Heaven and Hell

Lewis has a few things to say about heaven and hell. I’ve picked 10 guideposts below. They are truths from the Bible that he teases out in his work. And, what makes Lewis inviting is his use of imagination and his avoidance, one could say, of a systemized theology. No doubt he fully believed, but his approach to theological questions is more creative. Recall what he says in Mere Christianity. He relates theology to a map – that it isn’t God directly, but once removed. However, theology is a guide, and Lewis surmises that this theological map is very necessary, “based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God – experiences compared with which many thrills of pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused… [And] if you want to get any further you must use the map.”

The quotes below might be less than a map. Perhaps you can think of them as clues or ways into reading afresh the topics of Heaven and Hell in the Bible and through writers like Lewis.

1. In his essay “A Slip of the Tongue” found in The Weight of Glory, he quotes Thomas More in saying that if you don’t choose Jesus, it doesn’t really matter what else you choose. Lewis expounds on More’s insight. “Will it really make no difference whether it was women or patriotism, cocaine or art, whisky or a seat in the Cabinet, money or science?” he asks. “Well, surely no difference that matters. We shall have missed the end for which we are formed and rejected the only thing that satisfies. Does it matter to a man dying in a desert, by which choice of route he missed the only well?”

2. In the preface of The Great Divorce, Lewis says the Blake wrote about the marriage of Heaven and Hell and he’s writing about their divorce. In the same paragraph, he says, “You cannot take all luggage with you on all journeys; on one journey even your right hand and your right eye may be among the things you have to leave behind. We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the centre: rather in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks into two, and each of those into two again, and at each fork you must make a decision. …I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road.”

3. The Problem of Pain brings Lewis to the honest remark that if he had his druthers, Hell would be a doctrine he would, “willingly remove from Christianity.” “But,” he says, “it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it.” A few paragraphs later Lewis asks us to picture a man who has gained great wealth and power but is mean and abusive. He paints the picture of a really cruel man who doesn’t care about how he treats others. He then says, “The demand that God should forgive such a man while he remains what he is, is based on a confusion between condoning and forgiving. To condone an evil is simply to ignore it, to treat it as if it were good. But forgiveness needs to be accepted as well as offered if it is to be complete: and a man who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness.”

4. What happens in Heaven? None of us earth-side dwellers really know. It’s humbling to think about. Lewis says in Mere Christianity that it is, only the Christians who have any idea of how human souls can be taken into the life of God and yet remain themselves—in fact, be very much more themselves than they were before.” All the rest talk about absorption and losing one’s identity into some elusive oneness.  

5. Mere Christianity has quite a few mentions of Heaven and Hell. He reminds us of what Heaven is not in his chapter on hope: “There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘Heaven’ ridiculous by saying they do not want ‘to spend eternity playing harps’. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. Musical instruments are mentioned because for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity. Crowns are mentioned to suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share His splendour and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of Heaven (gold does not rust) and the preciousness of it. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.”

6. Screwtape is a great sounding board for falsehoods. Lewis definitely landed on a worthy device to call us into repentance. The Screwtape Letters could easily provide a top 10 on its own. Letter 15 is a good invitation into the manipulation the Devil might have for Christians: “[God] does not want men to give the Future their hearts, to place their treasure in it. We do. His ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity (if that is his vocation), washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him. But we want a man hag-ridden by the Future—haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth—ready to break the Enemy’s commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other—dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.”

7. His essay on titled “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages” is far too dense to readily pull a quote from it. Lewis talks about levels of angels and that the archangel is one of the lowest ranks. He addresses too that the medieval observer “crowds the sky” with his imagination and expectation. “He did not think that the spaces he looked up at were silent, or dark or empty,” he says. “Far from being silent, they were perpetually filled with sweet, immeasurable sound. The vast hollow spheres, turning each at its proper interval inside its superior, gave out a blended harmony.”

8. In another place in The Problem of Pain, Lewis makes it clear the hope of glory. “Scripture and tradition habitually put the joys of heaven into the scale against the sufferings of earth,” he says, “and no solution of the problem of pain which does not do so can be called a Christian one. We are very shy nowadays of even mentioning heaven. We are afraid of the jeer about ‘pie in the sky’, and of being told that we are trying to ‘escape’ from the duty of making a happy world here and now into dreams of a happy world elsewhere. But either there is ‘pie in the sky’ or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric.”

9. It’s worth listing this longer quote from Miracles because Lewis gets to the grit and realness of the Christian faith, that we are grounded and yet expectant. He says, “By teaching the resurrection of the body it teaches that Heaven is not merely a state of the spirit but a state of the body as well: and therefore a state of Nature as a whole. Christ, it is true, told His hearers that the Kingdom of Heaven was ‘within’ or ‘among’ them. But His hearers were not merely in ‘a state of mind’. The planet He had created was beneath their feet, His sun above their heads; blood and lungs and guts were working in the bodies He had invented, photons and sound waves of His devising were blessing them with the sight of His human face and the sound of His voice. We are never merely in a state of mind. The prayer and the meditation made in howling wind or quiet sunshine, in morning alacrity or evening resignation, in youth or age, good health or ill, maybe equally, but are differently, blessed. Already in this present life we have all seen how God can take up all these seeming irrelevances into the spiritual fact and cause them to bear no small part in making the blessing of that moment to be the particular blessing it was—as fire can burn coal and wood equally but a wood fire is different from a coal one. From this factor of environment Christianity does not teach us to desire a total release. We desire, like St Paul, not to be un-clothed but to be re-clothed: to find not the formless Everywhere-and- Nowhere but the promised land, that Nature which will be always and perfectly—as present Nature is partially and intermittently—the instrument for that music which will then arise between Christ and us.”

10. In his sermon “Learning In War-time” that is found in The Weight of Glory, Lewis doubles down on the teaching of Heaven and Hell. “But to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddled while the city was on fire but that he fiddled on the brink of hell,” he says. “You must forgive me for the crude monosyllable. I know that many wiser and better Christians than I in these days do not like to mention heaven and hell even in a pulpit. I know, too, that nearly all the references to this subject in the New Testament come from a single source. But then that source is Our Lord Himself. People will tell you it is St. Paul, but that is untrue. These overwhelming doctrines are dominical. They are not really removable from the teaching of Christ or of His Church. If we do not believe them, our presence in this church is great tomfoolery. If we do, we must sometime overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them.”

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