“There is no pit so deep God’s love is not deeper still” – Corrie ten Boom, Nazi death camp survivor
I want to quickly get to the point: The interlocutors in the video find Lewis’s view of “Hell” (as eternal) compelling especially because of the depth of his profound understanding of “human nature” (see video time at 1:26:35). In other words he makes the case that the reason for the eternality of hell is the eternal downward spiral of the inhabitants of hell in their human depravity and sin (a pattern born out in Romans 1). There is nothing in man qua man (in the generic sense) that should give us any hope for reform, repentance or salvation – because it is entirely possible (if not in fact likely) for a human being to continually (and therefore eternally) decide – to will – to forever embrace their sin, their isolation from God – and therefore their hell.
The problem is compounded with each actualized decision to remain “apart from God” – and therefore further dehumanized – to go deeper into the abyss of sinful, alienated “self” – so that the net effect is, as Lewis famously put it, that “the doors of hell are locked from the inside“.
Now here are some problems with this position as I see it:
- This fails to take into account a more biblically robust understanding of human nature. I would say it is a flattened, one dimensional perspective – lacking the murky, multi-dimensional ambiguity of humanity as at once made by and in God’s image – and yet fallen, sinful and rebellious. Agreed that humans are fallen and sinful creatures. But there is more to be said – starting with (again) the fact that we are each made in the image of God. While Calvin argues that this image is destroyed, there is no indication in scripture to positively establish that this is the case. In fact the earliest biblical law regarding justice for cases of murder are predicated on the fact that (even after the “fall”) – humanity is made in the image of God (Genesis 9:6). We are still of great worth and value – fearfully and wonderfully made. It is not a stretch to see implicit in the act of image-bearing some echo of the notion of the relationship of a child to their parents – e.g. “he’s the spitting image of his dad…”. It is too easy here to let the horrific negatives about humanity (our fallenness and sinfulness) obscure the abiding truth that we are of great value to God – and loved by him because (dare I say) He sees something of Himself in us. If God has so set His image indelibly upon the human frame – NO one – not even the bearer of the image – can undo it… No more than offspring can UN-offspring themselves.
- Another reason it could be argued that this Imago Dei is indelible – is that, because as long as we exist we will forever and inextricably be related to God as our maker and creator. Indeed the Bible dares cast it (for us all) in even more intimate terms: “for we are all his offspring” (Acts 17) This is the incontrovertible equivalence of saying (as some translations dare to do) ” we are all His children“. This is an eternal and unchangeable fact about our innermost nature. And that must mean that if we are not “at home” with God (living “reconciled” lives) – we are prodigals. (more on that later) Why? Because we are not made as those who exist potentially “for” God – as divine experiments in the (apparently) human but sovereign power of arbitrary, irrational human agency – we are not made to see if we will per chance decide to reciprocate God’s love. “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” (Augustine)
- Our being image bearers is not an accidental or unnecessary part of what it means to be human. We cannot and would not continue to exist apart from this relationship – for “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). This brings up questions about human ontology in hell: without our being “in” God’s Being – we would cease to exist – even in hell. Therefore even there – we cannot (of existential, ontological necessity) escape God’s sustaining presence – “if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there…”(Psalm 139:8).
- While we are God’s enemies – we must never lose sight of this fact: We are victims of deception – and possess a “fallen” nature we never asked or decided for – we have been “taken captive” as prisoners against (or at least regardless of) our will to do Satan’s will (2 Timothy 2:26). Furthermore, we are also “victims” by virtue of the fact that our spiritual blindness is not merely something of our own doing. Once again we are casualties of an assault of Satan: “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Cor. 4:4) Surely this must imply something about God’s “disposition” toward those in hell – e.g. that He does not see us purely or simply as having made ourselves His enemies of our own autonomous doing. If that were the case we would be entirely culpable for our sorry state. But there is more going on here – and the Divine response is to send the Son on a rescue mission: to liberate (redeem) those imprisoned – to “destroy the works of Satan”. Any construal of perfect divine justice (and the redemptive “purpose” of hell) must surely take these factors into account – and (at the very least) in light of the fact of our genuine “victim hood” recognize the motivation for God’s impulse of mercy toward the inhabitants of hell.
- Unlike Lewis, we should also recognize that God is not just taking a “hands off” posture, a kind of strange passive-aggressive “love” – but that hell is more God’s doing than Lewis gives Him credit for – and it may well be meant to induce a reckoning with the Truth – a coming to ones senses – because God relentlessly loves and pursues those who are rightfully His – even though they be “enemies”.
- Our hearts have eternity set in them – and are restless until we find our “home” in God. The parable of the prodigal has something profound and often overlooked: there is within the human make-up a “homing device” – an inner spiritual compass stamped indelibly on our very nature: the “turning” occurs when “we come to ourselves”… This suggests that there is a “Trojan horse” hidden in some small, neglected corner of the human heart and will. What if the wooing and drawing of God is an “inside job”? What if that restlessness refuses to go away? Given time – perhaps even ages – might it not be that every human “comes to himself” – and turns to the source of all that is true, good and beautiful – and finally says, “Yes!”?
- Finally, based on everything just said, I think this is the strongest objection to the views expressed in the “Embracing Hell” video: “Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord – to the Glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10-11) And “It is written: ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.'” (Romans 14:11) Both of the above verses come from “By Myself I have sworn; Truth has gone from My mouth, a word that will not be revoked: Every knee will bow to Me, every tongue will swear allegiance.” (Isaiah 45:23) A decisive break from the downward pattern is promised – God has sworn it in the most emphatic terms. Another passage from Psalm 22 seems to allude to this great hope: “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him,” Psalm 22:27
These are the kinds of beings that will be in hell. And who can say that at some point they will not all come to “themselves” as the offspring/children of God – and return to the “home” for which their restless hearts truly and deeply yearn?
One final note: Lewis says, [regarding eternal hell]”… it has always been held by Christendom” (Lewis – The Problem of Pain)
One must only take seriously the scholarship of (such as) Ilaria Ramelli in “A Larger Hope?” to clearly see this is just not the case – at least cast in a monolithic way; in fact the belief in universal reconciliation was commonly held by many of the eminent Fathers during the first 350 years (for example Clement, Origen and the Cappadocians). Even Augustine appears to have embraced this perspective before, in his later years, he turned his indomitable mind toward warring with the heresy (as he understood it) of Pelagianism (which he came, mistakenly, to associate with Origen).