George MacDonald, the nineteenth century fantasy writer and universalist, was one of the most important influences on C.S. Lewis. While Lewis never adopted MacDonald’s universalism, his familiarity with MacDonald’s writing undoubtedly contributed to Lewis’ own wrestling with the doctrine of hell as eternal conscious torment, and his search for a less morally disturbing account of hell.
To this end Lewis famously argued that the suffering of hell is not imposed by God as a sort of dungeon master who eternally subjects his victims to the most unimaginable tortures. Instead, on Lewis’ view the sufferings of hell are self-imposed.
Lewis’ two main treatments of the topic are found in The Problem of Pain and The Great Divorce.
The first step in his view is to establish that God has done all he possibly can to save his creatures. According to Lewis, Christianity presents us with
“a God so fully of mercy that He becomes man and dies by torture to avert that final ruin from His creatures, and who yet, where that heroic remedy fails, seems unwilling, or even unable, to arrest the ruin by an act of mere power.” (The Problem of Pain, 119)
God will not force himself on human beings, overriding their free will. (Elsewhere I have critiqued the claim that for God to override human free will to redeem persons would be tantamount to “rape”. See here.)
On Lewis’ view human beings inexplicably choose hell, they choose to remain there, and by doing so they inflict on themselves unimaginable misery. God is merely the one who sustains them in being, respecting their autonomy to continue their own self-imposed suffering forever. He writes:
“I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the gates of hell are locked on the inside.” (The Problem of Pain, 127)
And in The Great Divorce the character of George MacDonald observes:
“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.’” (66-7.)
Biblically speaking this view has one thing going for it: there are passages of scripture that depict hell as ongoing rebellion on the part of those who end up there. In particular, texts that refer to the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (e.g. Mt. 8:12) convey a sense of continued hatred of God and rebellion against him.
Unfortunately this sense of the phrase is often “lost in translation” as people read these passages in English as conveying regret and suffering alone. But the Greek word for gnashing, brucho, conveys the sense of grinding one’s teeth in rage. According to the TDNT whenever the word occurs in the Old Testament it communicates “hate, desire for destruction of the other.” As for the New Testament, one sees this in Acts 7:54 where Stephen’s enemies gnash their teeth at him.
So the notion of teeth gnashing would seem to support Lewis’ concept of hell as self-imposed rebellion and suffering.
However, there are two problems with Lewis’ view, one biblical and the other philosophical.
Biblically speaking, Lewis’ view does not fit the many passages in scripture that depict God the Father, Jesus, and the angels actively carrying out judgment, dividing the redeemed and the lost, preparing a place of judgment, banishing them to that place of judgment, and carrying on the judgment at least in virtue of maintaining the place of judgment. God is not merely a helpless observer of self-imposed suffering caused by ongoing rebellion. He is the judge who imposes that suffering (or at least a significant proportion of it).
Now for the philosophical problem. Even if Lewis were correct and the suffering were self-imposed, that wouldn’t remove the moral offense of hell.
Imagine a man so disordered that he continually inflicts suffering on himself. He cuts himself, bangs his head into the wall, hits his hand with a hammer, pulls out his own finger nails with pliers, and worse.
Would anybody say that the rest of us have no moral obligation to put a stop to this man’s self-imposed misery? Of course we would. We would restrain him to prevent him from inflicting further suffering on himself.
Let’s say that he then responded by biting his own tongue off. Though restrained he continued to find new ways to inflict suffering on himself in a singular quest for his own self-destruction.
Eventually we might conclude that the most charitable thing to do in this impossible situation would be to induce a coma. Perhaps that would be the only way to stop his endless spiral of self-imposed misery.
And that’s the problem. Even if the misery of those in hell is purely self-imposed, even if the gates of hell are locked on the inside and God doesn’t actively torture anyone, the moral problem with eternal conscious torment remains. Even if that torment is self-imposed we must ask why an infinitely loving God would ever allow it.