Below is the third segment of the interview I did with my dad on his new e-book Hell and Beyond. For background about the book and this interview, see my earlier post 'Introducing Hell and Beyond.' To read all the interview segments that have been published so far, click here.
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.
RP 10: Let’s move from the evolution of Lewis’s thought to the evolution of your own. How does this project relate to, or bring together, themes you’ve previously explored, or hinted at, in some of your earlier literary works?
MP 10: This is an equally complex question, though easier to answer. Obviously when it comes to the development of Lewis’s (or MacDonald’s) thought, I am speculating. I could be entirely misreading what I interpret as the evidence from his writings. When it comes to the development of my own ideas, however, I can speak from first hand knowledge. I traced the progression of some of that development earlier (MP 3) in speaking of the influence upon me of the writings of Lewis, MacDonald, and William Barclay.
As my own writing has developed through the years, I have scrupulously avoided afterlife themes in my novels. In this I tried to heed MacDonald’s example. I took (and still take) very seriously both MacDonald’s and the Lord’s hatred of division and disunity. I did not want to create controversy or debate. The afterlife was not a “career issue” for me. My larger objective as a writer and novelist was to encourage Christians to think about all the tenets of their faith (not one or two pet issues,) to point toward God’s Fatherhood, and hopefully along the way also to tell engaging stories!
So my study and the evolution of my thought has progressed mostly under the radar and out of sight from my reading public. There remains great debate about MacDonald’s views. But his attempt to keep the controversy mostly out of his realistic novels (except, of course, for hints here and there—some of them forceful hints to be sure) is an example I honor and respect and have tried to follow.
I do not make an issue of these deeply theological questions. Most of my closest friends have no idea I even think about such things. (Well, until now!) Where I have happened (sometimes almost without realizing it) to make oblique references to potential higher afterlife themes in my books, I tried to do so in a way that would cause people to explore on their own rather than lay out specific points of dogma. You cannot imagine how little I care for doctrinal agreement…as long as Christians are thinking honestly, humbly, with scriptural accuracy, and open minds (in other words, free from the learned jargon and proof texts in which they have been indoctrinated.) The common lust to persuade and convince to one’s own point of view is anathematic to my entire perspective of the exampled Christlike life.
I have therefore maintained a neutral position—curious, open-minded, fascinated, but neutral on the specifics and final causes and effects of eternity.
To answer your specific question, I have over the years, written about the afterlife and the possibility of a redemptive hell three times previous to this.
Largely in response to many questions from readers of my editions of George MacDonald’s novels (writing to ask me what George MacDonald actually believed about hell), in 1998 I privately printed a small booklet called Universal Reconciliation, which was a selection of quotes from a variety of sources. It was an attempt to provide hungry readers source material with which to continue their study. I felt that the greatest help I could offer was to point searching hearts toward what others more knowledgeable than myself had to say, then let them decide for themselves what conclusions to draw. Not surprisingly, my three mentors of the afterlife scriptural quest—Lewis, MacDonald and Barclay—were prominently represented in this collection.
In 2001 the novel A New Dawn Over Devon was published (fourth in the “Heathersleigh Hall” series) in which I explored the possibilities of a wider outlook on the afterlife through fiction. This was the first time I specifically and overtly placed a character in one of my novels who articulated the view of universal reconciliation. Needless to say, the book caused no little fuss and controversy at the publisher!
Finally, throughout 2006 in the magazine Leben, I wrote a series of articles entitled, “George MacDonald and Universal Reconciliation” in which I attempted to set down in a more complete way my interpretation of MacDonald’s outlook on hell and its redemptive purpose.
(To these might also be added the 1998 fantasy The Garden at the Edge of Beyond. Similarly conceived and in many ways parallel to Hell and Beyond, this earlier book did not specifically explore theories about hell. Rather it was set in a dream motif about heaven and the afterlife more generally.)
I would not necessarily say that Hell and Beyond represents a culmination of this work. It is simply one more progressive step in the journey. Neither would I call it a culmination of my own thought, study, and prayer on the afterlife. As I have said about Lewis and MacDonald, I continue to grow. There remains much to learn about God’s love and the reach of his Fatherhood! What can be a more exciting prospect than that!
My objective with this book is no different than it has been since I started writing almost forty years ago—to encourage Christians to think and explore and pray about high and eternal themes that bear upon the nature and character of God.
RP 11: Many Christians teach that the fires of hell are punitive and retributive, as an expression of God’s hatred of sin. By contrast, Hell and Beyond suggests that hellfire is purifying, for the accomplishment of His loving purposes. Tell us a bit about that.
MP 11: You have pinpointed what is clearly the foundational element in the perspective forwarded by George MacDonald and others through history. It is this contrasting interpretation of the purpose of fire that represents the major divergence between this alternate view of the afterlife and traditional theology.
There are two initial significant points of distinction and debate between the two views.
One, the role of death. Does opportunity for repentance end forever at death? Does death close every door? Is one’s eternal destiny (heaven or hell, eternity spent with God or separated from God, blessings or punishment) irrevocably determined by one’s spiritual state at the moment of death? Does the saving power of the cross and the blood of Christ end at death? Or…will opportunity for further growth, potential repentance, and even salvation, exist after death? Will it be possible to avail oneself of the atoning work of Christ through repentance on the other side?
Two, the purpose of the fire. Are the fires of hell punitive and retributive...or are they corrective and purifying?
We’ve all heard the expression about hating the sin but loving the sinner. We are equally familiar with the surface dichotomy between God’s justice and his mercy. The question about the nature of the fire in Scripture really boils down to the nature and character of God. What is the essence, the foundation, of God’s nature? What lies deepest in his heart—his hatred of sin, or his love of the sinner...his justice or his mercy? Of course we realize that God is infinite in all his attributes. What is impossible in man is possible with God. In a sense, the question of what lies deepest in God’s heart is self-contradictory. All his attributes are infinite. None are more, none are less.
Yet the question has value in helping us focus on God’s eternal purpose. If God’s hatred of sin is paramount (again, to use limited human terminology) then we can satisfy ourselves with a theology that simply deals with his eternal punishment of sin. We can say that death closes all doors, God’s hates sin eternally, the fires of hell are an expression of his holy hatred of sin, people had their chance, the work of the cross is finite, the atonement does not reach beyond the threshold of death, the fires of hell will burn forever as retribution against sin and against those who rejected God’s love in their earthly lives.
End of story. It is a simple doctrinal theory rooted in God’s justice and his hatred of sin.
On the other hand, if one takes the view that God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness toward the sinner are paramount, and are truly eternal, then assessing a consistent theory or doctrine of the afterlife becomes more complicated.
Sin still exists. God still hates sin. God hates sin eternally. God must deal with sin. How will it be possible for God to love and forgive sinful creatures, lost in their sin, dead in their sin—love them eternally...and still hate their sin? There can be no schism in the Godhead. We must find unity both in God’s character and in his purposes.
It’s not so easy—as some of the old historic universalists would have it—as simply saying that hell is an unpleasant doctrine so we will do away with it. “A loving God would never send people to hell. There can be no such thing as hell. Everyone will be saved in the end and live happily ever after. Love wins and everything will be hunky-dorey, painless, a cotton-candy heaven for one and all.”
No, this pie-in-the-sky universalism is a simplistic theory. No serious thinking Christian nor perceptive student of Scripture can endorse such a view. I certainly don’t. Hell does exist. Scripture plainly teaches that God will punish sin, and that all sin must be atoned for.
How, then, will God eternally love the sinner, while eternally hating the sin? It is the great scriptural dichotomy that sits at the center of Christianity, the shrill dissonance inherent in our message, the great stumbling block in the world’s eyes to a reception of faith, the great theological conundrum that, if we are paying attention, hits us squarely between the eyes on every page of the Bible.
Many Christians refuse to look at it. They satisfy themselves with superficial proof-textual answers they have been taught that have less scriptural validity than they assume. But how do serious-minded, thinking Christians who are students of the Bible, resolve this apparent contradiction? It is a disunity in God’s character between love for the sinner and hatred of his sin, between justice and mercy, between heaven and hell. It appears to be an unsolvable riddle. How do we find that unity in the Godhead which must undergird our faith?
It is at this point that the nature and purpose of fire comes into focus. It is the fire that begins to illuminate a solution to the conundrum. For throughout Scripture, fire is nearly always an agent of purification. Fire’s destructive power is always purposeful. There is always some greater purpose and higher end the fire is intended to accomplish. Read through the minor prophets. The message resounds over and over...I will destroy that I might rebuild, I will burn that I might purify, I will send lightning and fire and destruction that new life might arise from the ashes.
It is a universal theme in Scripture. Nowhere do we see the nature and purpose of God’s fire more clearly than in the book of Malachi. There the great furnace of fire exists expressly for “purifying the sons of Levi,” for “refining them like gold.” The message could not be more clear. That is why, in Hell and Beyond, I refer to hell as “Malachi’s furnace.”
This theme continues in the New Testament. It rises to prominence in the Lord’s words of Matthew 25:46. Many take this passage as proving the doctrine of eternal damnation of sinners: “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment.” In actual fact, this mistranslated passage proves exactly the opposite. A careful reading of the Greek text reveals that Jesus is speaking of fires of correction not fires of punishment. The mistranslation of this all-important verse is a closely guarded secret. The truth it reveals about the nature of fire, however, is one of the great “treasures hid in a field” of the New Testament.
Recognizing that the fires of hell are potentially redemptive and atoning suddenly places everything into perspective. God’s mercy and justice blend in grand eternal oneness. God’s love for the sinner and hatred of sin emerge into a high unity of single purpose. The atonement is no longer limited and finite. The power of the Lord’s sacrifice on the cross stretches across all eternity in its attempt to bring all men to the heart of their home, the very heart of God.
What will be the final result of such consuming fires of purification and punishment?
That remains a question we cannot answer. We don’t know. We can merely say with certainty that God will love through all eternity. God will forgive through all eternity. God will hate sin through all eternity. God will redeem through all eternity. The power of the cross will extend through all eternity. And the fires of purification will never cease to burn where there is sin left to be expunged from the universe.
Even so, fire remains one of the mysteries of life. Some fire annihilates, completely consumes, and burns into nothingness. A chunk of wood is burned and it is gone and destroyed forever. The sun, on the other hand, has been burning for billions of years, and will burn for billions more without being burned up. The very elements it burns are rebirthed into new elements and new forms, again to be burned, and again to be rebirthed, the very inferno consuming itself and renewing itself in a tempestuous fiery cycle. Are either of these images accurate portrayals of the fires of hell? Or are hell’s fires, rather, the furnace in which gold is melted and all its impurities burned away, that it may emerge in the final radiance of complete purity?
Even the sun, as we know, will eventually burn itself out? What will be the ultimate, final, eternal destiny of the fires of hell? Revelation 20 and the lake of everlasting fire will surely remain, as long as we are in this life, great mysteries.
RP 12: Some theologians I have read in the Calvinist tradition have tried to avoid the problem of schism within God’s nature by saying that He has two groups of people that He interacts with differently so that the two sides of His character can be eternally expressed. So He has the elect, and this enables His love and mercy to find an outlet, but He also has the non-elect so that His hatred of sin can also have an eternal outlet. Have you given much thought to that view?
MP 12: Perhaps the Calvinist doctrine of elect and non-elect avoids the theological inconsistency of creating a schism in God’s nature (though I doubt it actually does.) Yet even so it introduces a completely unscriptural element into the creation itself, a schism you might say in the nature of man. It also sets up the dreadful imagery of a capricious God that has done so much damage in the world toward an accurate reception of the true gospel.
The book of Genesis nowhere indicates that God created two kinds of people, but one. God created all mankind. He birthed us, gave us life, begat us, called us into being. God fathered ALL mankind. It is such a simple and obvious scriptural truth that God is the Father of all men and women. He fathered us in his image. He is our Father, we are his children.
Yet remarkably many Christians resist this clear truth of the Bible. I am regularly taken to task by readers for making this point in my books, that God is the Father of all mankind. I always respond with the simple question, “Who else’s children could anyone be? Who else has the power to create us and birth us and give us life?” Even the worst of sinners derive their life from God. Of course those who deny the universal Fatherhood point to Jesus’ statement to the Pharisees about the devil being their father. He is making a point about their sin natures. He is obviously not denying the universal Fatherhood of God over his creation. Even Francis Schaeffer, that renowned Reformed theologian, decried focusing on what he called “two exclusive humanities...one lost, one saved.” Calvinist though he was, he recognized the unity of God’s creation.
But this unity of creation is broken. Sin and disobedience have infected it with discord and separation. Earthly families are plagued with disunity. Earthly families contain both obedient children and wayward children. There are children who are living in fellowship and harmony with their parents, and there are those who are rebellious, who have drifted away, who are estranged from their families. Earthly fathers and mothers yearn for a return to relationship. Their hearts ache for wholeness, for a restoration of unity.
The vital truth is this: Their wayward children are no less their children that they are out of fellowship. The unity may be broken, but the bond between parent and child remains. Who would dare tell a grieving parent that his or her wayward child is no longer his son or daughter?
God’s heart is filled with this same yearning. God, too, has obedient children and wayward children. Within his universal family, there are many who are estranged from their heavenly Father. They are living in rebellion, drift, and disobedience. They are dwelling in the far country away from the spiritual family of their created origin. But they are no less God’s children. They have still been created in his image. His life still informs their souls. The divine fingerprint remains indelibly upon them. They may deny it, but the eternal factness of Fatherhood remains.
Jesus came to this far country to lead his wayward brothers and sisters, the lost children of his Father, back to their family and their home.
RP 13: The doctrine of endless punishment is far from straight-forward even if you hold the view that God’s hatred of sin is just as ultimate as His love and mercy. For it is essentially to assert, precisely because God hates sin so much, that sin must continue existing throughout all eternity in hell. I have interacted with that problem in my article ‘Hell, Universalism and Some Remaining Questions’, and would value your feedback on that angle of the debate.
MP 13: What do we make of the many scriptural references to sin and death being destroyed, to sin “being no more?” True, there are also references in the Bible, as in Revelation 20:10, to the devil and his followers, as most translations render it, being “tormented for ever and ever.” This simply points out the enormous complexity of the scriptural conundrum.
Some may question this practice, but I tend to draw largely upon the Minor Prophets for my understanding of afterlife themes. I feel that God has embedded much truth in some of these obscure Old Testament writings that illuminate his eternal purposes. A theme that comes through loud and clear is that one day sin will end, be destroyed, will be “no more.” This seems clearly to indicate that sin will not, and cannot, continue existing throughout all eternity. To me this seems obvious. For sin, evil, and rebellion to exist to all eternity, forever, seems by definition to violate the essential nature and character of God. Such a state of affairs would prevent the oneness and unity of God and his creation ever being completely restored. The creation would never again be “one.” As I read Scripture, that is an impossibility. If God is One, the ultimate and final destiny of the universe must be consistent with that truth. Unity must prevail in the creation.
As you point out, nothing about the question of how God intends to deal with sin in eternity is straightforward. Not even the words we read in our Bibles are clear-cut. A portion of Revelation 20:10 as just quoted actually mistranslates the original Greek. It is the same mistranslation we find in most Bibles in Matthew 25:46. Both references, when accurately read, speak of torment of sinners for the ages, or for the age of the age, NOT for ever and ever.
Scriptural objectivity demands us to recognize that there will always remain scriptural evidence on both sides of this very controversial doctrinal divide. Neither those who believe in eternal punishment, nor those who believe that all men will be saved, have scriptural grounds for condemning the views of the other. Objectivity demands open minds.
As I have already mentioned, those who hold to the traditional perspective by asserting that “the Bible plainly teaches” endless punishment do not know their Bibles as well as they might think. The Bible does NOT plainly teach endless punishment. But neither does the Bible plainly teach universal salvation. It is a very complicated scriptural dilemma.
As I have also said before, this scriptural ambiguity compels me in good conscience to maintain a position of neutrality on the final eternal outcome. I simply do not know, nor claim to know, what God will accomplish, nor what is his ultimate plan in the final eternity of eternity.
Returning, however, to the subject of this interview...such specific doctrinal questions are not really the point of Hell and Beyond at all, nor are they my primary interest. They represent side issues. Doctrinal debate about the afterlife tends to derail us from the true message of Hell and Beyond, and the vital essence of my life personally and my career as a writer. That essence is Fatherhood and childship. In Fatherhood and childship (not doctrinal analysis) is contained the meaning of the universe.
Hell and Beyond is about the dragon claw down Eustace’s chest. It doesn’t matter to our intellects whether we invite that claw to expose our innermost selves, our sin, to the recreating, cleansing, and purifying Fatherhood of God here or there, in heaven or in hell, whatever we call it, wherever it is, however we define its limits. What matters is that the thing be done.
The point is not “what happens to sin,” or what is the final state of “sinners.” What matters is my sin. In that sense, returning again to the theme of Hell and Beyond, it matters very much whether I allow God to address that sin here or there? If we don’t deal with it here, the consequences of waiting will be severe and extreme. As C.S. Lewis so powerfully says in Mere Christianity, though the job will not be finished in this life, we are meant to get on with it as far as possible before death.
I must invite the claw to tear the dragon flesh off my own sinful nature, that I might become the son of the Father that I was created to be.
- Buy Hell and Beyond from Amazon
- ‘The Sheep and the Goats’
- ‘Hell, Universalism and Some Remaining Questions’
- 'George MacDonald & Michael R. Phillips'
- Hell and Beyond: A Novel by Michael Phillips
- ‘Rethinking Unquenchable Fire'
- Robin's Column at the Chuck Colson Center
- Robin's Facebook Page