One by one the lost souls step off the bus to enjoy a Great Divorce holiday in Heaven, and one by one they realize they prefer living in that other place. The choice is theirs. They are welcome to stay, but to remain requires the surrender of that which they “prefer to joy.” 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 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 move to 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 imaginary George MacDonald. “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.
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 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 anyone sustain perpetual resistance to the offer of Joy? Will not everyone eventually break? Jerry Walls acknowledges this point in Heaven, Hell and Purgatory: “We can only absorb so much pain, so if hell forcibly imposes ever-greater suffering, no one could resist forever” (p. 78).
One solution is to minimize the horror amd 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 (see “Is Hell a Place You’d Ever Want to Visit?“).
Several months 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 but is rather 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.
Hell is Heaven experienced differently, and at least 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 the degree of blindness, selfishness, and malice in which they died. We might even imagine many of the lost remarking, “I suppose this hell could be a lot worse. Certainly it’s better than having to attend the 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 they eyes to see.
Here is the conclusion of the perditional process: in their irrevocable rejection of Love, the damned have become incapable of even the tiniest degree of repentance. They have lost their desire for the Good. They have lost all freedom. They have become their sin. God, we may postulate, continues to desire their salvation, yet his desire must remain eternally unfulfilled. Fr Lawrence Farley elaborates:
Smuggled unnoticed into this picture of the penitent person in hell crying for mercy is the unexamined assumption that the people in hell remain more or less as we knew them in this life. … We think of people we have known who were not really religious, but who were not openly evil either. We remember their good points, their virtues, perhaps their sense of humour. We remember their smiles as well as their frowns, and above all the times that they were good, and the times they admitted that they were wrong. It is this person, intact, as remembered, that we imagine enduring the pains of hell, and it is this which tears at our heart. Certainly love could not bear that. But I would suggest alternative picture of the lost.
We see this alternative described by C.S. Lewis in his chapter on Hell already mentioned [The Problem of Pain], and portrayed dramatically in his book The Great Divorce. There those in hell were literally shadows of their former selves. All that identified them as the persons that others knew or even as human had been burned away by the sin lurking and growing inside them. Or, to vary the metaphor, the cancer of sin and self-will had eaten away all their humanity, including their free will. All that was left was sin—the hideous lust, the unrelenting rage, the suicidal self-pity. If we could look down from paradise into the place of punishment … we would not see a human being, much less the human being we knew. … All the created humanity of the person with its potential for love, knowledge, self-transcendence, joy, and especially repentance, had long since eroded away to nothing.
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis offers us an example of this horrible transmutation in an old lady, soaked in self-pity, perpetually grumbling and whining. Her damnation consisted of the fact that she was no longer simply a grumbler, but only a grumble. As Lewis’ guide and theologian 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.”
The besetting sin or the interior spiritual cancer may not be grumbling or self-pity. It may be lust or anger or pride or a thousand other sins which smother the soul and erode its capacity for joy and repentance. But the final result is the same. Sin ultimately destroys the human soul, as fire destroys wood and reduces it to ashes. Looking at the pile of ash after a conflagration, one would never guess that it had once been a beautiful wooden statue. It is the same with the damned: to quote Lewis again (from his The Problem of Pain), “What is cast into hell is not a man: it is ‘remains’.”
In essence, the damned have ceased to be human at all.
It’s a profound, terrifying 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 that 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 great fantasy novel Lilith, we are presented with the story of the ultimate redemption of the queen of hell. 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!” 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, I believe. 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 the question: Can you imagine God ever abandoning you to the absolute misery you have chosen? If you cannot, not really, then there is the blossoming of the universalist hope! It is a hope grounded not in metaphysical schemes but in the God who died on the Cross for the salvation of all. “This hope, amounting to a conviction,” writes Fr Andrew Louth, “that there is nothing beyond the infinite love of God, that there is no limit to our hope in the power of his love” (Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, p. 159).