A Losing Battle Against Reality: C. S. Lewis On The Nature And Necessity Of Hell -- By: Gavin R. Ortlund

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 176:703 (Jul 2019)
Article: A Losing Battle Against Reality: C. S. Lewis On The Nature And Necessity Of Hell
Author: Gavin R. Ortlund

A Losing Battle Against Reality: C. S. Lewis On The Nature And Necessity Of Hell*

Gavin R. Ortlund

Gavin R. Ortlund is senior pastor, First Baptist Church of Ojai, Ojai, California.

I have met no people who fully disbelieved in hell and also had a living and life-giving belief in Heaven. The Biblical teaching on both destinations stands or falls together.

—C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm


C. S. Lewis has been accused of downplaying the role of God’s judgment in the doctrine of hell. While Lewis did describe hell as a form of self-chosen exile, he saw this self-exile as corollary to God’s judgment, not as an alternative to it. For Lewis, the doctrine of hell was a logical implication of the related doctrines of God and sin. Nor were Lewis’s thoughts on hell entirely eccentric, for there are definite points of continuity between his thoughts and the premodern Christian tradition.

In his theological fantasy The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis popularized an innovative way of thinking about hell as a kind of self-choice or self-exile. As the character George McDonald puts it in perhaps the book’s most famous passage, “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.”1 The Great Divorce has provoked varied reactions. Apologists use Lewis’s insights to defend the justice of hell from secular critique.2 Conservative critics, as well as some universalists, claim that Lewis “takes the hell out of hell” by compromising an adequate doctrine of divine judgment.3 Proponents of purgatory, postmortem salvation, and/or universalism see in The Great Divorce a support and imagination of their hope.4

This article attempts a theological engagement with Lewis’s view of hell. It begins by briefly responding to some of the common criticisms Lewis receives (hoping to clarify his view in the process). It then suggests that Lewis helps us envision the necessity and plausibility of hell, particularly in relation to the doctrines of God and sin. Finally, it traces points of continuity between Lewis and premodern theologians. The upshot is that for all the difficulty that the doctrine of hell admittedly presents, it...

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