MacDonald’s theology is based on four non-contradictory premises about God. (If you think there is a contradiction you are simply giving one or more premises a meaning he did not intend.)
1. God loves all (meaning all of creation, which includes all people).
2. God hates sin because he loves sinners. (Sin destroys the one who sins.)
3. God always forgives. (It’s his nature to forgive.)
4. God will punish unrepentant sinners. (He will not tolerate that which destroys that which he loves.)
Some people have trouble understanding how these four premises do not contradict each other because they think punishment and forgiveness cannot coexist.*
Some also think that if God always forgives, “Why did Christ die?” I think MacDonald would answer that question by pointing out that in his life and death Jesus revealed the character of his Father to us, and in so revealing, draws us to God. On the cross Jesus revealed that God would rather suffer and die an awful death, than see one of his little ones suffer. Once a person begins to trust Jesus, they have begun to trust the Father (as this is what the Father desires)—restoration has begun.
*The Inescapable Love of God Thomas Talbott takes an in-depth look at the nature of God’s forgiveness and punishment; if you’ve never read MacDonald, or you have trouble seeing how punishment and forgiveness can coexist, you might find Talbott’s book helpful.
If we take the Bible seriously, we must conclude that there are two kinds of forgiveness from God. Both are motivated by unconditional love. Perhaps the following illustration will help.
When a little girl ignores her mother and runs on the road, it angers and hurts her mother because she loves her daughter. She punishes her daughter not because she wants her daughter to suffer; she punishes her because she loves her and does not want her to suffer. (Good parents know intuitively that sometimes you have to appear to be cruel to be kind.) In a similar way God is not pleased when we refuse to trust him. Sin destroys the soul of the sinner. God’s punishment does not.
If a person will not repent, punishment becomes necessary. This kind of forgiveness is conditional upon repentance.
The second kind of forgiveness is unconditional. It simply means God is always doing his best for each of us. He is not treating us as people treat us; he is giving us his very best. He loves us unconditionally. If someone is always doing their very best for you, you would have to conclude that they love you and are not holding anything against you. (“Love keeps no record of wrongs.” See 1 Cor 13)
Whether conditional or not, God’s forgiveness is always motivated by love. God desires that we all receive both kinds of forgiveness, but that will only be possible when we’ve all repented. (This will happen after the age to come. The age to come is 1000 years and is marked by the first resurrection. See Rev 20:1-6)
“His nature is always to forgive, and just because he forgives, he punishes.” (George MacDonald).
Another way of looking at it is when God doesn’t forgive, he doesn’t forgive because of love. When he does forgive, he forgives because of love.
Because God loves sinners he will not pretend the sin which they refuse to repent of is harmless. His wrath burns because of his love.
When the little girl stops running on the road, punishment is no longer necessary.
“But isn’t it better if a person chooses the good because they see it as good and values it as such?”
Of course, but the little girl who starts to do the right thing simply to avoid punishment, should come to see that her mother does indeed care for her and what she is telling her is right.
When we see sin as it really is—as God sees it—we will hate it as he hates it. (He will not allow sinners to be comforted by an illusion for eternity. They will see the true horror of sin.) When a person sees their sin for what it truly is, they we will turn to God for help. And he will save them from it. In time God will bring all to Christ, and through Christ, make each and every one of us like him in character. God will be all in all. (It is also worth noting that the more we become like Christ in character, the more different we will become in personality. We will become what God had in view when he made each of us as unique individuals made in his image. See also God is not weak.)