C. S. Lewis on Hell

C. S. Lewis presented the inclusivist view on hell in his writings.

Hell: God’s Mercy

God in His mercy made
The fixed pains of Hell.

Poems, “Divine Justice”

Hell: Judgment

In all discussions of hell we should keep steadily before our eyes the possible damnation, not of our enemies nor our friends . . . but of ourselves.

– The Problem of Pain

“What some people say on earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved . . . .”

“That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it . . .”

“The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.”

The Great Divorce

Hell: Judgment and Mercy

On the heathen, see Tim IV.10. Also in Matt. XXV.31-46 the people don’t sound as if they were believers. Also the doctrine of Christ’s descending into Hell (i.e. Hades, the land of the dead; not Gehenna the land of the lost) and preaching to the dead; and that would be outside time and would include those who died long after Him as well as those who died before He was born as Man. I don’t think we know the details; we must just stick to the view that (a) all justice and mercy will be done, (b) but nevertheless it is our duty to do all we can to convert unbelievers.

Letters of C. S. Lewis

Hell: Mental Torment

About Hell. All I have ever said is that the N.T. [New Testament] plainly implies the possibility of some being finally left in “the outer darkness.” Whether this means (horror of  horror) being left to a purely mental existence, left with nothing at all but one’s own envy, prurience, resentment, loneliness & self conceit, or whether there is still some sort of environment, something you cd. call a world or a reality, I wd. never pretend to know. But I wouldn’t put the question in the form “do I believe in an actual Hell.” One’s own mind is actual enough. If it doesn’t seem fully actual now that is because you can always escape from it a bit into the physical world – look out of the window, smoke a cigarette, go to sleep. But when there is nothing for you but your own mind (no body to go to sleep, no books or landscape, nor sounds, no drugs) it will be as actual as – as – well, as a coffin is actual to a man buried alive.

Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (13 May 1946)

Hell: Self-Centeredness

Though our Lord often speaks of Hell as a sentence inflicted by a tribunal, He also says elsewhere that the judgment consists in the very fact that men prefer darkness to light, and that not He, but His “word,” judges men. We are therefore at liberty – since the two conceptions, in the long run, mean the same thing – to think of this bad man’s perdition not as a sentence imposed on him but as the mere fact of being what he is. The characteristic of lost souls is “their rejection of everything that is not simply themselves.”

– The Problem of Pain

There was, no doubt, a confusion of persons in damnation: what Pantheists falsely hoped of Heaven bad men really received in Hell. They were melted down into their Master, as a lead soldier slips down and loses his shape in the ladle held over the gas ring.

– Perelandra

“A damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see.”

“There no one can ever reach them?”

“Only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell. For the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend – a man can sympathise with a horse but a horse cannot sympathise with a rat. Only One has descended into Hell.”

“And will He ever do so again?”

“It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way when once ye have left the Earth. All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to Whom he did not preach.”

– The Great Divorce

We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.

The Screwtape Letters

Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.

– The Screwtape Letters

[Hell is] an official society held together entirely by fear and greed. On the surface, manners are normally suave. Rudeness to one’s superiors would obviously be suicidal; rudeness to one’s equals might put them on their guard before you were ready to spring your mine. For of course “Dog eat dog” is the principle of the whole organisation. Everyone wishes everyone else’s discrediting, demotion, and ruin; everyone is an expert in the confidential report, the pretended alliance, the stab in the back. Over all this their good manners, their expressions of grave respect, their “tributes” to one another’s invaluable services form a thin crust. Every now and then it gets punctured, and the scalding lava of their hatred spurts out.

– The Screwtape Letters

Hell: Self-Chosen

“A man can’t be taken to hell, or sent to hell: you can only get there on your own stream.”

– The Dark Tower & Other Stories, “The Dark Tower”

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.

The Problem of Pain

[On the unrepentant devils:] That door of Hell is firmly locked, by the devils themselves, on the inside; whether it is locked on the outside need not, therefore, be considered.

A Preface to Paradise Lost

“How can they choose it [hell]?”

“Milton was right,” said my Teacher. “The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.’ There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy – that is, to reality. We see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends.”

– The Great Divorce

“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. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”

– The Great Divorce

“The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye’ll have had experiences… it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising 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 criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.”

– The Great Divorce

It’s not a question of God “sending” us to Hell. In each of us there is something growing up which will of itself be Hell unless it is nipped in the bud. The matter is serious: let us put ourselves in His hands at once – this very day, this hour.

– God in the Dock, “The Trouble With ‘X’…”

Hell: Separation from God

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.

– The Problem of Pain

While it is true to say that God’s own nature is the real sanction of His commands, yet to understand this must, in the end, lead us to the conclusion that union with that Nature is bliss and separation from it horror. Thus Heaven and Hell come in. But it may well be that to think much of either except in this context of thought, to hypostatize them as if they had a substantial meaning apart from the presence or absence of God, corrupts the doctrine of both and corrupts us while we so think of them.

– Surprised by Joy

Hell: Separation from Heaven

We can understand Hell in its aspect of privation. All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it, or else, that it was within your reach and you have lost it forever.

– The Problem of Pain

Hell: Separation from Humanity

To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter hell is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is “remains.” To be a complete man means to have the passions obedient to the will and the will offered to God: to have been a man – to be an ex-man or “damned ghost” – would presumably mean to consist of a will utterly centered in its self and passions utterly uncontrolled by the will.

– The Problem of Pain

We know much more about heaven than hell, for heaven is the home of humanity and therefore contains all that is implied in a glorified human life: but hell was not made for men. It is in no sense parallel to heaven: it is “the darkness outside,” the outer rim where being fades away into nonentity.

– The Problem of Pain

Hell: Unfulfilled Potential

“Do you mean then that Hell – all that infinite empty town – is down in some little crack like this?”

“Yes. All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World [Heaven]. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.”

“It seems big enough when you’re in it, Sir.”

“And yet all loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies and itchings that it contains, if rolled up into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in Heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed in being bad as good is good. If all Hell’s miseries together entered the consciousness of yon wee yellow bird on the bough there, they would be swallowed up without trace, as if one drop of ink had been dropped into that Great Ocean to which your terrestrial Pacific itself is only a molecule.”

– The Great Divorce

From The Quotable Lewis, edited by Wayne Martindale & Jerry Root.


7 Replies to “C. S. Lewis on Hell”

    1. Joe: Thanks for stopping by. I’ll revise my blog post to say that “C. S. Lewis presented the inclusivist view on hell in his writings.” I personally find it convincing, but others may not. Just saying “there is not Biblical support for inclusivism” will not persuade me otherwise. The challenge in this kind of discussion is to define inclusivism because there are different formulations of it. A few years ago I read a collection of essays and responses entitled, Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World:

      1. Normative Pluralism – all ethical religions lead to God (John Hick).
      2. Inclusivism – Salvation is universally available, but is established by and leads to Christ (Clark Pinnock)
      3. Salvation in Christ – Agnosticism regarding those who haven’t heard the Gospel (Alister McGrath)
      4. Salvation in Christ Alone – (R. Douglas Geivett & W. Gary Phillips)

      If we’re using the above categories, Lewis’ view (and mine) falls into “Salvation in Christ.” Agnosticism regarding those who haven’t heard the Gospel seems like an appropriate posture for finite creatures to adopt. We don’t know the fate of every person who has ever lived. Such knowledge belongs to God alone. Lewis admirably reckons with the scriptural language on hell as external punishment versus hell as self-incurred punishment. Viewed rightly, Lewis contends, it means the same thing.

  1. In church this morning, Father Robert gave C.S. Lewis’ account, “The City of Hell,” as an example of what happens when we do not reconcile with our neighbors – as God expects and wants us to do – and what I believe His Son, Jesus, was sent here to teach us.

    So, I have to disagree with Joe, too, that the biblical support for Lewis’ account of Hell, his understanding of Hell, is, in fact, our separation from God, and, of course, any rifts and subsequent separation from our loved ones and neighbors. The further our anger moves us away from people, the further we are from God. So, the image of everyone moving away from each other – instead of reconciling – leaves us very much on the outside, looking in.

    I hadn’t planned to go to church this morning because we’re visiting relatives in another state. But I felt compelled to go. I didn’t hear “God’s voice” but after such a powerful and timely sermon it could only have been Him leading me there so I could hear the story of “The City of Hell.”

  2. Christopher, I really appreciate your compilation of Lewis’ quotes. I have been seeking the Lord on this topic and it isn’t talked of much unless one is ready to be strung up on a cross and crucified….but Lewis had the guts and the wisdom to do it. My mother told me that when The Great Divorce came out it caused quite a clatter; he was labeled a universalist for it from the more theologically traditional. Anyways, Thanks again.

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