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George MacDonald (6) – Heaven & Hell

May 17, 2009

MacDonald was never afraid to speculate about other worlds and life after death. His alternate worlds, where being of all kinds abound, where everything is startling and different, have much in common with the invented worlds of modern science fiction. These are scattered through the galaxies and through millenia, full of new races, new societies, new mysteries. But MacDonald insists that the one thing that could never change was the moral law: goodness remains goodness, evil is always evil, whether it be in a planet in a distant star-cluster, or London in the year A.D. 3000.

A modern problem which would have interested but  not surprised MacDonald is the great number of young people who are gripped and enthused by Time Lords and Galactic Emperors wielding vast powers for good or evil throughout the universe and through millions of years. And yet these are the same young people who are said to find the Christian account of angels and a personal devil incredible. It may well be that this is because they feel that Christian angels are boring or “goody-goody”, whereas the super beings of science fiction are vibrant  and alive with purpose.

It is true also that the vast majority of ordinary Christians, while no doubt passively acquiescing in the idea of Heaven, find it difficult to summon up any enthusiasm for the place. The images of jewelled cities and thrones, of golden crowns and crystal seas, of harps and incense, leave them cold. How much most attractive the (equally metaphorical) visions of some modern science fiction: exciting – and dangerous – explorations of new worlds; long, patient years of living with and understanding other races of beings; comradeship and love winning through against malice and evil. That’s closer to a heaven worth aiming for – not a boring place of eternal rest and peace, but a vibrant life of love and service.

And that is exactly George MacDonald’s view of life after death. The idea of a static condition or a place of peace and rest had little attraction for him. This is why he found the idea of purgatory more and more compelling. No one, he believed was condemned to eternal hell or elevated to perfect bliss at the moment of their death. The strict Calvinism of his upbringing insisted on this, and he reacted strongly against it. (One of the Calvinists’ favourite proof-texts was from Proverbs: “As the tree falleth, so shall it lie” – no doubt good forestry, but bad theology.

MacDonald’s vision of life after death is much more dynamic and moving. Although he never officially adopted a universalist doctrine, he often gets close to denying that anyone will ultimately be able to resist the love of God and choose separation from him, which is Hell. God would not, could not, force anyone to accept his love, but MacDonald believed that his love would in the end attract and draw all into heaven. Then the adventure would begin; then real life, as it is meant to be lived, would flow on through eternity, not changeless or boring, but developing and expanding in excitement and beauty and love, in a way that is only hinted at in this present life. These hints of the true life are the most valuable moments in anyone’s life, and MacDonald’s characters “see through” into the eternal realms more and more as they learn to love and serve God in their neighbours.

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