“On the whole, theological issues have little effect on the daily lives of the faithful. Theologians aren’t really nearly as important as they imagine themselves to be, and the church as a whole would probably be better off if they were all periodically exterminated.” This was a David Bentley Hart quip during a lecture at Fordham University in 2017. Hart is making the same point here that Georoge MacDonald makes in his Unspoken Sermon on “Justice” when he says: “Some of the best of men have indeed held these theories [of vicarious sacrifice], and of men who have held them I have loved and honoured some heartily and humbly—but because of what they were, not because of what they thought; and they were what they were in virtue of their obedient faith, not of their opinion.” My own demanding overindulgence with the initiation of theological readings and conversations among my family members this Thanksgiving brought to mind the comparison of these two passages.
On Thanksgiving Day, several of my eight long-suffering siblings (with many more were I to count my siblings in-law) allowed me to read aloud from a favorite author. I started into Cheerful Words, a collection of passages from George MacDonald compiled in 1880, during his lifetime. All of us loved it, and I heartily recommend it. The day after Thanksgiving, I read “The Consuming Fire” from MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons out loud to a gathering in which my father joined several more of us siblings. Although its strong universalist language was theologically out of line with their own eschatology, my father and siblings clearly loved plenty about the sermon. One brother-in-law pointed out that perhaps the most striking passage to him was near the opening when MacDonald insists that any action that must be requested cannot be called a loving action. “Love which will yield to prayer is imperfect and poor. …It is not love that grants a boon unwillingly.” Reading this minor classic out loud with my extended family was moving, and I wept a little while sharing the passage about Moses not being prepared to see the face of God in Jesus Christ. (Reflecting on that passage in the couple of days since then, while I think more than ever that MacDonald is profoundly right, I also think that he should have attributed the poor spiritual condition of the Isrealites more to the abject bleakness of their pagan surroundings than to their centuries spent in slavery—which may have been as much a help in their salvation as a hinderence. However, that is another topic entirely from this present reflection.)
Two days after Thanksgiving, I asked the gathered family if they would enjoy another sermon by MacDonald. To my delight (and their credit), all of those present said yes, and I launched into a reading of “Justice” from MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. This was a thoughtless and pushy choice on my part. I remembered it as yet another place where MacDonald speaks directly about his convictions regarding universal salvation. With the many other wonderful options that everyone would have enjoyed, this was a self-serving and combative selection. In my defense, I did not remember how doggedly MacDonald goes after the doctrine of propitiatory (or substitutionary) atonement. MacDonald utterly rejects the idea that God must punish sin in order to be a just God and that Jesus Christ died because God needed someone to punish instead of us sinners. Rather, MacDonald insists that God owes it to all of his creatures to destroy their sinfulness entirely by causing them to see it fully as sin and to learn to hate their sin and to love their Father:
God is not bound to punish sin; he is bound to destroy sin. …Punishment, I repeat, is not the thing required of God, but the absolute destruction of sin. What better is the world, what better is the sinner, what better is God, what better is the truth, that the sinner should suffer—continue suffering to all eternity? Would there be less sin in the universe? Would there be any making-up for sin? …Grant that the sinner has deserved to suffer, no amount of suffering is any atonement for his sin. To suffer to all eternity could not make up for one unjust word. …Sorrow and confession and self-abasing love will make up for the evil word; suffering will not. For evil in the abstract, nothing can be done. It is eternally evil. But I may be saved from it by learning to loathe it, to hate it, to shrink from it with an eternal avoidance. The only vengeance worth having on sin is to make the sinner himself its executioner. …Sin and suffering are not natural opposites; the opposite of evil is good, not suffering; the opposite of sin is not suffering, but righteousness.
…As the word was used by the best English writers at the time when the translation of the Bible was made—with all my heart, and soul, and strength, and mind, I believe in the atonement, call it the a-tone-ment, or the at-one-ment, as you please. I believe that Jesus Christ is our atonement; that through him we are reconciled to, made one with God. There is not one word in the New Testament about reconciling God to us; it is we that have to be reconciled to God.
MacDonald is categorical in his rejection of the standard Western Christian accounts of salvation. After describing “the teaching of the Roman Church” as resting upon a “morally and spiritually vulgar idea of justice and satisfaction held by pagan Rome,” MacDonald turns to the Reformation and says that “better the reformers had kept their belief in a purgatory, and parted with what is called vicarious sacrifice!” Such a defense of purgatory while rejecting God’s need to punish sin is guaranteed to offend everyone. Although MacDonald clearly maintains that he is at war with the deplorable ideas and not with the people who hold these ideas, the ideas are name, again and again, as despicable:
I desire to wake no dispute, will myself dispute with no man, but for the sake of those whom certain believers trouble, I have spoken my mind. I love the one God seen in the face of Jesus Christ. From all copies of Jonathan Edwards’s portrait of God, however faded by time, however softened by the use of less glaring pigments, I turn with loathing. Not such a God is he concerning whom was the message John heard from Jesus, that he is light, and in him is no darkness at all.
…If you say the best of men have held the opinions I stigmatize, I answer: …In virtue of knowing God by obeying his son, they rose above the theories they had never looked in the face, and so had never recognized as evil. …They are lies that, working under cover of the truth mingled with them, burrow as near the heart of the good man as they can go. Whoever, from whatever reason of blindness, may be the holder of a lie, the thing is a lie, and no falsehood must mingle with the justice we mete out to it. There is nothing for any lie but the pit of hell. Yet until the man sees the thing to be a lie, how shall he but hold it! Are there not mingled with it shadows of the best truth in the universe? So long as a man is able to love a lie, he is incapable of seeing it is a lie. He who is true, out and out, will know at once an untruth; and to that vision we must all come. I do not write for the sake of those who either make or heartily accept any lie. When they see the glory of God, they will see the eternal difference between the false and the true, and not till then. I write for those whom such teaching as theirs has folded in a cloud through which they cannot see the stars of heaven, so that some of them even doubt if there be any stars of heaven. …Every man who tries to obey the Master is my brother, whether he counts me such or not, and I revere him.
While still several paragraphs away from the conclusion of this essay, one of my sisters-in-law asked that we cease and desist. It was far more combative regarding soteriology than I had remembered, and I was glad enough to let it rest. (Although I will pause to note that one brother-in-law mentioned his appreciation for MacDonald’s reference to those who “even doubt if there be any stars of heaven.”) All-in-all, however, I was feeling more than a little selfish for having taken it up at all on this third day together with my family.
To understand the extent of my thoughtlessness, note that my devoted father is a Presbyterian minister. Two of my younger siblings have plans to leave this spring for long-term assignments in difficult missionary work overseas. One brother-in-law serves tirelessly and selflessly as a ruling elder at a Presbyterian church. Another brother (who also attends a Presbyterian church) had spent much of Thanksgiving Day at the bedside of a close friend and young father (like himself) who was not expected to live many more days and who took great comfort in my brother’s reading of Puritan spiritual classics to him. I could go on and on. Simply put, however, I was surrounded by a profoundly loving family that had suffered and sacrificed together in countless ways and that had shown endless kindness and patience to me. In this context, I had selected a devotional reflection that utterly rejected all that they held most sacred with regard to Christian teaching and to the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. As for me—when I left in a rush to make it to a prayer service at my home church—I did not even leave time to empty the trash basket in the bathroom attached to the bedroom that was given to me or strip the sheets from my bed and take them down to the laundry room.
My reflection here, nonetheless, is not just a confession of my selfishness. It’s also, to some degree, a clarification and a defense upon further reflection. First, there is a difference between soteriology and eschatology. Many would agree with MacDonald in rejecting the doctrine of vicarious sacrifice while not agreeing with his universalism. This is largely true of C. S. Lewis. The teachings in MacDonald’s “Justice” were echoed by C. S. Lewis when he insisted that the gates of hell are only locked from the inside (The Problem of Pain, 130). While speaking often of his reverence for MacDonald and making him his guide in heaven in The Great Divorce, Lewis clearly rejected MacDonald’s universalism. This is explicit at the end of The Great Divorce and in a 1959 letter to the Reverend Alan Fairhurst where Lewis wrote, “I parted company from MacDonald on that point because a higher authority — the Dominical utterances themselves — seemed to me irreconcilable with universalism.” (On these statements by our Lord, by the way, I highly recommend Kim Papaioannou’s book The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus: Gehena, Hades, the Abyss, the Outer Darkness Where There Is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth which is solid scholarship and which does not come down on the side of universalism.)
Even in matters of soteriology, Lewis is far more subtle and inclusive of various doctrines than was MacDonald in his “Justice” sermon. Many have argued over the soteriology of Lewis at great length, but one simple example of his nuance comes from a very familiar source for most. Here is Aslan describing the deeper magic (in Chapter 15 of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe):
It means that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.
This passage does not confront the doctrine of vicarious sacrifice headon, but it makes clear that the logic of the witch was undone by a deeper logic. While the witch knew that a deep magic called for death as a just response to treachery, she did not realize that the death of an innocent person would undo that more feeble logic from within and cause death itself to have no lasting power. Edmond’s repentance and this deeper magic work together in Lewis to fulfill the crude logic of the law with a higher logic that, in some real sense, condemns and undoes the sacrifice of an innocent victim as unjust according to the truths recorded during “the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned.” While the Deep Magic comes from Aslan’s father the Emperor and while Aslan obeys it, Aslan and his father are aware that the deep magic only makes sense in the light of the deeper magic that condemns the death of an innocent victim. Lewis is far from joining MacDonald in an all out rejection of vicarious sacrifice. However, Lewis is placing vicarious sacrifice within a larger framework that rests upon a recognition of the injustice of vicarious sacrifice when taken alone. MacDonald cites the scripture saying that God does not actually desire sacrifice. Lewis agrees by making it clear that God’s desire is not for a victim (as was the desire of the witch), but that God desired to see the cracking of the sacrificial table and the reversal of death by divine life working from within.
Many books have been written on these topics of course, and many more will be. There are even those who maintain that penal substitutionary atonement is taught by the early church fathers (as with “Penal Substitution in the Early Church” published by Brian Arnold on April 13, 2021 at The Gospel Coalition or the book An Existential Soteriology: Penal Substitutionary Atonement in Light of the Mystical Theology of the Church Fathers by Orthodox priest Joshua Karl Schooping). While there is some sense in which God does desire sacrifice (despite his multiple protests to the contrary in places such as Psalm 51:16 and Hosea 6:6), we are, by far, best off considering this while participating in the Divine Liturgy where we the priest prays, “Again we offer unto You this rational and bloodless sacrifice.” Here the word “rational” is sometimes translated as “reasonable” (as in submitting to what is most reasonable, right and good). The term sacrifice is sometimes translated as “service” or “worship.” Critical here is the understanding of sacrifice in the Old Testament as rooted in the giving back of creation to God who gives all of it to us continually as the gift of life from God himself. Sacrifice, rightly understood, is most fundamentally about participation in the life of God through the continual receiving and offering back to God of all that we have in thanksgiving. This is why Christ’s sacrifice is called the Eucharist (rooted in the word “thanksgiving”).
We might also consider how John Scotus Eriugena uses Augustine wonderfully to correct Augustine. There is so much that is so profoundly good and insightful in Augustine, especially in his early work (when he was closest to Ambrose and unclouded by later polemics). However, despite all of his blessed insights, it is also obvious that Augustine’s basic inability to read the Greek of passages such as Romans 5:12 added profoundly to the later theological confusions of the church regarding the nature of sin and fall.
Augustine also clearly does not read Paul as well as the Cappadocian fathers regarding Paul’s concern with corporate rather than personal election (as we see clearly in Romans 9:6-7 where Paul says that “children of Abraham” does not equal “Jews” but Gentiles). Gregory of Nyssa explains Paul’s meaning most convincingly and fully by understanding Paul (across all of his letters) to be talking about the movement of all human history through the various courts of approach into the temple of God. Some are predestined to be called out from the world as a witness to God’s saving work beyond history while others remain for a time entirely within the darkness and destruction of this fallen world. In Christ, however, all will be ushered into the Holy of Holies where God will become “all in all.” In 1 Corinthians 15:28, “panta en pasin” does not simply mean “God in all” but exceeds even that meaning with God “as all in all” so that we have God fully present in each and every creature as well as in all creatures together.
We might also note that Augustine—and even more those who came after him—did not understand that by “works” for Paul refers to the Law of Moses and not to a general human effort to appease or please God. This brings us back to the question of true sacrifice and what is meant by this in the Old and New Testaments. However, all these points are distractions and drag us back into theology over and against the contemplation of Christ which I failed to do with my family this Thanksgiving. My brother was drawing a beautiful pencil image during this entire time of John reclining against Christ’s breast—the “one thing needful” as Christ told Martha (Luke 10:38-42). It is also a distraction from obedience to what Christ teaches as Christ makes extraordinarily clear to the woman who calls out not long after Martha that “blessed are the breasts at which you nursed” (Luke 11:27-28).
Still, while theories about God are of very little value (coming, at least, after listening, gazing and obeying), I’ll end by pointing to what theories I would most recommend on these topics if I could suggest just a few short books by one humble author. I would point you to Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope, and the New Jerusalem by Bradley Jersak. He has two other related and wonderful books called A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel and A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way. I also heartily recommend Cheerful Words (and all else) by George MacDonald.