The Hellish Dream of a Parent: Why CS Lewis Was Wrong about Hell and Free Will

The Hellish Dream of a Parent: Why CS Lewis Was Wrong about Hell and Free Will June 19, 2014
Jesus pulling people out of hell. (11th century Fresco from the Dark Church in Cappadocia, Turkey)

At five years old, my middle child has developed a defiant pattern. A typical day runs like this:

It’s time to get dressed.


It’s time to put on your shoes.


It’s time to go to school.


It’s time to eat dinner.


It’s time to go to bed.


His defiance has apparently nestled its way into my subconscious because I dreamt about it last night. We were visiting my childhood house. My son was in our attached garage, which has a large room for a car and another smaller room for storage. There are no windows in the garage, so the only light comes from a ceiling lamp. I told him to come inside for dinner, but he refused in predictable fashion – “No.” For some reason that only happens in dreams, he decided put on a blind fold. My dream-state parenting skills kicked in and I thought, “Well, I’ll teach him a lesson. I’ll turn off the lights, shut the door, and go back to watching television. That way he’ll literally be in the dark! That’ll teach him to behave!”

After about fifteen minutes of dream-time, I opened the door to check on him. I flicked on the ceiling light, but he was nowhere to be found. I looked throughout the main room – under the car, in plastic bins, on shelves. After a few minutes I stopped looking and listened for his voice. All I could hear was a faint whimper emanating from the smaller room. It was the voice of my emotionally pained five year old attempting to yell for his daddy to rescue him from the dark corners of my childhood garage.

That’s when I woke up in a hot sweat. It was a hellish nightmare. The dream was so real and I was so horrified by how I treated him that I couldn’t get back to sleep. I rose from my bed and walked to the kitchen to pour myself a cup of water. After calming down, I checked on my children to make sure they were safe. I kissed all three on the forehead and apologized to my middle child.

Apologizing for my cruel parenting skills in a dream might seem a little excessive, but what I did in the dream was an extreme form of my worst parenting style. Like most parents, I can quickly become frustrated with my children when they disobey or ignore me. Sometimes I’ll spiral into an escalating rivalry with my children, demanding that they do something while they become even more determined in their defiance not to do it. Soon, I’ll threaten them with taking privileges away, or even with a time out.

Some may think that my parenting experience is natural. I often hear that children need to exert their independence, or free will, by defying their parents’ will. But there is no freedom in defiance. Defiance is not a form of free will; it’s a form of slavery. It’s a form of hell.

My dream is a good example of hell. Hell is a relational condition of being enslaved to rivalry with others, including God. A child’s defiance is not about free will, nor is a parent’s continued insistence. That relational dynamic is a sign of mutual enslavement to sin and it’s the path to hell. When it comes to hell, nobody damns themselves. We damn one another. As René Girard states, “Men create their own hell and help one another descend into it.”

C.S. Lewis, Free Will, and Successful Rebels

That’s why I don’t buy C.S. Lewis’ argument about hell. In his book The Problem of Pain, Lewis couches his argument about hell around free will and states, “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.” Like children rebelling against their parents, those in hell rebel against God. As always, Lewis’s argument is thoughtful and compelling, but I think he was wrong. Lewis claimed that the damned successfully rebel against God through their free will. “The doors of hell are locked on the inside” by those who freely choose and successfully rebel against God. But choosing to be in hell is not free will. It’s enslavement to a pattern of defiance and rivalry.

To be truly free, on the other hand, is to be created in the image of the God who is Love. Jesus called God his Abba, his Daddy, who freely says “Yes!” to everyone, even God’s own enemies. God is not like a parent who is enslaved to a relationship of rivalry with God’s own children. God doesn’t mimic the “No” of his children by responding with God’s own “No!” Paul wrote that Christ died for the ungodly to show God’s non-rivalrous love for everyone:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while were still were sinners Christ died for us.

Lewis would agree that God loves everyone, but that certain people freely choose hell. But here’s the point, because our wills are not free but rather enslaved to rivalry, most of us would pick hell. In fact, we pick hell all the time. We are living in a hellish nightmare of violence. On a national level the news is full of political rivalry, school shootings, and family feuds. War threatens on a global level in Ukraine and Iraq, not to mention the continued war in Afghanistan and Syria. Climate change threatens human existence, yet there is little political will to stop its impact.

While we are enslaved to rivalry, God is the only entity that is truly free because God freely loves everyone. Our true freedom is found in God’s freedom to love with no strings attached. God’s will to love is the only will we should openly imitate. When we imitate one another’s will it leads to the hells of rivalry and violence. To rebel against God’s freedom to love all people, rather than seek to imitate it, is hell – something we choose all the time. That rebellion is not freedom; it’s slavery. If, in the name of freedom we refuse to allow God’s will, the source of freedom, to find a home within us, we engage in self-defeating tantrums.

Here’s my self-defeating tantrum: I want to say “No” to God! If it’s true that God proved God’s love for us in that Christ died even for sinners, then God freely loves everyone. But I don’t want God’s love to be free! I want God to love me and people like me. I certainly don’t want God to love my enemies! I’d rather God send my enemies to the far corners of a darkened garage where they spend eternity whimpering like a five year old. Now that would be justice!

Listen, I’m a work in progress – we all are. But human history reveals that asserting our “free will” leads us into a nightmare of rivalries with one another, because we’re not yet truly free to love as God loves. We have strings attached to our love. Which is why salvation doesn’t come down to our freedom to choose.

John Chrysostom, Hell, and the Salvation of the Entire Human Race

Christian tradition claims that John Chrysostom, a fourth century priest, was the greatest preacher of all time. This revered pastor and theologian pushes our views on hell. Contrary to Lewis, Chrysostom declared in his Homily on the Cemetery and the Cross that on Holy Saturday Christ broke into pieces the locks and the gates of hell. Chrysostom asks the rhetorical question, “So, if Christ breaks the pieces, who can repair it?” He then states,

This place of hell, dark and joyless, had been eternally deprived of light…[The inhabitants] were truly dark until the Sun of Righteousness descended into Hell, illumined it and made Hell Heaven. For where Christ is, there also is Heaven…So Christ, by his death bound the chief of robbers and the jailers, that is, the devil and death, and transferred his treasures, that is, the entire human race, to his treasury.

Humans create hell. God transforms it into heaven for the entire human race. The icon above depicts that while humans help one another descend into hell, Christ pulls us out. Whether we freely choose it or not, the good news is that God is making all things new by pulling us out of the hells we have created. God does this by transforming our old patterns of relating to one another. Those old patterns are based on our enslavement to the hells of rivalry, envy, and violence. God is pulling us out of those patterns and into the new patterns of relating to one another that are based on God’s freedom to love and forgive.

So, as I lay in bed after checking on my children, I gave thanks that God is not a parent like me. Rather, God is like the Abba of Jesus, who is pulling the entire human race out of hell and into new patterns of relating that are based on love, mercy, and forgiveness.

(For more on hell and free will, see Kevin Miller’s work.  Kevin blogs at his website “Hellbound?: Exploring faith and film, good and evil.” His post “Storming the four fortresses of hell – part 2” is a brilliant article on freedom. His documentary, Hellbound?, is the most important movie on the doctrine of hell that you can find. I highly recommend it!)

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