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 endeavour to convey what I think it may be.
The following has been adapted by Charles Watson Sr. from George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons Series Two, The Last Farthing:
What can I say about this prison but to describe it, firstly, as the vast outside; it is the ghastly dark beyond the gates of the City of he who is its Light; it is where the evil dogs rage as silently as the dark, for there is no sound any more than there is sight. The time for signs and wonders has passed, during which every sense had an opportunity to interpret sign after sign; yet they were all misused. There is no longer sense, nor sign; there is nothing now to believe by sight, nor by touch, by hearing, nor by taste. All that remains is the abyss . . . nothing more than the secluded self.
The man has woken from the final struggle of death, in absolute loneliness — such a loneliness as in the most miserable moment of deserted childhood, which he had never known, until now. Not a hint, not a shadow, of anything beyond his own consciousness reaches him. All is dark, dark and dumb; there is no motion — not the breath of a wind, neither a dream of change, nor a scent from a far-off field; nothing to suggest the existence of anything besides the man himself. There is no sign of God . . . anywhere. For God has so far withdrawn from the man, that he is only conscious of the dregs of his own mental sensations. Woe is he!
In the midst of the world of old, he cared for nothing but himself; now, in the world of the dead, he is trapped in God’s prison — his own separated self. He has become one with outer darkness.
During life, he would not believe in God because he never saw God; now he doubts if there is such a thing as the face of a man — he doubts if he ever really saw one, if he ever did more than dream of such a thing. He never came near enough to a human being to know what human being really is — he cannot help but doubt if human beings ever were, or if he was ever even one of them.
After doubt comes reasoning upon the doubt: ‘The only one must be God! And since I know no one but myself, I must be God; for there is no one else!’ Poor, helpless, dumb devil! — he is his own glorious lord god! Yea, he will imagine himself as that same irresistible force which, apart from his own will and his own knowledge, there is no law by which the sun may burn or for the stars keep their courses. Apart from him, there is no strength to drive all the engines of the world; if there ever was one, beyond that which is fading from his memory!
His fancy will give birth to a thousand fancies, which will run riot like mice in an empty house: he will call it creation and he will call it his. With no reality to set them beside, nothing to correct them by; no measured order nor harmonious relations, no sweet graces of God’s world for him; for lack of what God thinks, what he thinks will be his reality. For what other could he have!?
Soon, misery will birth from his imagination a thousand shapes of woe, none of which he will be able to rule, direct, or even distinguish from real presences — a whole world of miserable contradictions and cold fever-dreams.
Human imagination cannot supply adequate representation of what it would be like to be left without a shadow of the presence of God. If God were to reveal it, man could not understand it: we do not know God, nor even ourselves, in the way of understanding. Even he who cared least about God, in this world, was never left as God could leave him. I doubt if any man could continue following his wickedness if God was fully withdrawn.
The most frightful idea of what could happen to someone would be to exist in some forsaken realm in which God was fully withdrawn — one, in which, God simply had nothing to do. The being could not be; for being which is caused would, of necessity, cease to be if the causation ceased. It is always in, and never out, of God that we can live and do. But I suppose that if a man is so abandoned that he feels utterly alone, whereas he only had himself, the smallest interchange of thought, the feeblest contact of existence, the dullest reflection from another being would be impossible. In such a case, I believe the man would be glad to come in contact with the most loathsome insect — it would be a shape of life, something beyond and besides his own huge, void, formless being!
(I imagine a similar feeling in the prayer of the devils for leave to go into the swine.)
He would be ready and willing to worship his worst enemy, just to be aware of him. 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. Without the correction, the reflection, the support of other presences, being is not merely unsafe, it is a horror — that is, for anyone but God, who is his own being.
For him who was originally an idea of God’s, who was created in the image of God, his own being is far too fragmentary and imperfect to be anything like good company. It is the lovely creatures God has made all around us where we find, in them, God giving himself to us. Through them, we come to know him and are, thereby, rescued from a frenzy of aloneness—which is Self, Self, Self. The man who minds only himself would, at last, go mad if God did not interfere.
Could there be any way out of the misery? Will the soul that would not believe in God, with so much of his lovely world around testifying of him, come to believe in him once it is finally left in the prison of its own lonely, weary all-and-nothing? It would for a time try to believe that it was indeed nothing, a mere glow of the setting sun on a cloud of dust, a paltry dream that dreamed itself — then, ah, if only the dream might dream that it was no more! That would be the one thing to hope for.
Self-loathing would begin and it would grow and grow; and to what it might or might not come, no soul can tell — of essential, original misery and uncompromising self-disgust! Only, then — if a being be capable of self-disgust, is there not some room for hope — as much as a pinch of earth in the cleft of a rock might yield for the growth of a pine? There must be hope while there is existence; for, where there is existence, there must be God; and God is forever good — the giver of hope.
‘But alas, the distance from the light! Such a soul is at the farthest verge of life’s negation!‘ No, not the farthest! A man is nearer heaven when in deepest hell than he is before he begins to reap the reward of his doings — for, he is in a condition to receive the smallest show of the life that is, as a boon unspeakable.
All his years in the world he received the endless gifts of sun and air, of earth and sea and human face divine, as things that came to him because that was their way, for there was no one to prevent them; now the poorest thinning of the darkness he would hail, as men of old, the glow of a descending angel; it would be as a messenger from God.
Not that he would think of God! It takes long to think of God; but hope, although not yet seeming like hope, would begin to dawn in his bosom, and the thinner darkness would be as a cave of light, a refuge from the horrid self — of which he used to be so proud. A man may well imagine it impossible to ever think so unpleasantly of himself! But he has only to let things go and he will make it the real, right, natural way to think of himself.
True, all I have been saying is imaginary; but our imagination is made to mirror truth; all the things which appear in it are more or less after the model of things which are; I suspect this is the region from which prophecies have been uttered; and when we are true it will mirror nothing but truth. I deal here with the same light and darkness the Lord dealt with, the same St. Paul, St. John, St. Peter, and St. Jude dealt with.
Ask yourself whether the faintest dawn of even physical light would not be welcome to such a soul, as some refuge from the darkness of the justly hated self. And the light would grow and grow across the awful gulf between the soul and its haven — its repentance — for repentance is the first pressure of the bosom of God; and in the twilight, struggling and faint, the man would feel, as faintly as the twilight, another thought beside his, another thinking by something close to his dreary self — perhaps the man he had most wronged, most hated, most despised — and would be glad that someone, whoever, was near him: the man he had most injured, and was most ashamed to meet, would then be a refuge from himself — oh, how welcome!
So might I imagine a thousand steps up from the darkness, each a little less dark, a little nearer the light — but, ah, the weary way! He cannot come out until he has paid the uttermost farthing!
However, once repentance has begun, it may grow more and more rapidly! If God once gets a willing hold, if with but one finger he touches the man’s self, he will draw him from the darkness into the light as quickly as he is able. For that very reason was the forlorn, self-ruined wretch made — to be a child of God, a partaker of the divine nature, an heir of God and joint-heir with Christ. Out of the abyss into which he casts himself, refusing to be the heir of God, he must rise and be raised.
To the heart of God — the one and only goal of the human race, the refuge and home of all and each — he must set out and go, or the last glimmer of humanity will die from him. Whoever will live must cease to be a slave and become a child of God. There is no half-way house of rest where ungodliness may be dallied with, nor proven quite fatal.
Be they few or many cast into such prison as I have endeavoured to imagine, there can be no deliverance for a human soul, whether in that prison or out of it, but in paying the last farthing, in becoming lowly, penitent, and self-refusing — and so receiving the sonship, and learning to cry: Abba, Father!