By Wade Burleson
I was twenty years old when I first read God's Everlasting Love to His Elect by John Gill. To this day, other than the Bible, no book has impacted my life more. Gill showed me how God is love, and how the Father's love is not drawn out by our loveliness nor diminished by our ugliness.
Previous to reading Gill, I had been infected with the delusion that God had a holy hatred for sinners and Jesus had a longing love for sinners. I believed that the Father desired to punish sinners because of His holy nature of justice, but Jesus offered Himself to the Father as a Substitute for undeserving sinners.
My notion of a bi-polar God bothered me, but I just assumed that justice and love were mutually exclusive--- until I read Gill. Then I began to see that God is love, and when He moves to save His people, He saves them in love, through love, by love and for love. The Father and the Son are one in motive. "For God so loved the world...."
I have never struggled with what some call God's distinguishing love for His elect. Since every sinner is responsible for his own sin and rebellion, I felt that if God chose to love an innumerable company of sinners instead of every individual sinner, who can complain (Romans 9)? It's a little like you saying to me, "I love your wife, but I don't love her like I love my own wife." I understand the difference. You chose your wife, not my wife. However, in my journey of faith I have discovered that not all of God's people are as comfortable with God's distinguishing love as I am. Some believe that God's love abides upon each human being to the same degree of fullness as every other human being, and the notion that God has a distinguishing love for His Bride bothers those Christians immensely.
George MacDonald (1824-1905) was one of those Christians.
It is said that the first time the doctrine of predestination was explained to young George MacDonald, he burst into tears, although he was assured that he was one of the elect. George would grow up and become a Congregational minister himself, but he was eventually kicked out of the ministry for suggesting that the consuming fire of God's love would eventually overcome sin and rebellion in every human being. George MacDonald turned to writing, and his influence was enormous. Most American evangelicals have not heard of George MacDonald, but they have heard of those discipled by him:
C.S. Lewis called MacDonald "my master." Lewis had picked up a copy of MacDonald's book Phantastes at a train station bookstall. "I began to read," says Lewis, "and a few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier."
Mark Twain was greatly influenced by George MacDonald, as was the great Christian devotion writer Oswald Chambers who said, "It is a striking indication of the trend and shallowness of the modern reading public that George MacDonald's books have been so neglected."
I could go on, but you get the picture. George MacDonald would eventually write many books, but two of them, Robert Falconer and Lilith, showed his intense dislike for the idea that God's electing love is limited to some and denied to others. C.S. Lewis describes in George MacDonald: An Anthology how MacDonald kept the "worthy" portion of his Scottish Calvinism while renouncing the doctrine of predestination: "In the very midst of his intellectual revolt (from Calvinism), MacDonald forces us to see elements of real and perhaps irreplaceable worth in the thing from which he is revolting."
Don't gloss over what Lewis is saying. In the midst of rejecting God's distinguishing love, MacDonald keeps his readers focused on the real worth of Calvinism. If the "real worth" of Calvinism is not God's distinguishing love, then what is it? MacDonald believed Calvinism correctly conveyed a real sense of God's majesty, sovereignty, and power. MacDonald believed and taught that God can do as He pleases at all times or He would not be God. This was the portion of Calvinism that MacDonald deemed worthy. What MacDonald despised was the belief that God chooses to save some and not all.
George MacDonald came to believe in universal reconciliation.
C.S. Lewis never fully adopted George MacDonald's eschatology of universal reconciliation. However, Lewis did challenge the traditional doctrine of hell, showing how much he was influenced by MacDonald. In Lewis' book The Great Divorce, a person named "MacDonald" appears as a heavenly guide and shows how it might be that a person can finally reject God's love and spend eternity in total isolation and darkness. Then, a character named "Lewis" challenges the heavenly guide (MacDonald) by reminding him that he had believed in universal reconciliation while he lived on earth. MacDonald responds that indeed, it is possible that everyone will eventually be saved (as he believed on earth), but "we cannot know this" with certainty. C.S. Lewis taught in The Great Divorce that what we can know is God's mercy and love are endless, but if we spurn His love and mercy, we cease being human beings in any meaningful sense. If God's mercy and love do not ultimate obtain for us victory over our sin and selfishness and there is an eternal hell, then that hell will be "outer darkness" where the consuming fires of God's love are not being experienced. For God's fire of love consumes our sin.
C.S. Lewis came close to embracing the universal reconciliation of his master George MacDonald. Ironic, is it not, that John Piper tweeted "Goodbye Rob Bell" when Rob Bell published Love Wins (a book that questions, but not denies the existence of hell) while at the same John Piper extolled C.S. Lewis as the greatest influence in his life in an hour and a half video presentation. Both men, Rob Bell and C.S. Lewis, believe the same thing about hell. C.S. Lewis simply writes fantasy and Rob Bell spells it out in plain English. I'm not sure why Piper has not tweeted "Goodbye C.S. Lewis" except for the fact that we sometimes seem more concerned with tweaking perceived opponents than in learning from fellow disciples.
Southern Baptists are convening in Houston, Texas this week. Calvinism is an issue for the SBC. There is a dividing line between those who believe in God's distinguishing love and those who believe in God's universal love. Throughout history, evangelicals who have had a high view of God's sovereignty, a keen intellectual and theological awareness, and a desire to communicate the love of God to sinners, have all rallied around the cross of Jesus Christ and the reconciliation He brings. There is a way for Southern Baptists to refuse to believe in God's distinguishing love for His people; they can be like C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Rob Bell, Paul Young and others and believe in universal reconciliation.
I do not.
However, if one chooses to reject the doctrine of God's distinguishing love, but yet finds universal reconciliation distasteful (as many Southern Baptists do), then the only alternative is to deny the sovereignty of God and make Him into a fickle human being whose love is dependent on the performance of those being loved. That isn't good news, it's really rotten news. When you make your god as fickle as we are, you have turned him into a person just like us.
Thankfully, God is not like us. His love is like an artesian spring that is not drawn out by our loveliness nor diminished by our ugliness. He is love. His love continues. His love never ends. Love can't end, because He continues and He never ends. To rightly believe in God's sovereignty and God's unconditional love you must either be a Calvinist or a universalist. The only other option is to believe in a God who is not sovereign and a love that is always conditional; I want nothing to do with that kind of religion, for it is has no good news.