Thursday, October 25, 2012

Damned Nonsense! Post #3: Problems with "Lewisism"

[This post is part of the Damned Nonsense! series, a collection of posts exploring the Christian doctrine of salvation. It is named after a dissertation by Ravi Holy entitled "Damned Nonsense: An Argument for Universalism Consisting of a Critique of All the Alternatives to It." While some of the series' content is adapted from Holy's worknot all opinions expressed in this series are Holy's. Please check out all the posts in this series!]

C.S. Lewis is one of the most famous Christian thinkers of the 20th Century. He has authored an abundance of fiction and non-fiction works, not least of which is The Great Divorce. In this work of fiction Lewis explores the nature of post-mortem existence, namely a version of hell that is the consequence of free choice. What evolved from Lewis' book is a view of hell that many Evangelical Christians endorse today: those who are confined to hell are there because they choose to be. In The Great Divorce Lewis writes, "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,'" (66-67). As Lewis once wrote, "The doors of hell are locked from the inside," (The Problem of Pain, 115). In his dissertation, Ravi Holy has labeled this view "Lewisism" and I shall use the same label here.

Lewisism is quite attractive. It appears to get God off the hook since those in hell are there because they choose to be. Like the child who chooses to sulk in the corner rather than join the party, the unsaved choose to remain in a hellish existence rather than join the party of heaven. This view obviously respects the freedom of the individual, which is another reason that it appeals to the dominant Arminian bent in Evangelical Christianity.

But is this view really as good as it looks? Does it truly allow God off the hook for hell? Let's take a closer look.

1. Who chooses hell? The idea that anyone would freely choose hell seems idiotic. Thus, Lewisism argues that those who choose hell find a certain pleasure in being there. The damned are so broken and sinful that they find some kind of satisfaction in choosing hell over heaven. It is a dark and miserable place (as portrayed in The Great Divorce) but not totally intolerable. Thus, the unsaved freely choose the distorted satisfaction of hell rather than the true satisfaction of heaven.

While it is very insightful, the problem with this view is that it does not allow hell to be hell. For hell to actually be hell it must be perceived from the perspective of goodness. Lewis himself writes, "Hell is hell, not from its own point of view, but from the heavenly point of view," (The Problem of Pain, 114). Indeed, hell is understood as hell in light of God's love, truth, etc. In Lewisism, however, the unsaved experience hell as a quasi-satisfactory illusion. But how can hell be hell if the unsaved believe that they are making the right choice, or at least a satisfactory one? And how can this "free choice" be true without the insight of God's truth?

There is, in fact, little scriptural support for the idea that the unsaved find some disillusioned satisfaction in hell. New Testament passages suggest that the damned  are aware of their undesirable fate (e.g. Matt. 7:22-23, 25:41-46, Luke 16:19-31). The advocate of Lewisism must answer: Why would those who are aware of their suffering choose to lock themselves in it? 

Lewisism requires us to hold two contradictory thoughts at once: 
  • the unsaved have freely chosen hell
  • the unsaved are aware that hell is horrible and undesirable
It seems that the true answer to the question "Who chooses hell?" is actually nobody. To assert that the unsaved freely choose suffering, misery, etc. is stubbornly idiotic. Only under false pretenses or disillusionment would the unsaved choose hell. "We can never choose evil as evil: only as an apparent good," (Thomas Merton). But, as explained above, hell must be experienced as hell. "According to Lewis himself, the whole reason that hell must exist is precisely because both justice and mercy demand that no unrepentant sinner can continue in the 'ghastly illusion' that 'his way of life is utterly successful, satisfactory, unassailable' forever," (Holy, 23, original italics). If hell must be experienced as hell and it is locked from the inside and its residents possess free will... then how can it not be empty?

2. Is God really off the hook? Lewis' perspective leads us to believe that God is not responsible for those in hell: God is "a decent judge stuck in a rigid, heartless system," (McLaren, The Last Word and the Word After That, 56). We are led to believe that the unsaved choose hell for themselves due to their disillusioned pleasure, it is God who makes the unsaved aware of their failure and reality of hell. As stated above, hell must be experienced as hell. Thus, once again, the true experience of hell depends upon the action of God. Despite this crafty argument, God is not, in fact, let off the hook for hell. 

Some people attempt to get God off the hook with semantics: "Hell is the result of the rejection of God, not rejection by God." But this is just more pussyfooting around the issue. If one believes that the individual wields total power in the matter of salvation then this person is a Pelagian (which most Arminians are). And, once again, we are to forced ask why someone would choose to reject God knowing full well the horror of hell.

The truth is that Lewisism does not allow God off the hook. Unless, of course, hell is empty.

3. The loss of freedom to escape hell. While Lewis may have argued that hell is "locked from the inside," others assert that sin ultimately affects our ability to unlock the door. Some, like N.T. Wright, argue that human beings are free to make choices that affect our ability to choose God, love, goodness, etc. It is as if the cancer of sinful choices eats away at our freedom to choose love, Jesus, community, etc. Though I have not read Barth on this, I believe this is what is behind his "impossible possibility" that some individuals may not, in the end, choose God. Personally, I think this is a profound anthropological observation and offers insight for ethics and spiritual formation, but there are a number of problems with this as it pertains to the doctrine of Christian salvation.

While it makes sense that humans are free to choose evil and harden themselves to God over a length of time, it cannot be said that anyone makes the one-off choice to relinquish their freedom. In other words, "since the loss of freedom was not the thing chosen," we cannot say that human beings choose it; "no one would consciously choose that bondage." (Holy, 26) While sinful choices have unforeseen consequences, including the loss of ability to perceive and do God's will, the total and conclusive loss of freedom cannot be a possible consequence since the thing itself (loss of freedom) is not what was chosen. There must always be left some degree of freedom to choose.

Similarly, it is difficult to see how one may say that "people who have lost their freedom have freely chosen hell." If a lifetime of sinful choices results in the loss of freedom to choose God, then at what point did the individual choose hell? (This might make more sense if we view hell as a state of being rather than a destination) Nevertheless, it is difficult for the adherents of this view to reconcile the contradiction that human beings choose hell without the ability to freely choose.

The only way to truly hold this view is to believe that those in hell never lose their ability to choose heaven/hell. Thus, it must be believed that there are some who choose to reject God "at every moment for the rest of eternity," (Reitan in Holy, 26). Note: Universalists concede the possibility of this, but they are 'convinced' that it is highly unlikely and hope that it is totally impossible. (Again, I think this reflects Karl Barth's "impossible possibility." See comments to Post #1)

There are still yet some who argue that sin is completely irrational. It does not matter if one has awareness of God, heaven, or love, the sinner will still choose hell because the sinner's rationale and perception of reality is utterly corrupt.  While I appreciate this approach because it takes seriously how F*#@!d up our perception of reality can become as a result of sin, it still suffers from the previous dilemmas. Furthermore, if this is true then "it is hard to see in what sense the lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world. The very problem that Jesus came to solve is still with us and, worse, will remain unsolved forever. ... We are no better off after Christ than we were before him. Sin can still have the last word." (Holy, 27)

The Apostle Paul seems to suggest in 1 Cor. 15:55 that sin and death do not have the last word. The last word belongs to the Word of God, Jesus the Crucified and Risen Christ!

And yet there are so many who want to argue that sin and death do get the last word! After a while it seems to me that Christians put more effort into defending hell than exploring the possibility of Universalism. Why is this? I shall discuss this in Post #5. 

At this point, let us summarize:

  • "Lewisism" is the belief that those in hell choose to be there; "hell is locked from the inside"
  • Lewisism appears to get God off the hook for hell and puts 100% of the blame onto the individual
    • This view does not allow hell to be hell (#1 above)
    • Overemphasizes the will and responsibility of the individual
    • God is still ultimately responsible for hell
    • Sin is does not have an end, but rather exists eternally in the deception of those who "freely choose" hell (#3 above)

Study Question: What makes Lewisism so attractive to modern Christians?


Next Post: The Truth About Original Sin


  1. Thank you for this! Since I learned of The Great Divorce, "Lewisism" has been a great parable for explaining God in a more loving way (to me, it is still a breath of fresh air compared to Calvin's TULIP). However, I enjoyed you enlightening of the critiques.

    When I was reading Problem #1 (Who Chooses Hell?), Lewis' description of hell reminded me very much of life on earth: those of us who choose hell (as a state of being) do so because we find some distorted sense of pleasure. Is that not true of an "earthly" life? Lewis' version of hell is applicable (perhaps more so) to life before death.

  2. The suspense is killing me. I'm excited to get to post 5, but I will keep taking these in order.
    Thanks so much for posting all of your thoughts and research, Josh!

  3. My thinking has been heavily influenced by Lewis, especially The Great Divorce (and through it the introduction to George MacDonald, whose Phantastes and Lilith I have read with pleasure and thoughtfulness several times)
    In The Great Divorce, Lewis does hint that the "hell" the spirits are in is not the "real hell", that the grey town is a step on the way to something more frightful, just as the bright spirits are in the "valley of shadow of life" which gives way to the true reality at the very end of the book. You will also remember that one of the complaining spirits simply turns into a puff of smoke i.e. ceases to be at all... what do you make of that? In the screwtape letters, Lewis portrays the devils in absolute depravity, but they would rather stay there than give up "themselves", as we are called to do. I have thought deeply about this, and am still not sure.