The deep thoughts of Professor C. S. Lewis, expressed in many of his writings, are worthy of our closest attention. He opens up realms of theology that probably most of us have never faced or resolved. But although being one of the highest ranking intellectuals of his era, (1898 – 1963) he had the humility to present his knowledge in language that most of us ordinary folk would be able to understand. Two of the best loved of his writings are “Mere Christianity” and “The Problem of Pain.”
In chapter 8 of “The Problem of Pain” Lewis addresses the subject of Hell. The contemplation of Hell he finds utterly gruesome. This is how he begins the chapter, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But 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. . . . .I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved’. . . .We are told that it is a detestable doctrine – and indeed, I too detest it from the bottom of my heart, . . . .I said glibly a moment ago that I would pay ‘any price’ to remove this doctrine. I lied. I could not pay one-thousandth part of the price that God has already paid to remove the fact. And here is the real problem : so much mercy, yet still there is Hell.”
Throughout the rest of the chapter Lewis struggled to find a satisfactory answer to the ‘detestable doctrine’, but as many have found in reading it, he never fully persuades himself, so earnestly does he cling to the grace and mercy of God expressed at Calvary. I feel sure he now has a much clearer appreciation of God’s purpose in Hell.
Gradually, from the days of the Reformation until the present day, theologians have felt the necessity of getting to grips with the subject of Hell, and have written expressing equally loathing thoughts about the subject, but always based on the material available in our translations of original Greek and Hebrew. Some of these writers have realised that bad translations coupled with a poor understanding of figurative language have been the source of people’s mental impressions of ‘everlasting hellfire’. Some have written to tell us that properly understood, Hell is neither ‘everlasting’ nor an expression of an overflowing divine passion for revenge on evildoers. These have attempted to show by their careful expositions that Hell is the necessary environment to bring evil people to the recognition of their own need, and eventually cause them to cry for mercy, which God ‘who is rich in mercy’ would be always ready to answer, thereby ending their term in Hell.
In Wellspring 40 I spoke about the lesson of the four ‘sample’ evildoers, and how God approached them in vastly different ways to achieve His end, namely to render them forgiven once they understood their need of forgiveness. Nebuchadnezzar’s story is unique in the annals of history in this respect, and we are truly blessed to know that such men can and will be forgiven. And if God brought Nebuchadnezzar to repentance, shall He not be able to cope with more recent examples of incorrigible wickedness, such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Chairman Mao, to mention just three? This was why I preferred to look upon Hell as equivalent to a woman’s labour pains, which always issue in new life rather than the dismal never-ending continuance of vengeful punishment.
To conclude this paper I should like to quote two stanzas from a lengthy poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, the New England Quaker Poet (1807 – 1892). Many are aware of him because of his beautiful hymn, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.”
Not with hatred’s undertow
Doth the Love Eternal flow;
Every chain that spirits wear
Crumbles in the breath of prayer;
And the penitent’s desire
Opens every gate of fire.
Still Thy love, O Christ arisen,
Yearns to reach those souls in prison!
Through all depths of sin and loss
Drops the plummet of Thy cross!
Never yet abyss was found
Deeper than that cross could sound.
(Stanzas 23 – 24 from “The Grave by the Lake”)