Hell Will Hurt Like Hell

Many Christians try to make Hell less Hellish, and use C. S. Lewis to do so.

By David Mills Published on March 19, 2019

He doesn’t like the idea of Hell, this voice of urbane secular liberalism, of people who pity the poor yokels who not only believe in God but think he has standards. “What modern believer wouldn’t want to cast off this old, sadistic barrier to faith in a loving God?” writes Vinson Cunningham in The New Yorker. “What kind of deity draws such a hard line between his friends and his enemies, and holds an eternal grudge?”

“I’m writing about hell because it is an unthinkable, horrible, destructive concept that can’t possibly be true,” claimed an old article a Facebook friend posted the same day. It appeared in the liberal Catholic weekly The National Catholic Reporter. After a good bit of not entirely coherent ranting, Carol Meyer finished: God could never ever “be so mean and evil as to create hell. … All arguments for hell, however reasonable they once sounded, are debunked by one single truth — God is LOVE. The end of the story.”

You may roll your eyes, but unless I miss my guess, most American Christians half-agree with Cunningham and Meyer. If you doubt this, ask yourself how often you tell anyone else their lives could end that badly. Do you remind yourself that you could be damned? 

Evangelical or Catholic, we look for ways to soften the teaching. We want to make Hell less Hellish. We’d be better Christians, though, and better friends to others, if we didn’t. Whatever Hell is, it’s going to hurt. A lot. We need to warn others. We need to warn ourselves.

Two Kinds of People

C. S. Lewis offers a good way to make Hell less Hellish, while still believing in it as Christianity requires, and many of us use him for it. In his book The Great Divorce, the narrator tells the story of a trip to another world, where some people choose happiness and other people don’t. The second group seem more clueless than wicked. Their sins seem fairly minor. You can see yourself in all of them. (The book gives us, along with his Screwtape Letters, a piercingly acute understanding of the ways we fool ourselves into thinking we’re okay when we’re not. Do read it.)

For David’s reflection on who exactly may be going to Hell, see his My Uber-Calvinist Troll and the One Thing He Gets Really Wrong

He meets the Scottish writer George Macdonald, who explains what he’s seeing. “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.”

Lewis had written about this a few years before, in his book The Problem of Pain. We can “think of this bad man’s perdition not as a sentence imposed on him but as the mere fact of being what he is.” He calls the damned “successful, rebels to the end,” who get what they really want. God doesn’t push them into Hell and slam the door shut. “The doors of hell,” Lewis writes, “are locked on the inside.”

As he put it in an essay called “The Trouble with X,” which you can find in God in the Dock: “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.”

We don’t like the idea of God sending people to Hell. We’d rather think of people sending themselves to Hell by creating their own Hell. It will be nicer than the lake of flaming fire one. It gets God off the hook. He doesn’t send you to Hell. You go there on your own. You buy the ticket and get on the bus. And if you do, we think, maybe you’ll get somewhere not half bad.

Hell Will Be That Bad

We royally miss the point when we try to make Hell less Hellish. I think we tend to think like this: We assume that if we want something, it can’t be too bad for us. We want more ice cream, not more cyanide, and we don’t mind gaining a little weight to get it. The doctor may shake his head, but we like rocky road, so there. And we may also assume that if God says to us “Thy will be done,” it’ll work out. Maybe not as well as letting his will be done, but well enough.

The traditional pictures tell us something we don’t want to see. Hell will really be that bad. Even if we make our own Hell, we’ll make Hell. You don’t want to live there. You don’t want anyone you care about to live there. Because it’s not living. It’s dying, eternally.

Lewis knew this. Look again at The Great Divorce. Early in the book, the narrator finds that the city (the city of the damned, though he doesn’t know that yet) keeps growing, because people can’t stand each other and keep moving. Poor Napoleon lives by himself in a mansion now millions of miles from anyone else. All he does all day and night is pace back forth blaming other people. He made his own Hell, and he’s alone, and resentful, and tired, and he will be forever.

Our great and loving Father will let us be Napoleon if we insist. He will let us make our own Hell. Lewis described how we do this: “Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before,” he wrote in Mere Christianity. One of those choices, the creature you make yourself when you tell God “My will be done,” lives “in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.” It lives a life of “madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness.”

Don’t be that person. Don’t let anyone else be that person. Remember that Hell is Hell.

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