Still thinking about hell and Rob Bell… sorry ‘bout that.
I grew up in a conservative evangelical context, and pretty much all the angry things I hear people yelling at Bell are things that I once believed myself.
One of the first “cracks in the wall” for me theologically came while reading Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In it there’s a passage where an old Orthodox priest, Zossima, talks about hell. It was the first time I’d encountered the thought that we cast ourselves into hell, rather than an angry, offended God rejecting us. Many Orthodox theologians consider the notion of hell incompatible with the idea of a loving God. Basically put, I think they might say that God is the pure light of love; and in that light there is a consistent invitation for all to return. In fact, all will return - all come from God, and all will go back to him. There is a hell but it comes about because, as it says in John 3, there are some who, by the choices they make in their lifetime, grow to hate the light. And there is nothing more hellish than being in the presence of the thing you hate the most. Those who have chosen love, on the other hand, find themselves in a blissful fulfillment of all they have hoped for during their earthly lives. What is the perfect light of heaven for one may be the very flames of hell for another.
I’ve just always found this idea so much more beautiful and true than the idea of an angry egotist in the sky being unable to forgive the creatures he himself created.
Maybe it is like this:
When I opened my eyes I realized that I was there, at the Final Judgment. What struck me first is that is that it played out exactly as I had always imagined - a dazzling, all-encompassing light that was irresistible in its attraction. It was was kindness, and goodness, and love, but in a perfected way - a pure experience that I had only tasted hints of in my lifetime. But as we moved toward it I noticed a commotion. A man was on his knees sobbing, his body heaving with sadness. To my shock, I could see plainly a man known to all, one who in our day had become a of sort of avatar of pure evil, infamous for the brutality and scale of his hideous deeds. He was crumpled on the floor, refusing to move any nearer to the light. Between his sobs he could be heard begging for a return to his earthly existence, for a second chance to live his life over. “What have I done, what have I done,” came the mournful repetition.
I assumed that he was facing the terror of his coming punishment in hell, so I asked one of the others there when he would be taken away from this perfect place. The answer that came revealed my lack of understanding. “He won’t be taken from this place - that is just the reason for his sorrow. All come from the Light, and all go back to it. He has been told that all is forgiven, and that he is welcome to go forward into the banquet. It is by his own will that he stays where he is.”
This is an adaptation and an update of the story which Dostoevsky tells (with such skill) through the mouth of Zossima.
Fathers and teachers, I ponder, “What is hell?” I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. Once in infinite existence, immeasurable in time and space, a spiritual creature was given on his coming to earth the power of saying, “I am and I love.” Once, only once, there was given him a moment of active lifting love, and for that was earthly life given him, and with it times and seasons. And that happy creature rejected the priceless gift, prized it and loved it not, scorned it and remained callous. Such a one, having left the earth, sees Abraham’s bosom and talks with Abraham as we are told in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and beholds heaven and can go up to the Lord. But that is just his torment, to rise up to the Lord without ever having loved, to be brought close to those who have loved when he has despised their love. For he sees clearly and says to himself, “Now I have understanding, and though I now thirst to love, there will be nothing great, no sacrifice in my love, for my earthly life is over, and Abraham will not come even with a drop of living water (that is the gift of earthly active life) to cool the fiery thirst of spiritual love which burns in me now, though I despised it on earth; there is no more life for me and will be no more time! Even though I would gladly give my life for others, it can never be, for that life is passed which can be sacrificed for love, and now there is a gulf fixed between that life and this existence.
There once was a bad boy named Bell,
Who came out as a softy on hell.
But unlike C.S. Lewis,
Whose thoughts were congruous,
He was labeled a loathsome rebel.
Ooo, a little insider information! A friend of mine who has read Bell’s new book (and will remain nameless… wait now… I also remain nameless…), mentioned that he thinks Bell will be sidelined by many evangelicals now. So I guess he might just be “coming out” as it were. Good. We need more like him. This issue is going to be like the position of women in the church. Everything will look significantly different in one generation. And it will be the Lord’s doing, imho.
What is unique in Lewis’s conception, and contrary to accepted evangelical belief, is the idea that the choice we are offered in life continues on into eternity. Lewis sees hell as a place that God created out of his mercy. This is because forcing those who have always hated the light of God to be there in the presence of its source for all eternity would be the ultimate cruelty. Again, we can look to Lewis’s short work of fiction The Great Divorce for clarification. The residents of hell board a bus for trip to heaven, but life in hell, it turns out, is not an inferno of agony. Rather, its defining characteristic is its mediocrity, a place that is “always in the rain and always in evening twilight.”
Remarkably, Lewis conceives of it as a place where no one has any needs. Just by imagining it, “you get everything you want (not very good quality, of course).” This reflects Lewis’s notion that nothing within human imagination can be anywhere near as good or as pleasing as what God creates. Things on earth, to Lewis, were a distant echo of infinitely better things to be found in heaven. Separated from God in hell, things are not even as good as what could be had on earth.
Relationships in hell suffer a similar sort of deterioration. The “town” of hell is a geographically huge, sprawling suburb of a place, but sparsely populated. It seems that because everyone is primarily interested in themselves, there can be no community. People just keep getting in fights and moving further out, so far that the homes of the earliest arrivals can now only be seen by telescope. The book of Revelation presents heaven as a city; apparently Lewis is saying that such a living arrangement is not even possible for the sort of people whose self-serving nature leads them to hell.
The contentious point for conservatives, where Lewis steps outside the bounds of evangelical orthodoxy (and indeed, some would say, general Christian orthodoxy), is that the “Hellish” visitors to heaven are given the opportunity of staying in heaven if they so desire. Near the end of the novel, George MacDonald, the real-life fantasy writer, theologian, and hero to Lewis, shows up to provide explanation. Interestingly, MacDonald was a universalist. In MacDonald’s voice, Lewis goes as far as to make room for the Catholic (and decidedly un-evangelical) notion of purgatory.
If they leave that grey town behind it will not have been Hell. To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory. And perhaps ye had better not call this country Heaven. Not Deep Heaven, ye understand.
In addition to purgatory, MacDonald’s character here hints at the various levels of blessedness that Lewis saw existing in heaven. Even once believers arrive in heaven, they have the opportunity to go further into the forest and mountains. This is Lewis’s symbolic representation of a deepening relationship with God that occurs even after death. But at the end of the tour, all are given the option of remaining in heaven, which the majority of them reject. In life they have formed themselves by their choices into the sort of creatures who don’t like being in heaven, preferring the sad inferiority of hell. Indeed Lewis went as far as to call those in hell, in a sense, “successful rebels to the end” in that their miserable state is not so much obvious to themselves as it is to those on the outside who understand how things could have been for them. The choice for hell stretches into eternity - as Lewis puts it, ‘the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”
Useful post on reading C.S Lewis by Pastor Jeff. Lewis had strong opinions on reading - he should, he probably did it more than 99% of the world - and you’ll find some of them there. Also, Jeff’s picks on which are the essentials.
Rob Bell got in so much trouble partly for suggesting some humility - that we shouldn’t be so sure that someone like Gandhi is in hell. Lewis never shied from saying the same thing, even in his most renowned works. In Mere Christianity:
The world does not consist of 100 per cent Christians and 100 per cent non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand.
There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points.
Quotes like the following one from Gandhi should make one even more cautious in being so over-confident that we can say who is “in” or “out”. From the book Christi-Anarchy by Dave Andrews.
Mahatma Ghandi, the great Hindu sage, suggested that if Christ could only be unchained from the shackles of Christianity, he could become “THE WAY”, not just for Christians, but for the whole world:
“The gentle figure of Christ, so patient, so kind, so loving, so full of forgiveness that he taught his followers not to retailate when struck, but to turn the other cheek - was a beautiful example, I thought, of the perfect person.”
He said he thought of Christ as “a martyr, an embodiment of sacrifice”, and of the cross as “a great example of Jesus’ suffering”, and “a factor in the composition of my underlying faith in non-violence, which rules all my actions”.
“I refused to believe”, he said, “that there exists a person who has not made use of his example, even though he or she may have done so without realizing it… The lives of all who, in some greater or lesser degree, been changed by his presence… And because Jesus has the significance, and transcendency to which I have alluded, I believe he belongs not to Christianity, but to the entire world; to all people , it matters little what faith they profess.”
“Leave Christians alone for the moment,” he said. “I shall say to the Hindus that your lives will be incomplete unless you reverently study… Jesus. Jesus did not preach a new religion, but a new life” said Ghandi. “Jesus lived and died in vain if he did not teach us to regulate the whole of life by the eternal law of love.”
This is the challenge of Christi-anarchy - to find a way to live “the whole of life”, in the light of “the eternal law of love”, embodied in the shining example of the person of Christ.
Apparently Twitter exploded today with condemnation for Rob Bell’s new book. Which isn’t even out yet.
Doctor Shock himself, Marilyn Manson, would rip up a bible to generate publicity for a new venture. Apparently Rob Bell is going EXACTLY THE SAME ROUTE!!
Of course, I am kidding. I like what I’ve read by Mr. Bell and I really don’t think this is a publicity stunt to improve sales. But a glance at twitter reveals that there are a lot of angry Christians who do in fact think that he’s about to rip up the bible.
CT Magazine explains that an editor who has read some advance chapters of the book says that Rob has strayed far from “biblical” Christianity (read: my preferred interpretation). They’re saying he’s a universalist. Everybody is in. No hell, only heaven. Love love love is all around us.
The book’s not even out yet, so no one can say for sure what Rob believes about heaven and hell. But I think it is fair to guess that he is going to depart at least somewhat from the traditional evangelical version of an angry God who is ready to throw those who offend him into the fire.
What I want to know is, if evangelicals are going to get so mad at Rob Bell for being “soft on hell” (YES! New slogan for the Westboro folks: ROB BELL: SOFT ON HELL!! ), then why do they like C.S Lewis so much?
While I was researching Lewis, I did come across one paper that branded him plainly as a universalist. If that is the case, and Lewis is a universalist, I am confused as to the word’s definition. Does it not mean that all will ultimately go to heaven? If that’s what it means, Lewis can not be called a universalist. He most definitely believed in hell, and that some souls would end up there.
It is undeniable that Lewis believed in a judgment after death for those who rebel against God in this life. The difference between his view and traditional evangelical view, however, tends to be with regard to the manner in which sinners are judged. In the traditional evangelical view, sinners are judged by an angry God, who casts them into hell for not believing in the atoning sacrifice of his son, Jesus. In Lewis’s conception, hell is a place that is chosen by the sinner. The sinner is in effect being judged, but it is a judgment that comes about as a result of not desiring the true reality of the afterlife – the reality of a good and loving God. It is like the hard-hearted man who, seeing the good man doing an act of kindness or charity, feels resentful and one-upped. The hard-hearted man lives in a sort of hell of negativity, formed by his own selfishness and slavery to his possessions.
For Lewis, the goal of a human life is to learn how to find love in the other, first through the formation of relationships with other people, but ultimately in relationship with the greatest Other of all – God. Conversely, we start ourselves on the pathway to hell through refusal of these relationships, preferring instead to satisfy whatever selfish appetite arises.
Lewis makes this line of thought clearest in The Problem of Pain, in an extended section dealing with the topic. In the following quote, he gives a nod to the common New Testament metaphor favored by evangelicals – that of sinners being cast out by a “just judge” – but he adds that this is not the only metaphor for hell we find.
But, of course, though Our Lord often speaks of Hell as a sentence inflicted by a tribunal, He also says elsewhere that the judgement consists in the very fact that men prefer darkness to light, and that not He, but His ‘word’, judges men. We are therefore at liberty—since the two conceptions, in the long run, mean the same thing—to 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 goes on to frame hell in terms of relationships, or the ability to move beyond the basic animal tendency to simply look out for ones own good. Assumed from the start is that humans are created by God for the purpose of relationship. Because of this, selflessness leads us closer to what we were created to be and makes us capable of loving others, which in turn results in genuine community. Selfishness, on the other hand, interrupts our ability to find enjoyment in the other, leaving us isolated and alone. As far as Lewis can see, even the most basic expressions of friendship or comradery will be impossible in hell:
The characteristic of lost souls is ‘their rejection of everything that is not simply themselves’. Our imaginary egoist has tried to turn everything he meets into a province or appendage of the self. The taste for the other, that is, the very capacity for enjoying good, is quenched in him except in so far as his body still draws him into some rudimentary contact with an outer world. Death removes this last contact. He has his wish—to lie wholly in the self and to make the best of what he finds there. And what he finds there is Hell.
More on this later. I’d aimed at keeping posts short and snappy, but that’s just not working out. Just to much to talk about when it comes to Old Jack.
Apparently the folks on twitter feel the same when it comes to Young Robby.
My timing is right on. Maybe it was subconscious, but my decision to start this blog coincides perfectly with the release of Voyage of The Dawn Treader (in 3D no less). If you are thinking that seems a little late, well, then you must be reading from the English-speaking world. I am in Japan where only the biggest movies are released simultaneously with the rest of the world. I guess Dawn Treader didn’t qualify for that category.
First off, I know I’ll sound like an old curmudgeon but I just don’t like 3D. Not yet anyway. It is just not there yet. I have to wear the bulky glasses over my own glasses, and that’s comfortable for about the first 5 minutes. And the glasses dim everything to the point where, even in daytime scenes, I find myself wishing I could adjust the brightness. Alas, in Japan there is no non-3D option, at least not at the small-town theatre where I saw it.
I don’t intend to give a full review of the movie, but here is one thing that I walked away thinking about.
I’ve been interacting lately with a lot of people who talk very derisively about the “myth of redemptive violence,” the idea that our culture is addicted to using violence to combat violence or “evil” however we see it, and how in the end that is a completely ineffective strategy.
I still tend to agree with this. As a younger man I was absolutely convinced of it, but growing older has a way of knocking away some of your idealism, and though I am not as solid on it as I once was, I still think it obvious that fighting “fire with fire”, though it is to most of us a noble gut reaction, is not terribly logical. In fact it’s pretty dumb. Firefighters use water.
Meeting violence with violence only works really well in children’s fiction, where you can always be absolutely certain who the good guys are, who is all light and who is all dark. Outside of that, no one can ever quite agree on who started the fight, so it is easy for the cycle of violence to continue.
Lewis was so weak on this point. When researching Lewis there were so many things I loved, but this was the one main theme where he didn’t impress with the clarity of thinking that is typical in other areas. The idea that the life and teachings of Christ form an ethic and example for Christian practice seems confused in Lewis’s writing. Mostly he avoids the ethic that (I think) fairly obviously proceeds from Christ’s example, and sticks with the theology of the Christian story. I’ll get more into the details of this in another post. This is already getting too long.
Early in his life, Lewis’s closest friend died in the trenches of The Great War, and Lewis himself was badly wounded. It’s not hard to see these as formative experiences that informed his great passion for England and all its history, and his contempt for pacifism. At one point in Weight of Glory, talking about an entirely different subject, Lewis says,
Every teacher knows that people are constantly protesting that they “can’t see” some self-evident inference, but the supposed inability is usually a refusal to see, resulting either from some passion which wants not to see the truth in question.
Methinks that is what was up with Lewis and war, and his general. Indeed, he lost a best friend in the trenches . Thats bound to birth some passion.
Anyway, there were a couple of places where this showed up in the movie. Of course, they oppose the bad guys at every turn with a little redemptive violence. When they arrive at Aslan’s table however, they are informed that no violence is allowed there (I can’t remember the exact line). Then, at the end when Reepicheep decides to cross over into Aslan’s land, before he jumps in the boat he throws his sword aside saying, “I won’t be needing this anymore.” I don’t recall if these lines are in the book, but I am motivated now to go and check.
If these moments are not an addition only for the movie, they show Lewis reinforcing the need for redemptive violence. There’s an acknowledgement that violence is not a part of Aslan’s kingdom, but the lack of violence there in not taken as an ethical example. Rather than a non-violent ethic - fighting fire with water - leading to the realization of Aslan’s kingdom, Lewis is resigned to the notion that violence will be necessary to defeat the bad guys, and when that’s all done, there will be peace.
I understand why he thinks so, in my “be realistic“ moments I tend to think the same thing. But it’s hard to know ho to handle Christ as a whole when that’s the path you decide to walk.
I did not start out as a fan of C.S. Lewis. I may be now. Still not the kind of fan who is all praise and no criticism.
As the result of a long period of research I had to do on Mr. Lewis and his writings, I was mostly won over. I set out to show that despite his renown within conservative circles, he was much more of a liberal than a conservative. Ultimately, I found that to be wrong. More often than not, CSL defies easy categorization, and I think that is what draws me to him. He is a careful and rigorous thinker, and when you disagree with him you’ll find yourself working hard to pin down exactly why.
The word “heretic” in the sub-title is used in only the most affectionate of ways. Jack was the best kind of heretic - sometimes to conservatives and sometimes to liberals. In that I see a reflection of real intellectual honesty, a dedication to telling what he saw as the truth regardless of which label might result.
So on this blog, I want to talk about all those sorts of things. That is what it’s “about”.