other authors and with those few people of like mind with whom I do share. Not everyone agrees with this stance. Some feel compelled to broadcast their views from the housetops and try to convince and persuade others to their point of view. I happen to think that is the wrong approach. I write about it for hungry hearts. But in my personal relationships with people, I never bring it up.

So…with that said…what are some books I would point you toward?

You first asked about what MacDonald says about God himself? In a sense, all his writings amplify his view of the loving, embracing, forgiving Fatherhood of God. But the first two anthologies I produced of MacDonald’s writings were designed to answer exactly that question: What does MacDonald believe God is like? I would start with them. Taken together, these two books provide a fairly thorough and complete package of MacDonald’s spiritual outlook, drawing on his non-fiction writings and also selections from his novels and poetry. They are:

Discovering the Character of God
Knowing the Heart of God

The quotes in both books are arranged topically. So you can pick and choose as you go through them what subjects and topics about MacDonald’s view of God you want to read about. Just to give you an idea, a few of the chapter titles in Discovering include: God the Source of Life, God Our Tender Loving Father, Our Trustworthy God, God the Father of His Children, Our God is a Consuming Fire, God the Merciful and Just, God Our Forgiving Father, God the Destroyer of Sin, etc.

On the subject of hell and the afterlife specifically, I have done several books. The first is a compilation of quotes from many authors, including MacDonald and C.S. Lewis and others. It is simply called:

Universal Reconciliation, A Brief Selection of Pertinent Quotations

In my introduction to this book, I talked about the “personal quest” we are all on, and the importance, in my opinion as I said earlier, to keep that quest largely private. Many people over the years have found this book of great help simply because it presents the views of many, many people, ancient church fathers right up to the present day. It also includes an extensive list of scriptures (on both sides of the hell debate). My hope in compiling this book was not to try to convince readers to any particular point of view, but to provide a resource that people could use in their own research.

The most thorough treatment of the afterlife is found in my book:

George MacDonald and the Late Great Hell Debate

This is THE study on George MacDonald and hell, with several complete sermons by MacDonald, and my own analysis of his writings on this important topic. It is a long and thorough study of MacDonald’s perspective of hell. It may be more than you bargained for…or it may be exactly what you are looking for. It includes eight full sermons of MacDonald’s (including probably the two most pivotal on this particular topic, “The Consuming Fire” and “Justice”) as well as a selection from MacDonald’s Lilith and my own Hell and Beyond. I have synthesized MacDonald’s ideas into what I hope is a logical and understandable progression. Perhaps the most useful portion of this book for one like yourself who might be somewhat new to the ideas of MacDonald and how they pertain to the afterlife are the chapters which trace some of my own personal struggles of growth during the last forty years. It is always helpful to know that someone else has been down the same road. Some of these chapters are entitled: “God’s Signature Tune: The Eternal Symphony of Eternity,” “Laying Claim to a Perfect Fatherhood.” “The Dreaded Boogieman Called Universalism,” and “Silence is Golden.”

If you would like to start with a lighter treatment, I have written several fantasy and fiction titles that all deal with the afterlife. They are my own writings, not MacDonald’s (though MacDonald is one of the main characters in Hell and Beyond), yet they represent perspectives I have gleaned from MacDonald and I think I can safely say that these books dovetail with MacDonald’s writings. Three I think you might enjoy are:

Hell and Beyond
Heaven and Beyond
The Cappuccino Club

I have also published two volumes of edited George MacDonald sermons. Because these were done through an evangelical publisher, I did not emphasize hell and the afterlife in the selections I chose. But the sermons in these two volumes give a well-rounded picture of MacDonald’s overall perspective of God and the Christian faith. And I should say that MacDonald’s contribution to practical Christian living, the Fatherhood of God, and the imperative of obedience, FAR outweigh his emphasis on and insights into any speculative theological question, such as, you say, “the hell question.” These things are fascinating, but we must always subserve them to the deepest cry of MacDonald’s heart—obedience. If you are new to MacDonald’s sermons, his original writings tend to be pretty dense and can be difficult at first. These volumes of mine are a great introduction (along with Discovering and Knowing) to MacDonald’s non-fiction writings. I compiled them to offer a more easily read and assimilated doorway into the world of MacDonald’s sermons. These two volumes of edited sermons are:

Your Life in Christ
The Truth in Jesus

Delving a little deeper, a new devotional compilation of MacDonald’s sermons offers a wonderful introduction to the entire range of sermons in single page devotional selections—highlighting the most powerful truths in each. This is not one of my publications (though I wrote a Foreword to it), but is a great way to immerse yourself in the entire corpus of MacDonald’s sermons—when you feel the time for such “immersion” has come—in small enough chunks that they are easily grasped and understood. It is a significant new contribution to the ever-expanding availability of MacDonald’s writings. The title is drawn from the one of MacDonald’s sermons to which you alluded in your question. The book is called:

Consuming Fire, The Inexorable Power of God’s Love.

Beyond these books I’ve recommended, MacDonald’s novels are fantastic too. I don’t know if you have read any of his fiction, but his perspectives come through so wonderfully in his stories and characters. Some of my favorites are Sir Gibbie (edited version The Baronet’s Song), Malcolm and The Marquis of Lossie (edited versions The Fisherman’s Lady and The Marquis’ Secret), and Robert Falconer (edited version The Musician’s Quest.) If you are new to MacDonald’s novels, start with some of the edited stories (I produced eighteen edited novels in all—most easily available on Amazon, only about half are still available on our website), and then if you are so inclined you can move on to the full-length originals. Some readers prefer to read MacDonald in the original, others prefer edited editions. The heart and spirit of MacDonald comes through equally in both.

All these books I’ve mentioned are available through Amazon, sometimes used copies are very inexpensive, and all but Consuming Fire and a few of the edited novels on our website, in “The Bookstore” in either “The George MacDonald Alcove” or “The Michael Phillips Aisle.” Many of the originals are available from WisePathBooks. There are also many other books by and about MacDonald listed there that I have not mentioned, as well as the complete availability of my own writings.

I’ve given you much to think about…and more than “a book” as you asked for. I hope it’s not too overwhelming. If you were going to begin with a couple titles, I would start with Discovering the Character of God, Universal Reconciliation, and maybe add The Cappuccino Club or Hell and Beyond for a lighter read. After that, you could explore some of MacDonald’s sermons or other writings, and eventually, depending on how deep into this you want to go, George MacDonald and the Late Great Hell Debate.

If you have more questions, I would be happy to try to answer them. It may be that you would like me to address specific ideas or quandaries…or you may be content for now to read and explore on your own. I will leave it in your hands.

Enjoy the quest!