One by one the lost souls step off the bus to enjoy a Great Divorce holiday in Heaven . . . and one by one they decide to take the bus back to the other place. The choice is theirs. They are welcome to stay, entreated to stay, but to remain requires the surrender of everything they “prefer to joy.” Sadly, they are not prepared to make that sacrifice. Call it self-exclusion, self-alienation, self-damnation—the essential element of the libertarian model of hell is the creature’s free rejection of the divine gift of eternal life. The damned would rather endure the dreariness and boredom of the grey town than suffer the transformative love of the Father. The bus runs every day. The ride is free. The residents may avail themselves of the holiday as many times as they wish. But repeatedly, perpetually, everlastingly, they decline the invitation to abide in the realm of Joy.
“But what of the poor Ghosts who never get into the omnibus at all?”
“Everyone who wishes it does,” replies the narrator’s guide. “Never fear.”
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. To those who knock it is opened.1
So far the libertarian and universalist are in full agreement. But a question remains: If rejection of God brings ever-increasing diminishment of being (symbolized by C. S. Lewis as insubstantiality) and therefore ever-increasing suffering—for suffering there must be the further one distances oneself from the source of happiness—how can the damned sustain unyielding resistance to the never-withdrawn offer of Joy? Will not everyone eventually break? Philosopher Jerry Walls acknowledges the point: “We can only absorb so much pain, so if hell forcibly imposes ever-greater suffering, no one could resist forever.”2
One solution is to minimize the horror and privations of hell. Lewis’s grey town hardly resembles the inferno of Dante. The lost do not appear to be desperately unhappy. We might even imagine damnation as providing its own perverse pleasures and satisfactions, thus rendering the unbearable bearable.3
Several years ago an Orthodox priest emailed me and suggested that I had misunderstood the nature of damnation. It’s not all or nothing, he maintained. We should think of damnation as a continuum. When an unrighteous person dies, he is permanently established in his character. Some are very wicked, some moderately wicked, some mildly wicked. Did not Jesus tell us that his Father’s house has many mansions (John 14:2)? We may suppose that the very wicked will experience a torment far more intense than the mildly wicked. The torment, of course, is not externally imposed; it is the subjective response to the divine presence. As Alexandre Kalomiros writes:
God, like the sun, never stops shining on good or wicked alike; that rational creatures are, however, entirely free to accept or reject this grace and love; and that God in His genuine love does not force His creatures to accept Him, but respects absolutely their free decision. He does not withdraw His grace and love, but the attitude of the logical creatures toward this unceasing grace and love is the difference between paradise and hell. Those who love God are happy with Him, those who hate Him are extremely miserable by being obliged to live in His presence, and there is no place where one can escape the loving omnipresence of God.4
Hell is Heaven experienced differently, and according to the continuum model this experience will vary from person to person in relative degrees. The proposal enjoys an initial plausibility, as it accords with our experience of personal relationships; but it seems to have little support either in Scripture or the liturgical hymnody of the Last Judgment, both of which present eschatological reprobation as the greatest tragedy imaginable for the human being. Instead of being condemned to experience the full consequences of their rejection of God, the damned are merely confirmed in that degree of blindness, selfishness, and malice in which they died. We might even imagine the lost remarking, “I suppose hell could be a lot worse. Certainly it’s better than having to listen to opera.”
We come back to our initial question: If God eternally offers forgiveness and salvation, how do we explain the obduracy of the damned? Lewis offers this explanation:
For a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see.5
Here is the conclusion of the perditional process: in their adamant rejection of Love, the condemned have become incapable of even the tiniest degree of repentance. They have lost their reason; they have lost their freedom; they have lost their desire for the Good. They have become their sin. There is only the agony of the inhuman. God, we may postulate, continues to desire the salvation of the lost, yet this desire must remain eternally unfulfilled.
The lost are shadows of their former selves. All that identifies them as human has been eaten away by the cancer of evil. There remains only ravenous lust, implacable rage, pathetic self-pity, inextinguishable greed. If we could look down from paradise into the place of punishment, we would see mere specters, ciphers straining to hold on to existence. Their humanity, with its potential for love, knowledge, self-transcendence, joy and beatitude, has long since eroded away into almost-nothingness.
In The Great Divorce, Lewis provides an example of this horrible degradation—an old lady, soaked in self-pity, perpetually grumbling and whining. Her damnation consists of the fact that she was no longer a grumbler but only a grumble. As Lewis’ guide puts it:
The whole difficult of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye’ll have had experiences. It begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.6
The besetting sin may not be grumbling or self-pity. It could just as well be lust or anger or pride or a thousand other sins which smother the soul and consume its capacity for joy and repentance. But the final result is the same. Sin destroys the human soul, as fire destroys wood and reduces it to ashes. Looking at the pile of ash, one would never guess that it had once been an intricately carved statue. To quote Lewis again: “What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is ‘remains.'”7
It’s a profound vision of eternal damnation. But is it metaphysically possible, given the eternal act of creation? God is not just an Other. He is the ontological ground and source of all being, more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. As the psalmist asks, “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” (Ps 139:7). There is no space we can create that excludes the divine presence, no wall we can build that omnipotent Love cannot pierce. Human beings can no more deafen themselves to the voice of the Savior than they can unilaterally unmake themselves.
In George MacDonald’s fantasy novel Lilith, we are presented with the story of the ultimate redemption of the queen of hell.8 The lesson she must learn is that she did not create herself and cannot decreate herself. As long as Lilith continues in the delusion that she is an autonomous, independent, self-sufficient being, she remains a slave to the Shadow. As God seeps into her soul, her anguish grows. She cries out for annihilation.
“Unmake yourself, then,” she is told.
“Alas, I cannot!” she replies. “You know it, and mock me! How often have I not agonised to cease, but the tyrant keeps me being! I curse him!—Now let him kill me!”9
Lilith has been forced to acknowledge a fundamental truth of her existence: she is not her own Creator. This truth is agony to her, but it is also the doorway for her repentance.
Lewis’s vision requires us to believe that human beings can undo their creation as images of God, that they can alter who and what God made them to be. MacDonald saw the matter more truly. Sinners may dream of autonomy, may fantasize of being their own Creator and de-Creator, but this is no more than delusion. And every delusion can be shattered.
In my previous article I asked the reader, Can you imagine yourself as choosing, definitively and irrevocably, absolute misery over infinite happiness? I reiterate the question. Can you really? But perhaps you still can. Perhaps you do not find my arguments compelling. Then let me rephrase: Can you imagine the God and Father of Jesus Christ ever abandoning you to the absolute misery you have chosen? If you cannot, not really, then there within you is the blossoming of the universalist hope! It is a hope grounded not upon abstruse metaphysical schemes but the all-compassionate Creator—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who died on the cross for the salvation of all.
The greater hope has been preserved in the Eastern tradition for two millennia. Fr Andrew Louth explains, beginning with the controversial Origen:
Origen hoped for the “restoration of all,” apokatastasis pantōn, and this was certainly one of the reasons for his condemnation. His conviction did not simply rest on a philosophical belief that “the end is like the beginning,” as he affirmed several times in his On First Principles. In one of his homilies on Leviticus, he asserted:
“We shall now see, how it is to be understood that our Savior will drink wine no more until he drinks it anew with the saints in the Kingdom of God. My Savior even now weeps over my sins. My Savior cannot rejoice, so long as I continue in iniquity. Why can he not? Because he himself is the advocate for my sins with the Father, as John his disciple says, ‘for if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, and he is the propitiation for our sins.’ How, therefore, can he, who is the advocate for my sins, drink the wine of gladness, while I sadden him through my sinning? How could he be in gladness—he who draws near to the altar to offer sacrifice for me, a sinner; he, to whom sorrow returns without ceasing on account of my sins? I shall drink it with you, he says, in the Kingdom of my Father. So long as we do not act so as to ascend to the Kingdom, he cannot drink the wine alone, which he has promised to drink with us. He is there in sorrow, so long as I persist in error.”
This is the deeper reason for Origen’s conviction of final restoration for all: it is inconceivable that Christ is to remain in sorrow for all eternity, on account of the failure of any rational creature to respond to his love and to benefit from his sacrifice.10
Whereas in Western theology, such a conviction rapidly dies out, in Orthodox theology hope in universal salvation, based on a conviction of the boundlessness of God’s love, has never gone away. St. Gregory of Nyssa interprets the words of the apostle Paul’s teaching that God will be “all in all’” (1 Cor. 15.28) to mean the “complete annihilation of evil.” St. Maximos the Confessor likewise holds out the hope of the salvation of all. The grounds for this are principally the long-suffering love of God for all creation, and also the conviction that evil is without substance, but is rather a corruption of distortion of what is good. These two motives find striking expression in St Maximos’ contemporary, St. Isaac the Syrian, who asserts that, “there exists within the Creator a single love and compassion which is spread out over all creation, a love which is without alteration, timeless and everlasting . . . No part belonging to any single one of all rational beings will be lost, as far as God is concerned, in the preparation of that supernal kingdom” and then adds, quoting Diodore of Tarsus, “not even the immense wickedness of the demons can overcome the measure of God’s goodness.” The pain of hell is the result of love: “those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love . . . For the sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is more poignant than any torment.” Evil and hell cannot be eternal: “Sin, Gehenna, and death do not exist at all with God, for they are effects, not substances. Sin is the fruit of free will. There was a time when sin did not exist, and there will be a time when it will not exist.”11
Nor should we think, insists Louth, that the hope for the salvation of all has disappeared in the modern Orthodox Church:
This conviction that there is nothing outside God’s loving care finds expression in the prayers of the Orthodox Church. In the service of kneeling at Vespers on the evening of Pentecost, we pray “for those who are held fast in hell, granting us great hopes that there will be sent down from you to the departed repose and comfort from the pains which hold them.” This hope, amounting to a conviction, that there is nothing beyond the infinite love of God, that there is no limit to our hope in the power of his love, at least regards as a legitimate hope the universal salvation of all rational creatures, maybe even of the devil himself and his demons. Such a belief has found its defenders among modern Orthodox theologians, such as Olivier Clément, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware and Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. It was also the conviction of one of the greatest Orthodox saints of recent times, St. Silouan of Athos, manifest in a conversation with another Athonite hermit, who declared “with evident satisfaction,”
“God will punish all atheists. They will burn in hell in everlasting fire.”
Obviously upset, the Staretz said,
“Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire—would you feel happy?”
“It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,” said the hermit.
The Staretz answered with a sorrowful countenance:
“Love could not bear that,” he said, “We must pray for all.”12
Yes, we must pray for all and hope for all, for Love intends the all. The Spirit will breathe upon the detritus of hell, and the inhuman will be reborn.
The glory of God is man fully alive,
and the life of man is the vision of God.
(3 March 2016; rev.)
 C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, chap. 9.
 Jerry Walls, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, p. 78.
 Alexandre Kalomiros, “The River of Fire” (1980).
 Lewis, chap. 9.
 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, chap. 8.
 See my article “The Salvation of Lilith.”
 George MacDonald, Lilith, chap. XXXIX.
 Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology (2013), pp. 157-158.
 Ibid., p. 158.
 Ibid., pp. 158-159. The conversation between St Silouan and the hermit may be found in Saint Silouan the Athonite (1 ed.), p. 48.