George MacDonald’s vision of outer darkness

This is from George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons. I have nothing to say about it except that it rings true, truer than anything in Dante.

I think I have seen from afar something of the final prison of all, the innermost cell of the debtor of the universe; I will endeavor to convey what I think it may be.

It is the vast outside; the ghastly dark beyond the gates of the city of which God is the light — where the evil dogs go ranging, silent as the dark, for there is no sound any more than sight. The time of signs is over. Every sense has its signs, and they were all misused: there is no sense, no sign more — nothing now by means of which to believe. The man wakes from the final struggle of death, in absolute loneliness — such a loneliness as in the most miserable moment of deserted childhood he never knew. Not a hint, not a shadow of anything outside his consciousness reaches him. All is dark, dark and dumb; no motion — not the breath of a wind! never a dream of change! not a scent from far-off field! nothing to suggest being or things besides the man himself, no sign of God anywhere. God has so far withdrawn from the man, that he is conscious only of that from which he has withdrawn. In the midst of the live world he cared for nothing but himself; now in the dead world he is in God’s prison, his own separated self. He would not believe in God because he never saw God; now he doubts if there be such a thing as the face of a man — doubts if he ever really saw one, ever anything more than dreamed of such a thing: — he never came near enough to human being, to know what human being really was — so may well doubt if human beings ever were, if ever he was one of them.

Next after doubt comes reasoning on the doubt: “The only one must be God! I know no one but myself: I must myself be God — none else!” Poor helpless dumb devil! — his own glorious lord god! Yea, he will imagine himself that same resistless force which, without his will, without his knowledge, is the law by which the sun burns, and the stars keep their courses, the strength that drives all the engines of the world. His fancy will give birth to a thousand fancies, which will run riot like the mice in a house but just deserted: he will call it creation, and his. Having no reality to set them beside, nothing to correct them by; the measured order, harmonious relations, and sweet graces of God’s world nowhere for him; what he thinks, will be, for lack of what God thinks, the man’s realities: what others can he have! Soon, misery will beget on imagination a thousand shapes of woe, which he will not be able to rule, direct, or even distinguish from real presences — a whole world of miserable contradictions and cold-fever-dreams.

But no liveliest human imagination could supply an adequate representation of what it would be to be left without a shadow of the presence of God. If God gave it, man could not understand it: he knows neither God nor himself in the way of the understanding. For not he who cares least about God was in this world ever left as God could leave him. I doubt if any man could continue following his wickedness from whom God had withdrawn. [. . .]

I suppose the man so left that he seems to himself utterly alone, yet, alas! with himself — smallest interchange of thought, feeblest contact of existence, dullest reflection from other being, impossible: in such evil case I believe the man would be glad to come in contact with the worst-loathed insect: it would be a shape of life, something beyond and besides his own huge, void, formless being! I imagine some such feeling in the prayer of the devils for leave to go into the swine. His worst enemy, could he but be aware of him, he would be ready to worship. For the misery would be not merely the absence of all being other than his own self, but the fearful, endless, unavoidable presence of that self.


Filed under God

3 responses to “George MacDonald’s vision of outer darkness

  1. Very convincing – it requires little more than the persistence of the soul after death for something like this to be a ‘natural’ consequence.

    It also suggests to me why Love is the antidote or escape from this state – both loving and being-loved – and how pride is a refusal to love and be loved.

  2. Yes. The Inferno is really magnificent, like baroque music or gothic architecture, but its tortures are too physical to really grip in these more psychological ages. McDonald’s vision here is chilling. It is frightening, in a way Dante’s isn’t. C.S. Lewis’ hell in the Great Divorce is the same. Even Mordor is more truly hellish.

    • Dante’s Hell has a structure and geography, which suggests a scheme of relations across time and space, but the damned can’t have any meaningful relations. Even a prison society has relations and aspirations, however modest; but that implies better and worse choices with respect to those aspirations, thus an opportunity to reorient yourself towards the Good, i.e. repentance. But this is a picture of Hell that specifically excludes that. Thus Dante’s Hell can’t be a prison society; the very notion of eternal Hell having a non-arbitrary geography is a bit artificial.

      Just calling a location the City of Dis implies that it has some form of government, economy, society…. Dante provides almost none of these things, just sinners in labeled boxes. This heightens the artificial, diorama-like feeling.

      This may be an artifact of trying to take the sense that Heaven and Hell are static states outside of time, and build a picture that conforms to them. The result is very sterile. Entire apocrypha have been written for this reason where God takes mercy on the damned and institutes Sundays off and coffee breaks… it’s not so much even the reprieve from punishment as the notion of a structured work week that livens the place up.

      Lewis and Macdonald, on the other hand, each in their own way understand and convey that the primary feature and torture of Hell is isolation. Macdonald, especially, strikes me as someone who seems to grasp better than most what unending punishment and darkness would actually entail. Perhaps that’s why he found it so difficult to imagine that God would be satisfied to abandon someone in such a state, or that there might be more than a few souls who would fail to repent if the slightest hint of mercy was offered amid such horror.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s