C.S. Lewis and Hell

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.” C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce.

This Lewis quote is oft-quoted by pastors in many places. I found myself viscerally attracted to the sentiment. But I started poking at it to see if it holds up under scrutiny.

Matthew 7:21-23 says

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

At first glance, this passage seemed to me to be suggesting that these poor souls are stunned by their eternal destination on the day of judgment. It certainly sounded to me like they want to be in heaven. But on second glance, it is not the righteousness of Christ that they rest in, but their own works.

“On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’”

They are claiming salvation based on their own actions. They claim citizenship in heaven through the good works they have performed. They are not appealing to Christ for grace but rather demanding reward for their own actions. This is self-justification, works righteousness and rebellion again the creator of the universe. So Lewis’ statement makes it past this hurdle. These people have chosen their own works over Christ and by extension, chosen hell.

John Piper provides the next critique of Lewis’ position, but perhaps it is more clarification than critique. Piper cites Romans 1:24-28 as a way in which this statement is true.

“24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!”

Therefore, God simply gives sinners over to the consequences of their sin, which eternally, means hell. But Piper rightly points out that it is not hell sinners desire, but rather sin.

“What sinners want is not hell but sin. That hell is the inevitable consequence of unforgiven sin does not make the consequence desirable. It is not what people want—certainly not what they “most want.” Wanting sin is no more equal to wanting hell than wanting chocolate is equal to wanting obesity. Or wanting cigarettes is equal to wanting cancer.”

Therefore, it is not eternal conscience punishment that people choose, but instead sin, rebellion and pride. The idea that folks won’t want to leave hell is probably one best left behind. Christ says (Luke 13:28 and other places) that place will be one of torment.

In light of this clarification, I think Lewis’ statement can stand. Indeed, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done” represents a concept similar to Isa. 6:8-13. At the same time, we should avoid thinking that souls in hell don’t want to escape. That’s part of the reason it is so horrible and why speaking the gospel is so essential.

 

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  • Thomas Wilson

    This is an interesting discussion I think. I have one concern about John Piper’s assessment. One of the things that we talked about when I was studying the doctrine of grace was that sin sets us apart from God. And like sin, Hell is also a place where we are set apart from God. So while we live in sin we are also living in a Hell like state. In our sin it is conceivable that we desire to be apart from God in an attempt to avoid conviction of our sin.