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George MacDonald – The Consuming Fire

This is from MacDonald’s first volume of Unspoken Sermons. It’s not exactly light reading, and it suffers from the usual Victorian verbosity, but it’s a really helpful text for reframing our understanding of all that hellfire and wrath stuff in the Bible. At the root of it all is the idea that ‘Escape is hopeless. For Love is inexorable.’ – Nick


Our God is a consuming fire. – HEBREWS xii. 29

Nothing is inexorable but love. Love which will yield to prayer is
imperfect and poor. Nor is it then the love that yields, but its alloy.
For if at the voice of entreaty love conquers displeasure, it is love
asserting itself, not love yielding its claims. It is not love that
grants a boon unwillingly; still less is it love that answers a prayer
to the wrong and hurt of him who prays. Love is one, and love is

For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute
loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete,
and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more
lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that
itself may be perfected – not in itself, but in the object. As it was
love that first created humanity, so even human love, in proportion to
its divinity, will go on creating the beautiful for its own outpouring.
There is nothing eternal but that which loves and can be loved, and
love is ever climbing towards the consummation when such shall be the
universe, imperishable, divine.

Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes
between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed.

And our God is a consuming fire.

If this be hard to understand, it is as the simple, absolute truth is
hard to understand. It may be centuries of ages before a man comes to
see a truth – ages of strife, of effort, of aspiration. But when once he
does see it, it is so plain that he wonders he could have lived without
seeing it. That he did not understand it sooner was simply and only
that he did not see it. To see a truth, to know what it is, to
understand it, and to love it, are all one. There is many a motion
towards it, many a misery for want of it, many a cry of the conscience
against the neglect of it, many a dim longing for it as an unknown need
before at length the eyes come awake, and the darkness of the dreamful
night yields to the light of the sun of truth. But once beheld it is
for ever. To see one divine fact is to stand face to face with
essential eternal life.

For this vision of truth God has been working for ages of ages. For
this simple condition, this apex of life, upon which a man wonders like
a child that he cannot make other men see as he sees, the whole labour
of God’s science, history, poetry – from the time when the earth
gathered itself into a lonely drop of fire from the red rim of the
driving sun-wheel to the time when Alexander John Scott worshipped him
from its face – was evolving truth upon truth in lovely vision, in
torturing law, never lying, never repenting; and for this will the
patience of God labour while there is yet a human soul whose eyes have
not been opened, whose child-heart has not yet been born in him. For
this one condition of humanity, this simple beholding, has all the
outthinking of God flowed in forms innumerable and changeful from the
foundation of the world; and for this, too, has the divine destruction
been going forth; that his life might be our life, that in us, too,
might dwell that same consuming fire which is essential love.

Let us look at the utterance of the apostle which is crowned with this
lovely terror: “Our God is a consuming fire.”

“Wherefore, we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have
grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly
fear, for our God is a consuming fire.” – We have received a kingdom
that cannot be moved – whose nature is immovable: let us have grace to
serve the Consuming Fire, our God, with divine fear; not with the fear
that cringes and craves, but with the bowing down of all thoughts, all
delights, all loves before him who is the life of them all, and will
have them all pure. The kingdom he has given us cannot be moved,
because it has nothing weak in it: it is of the eternal world, the
world of being, of truth. We, therefore, must worship him with a fear
pure as the kingdom is unshakeable. He will shake heaven and earth,
that only the unshakeable may remain, (verse 27): he is a consuming
fire, that only that which cannot be consumed may stand forth eternal.
It is the nature of God, so terribly pure that it destroys all that is
not pure as fire, which demands like purity in our worship. He will
have purity. It is not that the fire will burn us if we do not worship
thus; but that the fire will burn us until we worship thus; yea, will
go on burning within us after all that is foreign to it has yielded to
its force, no longer with pain and consuming, but as the highest
consciousness of life, the presence of God. When evil, which alone is
consumable, shall have passed away in his fire from the dwellers in the
immovable kingdom, the nature of man shall look the nature of God in
the face, and his fear shall then be pure; for an eternal, that is a
holy fear, must spring from a knowledge of the nature, not from a sense
of the power. But that which cannot be consumed must be one within
itself, a simple existence; therefore in such a soul the fear towards
God will be one with the homeliest love. Yea, the fear of God will
cause a man to flee, not from him, but from himself; not from him, but
to him, the Father of himself, in terror lest he should do Him wrong or
his neighbour wrong. And the first words which follow for the setting
forth of that grace whereby we may serve God acceptably are these – “Let
brotherly love continue.” To love our brother is to worship the
Consuming Fire.

The symbol of the consuming fire would seem to have been suggested to
the writer by the fire that burned on the mountain of the old law. That
fire was part of the revelation of God there made to the Israelites.
Nor was it the first instance of such a revelation. The symbol of God’s
presence, before which Moses had to put off his shoes, and to which it
was not safe for him to draw near, was a fire that did not consume the
bush in which it burned
. Both revelations were of terror. But the same
symbol employed by a writer of the New Testament should mean more, not
than it meant before, but than it was before employed to express; for
it could not have been employed to express more than it was possible
for them to perceive. What else than terror could a nation of slaves,
into whose very souls the rust of their chains had eaten, in whose
memory lingered the smoke of the flesh-pots of Egypt, who, rather than
not eat of the food they liked best, would have gone back to the house
of their bondage – what else could such a nation see in that fire than
terror and destruction? How should they think of purification by fire?
They had yet no such condition of mind as could generate such a
thought. And if they had had the thought, the notion of the suffering
involved would soon have overwhelmed the notion of purification. Nor
would such a nation have listened to any teaching that was not
supported by terror. Fear was that for which they were fit. They had no
worship for any being of whom they had not to be afraid.

Was then this show upon Mount Sinai a device to move obedience, such as
bad nurses employ with children? a hint of vague and false horror? Was
it not a true revelation of God?

If it was not a true revelation, it was none at all, and the story is
either false, or the whole display was a political trick of Moses.
Those who can read the mind of Moses will not easily believe the
latter, and those who understand the scope of the pretended revelation,
will see no reason for supposing the former. That which would be
politic, were it a deception, is not therefore excluded from the
possibility of another source. Some people believe so little in a
cosmos or ordered world, that the very argument of fitness is a reason
for unbelief.

At all events, if God showed them these things, God showed them what
was true. It was a revelation of himself. He will not put on a mask. He
puts on a face. He will not speak out of flaming fire if that flaming
fire is alien to him, if there is nothing in him for that flaming fire
to reveal. Be his children ever so brutish, he will not terrify them
with a lie.

It was a revelation, but a partial one; a true symbol, not a final

No revelation can be other than partial. If for true revelation a man
must be told all the truth, then farewell to revelation; yea, farewell
to the sonship. For what revelation, other than a partial, can the
highest spiritual condition receive of the infinite God? But it is not
therefore untrue because it is partial. Relatively to a lower condition
of the receiver, a more partial revelation might be truer than that
would be which constituted a fuller revelation to one in a higher
condition; for the former might reveal much to him, the latter might
reveal nothing. Only, whatever it might reveal, if its nature were such
as to preclude development and growth, thus chaining the man to its
incompleteness, it would be but a false revelation fighting against all
the divine laws of human existence. The true revelation rouses the
desire to know more by the truth of its incompleteness.

Here was a nation at its lowest: could it receive anything but a
partial revelation, a revelation of fear? How should the Hebrews be
other than terrified at that which was opposed to all they knew of
themselves, beings judging it good to honour a golden calf? Such as
they were, they did well to be afraid. They were in a better condition,
acknowledging if only a terror above them, flaming on that unknown
mountain height, than stooping to worship the idol below them. Fear is
nobler than sensuality. Fear is better than no God, better than a god
made with hands. In that fear lay deep hidden the sense of the
infinite. The worship of fear is true, although very low; and though
not acceptable to God in itself, for only the worship of spirit and of
truth is acceptable to him, yet even in his sight it is precious. For
he regards men not as they are merely, but as they shall be; not as
they shall be merely, but as they are now growing, or capable of
growing, towards that image after which he made them that they might
grow to it. Therefore a thousand stages, each in itself all but
valueless, are of inestimable worth as the necessary and connected
gradations of an infinite progress. A condition which of declension
would indicate a devil, may of growth indicate a saint. So far then the
revelation, not being final any more than complete, and calling forth
the best of which they were now capable, so making future and higher
revelation possible, may have been a true one.

But we shall find that this very revelation of fire is itself, in a
higher sense, true to the mind of the rejoicing saint as to the mind of
the trembling sinner. For the former sees farther into the meaning of
the fire, and knows better what it will do to him. It is a symbol which
needed not to be superseded, only unfolded. While men take part with
their sins, while they feel as if, separated from their sins, they
would be no longer themselves, how can they understand that the
lightning word is a Saviour – that word which pierces to the dividing
between the man and the evil, which will slay the sin and give life to
the sinner? Can it be any comfort to them to be told that God loves
them so that he will burn them clean. Can the cleansing of the fire
appear to them anything beyond what it must always, more or less, be – a
process of torture? They do not want to be clean, and they cannot bear
to be tortured. Can they then do other, or can we desire that they
should do other, than fear God, even with the fear of the wicked, until
they learn to love him with the love of the holy. To them Mount Sinai
is crowned with the signs of vengeance. And is not God ready to do unto
them even as they fear, though with another feeling and a different end
from any which they are capable of supposing? He is against sin: in so
far as, and while, they and sin are one, he is against them – against
their desires, their aims, their fears, and their hopes; and thus he is
altogether and always for them. That thunder and lightning and
tempest, that blackness torn with the sound of a trumpet, that visible
horror billowed with the voice of words, was all but a faint image to
the senses of the slaves of what God thinks and feels against vileness
and selfishness, of the unrest of unassuageable repulsion with which he
regards such conditions; that so the stupid people, fearing somewhat to
do as they would, might leave a little room for that grace to grow in
them, which would at length make them see that evil, and not fire, is
the fearful thing; yea, so transform them that they would gladly rush
up into the trumpet-blast of Sinai to escape the flutes around the
golden calf. Could they have understood this, they would have needed no
Mount Sinai. It was a true, and of necessity a partial revelation –
partial in order to be true.

Even Moses, the man of God, was not ready to receive the revelation in
store; not ready, although from love to his people he prayed that God
would even blot him out of his book of life. If this means that he
offered to give himself as a sacrifice instead of them, it would show
reason enough why he could not be glorified with the vision of the
Redeemer. For so he would think to appease God, not seeing that God was
as tender as himself, not seeing that God is the Reconciler, the
Redeemer, not seeing that the sacrifice of the heart is the atonement
for which alone he cares. He would be blotted out, that their names
might be kept in. Certainly when God told him that he that had sinned
should suffer for it, Moses could not see that this was the kindest
thing that God could do. But I doubt if that was what Moses meant. It
seems rather the utterance of a divine despair: – he would not survive
the children of his people. He did not care for a love that would save
him alone, and send to the dust those thousands of calf-worshipping
brothers and sisters. But in either case, how much could Moses have
understood, if he had seen the face instead of the back of that form
that passed the cleft of the rock amidst the thunderous vapours of
Sinai? Had that form turned and that face looked upon him, the face of
him who was more man than any man; the face through which the divine
emotion would, in the ages to come, manifest itself to the eyes of men,
bowed, it might well be, at such a moment, in anticipation of the crown
with which the children of the people for whom Moses pleaded with his
life, would one day crown him; the face of him who was bearing and was
yet to bear their griefs and carry their sorrows, who is now bearing
our griefs and carrying our sorrows; the face of the Son of God, who,
instead of accepting the sacrifice of one of his creatures to satisfy
his justice or support his dignity, gave himself utterly unto them, and
therein to the Father by doing his lovely will; who suffered unto the
death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be
like his, and lead them up to his perfection; if that face, I say, had
turned and looked upon Moses, would Moses have lived? Would he not have
died, not of splendour, not of sorrow, (terror was not there,) but of
the actual sight of the incomprehensible? If infinite mystery had not
slain him, would he not have gone about dazed, doing nothing, having no
more any business that he could do in the world, seeing God was to him
altogether unknown? For thus a full revelation would not only be no
revelation, but the destruction of all revelation.

“May it not then hurt to say that God is Love, all love, and nothing
other than love? It is not enough to answer that such is the truth,
even granted that it is. Upon your own showing, too much revelation may
hurt by dazzling and blinding.”

There is a great difference between a mystery of God that no man
understands, and a mystery of God laid hold of, let it be but by one
single man. The latter is already a revelation; and, passing through
that man’s mind, will be so presented, it may be so feebly presented,
that it will not hurt his fellows. Let God conceal as he will:
(although I believe he is ever destroying concealment, ever giving all
that he can, all that men can receive at his hands, that he does not
want to conceal anything, but to reveal everything,) the light which
any man has received is not to be put under a bushel; it is for him and
his fellows. In sowing the seed he will not withhold his hand because
there are thorns and stony places and waysides. He will think that in
some cases even a bird of the air may carry the matter, that the good
seed may be too much for the thorns, that that which withers away upon
the stony place may yet leave there, by its own decay, a deeper soil
for the next seed to root itself in. Besides, they only can receive the
doctrine who have ears to hear. If the selfish man could believe it, he
would misinterpret it; but he cannot believe it. It is not possible
that he should. But the loving soul, oppressed by wrong teaching, or
partial truth claiming to be the whole, will hear, understand, rejoice.

For, when we say that God is Love, do we teach men that their fear of
him is groundless? No. As much as they fear will come upon them,
possibly far more. But there is something beyond their fear, – a divine
fate which they cannot withstand, because it works along with the human
individuality which the divine individuality has created in them. The
wrath will consume what they call themselves; so that the selves God
made shall appear, coming out with tenfold consciousness of being, and
bringing with them all that made the blessedness of the life the men
tried to lead without God. They will know that now first are they fully
themselves. The avaricious, weary, selfish, suspicious old man shall
have passed away. The young, ever young self, will remain. That which
they thought themselves shall have vanished: that which they felt
themselves, though they misjudged their own feelings, shall remain –
remain glorified in repentant hope. For that which cannot be shaken
shall remain. That which is immortal in God shall remain in man. The
death that is in them shall be consumed.

It is the law of Nature – that is, the law of God – that all that is
destructible shall be destroyed. When that which is immortal buries
itself in the destructible – when it receives all the messages from
without, through the surrounding region of decadence, and none from
within, from the eternal doors – it cannot, though immortal still, know
its own immortality. The destructible must be burned out of it, or
begin to be burned out of it, before it can partake of eternal life.
When that is all burnt away and gone, then it has eternal life. Or
rather, when the fire of eternal life has possessed a man, then the
destructible is gone utterly, and he is pure. Many a man’s work must be
burned, that by that very burning he may be saved – “so as by fire.”
Away in smoke go the lordships, the Rabbi-hoods of the world, and the
man who acquiesces in the burning is saved by the fire; for it has
destroyed the destructible, which is the vantage point of the deathly,
which would destroy both body and soul in hell. If still he cling to
that which can be burned, the burning goes on deeper and deeper into
his bosom, till it reaches the roots of the falsehood that enslaves
him – possibly by looking like the truth.

The man who loves God, and is not yet pure, courts the burning of God.
Nor is it always torture. The fire shows itself sometimes only as
light – still it will be fire of purifying. The consuming fire is just
the original, the active form of Purity, – that which makes pure, that
which is indeed Love, the creative energy of God. Without purity there
can be as no creation so no persistence. That which is not pure is
corruptible, and corruption cannot inherit incorruption.

The man whose deeds are evil, fears the burning. But the burning will
not come the less that he fears it or denies it. Escape is hopeless.
For Love is inexorable. Our God is a consuming fire. He shall not come
out till he has paid the uttermost farthing.

If the man resists the burning of God, the consuming fire of Love, a
terrible doom awaits him, and its day will come. He shall be cast into
the outer darkness who hates the fire of God. What sick dismay shall
then seize upon him! For let a man think and care ever so little about
God, he does not therefore exist without God. God is here with him,
upholding, warming, delighting, teaching him – making life a good thing
to him. God gives him himself, though he knows it not. But when God
withdraws from a man as far as that can be without the man’s ceasing to
be; when the man feels himself abandoned, hanging in a ceaseless
vertigo of existence upon the verge of the gulf of his being, without
support, without refuge, without aim, without end – for the soul has no
weapons wherewith to destroy herself – with no inbreathing of joy, with
nothing to make life good; – then will he listen in agony for the
faintest sound of life from the closed door; then, if the moan of
suffering humanity ever reaches the ear of the outcast of darkness, he
will be ready to rush into the very heart of the Consuming Fire to know
life once more, to change this terror of sick negation, of unspeakable
death, for that region of painful hope. Imagination cannot mislead us
into too much horror of being without God – that one living death. Is
not this

to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thoughts
Imagine howling?

But with this divine difference: that the outer darkness is but the
most dreadful form of the consuming fire – the fire without light – the
darkness visible, the black flame. God hath withdrawn himself, but not
lost his hold. His face is turned away, but his hand is laid upon him
still. His heart has ceased to beat into the man’s heart, but he keeps
him alive by his fire. And that fire will go searching and burning on
in him, as in the highest saint who is not yet pure as he is pure.

But at length, O God, wilt thou not cast Death and Hell into the lake
of Fire – even into thine own consuming self? Death shall then die

And Hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.

Then indeed wilt thou be all in all. For then our poor brothers and
sisters, every one – O God, we trust in thee, the Consuming Fire – shall
have been burnt clean and brought home. For if their moans, myriads of
ages away, would turn heaven for us into hell – shall a man be more
merciful than God? Shall, of all his glories, his mercy alone not be
infinite? Shall a brother love a brother more than The Father loves a
son? – more than The Brother Christ loves his brother? Would he not die
yet again to save one brother more?

As for us, now will we come to thee, our Consuming Fire. And thou wilt
not burn us more than we can bear. But thou wilt burn us. And although
thou seem to slay us, yet will we trust in thee even for that which
thou hast not spoken, if by any means at length we may attain unto the
blessedness of those who have not seen and yet have believed.