I thought of calling this piece “To hell with C.S. Lewis”, but that could sound offensive to someone who might take it the wrong way. I don’t want to give the impression I want Lewis to go to hell, of course, but I do want his advice and wisdom in thinking about hell.
What follows is what Lewis said about hell, mostly by noting what others understood Lewis said about hell. There are a number of books in which Lewis provides a picture of hell and the two most often cited are The great divorce and The Screwtape letters. There are others as well, and in them Lewis may startle us with his comments on hell. Note, for example, his statement in Mere Christianity (Book III, Christian behaviour): “… a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither” (80).
The great divorce is Lewis’s most profound depiction of what he believes hell (and heaven) may be like. It has been summarized by numerous authors, sometimes from an unusual perspective; for example Dickerson and O’hara (2009:143-143, Narnia and the fields of Arbol: The environmental vision of C.S. Lewis, University Press of Kentucky), interpret Lewis to say, among other things, that hell includes an inadequate care of the earth and its environment. This is because Lewis portrays the gray town in The great divorce represents a city that is largely empty as it ever expands outwards, leaving dingy buildings, empty streets and stations without trains. This is hell and it contrasts madly and wildly with heaven.
Screwtape, a senor devil in The Screwtape letters, explains hell and its divorce from heaven, as well as his idea of “pleasure”. There are a number of places in the book where hell (proper, for the scene is mostly from hell) is explicitly mentioned:
- Screwtape reminds his student Wormwood that “A spoiled saint, a Pharisee, an inquisitor, or a magician, makes better sport in Hell than a mere common tyrant or debauchee” (116).
- “The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is your good…. ‘To be’ means ‘to be in competition’” (92).
- “The sense of ownership in general is always to be encouraged. The humans are always putting up claims of ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell and we must keep them doing so” (108).
- “How thankful we [Screwtape and his demons] should be that ever since our Father [Satan] entered Hell—though longer ago than humans…no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise….” (113-114).
It is apparent that The Screwtape letters, perhaps Lewis’s best known book, has an atmosphere that is all hell, depicted by Screwtape, the senior devil, giving advice and instructions to Wormwood, a junior devil. Wormwood is assigned to a man belonging to the “Enemy” (God). Screwtape assures Wormwood that the man, although now converted, can be tormented by “producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords” (17). Screwtape further advises Wormwood to keep the man focused on himself, to have him form an imaginative image of the person he prays for, to even use someone’s gestures and expressions to annoy him, thereby breeding as much domestic hatred as possible. In the book there are all kinds of temptations and intrusions into the man’s life—sexual, war, his intellect, emotions, even love—but in the end Screwtape confesses “If only we could find out what He [God] is really up to! Alas, alas, that knowledge, in itself so hateful and mawkish a thing, should yet be necessary for Power! Sometimes I am almost in despair” (160). All that sustains him is the conviction that, in the end, he will win.
In Chapter 8, “Hell”, in The problem of pain (1962, Macmillan), Lewis makes it clear that not everyone will be redeemed (119). When the game of life is played “it must be possible to lose it” (120). His statements about hell are not for our “intellectual curiosity” and the doctrine is certainly not “tolerable”. The person who goes to hell does so on his or her own account and there is a degree of finality about it. The three symbols of hell: punishment, destruction and banishment, speak of something that is horrible because the cessation or annihilation of a soul means that something else takes its place. What is left has a “horrible freedom” that was demanded by those who are self-enslaved (130).
Chapter 10, in, Baggett, Habermas and Walls, eds., C.S. Lewis as philosopher: truth, goodness, beauty (2008, IVP Academic) is by Matthew Lee. It is called “To reign in hell or serve in heaven: C.S. Lewis on the problem of hell and the enjoyment of the good”. He points out that Lewis does not reject the concept of hell but that God is not the tormentor (161). Hell is a state of mind where individuals are left to themselves, to their own minds (165). The damned soul “has his wish—to live wholly in the self and to make the best of what he finds there. And what he finds there is Hell” (166).
According to Lee’s interpretation of hell, there are three alternatives: 1) retributionism (suffering eternally for one’s sins); 2) universalism (ultimately everyone ends up in heaven); 3) annihilationism (there will be nothing left of you to go to hell). As Lee enquires (through Lewis) why hell at all, with all the Lord’s mercy? The practical answer is that we live in the devil’s territory and make choices that follow his temptations. We are therefore lost (bound for hell) and this gives us a desire for heaven.
Brazier, 2013, in “The Christ of religious economy” (an e-book) “This leads into Lewis on the Church (the body of Christ) and his understanding of religion: how is salvation enacted through the churches, how do we know we are saved? This concludes with, for Lewis, the question of sufferance and atonement, substitution and election, deliverance and redemption: heaven, hell, resurrection, and eternity—Christ’s work of salvation on the cross.”.
In David Clark’s book C.S. Lewis goes to heaven: A reader’s guide to the great divorce (2012, Winged Lion Press), he has a chapter called “Between hell and heaven”. There he briefly recounts Lewis’s story of what happens between two very different landscapes—hell and heaven.
A number of people leave hell on a bus trip to heaven, but it turns out that almost none want to stay there. They are too absorbed in their own lives. Fellow citizens of heaven implore them to stay and try to help them sort through their narcissism, but after lengthy debates, they fail. Clark sums up the story like this “The bus, its driver, the Spirits [from heaven] who come to meet the Ghosts [from hell], and the Burning Angel who helped the Ghost with a lizard on his shoulder are ways Lewis chose to express how Heaven used its citizens to partner with Christ for the sanctification of human souls” (79). Elsewhere (C.S. Lewis, A guide to his theology, 2007, Blackwell Publishing), Clark attributes Lewis’s concept of “the invisible spirit world as the eternal reality of which this [our physical world] existence is only a faint but real reflection” (128). This is a process of sanctification that takes place in “purgatory”, the intermediate location of which Lewis writes in The great divorce.
A Chapter in Bruce L. Edwards, ed., C.S. Lewis: Life, works and legacy. Volume 3: Apologist, philosopher, & theological (2007, Westport, CT: Praeger Perspectives), is by Wayne Martindale. It is called “The Great Divorce: Journey to Heaven and Hell” and is an expansion of his 2005 book, Beyond the shadowlands: C.S. Lewis on Heaven and Hell. Martindale’s reading of Lewis on hell is that it is eternal, despite the excursion to Paradise that takes place in The Great Divorce. There is no ‘second chance’, it is either hell or heaven. We choose our eternal destiny: “We are becoming every moment souls suited for one or the other” (136). A crucial truth of the book is that in hell there is “the drying up of human potential” (137) and it turns out to be a place of infinite boredom. In respect to physical attributes, “people from Hell are ghosts [and] the people from Heaven are solid” (142).
In Beyond the Shadowlands: C.S. Lewis on heaven & hell, (2005, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books) Wayne Martindale further explores Lewis’s views on hell in detail. There are two relevant parts in the book: 1) HELL. Part I. Demythologizing Hell: The Nonfiction, and 2) Part II. Remythologizing Hell: The Fiction. In Chapter 8 of Part I, Martindale, building on the books by Lewis, outlines several myths about hell:#1) A Good God Wouldn’t Send Anyone to Hell (God does not send anyone to hell—they choose to go there); #2) A Physical Hell Would Be Cruel (justice demands it); #3) Hell is Just a State of Mind (yes, but from which there is no escape); #4) All the Interesting People Will Be in Hell (as individuals, avoiding their neighbors); #5) A Tolerant God Would Let Me Choose (the choice is purely rebellious); #6) No One Could Be Happy in Heaven Knowing Some Are in Hell (an argument of blackmail). In Part II he examines: 9) The Philosophy of Hell: The Screwtape Letters, in which pride is the substance; 10) Evil in Paradise: Perelandra; 11) The Sociology of Hell: That Hideous Strength; 12) Hell is a Choice: The Great Divorce; and 13) Descent into Hell: The Chronicles of Narnia, Chapter 20. Those chapters in Martindale’s book succinctly cover the main points that Lewis makes about hell in his writings.
Terry Glaspey examines Lewis’s views on “Hell and the Devil” (pp. 139-146) in his book called The spiritual legacy of C.S. Lewis. (1996, Nashville TN: Cumberland House Publishing), He draws from The Screwtape letters and The Great divorce to show that Satan is the master schemer to keep people thinking of themselves, rather than heaven. “Daily we make choices which prepare us to be citizens of either the Kingdom of Heaven or The Kingdom of Hell. Our choices naturally propel us along one of these two paths” (141-142).
One of the most interesting books in my library about Lewis is by Nathan Jensen, The restored gospel according to C.S. Lewis. (1998, Bonneville Books). It is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but it quotes LDS “prophets” throughout and compares their views (favorably) with C.S. Lewis. Chapter 14, “Hell, death, and the devil” (pp. 103-114) begins with a quote from 2 Nephi 28:13 on death and hell. Jensen declares “But somehow C.S. Lewis has come to understand on his own, or should I say, through the help of the Spirit, many of the truths we take for granted” (103). The unseen enemy, the Devil, is described throughout the chapter by comparing some of the LDS writings with that of Lewis. “…Lewis illustrates the rewards and consequences of our perspectives on life—on what we hold important and what we must sacrifice for heaven” (114).
Chapter 2, “Hell and heaven”, by Clyde S. Kilby is found In The Christian world of C.S. Lewis. (1964, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Co). Kilby examines the issues of heaven and hell in The Screwtape letters, The great divorce, Till we have faces and The problem of pain. In The Screwtape letters “both human and divine conduct are seen from the viewpoint of hell” but “with not of the high dignity and austerity of hell” (40). One of the main purposes of The great divorce is to show that “Heaven’s reality is so infinitely greater than hell’s that it makes men so transparent they can hardly be seen” (50). The many themes that Till we have faces portrays include: “barbarism and enlightenment, beauty and ugliness, appearance and reality, barrenness and fertility, and love and hate” (64).
In 1982 Peter Kreeft published Between heaven & hell: A dialog somewhere beyond death with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis & Aldous Huxley (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press). Kennedy is cast as a humanist, Huxley as a pantheist, and Lewis as a theist, or orthodox Christian. The debate that follows is generally along philosophical and theological lines, including the view that they are somewhere, perhaps in purgatory, during the discussion. In one instance Lewis’s position is that “I don’t think God creates hell; I think we do, or perhaps evil spirits do” (19). He doesn’t see where they are as a place for a second chance, but rather “it’s the place and time to become clear about our first chance” and that purgatory is “a place for education rather than suffering—a sort of ‘remedial reading’ of your earthly life” (21).
Kathryn Ann Lindskoog, in her book C.S. Lewis: Mere Christian (1973, Glendale, CA: Regal Books) entitles chapter 7 “Hell”. Lindskoog, who died of MS in 2003, was a critic of Walter Hooper and therefore largely dismissed by him and other Lewis fans. Her book, Sleuthing C.S. Lewis: More light in the Shadowlands (2001, Mercer) has been controversial because of the errors she points out in Hooper’s claims on his relationship with Lewis. The book is an expansion of her The ‘C.S. Lewis hoax (1988, Multnomah Press).
Lindskoog met Lewis and had tea with him in the summer of 1956 when she was studying in England and later Lewis warmly endorsed what she had written about him. Her book covers what Lewis thought about God, heaven, hell, nature, miracles, prayer, man, love, pain, and truth and ethics. Her chapter on hell quotes Lewis extensively from several of his books, where hell is perceived as the “twilight city, where there is no joy, only ghosts consumed with themselves” (106). Lewis thought it useless to discuss the shape of eternity, but believed in purgatory as a place of cleansing. For further information Lindskoog refers her readers to the following by Lewis: The great divorce, The Screwtape letters, That hideous strength, and chapter 8 in The problem of pain.
Lewis begins chapter 8 in The problem of pain by noting that not every soul will be redeemed—“If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it” (120). He says that he is not going to try and prove that the doctrine of hell is “tolerable” because in hell the person is consumed by oneself. Lewis describes three features of hell that Jesus talks about: Punishment, destruction, and privation and taken together they stress “the terror of hell with unsparing severity, usually emphasises the idea not of duration but of finality” (129) [his emphasis]. Hell is not parallel to heaven but is outside of the darkness “where being fades away into nonentity” (129). Lewis represents the doors of hell as being locked from the inside, where the rebels have their freedom to be self-enslaved.
Louis Markos discusses “The Deconstruction of Heaven and Hell” (2003. In Lewis Agonistes: How C.S. Lewis can train us to wrestle with the modern and postmodern world. Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman). He begins by stating “Of all the core teachings of the Christian faith, the one that perhaps causes the most discomfort among post-Enlightenment Americans and Europeans is the doctrine of hell” (145). As he notes, most churches tend to disregard it, sometimes quietly, but, in the postmodern age “do away with moral accountability altogether” (148). However, “Again and again, and in book after book, Lewis asserts that hell is always something that we choose” (151). Markos works through Lewis’s various arguments about sin and idolatry, drawing on books like The great divorce, to show that the figures that Lewis presents are basically and “thoroughly narcissistic” (160). Hell is a dismal and quarrelsome place where many of the residents are convinced that “they have always served their country or sacrificed their career or, about all, been true to themselves” (163). Heaven and hell may be states of the mind, but they are very different states: heaven directed towards reality and truth and hell inwardly directed and egocentric (164).
David Mills has edited a book (1998, The pilgrim’s guide: C.S. Lewis and the art of witness, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) in which Kendall Harmon has a chapter. It is called “Nothningness and Human Destiny: Hell in the Thought of C.S. Lewis”. He mentions the dwarfs in The last battle who “interpret everything through their self-interest and suspicion and as a result radically distort what occurs” (239). This is an excellent example of hell because it is the “final refusal” by a soul. Lewis did not omit it because he believed the words of Jesus and he believed that choices matter. One of his images was of “limbo” in The Pilgrim’s regress, a place without libraries, “just endless discussions and cold” (243, quoting a letter of C.S. Lewis, edited by his brother). Mills returns to The Screwtape letters and The great divorce for further images of hell and sketches Lewis’s view of hell as consisting of (251-254):
- The result of humanity’s refusal of God
- The suffering of divine punishment
- God’s mercy, despite turning against him
- A rejection of reality
- Perhaps the ability to still change
- A kind of “temporary hell” (252)
- A place that cannot veto or overcome heaven
- A place of damnation
- A ghost town of nothingness
Mills sees Lewis’s strengths about hell as twofold: 1) imaginal and original images that uphold scripture; 2) the choices of heaven and hell are in our own making, beginning with “the smallest and apparently most insignificant decisions…” (254).
John Piper & David Mathis edited a book called The romantic rationalist: God, life, and imagination in the work of C.S. Lewis (2014, Crossway Books). In Appendix 1: “C.S. Lewis and the doctrine of hell”, Randy Alcorn sums up his thoughts this way: “I think Lewis, who loved great stories, would agree that hell is a place with no story, no plot—ongoing suffering coupled with eternal boredom. Ironically Satan labors to portray heaven, from which he was cast out, as boring and undesirable” (154).
Will Vaus, (Mere theology: A guide to the thought of C.S. Lewis, 2004, InterVarsity Press) also wrote a chapter (22) on hell. He prompts us to be grateful because “Lewis believed, taught and wrote about his belief in a literal Heaven and hell in an age that has tried to water down these realities almost into nonexistence” (203). He notes that Lewis defined hell (198-199) as:
- Banishment from God, who knows all
- Being left on the outside, expelled and ignored
- Cold and dark
- Eternal starvation
- Self-giving, with people concerned with their self-importance
- A gray city, dingy and windowless
- Filled with quarrelsome people staying away from one another
- A state of mind
- Blackness and a black hole
He concludes, “Hell is God’s final service to those who will let him do nothing better for them” (199).
Robert Velarde, in chapter 12, “Immortality, Hell and the Great Story” tells his story through a surrogate (Tom) who visits Lewis at his home in Oxford. It is imaginative, as his title plainly shows: Conversations with C.S. Lewis: imaginative discussions about life, Christianity and God” (2008, InterVarsity Press. Tom quizzes Lewis on many things, including purgatory. Lewis responds “In my view, purgatory is a place of cleansing for saved souls. It is not for those who reject God’s truth” (151). They discuss hell, which Lewis does not like and would remove from Christian teaching if he could. However, for Lewis, hell is very real and “from what I gather from a plain reading of the biblical text, hell is forever” (153).
Serious Lewis readers will know that I have not covered everything that Lewis said or inferred about hell. Some see traces of it in NICE (the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments), which wishes to purchase a small college for experimental purposes. The story is part of trilogy by Lewis and is called That hideous strength (1955, London: Pan Books Ltd.). Lewis explains in the preface that it is a follow up of a point he tried to make in the Abolition of man. (1944, HarperCollins Publishers). Others, as I have indicated, find Lewis’s thoughts on hell in Till we have faces, That hideous strength, the Chronicles of Narnia, and other books.
Although there may be more to report, I have had enough of hell. I am turning next to heaven—Lewis had a lot more to say about it.
Karl J Franklin