In his unspoken sermon “Justice,” George MacDonald takes up the task of redefining our inherited notions of requital and punishment. The principle of retribution, he asserts, is an unfit vehicle for the proclamation of the gospel. In Jesus Christ righteousness and love have been revealed as one: God always acts with love and mercy and thus so acts in perfect justice; God always acts justly and thus so acts for the good of his creatures, destroying sin and setting the world to rights. The ancient lex talionis, therefore, must be jettisoned. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you . . .” (Matt 5:38-39). MacDonald is but adapting the counsel of his Master: do not put new wine into old wineskins—the skins will burst and the wine spill—but pour the new wine into “fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (Matt 9:17). He is emptying the wineskin of justice of its retributive content and filling it with the steadfast love of the Father and the Son.
The traditional assertion of the eternal punishment of the impenitent appalls the Scotsman. He does not understand why the disciples of Christ have embraced this teaching. What is hell but the defeat of God and the victory of wickedness? If God is defeated, then surely it would be better for him to annihilate the reprobate. Most of us, after all, know when it is time to euthanize our pets rather than allow them to suffer needlessly.
But MacDonald refuses to entertain this possibility. As MacDonald succinctly states in his spiritually powerful fantasy novel Lilith:
Annihilation itself is no death to evil. Only good where evil was, is evil dead. An evil thing must live with its evil until it chooses to be good. That alone is the slaying of evil. (chap. 30)
The God who is Love cannot and will not be defeated by evil. Genuine justice demands not the extinguishment of the sinner but his liberation:
Justice then requires that sin should be put an end to; and not that only, but that it should be atoned for; and where punishment can do anything to this end, where it can help the sinner to know what he has been guilty of, where it can soften his heart to see his pride and wrong and cruelty, justice requires that punishment shall not be spared. And the more we believe in God, the surer we shall be that he will spare nothing that suffering can do to deliver his child from death. If suffering cannot serve this end, we need look for no more hell, but for the destruction of sin by the destruction of the sinner. That, however, would, it appears to me, be for God to suffer defeat, blameless indeed, but defeat.
If God be defeated, he must destroy—that is, he must withdraw life. How can he go on sending forth his life into irreclaimable souls, to keep sin alive in them throughout the ages of eternity? But then, I say, no atonement would be made for the wrongs they have done; God remains defeated, for he has created that which sinned, and which would not repent and make up for its sin. But those who believe that God will thus be defeated by many souls, must surely be of those who do not believe he cares enough to do his very best for them. He is their Father; he had power to make them out of himself, separate from himself, and capable of being one with him: surely he will somehow save and keep them! Not the power of sin itself can close all the channels between creating and created.
MacDonald does not offer a philosophical argument to demonstrate how it is possible for God to convert the obdurate, nor does he present a theory of divine agency and human freedom. His views, therefore, cannot be located in the compatibilist–libertarian spectrum of contemporary debate. MacDonald speaks rather from faith, from a deep confidence in the power of omnipotent Love to realize the good of humanity. No sinner “can close all the channels between creating and created.” That human beings could definitively barricade themselves against the presence and word of their Creator MacDonald deems nonsensical. Clearly MacDonald does not believe that the greater hope depends upon a superior metaphysics. Philosophies come and go. The intersection of Creator and creature—what Austin Farrer called the “causal joint”—eludes our apprehension. It cannot be formulated, measured, computed, analyzed. We are confronted with the mystery of divine transcendence. MacDonald’s position might also be described as fideistic: his profound faith in the absolute love of God determines his reflection. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ informs all of his thinking upon the eschatological destiny of mankind. He may not be able to explain the mechanism of post-mortem repentance; but he knows that Jesus has destroyed sin and death on the cross and risen into glory. The prophet of Scotland cannot envisage the Father of Jesus ever abandoning the children he has brought into being. God has created human beings for union with him—not for death, not for annihilation, not for perdition. He will unrelentingly do his best for them, even if it means immersing them in the consuming fire of Gehenna. “Jesus did not die to save us from punishment,” MacDonald declares; “he was called Jesus because he should save his people from their sins.”
Yet how? we still ask. How will God, how can God, convert those who have definitively set their wills against him, even unto death? And here the teller of fairy tales is willing to speculate. We turn to his unspoken sermon “The Last Farthing.”
Once upon a time . . .
Imagine a human being, any human being, perhaps you, perhaps me, digging in his heels and refusing to love God. “I will not repent,” he declares. “I would be rid of my Creator once and for all.” In this state of mortal sin he dies and awakens in the outer darkness. God grants him the autonomy he desires. He is removed from all materiality, removed from all the goods of the world to which he so idolatrously enslaved himself during his earthly life. He is divorced from all creaturely intercourse. There is no up, no down; no left or right. There is no where, no passage of time, no sound, no sight, no presences, nothing whatsoever to perceive, no possibility of even the barest happiness—sheer emptiness and vacuity. Darkness blacker than black. The self alone with the self. Imagine the soul’s bewilderment, disequilibrium, vertigo, terror. The light of divinity is nowhere to be seen. There is only the void—a sensory deprivation tank of total isolation:
It is the vast outside; the ghastly dark beyond the gates of the city of which God is the light—where the evil dogs go ranging, silent as the dark, for there is no sound any more than sight. The time of signs is over. Every sense has its signs, and they were all misused: there is no sense, no sign more—nothing now by means of which to believe. The man wakes from the final struggle of death, in absolute loneliness—such a loneliness as in the most miserable moment of deserted childhood he never knew. Not a hint, not a shadow of anything outside his consciousness reaches him. All is dark, dark and dumb; no motion—not the breath of a wind! never a dream of change! not a scent from far-off field! nothing to suggest being or thing besides the man himself, no sign of God anywhere. God has so far withdrawn from the man, that he is conscious only of that from which he has withdrawn. In the midst of the live world he cared for nothing but himself; now in the dead world he is in God’s prison, his own separated self. He would not believe in God because he never saw God; now he doubts if there be such a thing as the face of a man—doubts if he ever really saw one, ever anything more than dreamed of such a thing:—he never came near enough to human being, to know what human being really was—so may well doubt if human beings ever were, if ever he was one of them.
No matter how our lost individual tries, he can neither escape from the void nor will himself out of existence. There are no objects to satisfy his disordered desires. No persons with whom to converse, nobody to manipulate, dominate, or exploit. Just nothingness and the misery of interminable solitude, trapped in the demonic phantasmagory of consciousness severed from reality. Madness beckons.
Yet perhaps there may yet be a way to reality, to sanity, to love:
The most frightful idea of what could, to his own consciousness, befall a man, is that he should have to lead an existence with which God had nothing to do. The thing could not be; for being that is caused, the causation ceasing, must of necessity cease. It is always in, and never out of God, that we can live and do. But I suppose the man so left that he seems to himself utterly alone, yet, alas! with himself—smallest interchange of thought, feeblest contact of existence, dullest reflection from other being, impossible: in such evil case I believe the man would be glad to come in contact with the worst-loathed insect: it would be a shape of life, something beyond and besides his own huge, void, formless being! I imagine some such feeling in the prayer of the devils for leave to go into the swine. His worst enemy, could he but be aware of him, he would be ready to worship. For the misery would be not merely the absence of all being other than his own self, but the fearful, endless, unavoidable presence of that self. Without the correction, the reflection, the support of other presences, being is not merely unsafe, it is a horror—for anyone but God, who is his own being. For him whose idea is God’s, and the image of God, his own being is far too fragmentary and imperfect to be anything like good company. It is the lovely creatures God has made all around us, in them giving us himself, that, until we know him, save us from the frenzy of aloneness—for that aloneness is Self, Self, Self. The man who minds only himself must at last go mad if God did not interfere.
Can there be any way out of the misery? Will the soul that could not believe in God, with all his lovely world around testifying of him, believe when shut in the prison of its own lonely, weary all-and-nothing? It would for a time try to believe that it was indeed nothing, a mere glow of the setting sun on a cloud of dust, a paltry dream that dreamed itself—then, ah, if only the dream might dream that it was no more! that would be the one thing to hope for. Self-loathing, and that for no sin, from no repentance, from no vision of better, would begin and grow and grow; and to what it might not come no soul can tell—of essential, original misery, uncompromising self disgust! Only, then, if a being be capable of self-disgust, is there not some room for hope—as much as a pinch of earth in the cleft of a rock might yield for the growth of a pine?
Nay, there must be hope while there is existence; for where there is existence there must be God; and God is for ever good, nor can be other than good. But alas, the distance from the light! Such a soul is at the farthest verge of life’s negation!—no, not the farthest! a man is nearer heaven when in deepest hell than just ere he begins to reap the reward of his doings—for he is in a condition to receive the smallest show of the life that is, as a boon unspeakable. All his years in the world he received the endless gifts of sun and air, earth and sea and human face divine, as things that came to him because that was their way, and there was no one to prevent them; now the poorest thinning of the darkness he would hail as men of old the glow of a descending angel; it would be as a messenger from God. Not that he would think of God! it takes long to think of God; but hope, not yet seeming hope, would begin to dawn in his bosom, and the thinner darkness would be as a cave of light, a refuge from the horrid self of which he used to be so proud.
“Help me,” the tortured soul whispers to the nothingness. “Help me.”
And then comes the word he is desperate to hear:
“I am the resurrection and the life.”
(9 April 2019; rev.)
Just added a quotation from ‘Lilith’ that expresses MacDonald’s view of annihilationism.
What an incredible meditation, Fr Aidan!
This ending managed to touch the deepest part of my soul, thank you for sharing this pearl with us.
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