The Dead Speak: George MacDonald

C.S. Lewis, in speaking of George MacDonald, once said, “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master”. In light of Lewis’s confession, it could be said that MacDonald was the master of a master, as Lewis was himself a master to many. At risk of belaboring an idea, I must confess that more and more I find myself turning to MacDonald for spiritual wisdom and encouragement and thus I am also tempted to refer to him as my master.

During his time, MacDonald was a noted author, poet, and Christian minister, who held company with such figures as Lewis Carroll, John Ruskin, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Walt Whitman. Though he wrote many novels, and many of his sermons were published in book form, he is most critically praised for his mastery of fantasies, or more specifically a genre known as mythopoeia, through which he deftly rendered spiritual realities into a mythical and imaginative landscape.

Currently, MacDonald is not the household name that he used to be, but there are many still many who know, admire, and owe a debt to his artistry and spiritual vision. Moreover, there appears to be something of a revival of interest in his work as particularly seen in numerous websites that are devoted to him, and in the updating of many of his works for a modern audience. I certainly hope that this revival spreads as I believe that the Church would be greatly enriched by his influence.


It is true that Jesus came, in delivering us from our sins, to deliver us also from the consequences of our sins. But these consequences exist by the one law of the universe, the true will of God. When that will is broken, suffering is inevitable. But in the perfection of God’s creation, the result of that suffering is curative. The pain works toward the healing of the breach.

The Lord never came to deliver men from the consequences of their sins while those sins yet remained. That would be to cast out the window the medicine of cure while still the man lay sick. Yet, feeling nothing of the dread hatefulness of their sin, men have constantly taken this word that the Lord came to deliver us from our sins to mean that he came to save them from the punishment of their sins.

This idea has terribly corrupted the preaching of the Gospel. The message of the Good News has not been truly communicated. Unable to believe in the forgiveness of their Father in heaven, imagining him not at liberty to forgive, or incapable of forgiving forthright; not really believing him God who is fully our Savior, but a God bound –either in his own nature or by a law above him and compulsory upon him– to exact some recompense or satisfaction for sin, a multitude of religious teachers have taught their fellow men that Jesus came to bear our punishment and save us from hell. But in that they have misrepresented his true mission. The mission of Jesus was from the same source and with the same object as the punishment of our sins. He came to do more than take the punishment for our sins. He came as well to set us free from our sin.

No man is safe from hell until he is free from his sin. But a man to whom his sins are a burden, while he may indeed sometimes feel as if he were in hell, will soon have forgotten that he ever had any other hell to think of than that of his sinful condition. For to him his sin is hell. He would go to the other hell to be free of it. Free of his sin, hell itself would be endurable to him. For hell is God’s and not the Devil’s. Hell is on the side of God and man, to free the child of God from the corruption of death. Not one soul will ever be redeemed from hell but by being saved from his sin, from the evil in him. If hell be needful to save him, hell will blaze, and the worm will writhe and bite, until he takes refuge in the will of the Father. “Salvation from hell” is salvation as conceived by such to whom hell, and not the evil of sin, is the terror.

God takes our sins on himself, and while he drives them out of us with a whip of scorpions, he will yet make them work for his good ends. He defeats our sins, makes them prisoners, forces them into the service of good, and chains them like galley slaves to the rowing benches of the gospel ship. He makes them work toward salvation for us.

5 Responses to “The Dead Speak: George MacDonald”

  1. Simon Jones  

    Don’t you just hate it when you write a bloody great big long post, that you’ve put effort and thought into and you’re well proud of. Then no bugger comments!

  2. Anthony Velez  

    Actually, on this one George MacDonald did most of the thinking and effort. Also, when I create a post like this I am not sure what my expectations are. This is an excerpt from one of his sermons, which is something that is generally heard and mulled over, and usually not responded to in an immediate sense. Various friends have told me that they read my blog but often don’t comment. With something like this, as well as some of the stuff that I write myself, I can see why that would happen. Most people don’t want to get involved in a long response, and a lot of the stuff I write is not amenable to short responses, and so people will read and just think it over.

    Also, at best I have about fifteen readers for my blog and I don’t think any of them consistently read my blog. But even though this is the case, I still find motivation just in having a format where there is the possibility that something I have written, or something I think should be read gets a venue. Since my profession is tied to writing, it is good to have something that keeps me writing.

  3. Kevin Benson  

    In the last four or five years I have become more intrigued by MacDonald. Some of his stuff I find rather difficult to enter into. While I am fascinated by Phantastes, I have a hard time figuring out what he is trying to communicate. I can get bits and pieces of it, but the piece as a whole is somewhat lost on me. This may be due to my science background and wanting everything to fit into a neat package. On the other hand, I love the Princess and the Goblin and the Princess and Curdie, perhaps because the stories are more “entertaining.”

    In terms of the piece you have posted, I like his comment that “hell is God’s and not the devil’s.” While we might not like to ascribe hell to God, if we give credit (or discredit) to Satan than we give him creative powers. Of course, this then gets into our understanding of what hell is, which I think is what MacDonald is trying to touch on. I am sure that I don’t have a full enough loathing of my own sin. I certainly do not feel it could be said of me, “For to him his sin is hell.”

  4. Anthony Velez  

    Kevin, Good to hear from you! Have you read Lilith by MacDonald, which is similar in feel to Phantastes, but a little more accessible? You may very well know this, but I will say it anyways, both Phantastes and Lilith, and to some degree his more accessible fantasies are categorized as mythopoeia, which means myth-making. Those who write in this vein hold the view that myth contains spiritual and foundational truths regarding human existence, and consequently they write modern narratives to disclose those truths. In the case of MacDonald, he was disclosing those truths in light of the revelation given in Jesus Christ, and so his stories in this vein are often symbolically dense expressions of how we come to faith and in faith how we become like Christ. My experience is that it is not best to read his work trying to identify what each discrete thing means, rather the meaning is in the whole, and so you read and just let it sink in and over time you find yourself connecting with it and finding it make sense of things in your own life even as things in your life make sense of it.

    Regarding Hell, I understand that MacDonald was a modified Universalist, and so he believed that all would eventually come to genuine repentance either in the present age or somehow in the age to come. Consequently, Hell was not eternal punishment meted out to appease God’s wrath, but rather was a means God employed to prompt people (a sever prompting) to see the inherent loathsomeness of their sin. In this manner Hell is more curative than punitive. I realize that this is a controversial idea, and I am not sure where I stand in relation to it, but I do like it.

  5. Kevin Benson  

    Hi Anthony. Thanks for the quick response. I have enjoyed the few of your blog entries I have read. You have always been one of my favorite people to talk with about stuff like this, so it is fun to read and respond.

    I haven’t read Lilith. It is one I will add to my reading list. About three years ago I put together an independent study class for Fuller on Chrisianity and Imagination. I used Phantastes by MacDonald, ‘Til We Have Faces by Lewis, The Silmarillion by Tolkein, A Swiftly Tilting Planet by L’Engle and The Red Shoe by Anne Lamott as source texts and Christian Mythmakers (Roland Hein) and The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing (Leland Ryken) as text books. The idea of using the imagination to communicate truth to me is fascinating and something I am going to continue to explore. If there are any additional texts you can suggest that would be great. I have read some Charles Wiliams and GK Chesterton, both of which I enjoyed but had some trouble penetrating. Williams is so symbolic and Chesterton so witty and well read that it is sometimes hard for me to keep up.

    I knew about MacDonald’s Universalist tendencies, but never really the theology behind his views. The idea of hell as curative does intrigue me. Where in his writings/sermons does he develop this thinking more?