C.S. Lewis on the Torments of Hell

This is a modified quote from my essay “Hell: Christianity’s Most Damnable Doctrine” in The End of Christianity, edited by John Loftus, Prometheus Books, 2012. The page numbers in parentheses refer to Lewis’s book The Problem of Pain. Now, I know, as my friend John Beversluis discovered when he wrote his wonderful book on Lewis, whenever you say anything about what Lewis said, a host of wrathful Lewisites will say that you took his words out of context, or that Lewis modified or retracted his statement elsewhere. Here I am only addressing some of his arguments in The Problem of Pain. If he said something different elsewhere, I am not concerned about that since his arguments here need to be addressed.

What about the frightful intensity of the torments of hell? Lewis cautions us not to confuse the imagery with which artists and scripture have depicted the torments of hell with the actual doctrine (112). Of course, hell will be “something unspeakably horrible,” (113), but Lewis puts more emphasis on the idea of destruction and privation than outright torture. This is all pretty vague, however. By “destruction” Lewis does not mean annihilation. In fact, he points out that souls may be intrinsically indestructible, and, further, that in our experience things are never utterly annihilated, only turned into something else, as the burned log turns into ash, heat, and smoke (113). It is hard to get really clear on just what Lewis is suggesting here, but he does hint at an interesting idea. Perhaps the damned do not see their situation as unendurable; this is only how it looks to the saved (114). The damned may even experience pleasure and no pain (114), but still live in a wretched and utterly debased state. Maybe Lewis is getting at a point made by John Stuart Mill: Better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. Socrates’ existence is so qualitatively superior to a fool’s that it would be better to be Socrates, even when he his having a bad day, than [insert your favorite fool] having a good day. Similarly, the elect in heaven would live in such a qualitatively superior state compared to the damned that they would infinitely prefer the discomforts of heaven (if any) to the pleasures of hell.

Did Augustine, Aquinas, Edwards, and all the other eminently rational teachers and thinkers really not mean it when they spoke of the tortures of hell? When they warned of the torments facing the unregenerate, were they perhaps merely indulging in rhetorical excess to frighten sinners into repentance? I see no reason not to take them as speaking absolutely literally. Even scripture often sounds quite straightforward. In Revelation, chapter 20, when it says that the damned will be cast into a lake of fire, it really seems to mean a literal lake of fire, not, say, that they will suffer the metaphorical burning of an eternally guilty conscience or something like that. As for the idea that the soul cannot be annihilated, is Lewis implying that souls obey conservation laws? According to traditional theology, the doctrine of creatio continuans, God maintains all things in existence at all times, and only has to suspend his creative input for an instant for things to cease to be. Surely, this applies to souls as well.

What about the intriguing idea that heaven is better than hell, not because the damned are in torment—indeed, they might be enjoying some sort of demeaning or vapid pleasure (maybe hell is like a giant Las Vegas casino, or an unending vacation in Branson, Missouri)—but because of an infinite qualitative difference between the lives of the damned and the lives of the elect? Again, these suggestions are, perhaps unavoidably, quite vague, but they prompt an interesting query: Why is there such a qualitative difference between the lives of those in heaven and that of the ones in hell? Lewis seems to hold that what makes hell so hellish is the people who go there, not tortures inflicted on them. While this is an improvement over the traditional doctrine of fire, brimstone, and devils with pitchforks, it raises many serious questions.

The idea that the damned make their own hell would be persuasive if the only people in hell were all atrocious miscreants. Surely, any place populated only by such types as brutal dictators, sadistic serial killers, slave traders, pedophiles, drug cartel kingpins, etc. would be a hell, even if the accommodations were luxurious. But traditional Christian doctrine implies that vast numbers of ordinary and even saintly people go to hell. What finally condemns you to hell is not being bad, but refusal to accept Christian salvation. Around the world many billions of perfectly respectable people have heard the Christian message, but have chosen to remain Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, pagans, deists, atheists, and so forth. Lewis asked what we find tolerable or intolerable about postmortem punishment. Can we really find it tolerable that billions of people will be condemned eternally because they choose to remain true to their deepest beliefs?

A short list of some of the people who have rejected Christianity, and so presumably doomed themselves to hell, would include Mahatma Gandhi, Rumi, Omar Khayyam, Hypatia, Marcus Aurelius, the Dalai Lama, Averroes, Moses Maimonides, Baruch Spinoza, David Hume, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Golda Meir, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Charles Darwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Clarence Darrow, Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill, A.J. Ayer, Jean Paul Sartre, and Mark Twain. A longer list would contain very many more of the greatest scientists, philosophers, artists, writers, statesmen, humanitarians, reformers, and philanthropists. Lewis assumes that everyone in hell is a total degenerate who will simply wallow in his own turpitude. On the contrary, according to traditional Christian doctrine, hell is full of good people.