Hell. It is a forbidden topic of conversation, except in very conservative religious circles. We squirm when it comes up, and we try to change the subject. We avoid churches that talk about it, and we skim over passages in the Bible that mention it. It is about as taboo a subject as incest.
Still, I am curious about hell. Like most people, I have heard all the conventional descriptions — steaming sulfur, raging fire, horrible screams, little red devils that wield pitch forks and taunt the damned. But that is not my interest here. I am more curious about how people land there. I used to think that God sends people there. I haven’t changed my mind on that either, but I also think people choose to go there because they would find heaven an intolerable place to be. If heaven is the place where God is, they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with it.
C. S. Lewis put me on to this idea. In his novel The Great Divorce, he tells the story of a group of people living in hell who take a bus tour of heaven. As they discover, at any point along the way they can choose to leave the tour group and stay in heaven. They are thus given a second chance. It is an extraordinary opportunity. Surprisingly, most of the tourists despise heaven and want to flee back to hell. It is too bright in heaven, too colorful, too solid, and too pure for them. It is so real that it hurts, like sunlight stinging the eyes after one leaves a dark movie theater. What makes heaven horrible to them is that God is there. They want to return to the shadows, as far away from God as possible.
Lewis shows in the novel that the primary difference between hell and heaven is not the temperature or smell or noise or pain. The real difference has to do with who is at the center. God is at the center of heaven. People who go to heaven, therefore, must be willing to live forever in the presence of someone who is infinitely superior to them and who will force them, by the sheer power of his presence, to conform to his greatness. Upon entering heaven, people will have to change. It is impossible not to change when living in the presence of God.
The self is at the center of hell. People in hell can live as egoistically and selfishly as they want, totally absorbed by themselves. As strange as it might sound, they want to be in hell. Hell is the only place where people can play God without any obstacles or competition. As a character in The Great Divorce says, “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, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.”1 Lewis actually borrowed this idea from Dante, who said that the door of hell is locked from the inside, not from the outside. Hell is where many people want to be.
Jerry L. Sittser, When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer: Insights to Keep You Praying with Greater Faith and Deeper Hope (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).