Running Down Heaven and Hell

C.S. Lewis by profession was an Oxford don for 30 years and then another six at Cambridge. He was born in Ireland and from those boarding school days until the end of his life he lived in England. He is a man who is sometimes accused of having led a sheltered life, but he is a man who knew pain. Given his Ulster upbringing he knew what dissension and war were like. It’s one of the reasons I think he was so strong on church unity because he saw that strife in the area where he grew up.

His mother died when he was nine of cancer. He was wounded at age 19 in the First World War. His father died when Lewis was 30, right before his flood of books began coming out for which we know him best today. And later in life his wife died of cancer. He was not immune to the vicissitudes of life that we all face.

He was a man of a great deal of character too. I picked a couple of things just to characterize him. One thing I love about C.S. Lewis is his attitude toward giving. He had a very compassionate heart. Many of you may know already that the royalties from his books he donated to charity. He says this on giving,

Giving to the poor is an essential part of Christian morality. I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I’m afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, and amusement, is up to the standard common of those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little.

If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things that we’d like to do but cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.

On a humorous vein he writes, “Another things that annoys me is when people say, ‘Why did you give that man money? He’ll probably go and drink it.’ My reply is, ‘But if I kept it, I should have probably drunk it.’”

He was a man of prayer. He was a man of great humility. A quote from a man who knew him from undergraduate days, Owen Barfield, says,

What I think is true is that at a certain stage in his life, he deliberately ceased to take any interest in himself except for a kind of spiritual alumnus taking his moral finals. …Self-knowledge for him had come to mean recognition of his own weakness and shortcomings and nothing more. Anything beyond that he sharply suspected, both in himself and in others, as a symptom of spiritual megalomania. At best, there was so much else, in letters and in life, that he found much more interesting than himself.

Let me first indicate some of the books that are key sources on heaven and hell. I will be referencing several things from The Quotable Lewis, a book that collects little scraps from a lot of different places. But the most important books by Lewis on the subject are The Great Divorce, two chapters, “Heaven” and “Hell” in The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape Letters, Paralandra, That Hideous Strength, and maybe Mere Christianity.

So too, there is a theme that runs through about everything he wrote. You can even catch some of it in his literary criticism. That theme is desire. If you’ve read Surprised By Joy, you know that it is this thing that he calls joy – this hunger that is never satisfied by anything on this earth – that led him to believe that that satisfaction must be in another world, in heaven. This drew him and drew him until almost age 30 when he converted to theism as “the most reluctant convert in all of England,” he says. Three years later, he converted to Christianity itself. He found what that desire was directed towards.

As Lewis says in places like The Weight of Glory, “all our desires are for heaven.” And that theme is all over his work, and I enjoy reading Lewis so much because he awakens that desire in me.

Our problem with heaven and hell, according to Lewis, is that we have too low a view of sin. We do not fear hell and its judgment. And we have too weak a desire for heaven.

In 1940, Lewis preached the sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” to a standing room only crowd at St. Mary the Virgin Church which is the Oxford University church. I think page for page this is the best stuff Lewis ever wrote and here are the best lines. He says,

It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter. It is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load or weight or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it. And the backs of the proud will be broken.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses to remember that the dullest and the most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature, which if you saw it now you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you meet if it all only in a nightmare.

All day long we are helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all our friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal.

Lewis lived out those words. He did a lot of things which he felt was his duty to pastors, particularly in correspondence, going and giving talks to the Royal Airforce – such things, when he’d rather stayed at home and done some reading and writing.

Let’s focus on some of Lewis’ ideas of hell for a few minutes. A recent poll in US News and World Report showed that a huge majority of people – close to 80 percent – believe in heaven, but only 50 percent of Americans believe in hell. I’ve read some statistics for Britain – 25 percent believe in hell. In Australia, it’s 15 percent. Among Americans, 70 percent expect to go to heaven; only 5 percent think they’re headed for hell; another 25 percent are not willing to make a call.

Lewis himself did not believe in hell for many, many years. After age 9, when his mother died of cancer after he prayed for her healing, he had no use for God. From that point on he moved steadily toward atheism. He became a studied atheist – a materialist. He did not believe in the supernatural at all. Lewis says in those day that he was an annihilationist. He believed that when you die the body disappears; that’s all there is to it – end of subject. Lewis says,

The horror of the Christian universe is that it had no door marked exit. …If its picture was true, no sort of treaty with reality could ever be possible. There was no region even in the innermost death of one’s soul – nay there, least of all – where one could surround with a barbed wire fence and guard with a sign, “No Admittance.” And that was what I wanted – some area however small – of which I could say to all other beings, “This is my business and mine only.”

This is the same Lewis who came to say later on, “There is no neutral ground in the universe; every split second of time and every square centimeter of space is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.”

As Lewis reminds us, it is Jesus from whom we learn the most about hell. He expended more words talking about hell than any other subject did. The doctrine is dominical: it comes from Jesus’ lips.

When Lewis comes to write about hell like the book, The Great Divorce, he opens in hell for a very good reason, and that is that it’s the default for all of us. Unless we do something deliberate, hell is where we’re bound.

I have no trouble agreeing with that when I think what it is that I have to discipline myself to do. I don’t have to discipline myself to not do evil. I don’t have to really try one day to do something wrong. All I have to do to sin is not try and, instead, do what comes naturally. We use the word discipline for things that our nature doesn’t want to do, but we know in our hearts we should do.

It’s not easy these days to think about God’s wrath and judgment. We prefer to think about his mercy. Lewis is clear on it even in places like The Chronicles of Narnia. Remember that great passage where the children are sitting around Mr. and Mrs. Beaver’s table and the kids are just finding out about Aslyan? Susan asks about Aslyan.

“Is he quite safe? I shall feel quite nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will deary, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslyan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then, he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“He’s not safe, but he’s good.”

Lewis finds the key idea for The Great Divorce in an ancient concept of basically a holiday from hell where the souls are let out for awhile and have a bit of an escape. The story opens in hell but it is not a scene of fire and brimstone. Lewis presents hell as a place that’s empty, cold, gray, and foggy.

The people that we meet are in a line waiting for a bus going to take them on their holiday to heaven. Then they have the option on going on to deep heaven or returning to hell. All of them return to hell with one exception, for the same reason they went there in the first place. Lewis’ key theme is that hell and heaven are both choices. We get what we choose.

I think for Americans – individualistic, got to have a car society – having to take a bus and stand in line for it is a pretty good image of hell. We don’t like to wait. And for the British who love the outdoors and love to walk and garden, an endless British winter is not a bad metaphor for hell.

In The Great Divorce, we don’t make it into deep hell or deep heaven. It’s always on the outskirts of these two places. He sets it up so he can say if you decide to go on into heaven, that would be a precinct of heaven all along, and if you choose not to go to heaven, your time on these outskirts would be part of hell all along.

The reason hell is empty is that people get what they want in hell. In Dante’s view, in Lewis’ view, you become the sin you choose. That’s what constitutes hell. People don’t get along. If you want a new house all you have to do is wish a new one and – boom – it materializes. And so, they are constantly arguing with each other, constantly wishing a new house, so hell is constantly expanding.

The nearest of the old reprobates, turns out to be Napoleon. In the conversation in the bus queue, someone talks about going to visit him. It took 15,000 years to get to where Napoleon was; when they go there, they watched him for a year and all they saw was a man going up and back, up and back, pacing and saying over and over again, “It was Nay’s fault; it was Josephine’s fault.”

This flies in the face of George Bernard Shaw’s famous quip that all the colorful bully people are going to be in hell – that that’s where all the good fellowship is going to be.

Eventually, these people get on the bus and they take a ride – a celestial transport – up to the outskirts of heaven. Later when the narrator meets George MacDonald, his guide, and the narrator asks why these people don’t return to the gray world and tell them, MacDonald explains that only the greatest can become small enough to go down into hell.

MacDonald points out a little crack in the earth and says that he doesn’t know if that was the one, but that the bus came up through something like that crack in the soil, “and if this butterfly in heaven was to swallow all of hell, it would make no more difference to him than swallowing an atom.”

Lewis’ point is that hell is the drying up of human potential and heaven is the fulfillment of human potential. That is manifested in the people who come up from hell, in order to be the same size as the folks they meet from heaven, have to be expanded; they are like ghosts. When they meet people from heaven, those people are solid. Grass goes through the feet of the people from hell. They can’t even bend the grass in heaven! They bounce along the top because it’s real and they’re not.
Whenever the series of people in The Great Divorce come from hell and make it up to heaven, they are met by someone from heaven who they knew on earth. The people from heaven urge those from hell to come on in, to get rid of themselves. The first person that gets off the bus takes one look around, screams, “It gives me the pip” (British for “It freaks me out”), and gets back on the bus.

The next one off meets someone he knew on earth who had been a murderer, and says with surprise, “What are you doing here? Didn’t you murder Jack?” He says, “Yes, I did, but all that is behind us now. I’ve been forgiven and you can be too.” “No,” he responds. “If they’re going to allow the likes of you in here then I’m not going to come. All I want is my rights, you see, my rights. I’m not going to accept any of your bleeding charity.”

From the first set of travelers, it may be worth pointing out the poet that returns to hell with the “poor me” attitude. Lewis saw himself in this poet. Everything was everyone else’s fault. No one appreciated his work. In the end, he shows them all up – his parents, girlfriend, and society – by throwing himself under a train. He winds up in hell.

Lewis wanted to be a poet, but he got over his sense of pride. “From the age of sixteen onwards, I had one single ambition,” Lewis writes to a friend, “to succeed as a writer, from which I have never wavered, and which prosecution I spent every ounce I could, on which I really and deliberately staked my whole contentment.”

At the end of The Great Divorce, after the narrator sees people turning back to hell, MacDonald gives this explanation –

The whole difficulty of understanding hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly nothing. But you’ll have had experiences. It begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself, still distinct from it, perhaps criticizing it, and yourself in a dark hour might will that mood, embrace it.

You can repent and come out of it again, but there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then, there will be no you left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.

(Recall the dwarfs in Narnia who refuse to come out into the sunshine and see the beauty that is there and hear Aslyan’s growl as a machine. They are cynics all the way.)

Milton has Satan in Paradise Lost, say, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.” And he laments, “Which way I fly am hell myself am hell.” That’s the idea.

As to heaven, remember that in The Screwtape Letters, God is the creator of pleasure. Screwtape laments, “Out of all the centuries… we have never been able to invent a single pleasure. They’re all God’s. All we can do is encourage someone to take it at the wrong time, at the wrong place, and the wrong degree to pervert what God has created good.”

This is good to be reminded of – do you like the taste of cherries on earth? Do you like the smell of grass after a fresh rain? Do you enjoy a cool breeze on a warm day? These are all God’s inventions. If you like earth, you’re going to love heaven.


Wayne Martindale is a professor of English at Wheaton College. He is co-editor of The Quotable Lewis and author of Beyond the Shadowlands: C.S. Lewis on Heaven and Hell. This presentation was adapted from a discussion given by Dr. Martindale through The Matthew’s House Project.

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