C. S. Lewis and Three Biblical Images of Hell

Along with G. K. Chesterton and John Piper, C. S. Lewis is among my very favourite authors. Combining English wit with a deep understanding of the Bible’s themes and story, there is a good reason Lewis is among the 20th Century’s most beloved figures. Above all, however, Lewis has a knack for making deep insights plain to the everyman. In the case of his doctrine of everlasting punishment, this fact may explain his widespread influence on the topic in spite of the fact he never wrote a major work on hell. In spite of my deep appreciation for Lewis, I explain in chapters 5 and 9 of Is There Anything Good About Hell? that his teaching on hell has contributed to some very negative trends in evangelicalism since.

As explored in chapter 5, Lewis’ states in his chapter on hell  in The Problem of Pain,

Our Lord speaks of Hell under three symbols: first, that of punishment (‘everlasting punishment’, Matthew 25:46); second, that of destruction (‘fear Him who is able to destroy both body and soul in Hell’, Matthew 10:28); and thirdly, that of privation, exclusion, or banishment into ‘the darkness outside’, as in the parables of the man without a wedding garment or of the wise and foolish virgins… But it is not necessary to concentrate on the images of torture to the exclusion of those suggesting destruction and privation.

Note the categorization and definition of the symbols of hell here. Lewis clearly associates “punishment” with “torture.” He then goes on to almost exclusively depict hell as privation, and as something chosen by the unrepentant, rather than as something inflicted by God. There are important truths here, and there is indeed a very significant sense in which those in hell have chosen it for themselves, a point made in Christian literature as early as Irenaeus. However, Lewis introduces a subtle error; by defining punishment as “torture”, he can then distance the categories of destruction and privation from punishment, and because of that, from the personal and purposeful activity of God. The effects of this error have been widespread.

In Tony Gray’s doctoral thesis he explains the influence this chapter has had in the broader literature; “Perhaps one of the greatest contributions that Lewis has made to the debate about hell is his analysis of the three biblical images used to refer to hell..” Authors Christopher Morgan, David Powys, Andrew Naselli, and John Benton have all followed similar categorization schemes as Lewis, in spite of disparate views on hell. Although it may be too large of a burden to prove that Lewis is primarily responsible for each of these author’s schemes, his influence is clearly significant. As another example, Kendall Harmon states in his essay “The Case Against Conditionalism”,

A fully biblical theology of hell must do justice to all three images of hell to which C. S. Lewis draws our attention—punishment, destruction, and exclusion. And here is where the traditional view may be faulted, because it focuses too much on punishment and leaves little room for the other two pictures. At this point the conditionalists’ critique of traditionalism should be heard when they insist that some New Testament texts do not speak of eternal torment but instead use different language.

In order to rebalance the doctrine of hell we must recognize that in the scriptures fire, banishment, loss, and destruction, are all punishments by God, and that He is active in each of these aspects. When punishment is compartmentalized, it inherently communicates that the other categories are not punishment, and the activity of God in retribution is marginalized.