C. S. Lewis & The Problem of Hell

Let’s talk about Hell!  I know, no one likes to talk about it, but God did and so should we.

Read also: C.S. Lewis & God’s Pursuit of Man; C.S. Lewis & Death

“Hell is God’s great compliment to the reality of human freedom and the dignity of human choice.” G. K. Chesterton 

In The Problem of Pain, Lewis dedicates a chapter to the doctrine of hell. Lewis’s thesis is that while the doctrine of hell is hard to accept, it is nevertheless moral. He states, “I am not going to try to prove the doctrine tolerable…it is not tolerable. But I think the doctrine can be shown to be moral…” [1]

  He sets out to defend the doctrine of hell as moral by attempting to refute five major objections to the doctrine itself. While the objections are legitimate, I believe Lewis did not afford some of them enough attention. In dealing with the objections, Lewis is not as thorough or persuasive as he is in other topics. 

Lewis first tackles the objection to ‘the idea of retributive punishment.’ Here Lewis is quite thorough in his explanation of the need for retributive punishment. He also addresses the same objection, although indirectly, in the previous chapter on pain and suffering as intended to yield repentance.  His primary argument is that without repentance and a change of heart the evildoer cannot be forgiven and must be made to respond for his own guilt. Lewis states, 

“The demand that God should forgive such a man while he remains what he is, is based on a confusion between condoning and forgiving. To condone an evil is simply to ignore it, to treat it as if it were good. But forgiveness needs to be accepted as well as offered if it is to be complete: a man who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness.” [2] 

The key issue in the retribution punishment is that evildoers prefer darkness to light and their preferences result in their eternal separation from God. One objection to Lewis’s response may result from the fact that he paints the portrait of an evildoer that does not seem to fit the profile of the typical man who rejects God. He presents the evildoer as a very specific monster who some would argue is inconsistent with the ‘typical sinner.’ However, Lewis does touch upon this in dealing with the second objection.

The objection to ‘the apparent disproportion between eternal damnation and transitory sin’ is one of the toughest raised against the God of the Bible. Lee Strobel sums up the apparent injustice of eternal damnation, 

“…as a spiritual seeker, I found my sense of justice outraged by the Christian teaching about hell…The doctrine seemed like cosmic overkill to me, an automatic and unappealable sentence to an eternity of torture and torment. It’s mandatory sentence taken to the extreme: everyone gets the same consequences, regardless of their circumstances. Step out of line with God—even a little bit, even inadvertently—and you’re slapped with and endless prison sentence in a place that makes Leavenworth look like Disneyland.” [3] 

Here, I believe, Lewis falls short of addressing the main objection. His response is to exit through a philosophical side door by considering the definition of eternity.  He admits that if eternity is defined “as a mere prolongation of time, it is disproportionate.” [4]

  I believe the answer cannot lie in defining eternity, for Heaven itself would then lose its meaning. The biblical writers were clear in their definition of eternity by using such terms as ‘forever and ever’, ‘everlasting’  and ‘from age to age.’ I think J. P. Moreland provides an answer that better addresses the objection itself.  Moreland provides two main responses to the objection. First he affirms that, “the degree to which a person warrants punishment is not a function of the length of time it took to commit the crime.” [5]

  Furthermore, he adds that the nature of the sin itself is a determining factor in the severity of the sentence.  He argues that the most heinous thing a person can do in this life is, “to mock and dishonor and refuse to love the person that we owe absolutely everything to, which is our Creator, God himself.” [6]

 I consider these far more effective in dealing with the objection.

The third objection Lewis deals with regards ‘the frightful intensity of the pains of hell.’  Here Lewis does an outstanding job of categorizing the language of hell used by Christ himself into three distinct groups. [7]

 It is important to note that descriptions of suffering and torment are only one of three symbols used to describe hell, along with punishment and privation, exclusion, or banishment into ‘the darkness outside.’ He is thorough in making room for some symbolic language, while affirming the reality and unpleasantness of hell itself. 

Lewis then deals with the objection that ‘no charitable man could himself be blessed in heaven while he knew that even one human soul was still in hell.’  Once again, I believe Lewis side-steps the objection with discussions of time and eternality. The objection has more to do with the knowledge and compassion of the redeemed with regards to the fate of the damned.  The answer to such an objection lies in  what J. P. Moreland calls “a more mature perspective.” [8]

 Our minds, fully redeemed and exposed to the ‘big picture’ will surely be able to process the idea of both eternal destinations.  Moreland also quotes C. S. Lewis elsewhere as saying that, “Hell does not have veto power over heaven.” [9] 

Finally, Lewis focus on the objection that ‘the ultimate loss of a single soul means the defeat of omnipotence.’ Lewis does a wonderful job responding to this objection. First he translates what man calls ‘defeat’ in this case is really ‘a miracle’ from another perspective. Then he proceeds to explain (indirectly) that it is really a victory for God that man’s free will perseveres to the end. He states, “…the damned are in one sense successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside…just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.” [10]

  In doing so, the objection becomes evidence that God’s plan actually works for all eternity, regardless of final destination.

While Lewis’s approach shows the clarity and depth of thought which are typical of his writings, he seems to dismiss some of the objections without really responding to some of the major problems they address. However, the overall treatment of the topic leaves little room for denying the importance and veracity of the doctrine itself. I believe he ends the chapter with an effective strategy to use when confronted about hell. A great counter question would be “What are you asking God to do?” [11]

Does man have a better answer? I doubt it.


1 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001), 121.
2 Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 124.
3 Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 237.
4 Lewis,  The Problem of Pain, 125
5 Strobel, The Case for Faith, 251.
6 Ibid., 252.
7 Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 126-127.
8 Strobel, The Case for Faith, 258.
9 Ibid.
10 Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 130.
11 Ibid.

 

Juan Valdes

Dr. Juan Valdes is a bi-lingual speaker for Reasons for Hope (English and Spanish) and the senior pastor of a Spanish-speaking congregation in Miami, Florida. He has taught Theology, Bible and Apologetics at the seminary level in both English and Spanish and speaks regularly across the country and internationally at Pastor’s Conferences, Youth Conferences, Apologetics Conferences and local church events. Juan, his wife Daisy and their children, Juan Elias and Jessica serve in multiple areas of ministry in Miami, Florida.