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February 15th, 2012 @ 5:58 pm by Kevin
Most evangelical Christians aren’t too big on Catholicism, Anglicanism or Eastern Orthodoxy, which makes their embrace of C.S. Lewis a bit of a mystery, seeing as he was pretty enthusiastic about all three.
Despite his Catholic leanings, virtually all of Lewis’ books have been put on the “approved reading list” for evangelicals, with Mere Christianity and the Chronicles of Narnia cited as favorites on Facebook pages everywhere.
I find this a bit ironic seeing as fellow Brit and Christian J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are still viewed with suspicion. Rowling writes about witches and is accused of seducing a generation with the occult. Lewis writes about witches and is lauded by the evangelical Sanhedrin for his brilliant allegory of the Christian faith.
One Lewis book that almost failed to pass the evangelical smell test, however, is The Great Divorce. It’s about a group of people in hell who board a bus to heaven, where they get to decide whether or not they want to stay. One-by-one, most of the people find a reason to get back on the bus, finding they prefer to wallow in their petty jealousy, self-pity and bitterness rather than submit to the healing on offer in heaven.
This is a difficult book for many evangelicals, because it seems to suggest that Lewis believed there might be an opportunity for postmortem salvation–a second chance to get things right after death. It also smacks of an Orthodox understanding of the afterlife, which sees heaven and hell not as separate places but as distinct psychological conditions.
Most evangelicals turn this grit of sand into a pearl by saying, “It’s just a story.” Lewis didn’t actually mean to suggest there might be a second chance after death; he was merely seeking to demonstrate that wherever we wind up after we die, our destination will ultimately be a result of the choices we make here on earth. In fact, the road to heaven or hell doesn’t begin at death; it begins right now.
Lewis sums up this view in an oft-quoted line from the book:
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. Those who knock it is opened.
I call this the “C. S. Lewis defense” of the traditional Western doctrine of hell. In a sense, hell is simply a ratification of the human will. In the end, God gives all of us what we want. He’s not going to override our will simply to get what he wants. He loves and respects us too much.
While many people find this to be an airtight defense of hell, others aren’t so sure. Philosopher Thomas Talbott is one such dissenter. In his view, the C. S. Lewis defense falls under the category of “hard-hearted theism” a.k.a. “tough love. Many people content themselves with the idea that if people freely choose to reject God, too bad for them. They had their chance just like the rest of us. They just made the wrong choice. And far be it from God to intervene in the face of such poor decision-making. After all, we’re not a bunch of automatons. However, Talbott raises two objections to this line of thinking:
i) it is incoherent to claim that someone could freely and irrevocably reject God, and (ii) in any case, God would not permit such a choice to be made because it would pain the saved.
To help unpack this, many of us imagine someone who rejects God as exercising their free will. But if God is the all-loving, omniscient, omnipotent being Christians make him out to be–if he’s at all like Jesus–what free person would possibly reject him? Like the characters in The Great Divorce, rejection of God only makes sense if people are so bound up in anger, jealousy, pain and bitterness that they’re blinded to the glory all around them. Don’t we all know such people? Haven’t we all been that sort of person at one time or another? And in the face of such a psychological state, does eternal condemnation seem just?
In response to this, Talbott argues that if God were to intervene in our lives by pulling back the veil of our pain, rather than impinging on our free will (which, it turns out, isn’t so free after all), such an intervention should be seen as an effort to free our will. And seeing as Christ defeated death, it’s no longer the end of our spiritual biography. God can continue to work on us essentially for eternity. According to Talbott, such an act is also more consistent with an all-loving, omniscient, omnipotent being “who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4) than the tough love that the C. S. Lewis defense suggests.
If you reject Talbott’s argument, you’re put in a position where you have to argue that either God perpetuates our pain-fueled illusions for all eternity (rather than having mercy on us and removing the blinders) or else only irrational people wind up in hell, because those are the only kinds of people who would reject God and choose destruction despite encountering a revelation of his true nature. In fact, some have argued that sin is irrational by its very nature, so yes, it would be safe to say that hell is full of irrational people. But I fail to see how this isn’t a “turtles all the way down” argument, because no free person would make an irrational choice. So something in their biography must have made them irrational, and from that point onward, no choice they make could ever be considered “free.”
Perhaps even more significant, the C. S. Lewis defense also puts us in the awkward position of having to argue that in the end, our will trumps God’s will. That even though God wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, it won’t happen.
And by the way, the Greek word thelo, translated as “wants” in the 1 Timothy passage cited above, is a much stronger verb than the typical English translation would suggest. It actually indicates not just willing something to happen but also pressing it into action. In other words, it seems to suggest that God gets what he wants. Not that we want to build a theology on the foundation of a single passage in Scripture, but it does give us something to think about.
The second objection Talbott raises is part of a complicated argument about the definition of supreme happiness and whether or not this is the sort of happiness God wills for us. I won’t go into the argument here, but in a nutshell, Talbott argues that if love makes us more sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, and if heaven is the place where we finally get to experience perfect love, all of us would be in misery, because all we would want to do is be with our loved ones in hell–or to set them free from hell, if at all possible. And if God is the essence of love, well, he would be in the worst position of all.
I’ll stop here, because this post is already about 1,000 words longer than I intended where I first Googled Lewis’ quote this morning, but I’d love to hear what the rest of you have to say about all of this.