Lewis's Reflections on Hell

Brian J. Lee
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
May/Jun 2002

S. Lewis did not write as a theologian; his works touch on Christianity in a popular vein. Yet as a foremost apologist of the last century, he continues to have an enduring influence. This brief review of his "doctrine" of hell, therefore, faces numerous obstacles, most notably that of genre. Although his fiction brilliantly illustrates many Christian themes, it does not intend to teach doctrine. Even the more didactic prose of Mere Christianity or The Problem of Pain must be read in the context of apology. It answers objections, only occasionally producing a doctrinal by-product. Our task, thus, requires eliciting doctrine in an indirect manner-more bluntly stated, reading Lewis as he did not intend to be read.

The great strength of Lewis's description of hell is apologetic, piquing our moral consciousness. Hell is always discussed in the first person, illustrating the threat sin poses to our own hearts. This threat is most terrible in its deceptive subtlety; the most commonplace acts of selfishness possess the ultimate power to enslave. Not surprisingly, hell is satirically portrayed in a similarly bland manner: "Hell is something like a bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern," Lewis writes in the preface to The Screwtape Letters. The Problem of Pain was written during the Battle of Britain, with evil personified on London's doorstep, yet in his chapter on human wickedness, Lewis prefers to discuss evil in its domestic aspect, warning of superficial self-righteousness. Until we know hell as our own potential destiny, we cannot know our deliverance: "Christ takes it for granted that men are bad. Until we really feel this assumption of his to be true, though we are part of the world he came to save, we are not part of the audience to whom his words are addressed."

Lewis loved the idea that we will be surprised by who is in heaven, and who is not. Thus, the judgment scene in The Last Battle, where Emeth, a pious pagan whose name means "truth," is saved because he served Aslan under another name. This is often cited as evidence that Lewis was a pluralist-and he may have been. Indeed, this view is more explicitly stated in Lewis's God in the Dock, in the essay "Christian Apologetics,"

"Of course it should be pointed out that though all salvation is through Jesus, we need not conclude that he cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted him in this life. And it should (at least in my judgment) be made clear that we are not pronouncing all other religions to be totally false, but rather saying that in Christ whatever is true in all religions is consummated and perfected."

However, the purpose for this in Lewis's fiction and apologetics is clearly to generate surprise in the reader at the remarkably unpredictable nature of divine grace. Lewis has the mind of an apologist living in a purportedly Christian land, always careful to remind the Baptized what surprises might await them in the day of judgment.

The extended dreamlike description of the afterlife in The Great Divorce is similarly calculated for self-examination, in order to get the reader to ponder his own damnation. The heart of this purgatorial travelogue is a series of conversations between wicked ghosts and their saintly companions, which serves to prove the point that hell is earth's petty grudges writ large. Lewis's ghosts are unable to bend a single blade of heavenly grass-a clever portrayal of the idea that evil is the privation of Good, unreality in the face of reality. "All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World." This view that hell is primarily a mental reality led to the criticism that Lewis didn't believe in an "actual Hell," to which he responded in The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, that "One's own mind is actual enough."

The Problem of Hell

In The Problem of Pain, Lewis argues that "Pain plants the flag of truth within a rebel fortress." As such, it serves a remedial or corrective purpose by conquering error. Here hell comes under special consideration as a type of pain that does not lead to repentance. Lewis first defends the "most repellent" form of the doctrine, hell as retributive punishment. The just core of retribution is that evildoers may know their own wickedness, even in those cases where it doesn't lead to a fuller conquest by the good. Given that men are in hell, it is better that they know why they are there than remain blissfully ignorant in their sins.

However, he quickly shifts from hell as "positive retributive punishment inflicted by God" to an alternate view: Hell as the self-determined end of wicked men. "We are therefore at liberty-since the two conceptions, in the long run, mean the same thing-to think of this bad man's perdition not as a sentence imposed on him but as the mere fact of being what he is." The damned are enslaved by their own desires, lose all taste for the other, and live "wholly in the self." Lewis affirms the moral defensibility of both "forms" of hell, but he clearly prefers the latter view. However, the assertion that the two forms of the doctrine mean the same thing is by no means apparent, since the latter is partially defined "not as a sentence imposed." The implication is that God suffers hell as an unfortunate consequence of human freedom. Given that his offer of forgiveness is freely rejected by sinners, all that remains is to "leave them alone."

Finally, it is objected that the ultimate loss of a single soul means the defeat of omnipotence. And so it does. In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of such defeat….I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside (The Problem of Pain).

Lewis's rebel has succeeded in cutting himself off from God and the external world. As compelling-and horrific-as Lewis's preferred form of the doctrine is, it leaves unspoken God's full counsel concerning his coming wrath. Christ warns his listeners to fear him who has the power to throw us into hell; Paul tells us that unrepentant men are storing up divine wrath against themselves; and Peter says that God is holding the unrighteous for the day of judgment (see Luke 12:5; Rom. 2:5; 2 Pet. 2:4). Everywhere in the scriptures, God is an active party in final judgment, both in its preparation and execution. His power is neither restrained nor defeated in the judgment of sinners, rather it is demonstrated (see Rom. 3:3-7). In short, the damned do not attain the distance they desire from God; he is not absent from hell, but horribly present. Rebels they surely remain, but success eludes them.

The Curse of God's Wrath

"In all discussions of Hell we should keep steadily before our eyes the possible damnation, not of our enemies nor our friends (since both these disturb the reason) but of ourselves" (The Problem of Pain).

"Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them" (Ps. 69:24).

In Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis confronts head-on a difficulty he shares with most modern readers of the Psalter, namely, what to make of the curses by which the Psalmist calls down God's judgment on his enemy. Lewis discerns here a "spirit of hatred" that is at once frightful, terrible, and contemptible-yet, "not entirely contrary to the will of God." He does not merely want to explain away these curses, but neither does he approve of them. It is plain to him that the psalmist must be in error, for to condone such "vindictive hatred" would be wicked. The cursing of God's enemies is judged to be a sub-Christian reflex, yet as inspired Scripture it retains for him a beneficial use. First, they may serve as negative examples: Thou shalt not curse your neighbor in such manner. They also remind us how we tempt others to vengeance when we injure them, thus, leading to an even greater evil. In both cases, the psalmist manifests indignant passion for God's justice gone wrong.

As usual, Lewis's moral reflex is correct. These psalms are in no way a model for ideal behavior, either for the Christian or for the Jew. Lewis's failure lies in judging them, therefore, to be in error. One can, of course, warn against vindictiveness without condemning it in its entirety: "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord," (Rom. 12:17-21). The Christian solution lies in putting these curses in their proper redemptive historical context, and in recognizing their ultimate referent to be christological and eschatological. The Psalter presumes a running battle between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. In this battle, blessing and curse are always intimately related. First Noah then Israel were delivered by God through the curse of a watery death, and the apostle Peter concludes that godly men will be rescued from fiery trials just as Lot was (see 2 Pet. 2:9, 3:7). Lewis correctly recognizes Christ as the only fitting referent of the sinless psalmist, yet he fails to grant that the Psalter's wrath and vengeance is properly his as well: "Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment," (Ps. 2:12). Both Christ and his apostles take these curses on their lips in pronouncing eschatological woes (see Matt. 23; Rom. 2-3; 2 Pet. 2-3; et al).

It is no coincidence that Lewis's application of the cursing Psalms is similar to the use he makes of the doctrine of hell. They both serve as law, truly terrible portrayals of our own sin, merely tolerated because they may serve as a fearful goad unto obedience. He writes in The Problem of Pain, "We are told that [hell] is a detestable doctrine-and indeed, I too detest it from the bottom of my heart…I am not going to try to prove the doctrine tolerable. Let us make no mistake; it is not tolerable. But I think the doctrine can be shown to be moral…." What is utterly lacking in his writings is an appreciation for coming divine judgment as Good News, "a great comfort to the righteous"-a view common to the Psalms and Prophets, Christ and his apostles, as well as the Protestant confessions. The Belgic Confession states, "Therefore, with good reason the thought of this judgment is horrible and dreadful to wicked and evil people. But it is very pleasant and a great comfort to the righteous and elect, since their total redemption will then be accomplished."

In his concern for self-righteousness, Lewis overlooked the one instance where the Creed compels us to consider the damnation of another. That at Calvary our Savior, our friend, would actually suffer the punishments of hell on our behalf does indeed disturb the reason. That by such substitution we could be utterly freed from the fear of our own condemnation far outstrips our wildest hopes. Yet the Christian hope and one source of true faith lies precisely in this knowledge-that if we are in Christ, we will never know the flames of hell.

Wednesday, June 6th 2007

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