07 January 2014

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

by Dan Phillips

Love reading C. S. Lewis. Always have. Doesn't mean I think he's always right.

For instance, take one of Lewis' most oft-quoted observations on 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.
This is quoted and re-quoted all over the place. I just read it again, in Ortlund's little book that treats parts of Proverbs (48). Why do we like this Lewis quotation so much?

Well, I think we like it because its binary, and many of us like binary. In fact, I suppose I could say there are only 10 kinds of people in the world: those who like binary, and those who don't.

Sorry. Anyway.

That Bible is certainly binary on most things that matter: two wisdoms, two ways, two ends. This Lewis quotation is like that: "only two kinds of people." We like that. And we like that Lewis exalts the Lordship of God, makes clear that knowing God, belonging to God, necessarily involves an embrace of His will.

I daresay many people really, really like this snippet because it makes Hell seem less objectionable. It takes the heat (no pun intended) off us — and off God — and puts it all on the lost. "They're in Hell because they want to be," we say, echoing Lewis. Oh. Well then, that's not so bad, is it? We thought of Hell as a place God threw people, screaming and wailing and miserable. Terrified, not wanting to be there. But heck (again, no pun), if they want to be there anyway...

Yes, well, except that's just the thing. They don't want to be there. There is no evidence whatever that they want to be in Hell. This quotation, at least as commonly used, is mostly fudging, and mostly balderdash.

Nobody wants to be in Hell! Look at the actual folks who are sent there. Look at the folks in Matthew 7:22f. Are they thinking, "Oh, terrific, what a relief; we were afraid we'd have to go to Heaven and, you know, that would really suck"? Heavens (again, no pun), no! Every last one of them wanted to be in Heaven, expected to be in Heaven! Jesus' pronouncement was unexpected and unwelcome.

What of those in Matthew 25:41ff.? Again, not a one hears what he expects to hear. Every one expected to hear an "Attaboy! Come on in!" from the Lord. His pronouncement of doom is a shock.

What of the lost in Matthew 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30 and so forth? Do these sound like folks who are being sent where they want to go? Do they sound happy, satisfied? Weeping? Gnashing their teeth? Are those happy sounds?

The image of God actually saying, "Oh well, look; I'd just as soon you come be in My Heaven; but if this is what you really want, if you insist, here you go: you can go over there and be rid of Me" may work in the short run. We don't have to explain the justice of God sending people to Hell. He's hardly even doing it. They're doing it to themselves. "They're there because they want to be," we say, and we feel done.

Except, again, it just isn't Biblical.

First, God doesn't say "Thy will be done," to the thwarting of His will of decree. Ever. To anybody. Check Psalm 115:3, Proverbs 16:4, Daniel 4:35, and Ephesians 1:11, for starters. God says "My will be done."

Secondif God did say "Thy will be done," none would ever be saved. We hate God, we flee God, we want nothing to do with God or His law (Rom 3:11-12, 18; 8:7). We are saved because God sovereignly, supernaturally transforms our will (Ephesians 2:1-10). If He did not, all would be lost.

Third, God does this transforming work in the hearts of some men, not all (Matthew 22:14; 2 Thess. 3:2)

Fourth, Hell isn't where you go to get away from God. There is no getting away from God (Ps. 139). That in part is what makes Hell Hell: eternal existence under the unrelenting wrath and displeasure and judgment of God. However, it is the ultimate, ultimately-failed destination in the flight from God.

Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, what sinful men actually want is not to be allowed to go to Hell. What men actually want is for God to go to Hell. Men actually want to do their will (this much Lewis has right), and they want to get away with it. They want no interference and no negative consequences. God represents both. Leaving a binary situation of two choices:
  1. We must repent and bow the knee to God; or
  2. God must be eliminated.
And which one does your Bible tell us is the choice of fallen man, left to ourselves?

Lewis' thoughts could be used with adjustment, I suppose. If I were to reword him to make it more Biblical, it might go like this:
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, "My will be done, despite your will." All that are in Hell, are there because they rebel against God. Without rebellion against God there would 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. Our problem is that none of us seeks those things, so long as we keep trying to be God instead of seeking Him. And none of us does seek Him — until God in sovereign grace transforms us.
What puzzles me is how many Reformed types who know their Bibles continue to use Lewis, without a bit of reworking.

Dan Phillips's signature


JackW said...

You keep using that word, pun ...

It seems like where "the fear of the LORD" is missing is where error enters.

Unknown said...

I have always read Lewis to be saying that the lost would prefer hell, where God is not, to heaven, where God is. That is, eternal torment outside God's shining, eternal, holy presence would be more bearable for those that hate Him.

That would ascribe a degree of mercy to God, even for the lost. But it leaves hell still to be hell.

Of course, what the lost would prefer, left to themselves, is heaven without God. But the Scripture indicates that the choice of destination really is binary.

Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

Nail?...meet hammer. Sinner...meet God. What is the old saying? To one who owns a hammer every problem looks like a nail? (probably misquoted.) Sure glad God doesn't think we all look like nails, since He holds the biggest Hammer in the universe! Why does He choose to spare some nails? Don't have a clue. Just glad He chose me. I deserve Hell. We ALL do.

jneemz said...

Great post.

Because the lake of fire is the display of God's justice, for the unregenerate man to willingly abide in the lake of fire would be for him to consent and agree with God -- something that by his very nature he would never do. The reality is the unregenerate man wants to rebel against God in every way imaginable, including a rebellion against His holy justice. So ultimately his preference would be to go to Heaven where he could continue to wreak havoc.

This is one area of Lewis' teaching where the Reformed crowd needs to steer clear.

DJP said...

I think I recently read someone who, visiting a prison, asked the inmates which ones of them were guilty of the crimes for which they were imprisoned.

No hands went up.

Michael Coughlin said...

That was the Shawshank Redemption, DJP, but anyway, good post.

It is always hard when someone has become sortof an icon to criticize them; you may be labeled a h8r.

I say bring it on. You are a h8r. A h8r of falshood!

DJP said...

No, it wasn't. But anyway, good comment!

Call to Die said...

I hope the re-worked Lewis quote becomes as famous as the original!

Call to Die said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jules' Diner said...

Sinful men want to do away with God so that they may be God.

Unknown said...

"What puzzles me is how many Reformed types who know their Bibles continue to use Lewis, without a bit of reworking."

From my observation, there does seem to be a tendency among many in reformed/confessional circles to have developed their theology in a secondary way, i.e. starting from the confessional documents/secondary sources and working backwards.

This seems strange to you because you're a "text first" sort of guy...

However, if a person's primary way of learning the Bible is to go to the secondary sources first, and there confidence of what Scripture says is more fundamentally rooted in authoritative interpreters, i.e. Lewis, then you end up with people who generally have an excellent grasp of Scripture, but lack discernment...

At least that is my take on it...

Jim Pemberton said...

Discussions on hell always make me think of Rob Bell. He's like that annoying song that gets stuck in your head. Lewis was wrong and Bell is wronger. It's like Bell started with Lewis' teaching as a given, observed that no one wants to go to hell and practically concluded that no one was going to hell. Well, Bell was right to conclude that no one wants to go to hell but dead wrong to think that Lewis was right.

So if the Bible teaches that people don't want to go to hell, but are condemned to go anyway, then we can conclude neither that people want to go there nor that no one will go.

Unknown said...

I posted J.C. Ryle on hell because he is every bit as good on the topic as Lewis is bad.

Just a snippet from his conclusion: "You cannot live always: there must be an end one day. The last sermon will one day be heard; the last prayer will one day be prayed; the last chapter in the Bible will one day be read – meaning, wishing, hoping, intending, resolving, doubting, hesitating – all will at length be over. You will have to leave this world and to stand before a holy God. Oh, that you would be wise! Oh, that you would consider your latter end! You cannot trifle forever: a time will come when you must be serious."


DJP said...

Wow, that's good.

Anonymous said...

I often hear the expression, “Life is short.” In one sense, it is. No one will live forever in this world. However, in eternity, everyone will consciously exist forever. The Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is the only Mediator between God and man (I Timothy 2:5). If this is true, then it is absolutely crucial that we know Him personally. We WILL spend eternity in the presence of God. The presence of God through His Mediator will be absolute bliss, blessedness, and joy. (Revelation 21:1-7) The presence of God without His Mediator will be unbearable torment. (Revelation 14:10)

Richard said...

Do they (the dead) not genuinely choose hell? Given it is a binary choice (eternity in heaven or eternity in hell). Those who do not choose light, ipso facto choose darkness (John 3:19).

I have heard some adamant atheists state their rejection of God, and welcome any alternative.

This being said, I can't imagine that anyone, fully understanding the true implication of their choice would indeed continue on that path. That of course is the point - those in darkness don't know/understand it until their eyes are opened by God. (Matt 16:17 etc)

However my question is, given the knowledge of hell, would the condemned truly repent afterwards, if they were given the chance? I don't believe they would, thus solidifying their "choice". (Isaiah 38:18)

Kerry James Allen said...

On target, Dan. I remember talking to a Christian lady once who asked me what I read. I gave her a long list and when I didn't mention Lewis I got about the same reaction as criticism of Billy Graham gets.

What I don't get is the popularity of a man who is far from orthodox in a dozen areas. How about this from the Problem of Pain on total depravity: "I disbelieve that doctrine [total depravity], partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total we should not know ourselves to be depraved and partly because experience shows us much good in human nature.”

His views on evolution, Hell, inspiration, purgatory, and many others are highly suspect.

Lloyd Jones said this of Lewis: “C. S. Lewis was essentially a philosopher, his view of salvation was defective... Lewis was an opponent of the substitutionary and penal theory of the Atonement.”

Yet another example of the need to "prove all things."

Kurt said...

My problem with Lewis is that in Mere Christianity, his treatment of the atonement looks more like the example theory than the orthodox propitiatory position.

So don't quote from him at all.

DJP said...

Yet if Aslan's death follows any model, it's penal, substitutionary atonement.

Michael Coughlin said...

KJA = Another H8R!


donsands said...

"1.We must repent and bow the knee to God; or
2.God must be eliminated.
And which one does your Bible tell us is the choice of fallen man, left to ourselves?"

Eternal Hell may be the most difficult, or at least up there for sure,- truths we humans need to wrestle with.

Humans deserve Hell, even Mary the mother of Christ.
Jesus was the perfect soul, the only One who never sinned, and so He is accepted by God the Father as a Man, the last Adam.

This perfection is for all sinners who believe and obey this truth.

Hell is waiting for all who reject this truth.

Could we say that all who reject God and His truth in a way would rather continue to hate God, then bow their knee to Him?

Just rambling a bit.
Thanks for the good post. Will make me use my mind a bit, and I'm sure to be sharing your thoughts with other friends in Christ, and even unbelievers.

Kurt said...

Ok, now I caught up and see others have pointed out that Lewis was not orthodox. For years I thought I was the only one. Nice to know Martin Lloyd Jones said the same thing.

Kurt said...

We want to bring Aslan into it?

Lewis' story may be nice and all, but it is fiction, and doesn't mean Lewis held that position when his other writings are more explicit.

I am with Lloyd Jones on this one (at last I have someone to quote on Lewis. :-) ).

DJP said...

Wow, overreact much? Yes, we want to bring another part of Lewis' writings into understanding Lewis' thinking. He often said he wasn't really a theologian. He wasn't. He probably didn't have a systematic view of the atonement. But as J. I. Packer and others have observed, no one model does full justice to all Christ did on the cross, and since obviously Aslan was a Christ-figure, in him we see the model of... what I already said.

Scot said...

"Love reading C. S. Lewis. Always have. Doesn't mean I think he's always right."

My view to a T. I especially love his writings on literary criticism.

Modern Calvinists seem to rip Lewis from his place in history. He was a professor and literary critic, not a theologian. In addition, he seems to be quoted to give some sort of air of respectability in order to fit in with the larger society. "See I'm cool, I can quote philosophers that people love!"

Yes, he did attempt to bring Christianity to a layman's level, but sometimes he erred badly. He was a man of his time.

jrbaker said...

Lewis a theologian? Definitely not. He was primarily a medievalist and novelist who also happened to write a few "popular" books on Christian living. I love Narnia and The Space Trilogy, and The Discarded Image is probably my favorite book on literary criticism.

As Dan points out, Lewis has a penchant for pithy, quotable nuggets that keeps these types of questionable statements rolling along.

one busy mom said...

" I suppose I could say there are only 10 kinds of people in the world: those who like binary, and those who don't"


The re-worded Lewis quote is excellent as well :-)

Tom Chantry said...

I always thought Aslan's death followed the pattern of Ransom theory of the atonement - neither the moral nor the substitutionary view.

Unknown said...

This is just one of many aberrations in Lewis' theology. The reason he is so popular among evangelicals is that they are selective and only publish his acceptable beliefs.

DJP said...

Well, Tom: Aslan dies because Edmond committed treachery. He dies so that Edmond would not have to die. Penalty, substitution. It ain't Owen (or even TWTG, for that matter), but there it is.

Tom Chantry said...

The Ransom Theory of the atonement posits that when men sin they place themselves under the kingdom of Satan, giving him the right to destroy them. In order for such men to be bought back out of Satan’s kingdom and into the kingdom of God, Satan must be paid a ransom. There is a substitution in this theory, but unlike the Substitution Theory of the atonement, there is no wrathful God. There is instead a wrathful Satan who would punish us for our sins if Christ did not buy us back out of his power.

The theory is consistent with the dualistic worldview of paganism in which good and evil are the opposite poles which struggle against one another. As opposed to the Christian worldview, which posits a sovereign God who for His own good purposes permits evil to thrive for a time, paganism posits a dualistic theism, in which an evenly matched god of good and god of evil are engaged in a titanic struggle for sovereignty.

Under such a worldview, the atonement can only make sense if Christ is paying a ransom to the god of evil in order to win back His people. This is essentially what the ransom theory suggests. Missing from this theory is the just God who Himself demands a penalty be paid before He accepts the rebel into His kingdom. Under Ransom Theory there is a penalty, but it is enforced by Satan rather than God, and there is a substitute, but it is not a substitute to satisfy divine justice.

In Lewis’ fantasy, Edmond’s treachery transfers him from the kingdom of Aslan to the kingdom of the White Witch - characters most understand as an allegory for Christ and Satan. The Witch then has a proprietary interest in Edmond, and Aslan strikes a deal with her for his return. The penalty is not paid to the Emperor Beyond the Sea, but instead to the Witch. If the characters here are understood as follows: Edmond = fallen man, The Witch = Satan, Aslan = Christ, and the Emperor = the Father, then the story is at best a very poor allegory for the Substitutionary Atonement. It is, however, a perfect allegory for the Ransom Theory.

I wonder, then, whether this does not explain Lewis’ forbearance for paganism. If he really understood the atonement in this way, then it makes more sense that he would perceive paganism as a nascent theism groping toward the light, rather than as a contrary and irredeemable world view.

I think the serious Christian parent needs to at least ask the question, to what degree did Lewis’ most beloved work get the gospel exactly wrong? Note that I’m not making a statement on his salvation; I simply have not idea. He was no theologian, but instead a man far too enamored of literary analogy. Lewis’ problem is that he was - in our American parlance - an English major, and we all know you can’t trust those guys.

Kerry James Allen said...

Did Chantry just allegorically slap Frank?

FX Turk said...

I think Chantry is right about everything, including English Majors -- and there's no question that the Narnia books cannot be reconciled with a Protestant Biblical theology.

DJP said...

Oh, well then. I feel so silly for having spoken.

FX Turk said...

Also: I think that one of the great pleasures of reading the narnia books with my kids is working out the "right" theology from among the debris in those stories which can go, page to page, from beautiful metaphor to beautiful-but-idiotic raving.

Tom Chantry said...


When I first discussed this with the Lovely Mrs. Chantry, the conversation went somewhat like this:

LMC: "Are you saying you don't want our kids to read The Chronicles of Narnia?"

Me: "No. I want them to read them with me.

Michael Coughlin said...

Good points.

Tom - Please clarify - You are not saying that ransom itself is a bad concept, only that the ransom concept as you described is not found in scripture?Here are some verses that make me think Jesus did pay a ransom...just not in the Narnia sense.

Phew, I may have to throw the Narnia volumes away and bring the Santa Claus stuff back out...

Anonymous said...


I don't think the issue is whether or not a ransom was paid, but to whom it was paid.

Tom Chantry said...

Precisely. Ransom is in itself a vague concept which can have a number of meanings. Something must be paid. But "Ransom Theory" is a different approach to the atonement than Penal Substitution.

What is distressing in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the implicit dualism between Aslan and the Witch, with Aslan coming out on top, but only after concluding a ransom arrangement with the Witch.

Michael Coughlin said...

Thanks for clarifying!

Morris Brooks said...

In observing and talking to people it is clear that all men want to go to heaven. Most believe they are going to heaven, whatever their version of it is; and they all want to get there by the way of their own choosing.

Joel Knight said...

It is the laws of 'the emperoror across the sea' that mean Aslan must die in order to save Edmund, the Emperor across the sea being God the Father. I was sceptical about the doctrine of the Atonement found in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe before I read that but I'm inclined to be more charitable now. Previously to seeing that line I'd assumed Aslan was paying a ransom to the White Witch, but that line brings God the Father quite clearly into the equation. I can't remember exactly where it comes but it shouldn't be too hard to find.

DJP said...

Absolutely right. And when someone suggests going against the Emperor's laws, Aslan growls.

But minds made up are difficult to change.

Anonymous said...

I suppose it was all written into the Deep Magic (and the Deeper Magic) by the Emperor over the Sea.

So there is that.

But it would be easy for a kid to miss without their Mom & Dad's input.

Wha...? So now we're supposed to be explaining stuff to our kids? Lewis isn't a good enough teacher on his own? :)

Saved By Faith Alone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Saved By Faith Alone said...

Excellent exchange

Should we be surprised when we sinners see another sinner errantly present scriptural concepts? Especially when you consider that the absolute truth of God’s Holy word could never be accurately retold simply by allegory or simile. I have always believed that C.S. Lewis was sincere in his work and never considered himself to be nor presented himself to anyone as a theologian.

I recently heard the quote: “Even the best man is only a man at best.” (if anyone knows the source of this quote please let me know?)

As I was reading this commentary chain I kept hearing the words: “Sola Scriptura, Sola Scriptura…”


Dan Hagan

donsands said...

And Aslan's growl and voice in the DVD is quite stirring in itself.

I like fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkein & C.S. Lewis.
Both have their hearts in their work for sure.

I appreciate this blog discussion, it has been quite a good one.

Also, why is it all this British fellows have all this initials in front of their last name?

DJP said...

What I really do not get is all the hyphenations -- last AND first names.

Sam said...

I think you've missed the point. From the very beginning, men prefer darkness to light and God will allow their sin to run its inevitable course there. The lost soul is eternally fixed in its diabolical attitude. C.S. Lewis said wittingly, '...that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside…They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.' (The Problem of the Pain)

DJP said...

Yes, and that's wrong. Because...the post. Read it.