One of the features of this blog I like is the inclusion of disparate voices. I, Scot McKnight, am not the only voice; RJS is another voice; John Frye, Jonathan Storment, and Jeff Cook are other voices. And others send me posts and we post them to give yet more voices a platform to create a conversation. Jeff Cook, a regular voice here, has been struggling with the traditional view of hell for a long time and this series of posts reflects his thinking. Let’s think today with Jeff.
Repainting Hell : CS Lewis and NT Wright (by Jeff Cook)
In defending the Traditional View of Hell in The Problem of Pain (1940), CS Lewis wrote of hell, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason.”
5 years later Lewis shifted—not away from hell but to a different vision of hell. In The Great Divorce (1945), Lewis embraced what might be called a Corrosive or Annihilationist view of Hell. Looking closely, damnation in The Great Divorce has become a sphere of evaporation where a soul removed from God slowly dis-integrates through its own self-focused pursuits and its vulnerability to the acidic rule of sin.
In The Great Divorce the lead character says of a peevish woman in Hell: “The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman–even the least trace of one still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up … Ye’ll have had experiences … it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no ‘you’ left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine” (emphasis mine).
Lewis had begun going down the annihilationist path in the Problem of Pain, only to stop a few steps short. “People often talk as if the ‘annihilation’ of a soul were intrinsically possible. In all our experience, however, the destruction of one thing means the emergence of something else … If there had been a soul, must there not be a state of having been a human soul?”
(Of course Lewis’s reflection applies only to matter (which cannot be created or destroyed), but we could name numerous immaterial realities—thoughts, names, love, law, friendship, happiness, wisdom—that may disappear without leaving a trace. The same could be true for souls and devils.)
Lewis then says something truly profound, “To enter heaven is to become more human … To enter hell, is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is remains.”
This is the beginning of a powerful argument against the traditional view of hell. Will hell change a person? Of course it does. If in heaven I become more of the person God envisions, what shall we say of hell? Are not the damned becoming less and less what they were created to be and as such losing what was most vital to their humanity, personality and character?
When thinking through the Traditional View of Hell and its potential issues, we may call this The Problem of Personal Identity, and it’s the first of five philosophic reasons I will offer for rejecting the idea that hell is “eternal conscious torment.”
What seems to me very difficult to establish given the Traditional View of Hell is the continued humanity, personality, mind, desires—all that makes a person a personality—of the damned. Victims of Alzheimer’s experience a massive turn in their conscious understanding of themselves and others—how much more so should we expect from the fires of hell? We may say it this way, the substance that was once a human soul may continue, but after a trillion years of separation from God and others, what could possibly be left of the “person” once judged worthy of hell?
Lewis’s path has been followed by many. Such thinkers as Rob Bell and Tom Wright both took (what seem to be) Lewisian steps away from the Traditional View.
In one of his few treatments of hell in Following Jesus, Tom Wright employed a metaphor which would have made Lewis proud. He imagined a grand piano that had once played brilliant music, but it changed hands and fell into disuse. Eventually wormwood set in to the disused piano and it was chopped up and used for kindling (p. 91).
Wright said, “It seems to … that if it is possible, as I’ve suggested, for human beings to choose to live more and more out of tune with the divine intention, to reflect the image of God less and less, these is nothing to stop them finally ceasing to bear that image, and so to be, as it were, beings who were once human but are not now. Those who persistently refuse to follow Jesus, the true Image of God, will by their own choice become less and less like him, that is, less and less truly human. We sometimes say, even of living people, that they have become inhuman … I see nothing in the New Testament to make me reject the possibility that some, perhaps many, of God’s human creatures do choose, and will choose, to dehumanize themselves completely” (95-96).
Though Wright calls this “the traditional view” I, as an Annihilationist, see this as much closer to my view than that of an Al Mohler or John Piper. (In fact, Tom Wright, I think it is time to go public with your annihilationist stance.) For if one “dehumanizes completely” what could possibly be left that would be worth calling “Joe” or “Sarah”? What essential properties that once made up “Joe” or “Sarah” would be left if they were no longer human?
Again, will hell change a person? If so, “eternity” means hell will change them to the utmost point possible, and—given the severity of the language of hell in the New Testament—this will move them well beyond what and who they once were.
This kind of reflection opens a powerful argument against the Traditional View of Hell. If one believes a human being will experience eternal conscious torment, they must likewise construct an anthropology and metaphysic that allows a human person to exist indefinitely in torment and yet remain the same person deserving of hell. If the damned become some thing else, the punishment is not just. If the punishment is actually severe, it is hard to imagine hell not fundamentally reshaping the original person such that they become something else entirely.
The Annihilationists have a clean answer here. Hell is the destruction of a human soul. Eventually the damned will cease to be. We see this philosophically and as such we have a good reason to reconsider the Traditionalist reading of the hell passages.
This is the first of five philosophical reasons to think not only that Annhilationism is a better way of viewing the scriptures and their pronouncements on hell, but is a better option to assist God in repairing his good world gone wrong.
Jeff Cook lectures on philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado. He is the author of Seven: The Deadly Sins and the Beatitudes(Zondervan 2008), and a pastor of Atlas Church in Greeley, Colorado. You can connect with him at everythingnew.org and @jeffvcook.