CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

On Sin and Hell (and C.S. Lewis)

Mar 1, 2009

No, I am not being a masochist here in writing on topics which are too theologically incorrect to even mention nowadays. There is in fact a method to my madness, so let me explain.

My last post was a book review. The book was about sin, and the need to see the extreme horror of sin before we can appreciate the extreme wonder of grace. Just as soon as I finished that review, I picked up a book I had last read decades ago.

When I was a relatively new Christian I bought everything I could find by C.S. Lewis. Some of these books I have reread over the years. But his 1946 volume, The Great Divorce, seems to have sat idly on my bookshelves collecting dust. It seems like many years have passed since I last read it, so today’s read was almost like reading it for the very first time.

Of course Lewis is one of those writers you can never get enough of, and reading any of his many works for the very first time is one of the great pleasures in life. Lewis of course was the great Christian apologist of the last century. The Oxford/Cambridge don began his career as a strict atheist, but a marvellous conversion resulted in him becoming one of the most important Christian apologists of all times.

His books have sold in the millions, and readers for the past 70 years have been greatly blessed by all things Lewis. His theological awareness was nicely combined with his first love – literature. Thus there are as many of his great Christian writings which are works of fiction as there are his non-fiction works. Indeed, it is hard to judge which is superior – his skill as a writer of fiction, or his mastery of non-fiction prose.

Poets can often effortlessly tell us things that theologians struggle with. Truths can often be portrayed more richly in fiction than in nonfiction. It is interesting therefore that the Bible presents us with a number of genres and literary styles. There is history and biography, but there is also poetry and song.

Conveying deep spiritual truths about God, man, sin and salvation requires as many forms of expression as we are capable of, since these are such very deep and mysterious truths. Thus Lewis used many literary forms to convey the deep things of God.

His many non-fiction works, such as Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain, include important discussions of the topics at hand. And the doctrines of sin and hell also feature in his other works of fiction, most notably, The Screwtape Letters.

But since it is The Great Divorce which I have just finished rereading, let me pick up a few themes from it. It was Jean Paul Sarte who said in one of his novels that “hell is other people”. Surprisingly, as an atheist existentialist, he actually got this one right – it is a good description of how the Christian worldview sees sin and its consequences.

Image of The Great Divorce
The Great Divorce by Array Amazon logo

Sin is many things, but it is certainly all about selfishness. The more sinful we are, the more selfish we become. True community, replete with loving relationships, is what the triune Godhead is all about, and what we are meant to experience as well.  But sin destroys all this. It makes true relationships and community impossible.

Thus Lewis starts his fictional account of hell in The Great Divorce by describing it – picturing it as a drab, grey town, where it is always raining, and is in perpetual evening twilight where “only a few shops have lit up and it is not yet dark enough for their windows to look cheering”.

Because of perpetual arguments and quarrelling, the town is nearly empty, as more and more people move further and further away from one another, at “astronomical distances”. Thus the town will “go on spreading indefinitely … leaving more and more empty streets”.

The book is about a bus load of hell’s residents visiting heaven. Of course most don’t even want to go, and of those who do, most want to quickly get back on the bus. And most want to import hell into heaven. We meet a number of hell’s citizens in heaven, and their reaction to being there. In their reactions we see the tragedy of sin and the hellishness of hell.

Consider the citizen of hell who meets a former acquaintance from earth who was a murderer. The man cannot imagine why the murderer is in heaven. He never murdered anyone; he was a good person. He only wanted his rights. He never demanded charity. The redeemed murderer has to remind him. “You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and we none of us did”.

But the hell-dweller can only scoff at such remarks, and head back to the bus: “I thought there’d be some damned nonsense. It’s all a clique, all a bloody clique. Tell them I’m not coming, see? I’d rather be damned than go along with you. I came here to get my rights, see? Not to go snivelling along on charity tied onto your apron-strings.”

Then there was the Christian leader who was so keen on the latest trendy doctrinal aberrations. He was a theological liberal who loved to debate, tickle his intellectual palette, and rebel against traditional orthodoxy. He thought he was being so very progressive and enlightened.

Of course he could not believe in such superstitions like a literal heaven and hell, and the idea of Jesus being raised from the dead was just too much for an intelligent modern to accept. He looked on those Christians who accepted such biblical doctrines as being quite “narrow”.

He took pride in the ‘risks’ he took in being so theologically progressive. But his host in heaven turns the spotlight on him: “What risk? What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came – popularity, sales of your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric?”

‘But I was sincere in my beliefs’, the apostate protests. But he is answered, “Of course. Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. . . . But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent.”

In this delightful book we meet many other residents of hell who took the bus trip. Lewis has a shrewd sense of human nature, as well as a keen understanding of biblical theology. His portraits of sin, and of sinners, are as incisive as they are devastating. He makes it clear that the unrepentant sinner really has no excuse for being in hell.

Indeed, some of the most famous Lewis quotes are found in this book, including this classic line: “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. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find; to those who knock it is opened.”

The current Christian generation does not like to talk much about sin or hell. Lewis reminds us of these awful biblical realities. But he also reminds us of the even greater realities of the love and mercy of God, and of his Son who came to rescue us from the bondage of sin and the punishment of hell. These are truths which we all must embrace and affirm. Lewis did it – and did it brilliantly – in his generation. Who will do it in ours?

[1296 words]

8 Responses to On Sin and Hell (and C.S. Lewis)

  • I particular like that last quote of Lewis’ there Mr. Muehlenberg. I didn’t understand quite exactly everything in the book, in fact I remember thinking after finishing the book that he believed in purgatory. Do you know what his beliefs were concerning purgatory? I may have misread it, what were your thoughts?
    Keith Jarrett

  • Thanks Keith

    Yes, a fair and important question. He does seem to lean in that direction in this book, although he does tell us in the preface that we should remember that this is a work of fantasy: “The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world”.

    However in other works he also hints at the doctrine, and he borrows from the thoughts of George MacDonald in many of his works on this issue. He seems to want to make the case for some sort of half-way house between the Protestant rejection of the doctrine and the Catholic acceptance of the doctrine.

    As such, Protestants may not be all that happy with this aspect of his thinking. But Lewis reminds us that there is a lot that we just don’t clearly know about the next life, and some mystery remains.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • In yesterday’s Sunday Age there is an interview with guitar virtuoso Eric Clapton. It seems that he likes CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity and apparently the area around Christians needing to be decent and well mannered!! I hope that given his years of hellraising that Clapton gets to read more from any of Lewis’s work, particularly his autobiography Surprised by Joy, where he states that he was the most reluctant convert in all of England.
    Wayne Pelling

  • I am personally fascinated and aghast at the reaction to Pastor Danny’s revealing of his dream-warning to Victoria. So many people are horrified at the thought that Father God could deliberately wipe people out. I think a man with Pastor Danny’s CV is about as beyond reproach as any living Christian in Oz today. I had a discussion with our senior pastor who mentioned he thought Danny was really out of line publicly from the front in church. Thankfully he didn’t mention it in the 2nd meeting (we have 2 on Sunday am). I think we have had such a sugar-coated God dished up to us for so long, that we have trouble recognising the real God when He does something in the earth which He created and populated. I’ll give you a classic evidence of this. I was saved in 1974. That Revelation scripture about “they overcame by…..” I would have heard dozens of times quoted in these years. 60-70% of the time, the 3rd one is deleted (by the blood of the Lamb, by the word of their testimony, and that they loved not their own lives, even unto death). Says something doesn’t it? We have sanitised and “comfortable-ised” the God of the bible, to the point where we could miss Him even if we tripped over Him.
    Ian Brearley

  • For those who say that such a place as Hell cannot exist, or if it does, it means mere annihilation, one only needs to point out that Auschwitz and many other examples prove the existence of places of torment and suffering.

    For those to say that if such places exist then God would not send anyone there we need only point out that terrible things happen in this life, such as the Tsunami of a few years ago, without God apparently either being able or willing to intervene.

    But God does intervene. 2000 years ago, he came to deal with our guilt and sin. Soon he will intervene again to deal, once and for all with the consequences of sin, death. In between these two events he does not abandon us but sends his Holy Spirit to comfort us and to be present in our sufferings.

    But God cannot intervene or override a person’s free will. Either a person loves life or hates it. If they hate it, they themselves choose death. Indeed heaven would be a living hell to them.

    This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you
    that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.
    Now choose life, so that you and your children may live
    and that you may love the Lord your God,
    listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.
    For the Lord is your life,
    and he will give you many years in the land.
    -Deuteronomy 30,19-20

    David Skinner, UK

  • The shooting of Amish children at Nickels Mine west school in Pennsylvania in 2006 saw a book written by three Mennonite academics. I can only remember one name – Donald Kraybill. The book was called “Amish Grace or Amish Forgiveness”. They followed the Amish forgiveness of the murderer, but they made the point that the Amish believe very clearly that Life is short, Eternity is long and that Heaven and hell are realities.

    Edith Cavell, the English nurse shot by the Germans in World War I for assisting Allied soldiers to escape, said to the German Army Chaplain several hours before her execution, and whilst waiting to celebrate Holy Communion (she was an Anglican): “Standing as I do in the sight of God and in view of eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough, that I must bear malice toward none”. As a Christian she knew that she would be facing the Lord of her life and He was her Saviour. How terrifying will it be for those who do not know Him and face Him as their Judge, and it could be attributed to the softness and laxness of the current church in not proclaiming the Gospel.

    Wayne Pelling

  • H1 Bill. I appreciate your articles and their content. They are useful, so I pass them onto my friends. Their usefulness could be enhanced if you provided source references in them. I know this can be time consuming and tedious but it can strengthen the points you make consideratbly.
    Charles Noller, Brisbane

  • Thanks Charles

    As you have raised this concern esewhere on my site, let me reply as I did before:

    This is a blogsite, not a proper periodical or official journal. Thus short web articles are obviously not the place to run with footnotes and the like. (I am not even sure if this website software allows for footnotes.) I of course have all the references easily at hand. I am happy to provide all the references if you want them. Just let me know.

    Indeed, I hope to turn many of these articles into a full-length book soon, where proper referencing, footnotes, and bibliographies are rightfully required.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

Leave a Reply