Monday, April 22, 2013

Hell and Beyond Interview and Discussion, Part 1

Below is the first segment of the much anticipated interview with my father on his new book Hell and Beyond.  

For background about the book and this interview, see my earlier post 'Introducing Hell and Beyond.' To read the other interview segments that have been published so far, click here.

One of the original purposes of this interview was to generate a lot of discussion. After the first couple segments, we get into some pretty deep questions. If you would like to contribute your own thoughts to these questions, use the Facebook links at the end of this segment. This is your chance to continue the discussion about God, the afterlife, and the nature of reality, even if you haven't read the book.

About the Participants

Michael Phillips, author of Hell and Beyond
Michael Phillips is a novelist, historian, and devotional writer whose books have been embraced by readers around the world. His nonfiction books include biographies of Victorian author George MacDonald and Olympic athlete-turned-Congressman Jim Ryun. In the 1980s, Phillips' edited and facsimile editions of MacDonald's near-forgotten works inspired a worldwide resurgence of interest in the Scotsman whose writing helped inspire C.S. Lewis' conversion from atheism to Christianity. Phillips is best known for his fiction, a body of work that includes sixty titles, including beloved historical novels set throughout the world. More information about his writings can be found on his website at the following links:

•    Dare to Think Big About God

•    Father of the Inklings

Robin Phillips is Michael Phillips’ son and works as a contributing author for a variety of publications, including Salvo Magazine, Touchstone, and the Chuck Colson Center, in addition to doing political journalism for a lobby group in the UK. He enjoys speaking at academic conferences throughout the world and is currently working on a doctorate in historical theology through King's College, London. Robin is the author of Saints and Scoundrels (Canon Press, 2012).

First Three Questions

Robin Phillips 1: Why did you write Hell and Beyond?
Michael Phillips 1: Ever since I first discovered and then became immersed in the writings of C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald (whose book Phantastes began Lewis’s journey out of atheism toward Christianity), I have been fascinated with the mysterious and controversial subject of the afterlife.

Who goes to heaven, who goes to hell...and what are the entry requirements for both destinations?

Obviously, the instant you begin raising such questions, the whole of Christian theology rushes at you like a tidal wave. The onslaught (and criticism if you happen to raise the questions vocally!) of reactions comes from both ends of a widely diverse theological spectrum—fundamentalism and universalism: Will the damned be tormented by a righteous and punishing God in hell forever and ever...or will all men ultimately be saved?

These are extremely difficult and scripturally obscure questions. There are no one-dimensional answers. Those on the fundamentalist side who maintain that “Scripture plainly teaches” the doctrine of everlasting punitive punishment in many cases don’t know their Bibles as well as they think they do. Scripture may teach that...but it may not. Scripturally there are two legitimate sides to this puzzling conundrum. Forceful and scripturally sound arguments can be brought to bear from both directions. Honest open-mindedness on the afterlife is far more important and useful than proof-textual dogmatism.

Lewis and MacDonald both addressed the question of the afterlife, and both wrote books about it. Interestingly, they came down on different sides. Though he never came out and definitely endorsed the position of what I call “universal reconciliation,” MacDonald’s writings clearly profess sympathy with it. A strong argument can certainly be made that MacDonald believed that in the end all men would ultimately avail themselves—even if it took eons of the consuming fire of the outer darkness to accomplish such work—of the redemptive power of the cross and the forgiveness of God’s infinite Fatherhood. Lewis on the other hand seemed to hold to a more conservatively traditional viewpoint—that though perhaps given the opportunity to repent after death (a decidedly non-conservative position), there would be many that never would, and would, by the God-given power of their own choice, remain in a hell of their own making to all eternity. This is but a brief précis, but this would be my interpretation of the two men’s general outlooks.

MacDonald wrote graphically and pointedly about the afterlife, and about the purifying purpose and necessity of a redemptive hell. He did so in several of his sermons, and particularly in the towering fantasy that many view as the summit of his literary career, Lilith. Though his perspectives on God’s eternal purposes are crystal clear, his conclusions about the afterlife remain indistinct. I happen to think he intended it so. He desired to set down no dogma.

As my own writing career has been so closely linked with George MacDonald, and to a lesser extent to Lewis, it has been a great privilege to act sort of as a purveyor and interpreter and redactor of MacDonald’s message to new generations of readers. As a result, the question I am asked about MacDonald more than any other is some variation of, Was George MacDonald a universalist...did George MacDonald believe that all men would ultimately be saved?

I have tried to address such questions honestly and squarely. In the end I felt that perhaps the best way to address them would be through the same medium that Lewis and MacDonald used—fiction and fantasy. Lewis wrote The Great Divorce to set into fiction his perspective that perhaps death closes fewer doors than people think, and that even when given the choice of heaven after death, many will yet choose hell rather than give up those parts of self that are most dear to them. MacDonald wrote Lilith to offer a fictional picture of what repentance may be like in the darkest hell of self-awareness imaginable.

I felt that perhaps I could add some new and distinct elements to the ongoing discussion with a fantasy of my own, drawing on the work of these two men, yet adding new elements that might further the dialog with greater specificity and detail. That is why I wrote Hell and Beyond.

RP 2: Yes, the influence of both George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis are clearly evident in the work. I found myself continually being reminded of MacDonald’s doctrine of becoming, while there were numerous quotations from both C.S. Lewis’s and George MacDonald’s writings. Do you have anything more to share about how these authors inspired you to write this book?

MP 2: I’ve already alluded to the fact that it was their books, and the questions raised by their writings about the afterlife, that provided the originating impetus to follow in their footsteps with a fantasy of my own. But the seeds planted by Lewis and MacDonald were far more than merely those connected to questions about heaven and hell. These two men have been my spiritual and literary mentors for more than forty years. Nearly everything I am as a man and as a Christian has roots in their perspectives of the Christian life and the Fatherhood of God. When Lewis said that he doubted he had ever written a book in which he had not quoted from MacDonald, I know exactly what he meant. I would say the same of him too, as well as of MacDonald.

All these influences come into the perspectives that are woven throughout Hell and Beyond. You mention the idea of “becoming.” This is but one of many such concepts that have been deeply ingrained into me from their writings. This happens to be one I consider of huge importance—Lewis’s perspective that every choice we make here and now, the large and the small, changes us in imperceptible ways. These choices have eternal consequences upon the character that we will one day present to the Lord. This idea is foundational to the entire theme of Hell and Beyond.

For thirty or thirty-five years I have known that someday I would write an afterlife fantasy that was set, or seemed to be set, in hell—or in the borderlands of hell—and which drew its inspiration from Lewis’s The Great Divorce and George MacDonald’s Phantastes and Lilith. Having read these three books first in my 20s, and continuing to read them through the years, their impact upon my spiritual outlook has been foundational. So too has been their impact upon my imagination as a writer.

During all the years since, my subconscious has been at work ruminating on possibilities, scenarios, plot lines, and character sketches. I think I always knew that a day would come, unexpectedly perhaps, when suddenly the book would simply “be there.” Without planning, all at once the years of invisible preparation would rise to the surface and it would flow out in a continuous stream, probably quickly, in all likelihood without my knowing what would come next, nor knowing where it would lead.

RP 3: Tell me more about the influence of Lewis’s The Great Divorce in your life, and how that relates to your inquiry into the whole subject of the afterlife.

MP 3: I discovered Lewis before I had ever heard of George MacDonald. The Great Divorce planted the seed in my spiritual consciousness of the idea that perhaps death does not close all doors to the operation of free will. And not merely the free will to make small choices, but eternal choices. As I read the book, it even allowed for the possibility that the door of repentance may remain open after death for non-Christians. Lewis does not overtly state that salvation may be entered into after death by the previously “unsaved.” We don’t know whether Lewis believed that or not. This possibility, however, underscores the impact The Great Divorce had upon me in my spiritual youth.

It is impossible to overstate the significance of this mental light bulb going off. For one like myself, raised in traditional evangelical theology, it was a doctrinal atomic bomb.

From there I soon discovered the writings of George MacDonald. The doors continued to open toward an enlarged view of the afterlife. MacDonald’s notion (not original to him, but original to me through him) of a redemptive, redeeming hell was the central paradigm in this expanded perspective. This continued broadening of my outlook cannot be separated from MacDonald’s vision of God’s eternally loving and forgiving Fatherhood. The concept of the fire as a purifying tool in God’s hands (as in Malachi’s furnace) not an agent of torture and punishment in the devil’s, was shockingly, wonderfully, explosively new to me.

From this foundation built by Lewis and MacDonald, I began studying the Scriptures and other writings more intently. I corresponded briefly with New Testament scholar William Barclay, posing the questions I would have asked of Lewis and MacDonald if that were possible. Had Lewis still been alive, I might well have done what Walter Hooper and others did—boldly shown up at the door of The Kilns with my questions!

As it was, however, in the early 1970s I wrote to William Barclay in Scotland. Largely on the basis of that correspondence and my additional study, I came to see the profound and widespread scriptural support for an “alternate” perspective on the afterlife and the reconciliatory purposes of hell. This was as explosive as the previous revelation—the fact that the Bible does not exclusively teach endless punitive punishment toward sinners.

This is Christendom’s massive doctrinal cover-up. Does any greater scriptural dishonesty exist, continually perpetuated through Christendom, than the hushing up of the scriptural evidence pointing toward the possibility of repentance after death? I don’t use such strong language to argue for one view or against another. I use the strong language against the bias that insists that Scripture teaches one and only one perspective. That bias is based on an illusion. Scripturally it is an open question, with many valid arguments on both sides of what is a very complex issue.

Obviously, from these beginnings much more reading and study took place. The impact of Narnia, MacDonald’s sermons, and Barclay’s Spiritual Autobiography proved equally significant milestones in my growth.

It was these three men—Lewis, MacDonald, and Barclay—who opened the doors and built this foundation in my outlook. I owe them a great debt.

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