Nothing but the obedience of the Son, the obedience unto death, the absolute doing of the will of God because it was the truth, could redeem the prisoner, the widow, the orphan. But it would redeem them by redeeming also the conquest-ridden ruler, the stripe-giving jailer, the unjust judge. The earth should be free because Love was stronger than Death. He would not pluck the spreading branches of the tree; he would lay the axe to its root. It would take time, but the tree would be dead at last. It would take time, but his Father had time enough. It would take courage and strength and self-denial and endurance, but his Father could give him all. It would cost pain of body and mind, yea, agony and torture; but those he was ready to take on himself. It would cost him the vision of many sad and, to all but him, hopeless sights: he must see tears without wiping them, hear sighs without changing them into laughter, see the dead lie, and let them lie, see Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted; he must go to his grave and they not know that thus he was setting all things right for them. His work must be one with and completing God’s Creation and God’s history. The disappointment and sorrow and fear he could, he would bear. The will of God should be done. Man should be free, not merely as man thinks of himself, but as God thinks of him. Man shall grow into the likeness of the divine thought, free not in his own fancy, but in absolute divine fact of being. The great and beautiful and perfect will of God must be done.
George MacDonald, Universal Reconciliation, and Free Will: A Few Brief Thoughts
by Jess Lederman
George MacDonald never called himself a "universalist," nor promulgated a dogma of universal reconciliation. But he believed that (as Scripture tells us) it was God's will that none be lost, and all saved, and that "[t]he great and beautiful and perfect will of God must be done." One of the arguments against universal reconciliation is that it requires God to involve the override man's free will, to compel them to turn to Him. A notable difference between C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald, for example, is reflected in Lewis' book The Great Divorce (notwithstanding that Lewis features MacDonald himself as his Tour Guide to Heaven!), where people are depicted as choosing damnation; the gates of hell are locked from the inside.
A contemporary theologian much influenced by Lewis is Denny Walls, whose point of view on this topic was highlighted here in Four Views on Hell, Part IV. The fundamental question, Walls affirms, is our understanding of God. “Do we really believe that God truly and deeply loves all person and desires the salvation of all?” If so, then “what damns a person is a decisive choice of evil…[which] depends on what I have called ‘optimal grace.’” This is the idea that “God will do everything he can, short of overriding our freedom to communicate the gospel to us and elicit a positive response from each of us.” If an individual has rejected the gift of optimal grace, “that constitutes the decisive choice of evil that leads to eternal damnation.”
But would people ever freely choose not to be reconciled to God? MacDonald could not believe it, as perhaps best illustrated in his Unspoken Sermon, The Last Farthing (see the May 19th to 27th entries in Consuming Fire). When God finally separates entirely from a man, and casts him into the Outer Darkness, the resulting misery is impossible to bear. In his classic book The Inescapable Love of God, philosopher Thomas Talbott argues that for man to not, in the end, choose to be reconciled to God is a logical impossibility, given Walls' compelling notion of 'optimal grace:'
"If MacDonald was right about this, as I believe he was, then God knows from the outset that, beyond a certain limit, libertarian freedom cannot survive further separation from the divine nature. Accordingly, no matter how tenaciously some sinners might pursue a life apart from God and resist his living purpose for their lives, God has, as a sort of last resort, a sure-fire way of shattering the illusions that make their rebellion possible in the first place. To do so, he need only honor their own free choices and permit them to experience the very life they have confusedly chosen. When, as a last resort, God allows a sinner to live without even an implicit experience of the divine nature, the resulting horror will at last shatter any illusion that some good is achievable apart from God; it will finally elicit, therefore, a cry for help of a kind that, however faint, is just what God needs in order to begin and eventually to complete the process of reconciliation."
In Romans, Paul's depiction of men born as slaves to sin raises the question whether any of our choices can be said to be free, prior to being freed by God from such slavery. Indeed, rather than seeing God as overwhelming man's free will and forcing men to turn to him, God, in rescuing us from sin, enables us to choose freely for the first time. But it will never be easy; it will still require an act of will, the striving that Paul exhorts throughout his epistles.
In the entry above, George MacDonald writes, "Man should be free, not merely as man thinks of himself, but as God thinks of him." Perhaps nothing so well summarizes the essence of that freedom as this quote: