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Malcolm, a critical review.

George MacDonaldPaul Gosselin 2018

21st century readers should be forewarned; George MacDonald's Malcolm (originally published in 1875) is an interesting, but lengthy novel. While Victorians DIDN'T have cell phones, cable TV (or Netflix), they DID have time to read... Most North Americans will find the transliterated conversations in broad Scot to take some work to get used to at first... but it’s well worth it. Some are wild and wonderful. For example, there’s the “mad laird’s” plaintive and dismal exclamation “I dinna ken whaur I come frae”[1] (I don’t know where I come from!). MacDonald deftly portrays everyday life in Scotland and is an admirer of both the beauty of nature and that of women[2]. MacDonald clearly presents his characters with much sympathy and as living up to high moral standards, but this isn’t dull reading as the morality is often salted with dry Scottish humour. Some of MacDonald’s paragraphs are really stunning.

Some versions of MacDonald's novels include a glossary of Scottish words and their more common English equivalents. I thought this was a good idea as I'm guessing while most readers from Great Britain could manage such language without too much difficulty, quite a few North American readers might balk at the Scottish words and turns of phrase that MacDonald uses. With a bit of perseverance, the reader can get used to the Scottish words after a few pages and as a result will be rewarded with a full-flavoured taste of Scottish life in the early 19th century. I'm aware that there have been "adapted versions" of MacDonald's work put out for the American market, but as far as I'm concerned they are "bastard children". If you gut the original language MacDonald uses, then you've lost an important element of his novels.

Despite his obvious talent as a writer, George MacDonald was a poor theologian as he was a proponent of the concept of universalism, that is the claim that ALL (Christian and non-Christian) will go to heaven. In MacDonald’s view, God was “too nice” to send anyone to Hell… This is a concept that has reappeared recently in Paul Young's novel, The Shack (2007).

Clearly MacDonald did not like the concept of judgement. In chapter 30 we see MacDonald portraying a revivalist preacher thusly:

… the preacher stood in the shadow, out of which gleamed his wasted countenance, pallid and sombre and solemn, as first he poured forth an abject prayer for mercy, conceived in the spirit of a slave supplicating the indulgence of a hard master, and couched in words and tones that bore not a trace of the filial; then read the chapter containing the curses of Mount Ebal, and gave the congregation one of Duncan's favourite psalms to sing; and at length began a sermon on what he called the divine justice. Not one word was there in it, however, concerning God's love of fair dealing, either as betwixt himself and man, or as betwixt man and his fellow; the preacher's whole notion of justice was the punishment of sin; and that punishment was hell, and hell only; so that the whole sermon was about hell from beginning to end—hell appalling, lurid, hopeless. And the eyes of all were fixed upon him with that glow from within which manifests the listening spirit. Some of the women were as pale as himself from sympathetic horror, doubtless also from a vague stirring of the conscience, which, without accusing them of crime, yet told them that all was not right between them and their God; while the working of the faces of some of the men betrayed a mind not at all at ease concerning their prospects. It was an eloquent and powerful utterance, and might doubtless claim its place in the economy of human education; but it was at best a pagan embodiment of truths such as a righteous pagan might have discovered, and breathed nothing of the spirit of Christianity, being as unjust towards God as it represented him to be towards men: the God of the preacher was utterly unlike the father of Jesus. Urging his hearers to flee from the wrath to come, he drew such a picture of an angry Deity as in nothing resembled the revelation in the Son.

Whether this is in fact a faithful portrayal of any preacher MacDonald may have encountered we will probably never know[3]. But MacDonald’s view of the afterlife quite comparable to that entertained by the postmodern worldview that dominates this generation. While postmoderns are quite open to “religion” in the broadest and most superficial sense (even the occult) they utterly reject any moral standard that could stand above the individual (or, tellingly, above the State). While Postmoderns like religion and the supernatural, they absolutely HATE the concept of judgement. While CS Lewis was influenced by MacDonald, he did not share this particular view (universalism). In The Problem of Pain, Lewis observed this contradiction in the universalist view (1940: chap. 8):

the demand that God should forgive such a man while he remains what he is, is based on a confusion between condoning and forgiving. to condone an evil is simply to ignore it, to treat it as if it were good. but forgiveness needs to be accepted as well as offered if it is to be complete: and a man who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness.

Lewis clearly believed in Hell and again in The Problem of Pain offers an idiosyncratic/plausibe view of its implications (1940: chap. 8)

... to enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being in earth; to enter hell, is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is “remains”. to be a complete man means to have the passions obedient to the will and the will offered to God: to have been a man — to be an ex-man or “damned ghost” — would presumably mean to consist of a will utterly centred in its self and passions utterly uncontrolled by the will. it is, of course, impossible to imagine what the consciousness of such a creature — already a loose congeries of mutually antagonistic sins rather than a sinner would be like. there may be a truth in the saying that “hell is hell, not from its own point of view, but from the heavenly point of view”.

Lewis also explored some of the consequences of a “nice god” such as MacDonald entertained.

"What we want in fact is not so much a father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven - a senile benevolence who as they say 'liked to see young people enjoying themselves.'" (CS Lewis: The Problem of Pain)

The lesson seems to be that even well-meaning wishful thinking is never a good basis for theology. Although MacDonald clearly was a talented writer, he was not a deep thinker. One should never build one’s theology based on what we “like” or how we “feel”… A true Christian must always bow to the evidence and teachings of Scripture, whether he likes them or not. There is a “Narrow Gate” to go through after all. Sadly MacDonald's promoting universalism must be labelled with the words error and heresy. But perhaps fundamentally some of MacDonald’s clear distaste for preaching beginning with a serious discussion of sin, confession of sin and repentance, then going on to the offer of grace, has to do with his pride?? A balanced presentation of the Gospel does force the listener to look in the mirror of the Law, something none of the fallen sons of Adam or the fallen daughters of Eve look forward to…

While in the last chapters of Malcolm, MacDonald develops his case for universalism[4], much of it appears based on a reaction to the emotionalism of preaching on sin and repentance. MacDonald clearly finds such distasteful and lets on that such preaching does not produce enough fruit (or at least, fruit that he likes). Well Evangelicals in the 21st century are on the other side of that coin. Much of the non-judgemental preaching by Evangelicals in the 20th century in the “Jesus loves you”, "Who wants to invite Jesus into their heart?" and “God has a wonderful plan for your life” genre would have been heartily approved by MacDonald but, as has been pointed out by Ray Comfort, it has clearly produced BAD fruit. If you sow tares in the Church, you should not be surprised when you harvest a crop of tares. Many Evangelicals now in positions of leadership are tempted to avoid any confrontation with the encroaching postmodern sexual jihad and immorality (as that would be judgemental), even accepting gays as “good Christians”. This is the logical result of a gospel that has been gutted of any serious discussion of sin, confession of sin and repentance. Evangelicals in positions of leadership have thus opened the door to worldly influence into the church and it has walked in and made itself at home in Evangelical churches.

Indeed, if there is one concept in the New Testament that the present generation HATES, it is the concept of Judgment. But then think about this... Consider for a moment the postmodern concept of life after death, the postmodern non-judgemental  "paradise for all", then fine, everyone will find themselves in the next life, where there will be no more death, no more illness, no more wars, no more natural disasters, etc.... Fine. Perfect. Great. But if everyone goes to heaven, then think about this. It's possible that once you’ve settled into your heavenly abode in this non-judgemental  "paradise” to the right your next-door neighbour will be Hitler and to the left Stalin will have his own mansion and across the street you’ll have the friendly neighbourhood rapist and on the second floor of your house, your manipulative mother-in-law will have her own apartment... And these unrepentant sinners will have all eternity to perfect their own particular brands of egoism and cruelty... Sounds like fun eh ? One doesn’t need a big theological degree to figure out that if there is no judgment after death, then this postmodern "paradise" will VERY quickly become a Hell... So logically the Last Judgment and Hell must exist, otherwise there can be no Paradise such as portrayed by Scripture.

Some may be tempted to make a small exception, and perhaps allow for the judgment of “REALLY bad people” such as Hitler or Stalin (or pick your favourite corrupt politician)? Why not ? After all, most of us, at some time or another will secretly hope that those “really bad people” will get what they deserve. But, as to themselves, no judgement for me as after all, I’m "a pretty good person"... But the Bible tells us that in the next life God will be the judge of who is good, and Christ himself clearly said only God is good (Mark 10: 18), which basically means we ALL got it coming... We ALL have a guilty verdict hanging over our heads. The Bible also declares that when God judges, he makes no exceptions and takes no bribes. All, men and women, must go before the Judge without exception and account for their lies, thefts, adulteries, murders. Inevitably the question arises: What about me?

The New Testament makes the offer of salvation, solely by means of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, and this offer is made, as it was to the thief on the cross next to Christ’s, only to individuals who have recognized their own sin, guilt and worthiness of judgement. Anyone else has no use for a saviour nor for Christianity… Christianity is a useless religion to anyone who thinks it sufficient to be a nice “moral and religious person”. Might as well become a Jew and live under the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses already had all the moral prescriptions and religious rites one could ask for…

There's a lesson here. Perhaps we should consider that universalism may well be what happens when we attempt to judge God's justice with our darkened, fallen minds...


[1] - I expect this would be a true statement for many postmoderns…

[2] - And regarding women, MacDonald astutely portrays their contradictory behaviour towards men, where both attraction and repulsion find expression.

[3] - Though a footnote in chap 45 seems to indicate that MacDonald would deny that characters in his story were based on real persons. MacDonald comments :

Ill, from all artistic points of view, as such a note comes in, I must, for reasons paramount to artistic considerations, remind my readers, that not only is the date of my story half a century or so back [about 1825], but, dealing with principles, has hardly anything to do with actual events, and nothing at all with persons. The local skeleton of the story alone is taken from the real, and I had not a model, not to say an original, for one of the characters in it —except indeed Mrs Catanach's dog.

[4] - Tellingly enough, in the novel Malcolm, after a conversation where MacDonald develops his case for universalism (chap. 52), he has his protagonist Malcolm go home and find consolation reading a work by an Enlightenment propagandist, Edward Gibbon…


- (2019) The Shack author brings new "Reformation" to the church. (The Word Like Fire)

Comfort, Ray (2010) God Has A Wonderful Plan For Your Life: The myth of the modern mesage. Living Waters

Lewis, C.S. (1940) The Problem of Pain. (English, PDF, Canadian public domain text)

MacDonald, George (1875/1890) Malcolm. Paul Trench Trubner and Co. 438 p.

Mohler, Albert (2017) The Shack — The Missing Art of Evangelical Discernment.