What Lewis Had Wrong about Hell

C.S. Lewis is among my very favorite authors, and The Great Divorce is arguably my favorite book. In the inventive work of fiction, the inhabitants of a gray, dreary, and inconsequential hell take a bus to the outskirts of heaven and meet with a variety of saints. The most powerful and poignant parts of the work are contained in these human interactions, which portray the depth and degree of sin’s work in the hearts and minds of man.

What Lewis communicates about anthropology in these vignettes is unsurpassed. Sadly, what he conveys about theology proper is appalling. Lewis places himself in the story and is guided by George MacDonald, whose writings he greatly admired. MacDonald’s character states in one place,

“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.’ ”[1]

Despite my love both for Lewis and The Great Divorce, this is a prime example of how his views on hell have had a negative influence on the doctrine of eternal punishment. Lewis’ most famous statement concerning hell comes from a chapter in The Problem of Pain, in which he states,

“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.”[2]

Insomuch as the statement is a description of the depraved “freedom” of hell’s denizens, it is not only a memorable turn-of-phrase; it is true. However, Lewis does not merely mean to describe man’s freedom, but also the defeat of God’s. The paragraph in which this memorable quote is situated begins,

“Finally, it is objected that the ultimate loss of a single soul means the defeat of omnipotence. And so it does. In creating beings with free will, omnipotence from the outset submits to the possibility of such a defeat.” [3]

In other words, man’s will to populate hell thwarts God’s desire that they should be in heaven. In Lewis’ view, God—in a particular but important sense—is eternally defeated.

It is true that those punished forever in hell will be there of their own accord. As the church father Irenaeus wrote,

“…those who fly from the eternal light of God, which contains in itself all good things, are themselves the cause to themselves of their inhabiting eternal darkness, destitute of all good things, having become to themselves the cause of [their consignment to] an abode of that nature.”[4]

Nevertheless, the rebellious will of man must not be the exclusive reason for their eternal punishment, precisely because in rebelling against God and His grace, men are willful rebels. It is not merely that mankind implicitly rejects God, His Christ, and all goodness by pursuing their sinful course. It is rather that man sees the goodness of God in creation, the grace of God in Christ, and the free offer of the gospel for his salvation, and deliberately desires to frustrate God’s will to deliver him through Jesus Christ.

The testimony of Scripture is that the kings of the earth set themselves against the Lord and His anointed (Ps 2:2). The temporary guardians of God’s vineyard chose to kill the Son in order to take the inheritance for themselves (Mat 21:38). The religious rulers attributed the casting out of demons to Beelzebub rather than recognize the authority of Christ and His gospel (Mat 12:24). These representative reprobates turned their backs on God and would like nothing more than to have the final say in their departure from Him.

Are they successful?

God answers in His Word that rebels will not get the last laugh. They will defeat nothing of God or His purposes, neither His omnipotence, His will, nor His glory. As it states in Psalm 2, the Lord laughs at the machinations of men—the peoples plot in vain (Ps 2:1, 4). Indeed, they will discover on the day of judgment that a burning place has long been prepared (Isa 30:33), that they were destined to stumble and fall (1 Pt 2:8), and that they were fashioned to be objects of wrath in display of God’s power (Rom 9:22). Theologian Anders Nygren captures this truth powerfully when he states,

"All must serve His purpose, in one way or another. For God has servants of different sorts; some serve Him from the heart, but others must be compelled against their will to serve Him. One can see this in the case of Pharaoh. He meant to frustrate the will of God when he hardened himself against it; but God had raised him up for the very purpose of showing His power in him. . . . When man turns to sin, he does so of his own volition; but at the same time the wrath of God commits him to it. When a man hardens his heart against God, it is God who hardens him “to show his wrath and to make known his power” on the vessels of wrath. So there are no limits to God’s sovereignty; it is revealed both in His mercy and in His wrath. In both cases His will moves forward victoriously."[5]

In a certain and important sense, the wicked choose their eternal torment in the hold of hell. The Scriptures, however, tend to place the emphasis elsewhere. Ultimately, it is Christ who judges the wicked, and then has them bound (Mat 22:13) and thrown into hell (Mat 13:42) where He will inflict vengeance upon them forever (2 Th 1:7).

Lewis may not be entirely wrong to say that the doors to hell are locked on the inside, but in John’s vision it was Christ who was seen to hold the keys to death and Hades (Rev 1:18). And even if hell’s inhabitants should pound on the door to gain admittance into the blessing of the Bridegroom, He will refuse them, for that door is forever shut, never to open again (Mat 25:11-12). Lewis was right to speak of the will of men to populate hell, but he was in deadly error to suggest that the will of man eternally prevails over God.

Paul Dirks is the Lead Pastor of New West Community Church in New Westminster, British Columbia. He is the author of Is There Anything Good About Hell?.

Related Links

"Imagine There's No Hell" by Nick Batzig

"John Bunyan: Is it Good to Fear Hell?" by Bob McKelvey

"Serious and Sensitive Preaching About Hell" by Ligon Duncan

Pastors in the Classics by Leeland Ryken, Philip Ryken, and Todd Wilson

Doctrine of Repentance by Thomas Watson


[1] C. S. Lewis, “The Great Divorce,” in Selected Books (London: HarperCollins Religious, 1999), 1062.

[2] Lewis, “The Problem of Pain,” 538.

[3] Lewis, 538.

[4] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.39.4. Parentheses in original.

[5] Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans, 6th ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1949), 367.