C.S. Lewis, perhaps the most influential Christian author of the 20th Century, said of the author and Universalist* theologian George Macdonald, “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master.” and “I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself." Lewis referenced MacDonald in nearly every one of his works and wrote an anthology of his writings.
Clearly, MacDonald was a primary influence on the development of Lewis’ religious beliefs. Yet, despite Lewis’ admiration and emulation of MacDonald, he never accepted the core belief of his “master”- universal salvation. George MacDonald believed that all mankind would be saved and return to God, eventually. This piece attempts to explain how and why these two men differed in this most important theological point.
The main differences lie in five areas:
3) Good and Evil
4) God’s Role
5) Death, Final Judgment, and Hell
I will support these claims with quotations from the authors as well as insights gathered from experts on their teachings. My purpose is not to debate who is “right”, but rather to lay out their beliefs. Therefore I will not quote scripture as a means of confirmation or refutation of their ideas. However, in my research I have found that most, if not all, their beliefs, even those which seem to contradict each other, have scripture to support them.
“If tribulation is a necessary element in redemption, we must anticipate that it will never cease till God sees the world to be either redeemed or no further redeemable.” (The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis)
MacDonald and Lewis see tribulation as a blessing, an inevitable and necessary part of this earth-life. Yet they differ in the faith they place in suffering - in its ultimate efficacy in helping us reach a heavenly destination. For MacDonald, suffering will ultimately yield righteousness. For Lewis, suffering can only aid us if we face it with humility.
MacDonald: When we read Bible verses on the “fires of hell”, we may be disturbed by this seemingly vengeful imagery. Yet George MacDonald, who believes all will be saved, knows this imagery for suffering does not denote vindictive punishment, but a tool of salvation. God is never vengeful towards his children - every fire serves a purpose - sin must be burned away.
“The only vengeance worth having on sin is to make the sinner himself its executioner”. (Justice, Unspoken Sermons)
In MacDonald’s The Princess and Curdie, we see Curdie put his hands into the fire of roses at the request of the wise grandmother. When the fire has done its cleansing work, Curdie has the ability to shake hands with anyone and discern their righteousness. If they are wicked their hand feels to Curdie as a beast’s paw or hoof. If righteous, it feels like a man’s hand. The fire, while painful to Curdie, enables him to feel truth. MacDonald refers often to this “consuming fire” of God’s love. It will burn, but it will burn us into purity. For many of us, suffering is required to humble our hearts to our true nature.
“Love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed. And our God is a consuming fire.” (Consuming Fire, Unspoken Sermons)
Lewis also sees the “fire of hell” as an analogy of suffering. He agrees with his “Master” on the utility of suffering.
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world...No doubt Pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument: it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment.” (The Problem of Pain)
Yet, he stops short of MacDonald in assuring us of suffering’s efficiency. Pride can inhibit this humbling-fire from having sway on our soul. In fact, pain may lead us towards “final and unrepented rebellion.” The utility of suffering as a “consuming fire” seems to hinge on humility. For the proud, suffering will not be a purifying experience, but a corrupting one.
“Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see." (The Great Divorce)
Pride, that greatest sin, is the advancing of our will over God’s will. Both men agree, our will is the key which opens the door of heaven or hell. However, their diverging understanding of “free will” leads MacDonald to universal salvation and Lewis to a rejection of it. MacDonald sees free will as our path back to God. For Lewis, our will may become the cause of our damnation.
MacDonald “escaped” the Calvinist doctrine of predestination - yet he retains a belief that the will is not “fully free” - but is really meant for goodness (Intellectualist Freedom). So while we are not “predestined”, our will was made by God and so returns us to God. Lewis takes the view that while the Moral Law guides us, our will is free to go wrong or right (Voluntarist Freedom). MacDonald sees free-will as “ultimately choosing good” while Lewis sees free will as “choosing between good or evil."
“But a free will is not the liberty to do whatever one likes, but the power of doing whatever one sees ought to be done, even in the very face of otherwise overwhelming impulse. There lies freedom indeed.” (Self-Denial, Unspoken Sermons)
We are the offspring of God. As children of God we must ultimately choose goodness - we may rebel, but our default is goodness.
In his book, Lilith, we read a depiction of God's consuming fire turning the most rebellious of wills back home. He tells the story of the first wife of Adam, Lilith, the wickedest of women. She rules her tormented subjects in cruelty and kills many children, including her own daughter. Lilith is unrepentant, clinging tightly to her corrupted will. She faces the righteous Mara, Lady of Sorrow, who pleads,
“Will you turn away from the wicked things you have been doing so long…you are another now, not yourself! Will you not be your real self?”
“I will do after my nature!”
“You do not know it, your nature is good, and you do evil.”
“I am content to be myself what I would be…Another shall not make me!”
“But another has made you, and can compel you to see what you have made yourself. There is a light that goes deeper than the will, a light that lights up the darkness behind it; that light can change your will, can make it truly yours and not another’s - not the Shadow’s. Into the created can pour itself the creating will, and so redeem it!”
The light that changes the rebel will, the enduring and unfailing light of our Father, is the hope which MacDonald holds as he proclaims that the love of God is deeper than hell!
Lewis, on the other hand, believes we should tie our will to God, but we may not. True freedom will never be found in wickedness, but we may choose it nonetheless. Our free-will allows for an eternal hell.
“There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way.’” (The Great Divorce)
For Lewis, “If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad.” So the very possibility of choosing wickedness unlocks “real” goodness. Righteous choice is not righteous if we are destined to make it.
“Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.” (Mere Christianity)
In the Screwtape Letters, Lewis gives us a manual of the enemy’s tactics: how to separate the will away from God. A demon, Screwtape, describes, in disgust, what God desires of our “will”.
“For us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy (God) demands of men is quite different. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself - creatures whose life…will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His.” (Screwtape Letters)
Pure and independent freedom of choice between two opposites lies at the heart of Lewis’ doctrine. If there is no chance Screwtape can consume us, there is no chance God can welcome us.
Good and Evil
This mortal life is a battle between good and evil - the purpose of life is to choose goodness. Both men urge us away from wickedness and toward our true home through obedience. Yet we see how MacDonald’s trust in universal salvation leads him to look differently at sin - less fearful of its consequences, and more hopeful that we will one day understand and be humbled. For Lewis, a sinful life has dire and eternal consequences, for we may succeed in damning ourselves.
“Human history is the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” Mere Christianity
We yearn for God. We will never find happiness outside of Him, so we must find Him. But how do we find Him? They say collectively - Obey Him! Obedience is our protectant from sin, and sin is the source of most human suffering - for the guilty and innocent. But these two men view sin from different perspectives - one of them sees sin as transitory and the other as potentially eternally corrupting.
MacDonald: “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.” (Lilith)
Because MacDonald sees our mind as an offspring of God, he believes sin is, fundamentally, a lack of understanding (a view shared with Plato). Sin is an indication that our will is not yet free. We have not learned enough, but we will.
“What we call evil, is the only and best shape, which, for the person and his condition at the time, could be assumed by the best good.” (Phantastes)
For MacDonald, sin is a hindrance, and evil a twisting of good. But this life is for discovery, a place to build virtue and obey God’s will. When we understand, (Platonic view), we will desire God. Living with the painful consequences of wickedness will aid us in gaining this understanding and choosing good.
With the belief in universal salvation comes a lengthed timeline. MacDonald can always say, “It's all going to work out”. Sin loses some of its sting - for it will be conquered eventually when we accept Christ as "the way, the truth, and the life." The suffering of the innocent is hard to bear on earth - but justice and mercy will be achieved ultimately. God will never stop striving with His child.
“There is no hurry, we do not go much by the clock here. Still, the sooner one begins to do what has to be done the better!” (Mr. Vane and The Raven in Lilith)
For Lewis, this life is for deciding if we want God, if we want joy, or not. Through sin, we can become someone that doesn’t desire goodness. You can become, through obedience and the Atonement, a son of God. Every sin, no matter how small, if unrepented, will have eternal ramifications.
“It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick.” (Screwtape Letters)
Lewis believes the ultimate cause of sin is pride. Pride, that “spiritual cancer”, pits your desires against God’s. Even when truth is shown to us, we must be willing to receive it. Pride is believing our way, our will, is superior to God’s.
“Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind.” (Mere Christianity)
We see an urgency in Lewis’ view of sin. Sin can warp people’s will eternally; they might stop desiring God - and never become His son or daughter. C.S. Lewis emphasizes the progressive nature of evil in many writings - a little sin leads to greater sin; gray becomes black; judgment becomes hatred.
Lewis has to deal with the problem of pain head on - and he does so in his book of that name. It is not going to “work out” for everyone. The suffering resulting from sin is not always reformative. The wickedness of others may cause us suffering and that suffering may harden our own hearts. The pain of our lives cannot be dulled by a guarantee of future bliss. The transformative power of Christ’s Atonement is absolutely necessary for Lewis in reconciling us to God.
The love of God is felt keenly in both men’s writing. He loves us and wants us to return to Him. But, he must have us clean. If we are corrupted by sin, will God win us back? Will He return us from that distant galaxy? The departure here is significant. For MacDonald, God will not rest until each of His precious children are safely home with Him. Lewis believes God will leave us to our own choice.
MacDonald: MacDonald believes that everyone’s ultimate prayer will be the same, and will be answered - Eternal life with God. We are His children and to Him we will return; we are All in All. He will not excuse even the least sin to abide in us. Many think Universalism posits that God will excuse sin. Perhaps some doctrinal offshoots do, but not MacDonald’s Universalism. Rather, He will do all He can, which is infinite, until the desire to sin is “burned” out of His child.
Lewis, on the other hand, focuses on the primacy of independent choice. God gives us independence, what we call freedom. In order to return to God, this independence must be willfully traded for true freedom, which is only found in doing God’s will. God will not compel us to make the trade. “Obedience is the road to heaven.” (The Weight of Glory)
As described in Mere Christianity, God’s Moral Law guides us. His love, beauty, consequence, and experience aid us, but ultimately, we must decide. Our daily choices matter, profoundly, they set us on a course to one galaxy or the other and twist our natures.
“Each day we are becoming a creature of splendid glory or one of unthinkable horror.” (Mere Christianity)
Yet our loving God strives with us; He wants to pull us back before we are “too far gone.” C.S. Lewis details the role God plays in converting his own wandering soul in Surprised by Joy. Flashes of unexpected and undeserved Joy showed God’s fingerprints in his life.
“All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be’.” (Surprised by Joy)
MacDonald qualifies Lewis' thoughts on the corrupting nature of sin. For him, in "becoming a creator of horror" we may be growing closer to God. God will reach us through the miserable by-products of our horror to change us. God will use the sin; He will use the suffering; He will even use the rebellion to advance toward the happy ending. So while Lewis and MacDonald agree that "all things work together for those that love God", MacDonald says -All will love Him so All things work together. So while accepting sin for the wickedness it is, MacDonald believes that all sin will be destroyed by God.
“Primarily, God is not bound to punish sin; he is bound to destroy sin.” (Justice, Unspoken Sermons)
There are many examples in McDonald's writing of someone that seems to be falling away from truth or goodness - yet he sees it as an opportunity because of the suffering/lesson that accompanies it. God keeps reaching for him. One extreme example used by MacDonald is Judas. For MacDonald, even the treachery of Judas could be a turning point for one of God’s children.
“What if the only thing to wake the treacherous, money-loving thief, Judas, to a knowledge of himself, was to let the thing go on to the end, and his kiss betray the Master?” (The Final Unmasking, Unspoken Sermons)
MacDonald “turns with loathing” from the idea that our loving Father would create us and then leave us to damnation.
“God Himself must be held in divine disquiet until every one of his family be brought home to his heart, to be one with Him in a unity too absolute, profound, far-reaching, fine, and intense, to be understood by any but the God.” (The Truth in Jesus, Unspoken Sermons)
God sent His Son to “draw all men” unto Him. Through obedience to His example, we return to the heart of God. Repentance is achieved when we are left incapable of performing the same mistake.
"With him all is simplicity of purpose and meaning and effort and end- namely, that we should be as He is... It is so plain that anyone may see it, everyone ought to see it, everyone shall see it. It must be so. He is utterly true and good to us, nor shall anything withstand his will." (The Child in the Midst, Unspoken Sermons)
Lewis wrote an entire book on miracles; he certainly believes that God hears our prayers, and that He strives with us. If we let Him in, He will rebuild us from a “cottage to a palace”. But he also has a liberatarian stance - He will let us do as we will and face the consequences. He will not force us to love Him. He will allow us to keep drifting away, if we choose.
“Perhaps we do not realize the problem of enabling finite free wills to co-exist with Omnipotence. It seems to involve at every moment almost a sort of divine abdication.” (The Efficacy of Prayer)
MacDonald’s God never abdicates; He reaches into the very fires of hell. “There is no refuge from the compelling love of God” (Robert Falconer)
Death, Final Judgment, Hell
Lewis and MacDonald bravely tackle death and hell. They do not shy away from these difficult topics. Because MacDonald accepts we will all be saved, he sees death and hell as pathways toward an ultimate good. Lewis emphasizes the mercy of God, and the power of grace through Jesus Christ, but this mortal life is a test, and who we become here leads us towards Screwtape’s father, Satan, or our Heavenly Father.
MacDonald: Death has no sting for MacDonald; it is simply a pathway to life with God. But physical death is insignificant compared to the required spiritual death of our rebellious wills through repentance. In Lilith, Mr. Vane discovers a room filled with beds of men and women at various stages of death. Although initially horrified at the suggestion that he should lay down and voluntarily “die”, after much suffering and enlightenment, Mr. Vane yearns for this death, so he might awaken to God.
“Some have but just begun to come alive and die. Others had begun to die, that is to come alive, long before they came to us; and when such are indeed dead, that instant they will wake and leave us…. Do not be a coward, Mr. Vane. Turn your back on fear and your face to whatever may come. Give yourself up to the night, and you will rest indeed. Harm will not come to you, but a good you cannot foreknow.” (Lilith)
Lewis: We see echoes of the “utility of death” in Lewis. However, again, we see no evidence that Lewis believes all will choose to undergo this spiritual death to repentance.
“Nothing, not even the best and noblest, can go on as it now is. Nothing, not even what is lowest and most bestial, will not be raised again if it submits to death. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (Great Divorce)
But when this life is over, when the world is over, how will we be sorted? Lewis’ writings on judgment seem heavily influenced by MacDonald. Both men are united in the belief that the sorting will not be made at God’s whim, as MacDonald’s Calvinist ancestors warned, but we will determine which “door” we enter by the state of our own souls, by whom we have loved - God or ourselves.
In The Last Battle, the final installment of The Narnia Chronicles, Lewis shows us a depiction of what could be termed “The Final Judgment”.
“The creatures came rushing on, their eyes brighter and brighter as they drew nearer and nearer to the standing stars. But as they came right up to Aslan one or other of two things happened to each of them. They all looked straight in his face, I don't think they had any choice about that. And when some looked, the expression of their faces changed terribly- it was fear and hatred:... And all the creatures who looked at Aslan in that way swerved to the right, his left, and disappeared into his huge black shadow…The children never saw them again. I don't know what became of them. But the others looked in the face of Aslan and loved him, though some of them were very frightened at the same time. And all these came in the door, in on Aslan’s right.”
Yet after this initial sorting, there may still be some shifting. Both men seem to recognize that this earth life may not be a sufficient “test” for some. Addictions, trauma, and a shortened lifespan may necessitate some instruction after death. God wants to ensure His child fully understands.
We see this illustrated in Lewis’ allegory, The Great Divorce. Travelers can visit heaven before deciding whether to return to hell. The “Grey Town”, hell, described by Lewis is familiar to our ears with homes, shops, and even buses. Life-immortal looks much the same as life-mortal, but the pride and selfishness of the inhabitants makes it hell. Hostility and selfishness create a hell of isolation. They quarrel incessantly, moving farther and farther away, until they are in distant galaxies. Only those who have not yet drifted into space can still reach the bus stop to “try out” heaven. We follow our narrator, C.S. Lewis himself, and some fellow travelers, as they fly, via bus, to “heaven”. This touring-phase is what Lewis would call purgatory. On the tour of heaven, he is supplied with a “guide”, and a good one - Scottish Theologian George MacDonald.** His fellow travelers also receive guides, acquaintances or family members who have died. Yet many of the travelers reject the truth their guides speak - their prideful hearts cannot receive it. They get back on the bus for hell. They have lost the ability to repent.
The Hell of The Great Divorce is not a place we are “sent” by God but it is willfully chosen, not in regret, but in selfishness.
“I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside . . . they enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.” (Problem of Pain)
MacDonald believes when pushed enough, by the merciful consuming fire, we will all choose God. Lewis says that we kindle our own fires in hell. God, in His omnipotence, will not force the door. The dominant feeling in hell is not regret but selfishness.
“I believe that if a million chances were likely to do good, they would be given. But a master often knows, when boys and parents do not, that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again. Finality must come sometime, and it does not require a very robust faith to believe that omniscience knows when” (Problem of Pain)
The longer we are in hell, the less likely it is that we would leave; for our selfishness shrivels our soul. “A damned soul is nearly nothing, it is shrunk, shut up in itself.” (The Great Divorce)
MacDonald: For MacDonald, there is nothing “final” in a judgment that sends a man to hell. Hell is fiery, but not permanent. The longer you stay, the closer you are to getting out. God's mercy and Justice extend into the eternities. No justice would decree eternity in hell for a child of God but no mercy would allow us to retain a single sinful impulse.
“I believe that no hell will be lacking which would help the just mercy of God to redeem his children.” (Justice, Unspoken Sermons)
So while MacDonald’s doctrine is more ultimately hopeful, we see "purgatory" depicted more darkly in Lilith than Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Here suffering is the primary motivator for change. The Shadow lurks - the horrifying Princess Lilith reigns in terror. Those that were tyrannical or arrogant on earth and those who “will not sleep” (repent) are forced to do battle every night against their fellow Dead. The vain and insincere must live without faces, “Having made their faces masks, they were deprived of those masks and condemned to go without faces until they repented.”
Hell is rough so heaven can be bliss. Nothing short of complete self-denial will do.
“Every reward held out by Christ is a pure thing; nor can it enter the soul save as a death to selfishness. The heaven of Christ is a loving of all, a forgetting of self, a dwelling of each in all, and all in each.” (Self-Denial, Unspoken Sermons)
Jess Lederman contrasts Lewis and MacDonald's views of hell in the forward to the book, Consuming Fire, “MacDonald paints a picture of what hell might be like, a grotesquely bleak vision of man alone with his own self, utterly bereft of the presence of God, which, unbeknownst to him, had been all that had ever made life bearable in the past. McDonald's hell is similar to the hell that C.S. Lewis imagines, in which the gates are locked from the inside; but where McDonald differs is in his belief that such an existence would be impossible for any man to abide. At some point, the faintest glimmer of repentance would lighten the utter Blackness of the prison of self.”
Ultimately even hell is God’s tool and Satan is used for His loving purposes. “For hell is God’s and not the devil’s.” (Hope of the Gospel)
For both, hell is the home of rebellious wills. Yet for MacDonald, hell is a place of refining the will, “The one principle of hell is “I am my own”. The “fire of affliction” we forged in life will rage until its unbearable fury will cause us to seek the "death" God requires. For Lewis, hell is a place of cementing the will - shrinking our soul. “All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.” God will use the fire of suffering on earth to change us, if we will be changed. Upon death, he will ensure that the choice is made clear, yet the pride we built in life may enslave us, and may turn us against the lessons any further “fire” might teach us.
Summary and Agreements
MacDonald’s and Lewis’ agreements far exceeds any disagreements. Yet, their disagreements are informative. I believe the hinge point of difference, leading Lewis to depart from MacDonald’s universalism, is in their view of our will.
MacDonald: Matthew Roark, co-founder of MercyOnAll.org, explains, “For MacDonald, all sin is a mistake. It stems from ignorance and misunderstanding. The fact that a man can sin and err is proof of his slavery, not his freedom. But for MacDonald even our mistakes would lead us back to freedom, since the suffering sin causes would teach us to avoid it and turn in obedience to God. This view is inherently universalist because eventually, perhaps after ages upon ages, everyone will understand the harm of sin and avoid it, and thus become free.”
Lewis, by contrast, took a voluntarist view of free-will. His goodness cannot be the only option for us. There must be a dichotomy of choice or we are not truly free and good doesn't truly exist. Our desires may not return to God and we may be rebels forever. Our pride and selfishness are powerful things, and a soul warped by sin is resistant even to the “consuming fire” of God. So unlike a child that learns from a burn, we lose our sense of touch and become numb to understanding.
In the short term, MacDonald’s “methods” are harsh to our modern sensitivities. God will allow us to “burn in hell”, to suffer pain and death, if need be. Yet eternally, He is merciful. He is our Father and will not leave us. Nature reigns - we are God’s child and to Him we will return. “It cannot be that any creature should know Him as he is and not desire Him.” (Righteousness, Unspoken Sermons)
Lewis’ views are less severe in many ways. There is no pit for sinners; we are free to follow our desires. Yet eternally, God will allow us to drift further from Him, from love and joy, and never return. Nurture reigns - if we nurture wickedness, we change our very nature and become wicked. If we nurture goodness, we return to God. “Now is our chance to choose the right side. God is holding back to give us that chance. It won't last forever. We must take it or leave it.” (Mere Christianity)
Both men see God in His loving character - not as vindictive or punitive. Sin is not punishment but consequence. Any child that comes to God in true repentance will be welcomed home. Lewis, while not accepting universal salvation, does not believe God will turn away a repentant sinner. Instead, he believes, if we are in hell, we would never become a repentant sinner.
Lewis and MacDonald, write vividly of the power of God’s love to transform us. The difference lies in how far this love must or will go, ultimately. But whether we all return or not, they both believe God is our home.
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now!” (The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis)
“God Himself – His thoughts, His will, His love, His judgements are men’s home. To think His thoughts, to choose His will, to judge His judgements, and thus to know that He is in us, with us, is to be at home.” (George MacDonald)
Both Lewis and MacDonald emphasize truth. Lewis' Abolition of Man examines the subjective war on objective truth. MacDonald is emphatic on the idea that obedience opens the truth to us. Many modern-day Universalists may tilt towards relativist views on truth, but not MacDonald. Joy and knowledge are waiting if we simply follow the truth that flows from God.
As I read and ponder the words of George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis, I feel the love of God flow into my life. They were both inspired by God. In their rare points of departure, I sense truth in both points of view.
But how do we rectify the main point of their diversion - universal salvation? I feel their contrasting views have helped me come to an important perspective towards my fellow-man and myself. I try to see others as MacDonald imagines - as a child of God who may err but is on the path of discovery to their eventual return to God, even if not in this life. This allows me to restrain judgment and have hope. As I introspect into my own life, however, I find it helpful to imagine myself as Lewis does - deciding to either be glorious or horrific by my daily actions. This way, I keep focused on daily progression and humility.
I hope you found this attempt at discovering the differences and agreements between Lewis and MacDonald helpful. Thank God for these two men!
— Allyson Flake Matsoso
I would like to thank Matthew Roark (MercyOnAll.org), David Bates (Pints with Jack), and Kevin Martin for their help. Their expertise on MacDonald and Lewis was invaluable in the development of this piece.
*I use the term Universalist here for MacDonald’s beliefs. His views are inline with Patristic Universalism. However, Universalism is an open and diverse term. MacDonald’s theology is unique in many ways - and has inspired millions.
MacDonald never described himself as a Universalist. In the book George MacDonald and His Wife, written by Macdonald’s son, we learn that MacDonald was uneasy about “universalism” because of… “the increasingly easy tendencies in universalists, who, because they had now discarded everlasting retribution as a popular superstition, were dismissing hell-fire altogether, and with it the need for repentance as the way back into the Kingdom.”
I hope this piece demonstrates that eternal salvation without repentance is inconsistent with MacDonald’s “universalism”. I recommend these websites for more on MacDonald and Universalism:
**Interestingly George MacDonald would likely disagree with some of the statements made by the postmortal George MacDonald depicted in The Great Divorce. Lewis was familiar with his belief in universal salvation, and even asks MacDonald about these views. MacDonald reminds him of the error of asking eternal questions through the lens of time, "You can know nothing of the end of all things. It's ill talking of such questions, because all answers deceive". Yet the discussion between these great men, found in Chapter 13, is informative. Lewis seeks to reconcile his views with those of MacDonald and even gives vague hope that perhaps there is a path for universal salvation.
Note on Atonement
“The punishment of the wrong-doer makes no atonement for the wrong done.” (Justice, Unspoken Sermons)
We see here the beginnings of MacDonald’s concern with traditional conceptions of Justice and Mercy. He makes some fascinating statements on these virtues. His thoughts greatly influence his ideas on the Judgment and what is truly “just”. Eternal hell is not “justice” - not for the condemned man, his victims, or God. Neither is a forgiveness of sin without a change in the sinner. If God is just, He, and each of us, must be a “finisher of the faith". It is not “justice” to allow a man to remain in sin. No “good” judge would allow sin to go unresolved, and God is good. This is where MacDonald starts to pull away from some traditional views of Atonement.
“No atonement is necessary to Him but that men should leave their sins and come back to his heart. But men cannot believe in the forgiveness of God. Therefore they need, therefore he has given them a mediator.” (Justice, Unspoken Sermons)
MacDonald’s views on the Atonement are linked to the above ideas on will, suffering, and universal salvation. This is a subject for a future essay. However, understanding MacDonald’s view of suffering as reformative to our will, and taking insights from MacDonald's talk on Justice, we start to get a picture of why he takes issue with the idea that an innocent party would suffer for our sins.
Lewis does not make a claim to a certain "theory" of Atonement. In Mere Christianity he says, "A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work..A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it." Lewis believes Christ’s suffering on the cross satisfies Justice and Mercy and that our repentance is aided by Christ’s Sacrifice.
Lewis and Free Will/Pain — http://augustinecollective.org/the-theodicy-of-cs/
MacDonald and Justice — http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2010/06/george-macdonald-justice-hell-and.html?m=1
Free Will Variations — https://iep.utm.edu/freewi-m/#:~:text=The%20intellect%20is%20the%20human%20capacity%20to%20cognize.&text=Those%20who%20argue%20that%20freedom,Latin%20word%20for%20will%2C%20voluntas
Interesting Piece on “Punishment model” vs “Choice model” of Hell — http://www.saintsandsceptics.org/engaging-tim-keller-cs-lewis-and-explaining-the-fires-of-hell/
C.S. Lewis on Atonement — https://billmuehlenberg.com/2016/11/25/c-s-lewis-theories-atonement/
Additional supporting quotes on these topics are available upon request.