Michael Phillips: George MacDonald and The Late Great Hell Debate

Laying Claim to a Perfect Fatherhood

The staggering implications of Matthew 5:48


My wife Judy and I owned and operated a Christian bookstore for thirty-five years between 1970 and 2004. During that time, we witnessed enormous changes taking place within the body of Christ, some hopeful, others which caused us grave concern. Books on hell were always popular, the more gory the better. A number of widely popular books were released about hell in our final years—several basing their authenticity on visions God had supposedly given the authors, including the most ghastly depictions of the sufferings of unbelievers.
    The sadness I felt to see my own and George MacDonald’s books languishing on the shelves, gathering dust and going out of print, while many of these horrific and questionable accounts zoomed to the top of best seller lists, was puzzling. What sort of appetite in the Christian mind, I wondered, were these books feeding—written in juvenile fashion, luring to the surface what I can only call a base lust for horror and suffering? What could account for their widespread appeal, the feverish enthusiasm (wide-eyed, excited, anxious to pass them out like candy…Have you read this!) about the future torments of the wicked? Our customers actually enjoyed it! They ate it up! Place a George MacDonald book and one of these contemporary hell-vision books side by side in any Christian bookstore, and 99 out of 100 people pick up the book on hell without hesitation.
    It may be important to assess why these trends exist. What does a morbid fascination with the suffering of sinners (as one particular factor in what I would submit is a much larger problem) tell us? Something more far-reaching is at stake than merely what books sell in Christian bookstores. If we can look into this quandary with seeing spiritual eyes, it may reveal some telling insights about why the orthodox doctrine of punitive hell has found such fruitful soil in the Christian church. 


    It would seem that there are only two legitimate responses on the part of serious, thinking, sensitive, scripturally astute Christians to the doctrine of punitive eternal hell—outright disbelief, or an uncertain hope in something more.
    Many, of course, will lambaste those who come to the first conclusion. But right or wrong, a rejection of the orthodox view is a legitimate conclusion for an individual to draw.
    The second and, in my view, only legitimate alternative response is the “hope” that the doctrine is untrue, but, if it is, weeping grief.
    I can thus respect those on both sides of this scriptural conundrum who say either:
    “I cannot bring myself to believe it is true.”
    “I hope with all my heart that God has in his power to save all men…but if some are indeed doomed to an eternity in hell, then may God be merciful to us, for we are all sinners together.”
    I see no other options. 
    Indeed, my own perspective of what I call an open-minded uncertainty is not so very different: I hope universal reconciliation is true, but whatever is in God’s heart to accomplish, I trust him more than I trust in any doctrine that attempts to explain his ways.
    The third alternative, however,—eager and enthusiastic belief in a tormenting punitive hell—I find a complete perversion, an embarrassment at the heart of the church, an affront to all Jesus taught about his Father. Too Many Christians are cheering for the wrong team! If one feels compelled to believe in the orthodox position, it should be with tears in the eyes. It should be a sad, regretful belief, certainly not an enthusiastic one. The fascination with a Jonathan Edwards perspective of hell’s torments that I have witnessed among evangelical Christians indicates, to my thinking, something very, very wrong. All men and women should hope in universal salvation. No Christian can be excused for wanting eternal punishment to remain an intrinsic element of his or her creed. 
    Not to hope for universal salvation is to deny the work of Jesus Christ himself. We may not know every final eternal outcome. But we ought to know whose side we are rooting for—God’s or Satan’s.


    It must sadly be admitted, however, that the large percentage of fundamental Christians do not hope for universal salvation. Indeed, they are afraid to hope for it. At the same time, many seem to feel a gleeful righteousness to envision the miseries of the lost.
    I find this delight indicative of a serious cancer in the church. I think we must ask why this fascination exists. Why do the very people who have been commissioned to take the good news of Fatherhood into the world, reject the high and perfect and infinitely forgiving Fatherhood of God?
    The answer lies in each of our hearts. The flesh relishes in vengeance. We do not want to relinquish belief in hell. We do not want to let it die into a grander belief in a loving God whose final victory will be gloriously complete. To do so requires relinquishing the final vestige of unforgiveness within ourselves. We resist. We don’t want to forgive completely. We enjoy unforgiveness. Fanning the flames of hell’s fire enables us to nurture our own sin nature under the guise of correct doctrine. 
    The story is told of one of George MacDonald’s Calvinist in-laws who vowed that she could never lie comfortable in bed at night if she did not believe in hellfire and everlasting pains for the unrepentant.  
    Jonathan Edwards said, “The view of the misery of the damned will double the ardour of the love and gratitude of the saints in heaven.”  
    We should recoil at the very thought of an everlasting, God-designed torment—recoil because it is a blasphemy against the character of God.
    Our response should be as Moses’, “No, Lord, it is not worthy of you!”  
    With the prophet Amos, we should say, “Sovereign Lord, forgive! Sovereign Lord, I beg you, stop!”  
    These old men of God had the courage to doubt what was said of God that was unworthy of his love.
    But we don’t possess their courage. We do just the opposite. With Jonathan Edwards, there are those who actually delight in it. 
    We spiritualize this latent vengeance of the old man by directing these unconverted corners of self at impersonal “evil,” or at Satan himself. We spiritualize it with platitudes about “loving the sinner but hating the sin.” But I doubt we love the sinner near as much as we claim to hate the sin. Our theology doesn’t require us to forgive everything. So unforgiveness itself remains. 

                                               NURTURING SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS
     What is the spirit behind our fascination with everlasting torment? Unbelievably, why do Christians seemingly delight in it more than non-Christians? Why do we cling so tenaciously to such a repellant doctrine?
    Because at a foundational human level it appeals to the self-righteousness which resides in the heart of every man and every woman. 
    Our very doctrines of salvation allow “the elect” to cherish the illusion (however deeply hidden from the eyes of the conscious self) that they are more spiritually responsive than others of our kind.
    Whatever we say to the contrary, Christians feel a meritorious virtue in their salvation. They pay lip service to the truth that it comes from no merit of their own. But the unspoken corollary is that it is noble to have chosen to accept that salvation. We are, and we allow ourselves to take pride in the fact, the “chosen” people.
    Self-righteousness, however, is self-delusionary and self-blinding. Those most in need of apprehending its subtleties are least likely to perceive them. 
    About our delight in hell, George MacDonald asks:
    “Why do we feel this satisfaction? Because we hate wrong, but, not being righteous ourselves, we more or less hate the wronger as well as his wrong. Hence, we are not only righteously pleased to behold the law's disapproval proclaimed in his punishment, but unrighteously pleased with his suffering, because of the impact upon us of his wrong. In this way the inborn justice of our nature passes over to evil.”  


    In only one place in Scripture are we commanded to be perfect. Jesus gives the command, not in reference to righteousness, but in reference to forgiveness of our enemies. God’s perfect, complete, infinite forgiveness is our example of what the perfection of God is, and what forgiveness is to be. Jesus says that we are to be perfect in the same way—perfect in forgiveness, because God is perfect in forgiveness. 
    Does humanity’s latent fleshly vengeance explain why Christians so thoroughly miss the astounding point of the last eleven verses of Matthew 5?
    Vengeance, revenge, and punishment, says the Son of God, are things of the past. Forgiveness must now be total and complete.  
    The Father’s forgiveness covers all mankind just as do the sun and the rain—they encompass everybody. No one is excluded. The words could not be more clear. Jesus simply says, the Father forgives all.
    By such forgiveness will our own childship be measured. The love and forgiveness of the Father extends to the good and the evil! The message of Matthew 5:44-45 is unmistakable—God’s forgiveness extends to all.
      Not mere potential forgiveness. Not mere forgiveness that is available if only man will receive it. Not mere forgiveness which God offers but which most reject.
    Our theologies have manufactured these limitations to constrict God’s forgiveness. Those limitations, however, do not originate in Scripture. Jesus was no Calvinist who limited the extent of God’s love and forgiveness. (Can there be any more odious expression of our faith than the “limited atonement” of Calvinism’s TULIP belief system?   The very idea is an affront to God’s omnipotence, and a contradiction at the heart of God’s character.)
    The astounding point of Matthew 5:48 is that God forgives even his enemies perfectly. Those who hate him, those who reject him, those who curse him. God forgives all. He forgives them perfectly.
    Then the command of conclusion: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. 
    Is it possible that there will remain souls unforgiven to all eternity, when God’s is a perfect forgiveness? Is it a perfect forgiveness which merely offers forgiveness, but finds that forgiveness rejected? Such a one-way forgiveness might be many things, but it hardly seems fitting to call it a perfect forgiveness.
    Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. 


    So then comes the question that probes yet deeper: How far are we willing to carry obedience to that command?
    Laying doctrine aside, in quiet prayerfulness, how would you and I respond if the Lord said, “I want you to forgive Satan for the evil he has caused in the world. I want you to forgive him, because I may someday want to save him too.” 
    Do we shrink from the thought? Does the suggestion fill us with anger?
    “What...forgive Satan? Never!”
    Perhaps such will never be required of us. I propose it only as an exercise to uncover our attitude toward infinite forgiveness. 
    How far are we willing to forgive?
    If the Lord told me to forgive Satan, I hope I would fall on my knees, not arguing the theological implications, but asking for his help to obey the command.
    God would have us put all hatred to death...except our hatred of lingering evil within our own selves. 
    Are such questions too huge? Admittedly they peer into regions far beyond the vision of our natural eyes. 
    But am I willing?
    Do I want to be fully the son of a perfect Father?


    If God’s victory over sin will be a triumph without reservation, distinction, or qualification, if indeed mankind is one...then the basis for pride is dead altogether.
    With God’s complete victory comes death of self, death of anger, death of vengeance—the complete laying down of any hope for thinking oneself more worthy than anyone else.  
    “He causes his sun to rise...he sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
    He wants us to reach for perfection in ourselves, by claiming it also in our ideal view of his own divine and perfect Fatherhood!
    In his sermon entitled “The Voice of Job,” George MacDonald makes an astonishing assertion. He says not only that God has claims upon us as our Creator, but that we likewise have claims upon him. It is our birthright to claim him as our Father—our perfect Father. 
    “What would he have,” MacDonald writes, “but that his children should claim their father?...The child has, and must have, a claim on the father, a claim which it is the joy of the father’s heart to acknowledge...Right gloriously he meets the claims of his child!”  
    With Jesus, we can lay claim to the perfect Fatherhood of God! 
    Can we lay aside the limited atonements of man’s theologies and say with Jesus, “God, you are perfect in forgiveness. Give me your mind and heart.” 
    Are you and I willing to forgive...infinitely, whomever and to whatever heights and depths that forgiveness takes us? 
    Are we willing to lay down every vestige of anger and unforgiveness, all vengeance from within the hidden places of our hearts? Are we willing to forgive…all?
     Are we willing to undergo the fires of purification ourselves, that all the dross of self and the impurities of the flesh may be burned out of us forever, that we may reflect the image and character of the Father’s perfect Son?
    Let us then fall on our faces before the Father and beg him to send the fire of his purifying love into the uttermost depths of our own hearts and minds and souls!
    Let us then rise and look upon his face, and let us declare to the world that we have a Father who loves to the uttermost, and who will love us into the becoming of  his perfect sons and daughters! 

 Michael Phillips, best-selling Christian writer and novelist, is one of the key individuals responsible for reawakening worldwide public interest in George MacDonald through publication of his edited and original editions of MacDonald's books.  Dismayed to learn that all MacDonald's major fiction, as well as most other titles, were unavailable, Phillips embarked on an ambitious lifetime project to re-introduce the world to the remarkable Victorian author. He is also MacDonald's biographer--George MacDonald, Scotland's Beloved Storyteller--and in the 1980s inaugurated the publication of MacDonald's original works in the Sunrise Centenary Editions series. All of Michael's books can be purchased directly through his website; George MacDonald and the Late Great Hell Debate and many of his other books are also available on Amazon (see image at top right of this page).