Robert Falconer’s Plan to Empty Hell

For some time after the loss of his friend, Robert went loitering and mooning about, quite neglecting the lessons to which he had not, it must be confessed, paid much attention for many weeks. Even when seated at his grannie’s table, he could do no more than fix his eyes on his book: to learn was impossible; it was even disgusting to him. But his was a nature which, foiled in one direction, must, absolutely helpless against its own vitality, straightway send out its searching roots in another. Of all forces, that of growth is the one irresistible, for it is the creating power of God, the law of life and of being. Therefore no accumulation of refusals, and checks, and turnings, and forbiddings, from all the good old grannies in the world, could have prevented Robert from striking root downward, and bearing fruit upward, though, as in all higher natures, the fruit was a long way off yet. But his soul was only sad and hungry. He was not unhappy, for he had been guilty of nothing that weighed on his conscience. He had been doing many things of late, it is true, without asking leave of his grandmother, but wherever prayer is felt to be of no avail, there cannot be the sense of obligation save on compulsion. Even direct disobedience in such case will generally leave little soreness, except the thing forbidden should be in its own nature wrong, and then, indeed, ‘Don Worm, the conscience,’ may begin to bite. But Robert felt nothing immoral in playing upon his grandfather’s violin, nor even in taking liberties with a piece of lumber for which nobody cared but possibly the dead; therefore he was not unhappy, only much disappointed, very empty, and somewhat gloomy. There was nothing to look forward to now, no secret full of riches and endless in hope—in short, no violin.

To feel the full force of his loss, my reader must remember that around the childhood of Robert, which he was fast leaving behind him, there had gathered no tenderness—none at least by him recognizable as such. All the women he came in contact with were his grandmother and Betty. He had no recollection of having ever been kissed. From the darkness and negation of such an embryo-existence, his nature had been unconsciously striving to escape—struggling to get from below ground into the sunlit air—sighing after a freedom he could not have defined, the freedom that comes, not of independence, but of love—not of lawlessness, but of the perfection of law. Of this beauty of life, with its wonder and its deepness, this unknown glory, his fiddle had been the type. It had been the ark that held, if not the tables of the covenant, yet the golden pot of angel’s food, and the rod that budded in death. And now that it was gone, the gloomier aspect of things began to lay hold upon him; his soul turned itself away from the sun, and entered into the shadow of the under-world. Like the white-horsed twins of lake Regillus, like Phoebe, the queen of skyey plain and earthly forest, every boy and girl, every man and woman, that lives at all, has to divide many a year between Tartarus and Olympus.

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, low I mean for humanity even, of right, and law, and justice, then only taking refuge in the fact of the incapacity of the human understanding when its own inventions are impugned as undivine. 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, and in ordering their ways as if the first article of their creed had been ‘I believe in God’; whence, in truth, we are bound to say it was the first in power and reality, if not in order; for what are we to say a man believes, if not what he acts upon? Still the former article was the one they brought chiefly to bear upon their children. This mortar, probably they thought, threw the shell straighter than any of the other field-pieces of the church-militant. Hence it was even in justification of God himself that a party arose to say that a man could believe without the help of God at all, and after believing only began to receive God’s help—a heresy all but as dreary and barren as the former. No one dreamed of saying—at least such a glad word of prophecy never reached Rothieden—that, while nobody can do without the help of the Father any more than a new-born babe could of itself live and grow to a man, yet that in the giving of that help the very fatherhood of the Father finds its one gladsome labour; that for that the Lord came; for that the world was made; for that we were born into it; for that God lives and loves like the most loving man or woman on earth, only infinitely more, and in other ways and kinds besides, which we cannot understand; and that therefore to be a man is the soul of eternal jubilation.

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. But through the horrible vapours of these vain endeavours, which denied God altogether as the maker of the world, and the former of his soul and heart and brain, and sought to worship him as a capricious demon, there broke a little light, a little soothing, soft twilight, from the dim windows of such literature as came in his way. Besides The Pilgrim’s Progress there were several books which shone moon-like on his darkness, and lifted something of the weight of that Egyptian gloom off his spirit. One of these, strange to say, was Defoe’s Religious Courtship, and one, Young’s Night Thoughts. But there was another which deserves particular notice, inasmuch as it did far more than merely interest or amuse him, raising a deep question in his mind, and one worthy to be asked. This book was the translation of Klopstock’s Messiah, to which I have already referred. It was not one of his grandmother’s books, but had probably belonged to his father: he had found it in his little garret-room. But as often as she saw him reading it, she seemed rather pleased, he thought. As to the book itself, its florid expatiation could neither offend nor injure a boy like Robert, while its representation of our Lord was to him a wonderful relief from that given in the pulpit, and in all the religious books he knew. But the point for the sake of which I refer to it in particular is this: Amongst the rebel angels who are of the actors in the story, one of the principal is a cherub who repents of making his choice with Satan, mourns over his apostasy, haunts unseen the steps of our Saviour, wheels lamenting about the cross, and would gladly return to his lost duties in heaven, if only he might—a doubt which I believe is left unsolved in the volume, and naturally enough remained unsolved in Robert’s mind:—Would poor Abaddon be forgiven and taken home again? For although naturally, that is, to judge by his own instincts, there could be no question of his forgiveness, according to what he had been taught there could be no question of his perdition. Having no one to talk to, he divided himself and went to buffets on the subject, siding, of course, with the better half of himself which supported the merciful view of the matter; for all his efforts at keeping the Sabbath, had in his own honest judgment failed so entirely, that he had no ground for believing himself one of the elect. Had he succeeded in persuading himself that he was, there is no saying to what lengths of indifference about others the chosen prig might have advanced by this time.

He made one attempt to open the subject with Shargar.

“Shargar, what do you think?” he said suddenly one day. “If a devil were to repent, would God forgive him?”

“There’s no saying what folk would do till once they’re tried,” returned Shargar, cautiously.

Robert did not care to resume the question with one who so circumspectly refused to take a metaphysical or a priori view of the matter.

He made an attempt with his grandmother.

One Sunday, his thoughts, after trying for a time to revolve in due orbit around the mind of the Rev. Hugh Maccleary, as projected in a sermon which he had botched up out of a commentary, failed at last and flew off into what the said gentleman would have pronounced ‘very dangerous speculation, seeing no man is to go beyond what is written in the Bible, which contains not only the truth, but the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, for this time and for all future time—both here and in the world to come.’ Some such sentence, at least, was in his sermon that day, and the preacher no doubt supposed St. Matthew, not St. Matthew Henry, accountable for its origination. In the Limbo into which Robert’s then spirit flew, it had been sorely exercised about the substitution of the sufferings of Christ for those which humanity must else have endured while ages rolled on—mere ripples on the ocean of eternity.

“No, be quiet,” said Mrs. Falconer, solemnly, as Robert, a trifle lighter at heart from the result of his cogitations than usual, sat down to dinner: he had happened to smile across the table to Shargar. And he was steady, and smiled no more.

They ate their broth, or, more properly, supped it, with horn spoons, in absolute silence; after which Mrs. Falconer put a large piece of meat on the plate of each, with the same formula:

“Here you are. You’ll get no more.”

The allowance was ample in the extreme, bearing a relation to her words similar to that which her practice bore to her theology. A piece of cheese, because it was the Sabbath, followed, and dinner was over.

When the table had been cleared by Betty, they drew their chairs to the fire, and Robert had to read to his grandmother, while Shargar sat listening. He had not read long, however, before he looked up from his Bible and began the following conversation:—

“Wasn’t it a bad trick of Joseph’s, grandmother, to put that cup, and a silver one too, into the mouth of Benjamin’s sack?”

“Why so, laddie? He wanted to make them come back again, you know.”

“But he needn’t have gone about it in such a playactor-like way. He needn’t have let them away without telling them that he was their brother.”

“They had behaved very badly to him.”

“He used to tell tales upon them, though.”

“Laddie, take care what you say about Joseph, for he was a type of Christ.”

“How was that grandmother?”

“They sold him to the Ishmaelites for money, as Judas did him.”

“Did he bear the sins of them that sold him?”

“You may say, in a manner, that he did; for he was sore afflicted before he made it to be the King’s right hand; and then he kept a deal of ill off his brothers.”

“So, grandmother, other folk than Christ might suffer for the sins of their neighbours?”

“Ay, laddie, many a one has to do that. But not to make atonement, you know. Nothing but the suffering of the spotless could do that. The Lord wouldn’t be satisfied with less than that. It must be the innocent to suffer for the guilty.”

“I understand that,” said Robert, who had heard it so often that he had not yet thought of trying to understand it. “But if we go to the good place, we’ll all be innocent, won’t we, grannie?”

“Ay, that we will—washed spotless, and pure, and clean, and dressed in the wedding garment, and set down at the table with him and with his Father. That’s them that believes in him, you know”

“Of course, grannie.—Well, you see, I have been thinking of a plan for almost emptying hell.”

“What’s in the child’s head now? You’re certainly not shy, laddie, to meddle with such matters!”

“I didn’t want to say anything to vex you, grannie. I’ll go on with the chapter.”

“Oh, say on. You shan’t say much that’s wrong before I cry ‘hold,'” said Mrs. Falconer, curious to know what had been moving in the boy’s mind, but watching him like a cat, ready to spring upon the first visible hair of the old Adam.

And Robert, recalling the outbreak of terrible grief which he had heard on that memorable night, really thought that his project would bring comfort to a mind burdened with such care, and went on with the exposition of his plan.

“All those that sit down to the supper of the Lamb will sit there because Christ suffered the punishment due to their sins—won’t they, grannie?”

“Doubtless, laddie.”

“But it’ll be a hard thing for them to sit there eating and drinking and talking away, and enjoying themselves, when every now and then there’ll come a gust of wailing up from the ill place, and a smell of burning hard to endure.”

“What put that in your head, laddie? There’s no reason to think that hell’s so near heaven as all that. The Lord forbid it!”

“Well, but, grannie, they’ll know it all the same, whether they smell it or not. And I can’t help thinking that the farther away I thought they were, the worse I’d feel to think upon them. Indeed it would be worse.”

“What are ye driving at, laddie? I can’t understand you,” said Mrs. Falconer, feeling very uncomfortable, and yet curious, almost anxious, to hear what would come next. “I trust we won’t have to think much—”

But here, I presume, the thought of the added desolation of her Andrew if she, too, were to forget him, as well as his Father in heaven, checked the flow of her words. She paused, and Robert took up his parable and went on, first with yet another question.

“Do you think, grannie, that someone would be allowed to speak a word in public, like, there—at the long table, like, I mean.”

“Why not, if it was done with modesty, and for a good reason? But really, laddie, I think this is all nonsense you’re speaking. You heard anothing like that, I’m sure, today, from Mr. Maccleary.”

“No, no; he said nothing about it. But maybe I’ll go and ask him, though.”

“What about?”

“What I’m going to tell you, grannie.”

“Well, tell away, and have done with. I’m growing tired of it.”

It was something else than tired she was growing.

“Well, I’m going to try all that I can to make it there.”

“I hope you will. Strive and pray. Resist the devil. Walk in the light. Trust not to yourself, but trust in Christ and his salvation.”

“Ay, ay, grannie.—Well—”

“Are you done yet?”

“No. I’m but just beginning.”

“Beginning, are you? Humph!”

“Well, if I make it there, the very first night I sit down with the rest of them, I’m going to rise up and say—that is, if the Master, at the head of the table, doesn’t bid me sit down—and say: ‘Brothers and sisters, all of you, listen to me for one minute; and, O Lord! If I say wrong, just take the speech from me, and I’ll sit down dumb and rebuked. We’re all here by grace, and not by merit, save his, as you all know better than I can tell you, for you have been longer here than me. But it’s just tugging and riving at my heart to think of them down there. Maybe you can hear them. I can’t. Now, we have no merit, and they have no merit, and why are we here and them there? But we’re washed clean and innocent now; and now, when there’s no blame lying upon ourselves, it seems to me that we might bear some of the sins of them that have over-many. I call upon each one of you that has a friend or neighbour down yonder, to rise up and taste neither bite nor sup more till we go up altogether to the foot of the throne, and pray the Lord to let us go and do as the Master did before us, and bear their griefs, and carry their sorrows down in hell there; if it maybe that they may repent and get remission of their sins, and come up here with us at the long last, and sit down with us at this table, all through the merits of our Saviour Jesus Christ, as the head of the table there. Amen.'”

George MacDonald

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