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.C. S. Lewis1
Of all the plot formulas in literature, perhaps the most popular and enduring is that of the epic journey. The reader who follows Frodo as he walks to Rivendell or Harry Potter as he hunts down Voldemort’s horcruxes quickly becomes a participant in the journey. Sharing in the adventure and the danger of the road, the reader realizes that he has also, in the process, made a pilgrimage into his own soul.
This is particularly the case for readers of Dante’s Inferno as they follow Dante and Virgil’s descent into each level of hell. It matters little if those readers do or do not themselves believe in hell; Dante makes the pain and horror so real that they feel as though they have been there. And because of this feeling, Dante’s readers are inevitably drawn to ask the toughest question that the subject of hell poses: Can the biblical claim that that God is a God of love be reconciled with the idea that God condemns people to hell? 2
Thankfully, Dante does not shy away from that question. Instead he boldly enumerates the four qualities of God that worked together to construct hell: “sacred justice,” “divine omnipotence,” “ultimate intellect,” and “primordial love.”3 Few readers will be shocked by the first three, but the fourth may—in fact, should—give pause to many.
How could love play any part in hell?
Going to College
Though theologians have debated for decades whether the descriptions of heaven and hell in the Bible are literal or figurative, there is one thing that the Bible makes clear: What heaven promises—no matter what it looks like—is the glory of spending eternity in the direct presence of God. Likewise, whatever hell looks like—whether the fire and the darkness are physical or psychological torments—it means being cast out of the presence of God for eternity.
One of the reasons that hell is such a difficult concept is that so many of us (myself included) tend to think about heaven and hell by means of a false analogy. Life, we think, is like college. If we get an A in life, we go to heaven; if we get an F, we go to hell. To the modern mind, such a scenario seems unfair, a violation of our firmly held belief that all men are created equal.
But what if there are two colleges: a college of heaven and a college of hell? What if those who go to the former want to major in God, while those who go to the latter want to major in themselves? And what if God, out of love for us and our freedom, lets us choose which college we enroll in?
Losing Our Humanity
In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis challenges his readers to examine Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats.4 In it, the sheep—representing those who showed compassion to others during their lives—are invited into heaven while the goats, who showed no compassion, are cast into the eternal fire (hell). Jesus then explicitly states that the eternal fire was made for the devil and his angels. Lewis points out that in this parable, “the saved go to a place prepared for them, while the damned go to a place never made for men at all.”5
The implication of this is startling and monumental: God did not create man for hell nor hell for man. If this is true, then we have a good chance of making it to heaven when we die—assuming we are still human beings. But herein is the problem.
When we continually choose ourselves and our desires over the one who created us and what he wants for us, we dehumanize ourselves, separating ourselves from our creator and designed purpose. By a process that is as much theological as it is psychological, we surrender the part of ourselves that makes us human.
Lewis illustrates this point most effectively in The Great Divorce, which was written partially in response to Dante’s work. In it, he takes his readers on a peculiar bus ride from hell to heaven, during which saved souls try to convince the damned even now to forsake their sins and embrace the love and mercy of God.
At one point Lewis focuses on the damned soul of a garrulous, grumbling woman who won’t cease her pity-party long enough to listen to the saint sent to help her. To Lewis, she does not seem an “evil” woman, only a grumbler. But that, his guide tells him, is the whole point: Is she a “grumbler, or only a grumble”?6
That is, is she still a person or has she become only the essence of her sin? Has she dehumanized herself completely? If there’s even an ember of humanity left inside of her, the love of God can nurse the flame till it blazes again, but if all that is left is ashes, nothing can be done.
True love does not force itself upon another. In the end, it is we, not God, who cast ourselves (or the remains of ourselves) into hell—into the only place in the universe from which God has, out of love, withdrawn his direct presence.
- C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 130.
- The Holy Bible, The New International Version © 1984, 1 John 4:8, Matthew 5:29–30.
- Dante Alighieri, The Inferno, trans. by John Ciardi (New York: Signet, 2009), 18.
- The Holy Bible, Matthew 25:31–46.
- Lewis, 127.
- C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 77.
- Photo Credit: Luc Sesselle / Shutterstock.com.