Pt 4: Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 4:  Chapter 8 – Hell

In his chapter on hell, Lewis takes the three notions of “destruction”, “eternal torment”, and “privation” and then works them into a systematic unity. This leads to two difficulties. First, Thiselton points out: (a) that the Bible has three traditions in it about hell that seem to contradict one-another: (i) hell is eternal torment; (ii) hell is eternal destruction, or annihilation; (iii) all are saved; (b) that all three traditions have been considered to be “orthodox” in the history of the church, even though “eternal torment” has been the dominant view in orthodoxy; (c) that it would be hermeneutically-premature, given where scholarship has reached, to press these three contradictory traditions into a unity in favour of any one of the traditions, which seems to militate against Lewis’s conclusions.

Second, if Thiselton is correct, then Lewis entirely dismisses one biblical tradition – that of universal salvation. Even if it were right to press all the traditions into a unity then Lewis would still have to press (i) “hell is eternal torment”; (ii) “hell is eternal destruction, or annihilation”; and (iii) “all are saved”, into a unity – along with his emphasis on “privation”.

Some, for example D.A. Carson, are adamant that eternal torment is the nature of hell, and that all who do not believe in Christ go there. Lewis, on balance, seems to favour a kind of qualified annihilationism whilst still holding onto a perspective-dependent notion of eternal torment. Others, such as G. MacDonald (alias R. Parry), reconcile the biblical traditions in favour of “all are saved, but in some cases only after prolonged periods of punishment in hell”.


In view of the fact that these scholars all know more about this most difficult of all subjects than I do, then my current position, with Thiselton (the scholar I trust the most), is this: the Bible says that those who reject Christ are either tormented eternally (in a manner that involves privation), or are annihilated, or are all saved (whether eventually, or soon after death), and that the Bible deliberately leaves us with these three traditions held in tension in a manner that most encourages obedience. That is, one has to allow for the serious possibility that hell is eternal torment, but that it is possible that God will not allow this to happen. That is, it is safest to assume Carson’s stance, but hope that you are wrong – knowing that being wrong is possible.

Working through Lewis’s arguments, then Lewis argues that remedial pain does not work for everybody, and so some go to hell. I have already stated my problem with this point: if God decides to save somebody, then they are saved. God doesn’t fail, once he decides to save. It is like being a toddler lifted out of the play-pen and into the bath: you can kick and scream all you want, but you are getting washed. Once you pass under the shepherd’s rod, then even if somebody tried to substitute another sheep for you, you would remain holy and the other sheep would become holy too. Even if loss of salvation is theoretically possible, the apostles prophesy that it isn’t actually going to happen, so it isn’t concretely possible.

This is not semantics. At the moment, we can travel at 750 mph in a jet-car on land. Clearly, theoretically, it is possible to achieve 800 mph soon. But what if Elijah rolls up and says, “before the land-speed record achieves 800 mph, Jesus will return and put a stop to such folly”? So, 800 mph is both possible theoretically, but impossible concretely and actually. So it is with salvation: Paul prophesies that nobody will lose it.

But our point is that it is not so much pain that God deploys remedially in our lives, but the Holy Spirit. What kind of “remedy” doesn’t lead to salvation? “God does not willingly bring grief or affliction to the sons of men”, but will do so if necessary, but as part of a bigger saving work by the Spirit that is successful.

Moving on then, (a), whilst some object that retributive punishment is wrong, Lewis argues that it is both deserved and the only just response to: (i) ongoing rejection of guilt and forgiveness; (ii) the unthinkable alternative that, without retributive punishment, the evil would remain self-satisfied that their evil was actually condoned; (iii) the ongoing decision to embrace a chosen and desired sinful mode of being that continues in hell.

So, Lewis says that, in hell, people knowingly choose sin, and knowingly reject guilt and forgiveness, implying that in this life they did the same, and so deserve hell.

In response, (i), I would raise a query as to what extent many people in this life consciously reject guilt and offers of divine forgiveness. On the one hand, it is Jesus who speaks of eternal torment; on the other hand, it is Jesus who prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. I believe that people suppress knowledge of sin and guilt as I have already argued. But it is also true that there is very real cultural and personal blindness over sin and guilt – otherwise, Jesus’ prayer would have had no positive meaning. And Jesus’ sentiment is not simply to do with the crucifixion for elsewhere he says, ‘if you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin, but since you claim to be able to see, your guilt remains’. Couple this with Jesus’ response to the little children and, clearly, there are sins committed by those blind to the fact that Jesus is indeed prepared to overlook (though cleansing is still required). (ii) Is God a legalist? No! He does not always punish us as our sins deserve, for biblically, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’ – justice is mixed with mercy. Moreover, (iii), are we really to believe that, within the Trinity, the Father ignores the prayer of the Son who cannot sin? Hardly: Father and Son are of the same mind and purpose, which is to save and not condemn. (iv) The evil of the condemned seems much greater in hell than it does on earth from Lewis’s arguments. But, as we said earlier, human sin is mixed in with created goodness as a matter of biblical fact. Lewis, though, over-extends the doctrine of total depravity (which I accept), seeing it not as “every aspect of our beings tainted by sin”, but as “every aspect of the mode of ‘being’ of the condemned in hell as only sin”. Thus, Lewis seems to need to confuse human evil with demonic evil in order, in his reasoning, to justify hell as being “justly deserved”.

This is not to reject all possibility of eternal torment, but it is to challenge Lewis’s argumentation.

(b) Whilst some reject an eternal hell as disproportionate, Lewis argues that hell is a different dimension that eternally accommodates a final eternal choice for sin made in this life. That is, hell is not disproportionate for, even if they were always forever being given the chance to repent, some would never in fact do so. God, in his omniscience, knows this, and so can justly call a halt to the offer of forgiveness after a finite period after which all “second chances” are futile.

The problem with this view is that, (i), sin continues forever in hell such that the fact that punishment continues forever in hell is seen to be just, but not on the basis of deeds committed in this life, against what Scripture says. Also, (ii), this position seems to contradict Lewis’s ultimately annihilationist view that in hell being fades into non-being, raising problems over the matter of to what extent conscious sin carries on forever as a choice, rather than as determinism. (iii) There is also, again, a stark picture of some people as being only sinful, and never repentant of anything. To me, this again conflates the human with the demonic. Humans are also good in some ways, and often repent of some things, but not others. Thus, they have not made an eternal choice just “to sin”, but also to do some things right. Here, we are not saying that to repent of some things, but not of rejecting of Jesus, makes one “undeserving of hell”. Rather, we are saying that in order for Lewis’s argumentation to work, he seems to have to conflate a demonological ontology with an anthropological ontology.

(c) Whilst some object that hell’s torments are too great, Lewis replies: (i) that hell’s torments are actually endurable and desired evil pleasures to the damned; (ii) that, in any case, the damned are ever-less ex-human ghosts with ever-diminishing consciousness; (iii) that the damned are given over to their self-centred wills and uncontrollable passions; (iv) that the damned view heaven’s righteous pains as intolerable and unendurable; (v) that the damned are not only tormented, but are progressively destroyed through privation; (vi) that the damned are “tormented” only in the eyes of the holy, who alone desire heaven’s pains.

That is, in Lewis’s view, the damned enjoy evil pleasures that they prefer to heaven, to which they are given over, as they slowly diminish as consciously aware beings through privation, unto the point where they are effectively annihilated, with some “mere remains” (ashes, no doubt) that endure eternally. In Lewis’s view, this only appears as “eternal torment” to the heavenly, for whom it would be eternal torment. Conversely, the damned would find heaven to be eternal torment.

The main problem with this view is that there seems to be a tension between the notion of privation and the notion of all-out self-gratifying indulgence, which is normally associated with luxury, not poverty. Were it not for the notion of privation, Lewis would seem to be invoking an image of “slow blissful death by sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” here. This gets me worried since, like many bachelors, in my sinful nature I actually find this notion quite attractive! Maybe I too am damned, in which case, on Lewis’s arguments, and in the words of Bon Scott of AC/DC, “hell ain’t a bad place to be”!

No, I can’t accept that the damned receive a continuation of earthly sinful pleasures, for the demons, who already know what the initial stages of their damnation feel like, “thirst and hunger, but can neither drink nor eat”. Hell is not a pleasurable place to be, for there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. Heaven, though, enjoys a perichoresis (mutual inter-penetrative active and passive reciprocal relational involvement with God and others) that is more intimate than sex (bachelors, you need not worry), is a place of feasting and celebrating, and is not entirely devoid of “rock ‘n’ roll” since musical gifting comes from God, and not Satan: “Heaven ain’t a bad place to be”! (Hope to see you there, Bon; and Michael Schenker will definitely be there).

(d) Some object that a good God would not tolerate a hell, to which Lewis responds that evil fades into non-being in hell, and that no new story of evil parallel to heaven begins in hell, since Jesus stresses eternal finality more than eternal duration.

Here, Lewis clearly favours the annihilationist resolution of the tensions between “eternal torment”, “destruction”, and “privation”. And, as we have seen, he doesn’t address the “all are saved” tradition. Earlier, however, Lewis denies that he is annihilationist, and so shows that he both contradicts himself and is unable to endure the eternal torment view of hell.

That is, Lewis in effect argues that a good God indeed cannot tolerate a hell of eternal torment, but only one of eternal destruction through privation – perhaps involving some torment on the way. Whilst this view is indeed easier to accept when thinking of our loved ones who reject Christ, it does not seem to do justice to the eternal torment tradition, flattening it out into something that agrees with the other traditions.

(e) Finally, some object that an all-powerful God would not lose even one soul to hell. Lewis replies that omnipotence limits itself in the miracle of creating free persons, and that in hell rebels: (i) are allowed success: they lock hell’s door from inside; (ii) enjoy self-enslaving “freedom”, loathing heavenly freedom; (iii) desire neither God, nor forgiveness, and are allowed to reject both, getting in effect what they want.

Several problems present themselves here in my view: (i) again there is the problem of linking diabolic pleasures with the notion of privation: the demons are not in fact happy now, so it is unlikely that the damned will be happy then. In Jewish apocalyptic literature, the final hell, or Gehenna, is very similar to the intermediate hells that function as holding pens prior to judgment (the Abyss realm within Hades for condemned humans and demons, Tartarus for bound fallen angels). All these hells are similarly presented or symbolised as lakes or underground caverns of fire. (ii) There is also the problem, again, of the “utterly evil” character of the damned, which goes beyond total depravity and looks like demonic evil, rather than human evil. Since God sources our goodness, then privation could strip from the unsaved what good they do have, but this would be to make them more evil than they are now, which seems absurd. (iii) The idea that the damned want hell seems absurd to me. The demons begged Jesus not to send them there. They certainly weren’t “locking hell’s door from the inside”. (iv) There is also the problem that the damned are supposedly always clearly offered forgiveness by God in this life, but reject it fully knowingly. This does not ring true to me, and does not seem to square with Jesus’ comments about blindness, as we noted earlier. Guilt and blindness are both real to varying extents that variably qualify one another.

Lewis concludes that hell might be intolerable, but that it is still moral, and that we should all look to securing our own salvation, and not just that of others. In reply, we may remind Lewis that he argues that hell is tolerable for the damned, and would only be intolerable for the saved if they were there, which they are not. So, Lewis effectively argues that hell is moral because it is tolerable, even pleasurable, chosen by those who fully know what is happening, and temporary.

In reply, we must argue that: (i) if God allows it, then hell is moral, since God is righteous; (ii) if God allows it, hell is intolerable, for that is how the demons find it to be; (iii) on a traditional understanding hell is imposed on those who do not choose it and who do not fully know what is happening; (iv) hell on a traditional view is usually seen to be permanent.

To my mind, again, one has to allow for the serious possibility that hell is eternal torment, but that it is possible that God will not allow this to happen. That is, it is safest to assume Carson’s stance, but then to hope that you are wrong – knowing that being wrong is possible, in a slight modification of what appear to be the levels of certainty that accompany Carson’s stance.

So, hell could be eternal torment, so turn to Christ and don’t go there.

But, if our hopes that God does not in the end allow an eternal hell come true, then how are they likely to come true, biblically-speaking?

Well, in my view, several points have to be held in tension here: (a) there are definite question-marks over the extent of canonicity in relation to Jewish apocalyptic. 1 Enoch, for example, is included in some Ethiopian Bibles and in some Slavic Bibles, and was considered to contain true revelation in Jesus’ time, not least by several of the New Testament writers, and by several of the Church Fathers. It cannot be argued that the later exclusion of 1 Enoch from the canon was above suspicion either. My position is that history has excluded it from the canon, that God is sovereign, and so it isn’t canon. However, just as non-biblical books can contain truth, so the New Testament writers saw truth in 1 Enoch, and so we can also see truth in it. Not that 1 Enoch is soft on hell – it isn’t comforting at all in this respect.

(b) The query over 1 Enoch, though, does make us aware of the world of Jewish apocalyptic more broadly, in which there was a great deal of mutually contradictory speculation as to the nature of hell. In one place, hell is pictured as the damned being digested within the stomach of a Satan-like figure. In another place, the demons that one serves unwittingly in one’s life-time are there to meet you personally when you arrive in hell. My point is that “hell” in Jewish apocalyptic is a fluid notion. The apocalyptic in the biblical canon removes much of this speculative element, but must still be viewed against its background context of ideas, which is heavily speculative.

(c) This speculative element seems to have found its way into the Scriptures, as Thiselton suggests. Three traditions seem to contradict one-another somewhat: eternal torment, annihilation, and universal salvation. Given the speculative background context of ideas, it is safer to view these three traditions as the specific apocalyptic speculative traditions to which God would authoritatively draw our attention. We are not presented with a neat system into which these ideas are dovetailed into pre-packaged tessellation, but with opposing ideas that are designed to involve us as Bible–readers. Thus, it is as though God asks, “What if hell is eternal torment? Then you’d better repent! What if you think this is unjust? Then how do you know for sure hell isn’t annihilation? Don’t be so quick to call me ‘unjust’! What if I say I will save everybody? Then you will simply use this as an excuse to continue in sin – so I will not give you that assurance!”

(d) So, God is saying: “Repent! Don’t call me unjust! And don’t acquiesce in sin!” You can’t out-manoeuvre God or second-guess him. If hell were eternal torment, and was unjust by all our understandings of justice, could we then stop it by our protestations? No chance! Since when did we control apocalyptic matters? In apocalyptic, matters are taken out of our control. No modernist can work it out in advance so as to gain control over it. It is something that is done to us, not by us.

(e) It seems to me that many evangelicals over-extend the role of cognitive belief-content in relation to salvation. The order things happen in salvation is: divine foreknowledge, divine choice, divine predestination, divine calling, divine justification, and divine glorification. The process begins long before anybody cognitively confesses anything. Yes, if anybody confesses Jesus in a right manner, they will be saved. But this does not mean that nobody else will be saved. Everybody who is saved is only saved through the events of the Gospel. King David was certainly saved, and he too was saved by sovereign choice, through Jesus’ salvific actions, but not by confessing Jesus explicitly, since Jesus had not yet been born! David must have explicitly confessed Christ after death! So, King David serves as a model for all those who “have not heard”, but who are still chosen by God, just like in the case of Jacob and Esau: “before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad – in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls” (Rom 9:10-13). To my mind, these verses completely undercut Lewis’s arguments, which almost amount to an oppression of salvation by works.

(f) Jesus was the one who spoke about eternal torment, granted. But Jesus also concluded that we could not see what we were doing, and appeared to pray against apocalyptic tradition (which does not tend to stress forgiveness), crying out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. To my mind, this prayer is diametrically opposed to those who argue for eternal torment on the grounds that we “fully know” what we are doing when we sin. Yes, we are without excuse in rejecting God as the creator, as Paul points out. But does everybody really see all their sins as they really are and their guilt as it really is? Is there no demonic deception? Does everybody really know that Jesus is Lord, and that they must be in saving relationship with him? No, there is real blindness, as both Jesus and Lewis actually argue (Jesus consistently, Lewis in self-contradiction). Since Jesus’ prayer to the Father for his own killers to be forgiven – men who were in the very process of committing the worst sin ever committed – was an intra-Trinitarian plea between two persons within the Trinity, between the visible and the invisible Yahweh, then it must be seen very seriously as reflecting the heart of both the Father and the Son. Are we really to assert that these two could ever not be one in purpose? That would be anti-Trinitarian subordinationist blasphemy!

(g) Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross opened the way for God to do precisely what he wishes to do when it comes to salvation. Jesus’ sacrifice was of infinite worth, and has unlimited purchasing power. Anything is now possible, within biblical parameters. Are we absolutely certain what those parameters are? Well, Carson might be, but Thiselton argues that the church down the ages isn’t, and that probably the biblical writers themselves – and perhaps even Jesus in his incarnate finitude – weren’t either. What we have is three, mutually-contradictory, but authorized possibilities. So, the sky’s the limit for, ‘he does as he please with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No-one can hold back his hand or say to him, ‘what have you done?’’ More than this: can we really imagine that the cross will achieve only a meagre victory? Will God’s ace-card really not trump Satan, sin, law, death, and damnation? The one who prayed, ‘Father, forgive them, they know not what they doing’ is the Judge. He’s the one who holds the keys to death and Hades. What do you think he will do with those keys? Against Lewis, “the damned” don’t lock anything from the inside – they don’t have the keys. The one who prays “forgive” has the keys. The one who died for us has the keys. The one who would rather die than judge us eternally has the keys! What do you think he will do with them? Throw them away? “Don’t you know me yet?” asks Jesus.

(h) Well, unfortunately, we don’t know Jesus as well as we should yet – and so he is very likely to be not what we expect him to be. This could mean salvation, or it could mean damnation. Better to make your peace with Jesus and with his very large apocalyptic angelic army that is on its way – before it gets here to take the decision out of your hands, and to separate “the wicked” from “the righteous”.


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