C.S. Lewis was one of last century's most prominent Christian thinkers. Famous for his theological and fiction writing, Lewis is a fascinating figure who continues to capture the hearts of readers—even years after his death.
His views on heaven and hell, as expressed in his various writings, hold a particular appeal for me. So much of his philosophical approach resonates with the way I view life and faith.
For C.S. Lewis, heaven and hell are found as two sides of the same coin: he provides a passing image of hell in his novel The Last Battle, the final book in the Chronicles of Narnia.
Hell imagined in The Last Battle
The last battle is an apocalyptic encounter between a small band of Narnians and invading forces from the large neighbouring country, Calormen. Father Time awakens at the conclusion of the battle and blows a horn, stars rain down and great dragons and giant lizards crawl out to devour the forests.
At this point all the Narnian creatures run up to where Aslan, the great lion and God figure, stands next to the stable door. They look into his face: 'And when some looked, the expression of their faces changes terribly—it was fear and hatred ... And all the creatures who looked at Aslan in that way swerved to their right, his left, and disappeared into his huge black shadow' And the narrator concludes, 'I don't know what became of them'.
In a children's story, Lewis does not want to picture hell in detail, but he does acknowledge that some creatures will turn away from Aslan, no matter how gladly he would welcome them.
Hell explained in The Great Divorce
Lewis' most detailed depiction of hell occurs in his Dante-like fantasy story The Great Divorce. He imagines hell as a large, grey city, where it is always rainy and constantly in that stage of twilight just as the lights are being turned on. The narrator walks through empty streets lined with dingy boarding houses, small tobacco shops, and windowless warehouses.
The citizens of the city are quarrelsome—fights break out and we are told that the streets are empty, as residents keep moving further away from each other because they can't stop quarrelling with neighbours.
We also learn that the city is unsubstantial. One can construct a house or come by various commodities just by thinking them, but the houses can't keep out rain or intruders and the commodities don't satisfy needs. Most striking is the fact that, though the grey city seems huge, it actually is tiny.
The focus of the book is not so much on imagining hell, as it is on explaining why some souls are confined there, and why they choose to return there even when they are offered the opportunity to go in heaven.
The souls are not condemned to hell as punishment: they put themselves into hell, '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'.
The images are consistent with the ideas in The Problem of Pain. The essence of hell is not physical torture. The pain of hell is internal, the agony of literal self-absorption and increasing quarrelsomeness and isolation. As souls become fixed in these attitudes, they are hell. Here the idea and the images come close to merging.
Two sides of the same coin
The Great Divorce imagines heaven in similar ways:
Everything becomes more and more itself. Here is joy that cannot be shaken. Our light can swallow up your darkness; but your darkness cannot now infect our light. No, no, no. Come to us. We will not go to you. Can you really have thought that love and joy would always be at the mercy of frowns and sighs? Did you not know they were stronger than their opposites?
At the close of The Last Battle, the old professor, Digory Kirke, observes that the heaven he and the other dead characters have reached is simply a better version of the places they knew in life.
Lewis envisions heaven as a place open to all, but only a few will choose it. Lewis disagrees with those who are afraid to see heaven as a reward saying:
It is not so. Heaven offers nothing a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to. There are rewards that do not sully motives. A man's love for a woman is not mercenary because he wants to marry her.
Lewis' view of heaven might be summarised by observing his last novel, Till We Have Faces; a retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche.
Though the gods of the book are pagan, the message of the story for Christians is quite clear. Orual, the queen of Glome, is angry with God for a life of bitter loneliness. She writes a book, her case against the gods, in which she demands an explanation for her suffering.
In the end, as with Job, she is not given answers, only an experience of the power of the Divine presence. And that is enough. She sees her own sin, the lies she has hidden from herself, and she sees God for who he is and concludes: 'I ended my [complaint against you] with the words no answer. I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away.'
Tim Shallard a co-director of Mosaic Workshop a shared creative space in central Auckland. He also works as a barista at Crave Café-the most bad-ass café in Auckland: he is studying towards a Masters in Applied Theology at Carey Baptist College; and runs a poetry collective. His passions include coffee, community, and anything Morningside.
Tim Shallard's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/tim-shallard.html