Michael Phillips has been a driving force behind the George MacDonald renaissance of the past four decades; I've lost track of the number of times people have told me that they owe their discovery of MacDonald to one of the works which Phillips edited and published. Over the last few years, he has published three new books, which present the Scotsman's spiritual vision both in summary and in depth. Phillips' talented editing and organization make these books extraordinarily valuable to newcomers to MacDonald; however, I can attest that even those already well-steeped in MacDonald will benefit from Phillips' insights. These books are a true delight!
The Michael Phillips' trilogy:
George MacDonald’s Spiritual Vision provides a summary and overview.
George MacDonald’s Transformational Theology of the Christian Faith is a compilation of nearly all of the thirty-six sermons from the three volumes of Unspoken Sermonsand the twelve in The Hope of the Gospel.
George MacDonald and the Late Great Hell Debate presents a focused look on MacDonald’s most controversial ideas on hell, and this post features the first chapter of that book.
What the Doctrine of Punitive Hell Says of God's Nature
Every musician, artist, and writer has his or her “signature tunes”— themes and modes of communication, ways of expressing himself unique to the particular stirrings of creative life inside him.
It does not take an expert to recognize the difference between Wagner and Mozart, Debussy and Handel, Monet and Michelangelo, or between Dickens and MacDonald. Style is part of it of course. But more important are the thematic undercurrents that drive their artistry, and the deep truths they are attempting to communicate through their work. These emerge as artistic “melodies,” so to speak, whether conveyed by musical notes, colors on canvas, or words on a page.
I have spent most of my adult life trying to accurately identify those melodies in George MacDonald’s work. In the process many themes have emerged in my own writing. I never set out to compose new music, merely to exhume MacDonald’s symphonic works from history’s archives. As I began, I often felt like a schoolboy barely learning his scales trying to conduct an orchestra and choir performing Handel’s Messiah! Yet as time has passed, the role of conductor of MacDonald’s masterpieces has led to my own compositions. They have had fewer complex harmonies and less sweeping grandeur—mere string quartets alongside MacDonald’s symphonies—yet hopefully have built upon some of the same melodies.
THE FAR-OFF MUSIC OF ETERNITY
One of the enormously curious aspects of this process is that the “tune” I have most strenuously tried to avoid allowing to become a signature tune of my own, and that I have avoided emphasizing in my work with MacDonald, continues to exert its pervading influence. It was not an intended signature tune for MacDonald either. Yet its melody runs through his work from top to bottom. Every time I pick up one of his books, every time I set my own pen to paper, its far-off strains beckon— the symphony that rises above the other symphonies, the melody of which all other tunes are but faint and broken echoes.
It is the melody that swallows up all questions, all anxieties, all fears, all uncertainties, all scriptural perplexities.
I encountered it in the second or third book by George MacDonald I ever read. Something pierced deep into my soul. Immediately I hungered to know more. Thus began a long adventure of learning to hear what I now believe is nothing less than God’s signature tune. It is the music, as I read it back then, of North Wind speaking of pain and death, and the unanswerable questions of life. “
I will tell you how I am able to bear it, Diamond: I am always hearing, through every noise…the sound of a far-off song. I do not exactly know where it is or what it means; and I don’t hear much of it, only the odour of its music…but what I do hear, is quite enough…Somehow, I can’t say how, it tells me that all is right; that it is coming to swallow up all cries.”
Like little Diamond, don’t we all react at first with question? Death and hell rise to assert themselves out of what we have been taught, attempting even as we first begin to detect its strains, to drown out the high music. But North Wind continues, reassuring even in terror of the wonderfully strange new possibilities she hints at, to set even such seemingly insurmountable anxieties to rest.
“It wouldn’t be the song it seems to be if it did not swallow up all their fear and pain too, and set them singing it themselves with the rest. I know it will. And do you know…that song has been coming nearer and nearer. Only I must say it was some thousand years before I heard it.”
I am thankful to God that it did not take George MacDonald a thousand years. He began hearing it at an early age. It took me longer, but thankfully not a thousand years either. We are thick-headed and stubborn creatures, but God persists in trying to get the truth of his high music through to us. I am so grateful for the many ways he has found to get it into my brain…and even more for the ways he has found to get it into my heart. When MacDonald wrote the words of North Wind he was still a relatively young man of forty-five, though by then reaching his height as one of God’s prophetic spokesmen of the nineteenth century. He had begun to illuminate God’s signature tune a few years earlier in his masterpiece Robert Falconer. In the years that followed he would discern that music with increasing clarity, and deftly express its soaring melody by the power of his pen. In my own case, I think I began hearing the wondrous music of reconciliation somewhere around my twenty-fourth year.
It has been there ever since. It is just as North Wind says, though I take the liberty of paraphrasing her words into my own circumstances: I am always hearing, through every doctrine, through every passage of Scripture, sometimes obscured by church teaching and tradition, the sound of a far-off song. It tells me that all is right, and that He is coming and will one day swallow up all the world’s pain and grief and unbelief and sin, and set the universe singing the symphony of unity in the whole creation.
I might try not to emphasize it, but the high melody of God’s eternal purpose and man’s ultimate destiny is always there, informing and giving meaning to everything else.
WE MUST HEAR THE MUSIC
I am finally recognizing that it must be so. This particular symphony rises above all other tunes—high above all ideas and doctrines and theologies. It rises above all the music of life because it is music we are intended to hear.
It tells us that God is going to make things right with his creation, that his victory will be complete, that his love and forgiveness will triumph over all sin, all rebellion, and all that is contrary to his will.
It is the symphony that tells us who God is! Thus it is music we must learn to hear.
None of life’s lesser tunes—be they religious or secular—can reach their fulfillment until we learn to hear the One song aright. All else proceeds out of the One song, points toward it, and will one day be swallowed back up into that majestic symphony of eternity that is continually trying to get through to us.
This “must” explains why I have decided to focus on a few of the overtones and harmonics of the “far-off song” with the publication of this book. For it is not simply one song among many for Christians. We may one day come to realize that it was the Song of all songs.
And if it is God’s signature tune, the Song above all songs, it must eventually be sung in God’s Church—though the theologians of that church have done their best to prevent its being heard for 1900 years.
AN UNHEARD SYMPHONY
Many never learn to hear this music. Many Christians never learn to hear it. Mistaking dissonant melodies (which they call doctrines, and which they have learned from pastors, priests, and teachers), their ears grow incapable of taking in God’s grand symphonic masterpiece. They are not trained in the right kind of spiritual music.
Even after I began to hear North Wind’s song, for years I downplayed this highest of all symphonies in my writing because of the controversy surrounding it. I did so in an honest attempt to follow George MacDonald’s example.
Yet I always wondered, if God himself composed this symphony of eternity, why his own people did not make a greater effort to hear it. Why is it controversial? Why is it not eagerly embraced by Christ’s followers? Why are its proponents, like MacDonald and his mentor, English pastor and theologian F.D. Maurice, branded as heretics—as ridiculous a charge as can be imagined? Why is it not preached from pulpits across the land as mighty “good news?” These are among history’s enduring perplexities.
It seems a sad fact of religious life that its ecclesiastical leaders— from ancient Judaism to fifteenth-century Catholicism to contemporary Evangelicalism—expend great effort to insure that their flocks hear only the music composed in the hallowed rooms of their own institutional hierarchies. Evil names are given to music that chances to get through from outside.
Thus God cannot make his melodies heard in the very churches and cathedrals where his name is honored. These assemblies are sadly filled with multitudes whose ears have grown dull from listening to man’s doctrinal dirges rather than God’s high celestial anthems.
ILLOGICAL INCONSISTENCIES BLOCK TRUE KNOWING OF GOD
One of my own lesser signature tunes has been an emphasis on what I call implicational thinking.
If A…then B.
Because Christians are not trained in implicational thinking, most do not pause to consider the logical consequences of their ideas. They maintain their doctrinal beliefs in a vacuum. They do not ask if they make sense. They blindly accept what they have been taught without question, and call it “faith.”
The most significant belief where implicational thinking is absolutely required concerns the nature of God. MacDonald explores this most pointedly in his novel There and Back where he says what I paraphrase as, “Everything depends on what kind of God one believes in.”
It is impossible to understate the importance of this truth. Wrong belief about God makes us incapable of hearing his universal music.
Not subjecting their beliefs to the rigors of implicational thinking, most Christians spend their energies listening to the doctrinal compositions of men. The inconsistencies of these compositions are reasoned away with unbelievably contorted explanations. All the while the people in the pews rarely pause to ask whether the theological emperor behind the pulpit is wearing any clothes.
The disconnect between such doctrines and the character of God implied by them is stunning. The very men and women who should be sharing the symphony of heaven with the world seem themselves oblivious to its most elemental strains.
THE PREVENTATIVE TO ETERNITY’S MUSIC—A HYPOCRITICAL GOD
Obviously nothing can be so important for a Christian than the nature and character of God. Yet what do most Christians believe about him? It is a question whose enormous implications do not become clear until one confronts Christianity’s most glaring conundrum.
Any inquiry into the nature of God plunges us straight into the dichotomy posed by the existence of hell.
When one stares hell in the face, and asks, “Who is this God that would eternally torment those who do not believe in him? What kind of God would do that!” at last the raw horrifying implications of traditional Christianity come into focus.
All lesser doctrines suddenly pale in comparison. The doctrine of hell, as no other component of Christian orthodoxy, determines the nature of the God we believe in.
Is he, or is he not, a God who could, a God who would, a God who will send sinners to everlasting torment because they do not believe in him or in his Son?
In the world’s eyes, nothing else matters. This is the issue upon which the Christian message rises or falls.
Even in the midst of modernity, humanism, and secularism, people do not have so serious a problem with miracle and supernaturalism as one might suppose. Indeed, in their heart of hearts most men and women want to believe.
But they do have a problem with hypocrisy. Nothing angers people more than pretended righteousness. Yet that is what Christianity has been presenting to the world for some 1800-1900 years—a hypocritical, self-righteous God.
I truly believe that the world would not find the incarnation and the resurrection difficult to believe if the doctrine of hell were not looming behind them as the great Hypocrisy of the universe.
The cross may indeed be a stumbling block to some. But I disagree with the implication many draw from Paul’s words, that it is the major stumbling block to faith. Perhaps it was in Paul’s time, but I do not perceive it so in ours.
People can believe in Jesus walking on the water, in his raising Lazarus from the dead, even in his dying for our sins and rising from the grave. The world has always been willing to believe in Jesus.
But it cannot believe in a God who would send a majority of creation to eternity in hell.
Hell is the great stumbling block to right belief about God. If Christians understood the music of eternity, the world would be far more receptive to the true message of the cross.
The implications of eternal punitive hell are too enormous, positively too staggering for unbelievers to cope with. They should be too staggering, as taught, for Christians to cope with. If the doctrine of hell as commonly taught is true, the God it portrays is nothing short of a monster. No theological double-talk can get rid of that fact. If that is our god, let us say, with MacDonald: “There is no God. Let us neither eat nor drink, that we may die! For lo, this is not our God!”
Andrew Jukes says that we become what we worship. If indeed we worship a false god, a hypocritical god, a self-righteous and vengeful god, what positively dreadful implications this has for the state of the Church.
The question for Christians, then, is how do we respond?
Obviously truth is not gauged by the world’s reaction. Because the world doesn’t like the idea of hell (one must admit that many Christians don’t like it either), does not mean it isn’t true. But perhaps the apparent inconsistency involved within the divine character ought to give us pause to take a closer look at what centuries of tradition have taught us.
What if the doctrine isn’t true? What if it isn’t as scriptural as we have been led to believe? What if the world’s reaction is not only justifiable but a very proper response to a hideous untruth?
Three responses surface to such queries:
1) Some Christians in essence say, Too bad. The Bible warns sinners of the wages of sin. If they don’t want to burn forever, they should repent and accept Christ. The Bible is clear in its teaching of everlasting hell. The words are rarely quite so callous, but follow what they say to the end and it amounts to the same thing. Numerous proof texts usually follow, in the interpretation of which the bold prayerful thought involved is roughly zero.
2) Others don’t want to face the glaring dichotomy, and ignore it.
3) Still others—like F.D. Maurice and George MacDonald and William Law and Hannah Hurnard and Andrew Jukes and A.R. Symonds and Thomas Allin and William Barclay and others who have courageously raised their prophetic voices through the years in spite of criticism and rebuke, along with increasing thousands in our own time— probe the Scriptures and the character of God to find out whether the things said of him by the elder-traditions can really be true and whether they are supported by the Bible.
CHRISTENDOM’S DREADFUL HISTORICAL RECORD
Certainly those who feel an inner disquiet with the implications of traditional theology cannot forever ignore it. Eventually the sense of unease comes calling—What can it be but the Holy Spirit speaking, deep calling to deep?—and inquiring men and women begin casting their gaze about for something more worthy to believe of their God.
Their sense of unease turns to outright horror as they listen aghast to the appalling things that have been said by some of the most revered saints of Christendom.
Consider the following questionable sentiments from those who have been commissioned to carry God’s love into the world:
“The bliss of the saved may please them more, and they may render more abundant thanks to God…that they are permitted to gaze on the punishment of the wicked.” (St. Thomas Aquinas)
“The elect, while they see the unspeakable sufferings of the ungodly, shall not be affected with grief, but rather satiated with joy at the sight, and give thanks to God for their own salvation.” (Peter Lombard)
“Though infants departing from the body without baptism will be in the mildest damnation…he greatly deceives and is deceived who preaches that they will not be in damnation.” (St. Augustine)
“It is the highest degree of faith to believe that God is merciful, who saves so few and damns so many; to believe him just, who of His own will makes us necessarily damnable.” (Martin Luther)
“The world will probably be converted into a great lake or liquid globe of fire…in which the wicked shall be overwhelmed…their heads, their eyes, their tongues, their hands, their feet, their loins, their vitals shall for ever be full of glowing, melting fire…they shall be full of…torments; not for one minute, not for one day, nor for one age, nor for two ages, nor for a thousand ages…but for ever and ever, without any end at all, and never, never be delivered…The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardour of the love and gratitude of the saints in heaven.” (that saint of Calvinism, Jonathan Edwards)
Can it be any wonder that George MacDonald said that from such an image of God he turned with loathing?
And more recently the highly esteemed John Piper maintains that God will take pleasure in the punishment of the wicked:
God is grieved in one sense by the death of the wicked, and pleased in another...when a rebellious, wicked, unbelieving person is judged...God delights in...the exaltation of truth and righteousness, and the vindication of his own honor and glory... God and the saints in heaven will be happy in heaven for all eternity knowing that many millions of people are suffering in hell forever…the vindication of God’s infinite holiness is cherished so deeply.
Are there Christians who think that the saints in heaven, and God himself, will actually enjoy the torments of the damned? I find it hard to imagine. Yet this too has been intrinsic to the prevailing theology.
What else can one do upon reading these words than cry out: What kind of God did and do these men worship!
I fear that millions in our own day do believe such things, and worse, without the slightest compunction.
Thank God that there are those of the Church, perhaps few in number, who are appalled to believe such atrocious things of their God. For them the faint strains of the far-off symphony are beginning to be heard.
THE BIG QUESTION
If something is amiss in the traditional teaching, does it not behoove us to investigate? Any Christian who cares to correctly understand the character of God, must eventually ask the big question:
Is the commonly taught view of eternal damnation consistent with the Father of Jesus Christ?
It is the pivotal query of Christianity.
It is ingrained into us to read the foundations of our faith through the lens of Christology—the incarnation, the trinity, the atonement, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As pivotal as Christ’s role is,however—obviously no Christianity exists apart from him—a deeper magic exists from before the dawn of time (before the incarnation, before the atonement, before the resurrection)—a yet more fundamental pillar of belief than Jesus. That is the character and nature of God himself. The Christology of Christianity is built on the foundation of God’s being. We cannot understand Jesus or his work unless we understand the Fatherhood that gave rise to the Sonship. The incarnation, the trinity, the atonement, and the death and resurrection of Jesus all emerge out of the character of God. Jesus is our Elder Brother, our Savior, our Lord, our Master, our Redeemer. But our life comes from Jesus Christ’s Father, because he is our Father.
We know these things because Jesus told us so. To worship the Son above the Father is to disobey Jesus himself. To worship the Father through our worship of the Son is to honor both Father and Son in proper balance, and to take Jesus’ example unto ourselves.
To know Jesus truly, we must know his Father as he is, not as he has been characterized by small-seeing theologians from Dante to Calvin to Edwards to Piper.
Do we believe in a God capable of eternally tormenting large numbers of beings he himself created…or do we believe him incapable of such cruelty. “Punishment” is a far different thing. God may punish that he might redeem. But is he a God capable of pure, purposeless, unending cruelty?
How and why such a state of affairs comes to pass (theological explanations notwithstanding about sin, free will, God’s not condemning but man freely choosing his eternal state, and so on) begs the fundamental question:
Is God capable of such a thing…however it comes to be?
Note the words of Martin Luther, that founding saint of Protestantism, just quoted. In his view, it is God who does the damning. It is God “who saves so few and damns so many.” It is God himself, “who of His own will makes us necessarily damnable.”
In George MacDonald’s words:
Very God forbid!
Luther’s words are a direct falsehood against the word and character of God. They are a slap in the face and an affront to Jesus himself. Let us no longer ignore the implications of a theology we have for so long allowed to be perpetuated as an insidious cancer in our midst.
Pretending that God is powerless to change man’s free choice of sin is to torture out of certain passages of the Bible a meaning that may never have been intended by God.
Such explanations do not alter the stark implications of the question:
Is God one whose intrinsic nature makes him capable of sanctioning eternal torment as the ultimate solution for sin?
Even if it is man’s fault, would God allow man to suffer in hell forever? Even if man chooses it, even if man says, “I want hell as my final reward,” would God not step in and say, “You may want it, but you are my creation and I will not allow it. You do not know what is for your best. I am your Father. My love compels me to do the best for you that you are too selfish and sinful to want for yourself.”
We must all face these questions and decide for ourselves what manner of “God” we worship.
INFINITE LOVE OR DIVINE HYPOCRISY
It is true that Christianity does not rise or fall on the question of hell. It rises and falls on the character of God first, then on the commands and resurrection of Christ. But insofar as Christianity is presented to the world and is understood by the world—hell is the pivotal question. In the world’s eyes hell looms larger than the cross and is the great stumbling block of the gospel.
For years I was myself one of those who tried to convince myself that God was loving and trustworthy even if sinners were doomed to an eternity in hell. Even after I began to move toward a more neutral position of I don’t know, I remained convinced that unity was a higher truth than hell. (And that remains my position.) I failed to fully recognize, however, the implications of what belief in an eternal punitive hell says about the nature of the God one worships. I did not yet recognize that the entire divine character was at stake:
Infinite Love vs. Divine Hypocrisy.
I still believe that unity is a higher truth than correctness of doctrine. It has been many years since God began stirring me toward the higher melodies of North Wind. And now, in my seventh decade of life, I have come to the conclusion that the question of hell and what it says of the divine character is a conundrum all Christians must confront sooner or later. Not only is it the pivotal issue insofar as how the world perceives Christianity, it is the pivotal issue for Christians.
We must know who God is.
We cannot adequately know him without asking what eternal punitive hell says of God’s character.
The spectre of hell prevents North Wind’s song from coming through. The doctrine gets in the way.
But God wants us to hear the high Logos song of the great coming right of all things, coming right because he is at the heart of them. As long as we hold on to belief in evil things of God, and call those evil things byholy names, such wrong knowing and the calling of evil good will prevent a right knowing of the Father of Jesus Christ as we must know him.
A PRIVATE QUEST
Unity is the highest tune in God’s eternal symphony, pointing toward the harmony and reconciliation of all things. Unity is the truth toward which everything points. The incarnation, the trinity, the atonement, and the resurrection are all melodies that will be drawn up together in the grand sweeping symphony that will culminate in the unity of God’s creation.
These high matters, however, are not ones about which the debate and discussion can yet fruitfully be public. Perhaps the time for a widespread inquiry may come, but it is not yet. The Church at large is not ready for it. The church is too theologically immature and scripturally ignorant. Humility is one of the most necessary components of the needful discussion. At present, however, the Evangelical wing of the Church is far too self-righteously pleased with itself for such a discussion to take place. Yet that day may be hastening toward us.
Some disagree in this, but I perceive that the quest needed at present is an inward, private, prayerful one. Like MacDonald, I write not to those who would debate the issue. Indeed, I will not debate it. As long as men and women are satisfied to believe low things of God, let them be so satisfied. Their belief is its own reward. Like my spiritual and literary mentor, I write for those for whom the so-called orthodox view has become burdensome, to help the hungry heart sift and sort and think through his or her own prayerful journey. As I emphasized earlier, I do not care to persuade or convince to any doctrine, only perhaps to shed a little light on what can be a lonely path. I do care to persuade Christians toward bold thinking in their faith, and about what doctrines they choose to believe. Toward such bold thinking Christianity, I am anything but neutral. I consider it one of the most urgent necessities of our faith. Toward such boldness of thought I will speak as forcefully as I am able.
This sole attempt at persuasion would urge this final imperative upon us all, once we rise from the knees of our inquiry—with tear stained faces it may be: Let us not content ourselves to theorize, let us obey in doing what God puts before us to do, loving our brethren of differing perspectives on this and all matters doctrinal.
That I care not to persuade removes nothing from my earnest conviction that these are matters every Christian must eventually wrestle through in the prayer closets of their hearts. If we do not face them here, we will have to face them there. It may be that it will not be St. Peter or Mary or even Jesus himself who will meet us at the gates of heaven (Ispeak foolishly to get a point across!), but the Father himself. The question he asks may not be, “Who died for your sins?” but rather:
“How could you possibly believe such monstrosities of me! Why did you not love me enough to get to know me better? Why did you not summon the courage to question the theological absurdities your pastors and teachers taught? They have much to answer for…but you should have known better, especially after all my Son told you about me.”
Hell is therefore a doctrine above all doctrines that Christ’s followers must face if they are to know the Father he came to reveal. How else will they hear the highest melodies of all, the music of the spheres, the anthem of eternity that God’s heavenly hosts are singing even now—the symphony of eternal love, unity, and victorious reconciliation.