Wednesday, April 07, 2010

C. S. Lewis on Hell: Successful Rebels to the End

I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully "All will be saved." But my reason retorts, "Without their will, or with it?" If I say "Without their will" I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary If I say "With their will," my reason replies "How if they will not give in?"

I'll tell you how. God knocks them over the head with irresistible grace, and changes their desires. Then they are going to want to commit that act of self-surrender, with perfect compatibilist freedom. But since God can do that for everybody, he will, and therefore universalism is surely true. No?  


amtheomusings said...

Without a doubt. Or at least, there's always room for Balthasar's weak universalism; all COULD be saved, we just don't know it, and we should HOPE that all will be saved.

The Great Divorce is my favorite book by C.S. Lewis, though. Bunch of great quotes.

Steven said...

But since God can do that for everybody, he will, and therefore universalism is surely true. No?

Paul showed you that inference was invalid already many times. Just because S could X doesn't mean S would X.

Victor Reppert said...

But Lewis was arguing that God could not secure universal salvation without compromising human freedom. If compatibilism is true, that argument doesn't work.

kbrowne said...

Surely the Calvinist view is that God could save everyone but chooses not to. Take a look at for a modern statement of Calvinism.

This was also the view of Augustine and Aquinas. Until fairly recently Christian theologians have not generally taught that people have libertarian free will in matters of religion or there is no Hell. They have been quite happy with the view that God decides that certain people will end up in Hell.

It is sad to see intelligent well-meaning Christians such as Lewis struggling with the horrible doctrine of Hell, a doctrine that Lewis admitted he detested.

Whenever I am tempted to wish that Christianity were true I remember Hell. It is far, far worse than anything in a materialist universe.

Of course it could be true anyway. But let's hope not.

Ken Pulliam said...


As someone pointed out, in Calvinism, God could save all if he desired to (never mind the contradiction of 2 Pet. 3:9). However, if one takes the Scripture seriously and I suppose you do, then universalism cannot be true.

If one makes up their own idea of God based on strictly on philosophical principles divorced from the Bible, then yes one could argue for universalism.

Gordon Knight said...

The thing about Calvinism is that a statement of the view is itself a reductio of it. Or, if you prefer, those who understand the view will not persuaded against it by reductio arguments, since the conclusion of such reductios cannot be more absurd that the view itself. Those who affirm it will just not see at as absurd, and those who can be persuaded of its absurdity need only understand the view.

Victor Reppert said...

There are a few aspects of Calvinist justifications for the doctrine of hell that deserve to be elaborated. First, Calvinists think we need to kneel before our creator and submit out moral judgments, or, as they like to say, intuitions, to Scripture. Scripture, they claim, is inerrant, and teaches both predestination and the doctrine of hell. There's an exegetical catfight involved in the Calvinist debate. They offer exegeses if 2 Pet 3:9, John 3:16, and a host of other verses which are consistent with Calvinism. Opponents of Calvinism offer explanations of Eph 1:12, Romans 9, etc.

By they way, I do not think universalism is a nonstarter from a biblical perspective. I think Tom Talbott and other evangelical universalists have a case. Maybe not a winning case, but a case.

But a mere appeal to Scripture will not provide us with elucidation or explanation as to why God might do this. Lewis's Great Divorce defense of hell makes hell at least somewhat understandable, but it requires us to have libertarian free will that God must eternally respect.

Calvinists will readily admit that God could save everyone but chooses not to.

Calvinists, so far as I can see, make three moves in defense of reprobation:

1) Hell is what everyone deserves. In fact in federal theology, we can retributively deserve hell because of the actions of Adam. But, setting that aside, we perform sinful actions which fail to give God the glory he merits by being God, and we perform these actions with compatibilist free will. We aren't forced to do them, we want to do them, therefore we do them. OK, we want to do them because God predestined that we should want to do them, but that doesn't matter, we're still guilty and deserving of punishment.

I don't think compatibilist free will is sufficient for retributive punishment, and retributive punishment by the person whose actions guaranteed that the action being punished was performed in the first place strikes me as morally perverse in the extreme. So this response doesn't make hell at all understandable to me, and I don't think my intuitions are idiosyncratic here. So, even if true, this defense doesn't provide any comprehensibility to divine reprobation.

Second, Calvinists argue that the good is ultimately God's glory, and what that amounts to is God's expression of all of his attributes. He has the attribute of lovingness, which he expresses toward the elect, and he has the attribute of wrath, which he exercises toward the lost. If God were to decree universal salvation, he would be impoverishing his own glory, since he would be exercising fewer of his attributes.

But I don't see that it gives God any glory to give him a split personality. When you love, there are certain circumstances under which wrath is an appropriate expression of love. Every parent knows that. Making wrath a separate attribute that requires "expression" in order for God to receive sufficient "glory" makes absolutely no sense to me.

Third, Calvinists argue, using the "vessels of wrath" passage in Romans 9, that God creates reprobates so that the elect can appreciate the graciousness of their own salvation. It's a little bit like the story of young John Wesley's rescue from a burning house. His mother said he was a brand plucked from the burning, and he saw himself as someone with a special mission because of that. But again, I don't see that people who have face-to-face knowledge of God would need eternally suffering object lessons. How this increases the total balance of pleasure over pain in the universe strikes me as completely unclear, and why that would be justified even if we set utiltarianism aside is also completely obscure to me.

So, there is no basis that I can see that makes hell at all understandable, if God could have chosen a universalist world, but didn't.

Ken Pulliam said...


I think Lewis' idea of hell being locked on the inside is ludicrous. Who would stay in a place of torment when they could leave?

Victor Reppert said...

But you aren't being tormented by someone else. Milton's Satan said "Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven," and Christopher Hitchens has said some things that pretty much amount to the same thing.

Ken Pulliam said...


I don't get it. Torture is torture. If there is a way out, then I think one would take it.

Jason Pratt said...

Psychologically, though, yep I've seen people go the route of "It may be torture, but it's [u]my[/u] torture!" and refuse to come out of it. It isn't even that uncommon, though the expression of it tends to differ.

One stereotypical case (used if I recall by Lewis, too) involves the little girl who holds her breath until she passes out, in order to defy and to spite her parents. Biology takes over eventually (which is why parents are typically advised to just let her do it; she'll start breathing again if she passes out, long before there's any damage.)

The more relevant question is whether God continues acting to save any particular person from their sin, or not. And if not, then why not?--and what else does God do instead at that point? (That's an Arminian perspective; Calvinists would say God keeps persisting with everyone He intends to save.)

Lewis' "why not" was, ironically, the very reverse of affirming free will: the person sins themselves into a state where they no longer exist as persons, effectively annihilating themselves, and so there is nothing for God to even try saving anymore. This leads to the notion of God allowing a person to destroy that person's own free will out of God's respect for the person's free will--which seems contradictory. {wry g} (Especially since Lewis was well aware that it is by God's continuing action that we even have free will at all.)

Lewis did at least seem (on occasion) to understand the connection between orthodox trinitarian theism, and the claim that God is essentially love; and seems to have understood (more often than not anyway) that God's essential characteristics cannot be in opposition to one another in regard to an object. Thus, God is not essentially hate as well as essentially love, God's wrath is contingent upon God's love for the object of His wrath, God's love and positive justice do not act at cross purposes in regard to an object and are not mutually exclusive in regard to an object, etc. He never quite seems to have understood that if this is true, then the Calvinists are entirely correct when they teach that whomever God intends to save He will persist in acting toward saving until that person is saved (however long that may take). But that may be because he was reacting too much against Calvinism in other regards.

(It should also be said that Lewis, unlike his Teacher MacDonald, didn't consider Christ to have been teaching universalism--despite his agreement that St. Paul looked a lot sometimes like he was teaching that! So Lewis' reluctant refusal of universalism may have had more to do with his exegetics of the Gospels, and maybe RevJohn, than otherwise.)


Victor Reppert said...

Ken: Have you read The Great Divorce? What Lewis is talking about when he says that they can get off the bus and go to heaven if they will just part with their favorite sins is a picture of something real in human existence. We say "non serviam" even when it hurts us.

Ken Pulliam said...


Yes coming from my conservative background most of Lewis' books were required reading. Its been awhile though.

I just don't see anyone choosing torment over paradise for any reason, especially if the torment is bad as depicted in the NT. I guess its possible but seems very unlikely to me.

Anonymous said...

Lewis' view seems to not be that someone or something else is torturing you physically, but that you are torturing yourself emotionally, by refusing to give up your pride, your unwillingness to forgive, your anger, etc. and serve Him.

I interpret that in the sense of the mother of a murdered son. Suppose to gain entrance to heaven she has to forgive the person who murdered her son. She refuses, and thus lives eternally with the torture of refusing to forgive, and with the torture of all she's giving up to hold on to her hatred towards her son's murderer. I can, unfortunately, see many people refusing heaven for reasons like this, including quite possibly myself.

Victor Reppert said...

Ken: Tom Talbott makes the argument, if I understand him correctly, that sooner or later the motivation to rebel will run out, and everyone will submit to Christ. I wish I could be as confident as he.

Jason Pratt said...


Lewis did usually go that route. However, he couldn't help but sometimes go another route as well (probably because of its very common scriptural testimony): that God Himself is actively involved in post-mortem punishment.

This can be seen even at the tail end of TGD, when the sun (i.e. the Son) is rising over the mountains. That final scene might be interpreted to mean that Lewis thinks Christ will accidentally and inadvertently destroy the holdouts, but that interpretation doesn't fit his theological testimony and details elsewhere.


FrZ+ said...

Scripture tells us that "Christ also died for sins once for all, the Righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison" (1 Peter 3:18-20), and that "the Gospel was preached even unto the dead, that even though judged in the flesh like men, they may live in the spirit like God" (1 Peter 4:6).

That sounds distinctly unCalvinistic, and far more like Lewis. Add to that the idea that while God may desire that we all may be saved (Romans 11:32), he isn't going to force it on us-- and while some of your commenters have said that no one would so choose, I have seen enough of human pride-- I spent years as a military, police and hospital chaplain-- to respectfully disagree. There are those who would rather put up with anything at all than submit their will to another, or even admit that another might be greater,

And yet, given the doctrine of Kairos/Chronos, they may forever have the opportunity to change their minds, and be welcomed home (St. Luke 15:7: "...there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance".

Anonymous said...

When I think of Lewis' views on the subject of hell I often think of the line from Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce et Decorum est," where Owen uses the phrase "like a devil sick of sin." The notion of hell is one which many find repellent. In that context some question the compatability of hell with God's justice. It is in that context that Lewis' notion that the damned are those who fail to accept God's grace, has some measure of logic about it. The idea that a person or being could at once be tortured by regret or by the fruits of their sin while at the same time be unwilling to admit fault or even to accept the possibility of anything like redemption has a sickening plausiblity. An undeniable awareness of ones faults along with the conviction that they are unforgivable seems an apt definition of hell. It may well also be an apt enough understanding of the sin of despair. Despair it seems to me may also be the inspiration for most acts of suicide. It seems as though suicide points to the possibility of such a state of being. I am of course speculating.

I must add a comment regarding suicide (having raised the subject). A friend of mine served as a medical corpsman in the Navy and worked as an orderly on wards where from time to time there would be patients who had tried to kill themselves. He said that the majority seemed to be happy to still be alive. It is a mysterious thing. Ludwig Wittgenstein who was not an orthodox christian, viewed suicide as the elementry sin.

The Catholic understanding of what is called the Eternal Sin is that it is the denial of God's grace. The Church refers to the scriptures where some are said to blaspheme against the holy spirit.

I would hesitate to deny the possibility of hell. It seems perilously close to another sort of sin: presumption.