C. S. Lewis on Hell: really deep, oft-quoted, really wrong

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Aaron Blumer's picture

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"They don't want to be there. There is no evidence whatever that they want to be in Hell. [Lewis'] quotation, at least as commonly used, is mostly fudging, and mostly balderdash."

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Jonathan Charles's picture

I don't think Lewis is wrong, I think Johnson is reading too much into it. Unbelievers certainly won't want to be in hell once they are there. What they want is to live without God. While God is omnipresent, the unbeliever in hell won't experience God's goodness and grace, but His wrath. This is how I've understood Lewis. The unbeliever who doesn't want God goes to an eternity without God (in the sense described above), but once in hell, they find out all of the entailments of living forever without God, and they don't like it.

SuzanneT's picture

I say this as one mostly unfamiliar with his printed works and theology, so wasn't aware of this CSL quote nor that it's been "quoted and re-quoted all over the place" (presumably by respected ministry leaders/teachers) ..but I'm not at all comfortable with it.  Although there might be legitimate ways to see around it and make some theological sense of it why should we need to, God's word is clear.  For instance Lewis says: "All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. " What does that even mean?    

What I find more interesting is how the un-believer is represented in a quote regarding God, heaven & hell; I mean they are utterly blind to the things of the Spirit and have absolutely no clue (!) to what has been revealed in His Word.  It is nothing about choice, or about seeking and desiring and knocking.   ..man, if they only did have a "clue"!  but I understand that's not how God works.

Even as a professing every-aspect-of-the-bible believing "Christian" (though false convert) I basically thought I'd "chosen" the 'good team' and was 'avoiding hell' as a benefit of that; yet for all my desiring and seeking and knocking, because of my blindness I had nothing on anyone, right down to the professing god-denier (atheists) type,  who loudly and proudly prefer "hell" to a god they don't believe in.  (shudder)

Not until we are born of the Spirit do we see our sinfulness against a holy God, and so realize what hell we've really been snatched from.

(BTW -Jonathon, the article was written by Dan Phillips not Phil Johnson)

Aaron et all - love the preview/edit! Smile

Aaron Blumer's picture

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Lewis sometimes went for an overly sophisticated take on things. His mind seems to have rarely, if ever, dropped out of overdrive, so if a truth was truly simple, he sometimes found ways to complicate it. In this case, I can see an upside and a downside to Lewis' view. Downside: it can be so easily misunderstood and misused. Another downside: Lewis probably really did mean to emphasize the role of human will and give less emphasis to God's role as judge. Pretty sure he didn't go in for double predestination or anything even close.

Upside: at its heart, the sinner's natural condition before God regenerates him is one of rebellion. Scripture depicts Hell as a place of alienation from God (among other things) right? And per Col. 1 (and other passages) our natural condition is alienation from God. So... to the extent Hell is a place of distance from God (in any nurturing sense), it's what we've all "always wanted." 

But I think the Pyro post is also right to argue that once there, sinners aren't so bent on rebellion anymore. Php 2 ... every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess, right?

So it seems CSL is mostly right about the state of the heart that goes to judgment, but not the state of the heart on the other side of it.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

SuzanneT's picture

Aaron said:
..."So... to the extent Hell is a place of distance from God (in any nurturing sense), it's what we've all "always wanted.

I guess I've never thought of it that way.  I don't remember ever not believing in God so never experienced a desire to be "alienated" from Him. I lived how I wanted thinking my get-out-of-hell card was good (aisles walked, prayers said, tears shed, etc etc) so God and I were always on "good" terms..well mostly, when my conscience wasn't screaming at me too loudly (shudder).

"So it seems CSL is mostly right about the state of the heart that goes to judgment, but not the state of the heart on the other side of it."

That makes sense too.  I like this (inexact and can't remember who said it) quote: "Those who find themselves in hell will know they deserve it, and those who go to heaven know that they don't". -Of course we can know that right now..

Charlie's picture

This may or may not be the case here, but I think we need to beware of reading Lewis too literally, especially on the afterlife. He did not read literature (including the Bible) literally, and he certainly did not write it that way. I have had friends get upset at The Great Divorce because the plot involves people in hell taking a trip to heaven. Well, that's not going to pass orthodox muster! But wait, is that really what Lewis is doing, presenting a literal sketch of what the afterlife is like? Absolutely not. He has created a highly fictive premise through which he is exploring some key themes about God and humanity.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

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If memory serves, CSL makes a pretty strong argument in Abolition of Man that without literal meaning in literature, there is no meaning at all. But I'm not entirely sure I'm remembering that right. His focus there is mainly on the transcendent moral order in the created world, but he talks a whole lot about lit.  

In any case, I'm pretty sure he'd want his direct statements on a topic to be taken literally. Everybody does. But Great Divorce is clearly metaphorical/allegorical and CSL goes to great lengths in the intro/preface to communicate that he does not intend to convey what things are really like.

(Is the famous quote from Great Divorce?...  that would certainly be a factor in how literally to take it)

I have to give you this though: his remarks in the introductory stuff to GD certainly suggest that he didn't think any literal knowledge of the nature of the afterlife was possible. He seemed to want to say that other than the vague ideas of judgment and blessing, it's all a mystery. 

Somebody who's got the text on hand can probably straighten me out on that... or corroborate. Alas, my copy is audiobook--at least the copy that isn't in a box somewhere. (I still have nowhere to put my nondigital library)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Easton's picture

“…the sinner's natural condition before God regenerates him is one of rebellion. Scripture depicts Hell as a place of alienation from God (among other things) right? And per Col. 1 (and other passages) our natural condition is alienation from God. So... to the extent Hell is a place of distance from God (in any nurturing sense), it's what we've all ‘always wanted.’” ~ Aaron Blumer

Not sure I understand Mr. Blumer correctly, but…

As far as I know (using myself as an example), I didn’t choose to be born, therefore, I did not choose to be alienated from God; in other words, it was not what I “always wanted.”  What I did want was His free gift of salvation – that I did choose.  I did have the option of rejecting God – I did not.

My take on the CSL statement is that imperfect (not a choice) humans (not a choice) all are born (not a choice) and live in this particular universe (not a choice) on this Earth (not a choice) in the presence of God (not a choice).  No choice that we make can alter those facts.

However, the one choice we can make is what we do with God – acknowledge and accept or deny and reject.  Scripture deems those that deny/reject as “willingly ignorant” and “fools”, and CSL, in very plain English, illustrates why.

Those that have denied/rejected God will finally get what they’ve chosen – what they’ve “always wanted” – an eternal existence in a realm away from and devoid of God.

The choice is very binary – “yes” or “no”.

Jonathan Charles's picture

2 Thessalonians 1:9, "They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might."

Again, I think the Phillips is overthinking C.S. Lewis.  Those who choose to live life without God choose hell, for most it is an unwitting choice, that is, they didn't mean to choose hell in rejecting God.  God gives them what they want: life without God.