Taking the Bus to Hell

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one distances oneself from the source of happiness—how can the damned sustain unyielding resistance to the never-withdrawn offer of Joy?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

based-on-great-divorce-lewis.jpg~original.jpegHell 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’s 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 delineates, 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

Louth continues:

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.
~St Irenaeus~

(3 March 2016; rev.)


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, chap. 9.

[2] Jerry Walls, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, p. 78.

[3] See “Is Hell a Place You’d Ever Want to Visit?

[4] Alexandre Kalomiros, “The River of Fire” (1980).

[5] Lewis, chap. 9.

[6] Ibid.

[7] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, chap. 8.

[8] See my article “The Salvation of Lilith.” Regarding George MacDonald and universal salvation, see Barbara Amell, “‘The Believing Faculty’: George MacDonald on Universal Salvation” and Thomas Talbott, “The Just Mercy of God: Universal Salvation in George MacDonald” in Gregory MacDonald (ed.), All Shall Be Well (2011), pp. 219-248. Despite his love for MacDonald’s writings, Lewis could not follow his spiritual master on the larger hope. In a letter to Alan Fairhurst (6 September 1959), Lewis writes:

I parted company from MacDonald on that point because a higher authority—the Dominical utterances themselves—seemed to me irreconcilable with universalism. The finality of the Either-Or, the Sheep and Goats, the Wheat and Tares, the Wise and Foolish Virgins—is so emphatic and reiterated in Our Lord’s teaching that, in my opinion, it simply cannot be evaded. If we do not know that He said that, then we do not know what He said about anything. And this my sole reason. So far as I know my views on the retributive element in human punishments went for nothing here. Need I add that I shd. v. much prefer to follow G.M. in this point if I could?

Quoted in Reggie Weems, “Universalism Denied: C. S. Lewis’ Unpublished Letters to Alan Fairhurst,” Journal of Inklings Studies, 7 (2017): 91.

[9] George MacDonald, Lilith, chap. XXXIX.

[10] Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology (2013), pp. 157-158.

[11] Ibid., p. 158.

[12] Ibid., pp. 158-159. The conversation between St Silouan and the hermit may be found in Saint Silouan the Athonite (1st ed.), p. 48.

(Return to first article)

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9 Responses to Taking the Bus to Hell

  1. mercifullayman says:

    I’ve brought this up before, but I find it completely fascinating how much was decided in the 5th ecumenical council. Two giants (Origen and Theodore of Mopsuestia), fathers of two profoundly devout and faithful outlooks at scripture, are posthumously excommunicated at the same time, and yet are the ground by which all comes to be. It is also a meeting in which the language of the God-Man becomes fully concretized, both worlds joined together, and as such, leads minds all over the East (and later the West) to realize the path that lies before us all.

    You hear echoes of both great minds, whispered softly so as to not arouse suspicion, and yet without them, the eloquence of Nyssen, Maximus, Diodore or Isaac, never emerges. The ground by which we come to the knowledge of the truth runs through the text of scripture, whether we view it allegorically or not, and as I know I’ve mentioned before, two people who were so often pitted against one another, wound up on the same bus to the same conclusion of universalism. Lewis’ awful inversion of MacDonald’s view in Lilith, and honestly who has locked the cell in the Grand Inquisitor reminds me of this same fact. The voice of truth, rings clearly on the wind, and yet because it bristles at “accepted” notions or norms, it is somehow heterodox. There is still a voice behind Lewis’ betrayal of the truth, however, it whispers to us still, just as Origen and Theodore do today…when you use the medium of another author in the wrong way, the original voice still calls out. The Truth is always singing out, even when we have to listen through a cacophony mess to hear it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I posted a link to this article on the “Lewis, Chesterton, and MacDonald” FB forum. I was surprised by how many people were shocked to learn that MacDonald was a universalist. Some were even angry that I posted the link.


      • mercifullayman says:

        I would say I’m shocked by this, but I’m not. Most never venture past his literary works into the Sermons. It’s sad, really. I never would have found him if I hadn’t ventured here in the first place.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I wonder how many people, first encountering Lewis’s MacDonald Anthology, got heartily encouraged to go read the sermons (and the ‘realistic’ novels, for that matter)? And now one can do it so easily with Internet Archive scans and Project Gutenberg trancriptions – in all their handy ‘searchability’!

          The Great Divorce and the MacDonald Anthology are an intriguing pair, with the Anthology in 1946 ‘hot on the heels’ of The Great Divorce (1945: US 1946). One of the intriguing things about The Great Divorce is its ‘penultimate’ quality. Not only can – and do, some of – the ‘apparently damned’ perceptibly convert and escape, but I have the impression there is a lurking but not entirely escapable fear in its inhabitants that this ‘at least fairly comfortable hell’ will not simply go on being that – and there is the experience of the dreamer toward the end of his dream. And beyond these there is that passage after the one quoted with note 5, here, where the ‘dream-MacDonald’ answers the question, “Then no one can ever reach them?”, with “Only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell. […] Only One has descended into Hell.” And to the question, “And will He ever do so again?”, “It was not once long ago that He did it. […] All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to whom He did not preach.” (In the light of what precedes it, that “did” has also the senses of ‘does’ and ‘will’.) And, to the question about being “a Universalist”, “It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

          MacDonald has ( as I recall) some striking things to say about (so to put it) the ‘penultimate’ character of the ‘outer darkness’ after the ‘antepenultimate’ character of earthly life which are full of a sense of the gravity of sin, and of evasion and delay of repentance. Lewis’s ‘dream MacDonald’, here (and Lewis himself in the construction of his ‘dream vision’) has something of that urgency.

          Liked by 2 people

          • mercifullayman says:

            So, if I understand that correctly, Lewis then himself reaches the same conclusion? I’ve never read anywhere that Lewis himself would have even been a hopeful universalist in the way that say HUvB is. That would be refreshing and enlightening if true. I’ve had conversations with people in academia about the inversion of MacDonald in his GD and no one has ever made that connection to the Anthology. (That might be an appeal to authority, but it is all I have to go on at the moment.). I see it more in the nature of the Grand Inquisitor, his own telling of the same notion… A self constructed cell from which one could leave, but one will not. If the MacDonald Anthology does amplify or point to a more “universalist” reading by all means, awesome. It gives itself over to the same point I think that Dostoyevsky was hinting at. The cell is your own hell, your own trapping of yourself in your own ego, and yet, even in that torture chamber of false control, Jesus will sit with you even still. The divine “kiss” will ultimately unlock the cell. I do hope Lewis saw this via MacDonald. I also thank you for the reference I didn’t know much about.


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            There is a lot of Lewis I have not read – especially among the many letters. Arend Smilde was so kind as recently to share with me his (unpublished) work on letters not included in the three-volume edition. Having a quick look at his results, I find Reggie Weems, “Universalism Denied: C. S. Lewis’ Unpublished letters to Alan Fairhurst”, Journal of Inklings Studies, vol. 7/2, October 2017, 87-98 – an article new to me (much as I have been glad to read other issues of that Journal). I hope I will not be going beyond the scope of ‘fair usage’ if I quote some things from these letters, here (while urging everyone to look for an opportunity to read the article).

            On 6 September 1959, Lewis replied to a letter of Fairhurst’s, including “I parted company from MacDonald on that point because a higher authority – the Dominical utterances themselves – seemed to me irreconcilable with universalism. The finality of the Either-Or, the Sheep and Goats, the Wheat and Tares, the Wise and Foolish Virgins – is so emphatic and reiterated in Our Lord’s teaching that, in my opinion, it simply cannot be evaded. If we do not know that He said that, then we do not know what He said about anything. And this my sole reason [with ‘sole’ underlined]. […] Need I add that I sh[oul]d. v[ery]. much prefer to follow G.M. in this point if I could?” Lewis’s 9 September 1959 reply to a following letter from Fairhurst includes, “I would very fully agree with your view that Our Lord’s teaching is
            directed to influencing our will rather than to satisfying our curiosity. Nor do I think it commits us to all the later pictures of the ‘tortures’ of Hell. If I remember rightly, the word
            κόλασις is used only once. The regular emphasis is on the finality of rejection or exclusion – on the negative, not on any positive, aspect of damnation [with ‘finality’ underlined].”

            Looking closely at the first quotation, we see Lewis saying “seemed to me” and “in my opinion”, with the emphasis falling on “knowing that He said that”. Against the firmness of his conclusions about “what He said” indicating “finality” – “of rejection or exclusion” – there seems a basic intellectual openness to arguments for “knowing that He said that” to have an different explanation of ‘what He meant when He said that’. Saying, “I sh[oul]d. v[ery]. much prefer to follow G.M. in this point if I could” seems full of caution against ‘wishful thinking’ but also open to the possibility that ‘he could’ – if convinced. I’m not sure what he would have said in September 1959 if one had called him something like a ‘wishful possible hopeful universalist awaiting convincing persuasion’, but perhaps it would fit – or could be argued to (!).

            Liked by 2 people

          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            David, thank you for bringing Lewis’ two letters to Fairhurst to my attention. I have added the first letter to footnote 8 in my article.


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Belated thanks for giving us all such easy access to Reggie Weems’s article, with all its addtional information and references!

            Liked by 1 person

  2. mercifullayman says:

    I can’t seem to respond directly, David. Thank you for that. I will say that from what I had been told prior (without use of that letter) was the same rationale I had discussed with other people in regards to Lewis’ view. He simply saw the statements as definitive, regardless of logical cohesion, etc, to the metaphysical whole. Still, that letter is a wonderful insight into a keen mind. So, thank you again for that.


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