John Piper and I have been writing about a possible way in which my recent video response to Rob Bell’s universalism could be troubling. Near the end of the clip I echo a theological point made by C.S. Lewis about the nature of damnation, and how Hell is in some way “chosen” by all its inhabitants. The concern John expressed is that if we talk too much about how Hell is “locked on the inside,” we lose the biblical emphasis that Jesus Himself gave us when He told to fear the one who could throw a man in Hell, both body and soul (Mark 9:47). So here is some additional perspective on that question from John, which I agree with entirely. The only proviso I would add, necessary to all good discussions, is that I be allowed to add just a few “yeah buts.”
So, lest there be any mistake on the point, here are seven reasons why we cannot water down the Lake of Fire.
1. It is the Lake of Fire. We don’t have enough water.
2. The point about choosing Hell is not at all intended to address (much less minimize) the horrors of it, but rather to address the ongoing justice of it. There are manuscript issues in Mark 3:29, but that is what first put me on this line of reasoning. The damnation is eternal because the refusal to repent is eternal. The sin is on-going. See the ESV.
3. So it is quite correct, as Piper argues, that no one would willingly jump into the Lake of Fire. But that illustration depends upon nothing “worse” (from the sinner’s perspective) being at his back. In other words, the choice to be damned is not a choice made for its own sake, as though it were a positive good, or as if fire is now the sinner’s natural abode, but rather because God, the sinner’s mortal enemy, is right behind him.
God has judicially determined to provide all men with just such a binary choice — fellowship with Him or continuence in their sin. So the eternal torment is not chosen for its own sake, but the sin is chosen for its own sake. John and I agree that the sinner is choosing the sin, not the fire. The lost have a hatred of God that is so deep and so abiding that they choose their fate in the fire rather than embrace the only alternative. But it was the sovereign good purpose of God to weld the torment to “the precious,” such that everyone who refuses to let go of his precious is also deciding, by good and necessary consequence, to stay in torment.
This doesn’t make sense, someone might say. Of course it doesn’t make sense. This is the mystery of lawlessness. Sin never makes sense. If it made sense it wouldn’t be sin. Damnation is the condition of being unable to make sense forever.
4. This is why we should be fully submissive to the scriptural description of God throwing sinners into Hell because, first, it is what Jesus taught, and second, because we recognize that God has arranged the affairs of the lost such that this is the only alternative to fellowship with Him. He could have annihilated them, or elected them, etc. but He did not. Damnation is therefore settled by God by means of judicial fiat. It is the Last Judgment, not the last election. He determines what will happen to each individual. It will not be an instance of “well, they chose to go to Hell. What could I do about it?” The sinner, left to his own devices (by God’s inscrutable decree), despises God continually, and God judicially says, “So be it.”
5. This does mute the objection of “injustice” from the unbeliever. We say to the unbeliever that Hell is simply God sealing the choice that the unbeliever is making right this very minute. “Do you think it is unjust for God to settle upon you the permanent condition of despising Him?” Etc.
6. The point of citing Lewis was to highlight the fact of the ongoing and eternal sin. It was not to use Lewis as an excuse for sidling out of biblical orthodoxy on this point, as some have no doubt done. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis argues that the damned are “ex-human,” just as wood ash after a fire used to be a log. No longer bearing the image of God, but still conscious, the damned are reduced to an eternal and insatiable gnawing. This kind of thing can, if you don’t watch it, teeter on the edge of annihilationism.
But I would still like to say a word in defense of Lewis, taking his body of work as a whole. While faithfulness to Scripture does not require us to have etchings from Dante hung around our living rooms, we should maintain the biblical emphasis on Hell as place of horror and everlasting dismay. If we are to keep the biblical emphasis on Hell, the subject will give us the creeps. And despite how his theology of damnation has been used by some, Lewis is one of the few modern writers who continues this emphasis. “I could show you a pretty cageful down here” (The Screwtape Letters). In The Great Divorce, when the night falls “They” will coming, and the damned recoil from the prospect. Lewis says somewhere that if we could see our neighbor now as he will be in eternity, that vision would be either the stuff that nightmares are made of, or it would be a temptation to worship a creature idolatrously. Dante is not the standard, but if he were, Screwtape Proposes a Toast is in the ballpark.
7. I have taught for many years that if the Lake of Fire is literal, then it is unspeakably bad. If it is symbolic — because realities are always greater than the symbols that represent them — it is far, far worse than the symbol.
In short, any theology that neglects telling a wicked and adulterous generation that they need to flee from the wrath to come is a theology that is participating in the general iniquity.