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.


The Gospel is more – and less – than a story

There are different kinds of writing such as scholarly books and articles, journalistic writing, non-fiction such as history, travel, art, cooking, (auto)biography, letters, diaries, and imaginative literature such as  novels, poetry and plays. Imaginative literature is called “fiction” – fiction not in the sense that it does not relate to reality, for if a novel (a fictitious story) didn’t connect with real feelings and experiences,  readers wouldn’t add it to their Amazon cart. I focus on stories. There are fictitious stories and non-fictitious stories.

Paul Ricoeur, philosopher

Paul Ricoeur, philosopher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, said that we tell stories because human lives need and merit to be told. Writing stories is one of the noblest employments of the mind and soul. Most good stories aim at knowledge and wisdom. This aim is most evident in life stories – biographies. Yet, unless the main end of biography is wisdom and knowledge, it is no more than any kind of study: “a weariness of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12).

A good story, most think, should be replete with sights, sounds, smells, feelings; it should resonate with the ‘bells and whistles’ of day-to-day life. One of the reasons for the Bible’s lack of appeal is its dearth of enticing detail. Leslie Leyland Fields writes, “Story is all the rage. Everyone pants to tell their personal narrative or to give the Bible a simpler and more relevant plot. Maybe it isn’t such a good idea.” (The Gospel Is More Than a Story: Rethinking Narrative and Testimony).

We feel, says Alfred Edersheim, in his “Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah,” that the scantiness of particulars here supplied by the Gospels, was intended to prevent the human interest from overshadowing the grand central Fact, to which alone attention was to be directed. For the design of the Gospels was manifestly not to furnish a biography of Jesus the Messiah but, in organic connection with the Old Testament, to tell the history of the long-promised establishment of the Kingdom of God upon earth. Yet what scanty details we possess of the ‘Holy Family’ and its surroundings may here find a place.”

On the occasion of the visit of the magi to the nativity scene, continues Edersheim, we see with what “exquisite tact and reverence the narrative attempts not the faintest description of the scene. It is as if the sacred writer had fully entered into the spirit of St. Paul, ‘Yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we Him no more’ (in the flesh only). And thus it should ever be. It is the great fact of the manifestation of Christ – not its outward surroundings, however precious or touching they might be in connection with any ordinary earthly being – to which our gaze must be directed. The externals may, indeed, attract our sensuous nature; but they detract from the unmatched glory of the great supersensuous Reality. Around the Person of the God-Man, in the hour when the homage of the heathen world was first offered Him, we need not, and want not, the drapery of outward circumstances. That scene is best realized, not by description, but by silently joining in the silent homage and the silent offerings of ‘the wise men from the East.’”

Do these scenes imply that geographical and historical details are irrelevant to the biblical record? No at all, for these details generally serve not merely as the ”drapery of outward circumstances” (Edersheim), as in the magi episode described above, but as the incarnational matrix of spiritual truth. (Biography and History in the Bible).

CS Lewis has written some marvelous books on Christianity. I think, however, he – what I am about to say is not difficult to prove from the Bible; that is why what CS Lewis says is so shocking – was wrong to make the bloody substitutionary sacrifice of Christ merely one of several optional “formulas” of faith. Lewis doesn’t put much weight on this glorious doctrine. (See Penal substitution: C S Lewis and the “formula” of Christ’s blood shed for our sins. When it comes to the “story” of the incarnation, however, (which only occurred because without it there would have been no bloody substitutionary sacrifice), Lewis sparkles.

In his “The Grand Miracle” (in ”God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975, p. 80), he stresses the importance of miracles in Christianity, and the pre-eminent miracle of the Incarnation:

You could have a great prophet preaching his dogmas without bringing in any miracles; they are only in the nature of a digression, or illuminated capitals. But you cannot possibly do that with Christianity, because the Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him. It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left.”

The incarnation story is not much of a story as far as stories go because it merely tells us that it happened and the (glorious) reason why it happened, but not anything enticing about how it happened. There is a reason for this:

The spiritual native beauty of heavenly truths, is better conveyed unto the minds of men, by words and expressions fitted unto it, plainly and simply, than by any ornaments of enticing speech whatever; and therefore we say with Austin, that there is not anything delivered in the Scripture, but just as it ought to be, and as the matter requires.” (John Owen: Exposition of the letter to the Hebrews, Volume 1).

The Gospel stories claim to narrate events that really happened. What does our postmodernist/poststructuralist culture say about “narrative?” Everyone, it says, should be free to “construct” their own narrative. Hence the postmodern term “constructivism.” I propose another postmodern term: “narrativism” – telling stories about how the world – if not the Bible – fits or should fit into my world and others around me. (Deconstruction and the inworming of postmodern theology).

Postmodernism and poststructuralism have this, among other things, in common: Language possesses the power to recognize and shape our perceptions of reality and reality itself. The problem, I suggest, is that unless one accepts (0n faith, there’s no other way to accept it) that our perceptions generally are “faithful” (get it) representations of reality, there’s no way of telling what is really out there, for it might all be in “here,” a kind of ghost-structuralism.

If we can have poststructuralism (where structures have no objective strictures), then why can’t there be “Reconstructionism,” and why shouldn’t it be Jewish? Reconstructionist Judaism (and Reform Judaism, by and large) says it doesn’t matter whether all the Bible stories are just “stories,” myths, folklore; what’s important is that they are shared myths, and it is the sharing of a common heritage that binds a community together. What matters, in Reconstructionist Judaism, is not the Book but the binding – of communal love and joy. For reconstructionists, the Jews are indeed the people of the Torah; but the reason why this is so is that the Torah and the God who speaks there is a (postmodern) Jewish reconstruction of traditional Judaism.

Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, a reconstructionist Jew, believes that the Torah stories, even if not true in the historical sense, are central to Jewish life. The Torah, she says, is one of the “noblest employments of the mind and soul aiming at knowledge and wisdom.” Fuchs-Kreimer – who is a reliable spokesperson for Reconstructionist Judaism says much more: “Perhaps religious experiences provide no new information about the universe. Rather, they give us the emotional impetus to tell certain kinds of stories. We may indeed be nothing but a pack of neurons and our religious experiences may be neurological phenomena; nevertheless, the stories we tell ourselves about those experiences come from our higher cognitive functions. When we choose to link ourselves to a religious civilization, we opt for a narrative tradition that will shape raw experience in particular ways.” The weight of evidence, according to Fuchs-Kreimer, shows that religious experience cannot provide any new evidence – “knowledge and wisdom” – about the universe. But, according to Fuchs-Kreimer we can’t deny that we feel it in our bones that there is something else besides neurons and meat loaves. So, we tell one another stories about how those emotions emerged, but we don’t go overboard to the point of hysteria only to drown in historia. Meaning doesn’t have to be objective for “if there is nothing but matter, all the more do we need stories to make meaning” says Fuchs-Kreimer, and it’s stories – the more evocative the story the better – that make or break a religious civilisation. There’s no “core self” so we need to make up stories – based on authentic emotion, naturally – to “tell us who we are.” And that, according to Fuchs-Kreimer, is the basis of “tradition”, of Jewish tradition, of solid Jewish tradition (The Torah: shared myths and other stories in Reconstructionist Judaism).

We all have a story, part of which we’d like to tell (and part we’d like to keep to ourselves). I think theology may be able to help you tell your story. “Theology you say!” But wait; the theology I’m about describe is not the old fundamentalist variety but something that you might indeed find attractive. I’m talking about postmodern theology, which homes in not on what the Bible says about God, not on the written lifeless text, but what it says about you, the living you, the reader, and the stories in you trying to worm their way out. For example, in his “Love wins” (p. 106), Rob Bell writes “At the heart of this perspective is the belief that given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence. The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most depraved sinners will eventually give up their resistence and turn to God.”

That is the “story” that people love to hear: 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.”

James White, in his critique of “universalism,” says that Christianity for Rob Bell “is a story, and it has to be a good story. And this (story, where God inflicts unrelenting punishment; see above paragraph) is not a good story from Rob Bell’s perspective.” (James White Conference on Universalism; 20 minutes into the audio presentation).

English: Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889), Austria...

English: Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889), Austrian-British theologian. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I say something about the term “narrative.” In old-time theology – let’s take the canon (accepted books) of the Bible as an example – words had specific meanings, where the term “narrative” signified an account of what really happened, what described reality, truth. Michael Kruger explains:

The postmodern objection to the Christian canon (and all religion for that matter) is not what we might think.  We assume that postmodernists object to the canon on the grounds that the canon is false (what we might call a a de facto objection).  But, that is actually more of a modernist objection. In contrast, the postmodernist objects to the belief in canon on the grounds that there is no basis for knowing, regardless of whether it is true or false (what we might call the de jure objection). In other words, when it comes to the Christian belief in the canon, the big complaint of the postmodernist is, ‘How could you ever really know such a thing?  Given all the disagreements and chaos in early Christianity, it would be arrogant to claim your books are the right ones.’  Thus, the postmodern concern has to do with the grounds for our belief in the canon.”  (Can the New Testament Canon be Defended? Derek Thomas Interviews Michael Kruger. See also Deconstruction and the Inworming of Postmodern theology).

Rabbi Hillel was a great story teller. What is, and always was, asks Jacob Neusner, the Jewish interest in Hillel? One thing only: no one could tell stories like he could; he was a “model story-teller.”  Neusner distinguishes between “the history of Hillel” and “the Hillel of history.”  He says:

If we ask not about the historical Hillel’ but about the Hillel of history, that is, about how Hillel lived on in the minds and imaginations of the great rabbis of Judaism, we get exact and reliable answers. Every story then is a fact. It testifies to what people later thought Hillel had said and done. It tells us then about the things rabbis maintained all Jews should say and do: the model of virtue, the mode of correct reasoning alike. Hillel then is: he endures. He never dies. He is the teacher, he is the paradigm. That is why the stories reach us. That, it seems to me, stands then for the purpose for which the stories were made up and preserved. They are documents of culture, glyphs of faith).”

Neusner is the most prolific Jewish writer of our day, and this is how we might sum up his work: Blips about glyphs of faith. (See The history of Hillel and the Hillel of history: The Glyphs and Blips of Faith).

Here is Leslie Leyland Fields again

When we read the Bible through the lens of any single genre, agenda, or need, distortion will result. It is critical to grasp the Scriptures’ narrative unity to resist our culture’s counterstories, but we need not reduce the Scriptures to a single genre to grasp its One Story. God gave us stories indeed, but he also gave us proverbs, poetry, law, exhortation, prophesy, lament, riddle, letters, visions, genealogies, and prayers. Man lives by every word that proceeds from God’s mouth. All Scripture makes us wise unto salvation. We need to say, with the apostle Paul, that “we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word” (2 Cor. 4:2, ESV).”

And her final word, the punch line: “It is not the story but the living Christ who saves us.” What about the knockout punch: … but the dying Christ who saves us, for without the blood there is no remission of sin, and without the remission of sin, no Life.