God’s justice and the lamb that was slain: A critique of George MacDonald’s rejection of penal substitutionary atonement

CDV of the Scottish poet and novelist, George ...

CDV of the Scottish poet and novelist, George Macdonald (1824-1905) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like many, I was once smitten by C. S. Lewis, as many still are. And like many, I had never heard of George MacDonald, whom Lewis regarded as his “master.” George MacDonald (1824 – 1905) was a Scottish author and Christian Congregational minister. He is best known for his fantasy novels such as Phantastes, The Princess and the Goblin, At the Back of the North Wind, and Lilith, and fairy tales such as “The Light Princess“, “The Golden Key“, and “The Wise Woman“. He influenced many writers such , J. R. R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis. He was Lewis Carroll’s (the pen-name of Rev. Charles L. Dodgson) mentor. And as I mentioned, C. S. Lewis regarded MacDonald as his “master.” Lewis writes:

I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it. And even if honesty did not, well, I am a don, and “source-hunting” is perhaps in my marrow. It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought-almost unwillingly, for I had looked at the volume on that bookstall and rejected it on a dozen previous occasions – the Everyman edition of (Lewis’s Preface to George MacDonald. An Anthology, edited by C.S. Lewis).


I had found [him] for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity” (Lewis’s Introduction to Athanasias’s “On the Incarnation”). George MacDonald also had at least one Jewish admirer; Israel Abrahams (most Jews are more into science fiction than fantasy novels (‘Why There Is No Jewish Narnia.’). In his By-paths in Jewish bookland (1920), Israel Abrahams writes: “George MacDonald was a novelist of distinction.”

MacDonald wrote an introduction to the English translation (1888) of Karl Emil Franzos‘s novel “For the Right.” MacDonald concludes: “I have seldom, if ever, read a work of fiction that moved me with so much admiration.”

Here is an extract from MacDonald’s Introduction:

The cry of “Art for art’s sake,” as a protest against the pursuit of art for the sake of money or fame, one can recognize in its half wisdom, knowing the right cry to be, “Art for truth’s sake!” But when certain writers tell us that the true aim of the author of fiction is to give the people what they want, namely, a reflection, as in a mirror, of themselves–a mirror not such as will show them to themselves as they are, but as they seem to each other, some of us feel that we stand on the verge of an abyss of falsehood…It is, then, a great fact of the age that… there should yet appear in it a man with artistic conception of a lofty ideal, and such artistic expression of the same as makes it to us not conceivable only, but humanly credible. For an ideal that is impossible is no ideal; it is a fancy, no imagination. Our author keeps his narrative entirely consistent with human nature–not, indeed, human nature as degraded, disjointed, and unworthy, neither human nature as ideally perfect, but human nature as reaching after the perfection of doing the duty that is plainly perceived. In none of its details is the story unlikely. We may doubt if such a man as Taras ever lived; but alas for him who has no hope that such a man will ever be!”

MacDonald expresses very well the idea that fiction, as in a novel, must relate to reality, for if it didn’t tie in with real feelings and experiences, no one would read it. Also, for MacDonald, beauty for beauty sake (art for art sake) is, rightly, an illusion. In MacDonald, unlike in Keats, a thing is not necessarily true because it is beautiful. Here is Keats’s famous line from his Ode to a Grecian Urn: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Here is a further extract from MacDonald’s Introduction that gets to the heart of our topic – what he considers is right, just. Recall that the title of the book he is introducing is “For the Right”):

The reader must not suppose I would have everything the man did regarded as right… How far he might be to blame for not knowing or judging better, God only could tell. If he could not have known better or judged better, he may have to bear some of the consequences of his mistakes, but he will not have to bear any blame; while his doing of what he believed to be right will result in his both being and knowing what is right. The rare thing is not the man who knows what is right, but the man who actually, with all the power in him, with his very being, sets himself to that right thing, however unpleasant or painful, irksome or heartrending to him. Such a man, and such only, is a hero…Here we have a man who, to revenge no wrong done to himself, but out of pure reverence for justice, feeling bound in his very being to do what in him lies for justice, gives up everything, wife even and children, and openly defying the emperor, betakes himself an outlaw to the hills, to serve that Justice whose ministers have forsaken her. He will do with what power he has, the thing so many fancy they would do if they had the power they have not, [namely] put down injustice with the strong hand…The first and longest step a man can take toward redress of all wrong, is , not in the avenging of wrong, but in the doing of the right thing, in the working of righteousness…Vengeance must be left with the Most High; for the administration of punishment, to be just, demands not merely an unselfishness perfect as God’s, but an insight and knowledge equal to his. Besides all this, to administer justice a man must have power beyond his own, and must, therefore, largely depend on others, while yet he can with no certainty determine who are fit for his purpose and who are not. In brief, the justest man cannot but fail in executing justice. He may be pure, but his work will not.”

To summarise: People can’t be blamed for doing what they think is right. The “rare,” “heroic,” “righteous,” “just” thing is that one do what is right, with no thought of redress or vengeance for wrongs suffered, no matter how hard it may be to do so. Because man can never see clearly, justice belongs only to God. As far as executing justice is concerned, we see, MacDonald believes, through a glass darkly.

Besides, true justice, there are many other things that our human minds cannot fully grasp, yet we accept them. Which brings me to the domain of biblical doctrine, and specifically one doctrine that MacDonald is convinced is false, namely, the penal substitutionary sacrifice of Christ (the shedding of Christ’s blood to reconcile sinners to God). What Macdonald will say shortly on the matter finds echoes in what he has said above on God’s justice. Before I come to MacDonald, I describe his “disciple’s” (C.S. Lewis) low view – but not as low as MacDonald’s, as we shall see – of Christ’s penal substitutionary sacrifice:

You can say, says Lewis in his “Mere Christianity,” that Christ died for our sins. You may say that the Father has forgiven us because Christ has done for us what we ought to have done. You may say that we are washed in the blood of the Lamb. You may say that Christ has defeated death. They are all true. If any of them do not appeal to you, leave it alone and get on with the formula that does. And, whatever you do, do not start quarrelling with other people because they use a different formula from yours.”

No narrow formulas, recommends Lewis. In contrast to Lewis’ doctrinal largesse, there are many others, who, in their effort to “reform” the understanding of the Gospel, have shucked off altogether this “formula” from their mortal coil. (The rejection of blood atonement (substitutionary sacrifice, penal substitution) is common among “men of the cloth” ). How barbaric, they maintain, that the Father would plan – even if with the Son’s cooperation – that His Son would suffer such cruelty and anguish to propitiate the Father’s wrath against sinners who purportedly deserve eternal damnation. This is something that not even Old Testament “barbarism” (in their view) ever conceived. (Penal substitution: C S Lewis and the “formula” of Christ’s blood shed for our sins). That is also the view of George MacDonald, C. S. Lewis’s “master.”

MacDonald considered the idea of penal substitutionary atonement an affront to God’s justice. “Because he is just, says MacDonald, we are capable of knowing justice; it is because he is just, that we have the idea of justice so deeply imbedded in us.” One of MacDonald arguments is that because the one who commits an offence is totally responsible, he or she is the only one who can atone for his offence, his sin. He says:

Suppose my watch has been taken from my pocket; I lay hold of the thief; he is dragged before the magistrate, proved guilty, and sentenced to a just imprisonment: must I walk home satisfied with the result? Have I had justice done me? The thief may have had justice done him—but where is my watch? That is gone, and I remain a man wronged. Who has done me the wrong? The thief. Who can set right the wrong? The thief, and only the thief; nobody but the man that did the wrong. God may be able to move the man to right the wrong, but God himself cannot right it without the man. Suppose my watch found and restored, is the account settled between me and the thief? I may forgive him, but is the wrong removed? By no means. But suppose the thief to bethink himself, to repent. He has, we shall say, put it out of his power to return the watch, but he comes to me and says he is sorry he stole it and begs me to accept for the present what little he is able to bring, as a beginning of atonement: how should I then regard the matter? Should I not feel that he had gone far to make atonement—done more to make up for the injury he had inflicted upon me, than the mere restoration of the watch, even by himself, could reach to? Would there not lie, in the thief’s confession and submission and initial restoration, an appeal to the divinest in me—to the eternal brotherhood? Would it not indeed amount to a sufficing atonement as between man and man? If he offered to bear what I chose to lay upon him, should I feel it necessary, for the sake of justice, to inflict some certain suffering as demanded by righteousness? I should still have a claim upon him for my watch, but should I not be apt to forget it? He who commits the offence can make up for it—and he alone” George MacDonald, Sermon on “Justice”; See also The Incarnation or Substitutionary Atonement, which is the grand miracle?).

MacDonald said earlier that owing to the limited vision of man, the execution of justice should be left to God. What, however, is clear in his mind is that the bloody doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is not the way God would mete out justice; a loving God would never execute justice by executing his beloved Son. That is not a good story. In his “Love wins,” Rob Bell stands with MacDonald:

It’s important, says Bell ( p. 110) that we be honest about the fact that some stories are better than others. Telling a story which billions of people spend forever somewhere in the universe trapped in a black hole of endless torment and misery with no way out isn’t a good story. Telling a story about a God who inflicts unrelenting punishment on people because they didn’t do or say or believe the correct things in a brief window of time called life isn’t a very good story.”

For MacDonald, as for Bell, the shedding of Christ’s blood as the instrument of atonement is contrary to all truth, all art; never mind what the Bible says:

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, 
 he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
 and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, 
 each of us has turned to our own way; 
and the Lord has laid on him
 the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6).

If MacDonald was Jewish or like some modern Christian theologians, and believed that Isaiah was a Prophet of God (most Jews don’t), then he would have probably said that the suffering servant is the Jew (Israel) suffering at the hand of his Gentile persecutors – but certainly not for his Gentile persecutors, because that would imply substitutionary atonement, which Judaism generally rejects. The Jew, as in MacDonald, believes that only the sinner can expiate his own sin. To see Jesus in the Isaiah 53 passage above can only be, for MacDonald, a monstrous aberration. How would MacDonald understand 2 Corinthians 5:21 – “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God?” This is how he would understand the passage, I suggest:

“Did he (Christ) not foil and slay evil by letting all the waves and billows of its horrid sea break upon him, go over him, and die without rebound—spend their rage, fall defeated, and cease? Verily, he made atonement!”

Verily, verily, he made atonement. Yes, the waves and billows of evil did break over his broken body, exhausting their rage and falling defeated at the foot of the bloodied cross. But what about the message the Apostle Paul “delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3 ESV). And what about the clear references to “propitiation” for our sins in Paul, which is far more than the “expiation” of our sins. Propitiation implies the removal of the sting of God’s wrath. Why, implies MacDonald, and so many others like Rob Bell, would a God of love want to sting anybody to start with? Because – it is clear – of his justice; the penalty has to be paid. It is so clear, yet these men refuse to bow to it, of if they don’t refuse, they make it merely an optional “formula,”’ as in C. S. Lewis (above). The Apostle “that Jesus loved” makes it abundantly clear that God’s love requires the penal substitutionary sacrifice of His Son. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

MacDonald’s passage above is a good description of “expiation” of sin (God‘s love) , but not of the propitiation of sin (God‘s love and God‘s justice). The punishment we deserved, as we read in Isaiah 53, fell on Him. That’s the love of God.

Finally, MacDonald writes:

It is with the holiest fear that we should approach the terrible fact of the sufferings of Our Lord. Let no one think that these were less because He was more. The more delicate the nature, the more alive to all that is lovely and true, lawful and right, the more does it feel the antagonism of pain, the inroad of death upon life; the more dreadful is that breach of the harmony of things whose sound is torture.” (George MacDonald. An Anthology (edited by C.S. Lewis)[ 31]

A beautiful and true piece of writing. Yet falling far short, for  without a substitute, without the Lamb that was slain, without the execution of the suffering servant, both the justice and love of God revealed through the Cross would not have been served.


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