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.”