Randal Rauser explains the problems with C. S. Lewis’ view of Hell

The popularity of C. S. Lewis among fundagelicals is a bit puzzling, because he was, relative to them, a liberal. One thing he does for them, though, is give them an orthodox-sounding way to make the doctrine of Hell less odious. Lewis, you see, thought Hell was something people inflict on themselves by rejecting God. But Randal Rauser, a (also relatively liberal) evangelical scholar isn’t satisfied. After explaining the problems in terms of Biblical interpretation, he says:

Now for the philosophical problem. Even if Lewis were correct and the suffering were self-imposed, that wouldn’t remove the moral offense of hell.

Imagine a man so disordered that he continually inflicts suffering on himself. He cuts himself, bangs his head into the wall, hits his hand with a hammer, pulls out his own finger nails with pliers, and worse.

Would anybody say that the rest of us have no moral obligation to put a stop to this man’s self-imposed misery? Of course we would. We would restrain him to prevent him from inflicting further suffering on himself.

Let’s say that he then responded by biting his own tongue off. Though restrained he continued to find new ways to inflict suffering on himself in a singular quest for his own self-destruction.

Eventually we might conclude that the most charitable thing to do in this impossible situation would be to induce a coma. Perhaps that would be the only way to stop his endless spiral of self-imposed misery.

And that’s the problem. Even if the misery of those in hell is purely self-imposed, even if the gates of hell are locked on the inside and God doesn’t actively torture anyone, the moral problem with eternal conscious torment remains. Even if that torment is self-imposed we must ask why an infinitely loving God would ever allow it.

The one thing I’d add is that Lewis thought non-Christians could go to heaven, whereas fundagelicals tend to try to combine his view of what Hell is with the view that everyone who’s not a Christian is going there. This requires thinking that all non-Christians are deciding to reject God, which is pretty implausible.

  • http://rockstarramblings.blogspot.com/ Bronze Dog

    I still find the idea that hell is separation from/rejection of god, and somehow that is misery hard to grasp. I’ve been largely content in my life as an atheist. Much of the bad stuff comes from god’s biggest fans getting into my and other people’s business.

    Of course, there’s one argument that sometimes comes up, and typically contradicts the other doctrine of free will: That all the good behaviors humans have come from god’s meddling, and not from our nature or reasoning. If that’s the case, the person I am wouldn’t exist in hell. Remove my good nature and all that’d be left of me is some mentally damaged Randroid with a handful of shared hobbies and memories that’d quickly be warped by the radical shift in perspective.

    Of course, the ‘locked from the inside’ idea does seem like a convenient way to demonize and/or pity someone for coming to a different conclusion. It conflates a difference of position with a masochistic preference for suffering over pleasure.

  • eric

    Here’s a second problem with Lewis’ concept of hell: we restrain such people/prevent them from harming themselves because it is not generally in our power to fix them. It is a solution used out of necessity, not choice. The ‘lesser of several evils.’ When we do have the capability to fix someone – either via surgery or psychiatric care, or both – we fix them. An omnipotent etc. God should not need the equivalent of a restraint solution. If he does, that means he’s either unwilling or unable to fix people with malfunctioning brains (or the spiritual equivalent).

    The one thing I’d add is that Lewis thought non-Christians could go to heaven, whereas fundagelicals tend to try to combine his view of what Hell is with the view that everyone who’s not a Christian is going there. This requires thinking that all non-Christians are deciding to reject God, which is pretty implausible.

    Deeply, deeply implausible when you add that Lewis thought people got a second chance to make the belief choice after death, ‘fully informed’ so to speak. Fundies who want to adopt Lewis’ theology are forced to claim not just that all earthly nonbelievers actively reject God. They must also claim that none of the on-earth non-believers will change their mind after being confronted with the reality of God, heaven, and hell. I would say that that is so implausible as to be laughable.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    That’s only half the problem. The other half is that if this hypothetical self-mutilating person decided to stop hurting himself and seek help, we’d welcome his decision and do everything we could to support it — whether it took him one hour or ten years to come around. We would NOT put a time-limit and say we’d never do anything to help him if he didn’t change before our arbitrary deadline. (And yes, if God is all-powerful and controls your fate both before and after you die, then the moment of death is, for all practical purposes here, an arbitrary deadline: he can recognize and support your change of heart whenever you make it.)

    Oh, and if “the gates of hell are locked on the inside,” then why can’t they be UNlocked from the inside? Just another bit of dishonest, manipulative, stupid rhetoric that passes for “theology” without even being internally consistent.

  • busterggi

    As believers say god is everywhere just how can one separate himself from god?

    Do believers propose that god just hangs around those who don’t believe as an undetectable non-interacting entity because he can’t make them detect him and he can’t interact with them? Because, well, I have no idea why an omnipotent entity couldn’t make itself known or interact with someone if it wanted to.

    It seems to me that as I don’t detect god and see no indication of god interacting with me that I must already be in Hell. My life isn’t great but if Hell has books (real ones not e-books), the net and cable than who needs Heaven?

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ vinnyjh57

    Inconsistent, incongruous, capricious, contradictory, inconsonant, yes. Puzzling, no. For fundagelicals, serviceability for quotemining is the ultimate criteria for evaluating any scholar or theologian.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Here’s a bit of alternate theology on Hell: Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote a novel called “Inferno,” based on Dante’s (in)famous book of the same name, which added (in addition to more bureaucracy) a mitigating twist: There was a small exit a soul could crawl through, if he/she chose to leave their assigned place, risk roaming through Hell (possibly ending up somewhere worse than assigned), and venture down to the worst parts to find the exit (acting on pure faith, of course — no one has any proof there’s an exit). And of course, while you’re free to TRY to get out any time, “circumstances” will prevent you from getting out until you’ve truly learned your lesson and are ready to leave. It’s still bullshit, of course, but it does take care of the most important moral objections to the concept of Hell.

    • Aaron

      How does it take care of most of the moral objections of hell? You’re still put there for not loving the right god adequately, not for immoral acts committed during your lifetime.

      You’re still in a prison created by a malicious entity designed to coerce prisoners into loving said entity. Don’t get me wrong- a hell from which you can escape is a slight improvement.

      • Randomfactor

        N&P wrote a sequel to “Inferno” recently which has humans and demons more or less joining forces to set up a government of hell, with the supreme being’s approval. In end notes they claim that it’s close to the Roman Catholic Church’s view of “co-creation” in which humans are to take an active part in the creation of the Universe.

  • http://stripeyunderpants.blogspot.com/ Vivienne

    The entire concept of hell, and its teaching, is reprehensible no matter what version is espoused by what particular Christians. It is the teaching that humans are beyond hope without the help of a magical sky-being to fix all our hangups, shortcomings, and imperfections, and if we don’t allow him to fix them, then he sends us to a place of torment forever just for not being perfect.

    But wait, doesn’t Genesis say that, when God created the world, it was “very good?” Wouldn’t that include humans? How could something that he made to be good suddenly not be good enough for him? How could it become so bad that he not only considers it not good, but downright evil and disgusting and useless, to the point that his only choice is to torture it for all eternity unless it bows down and kisses his ass? Then–MAYBE, if it is a good little pet and does what it is told at all times–it might be just barely good enough to stay in his house.

    Oh, well, we certainly can’t accuse Christianity of making sense. I really don’t think they know what they believe. They just repeat what they’ve been told by their parents and preachers, without putting much thought into it.

    • busterggi

      “MAYBE, if it is a good little pet and does what it is told at all times–it might be just barely good enough to stay in his house”

      Well I am litterbox trained but that probably won’t be enough.

      Hell must be full of cats, they never do as they’re told.

  • Mikey

    I have a small problem with Randal Rauser response only in that this line of reasoning is why some Christians will keep bugging people, and even break the law, to convert people saying they are doing it for your own good. Like, I agree that the man who is causing physical damage to himself and others needs to be restrained for his own good but how do you fight someone who uses that line of reasoning to convert because they believe in spiritual pain?

    Obviously I can see the difference as one’s physical and real while the other is spiritual and non-existent but that does nothing to stop them.

  • Kyle Ewan

    Rauser is an atheist; it will be coming out in the open soon.

  • mnb0

    To be honest I am currently very happy with the hell I inflicted on myself. It’s a lot better than heaven as depicted by christians anyway.

    As AC/DC sung 35 years ago: hell ain’t a bad place to be.

    • Draken

      And you’re on a highway to it.

  • Randomfactor

    Continuing the analogy, if god were at all bothered by the concept of eternal self-inflicted punishment, he could have avoided it by not creating hell in the first place. That’s how the ancient Jews and modern atheists do it–the grave was the grave, life and thinking and pain stops.

    To do it any other way is incompetence so great as to constitute malice anyway.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Somewhere CSL tossed out a couple of lines about imagining people living forever, with the nice friendly happy ones growing continually nicer, friendlier, happier, and the mean sour angry ones also becoming ever more so.

    That, he concluded, provided an adequate description of heaven and hell in itself.

    Glib & superficial, yes – but more insightful than the above-cited attempt at profundity.

  • Azuma Hazuki

    All of the debate on the duration of time spent in hell would be moot if people could just read koine Greek. Could someone more qualified than me please explain how in the blue subject-at-hand you can get eternal out of “aionios,” torment out of “kolasin,” and especially “eternal punishment” out of the compound phrase “kolasin aionion?”

    There were people, mostly Jews and Hellenistic philosophers, who DID believe in eternal torment, and they were completely unambiguous about it. And never did they ever use aion or its derivatives, preferring “aidios” (which properly means eternal) and “timoria/ion” (torment, vengeful punishment).

    Oh, right, the one church that’s the ancestor of all those alive today was the Latinate church, which language doesn’t have these fine distinctions. Hurr.


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