Hell and the Solidarity of Love

Can you imagine yourself enjoying perfect happiness and bliss in heaven if you knew that a beloved spouse, child, or friend was suffering everlasting torment in hell?

In his wonderful parable The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis presents an interaction between an inhabitant of hell, the melodramatic Tragedian, and his redeemed and loving wife, the Lady (chap. XIII). The Tragedian tries various ways to evoke pity in his wife; but she steadfastly resists. She will not be held hostage to the unhappiness of her husband.

“Stop it. Stop it at once,” she commands him.

“Stop what?” he replies.

“Using pity, other people’s pity, in the wrong way. We have all done it a bit on earth, you know. Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity.”

This exchange troubles the narrator greatly. He feels that it is wrong that the Lady should be untouched by her husband’s misery, and he shares his concern with his guide, George MacDonald.

“Would ye rather he still had the power of tormenting her?”

“Well, no. I suppose I don’t want that.”

“What then?”

“I hardly know, Sir. What some people say on earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved.”

“Ye see it does not.”

“I feel in a way that it ought to.”

“That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it.”

“What?”

“The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.”

To be honest, until fairly recently I have long thought that Lewis had given the irrefutable solution to our dilemma. There must be a point where the sufferings of the damned cannot affect the joy of the redeemed.

Two years ago [sometime in 2011] I read philosopher Thomas Talbott’s book The Inescapable Love of God. Talbott raises the question of the damnation of loved ones anew: If we truly love someone, if we truly will their good, if we love them as we love ourselves, how can their interminable misery not affect our enjoyment of heaven? I remember being impressed by the argument. Maybe Lewis was wrong. Hmmm, I need to think about this further … And then my son Aaron died [15 June 2012], and the question acquired for me a burning intensity. And I immediately knew the answer: no!  Of course I could not be perfectly happy in heaven (assuming, of course, that heaven becomes my final destiny—may God make it so) if I knew that my wife, my daughter, one of my sons, my parents, or any of my departed relatives and friends were not also sharing with me the eternal life of Christ. Talbott puts it this way:

Consider first a curiosity about the nature of love. Not only is a disposition to love essential for supreme happiness; it can also be an instrumental evil, making a person more miserable, not less. Indeed, the more one is filled with love for others, the more the unhappiness of others is likely to jeopardize one’s own happiness. … Curiously, the very thing that makes supreme happiness possible—namely love—also makes us more vulnerable to misery and sorrow. If I truly love my own daughter, for example, and love her even as I love myself, then I simply cannot be happy knowing that she is suffering or that she is otherwise miserable—unless, of course, I can somehow believe that, in the end, all will be well for her. But if I cannot believe this, if I were to believe instead that she has been lost to me forever—even if I were to believe that, by her own will, she has made herself intolerably evil—my own happiness could never be complete, not so long as I continued to love her and to yearn for her redemption. For I would always know what could have been, and I would always experience that as a terrible tragedy and an unacceptable loss, one for which no compensation is ever conceivable. Is it any wonder, then, that Paul could say concerning his unbelieving kin whom he loved so much: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people” (Romans 9:3)? Nor is there anything irrational about such a wish. From the perspective of Paul’s love, his own damnation would be no worse an evil, and no greater threat to his own happiness, than the damnation of his loved ones would be. (p. 127 [2nd ed.])

Yesterday I went back and looked at the exchange between the Tragedian and his wife and noticed something I had not noticed before: the Lady is able to ignore her husband’s misery because in her eyes he is no longer the same man. He has become someone else, or perhaps something else.

“Where is Frank,” she said.  “And who are you, Sir. I never knew you. Perhaps you had better leave me. Or stay, if you prefer. If it would help you and if it were possible I would go down with you into Hell: but you cannot bring Hell into me.”

“You do not love me,” said the Tragedian in a thin bat-like voice: and he was now very difficult to see.

“I cannot love a lie,” said the Lady. “I cannot love the thing which is not. I am in Love, and out of it I will not go.”

There was no answer. The Tragedian had vanished. The Lady was alone in that woodland place … Presently the Lady got up and began to walk away. The other Bright Spirits came forward to receive her, singing as they came:

“The Happy Trinity is her home: nothing can trouble her joy.”

The scene answers to Lewis’s conviction that the condition of damnation is eternal and irreversible. Once it happens, then there can be no other alternative than for the saved to move into a state of indifference and to see their reprobate loved ones as no longer being the persons they once were, perhaps because they no longer really are; perhaps they are no longer persons at all. As observed by others, at this point Lewis appears to move very close to the annihilationist position. Can it then be inferred that the blessed, and presumably also God, have ceased to love the damned, have ceased to desire their eternal salvation? I think the answer must be yes. How can one desire the salvation of those who are, by definition, irredeemable? Note the judgment of St Thomas Aquinas:

Mercy or compassion may be in a person in two ways: first by way of passion, secondly by way of choice. In the blessed there will be no passion in the lower powers except as a result of the reason’s choice. Hence compassion or mercy will not be in them, except by the choice of reason. Now mercy or compassion comes of the reason’s choice when a person wishes another’s evil to be dispelled: wherefore in those things which, in accordance with reason, we do not wish to be dispelled, we have no such compassion. But so long as sinners are in this world they are in such a state that without prejudice to the Divine justice they can be taken away from a state of unhappiness and sin to a state of happiness. Consequently it is possible to have compassion on them both by the choice of the will–in which sense God, the angels and the blessed are said to pity them by desiring their salvation–and by passion, in which way they are pitied by the good men who are in the state of wayfarers. But in the future state it will be impossible for them to be taken away from their unhappiness: and consequently it will not be possible to pity their sufferings according to right reason. Therefore the blessed in glory will have no pity on the damned.

It’s a very short step from indifference to rejoicing in the sufferings of the damned. The redeemed do not rejoice in their sufferings directly, explains Aquinas (“To rejoice in another’s evil as such belongs to hatred”); but they do rejoice in their sufferings indirectly: “in this way the saints will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked, by considering therein the order of Divine justice and their own deliverance, which will fill them with joy.”

In my judgment Talbott has the right of it. If we love a person, we can never be reconciled to their eternal punishment and misery. If we love another, their suffering must become our own. We are joined in a solidarity of love.

Heaven can never be truly heaven without my son.

Is my judgment being clouded by grief? Perhaps. Or perhaps Aaron’s death has caused me to finally apprehend the gospel of Jesus Christ truly.

(9 September 2013)

(Go to “Argument from God’s Love for the Blessed”)

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8 Responses to Hell and the Solidarity of Love

  1. Mike H says:

    –“Of course, the logical deficiencies of such language are obvious: After all, what is a person other than a whole history of associations, loves, memories, attachments, and affinities? Who are we, other than all the others who have made us who we are, and to whom we belong as much as they to us? We are those others. To say that the sufferings of the damned with either be clouded from the eyes of the blessed or, worse, increase the pitiless bliss of heaven is also to say that no persons can possibly be saved: for, if the memories of others are removed, or lost, or one’s knowledge of their misery is converted into indifference or, God forbid, into greater beatitude, what then remains of one in one’s last bliss? Some other being altogether, surely: a spiritual anonymity, a vapid spark of pure intellection, the residue of a soul reduced to no one. But not a person – not the person who was.”

    DB Hart

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  2. Iain Lovejoy says:

    “What some people say on earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved.”
    ” Ye see it does not.”
    It seems a shame, indeed unfair, for C S Lewis to have put this dialogue into the mouth of George MacDonald, since George MacDonald was one the “some people” who said it.
    In the chapter “Inheritance” of his 3rd series if “Unspoken Sermons” he says this of the inheritance of the saved: “To fail in our share if it would be to deprive others of a portion of theirs.”

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  3. Tom says:

    I have mixed feelings about this, but I want to wait until DBH’s book is published to respond more carefully to the relevant chapter where he takes this up.

    I agree that I can’t imagine being perfectly happy in heaven knowing some are suffering “eternal/irrevocable” torment. But my reasons are not because I think the beatitude of the glorified is per se passible such that *any* suffering would by definition diminish it.

    I can easily imagine, for example, enjoying perfect happiness knowing some suffer temporary/purgation that will eventually bring them home, and I can imagine positively desiring their highest good in God as an expression of my joy (not a diminishment of it), for a fulfilled/satisfied desire can remain ecstatic in wishing its bliss for those who suffer. God’s very desire for us is an example of an impassible/undiminished yet ecstatic desire for others.

    So what makes it unimaginable with respect to “eternal/irrevocable” suffering is not the supposed passible nature of the glorified, but the teleological/ecstatic/relational nature of fulfilled desire. Indeed, apart from the achieved/impassible nature of our own delight we shall not perfectly desire God as the highest end of those who suffer!

    In other words, I can imagine being perfectly happy both knowing and desiring God’s joy for others who suffer, but only because I believe their participation is forthcoming. I can’t imagine being perfectly happy and *not* desiring that for others, which is precisely what would have to be the case if any suffer “irrevocably,” and I can’t imagine not desiring God as the highest possible good of any sentient creature.

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    • I think the issue is impossible to adequately address or understand. None of us know much about Eternity yet; few of us know even a little. Of the very little we do know of Eternity, we can say even less.

      I am content to desire the salvation of all and know that perfect happiness lies in the Beatific Vision – that no one to whom the vision of the face of God is not death or hell that see the Beatific Vision without being filled with infinite joy which no one can take away. It is beyond imagination that one could receive the Beatific Vision and not be infinitely happy: our glimpses of it, even on earth, are so powerful.

      We also have this promise. “God will be all in all.”

      Exactly how that will be? Exactly how God will make all the evil in the world into goodness, will make the wrong right? We don’t know yet, nor can we. Yet we do have a glimpse in the Cross and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus: a glimpse sometimes so clear that we are not certain that we don’t know every answer: is it possible the Cross and Resurrection IS the answer?

      May we trust God that He knows.

      To me, I see sin as a greater issue than damnation: damnation is the revelation to the unrepentant sinner of the sin from which he refuses to turn. The great sorrow is the ruin of sin, the rejection of goodness – of God Himself, Love Divine.

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  4. Steven says:

    “Is my judgment being clouded by grief? Perhaps. Or perhaps Aaron’s death has caused me to finally apprehend the gospel of Jesus Christ truly.”

    Based on what [little] I know of you from your blog, it sounds to me like this event humanized the question for you; I wouldn’t easily dismiss that as “clouding” your perspective. Perhaps our theological reflection on these matters could use more humanization and less rationalistic detachment whereby we can talk about the never-ending suffering of fellow people as if we were discussing the rules of a card game.

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  5. Grant says:

    I think Mike H’s qoute of Hart is quite correct and exposes on of the serious problems of this view that both Aquinas and Lewis advance. And the very section of the Great Divorce displays it, it is no longer just the Tragedian who apparently rendered as now something else, a once Frank, but so too is the Lady. She neither knows him, someone intergeral to her own self and being, it and all contained in her and in that relationship, it’s love, place, life, memory, that whole aspect of her personhood, as well as all others that were connected to them and their life have been seared away and amputated from her. This presumably includes her parents and other family in part at least, whatever remains is not her but something else reformed from the remains into something new and terrible which completed in the end when she longer remembers or cares that there was a Frank or a life or anything or anyone from there and everything of herself is gone. Something else is here, and what is it, something that claims to be ‘in Love’ but in fact displays nothing but cold indifference and no compassion or mercy, the other is s nothing to her, her own need paramount. She is something inhuman, not merely not displaying the love of God as known in Christ, but not even fallen human compassion and love, even within family. She is alone isolated in the midst of all others, locked in on herself unable to be aware of her need to reach out. She is a terrible and inhuman horror clothed in light, she has in short become a demon being gathered to demons, who are appearing as angels cloaked in light. She believes that He’ll cannot be brought into her without seeing she is in it completely, not Love.

    And how have we warrant beyond this to believe love will change post the resurrection, that it will become something that isn’t love but cold indifference or cruel joy (another contradiction) that is not love nor life, and it isn’t salvation but everlasting damnation. Love will be what it is but more fully then can be imagined, and cold indifference to those suffering is not love or mercy, and one of the things Our Lord condemned and demonstrated to be a lack of love and manifestation of death’s effect (the Beatitudes, the Good Samaritan, the sheep and goats judgement, rich man Lazarus, and so and so on, and through everything in His Life). Love cannot suddenly be different that what is is, selfless love for the other in their person and rejoices and enjoys them in happiness and rushes to aid, comfort, help and assit in hurt and disaster. It is co-sufferring, and is patient, always hopes (and hopes with certain hope founded on and in God who is love), never dispairs and never gives up. It is strong beyond imagination or comprehension, and unless God changes (and He does not), and unless death and it’s claim on all is not and will not be destroyed (and it is and it will be) and unless through Christ God will not be all in all (and He will be as secured in Our Lord’s Resurrection) that He who is Love will never draw Himself, nor His Divine grace, infinite Life and assistance from any, working through all things to bring life and freedom to all, even by confrontation with His Love directly striping all illusions away and bringing clarity of vision and self, opening all to see the truth of their nature and relationship, of their being and existence. And just as He will not give up, those truly ‘in Love’ being evermore perfected in Love will never give up, never be cruel, indifferent nor forgetting but right there where there is suffering, that is salvation both in them as much as for who they are tending, who is both the person and of course Christ (why do so many think that would change).

    And also how is this blackmail when it is just love in being and action. Far from it, then as right now it’s the opposite, it’s freedom that isn’t chained to cold isolation locked from self and the world and God, but instead is free, dynamic and flourishing communion with that person, all their person and relationships, the world around the and Christ, through the Spirit to the Father, within Whom all move and have their being. And it is not conditioned nor held hostage to the other’s disposition as anger or indifference but free of being captive to their attitude or confused reaction but instead sees them as they really are and will be. This is love of At Stephan praying for the forgiveness of those killing him as was martyred, and of so many Christians, and supremely Christ through His Passion and forever.

    After all, do we hold God in blackmail do that He sent His Son, was that pity blackmail. Truly, God forbid, for that is not do. Love is strong, free and infinitely patient, it will never give up, always believes, and has and will triumph.

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  6. Matthew Hryniewicz says:

    I believe that one of the highest callings of Christianity is to love all persons and it seems to me as though the solution that Lewis offers with respect to this dilemma only has a chance of working if we restrict the scope of our love. If the Lady’s love was for every created being then it would not be much consolation that the Tragedian was but a shadow of the man she knew in life. He could be a complete stranger and she would still love him and care about his fate.

    Of course, this is not so much a question of whether or not the redeemed will or ought to love those in Hell, but about how that love will affect their joy. To this I can only conjecture based on my own disposition and knowledge of love. As best as I understand love, It seems to me that at a minimum, in order to remain happy, I would need to know that they could escape their suffering and that whatever suffering they endured was justified. This is the only I can imagine not being affected deeply by their pain. It’s really the idea that the fate of damned is absolutely foreclosed that puts the handcuffs on joy. So long as I knew that my loved one needed only to repent and/or endure some finite punishment in order to join the ranks of the blessed then I could bear it. Hell could still end up being eternal for some in this scenario if the damned refused heaven eternally. Of course I don’t think that to be a likely outcome.

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