The safest road to hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. –C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
C.S. Lewis said many profound and fascinating things about hell. Some are biblically precise, while others are more abstract and subject to misunderstanding.
In some cases, his views are not solidly biblical. But many of his insights on hell are true to Scripture, and some of his speculations are compelling food for thought.
Hell: Grave Injustice or Ultimate Justice?
Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”
Of course, God does not fully let people have their way, since it is clear, for instance, that the rich man in Luke 16wants out of hell but cannot escape it. Lewis’s point is, when someone says, “I do not want to have a relationship with God,” in that limited sense they ultimately get their way. The unbeliever’s “wish” to be away from God turns out to be his worst nightmare.
Nonetheless, those who do not want God do want goodness and happiness. But what makes anything good is God.Second Thessalonians 1:9 describes hell like this: “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord.” Where God withdraws, there can be no good. So, in Lewis’s terms, the unbeliever gets what he wants — God’s absence — yet with it gets what he doesn’t want — the loss of all good.
C.S. Lewis said of hell, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason” (The Problem of Pain).
Most of what Lewis says here is solidly biblical. Where there may be a chink in his logic is exactly where it is for many of us. We wish there were no hell — and imagine this comes from our sense of goodness and kindness. But Godcould remove hell yet chooses not to. Do we have more confidence in our goodness than his?
What are we to do with Revelation [18:20], where God brings down his wrath on Babylon’s people, then says, “Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!”? Doesn’t this suggest that in heaven we will see sin’s horrors clearly and have far stronger convictions about hell’s justice?
Hell is not pleasant, appealing, or encouraging. But neither is it evil; rather, it is a place where evil is judged. Indeed, if being sentenced to hell is just punishment, then the absence of hell would itself be evil.
Hell Itself Is Morally Good, Because a Good God Must Punish Evil
Most of us imagine that we hate the idea of hell because we love people too much to want them to suffer. But that implies God loves them less. Our revulsion is understandable, but what about hell makes us cringe? Is it the wickedness that’s being punished? Is it the suffering of those who might have turned to Christ? Or do we cringe because we imagine hell’s punishments are wicked or disproportionate? These very different responses expose different views of God.
Perhaps we hate hell too much because we don’t hate evil enough. This is something that could have been developed more in Lewis’s thinking. The same could be said of many of us.
If we regard hell as a divine overreaction to sin, we deny that God has the moral right to inflict ongoing punishment on any humans. By denying hell, we deny the extent of God’s holiness. When we minimize sin’s seriousness, we minimize God’s grace in Christ’s blood, shed for us. For if the evils he died for aren’t significant enough to warrant eternal punishment, perhaps the grace displayed on the cross isn’t significant enough to warrant eternal praise.
How Jesus Viewed Hell
In the Bible, Jesus spoke more about hell than anyone else did. He referred to hell as a real place (Matthew [10:28];[13:40]–42; Mark [9:43]–48). He described it in graphic terms: a fire that burns but doesn’t consume, an undying worm that eats away at the damned, and a lonely, foreboding darkness.
“Perhaps we hate hell too much because we don’t hate evil enough.”
Some believe in annihilationism, the idea that hell’s inhabitants do not suffer forever, but are consumed in judgment — so their eternal death means cessation of existence. Edward Fudge, in his book and DVD The Fire That Consumes, defends this position.
It’s an argument I have considered seriously, one that holds up to much of the Old Testament revelation, but which I find very difficult to reconcile with Jesus’s words: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew [25:46]). Or with the words of Revelation [20:10], which speak of not only Satan but two human beings, the Antichrist and the false prophet, being cast into the lake of fire and “tormented day and night forever and ever.” Revelation [14:11]appears to apply to a large number of people: “And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.”
Christ says the unsaved “will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew [8:12]). He taught that an unbridgeable chasm separates the wicked in hell from the righteous in Paradise. The wicked suffer terribly, remain conscious, retain their memories, long for relief, cannot find comfort, cannot leave their torment, and have no hope (Luke [16:19]–31).
In short, our Savior could not have painted a bleaker picture of hell. It is one that C.S. Lewis, with reluctance, believed and affirmed, bowing his knee in submission to a higher authority.
If the evils Jesus died for aren’t significant enough to warrant eternal punishment, then the grace displayed on the cross isn’t significant enough to warrant eternal praise.
Lewis said, “I have met no people who fully disbelieved in hell and also had a living and life-giving belief in Heaven” (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer). The biblical teaching on both destinations stands or falls together. When heaven and hell are spoken of in Scripture, each place is portrayed as being just as real and, in some passages anyway, as permanent as the other.
Lewis’s friend, Dorothy Sayers, said it well:
There seems to be a kind of conspiracy to forget, or to conceal, where the doctrine of hell comes from. The doctrine of hell is not “mediaeval priestcraft” for frightening people into giving money to the church: it is Christ’s deliberate judgment on sin. . . . We cannot repudiate hell without altogether repudiating Christ. (Dorothy Sayers, Introductory Papers on Dante [Methuen, 1954], 44)
Written by Randy Alcorn
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