As a semi-retired pastor, having preached on Hell from time to time, I distrust any preacher or writer who seems to enjoy giving his people a steady diet of brimstone. C. S. Lewis reluctantly addressed the subject in his writings. In The Problem of Pain he admitted that there is no Christian doctrine that he’d rather remove more than the doctrine of Hell. In “Learning in War-Time” (The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses) he says:
I know that many wiser and better Christians than I in these days do not like to mention heaven and Hell even in a pulpit. I know, too, that nearly all the references to this subject in the New Testament come from a single source. But then that source is Our Lord Himself. People will tell you it is St. Paul, but that is untrue. These overwhelming doctrines are dominical. They are not really removable from the teaching of Christ or of His Church. If we do not believe them our presence in this church is great tomfoolery. If we do, we must sometime overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them.
With this encouragement I dare to choose this subject as my first paper offered to the Southern California C. S. Lewis Society. Ugly as the subject may be, Lewis’ friend, J. R. R. Tolkein wrote: “Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling.”
Perhaps that is the reason that books addressing this subject often make Hell more interesting than Heaven. There’s just so much more going on there. (Not that you’d want to live there, of course, but the Inferno has always been more popular with the tourist trade.) “Great to visit, hate to live there” — isn’t that what people say about Los Angeles?
One of Lewis’ remarkable achievements is that his writing reverses this. His vivid imagination pictures Hell with less fire and torture and more dreariness, boredom, and grayness. He makes us see it as not only a place suitable for the Hitlers and Charles Mansons of this world, but a distinct possibility for “respectable” people like us. He does this without making Hell the least bit interesting. Heaven, on the other hand, is a place of rich variety in contrast with the dull monotony of Hell. Lewis says in Letters to Malcolm:
Broaden your mind, Malcolm, broaden your mind! It takes all sorts to make a world; or a church. This may be even truer of a church. If grace perfects nature it must expand all our natures into the full richness of the diversity which God intended when He made them, and Heaven will display far more variety than Hell. ‘One fold’ doesn’t mean ‘one pool.’ Cultivated roses and daffodils are no more alike than wild roses and daffodils.
As for devils — Screwtape is funny, but never comic, and never tragic. Nor is the devil in Perelandra. He’s just plain nasty. Time Magazine’s cover picture of C. S. Lewis colorfully identified him with his image of Screwtape. Though not his greatest contribution to religious thought, it is exceptional enough for journalists to take note.
Lewis was aware of the difficulty of portraying a good character — especially one better than the writer. To portray a worse character, you just have to let down your guard against your own temptations. To imagine a better character, you almost have to become better yourself. In A Preface to Paradise Lost, he says: “It is in their ‘good’ characters that novelists make, unawares, the most shocking self-revelations. Heaven understands Hell and Hell does not understand Heaven, and all of us, in our measure, share the Satanic, or at least the Napoleonic, blindness. To project ourselves into a wicked character, we have only to stop doing something, and something that we are already tired of doing; to project ourselves into a good one we have to do what we cannot and become what we are not.”
In discussing Mammon’s speech in book 2 of Milton’s Paradise Lost he says: “It is hard to select any lines as the kernel of his speech; it is all kernel. If I had to, I should choose the lines: ‘Nor want we skill or art from whence to raise Magnificence; and what can Heav’n show more?'(272) And what can Heav’n show more? In those words we read Mammon to the very bottom. He believes that Hell can be made into a substitute for Heaven. For everything that has been lost, you can find something else that will do quite as well. Heaven was magnificent: if Hell is made equally magnificentit must be equally good. . . . This is why Mammon is called ‘the least erected spirit that fell from Heav’n’ (I, 679). He has never understood the difference between Hell and Heaven at all. The tragedy has been no tragedy for him: he can do very well without Heaven. The human analogues are here the most obvious and the most terrible of all–people who seem to have passed from Heaven to Hell and can’t see the difference. ‘What do you mean by saying we have lost love? There is an excellent brothel round the corner. What do you mean by all this talk of dishonor? I am positively plastered with honors and decorations and everyone I meet touches his cap. Everything can be imitated, and the imitation will do just as well as the real thing”(pp. 106-7).
Lewis’s point is that any “beauty” in Hell is mere outward show without any real substance. Screwtape contrasts the music and silence of heaven with the noise of Hell, declaring: “We will make the whole universe a noise in the end.” (What would he have thought of “Gangsta Rap”?) As all beauty ultimately comes from God, there can be no real beauty in Hell.
Worthy of Consideration
Unlike timid preachers who avoid the subject of Hell, Lewis dares to suggest that it is worthy of our consideration. In his poem “Wormwood” Lewis makes the point:
Therefore, except the temperance of the eternal love
Only thy absolute lust is worth the thinking of.
All else is weak disguisings of the wishful heart,
All that seemed earth is Hell, or Heaven. God is: thou art:
The rest, illusion. How should man live save as glass
To let the white light without flame, the Father, pass
In The Great Divorce Lewis anticipates the objection of those who are afraid of being so heavenly minded they are of no earthly good.”But what, you ask, of earth? Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.”
The thing that makes Hell so revolting is not only the pain of it, but its duration. In The Problem of Pain Lewis says “I notice that Our Lord, while stressing the terror of Hell with unsparing severity, usually emphasises the idea not of duration but of finality.” It is an eternal fire not in the sense that it burns eternally, but in the sense that it is a fire which eternally finishes the soul. “That the lost soul is eternally fixed in its diabolical attitude we cannot doubt; but whether this eternal fixity implied endless duration — or duration at all — we cannot say.”
The idea of damnation having no duration as we understand time does not necessarily mean the damned cease to exist (annihilated). If we understand God to transcend time (something Lewis did not make up but which is traditional, orthodox theology), then we could also imagine such a state to be the reverse: eternally existing, with whatever consciousness they have — where “the worm dieth not.” (Mark 9:44-48)
Lewis suggests that there may be a state of “having been” a soul. In the Problem of Pain He says, “(P)eople 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?
You will remember that in the parable, the saved go to a place prepared for them, while the damned go to a place never made for men at all. To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being in earth; to enter Hell, is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into Hell is not a man: it is ‘remains’. To be a complete man means to have the passions obedient to the will and the will offered to God: to have been a man — to be an ex-man or “damned ghost” — would presumably mean to consist of a will utterly centred in its self and passions utterly uncontrolled by the will. It is, of course, impossible to imagine what the consciousness of such a creature — already a loose congeries of mutually antagonistic sins rather than a sinner — would be like. There may be a truth in the saying that “Hell is Hell, not from its own point of view, but from the heavenly point of view”.
In The Great Divorce MacDonald says of the peevish woman in Hell: “Ye misunderstand me. The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman — even the least trace of one still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.”
“But how can there be a grumble without a grumbler?” the Narrator (Lewis) asks. MacDonald continues: “The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye’ll have had experiences … it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye 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 criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.”
Is Hell, then just a state of mind that persists after death? Lewis asks MacDonald: “Then those people are right who say that Heaven and Hell are only states of mind’?” “Hush,” said he (MacDonald) sternly.”Do not blaspheme. Hell is a state of mind–ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind–is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly.”
Size of Hell
Though Lewis believes in Hell, he doesn’t believe in a very big Hell. In A Preface to Paradise Lost he quoted Dame Edith Sitwell: “Hell is no vastness, it has naught to keep But little rotting souls.”
In The Great Divorce he has MacDonald describing Hell as the result of closing oneself up away from God, and as a result it’s a very small place, almost nothing. “Hell,’ MacDonald says, ‘ is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.” Furthermore,he says, “A damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see.”
“Then no one can ever reach them?” the Narrator (Lewis) asks.
“Only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell. For the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend–a man can sympathise with a horse but a horse cannot sympathise with a rat. Only One has descended into Hell.”
In Pilgrim’s Regress Hell is shown as a black pit. It’s the last gift of God to those who won’t take anything better. When John asks about this he’s told that evil is ‘by nature fissiparous’ and tends to get worse and worse, so that God mercifully put into the world a Worst Thing to put a limit to evil.
Is our damnation something we do or something God does? Lewis affirms our active role in our own condemnation. The activity or passivity of God’s role in Hell is another variation of the freewill vs. predestination debate. Some of the scriptural language about those consigned to Hell evokes a “handing over” of the soul to Satan, who tortures them (Mark 9:45-48; Luke 12:5). Certainly our concept of justice virtually demands an active punishment for the wicked, but our concept of an infinitely loving God demands love even for those who would reject it. God has designed the universe so that people have freewill. Yet, he somehow manages to place all those free actions in times and places which carry out his perfect plan (see Acts 2:23). Through the free treason of Judas, the free self-interest of the Sanhedrin, and the free cowardice of Pilate, God carried out a plan that demonstrated his love from the very beginning (“the enemy freely confessed that he foresaw a certain episode about a cross” – Screwtape Letters). The elect are spared by God’s action, but all who are in Hell have chosen their sentence. These are not contradictions, but the one truth that shows the omnipotence of God. He is so powerful that he can predestine the history of the universe by leaving all of us totally free. Or, as Lewis put it so much more succinctly:”Ophelia is drowned because a branch breaks, or because Shakespeare willed it to happen. These are not contradictory once you have grasped that Shakespeare is writing the whole play.”
“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. To those who knock, it is opened.”(The Great Divorce, Chap. 9, pp 72-73)
“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.” (The Problem of Pain, chap 8, para 12, page 128.)
That Hell is freely chosen in spite of God’s gift of salvation is suggested by the words of Jesus in John 3 “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”
In Perelandra Lewis depicts the Unman as a human soul losing its identity in that of a demon. In The Great Divorce, he depicts the Dwarf as (maybe) being swallowed by his false identity, the Tragedian. Lewis depicts the damned as rushing insistently into their hells, despite the efforts of God to persuade them not to. In The Problem of Pain he said, “The doors of Hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of Hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man ‘wishes’ to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.”
God ultimately honors our decisions. In The Problem of Pain Lewis writes: “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of Hell are locked on the inside.” And in Preface to Paradise Lost he adds, “the door out of Hell is firmly locked, but by the devils themselves, on the inside; whether it is also locked on the outside need not, therefore, be considered”.
In his essay “The Trouble with X” (God in the Dock) he writes “It’s not a question of God ‘sending’ us to Hell. In each of us there is something growing up which will of itself be Hell unlessit is nipped in the bud.”
But what of Pagans who never heard of Jesus? When Lewis asks Macdonald (The Great Divorce, Chapter 9), “But if they [the damned] come here [heaven] they can really stay?” Macdonald responds, “Aye. Ye’ll have heard that the emperor Trajan did.” Here Macdonald is making reference to Dante, who mentions Trajan in Purgatorio, X and Paradiso, XX. By Dante’s time, there was a legend in wide circulation which goes roughly as follows: Trajan was all set up to take his army to war when a poor widow came up to him and begged him to avenge her wrongfully slain son. Trajan agreed to do so, holding up his campaign in the process. Centuries later, Gregory the Great (pope from 590-604) was so impressed by this that he prayed that God would resurrect Trajan and give him a chance to accept Christ. An angel came to tell Gregory that God had granted his prayer, but commanded him never to make such a prayer again (!). Thus Dante, incorporating this tale of faith and “coinherence backward in time” into his comedy, gave Lewis an illustration to use in a story where the lost can become saved (by His grace) if they choose.
Like Dante, Lewis holds out the possibility that pagans who never encountered Christian truth in this life are not necessarily doomed to Hell. They may not even endure the pain Dante envisioned in his First Circle, where the virtuous pagans are not tormented but suffer from a kind of sad despair because they can never be granted entry to paradise. Lewis believed in Hell, but it was a metaphysical Hell — a state of mind or of being, though no less real than the kind of a cavern under the earth in Dante’s imagination.
In The Last Battle Lewis pictures the Emeth (The Hebrew word for Truth) as a Pagan (like Trajan?) who mistakenly followed Tash without knowing the true Aslan until the end. That, however, is a rich, suggestive image that deserves another paper. The idea behind this is that one orients oneself to Heaven or Hell by getting on a road that leads from or toward God. And the horrible thing about this is that one keeps traveling this road, growing farther away from God or closer to him for all eternity.
What is God to do with the presumptuous guest showing up at the party in his dirty work-clothes, who is offered a bath and brand-new, perfectly fitted festively elegant clothing better that anything the man ever owned, and the fool turns down the clothes? (Matthew 22:11-12) He stinks, and his attitude stinks. Is God going to let him come in and foul the place up for everyone else? No. People end up in Hell by their choices. God confirms our choice and its consequences.
The dwarfs in the stable in The Last Battle are not in Hell because Aslan wants them there; in fact, he cannot remove them, nor can anyone else, because the dwarfs don’t want to move. “We haven’t let anyone take us in,” they boast. “The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.” “You see,” said Aslan. “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”
So it is with the husband in The Great Divorce; no one wants him to be in Hell, but what he has become can exist nowhere else.
In the Mere Lewis e-mail group Doug Gresham said, “Jack very definitely believed in a literal Hell. However, he never claimed to have any understanding of its exact and real nature, depending entirely on the Scriptures for his knowledge and meager (by his own reckoning) understanding of it, and using that to draw from in his imaginary descriptions. Jack not only believed IN Christ, he also Believed Christ. Remember however, God does not send people to Hell, they choose to go there.”
Lewis wrote: “I said glibly a moment ago that I would ‘pay any price’ to remove this doctrine [of Hell]. 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.” (near the opening of Ch. 8, Problem of Pain)
In The Four Loves Lewis says, “The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
In A Preface to Paradise Lost Lewis says: “Satan’s monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights and wrongs is a necessity of the Satanic predicament. Certainly, he has no choice. He has chosen to have no choice. He has wished to ‘be himself’, and to be in himself and for himself, and his wish has been granted. The Hell he carries with him is, in one sense, a Hell of infinite boredom. Satan, like Miss Bates, is interesting to read about; but Milton makes plain the blank uninterestingness of being Satan.”
In The Great Divorce the narrator (Lewis) asks George MacDonald: “I don’t understand. Is judgment not final? Is there really a way out of Hell into Heaven?”
It depends on the way ye’re using the words. If they leave that grey town behind it will not have been Hell. To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory. And perhaps ye had better not call this country Heaven. Not Deep Heaven, ye understand.” (Here he smiled at me.) “Ye can call it the Valley of the Shadow of Life. And yet to those who stay here it will have been Heaven from the first. And ye can call those sad streets in the town yonder the Valley of the Shadow of Death: but to those who remain there they will have been Hell even from the beginning.
In Letters To Malcolm: Chiefly On Prayer Lewis stated his objections to “the Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory”, a phrase taken from the 39 Articles of the Church of England, which reject it, and then said: “The right view returns magnificently in Newman’s Dream. There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer ‘With its darkness to affront that light. Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know.’ — ‘Even so, sir.'”
Lewis’s view of Purgatory was similar to Dante’s. Kathryn Lindskoog writes: “The analogy that works best for me is arriving at a festive dinner party in a dripping wet raincoat and muddy galoshes. Instead of joining the other guests in the reception room that way, we strip off our outerwraps in the vestibule and then join the party. How long that takes (if time is involved at all) and how uncomfortable the stripping is (if it is at all uncomfortable) is a matter of opinion. But both Lewis and Dante considered Purgatory inside the heavenly gates — therefore a place of supreme safety, anticipation, and gratitude. (The idea that the Purgatory process takes longer if no one prays in order to expedite it makes me wonder “What’s the rush? You’ve got forever.”)
Damnation is the state of the human soul when it is cut off from God, and salvation is the state of the human soul when it is united with God. It isn’t imposed on us by God from the outside, but arises from the nature of what God is. Therefore, any soul that is still capable of desiring God is not irrevocably damned. This is the point of The Great Divorce: that there are actually three states — being united with God; being separated from God but still capable of desiring him; and being separated from God and no longer able to desire him. The people in the last group are pictured as no longer being human — this is the final, irrevocable damnation.
In Reflections on the Psalms Lewis writes “It is even arguable that the moment ‘Heaven’ ceases to mean union with God and ‘Hell’ to mean separation from Him, the belief in either is a mischievous superstition; for then we have, on the one hand, a merely ‘compensatory’ belief (a ‘sequel’ to life’s sad story, in which everything will ‘come all right’) and, on the other, a nightmare which drives men into asylums or makes them persecutors.”
The Great Divorce pictures Hell as a sprawling suburb of a place where everyone tries to move as far away from his neighbor as possible. It is a “gated community.” Everyone is isolated from each other, and getting more so (moving further and further away). This is contrasted with a God of relationships (without God are any relationships possible?). In Lewis’ Hell, everyone lives in constant fear, contrasted with a God of peace and ultimate assurances. Everything comes to the ghosts without effort, but also without meaning. In Hell everything is moving further and further from the center, but it still is small and meaningless. On the other hand, in Heaven (The Last Battle) everything is moving “further up and further in” towards the center. But even as they move nearer the center it gets much bigger and more complex. Interesting inverted physics.
In the “doxology” at the end of Perelandra we see that “Where Maleldil is, there is the centre.”
Where is it?
In Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature Lewis contrasts the Medieval to Modern cosmos in these words: “But the true nature of the universe is exactly the opposite. In the visible and spatial order Earthis centre; in the dynamic, invisible order the Empyrean is centre,and we are indeed ‘outside the city wall’ at the end of all things. And the centre of that Centre, the centre of Earth, is the edge, the very point at which all being and reality finally peter out. For in there (as we call it), out there (as we ought to call it) is Hell–the last outpost, the rim, the place where being is nearest to not-being, where positive unbeing (so to call it) asymptotically approaches that zero it can never quite reach.”
While a case can certainly be made for Hell being the absence of God, it can possibly be equally made for Hell being His Presence. Would it not be Hell for a self turned in on itself to be eternally exposed uninsulated to the Presence of the Triune God whose very essence is a Community of Love? MacDonald hints at this: “The fire of God, which is His essential being, His love, His creative power, is a fire unlike its earthly symbol in this, that it is only at a distance it burns–that the further from Him, it burns the worse.”
When is it?
In The Great Divorce Lewis says: “Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say, ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.”
In Studies in Words, Lewis asks: “When Milton’s Mammon hopefully suggests that habituation to the climate of Hell will in due course ‘remove the sensible of pain’, will it remove that within him and the other fiends which is capable of feeling pain or that in the pain which is perceptible? (In the facts, no doubt there would be no difference between these two alternatives; linguistically, I think there is.)
In his poem, “Divine Justice,” Lewis says:
God in His mercy made
The fixed pains of Hell.
That misery might be stayed,
God in His mercy made
Eternal bounds and bade
Its waves no further swell.
God in His mercy made
The fixed pains of Hell.
In the writings of C. S. Lewis, Hell was not just a literary devise. It is something he actually believed existed. That is part of what gives his writing its edge. To be told to “go to Hell” by someone who believes there is no such place is one thing. But to be warned by someone who honestly believes in its torment is quite another. In writing this paper I find myself torn between wanting to be clever and witty and feeling the unspeakable horror of my subject. I’m sure CSL had the same difficulty.
Theology is not a wish list but a description of reality. “If Christianity was something we were making up,” he says, “of course, we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.” (Mere Christianity)
Lewis presented a true picture of reality as he understood it. The reality he was presenting was not his own. Lewis’ master and authority was Jesus Christ. In the end, all Christian doctrines (those that are welcome as well as those that are difficult) depend on Jesus’ teaching and authority. Lewis’ apologetics (and sometimes his imaginative work) aimed at making Christian doctrine understandable. Thus, on the difficult doctrine of Hell, he points people back to its base and authority: the Lord Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament.
Lewis writes to his friend , Arthur Greeves, 13 May 1946, saying: “About Hell. All I have ever said is that the N.T. plainly implies the possibility of some being finally left in ‘the outer darkness’. Whether this means (horror of horror) being left to a purely mental existence, left with nothing at all but one’s own envy, prurience, resentment, loneliness & self conceit, or whether there is still some sort of environment, something you cd. call a world or a reality, I wd. never pretend to know. But I wouldn’t put the question in the form ‘do I believe in an actual Hell’. One’s own mind is actual enough. If it doesn’t seem fully actual now that is because you can always escape from it a bit into the physical world — look out of the window, smoke a cigarette, go to sleep. But when there is nothing for you but your own mind (no body to go to sleep, no books or landscape, nor sounds, no drugs) it will be as actual as — as — well, as a coffin is actual to a man buried alive.”
In Perelandra “it came into his [Ransom’s] mind that in certain old philosophers and poets he had read that the mere sight of the devils was one of the greatest among the torments of Hell. It had seemed to him till now merely a quaint fancy. And yet (as he now saw) even the children know better: no child would have any difficulty in understanding that there might be a face the mere beholding of which was final calamity. The children, the poets, and the philosophers were right. As there is one
Face above all worlds merely to see which is irrevocable joy, so at the bottom of all worlds that face is waiting whose sight alone is the misery from which none who beholds it can recover. And though there seemed to be, and indeed were, a thousand roads by which a man could walk through the world, there was not a single one which did not lead sooner or later either to the Beatific or the Miserific Vision.
This same concept is found in the effect the name “Aslan” has on the four children when the Beaver whispers the rumour that “Aslan is on the move.” Edmund, whose heart was not pure, “felt a sensation of mysterious horror.” Something of the dismay of a soul exposed unwillingly to the Presence of God can be felt, likewise, at the end of The Great Divorce when Lewis screams that he is caught by the morning and is still a ghost. It is suggested in scripture. Our Lord, cloaked in ordinary humanflesh, was looked on with hatred and loathing by his enemies both demonic and human. Imagine the torture of having to look eternally, in a frenzy of that same hatred and loathing, unmasked by the distraction of this present universe, on Him whom they pierced? (John 19:37) Would it be less torture to look eternally on Self-Giving Love by a soul which had, in a lifetime of small thoughts and smaller deeds, made itself the magnetic center of its world? If God truly only burns at His edges, then the escape from His burning is simply to begin the journey to His center, a journey for which He Himself is both Means and End.
Finally, I close with Lewis’ characteristic humility: At the end of the, passage in Malcolm where he explores his ideas on resurrection and the last Judgment, he says “Guesses, of course, only guesses. If they are not true, something better will be.”