Thus revealed, the creature buried its nose in the tire-tilled soil...
January 22, 2004
Tying up "Lewis" ends
Category: Serious

Since I'm finally getting around to responding to the C.S. Lewis quote that Dawn left in "Go Wes", I thought it only appropriate that we start off the post with a bad pun in the topic. Other recent meditations inspired by Dawn's post can be read here. (Also, if you scroll up, you can see my completed Krang drawing, which I posted at the end of the previous post. I'm really pleased with how it turned out. Look at that smile! Excellent.)

Way back in "Of Gods and Men and Suffering", I wrote: According to the Bible, God has turned away from many people, and many people will be condemned to suffer eternally in the flames of Hell. So Jesus may have suffered, yes -- but he never suffered that. And even if one argues that he did (with the descent into Sheol, though I think that is quite different from Hell proper), his sojourn there was not eternal.

From Dawn, by way of response: C.S. Lewis, in Chapter 8 of The Problem of Pain, describes how, if God turns away, it is only because the soul from which He turns persists in declaring to Him that He is not welcome.

And from Lewis: 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. ... They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.

Remember that; I will come back to it.

Now, on a tangential note, some brief observations that I have on Lewis, whose writing I think is interesting -- even though I couldn't stomach The Screwtape Letters after a bit and never got around to finishing it. While in theory you'd expect a book of letters from one devil to another to be kind of interesting, it (perhaps necessarily) came across as not only rather one-sided, but also extremely irritating in that it consisted entirely of pontificating about how to pull people away from God (or "The Enemy" as the devils say). Of course, there were some great passages here and there (though you'd sort of have to take the negative image of them to get to their source), but in general it was just a really nasty book, at least as far as I got.

I found The Great Divorce, however, to be quite good, though in the end I thought that Lewis's depiction of Heaven turned out to be far more chilling than his depiction of Hell. In TGD, Hell struck me as being a lot like London -- or at least how London is often depicted in film -- or any foggy city block, but people had the power down there to create anything they wanted which, though not of really excellent quality, did its job, etc. There was a philosophical society down there (yay~) and there were tales of travelers who ventured to the distant palace of Napoleon Bonaparte, in which he perpetually paced back and forth with his head down, muttering to himself. It sounded like a fairly neat place, actually, if a bit dismal in appearance.

Contrast this with Heaven, where, while it was described as beautiful country with meadows and forests, and green hills and rivers, at first the grass was so hard and sharp that it pierced one's feet like diamonds, and I believe the force of the rushing water was compared to that of boulders. (Of course, as one became acclimated to the place and began to receive God, as it were, these things became less threatening and more serene, but still, the image of blades of grass being blades of grass is a rather unsettling one.) And the exchanges that took place in Heaven, too, I found rather troubling -- despite the supposedly pervasive Love of the place, it struck me with a certain coldness. I think a husband who had come up from Hell found his wife, who curtly told him that she did not need him at all, because now she had God -- and while it would have been true, it struck me as somehow wrong. The husband, dejected, returned to Hell. (Or did he disappear in a thin wisp of green smoke, leaving behind a horrible smell? Something like that happened to's been a while since I read the book.)

There was another exchange in which a philosopher from Hell ran into an old colleague and tried to strike up a discussion with him, whence the colleague answered, "Here, we only think on God." I think the philosopher went back to Hell. Now, I probably would have replied, "Let's do talk about God, then!" and probably would have wanted to meet God (as the narrator eventually did), so perhaps the flaw here is in Lewis's depiction of the philosopher, whose response was quite different, but as presented there was an appalling simplicity about it that seemed almost the antithesis of thought. It was rather as if he had said, "Here, we only say that we think on God; in truth, we think nothing." Theology is a rather complicated subject -- one does not have to have philosophical training to tell you that the Bible can be rather difficult to understand (and cannot be taken literally in many cases, lest you end up with sermons about the merits of BACKHANDING children in the face) -- and admittedly in recent years I have not thought fondly of Matthew 11:25.

The other day, during a google search with a text string (in order to find the exact verse number), I came across a sermon in which this verse was discussed. It reads (line breaks omitted): God doesn?t have a problem with our doubts and hesitations and questions ? little children constantly ask questions. God doesn?t have a problem with intellectual genius either. What Jesus is saying is that God is offended by human pride and self-importance. God has a problem with people who think they know everything ? people who think they can find him and define him however they please.

Now I'd have no problem with that -- I'm all for questioning; question away! -- but properly speaking, that's not what the text says. Matthew 11:25 does not read, "I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from those who deem themselves learned and wise -- but in truth are not, for these haughty, self-important people fail to recognize their own ignorance -- and revealing them to childlike people who ask questions about these matters." Moreover, I wonder about what the actual Hebrew reads, since in my Bible that verse reads, "I thank thee...for hiding these things from the learned and wise, and revealing them to the simple." (Unfortunately, I cannot read Hebrew at all, but in the Vulgate Bible the term used is parvulis, a variant of which, in my Latin dictionary, is part of the idiom "parvo animo esse", meaning "to be of small mind", i.e. "to be small-minded". So while the term in the Latin verse could also be translated as "the young", etc., the general connotation of the word seems to be less favorable than the English "little children"...but it's been a while, and my Latin reading is pretty rusty.) There is also an interesting gloss on that verse here -- though admittedly I am not a fan of Calvin, whose writing strikes me as, in many places, being rather nasty in spirit, not unlike a BACKHAND in the face.

So back to Lewis. Despite the unsettling nature of his depictions of Heaven, it did become more "friendly" the longer one stayed there, as one became more solid and made friends with George Macdonald (whose writing I am told I would absolutely love, for which reason I bought several of his books, just haven't gotten around to reading them yet). But there was one thing that I liked most of all -- excepting the meaning of the sunset (or was it a sunrise?) that took place at the ending -- is that there appeared to be buses leaving from Hell to Heaven all the time, so that, even in Hell, the "door" was always open.

Now, my mention of Hell, and God's turning away from the souls there, was brief -- we had been speaking previously of suffering, and particularly the magnitude of Christ's suffering, and whether it ultimately compared to that of those who are fully human and not also fully God. And when one is comparing degrees of suffering, it seems that the Hell-dwellers will necessarily win the tormented prize. However, another point of the discussion was whether certain emotional or circumstantial factors can mitigate the intensity (or validity, at least objectively) of suffering -- the physical pain may be equally painful, physically, when one is tortured for a cause and when one is tortured for no reason at all, but in the former case it seems that the knowledge that one suffers for noble reasons may offer the sufferer some "peace of mind" -- or at least, if it does not, we can posit that that sufferer is somehow "better off", objectively speaking, than the one whose suffering is for naught.

In Lewis's explanation of Hell, and what keeps its denizens there, then -- both regarding Dawn's quote (way above) and in the presence of buses to Heaven in Hell -- we find a similar answer: by declaring that the damned continue to remain in Hell of their own accord -- and not just because they strayed from God during the span of their human life, perhaps, but even in the afterlife continue to reject God's grace, forever -- we might say that while yes, they suffer, their suffering is somehow mitigated by the fact that they choose to suffer, and, as Lewis writes, "certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good." And while I have not read the rest of Lewis's chapter from which Dawn's quote is taken (or any other chapters in the book, for that matter), from this quote it seems that one could be charitable and suggest that it is not God doing the turning away at all, but that the "blame" rests entirely with the damned. For why would God turn away? While it may make sense for God to turn away from such stubborn souls -- especially if God knows that they will never "come around", as it were -- the fact of God's turning away would seem to ensure that they never could turn to God (even though it has already been established that they wouldn't anyway). Besides, God is omnipotent, and clearly has the strength at God's disposal to face into the flames of Hell for all eternity, perpetually turning the other cheek to distribute the warmth about the Eternal countenance evenly.

But I think that would be a really charitable reading, and one that seems to be in conflict with a number of Biblical verses -- in fact, several verses even seem to be at odds with the idea that all persons who do not come to God willfully turn away. I had the interesting experience of participating in a Bible study session during my freshman year of college, during which one participant would read a verse, or a series of verses, and then we would go around the table with each participant sharing his/her feelings about that particular verse. So eventually we touched on Exodus 11:10 (or at least I think it was addressed on that occasion, but perhaps not; my memory is not perfect -- in any case, it was addressed at some point, and the reactions were as follows), which reads, in my Bible, "...and yet the LORD made [Pharoah] obstinate, and he did not let the Israelites leave the country." Somehow the members of this group found the verse to be comforting, saying something like, "Well, everything is the will of God, even the bad things, and unbelievers are manipulated for His ends, so that makes me feel good." I pointed out that the verse was rather unsettling, since God made Pharoah obstinate, as opposed to him being obstinate of his own accord.

And then they attacked me as an "unbeliever" -- they were so nasty to me during the whole of the session that the person who invited me afterwards felt compelled to give me a big hug and sincerely thank me for coming (which was more than a little awkward, given that the guy was 6' and over 200 pounds and I am not very big at all), and even years later I could not pass some members of that group without being the victim of a cruel glance. (So again, I can understand why some people oppose religion, if this is its effect on people.)

But my point is that, while my translation sounds a lot more tame than "the LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart," which was what we read on that day, the passivity of Pharoah with respect to the hardening of his will is quite clear -- it hardly seems that we can blame Pharoah for his actions, when God has essentially compelled him to act wrongly. And I think that verses along these lines conflict with the notion that those in Hell continue to suffer their due to their own stubbornness, if at least in a few cases God may be responsible for it. However, I once discussed this verse with a Mormon interlocutor (a really swell guy, great to talk to; I should e-mail him) who assured me that that was based on a mistranslation, and that the verse really should have read, "...Pharoah hardened his heart against the LORD, and he would not let the Israelites go out of his country." And actually, in context it would make sense, given that the part of the sentence before it reads, "Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh, but..." But it's not that the current reading doesn't make sense, it's just that it doesn't sound too great.

Still, there have been some influential Christian thinkers who disavow the notion of an eternal Hell altogether, and on a closing note I'll excerpt from my philosophy seminar paper on Friedrich Schleiermacher, entitled (rather unimaginatively) "Schleiermacher's Eschatology", to that effect:

The notion of separation reappears in Schleiermacher?s consideration of eternal damnation. Despite the figurative sayings of Christ that might be interpreted as hinting at the reality of Hell, Schleiermacher ultimately decides that there is insufficient basis for forming this belief. Foremost he notes that this cannot refer to bodily pains, for it is characteristic of such pains that we become inured to them as they persist, so that, lest they be continually increased to the point of even destroying nature, they must lessen, in which case the unbelievers might be able to derive some pleasure from their ability to withstand these torments. (Friedrich Schleiermacher; The Christian Faith §163; p. 720) In the same vein he considers that the torments might arise from the knowledge that one might have participated in the eternal blessedness but was kept from the prize through one?s own actions; however people have a tendency to finally accept the reality of things and move on. Hence the prospect of eternal blessedness could not continue to affect the Hell-dweller unless, somehow, the option of securing it were somehow possible. (CF §163; p. 721) Moreover Schleiermacher notes that the ability to anguish over this state must entail the unbeliever?s being able to imagine what that state might be like, and in doing so, arguably, know a something of that bliss in spite of having been denied it. And this is not properly in accord with the notion of total misery. (CF §163; p. 721) And finally the reality of eternal damnation would not be in accordance with the notions of sympathy, whether that of the Christians in their blessed state or in the actions of God. Even if the torments of the unbelievers are regarded as just, Schleiermacher observes that "even in this life we rightly expect a deeper sympathy to be shown to merited than to unmerited suffering." (CF §163; p. 721) Given the notion of connectedness in all things, it is difficult to see how the believers in their blessedness might not be troubled by the fact that the very same circumstances that led them to bliss resigned the unbelievers to their sorry state below. Thus Schleiermacher dismisses the notion of eternal damnation and posits that the consummation of the Church must involve the redemption and incorporation of even the unbelievers, such that all are united in fellowship with one another and with Christ. (CF §163; p. 722)

Aaaaand that's a wrap.

-posted by Wes | 9:18 am | Comments (0)
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