Quite a few people have noticed this so there’s been a little rush to defend Lewis’ honour. In a panel discussion at The Gospel Coalition Tim Keller is asked,
“There is one thread that says Bell is saying the same thing as C. S. Lewis. How do you respond?”
To which Keller answers,
Lewis was rebelling against the spirit of the age, which said that Hell is bad. His whole project was to tweak his contemporary scene and show that hell and judgement make sense. It appears that Bell does just the opposite and actually sympathizes with the spirit of the age.
But were they saying the same thing Tim?
And Doug Wilson is asked the same question in this short video:
There’s a few interesting things here. The assumption that Bell is a universalist and doesn’t believe in hell and so the question becomes, ‘Was CS Lewis a universalist, did he believe in hell?’ To which the answers are rightly, ‘no’ and ‘yes.’
But I think Bell is conceiving of hell in exactly the same way (or as close as makes no difference) that Lewis does and I don’t think Bell is a universalist. There are some differences though but we’ll come to that. First, The Great Divorce.
It’s typical Lewis, it’s wonderfully written, the arguments sharp, the pictures compelling. It’s written as a fantasy, an act of imagination about what happens in the life after death. So what does Lewis imagine?
Hell is a grey town, where no one needs anything but no one can get along. Every street is empty and hell is an endlessly expanding space.
As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there 24 hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarrelled so badly that he decides to move…He’s sure to have another quarrel soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house.
Yet behind every move, streets empty and people move ever greater distances from each other. We carry our character with us, we become almost set in our ways.
And it is almost set but not quite. There is a bus stop and a bus ride that will take you to the far edge of a bright country. In this place the souls in hell appear as ghosts but the residents of this country are solid, earthy, real. They are bright, forgiven, shining and full of joy. These residents of heaven journey to the edge to see if they can’t persuade the residents of hell to join them, to trust God, to let go of their sin, to finally die to themselves and walk towards God.
The promise is, that if they do, they will slowly regain their solidity, regain their form, gain a new body, they can still be made new.
In The Great Divorce Lewis’ main character watches a whole variety of these conversations taking place. Those in Hell steadfastly refuse to budge, they can but they won’t. Even with the hope of heaven before them they simply won’t repent. Endless ages stretch out and there’s the possibility of rescue but of the multiple encounters only one soul asks for help, who gives in and so only soul is saved.
Lewis paints Hell not as a place of torment by God but as a place where we are free to refuse God and there is no restraint. Because everyone is ultimately selfish it is a miserable place. They exist, they are not alive.
The big difference it seems between Rob Bell and CS Lewis is that Bell is essentially optimistic about people’s chances. God’s love is almost (but not quite) irresistible. Lewis, on the other hand, is quite the pessimist. Some might accept a second chance but most won’t. Their sin is almost (but not quite) irresistible.