It never fails that every time I try to deconstruct the traditional Christian concept of eternal conscious torment, someone chimes in to tell me the church has either never really believed in it, or else they got it wrong all those centuries. The correct version of Hell, they inform me, is 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.”
A Kinder, Gentler Hell
My family’s church was never the fire-and-brimstone sort. Growing up, I rarely ever heard about Hell 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 almost irrelevant topic.
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.
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 played so well 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 sanitized conception of everlasting punishment, and I’d like to take some time to spell them out.
- It’s a significant departure from its source material—the Bible—and from most of Christian history.
- Its internal logic is often predicated on the concept of purgatory despite the fact that so many reject it.
- It misrepresents what’s actually going on inside of real-life non-believers, confusing the interplay of belief and free choice.
Now let’s unpack each problem one at a time.
Hell 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 for eternity. Once they’re in, they don’t get a chance to make their way back out, end of story. Divine judgment in the Bible is 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 Benjamin 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 its perpetually burning fires. It was an intrinsically horrific image to use, which is precisely why that image was chosen.
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 (see 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. (emphasis mine)
Far from being supplementary emphasis, this image of privation would become a controlling metaphor for Lewis and consequently also for many intellectually sophisticated Christians today. In time, the fiery pit 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 (as an atheist, I agree). 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. Otherwise, the reasoning goes, this divine justice system wouldn’t be fair at all.
Being a modern man, C.S. Lewis fought the same intellectual battles the rest of us face today with 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 finally to 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.
Lewis felt a morally 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 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 people who aren’t Roman Catholic. Lewis here innovates a metaphorical vision of the afterlife that is internally coherent and intellectually stimulating. In fact it is so aesthetically compelling (at least when compared to a burning pit) that its admirers completely forget it owes its existence 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 zero awareness that virtually everything they believe about the second coming of Jesus came from a single preacher in the mid- to late-19th century named John Darby (more on that here).
You Did This to Yourself
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. 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 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 a 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 people 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. (emphasis mine)
Then to drive his point home, in The Great Divorce Lewis puts this pithy summation into the mouth of his fictitious MacDonald:
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. (emphasis mine)
Actively creating the “outer darkness” of which Jesus briefly spoke, in The Great Divorce the damned 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.
Related: “Can You Choose NOT to Believe?“
But that’s an 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 know better than that.
Do You Wanna Build a Strawman?
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. (emphasis mine)
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?
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 know that feeling all too well. They keep running up against things that don’t exactly compute, and eventually they have to decide if what they see with their own eyes makes more sense than what they’ve been taught, and that’s no easy decision to make.
They’re faced with a dilemma: Do they conclude they’ve been taught incorrectly? Or do they simply choose to trust that God has it all figured out and they don’t have to understand it themselves? 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 the easy way out, passing the buck upward to those in authority over them.
Choosing 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 I know.
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 you? We are not two-dimensional 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 they 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.
This is why people so willingly accept an alternative vision of Hell which differs so dramatically from its original form. This is why people who don’t even believe in purgatory will unreflectively embrace a vision of eternity which logically depends on it. Whenever they think through these things deeply enough to see 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.
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