Hell: comparing Rob Bell with C.S. Lewis

The Great Divorce - C.S. LewisPhil Whittall has posted an interesting review of “The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis, which leads into a comparison of Lewis’ view of hell with Rob Bell’s. I read The Great Divorce many years ago, and it is certainly a good read whatever one thinks of its theology. I have still not read Bell’s Love Wins, although I have read a lot about it.

It is interesting to see the hoops that some try to jump through to defend Lewis while condemning Bell. For example, Tim Keller, as quoted by Whittall, seems to accept that Bell teaches the same as Lewis, but suggests that Lewis was right to do so because he was going against the spirit of the age but Bell is wrong because he agrees with the spirit of the age. Leaving aside the question of whether this dubious assessment is correct, does Keller really mean to claim that whether a teaching is right or wrong depends on the spirit of the age, not on whether it agrees with biblical truth?

Whittall’s conclusions are interesting. They are basically that Bell and Lewis are teaching the same thing, that there will be chances after death for those in hell to repent and go to heaven. The main difference between the two is that Bell expects that most, or perhaps all, will take these chances, whereas Lewis expected very few to do so.

I am not at all sure about this teaching about another chance to repent. I don’t see any biblical warrant for it. But I don’t see it clearly ruled out in the Bible either, so I am open to being convinced. But I think my expectation would be more like Lewis’ than Bell’s, at least concerning those who had heard the gospel in this life. As for those who never heard it, they are not Lewis’ focus, and I haven’t read what, if anything, Bell has to say about how they might be saved.

0 thoughts on “Hell: comparing Rob Bell with C.S. Lewis

  1. I think it is also important to remember that Lewis was writing a work of fiction, not intending to teach doctrine and that what he had to say had as much or more to do with Christian living in the present as with life after death. I’m not saying that Lewis didn’t hold to the ‘second chance’ theory – I just think one has to be careful about reading a work of fiction as if it were a theology textbook.

  2. Indeed, Tim. But fiction can also be a good way of propagating a teaching – witness how the strange ideas in the da Vinci code have become widespread. Nevertheless I can’t help wondering if Lewis was more commenting on the second chance theory by pointing out that few would make use of it if it were offered. Does anyone know if he taught it anywhere outside a work of fiction?

  3. Tim,
    I totally hear what you’re saying and I agree to a point.
    However the very same hard line reformers who will use the reason you have about Lewis writing a work of fiction are the same people who will absolutely destroy the Shack and call it herecy, dangerous and so on despite it being ‘a work of fiction’.

  4. Peter, a number of times in his letters Lewis mentions praying for people who have died without Christ (specifically, Mrs. Moore) in hopes that their good qualities will prove to be ‘enough to build on’, as it were. There is also the example of Emeth in ‘The Last Battle’, but of course, that is also a work of fiction. Still, I think Lewis’ theology is closer to the surface in the Narnia stories.

  5. Tim, that’s interesting. Of course you will be aware of how Anglo-Catholics pray for the dead, presumably that they will be saved through some kind of repentance after death, or perhaps this is tied up with purgatory – whereas evangelical Anglicans object to the practice. I guess Lewis was more with the Anglo-Catholics on this. Emeth I suppose tells us what Lewis thought about those of other religions, that those who found the truth of God within them would be saved – while Lewis clearly rejected the syncretism of “Tashlan”. I think I would agree with Lewis here.

  6. I have just been reading ‘The Great Divorce’. It seems to me that Lewis is visualising a kind of purgatory but I am uncertain whether he ever agreed with the doctrine or not, and is just using it as a literary device to illustrate the self-righteousness and pride of humans.

    I found it intriguing that Lewis describes the ghost as an ‘it’ rather than as men or women. He seems to be implying that they are less than human. But perhaps that is what the final state of the damned are – something that is less than human.

  7. Thank you, Iconoclast. I’m not sure whether Lewis envisaged some kind of purgatory distinct from his hell. And as you say the whole book may be more of a literary device, perhaps about how difficult it is for people trapped in boring and isolated lives in this world to accept true and good life as a Christian.

  8. Firstly, I’m surprised to see you’ve not read Love Wins when you’ve devoted so much time to addressing Warnock’s critiques of the book. Seems to me you’d be much better equipped to ‘engaging’ with Warnock’s arguments if you knew what he himself was seeking to engage with.

    Secondly, I’d recommend digging up the quote from Tim Keller yourself if you’re going to use it. I think you’ve misrepresented what he actually says. The link is below, you’ll find the quote in the panel discussion. Although the Carson lecture is helpful too.

  9. Joel, I have said consistently from the start of this debate that I have not read the book. Sadly I don’t have time to do that as well as join the debate.

    Also I don’t have the time or inclination to listen to long audio files to confirm a quote given by a trusted source – and there are good reasons why I often cannot listen to audio. If Keller didn’t say what was attributed to him, good!

  10. But the review you got the quote from was using the quote for a different reason to the reason you’re using the quote. I have no problems with the way the reviewer used the quote, Keller was indeed defending Lewis. But in defending Lewis he wasn’t saying Lewis was right and Bell wrong simply because one is agreeing with his culture and one wasn’t. Keller was making a broader point about Bell’s criticisms of the Biblical picture of Hell coming from a western mindset that doesn’t like the idea of God’s justice.
    If you don’t have time to research certain topics, don’t write blogs on what you don’t have time to research. I’ve started visiting here because it’s helpful to be challenged by different viewpoints (I’m from the Reformed ‘camp’ I’m afraid). But if I’m reading something that the author hasn’t bothered to research there’s no point bothering.

  11. Luke 12:13-21.

    This is the closest text I can find to illustrate that the second chance to repent after death does not exist, or at least cannot be relied upon. Otherwise this parable has no force. Why is it so bad that the man died without being rich towards God if he had a second chance to ‘fess up once he was dead and realised he had lived in rebellion against God?

    Personally I believe that those that have not explicitly chosen for or against Christ will get an opportunity to do so either near death, at death, or after death. But in this parable it seems the rich farmer upon his death was in peril.

    I haven’t seen anyone bring this text up yet, but its surely the best text on this issue.

  12. Joel, this blog is not intended to describe the results of detailed research. If that is what you want, you need to look elsewhere. I accept that Keller’s words may have been taken out of context. But I did think Phil Whittall’s intention in quoting them was quite similar to mine although I was more explicit in my criticism. Anyway, since they were from an impromptu answer rather than a properly thought out presentation Keller should be allowed to clarify. But I wonder if Keller properly understands the culture of Oxford in the 1930s, which is very much reflected in Lewis’ book.

    Alastair, I disagree on Luke 12:13-21. I could argue that that is about this life and death, and not about hell at all. The verse I learned long ago as “proving” that there was no second chance is Hebrews 9:27, but I’m not convinced about that proof either.

  13. Cheers for the reply Peter. I’m not expecting detailed research, but listening to a 2 minute speech before questioning a Christian brother’s integrity wouldn’t be too much to ask. Especially in light of your desperation to stop Christians speaking badly of one another.

  14. Peter,

    can you elaborate your position on that parable? The rich man is happy with his life, he has wealth and comfort. Why is he a fool to not think about God before he died? He had it all, except life in the world to come. Surely that is why he is a fool. The context of Luke 12 is clearly about the age to come. (Cf Lk 12:5,9). I still say this parable, and perhaps Luke 12 overall, speaks against the second chance theory.

  15. I re-read The Great Divorce recently in light of the Rob Bell controversy. Although on the surface it may seem that C.S. Lewis is teaching about the afterlife, it seems to me that he’s actually much more concerned about the decisions that we make here on earth. You could say that the scenes described in The Great Divorce occur outside of time instead of after death.

  16. Tyson, you may well be right.

    Alastair, there is an interesting parallel between what Tyson writes about “The Great Divorce” and what I think about Luke 12:13-21, that both may be more about this life than the next. You are right of course to mention the context. Verses 8-9 are of course about what happens after death. But the focus then seems to shift, from verse 11 right through to verse 31, to principles for Christian living before death, especially that one should trust not material things but God. In verse 19 the rich man is not presuming that he will go to heaven but looking forward to a comfortable retirement on earth, and so the contrast with verse 20 is not between heaven and hell but between life and death.

  17. Peter, I noticed you were “open” to being convinced about chances to leave hell. The question I have is what the Bible says. While I don’t see any reference to people escaping hell once deposited there, I do see lots of references to the permanent fixation in that place of the souls there. Surely Jesus would have talked about how to leave there if in fact it were possible, however he only told stories of being stuck there, such as the rich man and Lazarus. Any thoughts?

  18. Peter,

    I’ll have to spend some time reflecting on Luke 12 to see if I can see the “this life” perspective.

    One more thing which perhaps might help this discussion. We are all perhaps directly connecting Hell and Death. Yet this isn’t really biblical. After Death comes Paradise for the believer and Sheol/Hades for the unbeliever. Then after judgement we have the New Heavens and New Earth, and the lake of fire/Gehenna. I don’t see anything in the scriptures about getting out of Gehenna/lake of fire. But perhaps there are hints of being rescued from Sheol.

  19. Truthisgolden, what I meant was that I am open to being convinced that this is what the Bible teaches, or at least that it is implicit there and not contradicted by it. I am not open to be convinced of anything that is clearly against what the Bible teaches.

    Alastair, that is a distinction I need to think about more.

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