Nothing is Ever "Locked from Inside" in Soteriology

I despise mentions of Lewis in soteriology, most of all when people think of him as a theologian. His fiction is tendentious at all times, even where it is enjoyable, and it is so because it belongs to his œuvre as a moralist. He belongs in the same bin with Reinhold Niebuhr, who wouldn't know how to cite a work of theology if it bit him. Lewis' sole virtue is that he is mildly subversive—but one should graduate from his school into greater subversion, not (as so often happens instead) into a traditionalist conservatism that has been custom-adjusted for the individual. And why does that happen? Because he says what people think, just slightly off angle, and cleverly. He is so incredibly well-read, and has such a knack at the common touch, but all of his subversive twists are oriented toward making Christendom Christian again, and that is such an easily-misapprehended thing. I'd rather you read Kierkegaard if you want it done well, because it's impossible to imagine that he wants to make you a better version of yourself, and so to save the you that should be left behind.

In other words: Lewis is a Modern church father, something like Origen reborn. He deserves exactly as much respect, and is about as well read by the people who most reverently cite him. Much as apokatastasis is termed an Origenism, the idea that "hell is locked from inside" is often understood to be a Lewis-ism. But if you think that, you're doing something horribly wrong, especially if that idea stands in service of a fundamentalist insistence that the Bible doesn't believe in universalism.

What is Lewis After?

The dwarves in The Last Battle are so disillusioned by purveyors of the false Aslan that they have illusioned themselves into a refusal to see the real Aslan's realm. "Their prison is only in their own mind, yet they are in that prison, and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out." And just as England and Narnia were only phenomenal manifestations of that noumenal realm, he says in the preface to The Great Divorce that "Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself." And later, to show that the dwarves were not a temporary fiction, just a part of that story and no other, our guide says: "Hell is a state of mind—ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind—is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains."

And yet there is a subversive virtue at work here: Lewis refuses to allow soteriology to be held hostage to those who reject God. Lewis, fictions and all, is uninterested in the traditionalist notion that human free will is an impediment to salvation, and that God must consult with us to save us, or damn us if we refuse. "The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing." It is, for Lewis, a self-destruction in the face of the God who wills and acts to save. A self-destruction capable of profoundly thorough other-destruction, capable of abusing our virtues even more than our vices to drag those around us into negation, so long as we do not understand what they are for. If it weren't for the young-turk Romans-commentary Barthians he was exposed to, Lewis should have very much in common with Barth on this point!

What's the Point?

There is, absolutely, a competition of wills in this world. A competition between the creature in all its sundered and self-misdirected glory, and its Creator. A competition that exists where there should only ever have been cooperation and partnership! But God is not competing with us. God is not waiting to see who wins. It is mere hubris to think that we are deciding what God will do about us, and to let our insistence on being in charge of salvation set aside what God has been doing to save all creation from the foundation of the world. God does not ask us, from eternity into time, whether we wish to be redeemed. God does not "stand at the door and knock" in order to usher us into heaven if we open the door, or drop us, house and all, into hell if we do not. That choice is not up to us, and it is a deep and twisted perversion of the choice we are given to suggest that God lets us pick our eschatological destination through ethics and faith.

Neither Lewis nor Barth are interested in letting soteriology be held hostage to the demands of human choice. Lewis' grand tour is a series of versions of Barth's "impossible possibility," something actual that should never have been, but as such it is not a series of vignettes of damnation—only of suicides, with occasional collateral damages. Living hells, each and every one, the sole reality of which is that we have manufactured them. They are in no way proofs against redemption; it only looks that way in Lewis' narratives (and never in Barth's dogmatics or ethics) because we have always chosen to eschatologize the present arrangement of things, to imagine that our actions are soteriologically decisive. He's playing with us. But even Lewis insists that this is not the way eternity is; this is only the way it appears through the distortions of a lens we cannot escape.

In the end, Lewis' pessimism is still too optimistic about human capability, but it shares this optimism with the tradition while repeatedly asserting that God gives those human self-determinations no respect. The dwarves are in Aslan's realm, whether they like it or not, and they always have been. The self-determinations of our vignetted tour exhibits are just as much self-delusions—but even the frame in which they matter is disclaimed as a dream from which we are to extract the more important truth by hearing of and trusting in the God who saves. The moral of the story is not about hell; it is about faith as the alternative to self- and other-destruction, faith and virtue as the path by which we may participate in God's work. It is about helping to redeem one another from the consequences of what we have inflicted. It is, in the end as in the beginning, not Lewis' intent to tell us something about eschatology; as a moralist, he is using eschatological tropes to show us how to live better in the world.


  1. I agree that the Chronicles are more about conversion, the Christian life and morality than they are about eschatology. But isn't it possible to read the dwarfs in a more Barth-friendly way? Perhaps they are among those who are saved already but don't know it yet, and their willful blindness illustrates the impossible possibly of the creature turned away from the Creator? And perhaps, despite the Pelagian sort of tinge you discern as corrupting Lewis' Augustinianism, the dwarfs are in fact incapacitated by their inwardly-turned vision. Perhaps in a hypothetical book 8 Aslan could be incarnate as a dwarf and we could start the whole thing all over again. Maybe a hobbit could play a crucial role in this. (Before you laugh at the idea, take care. I wouldn't put anything past Lewis fandom. For several years I had this joke about the idea of a *C.S. Lewis Study Bible* and, low and behold, the very thing appeared on the shelves!) (Also notice that I wrote "dwarfs," not "dwarves." Because Blogger spellcheck. Not trying to start any fights here about that.)

    1. Thanks! I'm pretty sure I was trying to suggest such a possibility. :) Fanfic adaptation is left as an exercise for the reader. The dwarves would make a fantastic example of Barth's conversion of the elect/rejected binary into the apparently-elect (who are elect in Christ and attempt to look it, whatever they think it looks like) and the apparently-rejected (who are in no way rejected by God, being elect in Christ regardless of appearances, but have rejected God and don't remotely look like whatever we think election looks like).

      I don't mean "optimism" as Pelagian; rather the opposite. It is only Pelagian if we can save ourselves; the church has never had such an issue with us being able to damn ourselves, which is merit to the exact same degree.

      But I'm not sure for exactly that reason that Aslan needs to reincarnate as a dwarf; that gives still more meritorious capacity to the deniers of God. Also, that's the role of the Spirit; the life of Jesus was once for all.

      (PS: My spellcheck wants to turn "dwarves" into "wharves," so you're good!)

    2. Also: This is yet another reason I harp on about redemption not being consequent to reconciliation in Barth. It doesn't need to come out all right in the end, even if we might hope that it will. Redemption and consummation will be free and miraculous in their own rights, just as reconciliation is.


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