I am a huge CS Lewis fan. From reading the wonderful Narnia Chronicles as a child (and then again this year) to the insight given by “The Screwtape Letters” and “The Weight of Glory”, to his central apologetic work “Mere Christianity”, I remain a great admirer of Lewis and a prolific reader of his work. It is with this background that I come to “The Problem of Pain” and his arguments concerning hell – when I critique his thoughts here, it is in the context of great love and gratitude for his brilliance.
The Problem of Pain
“The Problem of Pain” is Lewis’ earliest apologetic writing. A former atheist, Lewis was fully aware of the deepest issues that confronted belief in God, chief among them being the problem of evil- how an all-powerful all-loving God could allow the existence of suffering. Thus “The Problem of Pain” is Lewis’ theodicy, and attempt to answer this question, and within this question, Lewis reserves a chapter for the doctrine of hell.
Lewis has deep emotional issues (as we all do!) stemming from the doctrine of hell, but remains committed to defending the Christian faith here, given his view that the Christian faith provides a far more coherent view of the world. As such, Lewis defends a traditional view of Hell, as eternal conscious torment (ECT), given his view that Christianity in its traditional form makes sense of the world. In defending the traditional view of Hell against objections, he turns his guns to annihilation.
His argument against annihilation
Lewis sees three descriptions of Hell by Jesus- as “punishment”1 as in Matthew 25:46; as “destruction”2 as in Matthew 10:28; or as “privation, exclusion, or banishment into ‘the darkness outside’ “3 as in the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22. Each of these, prima facie without our cultural blinders, seems to point to me to an annihilationist view of hell. Lewis however disagrees, and sees torment as a better explanation.
His argument is that the soul cannot cease, for the destruction is never cessation of true existence, but merely change into another form. I quote at length, to show that I am not misrepresenting, but representing the argument in its strongest form: “people often talk as if the “annihilation” of a soul were intrinsically possible. “In all our experience, however, the destruction of one thing means the emergence of something else. Burn a log, and you have gases, heat and ash. To have been a log means now being those three things. If soul can be destroyed, must there not be a state of having been a human soul? And is not that, perhaps, the state which is equally well described as torment, destruction; and privation?”4 This is the argument which Lewis presents against annihilation: that annihilation is in fact impossible, for the soul cannot cease.
Why the argument fails
The argument, in my opinion, is multiply flawed. Firstly, there are objects in our everyday experience which do pass out of existence. If we hold to a common sense theory of time (known as the tensed theory of time), then the past ceases to exist from one moment to the next, and all that exists is the present. The present does not emerge out of the existence of the past; the two events remain separate. The same could be said about thoughts – they seem to come and then disappear, not emerging into some other substance as Lewis describes. Secondly, everyday experience is a very poor guide to the final judgment- the very nature of the final judgment is that it only happens once, so to say that our inductive experience is a good guide to what happens here is a non-sequitur. Thirdly, Lewis has to hold to the idea that the omnipotent God is unable to destroy the soul completely, and in doing so assumes a necessarily immortal soul- which runs against the consistent testimony of scripture, which affirms that “God alone has immortality” (1 Timothy 6:16). Finally, the description of judgment in scripture coheres far more clearly with the annihilationist viewpoint than the ECT viewpoint- if “the wages of sin are death” (Romans 6:23) and God will “kill the soul and body both in hell” (Matthew 10:28), there seems a finality to death, as the cessation of existence, and thus Lewis, in his propensity for analogies to clarify, seems instead to make far less clear and less true.
Why Lewis is inconsistent here with the rest of his theology
In the three descriptions of judgment, as already noted, annihilation is a far more coherent view of judgment- destruction seems final, particularly when the destruction is compared to that of Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Peter 2:6). Privation is in the “outer darkness”- and if Jesus is the Light of the World (John 8:12), then this suggests removal from God, and thus being removed from the one who can grant immortality. To use the examples that Lewis uses and then to conclude torment is the doctrine of hell seems inconsistent.
It also fails to cohere with much else in Lewis’ theology- for example, Lewis expounds the ransom theory of atonement (though he provides the substitutionary atonement elsewhere and I believe the two are not in contradiction) allegorically in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in which (spoiler alert) Aslan (the lion) is given over to the White Witch and killed, to provide a ransom, instead of Edmund (one of the four children), to the powers of darkness. Aslan later comes back to life, as the victor over death, due to “deeper magic before the dawn of time”5 – but it remains unclear, if this allegory is truthful, how Aslan could have truly paid the ransom price for Edmund. Edmund should have deserved torment at the hands of the White Witch on this view- and so Aslan did nothing to pay for him, instead providing the wrong ransom. Given that Edmund is supposed to have deserved death, and that Aslan is not questioned to have paid the full ransom by readers, we therefore see a contradiction in Lewis’ theology here.
Concluding remarks about CS Lewis and Annihilation
Despite my reservations about the argument expounded above, I think the chapter communicates important truths about hell. Lewis describes hell as a place where “being fades away into non-entity”6 – this sounds very much like death to me. I also think Lewis, in his beautiful style, deals well with the intellectual and emotional problems that Hell faces, epitomised in this exceptional paragraph:
“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.”
I cannot agree more with this paragraph – and in that I affirm that “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Proverbs 14:12)
- Lewis, CS, 1940, “The Problem of Pain”, London: The Centenary Press
- Lewis, CS, 1950, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, London: Geoffrey Bles
- Lewis, “The Problem of Pain”