Do We Choose Hell?
Lewis’s view on hell is often a controversial subject. First of all, that’s because even as a Protestant, he seemed to believe in something like purgatory—which isn’t hell (only the saved go to purgatory).
Protestants can stumble over Lewis’s view on the afterlife. Even when it comes to his view of hell, there’s a kind of tension between thinking of it as something God inflicts upon people (the pouring out of God’s wrath) and the idea that hell is something that human beings choose (self-inflicted misery).
Heaven is this ever-increasing, further up, further into joy, into God, into life. Hell is the opposite of that. It’s an everlasting movement away from God.
Lewis affirmed that hell is retributed wrath, but tended to accent (almost in everything he wrote) the more self-inflicted side with statements like “Hell is locked from the inside.” The Bible seems to talk a lot about the pouring out of God’s wrath and yet what Lewis is talking about is something we do for ourselves. There can be a kind of tension.
The Opposite of Heaven
I’ve tried to do a lot of thinking about that because I don’t think that those two ways of thinking are mutually exclusive. Sinners are cast or thrown into hell, into the lake of fire. That’s the language of the Bible. At the same time, when Paul describes the wrath of God being poured out (Romans 1), it looks like an increasing process of dehumanization—God giving us over to our desires and finding that we become less and less human. Things come apart.
This is where Lewis is brilliant in his depictions. Hell is an everlasting ruin, a decay, crumbling, retreating into yourself, a loss of all rationality and joy, a plunging into misery. But, it’s a self-plunging. It’s a gnawing and an ache, but it’s oriented inward, downward into the abyss.
It is, in one sense, the opposite of heaven. Heaven is this ever-increasing, further up, further into joy, into God, into life. Hell is the opposite of that. It’s an everlasting movement away from God.
Lewis can give us very helpful images. So, in The Great Divorce, on the one hand, hell is depicted as this endless great town with millions and millions of houses where everybody is constantly moving farther and farther away from each other because they can’t stand each other. They’re nasty people, they don’t like each other, and they’re consumed with self.
And yet, when you widen the lens, you see that the millions of miles of grey town is actually just a crack in heaven’s sidewalk. It’s so tiny and Lewis says that if that misery could be bundled up, it wouldn’t even give one of heaven’s birds indigestion. It’s so tiny relative to everything else. He’s trying to show the solidity, firmness, and reality of heaven over against the thinness, decay, and movement-toward-nothing of hell.
I think there is something instructive in giving us an imaginative vision, which he himself knows always falls short. You can’t out-horror hell imaginatively. Whatever we can picture, it’s going to be that or worse, but Lewis gets us some of the way towards thinking about it.
We stand on the shoulders of the saints who have gone before, exemplifying how to live and love God faithfully.
Lewis made me more alive to beauty. He put my soul on notice that there are daily wonders that will waken worship if I open my eyes.
Lewis insists on something that is radically out of step with the modern world.