Engaging Tim Keller, CS Lewis and the Fires of Hell

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Not every writer at Saints and Sceptics is Reformed; none are young and few are restless. We mention this because the “Young, Restless and Reformed (YRR)” movement – essentially a conservative evangelical movement with Calvinist leanings – has become very influential in the United States. Some traditional Presbyterians have criticized the movement for being too broad, for not having planted its roots deep enough in Reformed theology.

We would like to politely excuse ourselves from this debate and would not have mentioned it at all, if it had not led to some online discussion about the nature of hell. Tim Keller, who is admired by many of the YRR, has been criticized for following CS Lewis when writing about hell.

Why is this an issue and why do we care? To explain, we’ll outline two models of Hell. According to the “Punishment Model” hell exists to punish those who deserve everlasting punishment; the punishment will be consciously experienced by some people who will not be permitted to leave or escape from hell.  The “Choice Model” agrees that hell is inescapable and that it is a place of conscious experience.   While it is compatible with hell being a place of punishment, the fundamental purpose of hell is to honour people’s choices.

On the “Choice Model”, hell is simply a natural consequence of rejecting God. Heaven is (at the very least) fellowship with God. If we don’t want God to have his rightful place here and now, then we will not want him to rule our lives for all eternity. Now, if we value our own freedom more than we value God’s offer of love and forgiveness, we opt out of heaven. If life goes on past the physical grave, and if we have rejected everlasting love, all we have left is everlasting ruin and misery. On the choice model, this is the meaning of damnation.

Now, CS Lewis is sometimes perceived to reject the punishment model in favor of the choice model. Specifically, some Christian writers worry that Lewis and Keller have abandoned the Biblical doctrine of hell to promote a softer, gentler, kinder perdition. In Scripture God sends people to hell, God keeps people in hell eternally, and punishment in hell is meted out by God himself. The charge is that the “Choice Model” leaves God passively accepting human choices. Furthermore, Lewis and Keller need to ‘turn up the heat’: the flames of hell should be taken literally.

“Saints and Sceptics” has also been influenced by Lewis’s discussion of everlasting punishment, so a response seems prudent. Sceptics might worry that Keller’s theological critics have it right, and that we can only defend eternal punishment persuasively by abandoning the punitive hell-fire described in Holy Scripture. But to be blunt and plain, we think Keller’s critics wildly overstate their case, and their suspicion of CS Lewis is unwarranted. Lewis simply would not accept a dichotomy between the models of “Punishment” and “Choice”! Indeed, Lewis describes hell as as “a positive retributive punishment inflicted by God”!

In the Problem of Pain, Lewis famously argues that God can use suffering to call rebels back to himself: “Pain plants the flag of truth within a rebel fortress.” With this in mind, Lewis asks us to consider a malignant and unrepentant tyrant:

a jolly, ruddy-cheeked man, without, a care in the world, unshakably confident to the very end that he alone has found the answer to the riddle of life, that God and man are fools whom he has got the better of, that his way of life is utterly successful, satisfactory, unassailable.”

Could we tolerate that this man “should be confirmed forever in his present happiness–should continue, for all eternity, to be perfectly convinced that the laugh is on his side?” Hardly.  If such a man refused to repent we would demand that “the flag [of pain be]planted in this horribly rebellious soul, even if no fuller and better conquest is to follow.” Lewis  is arguing that conscience teaches us that at least some people deserve and earn Hell. Once we admit that some deserve Hell we must ask if we, too, are in danger of Hell fire. Lewis is clear – God will judge us all:

 “To enter Hell is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into Hell is not a man: it is ‘remains’..”

Pay attention to the highlighted words.  There is no conflict between “choice” and “punishment”. In this passage, God judges, casting and banishing those who remain in rebellion. Hell is not merely a place of separation. It is best described as a place of “banishment” or “exile”. Exile is often the punishment for sin in Scripture. Israel was expelled from God’s land – suffered a curse – because Israel wanted nothing to do with God. God’s punishment in Romans 1 is to “give people up” to their own desires. Being “cast out” is a recurring theme in parables about the judgment  – where being “cast out” confirms the unbeliever’s original choices.

Again, both punishment and choice are at work in Lewis’s famous passage in The Great Divorce:

“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.”

God says “thy will be done”; God  acts, deciding a person’s eternal fate. The rebel does not choose to go to hell; the rebel chooses to be free of heaven. So God gives these people what they think they desire and what they have autonomously chosen. He expels them from the Kingdom that they have rebelled against. It is not that anyone in hell wants to be there. It is just that everyone in hell could not stand to be in heaven; the price for rejecting the God of heaven is expulsion from His kingdom.

We can further see how the “punishment” and “choice” models are two sides of the same coin when Lewis draws on Jesus’ language of everlasting “destruction”.

What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is ‘remains’. To be a complete man means to have the passions obedient to the will and the will offered to God: to have been a man…would presumably mean to consist of a will utterly centred in its self and passions utterly uncontrolled by the will.”

Think a little on what it would mean to be separated forever from the source of love: the effect would be profoundly dehumanising. Consider what uncontrolled human passion is capable of; reflect on our capacity for irrational self-destruction.  If hell is the ‘natural consequence’ of living a certain way, this is because God has ordained things to be that way. And, if we take sin seriously, we should realise that this is not a gentler, milder hell that Lewis is proposing.

Ah, but what about the flames? Both Lewis and Keller treat these as metaphorical; surely this is a concession to liberal theology and postmodern sensibilities? If so, the reformer John Calvin was remarkably ahead of his time:

Commenting on Matthew 3 v  12, in his Commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke, Calvin points out that the language of fire must be metaphorical:

Many persons, I am aware, have entered into ingenious debates about the eternal fire, by which the wicked will be tormented after the judgment. But we may conclude from many passages of Scripture, that it is a metaphorical expression. For, if we must believe that it is real, or what they call material fire, we must also believe that the brimstone and the fan are material, both of them being mentioned by Isaiah.

Calvin makes a similar point on Matthew 25v41

Into everlasting fire. We have stated formerly, that the term fire represents metaphorically that dreadful punishment which our senses are unable to comprehend. It is therefore unnecessary to enter into subtle inquiries, as the sophists do, into the materials or form of this fire; for there would be equally good reason to inquire about the worm, which Isaiah connects with the “fire for their worm shall not die, either shall their fire be quenched, (Isaiah 66:24.)”  Besides, the same prophet shows plainly enough in another passage that the expression is metaphorical; for he compares the Spirit of God to a blast by which the fire is kindled, and adds a mixture of brimstone, (Isaiah 30:33.)

Lewis’s view of Hell has less to do with the sensibilities of moderns and more to do with the puritan John Milton. The devil in John Milton’s Paradise Lost offers this challenge to God’s justice: no matter what punishment God inflicts on Satan, Satan remains free. He can find comfort and relief in his own rebellion and freedom:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”

God might impose his standards on the Devil, but Satan can defy divine justice with imagination, creativity and freedom: Satan will impose his own value system on his world. Milton’s answer to Satan (given in Book IV) is that Satan cannot escape Hell “for within him Hell he brings…” ; even in the Garden of Eden Satan must despair, because he chose to rebel and, out of “pride and worse ambition”, can no longer choose to repent. “Myself am hell”, he cries; his inner torment is worse than the fires of Hell themselves.

Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And, in the lowest deep, a lower deep
Still threatening to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heaven.

…they little know
How dearly I abide that boast so vain,
Under what torments inwardly I groan,
While they adore me on the throne of Hell.
With diadem and scepter high advanced,
The lower still I fall, only supreme
In misery: Such joy ambition finds.”

Are we to believe that John Milton was redefining Hell for postmoderns? Or can we suggest that Milton, familiar with Calvin, might have reflected deeply on the nature of Hell, and that he might have something to say to us today? From Milton, Lewis learned that freedom without God is hellish; eternal freedom without God could be worse than physical torment. Lewis, steeped in Milton, does not have a soft view of Hell.

If hell is a place that rebels are banished to, and if rebels want no place in the New Heaven and the New Earth, then the “choice” and “punishment” models collapse into one another. To be sent away from the source of all love, and to be cast out of our ideal environment is a terrible punishment indeed; given our appetite for self-destruction, to be completely given over to our own sinful desires would be an awful fate.

Lewis successfully brought together three strands -punishment, separation, destruction – of Biblical teaching on hell. Rather than critiquing Keller for relying on a writer from outside the Calvinist fold, we ought to repeat CS Lewis’s warning:

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.

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