Are you tired of angry fundamentalist preachers spewing forth condemnation and judgment in the name of your faith? Are you fed up with people being turned off by threats of never-ending torture in everlasting flames? If so, have we got the thing for you!
This isn’t your grandmother’s hellfire and brimstone, no sir. This new Hell is much kinder, much gentler, and best of all, both God and his people keep their hands clean even as they consign the rest of the world to everlasting angst and misery.
How is this possible, you ask? It’s really very simple. Just follow these four easy steps:
Step 1: Read the Bible.
Step 2: Study church history.
Step 3: Forget everything you just read.
Step 4: Read either C.S. Lewis or someone heavily reliant upon C.S. Lewis, and then relax. It all makes sense now.
This vision of eternal punishment puts all the rest to shame. Hell 2.0 is entirely self-inflicted, it’s virtually flame-free, and you can rest easy knowing that your version of eternity removes every trace of divine retribution from the mix. Now you can mete out all the punishment without looking mean yourself. In fact, this version of Hell simply makes you a compassionate messenger trying to warn people that they’re about to run headlong off a cliff. Because that analogy has no flaws in it whatsoever.
It’s like Passive-Aggressive Hell, and it’s brilliant. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, you’ll never go back to hellfire and brimstone ever again!
A Kinder, Gentler Hell
Okay, sarcasm aside, I’ve been wanting to say a few words about this increasingly standard evangelical view of Hell for a long, long time (and by “a few words” I mean like three thousand or so, so pull up a chair). Benjamin Corey over at Formerly Fundie recently wrote an article spelling out “Three Biblical Options for a Theology of Hell,” and in that article he lists Eternal Conscious Torment, Annihilationism, and Christian Universalism as viable interpretative frameworks for understanding the biblical view of Hell.
But he left one out. He left out the “outer darkness” version in which people just get isolated from everyone and everything, almost like a cosmic-sized sensory deprivation chamber. Call it perpetual solitary confinement.
Or as a friend of mine likes to say, “It’s like being made to sit in Time Out…forever.”
Maybe Corey left that one out because it’s not exactly biblical. Or rather, it’s kind of in there, except once it’s separated from all the other biblical metaphors it becomes something entirely different from its original conception. I don’t know. What I do know is that I rarely ever heard about Hell growing up because it was something for other people, not for us. It wasn’t for us to worry about because we were safe. We were the ones who are going to escape such a fate, which makes it an irrelevant concern.
Whenever it did come up, though, it wasn’t the Lake of Fire that I would hear about—it was this “outer darkness” version, which sounded bad but not quite so violent and psychotic as being thrown into a fiery furnace to be tortured alive forever. And most importantly of all, the people who go there walk right into it. That’s an important detail—they send themselves there. They aren’t thrown into there the way the Bible says it. They just sort of gradually work themselves into that place through a lifetime of bad choices which make them fit for such an existence. Reflective, intelligent people can subscribe to this view with a clear conscience, and without sounding like those country folks with funny hairdos who hold up scary signs and scream incomprehensible things about the end of the world.
I think it’s safe to say this version of Hell appeals the most to sophisticated people, which would explain why it seemed to sell the best in the upper-middle class megachurch in which I grew up. I have just as many objections to this notion of Hell as I do all the others, chief among them being that I see no credible evidence that people come back after they die. But that aside, I see three additional layers of problems within this whitewashed conception of everlasting punishment, and I’d like to take some time to spell them out.
- It significantly wanders away both from its source material—the Bible—and from most of Christian history.
- Its logic turns entirely on a doctrine which very few who subscribe to it would accept, namely purgatory (I’ll explain in a second).
- It misrepresents what’s actually going on inside of real-life non-believers, greatly confusing the interplay of belief and free choice.
Hell Just Ain’t What It Used to Be
Jesus spoke more about Hell than anyone else in the Bible. He is far and away the person most responsible for the prominent place this concept plays in Christian thought. And to hear him talk about it, people never walk into it, they are thrown into it every time. Nor do they ever get a chance to make their way back out. Once they’re in, that’s the end for them. Divine judgment in the Bible is almost always an active thing—an act of God—and that’s nowhere more clear than in the language Jesus uses about Hell.
It’s also a fiery thing. There is plenty of debate about how literally we should take his references to the Valley of Hinnom (see Corey’s treatment of that subject here), but in the rabbinic tradition of the time it had become customary to use the trash heap down in the valley as a metaphor for divine judgment due to the perpetually burning fires therein. It was an intrinsically horrific image to use, which is precisely why that image among so many other possibilities was utilized.
Jesus routinely employed the language of torment, pain, weeping and gnashing of teeth. Interestingly, the phrase “outer darkness” does appear three times—and only three times in the entire Bible—specifically in the gospel of Matthew (8:12, 22:13, and 25:30). But even then, he included the image of weeping and gnashing of teeth, blending his metaphors as if they were somehow interchangeable. And all three times, the people who are cast into that place are forced into it against their will. This is divine retribution—the wrath of God, as Paul called it. It is never portrayed as a consciously self-chosen destination, not one single time. It is a punishment actively inflicted upon a person by an offended God.
Peering down through Christian history, the same holds true for virtually all major (western) theologians, preachers, and important personalities that we find. For most of the western Church’s history, biblical language dominated people’s understanding of punishment in the hereafter (the eastern Orthodox church is a bit more complicated to explain). There is a tradition of emphasis on hellfire and brimstone that begins in the writings of Augustine and then grows to its most elaborate form in the works of Dante. Calvin taught it, Milton wrote about it, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards preached it, and virtually all 19th and 20th century evangelists of note did the same (Finney, Moody, Sunday, Graham, etc). Edwards in particular became famous for threatening his congregation with lines like these:
O sinner! consider the fearful danger you are in! It is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath that you are held over in the hand of that God whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of Divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it and burn it asunder…
For both Protestants and Catholics, Hell has almost always been a fiery pit into which an angry God throws those who do not follow his commands (or who do not respond to his loving invitation, if you belong to a more “grace centered” church tradition). In chapter 8 of his The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis, who incidentally had no formal theological training, recognized this but hinted at a desire to emphasize other imagery instead.
The prevalent image of fire is significant because it combines the ideas of torment and destruction. Now it is quite certain that all these expressions are intended to suggest something unspeakably horrible, and any interpretation, which does not face that fact is, I am afraid, out of court from the beginning. But it is not necessary to concentrate on the images of torture to the exclusion of those suggesting destruction and privation.
That image of privation would become a controlling metaphor for Lewis and consequently, as I am suggesting, it has become so for many intellectually-leaning Christians today. The fiery pit eventually fades into the background until they forget it was the dominant picture that Jesus painted in the first place.
Second Chances After Death?
Many like Lewis have expended a great deal of energy proposing alternative end-of-life scenarios for those who don’t fall in line with the Christian narrative. Call it a minority report among western Christians. As mentioned above, some have taught that immortality is conditional, contingent upon a divine act of resuscitation. Without being brought back to life, people would simply cease to be (okay, I’m with you there). Even staunch biblicists like F.F. Bruce have argued that there is room for annihilationism in his reading of the apostle Paul, who says virtually nothing about punishment after the Day of Judgment itself.
Others like George MacDonald, whose writings deeply impacted C.S. Lewis, came to a view called Christian Universalism. MacDonald believed in ultimate reconciliation wherein everyone will be given a chance to repent even if it means doing so after death, in the afterlife. This of course would require an allowance for something like purgatory, which MacDonald’s tradition didn’t affirm, but oh well. Inspired as he was by the Scotsman’s generous image of an infinitely patient God, Lewis couldn’t quite go the full way to universalism but still couldn’t shake the influence of the idea that after death people must still be allowed to change their minds or else the whole system just wouldn’t be fair.
Being a modern man, C.S. Lewis fought the same intellectual battles the rest of us face today with regards to the issue of free will (something about which the biblical writers seemed blissfully unconcerned). It is patently unjust to condemn people forever—locking them into their doom—if they aren’t first given a chance to change their ways upon encountering the first real evidence that their fate is indeed as bad as the Bible says it is. What good would it do people to finally encounter proof of their doom only the moment right after it becomes too late to do anything about it?In The Great Divorce, the protagonist meets the late MacDonald himself in between Heaven and Hell (which in this story is presented as a boring, grey place instead of an excruciating burning pit of fire) and jumps at the opportunity to petition for a resolution to this moral dilemma.
Ghost: But I don’t understand. Is judgment not final? Is there really a way out of Hell into Heaven?
MacDonald: It depends on the way you’re using the words. If they leave that grey town behind it will not have been Hell. To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory…Ye can call it the Valley of the Shadow of Life.
Through this and other writings it becomes clear that Lewis felt a just eternal state would require that people be given ample opportunity to change their minds and repent of their ways, particularly allowing for the crucial realization that death in fact is not the final end of a person’s life. Never mind that neither his nor MacDonald’s tradition allowed for second chances after death, they both seem to have embraced the notion anyway, and because of Lewis’s popularity among evangelicals, that alternate vision continues to affect even Protestants today despite the unorthodox character of that doctrine among any who aren’t Roman Catholic.
Lewis innovates for us an internally coherent and intellectually stimulating metaphorical vision of the afterlife. In fact it is so aesthetically compelling (at least when compared to a burning pit) that its admirers completely forget it owes its existence entirely to the imagination of a single twentieth-century writer. I feel the same way about all the popular end-times scenarios. Those who trumpet the coming of Armageddon show no awareness that virtually everything they think about the second coming of Jesus came from a single preacher in the mid- to late-19th century named John Darby (More on that in an upcoming post).
Do You Wanna Build a Straw Man?
Personally, I couldn’t care less if popular notions of Hell today stray from the biblical language to which the concept owes its existence in the first place. I just don’t. But I do care about being told that I deserve everlasting punishment because I am somehow choosing to work my way into it willingly. There’s a fundamental misrepresentation happening there, and that’s why I’m taking the time to write about it.
For Lewis and for those most influenced by his ideas, it is crucial that Hell be seen as something which its inhabitants willingly choose. Being forcefully thrown into such a fate against their own wills as the Bible portrays it simply won’t do for most modern Christians. It upsets their sense of fairness and justice (and rightly so, I would add, because it’s an unimaginably cruel concept). Provided they are not staunch Calvinists, hidebound and determined to follow the Bible no matter where it leads, they will eagerly welcome Lewis’s alternative vision of Hell, embracing it wholeheartedly whether they realize its theological foundations or not. But it hinges on them knowingly and willfully embracing their own demise.
In The Problem of Pain, Lewis says:
I willingly believe 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.
Then adding perhaps a more poetic spin to the same notion, in The Great Divorce Lewis portrays his fictitious MacDonald as summing up the whole thing in a sentence or two:
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.
Actively creating the “outer darkness” of which Jesus briefly spoke, the damned in The Great Divorce keep moving farther and farther apart from one another because they are increasingly self-absorbed, despising the infringement of other people’s needs upon their own. Their own pride, vanity, greed, and lusts prevent them from enjoying life the way they were meant to enjoy it. So you see that it’s all their fault. That is the key point. That is what makes Hell 2.0 superior to all previous visions of eternal damnation. They see what they’re doing but they keep embracing their own torment, leaving them without excuse. The self-awareness is key to this scenario.
But that’s really an unfair, uncharitable interpretation of what is happening here, especially for those of us who have left the faith of our youth after years of sincere evaluation. An adult convert from atheism like Lewis should really know better than that. Frankly I find it an insulting misrepresentation to read a character from Divorce expounding on this caricature:
Friend…Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At College, you know, we just started automatically writing the kind of essays that got good marks and saying the kind of things that won applause. When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur? When did we put up one moment’s real resistance to the loss of our faith?…Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith.
Are you kidding me? No resistance to the loss of our faith? Unpraying? Whom is he describing here? I certainly can’t identify with anything he just said, much less any cultural pressure to not believe the Christian narrative. On the contrary, all of my surrounding culture implores me to dive head first into it. Maybe this description fit his time at Oxford, but for the overwhelming majority of people I know who left the Christian faith, this is a straw man of the most pernicious kind. Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism calls it “a parade of stereotypes.”
Again, Lewis misrepresents the skeptical position by creating a caricature of it and attacking that. He implies that anyone who does not accept Christianity does so only because they do not want answers. How would he respond to someone whose “honest opinion fearlessly followed” was that Christianity was untrue, or someone who actively considered Christianity, perhaps even sincerely believed in it for a time, but ultimately rejected it because they decided that the evidence was in favor of atheism? Does Lewis engage in this straw man construction because he does not want to deal with such difficult cases, or is it his belief that no such people exist?
And people today still view me through the lens of stories like this. Just the other day a Facebook friend who is a Christian—and a thoughtful one at that—echoed these same sentiments to me:
Her: To me the sense of it, from God’s perspective, if i can be so presumptuous, is that hell is for when people really and ultimately have decided they don’t want God. It’s God saying ‘ok, if you really don’t want anything to do with me…’
Me: So what do you do with those who pursued God passionately, with all their hearts, and then found nothing at the end of the road? Because I know not one or two but hundreds for whom that applies. By this understanding, all of us really didn’t want anything to do with God. And frankly that’s insulting. It’s a nice convenient formula into which real life won’t fit.
Her: Well, there is where I know of nothing to do but put hope in God’s total love and wisdom. I honestly have hope for people who want(ed) to believe but just didn’t find it justifiable. I don’t assume that just because someone isn’t a believer they didn’t want God…All of my faith rests on the belief that He really is good and really knows everyone’s hearts and motives… and it follows that in the end He isn’t going to lose people who would actually want Him.
Me: You would think, yes. That would be logical. And yet here we are, sincere pursuers whose God chasing led us all the way out.
I suppose I understand the conundrum my Christian friends and family are in. Their hearts tell them one thing, but the Bible tells them another. I can relate to that all too well, I’m afraid. Thinking through the logistics of what you’ve been taught, you keep running up against things that don’t exactly compute. You eventually have to decide if what you see before you makes more sense than what you have been taught, and that’s no easy decision to make.
You’re faced with a dilemma: Do you conclude you’ve been taught incorrectly? Or do you simply choose to trust that God has it all figured out and you don’t have to yourself? Most devout people choose the latter, because the former produces conflict and rejection while the latter creates internal peace and resignation. I guess I can see why so many choose what appears to me to be the easy way out.
If I can use myself as an illustration of what I’m saying, I would simply attest that I tried to believe. I did in fact believe for two decades. I believed as hard and as sincerely as anyone else. And I didn’t stop believing because I was vain, or greedy, or lustful, or prideful. Yes, I know that’s what you’ve been taught but give us a little credit for our own honest perspective, will ya? We are not literary characters and our lives are not works of fiction that you can so flippantly judge based on stereotypes, especially not caricatures as uncharitable as what you encounter in The Great Divorce.
Sure, Hell 2.0 is a kinder, gentler eternal damnation. And I suppose many will embrace it because it resolves the tension they feel between the cruel torture they read about in the Bible and the real-life people they encounter in their daily lives. When you try to imagine real people being burned alive at the hands of an angry God (whom you’re supposed to love and adore), something just doesn’t compute. That’s why an alternative vision of Hell which differs so dramatically from its original form appeals to so many. That’s why people who don’t even believe in purgatory will so easily and unreflectively embrace a conceptualization of eternity which logically depends on it. Whenever they think through these things deeply enough to encounter the incongruity of it all, something goes “pop” and they revert back to trusting that it all works out somehow.
Whatever helps you sleep at night, I guess. But then again, maybe it’s okay to lose some sleep over these things once in a while. Because you instinctively know they’re not right.
For more of my take on the problem of Hell, be sure to read my previous posts on the subject, which are among my most favorite/popular posts: