CS Lewis and Hell from the Problem of Pain

And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul, but instead be afraid of the one who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
(Mat 10:28 LEB)

The thief comes only so that he can steal and kill and destroy; I have come so that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
(Joh 10:10 LEB)

“I willingly believe that the damned are, on one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are closed from the inside.”

The above is one of the most famous quotes from CS Lewis on what hell is like. Most Arminian Christians (those that strongly believe in free will), use this small chapter in CS Lewis’s book “The Problem of Pain” as a defense for our freedom, God’s goodness and love, and because of his goodness and love, his inability and passive wrath to leave us as humans to our own devices. God provided a remedy for sin and death, and many do not or refuse to accept that remedy. He writes:

“The problem is not simply that of a God who consigns his creatures to final ruin. That would be the problem if we were Mahometans. Christianity, true, as always, to the complexity of the real, presents us with something knottier and more ambiguous-God so full of mercy that he becomes man and dies by torture to avert that final ruin by an act of mere power. I said glibly a moment ago that I would pay ‘any price’ to remove this doctrine (referring to hell and judgment). I lied. I could not pay one-thousandth part of the price that God has already paid to remove the fact. And here is the real problem: so much mercy, yet still there is Hell.” (Problem of Pain, CS Lewis Reader page 621).

For the most part, I agree with CS Lewis, that God in his love for us, has paid the ultimate price by entering the cross with his Son Jesus emptying himself, and atoning for our sins and defeating death on a cross (Phil. 2:6-8; Col. 2:15).

CS Lewis is tackling the issue of free will. Our souls, according to CS Lewis is won or lost through our will. Our will is the part of our soul that makes choices and can choose good or evil, success or failure, fear or love. In the will resides the part of us that isn’t ruled by God. God is sovereign over everything except the will. Part of his love for us is giving us free will. Dr. Thomas Jay Oord calls this the uncontrollable love of God, and because of that “God Can’t” force anyone to love or choose him (God Can’t – Questions and Answers).

CS Lewis does a masterful job creating a hypothetical person who is selfish, wicked, oppresses people, and doesn’t believe in anything or anyone but himself. He writes:

Picture yourself a man who has risen to wealth or power by a continued course of treachery and cruelty, by exploiting for pure selfish ends the noble motions of his victims, laughing the while at their simplicity; who having thus attained success uses it for the gratification of lust and hatred and finally parts with the last rag of hour among theives by betraying his own accomplices and jerring at their last moments of belwildered disallusionment. Suppose, further, that he does all this , not (as we like to imagine) tormented by remorse or even misgiving, but eating like a schooboy and sleeping like a healthy infant-jolly, ruddy-cheeked man, without a care in the world, unshakly confident to the very end that he has got the better of, that his way of life is utterly successful, satisfactory, unassailable…Suppose he will not be converted, what destiny in the eternal world can you regard as proper for him? You are not moved by the wretched creature’s pain as much, but by a truly ethical demand, that soon or late the right should be asserted, a flag planted in this horribly rebellious soul, even if not fuller and better conquest to follow. (Problem of Pain 622)

CS Lewis goes on and digresses and contemplates what it would be like if this person had any goodness in him. Yet, according to CS Lewis, death gets the final vote. (Problem of Pain 623)

To me this sounds a little bit like Jesus giving the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Where in the afterlife, their lives are reversed, Lazarus is living in luxury in Abraham’s bosom, while the rich man is in eternal torment. The rich man pleads with Abraham to have the his relatives listen, but Abraham replies that God sent Moses and the Prophets to warn them of their ethical sins.

The other thing that CS Lewis brings up is that God has put in all of us a desire for justice, for wrongs to be made right and for those that are oppressed receive a reward.

For him hell is the journey of being to non-being. He writes, but hell was not made for men. It is in no sense parallel to heaven: it is the darkness outside’, the outer rim where being fades into nonentity.”

According to Illaria Ramelli discussing Origen in her book , “A Larger Hope? Volume 1: Universal Salvation Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich, writes about non-being:

The principal metaphysical foundation of this doctrine of his consists in the idea that evil is non-being; only God—who, qua supreme Good, is the opposite of evil—is Being (Comm. in Io. 2:13).84 This is why to adhere to evil means to become non-being: “As long as we stick to God and adhere to the One who truly Is, we also are. But if we go far from God . . . we fall into the opposite [i.e., non-being]. However, this does not mean the ontological death of the soul” (Hom. 2 in Ps. 38, 12). The wicked man’s death or reduction to non-being is not a vanishing of the substance of his soul,85 but his spiritual death (see also Hom. 2 in Ps. 38, 1; Hom. 5 in Ps. 36, 5). And the destruction of the sinner at the Judgment will be the destruction of his sin, that he may be a sinner no more, but a just man; the otherworldly (αἰώνιον/aiōnion) fire will indeed destroy, not sinners, but their evil thoughts (Comm. in Matt. 5:10:2).

Ramelli, Ilaria L. E. . A Larger Hope?, Volume 1: Universal Salvation from Christian Beginnings to Julian of Norwich . Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition


So according to Origen, the sins that make a person evil gets destroyed in the fires of God’s judgment. We do not merely fade into nothingness because our soul is eternal.

Also according to Thomas Jay Oord, in the afterlife, God in his prevenient grace and wooing uncontrollable love will continue to woo us and draw us to himself (John 12:32). We will gladly choose God and to be connected to his love at the end of the age (Phil 2:10-11). Our will through the fires of God’s love is healed and burned up, and restored. Thus we can then become fully alive as we experience all that God is.

The uncontrolling love view considers God a universal spirit who acts as an efficient cause, attracts like a final cause, and offers formal causes as possibilities. As a spirit with being, God influences everyone and everything moment by moment. In this influencing, God calls, persuades, commands, or woos us to choose particular courses of action and ways of being. This is God’s causal action…. First, the God whose nature is uncontrolling love never stops loving us. Because love comes first in God’s nature, God cannot stop loving. Many theologies say God may love us now, and God may love us after we die. But God could torture or destroy us. I can’t imagine a loving person sending people to never-ending Hell or annihilating them. Love forgives. The God of relentless love, by contrast, always loves! Love wins, because it’s guaranteed God’s relentless love works for well-being in the afterlife.

Oord, Thomas Jay. Questions and Answers for God Can’t (p. 67). SacraSage Press. Kindle Edition.

CS Lewis writes about heaven as:

To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter hell, is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is ‘remains’. To be a complete human means to have the passions obedient to the will and the will offered to God: to have been a man – to be an ex-man or ‘damned ghose’ – would mean to consist of a will utterly centered in its self and passions utterly controlled by the will.” (CS Lewis – page 625)

I do believe that a person will gladly lay down their will, submit to God through Christ so that God can be all in all in them (1 Cor. 15:26-28).

According to Thomas Talbott, in his book, the “Inescapable Love of God,” CS Lewis notes that in his own conversion experience from his journey of atheism towards theism, that he was totally free to make that choice, and it was only his to make. However, he felt compelled to make that choice. (Talbott, pages 198-200). This is exactly the argument that David Bentley Hart made in his fourth reflection in his controversial book, “That All Shall Be Saved.” Talbott writes:

Indeed!, That is just my point; even Lewis described his freedom in relation to his own conversion very differently than he described the freedom of the lost in relation to their damnation. For he in effect described the crucial choice in his conversion as voluntary but not free in the sense that he could have chosen otherwise. He even described himself as having been compelled to submit to God freely and spoke as if necessity is sometimes quite compatible with freedom. So now we can ask, if God’s mercy can eventually compel one prodigal to submit freely, as I can, why can it do likewise for every other prodigal as well? (Talbott, page 200)

This is the million dollar question, and unfortunately, it cannot be answered biblically, but only philosophically and metaphysically. CS Lewis experientially felt compelled to submit to God which was a voluntary act of his free will, yet he believed it was a necessity, and that necessity is compatible with our free will. About free will, Hart writes:

“Freedom is a relation to reality, which means liberty from delusion. This divine determinism toward the transcendent Good (God), then is precisely what freedom is for the a rational nature. Even God could not create a rational being not oriented toward the Good, any more than he could create a reality in which 2 + 2 = 5. That is not to deny that, within the embrace in of this relation between the will’s origin and its end in the Good (what, again, Maximus the Confessor calls our “natural will”), there is considerable room for deliberative liberty with regard to differing finite options (what Maximus the Confessor calls the “gnomic will”), and considerable room in which to stray from the ideal path.” (Kindle location 2471-2474)

This would line up with Lewis’s conversion experience feeling compelled to submit to God as the best and highest choice which then led to ultimate freedom in his will oriented toward the Transcendent Good. Again, there really isn’t a biblical argument for such, where philosophically and experientially there is one. Unfortunately it is more subjective and than objective, and any argument for certainty would be speculative at most.

Conclusion

I do believe that CS Lewis wrote some good questions and pondered some things as it relates to the issue of hell. Like many, he believed that what we experience on earth we can also experience in the afterlife. If we choose selfishness, isolation, oppression, cruelty in this life without submission of our will, we will experience the same on the other side even if God provided a remedy in Jesus death and resurrection. Unlike CS Lewis, Origen and Gregory of Nyssa believed that the soul was immortal and the submission of the will was irrelevant to our salvation in the afterlife. Sin and death are destroyed, not our being.

I also believe that because we as humans are created in the image of God, love and justice is part of who we are. We desire wrongs to be made right, the restoration of all things (apokatastasis). We want to see the wicked punished, and the oppressed lifted up. This is part of ourselves that reflects God’s image. It is not my will that justice is served, but God’s will. He took care of that on Calvary (Romans 8:3-4). He has also provided a pathway for us to become fully human which is through being like Jesus as we stay rooted and connected to him (Col. 2:6-7).

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