C. S. Lewis

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How does C. S. Lewis describe heaven and hell?

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C.S. Lewis pictured hell in The Screwtape Letters as a toxic office environment where everyone is trying to hurt and backstab others. In The Great Divorce, he pictured it as an eternally gray, rainy city where people isolate because they can't get along with others. You can have whatever you want there, but what you get is always cheap and unsatisfying, such as a flimsy house that leaks. This hell seems large, but is really no bigger than a pebble.

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Clive Staples Lewis was born in 1898 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He was a former atheist who became a Christian apologist. One of the great thinkers of our time, he died just before his 65th birthday in 1963.

C. S. Lewis described heaven and hell in many of his writings, such as The Pilgrim's Regress, in which he describes hell as a black hole, and The Screwtape Letters, where demons help create an environment of self-centered competitiveness. The Great Divorce is a novel about heaven and hell. C. S. Lewis mentions hell in The Last Battle from the Chronicles of Narnia series. He also wrote about heaven and hell in an essay titled "Myth Became Fact."

In his essay "Myth Became Fact," C. S. Lewis addresses the arguments of Corineus, who argued that there were no modern Christians--all that was left of Christianity was the vocabulary and emotions that went with it, but the essential doctrines had long ago been abandoned. In Lewis's response, he talks about heaven as a marriage between myth and fact. God fills us with wonder and delight, but also reveals absolute truth, which is the ultimate reality. The pagan christs and false spirituality would be a representation of hell. Ultimately, Lewis believed that hell was the absence of God. Since God is love, hell is therefore the absence of all love, truth, light, and goodness.

"We must not be nervous about "parallels" and 'pagan Christs': they ought to be there--it would be a stumbling block if they weren't. We must not, in false spirituality, withhold our imaginative welcome. If God chooses to be mythopoeic--and is not the sky itself a myth--shall we refuse to be mythopathic? For this is the marriage of heaven and earth: perfect myth and perfect fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight, addressed to the savage, the child, and the poet in each one of us no less than to the moralist, the scholar, and the philosopher."

In his novel The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis describes hell as a place absent from the presence of God. The people who go there are described as ghost-like, so devoid of substance that the grass doesn't even yield when they walk on it. The grass feels like needles to them. Their forms are blown up like balloons. They have chosen their own wills over the will of God, and he has given everyone a free will to choose to follow Him or go their own way. Hell is just the extension of their choice to reject him. In their ignorance or willful rebellion, those who reject Christ don't realize that they have rejected everything good and right. He depicts a bus ride in which people have arrived at a destination they don't realize has been a product of their choices. The reality exists in the distance, where heaven is. The people of no substance have chosen hell as their eternal existence. Below is a quote from The Great Divorce.

"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.' 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. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened."

Further quotes from The Great Divorce show Lewis's belief that the decision to reject God is also a decision to reject all goodness and true love.

"There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him." 

"'Son,' he said,' ye cannot in your present state understand eternity...That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, 'No future bliss can make up for it,' not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say 'Let me have but this and I'll take the consequences': little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man's past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man's past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why...the Blessed will say 'We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,' : and the Lost, 'We were always in Hell.' And both will speak truly." 

"Hell is a state of mind—ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind—is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains."

In The Last Battle, the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia series, C. S. Lewis shows the people who chose not to follow God as hating Him, and therefore choosing to turn away. C. S. Lewis didn't go into a graphic and scary description of hell as this series was written for children, but the theme is consistent: heaven is the presence of God, and contains all love, goodness, truth and light, and hell is a place for those who choose to live apart from God. Each eternal destination is a choice. Here is a quote from The Last Battle:

"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, which . . . streamed away to the left of the doorway. The children never saw them again." The narrator concludes, "I don’t know what became of them."

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How did C. S. Lewis picture hell?

C.S. Lewis discussed hell in his 1940 book The Problem of Pain, where he pictured hell not so much as a place where God sends us but as a place where we send ourselves because we have become too self-centered and self-absorbed. Anyone who is too self-centered is unable to love others, including God, and unable to see their own need for humility and forgiveness. Such people cut themselves off from others and from God and shrink smaller and smaller. Since what the self-centered person most fears is loss of self, that is what occurs in hell: the damned person's selfhood or soul is sucked up or eaten by Satan, who now controls that person.

For more specific description of hell in C.S. Lewis, we can turn to 1942's The Screwtape Letters or 1946's The Great Divorce. In The Screwtape Letters, hell is imagined as a particularly unpleasant police state or office environment where the individual is isolated and fearful, without loving relationships because everyone is out to backstab and hurt everyone else.

In The Great Divorce, hell is pictured as a seemingly large gray city where it is always raining. Everything is dingy and the streets are empty because people can't get along. They move apart from each other to keep from fighting, living in isolation. In this version of hell, people can have whatever they want by thinking of it, but what they get is cheap, flimsy, and unsatisfying, such as a house that leaks all the time or food that doesn't really alleviate hunger. Also, the seeming large size of hell is a deception: it is really a tiny, restricted place, smaller than "a pebble."

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