I personally think many Christians run the risk of talking about hell way too much as we discuss our faith. At least in my own opinion, following God and focusing on the goodness of Christ far outweighs any sort of “scare tactic” to frighten people about God’s judgment! But even if some Christian circles tend to overemphasize fear-of-hell, it is still worth exploring what life after death without Christ might look like. In many ways, thinking about this topic actually helps us gain a better understanding of God’s kingdom, divine judgment, and heaven itself.
I mentioned on Sunday that I have been greatly shaped by CS Lewis’ own theology and writing. Lewis, as you are likely aware of, wrote many books and was a Christian apologist during the 20th century.
Often Christians believe that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment (fire, scary demons, and the like) for an infinite amount of time. But I think this kind of cartoonish thinking falls short of what we can theologically surmise about hell. Hell, according to Lewis, is a place of intense isolation. As I preached yesterday, it is a place of utter separation from God. Likewise it is probably cold, dark, unloving, unforgiving, hopeless, unwelcoming, and lonely–all “opposites” of what the presence of God feels like!
In his book Pilgrim’s Progress, Lewis use the metaphor of a tenant and landlord to describe judgment after death: “The Landlord does not condemn [the people of hell] to lack of hope: they have done that to themselves.” In other words, the people who are in hell have decided for themselves that specific fate by rejecting God.
In another book, the Screwtape Letters, hell is a place where “everyone wishes everyone else’s discrediting, demotion, and ruin; everyone is an expert in the confidential report, the pretended alliance, the stab in the back.” These are very haunting words as we think about how selfishness, greed, and treachery have no place in God’s kingdom! To experience hell is to lack any sense of connection with fellow humans.
And in one of my favorite books, The Great Divorce, Lewis wrote about how he envisioned hell as a cold, gray, rainy city. Fights are common, so people move further and further apart from one another because they cannot bear to invest in relationships. One character remarks that “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 [heaven].”
In perhaps his most famous book series, the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis provided picture of what he imagined the last judgment will look like. Aslan the lion, the Christ-figure of the story, gathers all the magical creatures of Narnia together to be sorted and judged. Lewis writes: “And when some [of the animals] looked [upon their king], 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, which… streamed away to the left of the doorway. The children never saw them again.” The narrator of the story concludes with this sobering statement: “I don’t know what became of them.”
I think this is an insightful picture of what happens whenever someone dies without the love of Christ living in his or her heart. That individual will look upon God, seated on the heavenly judgment throne, and become repulsed and fearful of what heaven entails. To know pure love and to see Christ face-to-face would essentially be unbearable. I truly think the idea that “the doors of hell are locked from the inside” illustrates this point well.
I once heard another similar illustration of this theological concept from an author named Rob Bell in his book Love Wins. He talked about how heaven is often described as a huge homecoming party. But suppose a white supremacist were to attend this heavenly gathering and see Revelation 7:9 come to fruition–“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Chances are, he or she would find heaven’s diversity and the whole body of Christ absolutely unbearable!
So we do have an important choice to make right now. What we pursue and love in this life will impact the next. If we embrace the love of God and develop a heart of service towards our neighbors, then heaven will be the perfect fit for what we desire. But if we constantly reject God and those whom God loves, then we might find ourselves locking hell’s doors from the inside.