Monday, April 22, 2013

Hell and Beyond Interview and Discussion, part 2

Below is the second segment of the interview I did with my dad on his new e-book Hell and Beyond.  For background about the book and this interview, see my earlier post 'Introducing Hell and Beyond.' To read all the interview segments that have been published so far, click here.

As I said before, one of the original purposes of this interview was to generate a lot of discussion. If you would like to contribute your own thoughts to these questions, use the Facebook links at the end of this segment. This is your chance to continue the discussion about God, the afterlife, and the nature of reality, even if you haven't read the book. 

RP 4: You are careful to stress that this novel should not be taken literally, nor as a theological statement on everything you believe about hell and God's judgment. But in several places, the story seems to be directly critiquing traditional Christian beliefs about hell. What would you say to critics who take the book to be a theological treatise in the guise of fiction?

MP 4: I would not argue with that. It is theology in the guise of fiction in the same way as is The Great Divorce or Pilgrim’s Progress. Even though I am exploring theological ideas, however, I’m also enjoying telling the story of an imaginary man’s response to unbelievably unexpected situations. What I object to is taking this specific or that and turning imaginative possibilities into ironclad doctrines.

One reader wrote: “There were things I disagree with, of course. Revelation 20:5-6 indicates two resurrections, for if there is a first, there must be a second. The second being a resurrection of non-believers giving them another chance at being human, a thousand years after Jesus has returned to rule the earth.”

That is a good example of seizing upon one element in the book and reading into it that I was proposing a doctrine about one or two resurrections. Nothing could have been further from my mind! I am trying to stir the imagination with What ifs. I’m not sure there is anything to agree or disagree with in that.

Thankfully, this reader was not limited to doctrinal responses, and concluded her comments with, “The wonderful truth of the last three paragraphs of Chapter 23 and the whole of Chapter 24 brought tears of joy to me. Thank you. God is bigger than people can begin to imagine.”

In short, there are all kinds of things in Hell and Beyond—cities and people living in houses of isolation and deserts and oceans and crowds clustering around the pit of hell—that are simply intended to stimulate the imagination, not lay out a doctrinal roadmap of the future.

Of course, I am inviting people to think about the afterlife and to examine some of our standard assumptions. I fully intend to raise the question, “Is there potentially more that God will accomplish in the afterlife than traditional theology has allowed?” That is a complicated question, and one that I think makes for an engaging read. But the exact nature of that “more” is full of mystery. I do not know, nor do I claim to know, what will be the final outcome for every saint and sinner in eternity. 

That’s why I caution people not to read more into my personal belief system than is there. I am trying to raise imaginative possibilities. As yet I remain curiously, hopefully, optimistically, doctrinally “neutral” about the final structure of eternity, and who will be where. God knows. That is enough for me.

RP 5: But in the case of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, he made clear in the Preface that while he intended the story to have a moral, it was not meant to arouse factual curiosity about the afterlife. On the other hand, while you hold back from asserting ironclad doctrines, you have suggested in numerous places that your purpose is to invite the reader to imagine possible scenarios of what the afterlife might hold and to rethink standard assumptions concerning heaven and hell.

MP 5: A very perceptive point. And one that opens many potential avenues for response. An initial observation about Lewis ties in directly to Hell and Beyond. I’m sure you are aware as a student of Lewis yourself, Lewis often protested just a little too much in order to deflect potential criticism. It is one of his clever, and occasionally lethal, apologetic tactics—one he developed into an art form all its own: Denying in advance the foundation for the very criticism he knew would be levelled against him. 

How often does he open what will be a piercing line of attack with some version of, “Oh, but I’m no theologian...I’m a mere layman...I’m just a bumbling novice in such matters,” as he then proceeds to lay out what are obvious “theological” arguments about very deep and complex spiritual principles. One almost imagines the witty Lewis with a subtle grin on his lips as he says it. (“I am a very ordinary layman...I should have been out of my depth in such waters...”—Mere Christianity. “I have little right to address [you]...It is for priests to teach me......It is not, of course, for me to define...I am your pupil....You who are trained theologians will be able to do this in ways which I could not.”—“Christian Apologetics,” from God in the Dock. “I am only a layman and a recent Christian, and I do not know much about these things...”—“Answers to Questions on Christianity,” from God in the Dock.) We all know what he’s doing. He knew it. His audience knew it. Yet by making such statements he disarms his adversaries. His ensuing arguments thus contain all the more force.

His statement in the Preface to The Great Divorce is in that same vein. Lewis knows well enough that his story will arouse curiosity about the afterlife. So he says that he doesn’t mean for it to. It is just like his saying, I’m no theologian so don’t criticize me on theological grounds...but now I am going to talk about a very deep theological subject. 

Was Lewis being disingenuous? Perhaps a little. Am I being disingenuous by asserting that Hell and Beyond does not contain theologic doctrine, while at the same time inviting imaginative possibilities that challenge certain traditional assumptions? Perhaps, as was Lewis, a little.

On the other hand, maybe not. It may be that both Lewis and I are attempting to make an important point. The operative word in Lewis’s Preface is factual. He was not attempting to arouse “factual” curiosity, yet he knew full well, and I think wanted and hoped, that his story would raise imaginative curiosity and discussion. The responses over the years, and the dialog his book has prompted in a thousand directions, prove that this has indeed been the case.

RP 6: Since you acknowledge that “It is theology in the guise of fiction” (MP 4), what would you say to those who feel that your medium has given you the luxury of insulating your theological agenda against potential critique?

MP 6: Again I come back to Lewis’s word “factual” and my phrase “ironclad doctrines.” Just as Lewis emphasized, I do not want readers drawing factual and doctrinally specific conclusions about my belief system. I am not trying to lay out a “doctrinal” roadmap any more than was Lewis. But I do hope the book prompts imaginative curiosity about theological issues. If this is a “luxury of insulating [my] theological agenda against potential critique,” I would simply say that I have done exactly what Lewis did, making precisely the same point in my own Preface and Afterword as did he.

Even though I am offering no “factual” or “doctrinal” portrayal of the afterlife, I will hold my hand to the charge that I am inviting a perhaps new and unusual (for some) perspective or outlook. I don’t know that I would term this a theological “agenda,” as you say. I hope Hell and Beyond will open heart-windows upward toward the Fatherhood of God. That is a spiritual perspective I want the book to encourage in readers. I would not call it an agenda.

If C.S. Lewis had been condemned for the obvious hints at the conclusion of The Last Battle toward a larger perspective toward the “sheep and goats” and final judgment, as I’m sure he was, (hints that are equally powerful as anything proposed in The Great Divorce), he could easily have thrown up his hands and replied, “I meant nothing by’s only fiction.” But I don’t think he would have. He knew well enough what he was doing, and the conclusions people would draw. Imagination is a powerful tool for the opening of “heart-windows.” Lewis made skilful use of the imagination to open his readers toward possibilities they had not considered before. I think he did so knowing exactly the effect his “stories” could potentially have.

Therefore, I claim no insulation from the larger outlook of Hell and Beyond. If Lewis and I are both going to be criticized on the same grounds, I will accept that as an inevitable consequence of wading into controversial waters. If I am going to be criticized for my approach in Hell and Beyond, while Lewis is given a pass for his identical approach in The Great Divorce, at that point I would raise an objection and say that the critique is unfounded and inconsistent.

RP 7: In Lewis’s case, it is clear that the implicit theology in The Great Divorce hinges on important truths concerning human nature and the psychology of sin, not what happens in the post-mortem state. Therefore, are you perhaps being a little uncharitable to claim that the qualifications he makes in the Preface to The Great Divorce are, as you put it, “disingenuous”?

MP 7:  I was using the word disingenuous with a bit of a smile on my face—in the same way that I conjectured whether Lewis might have been smiling inwardly when he protested too much about his ignorance of theological matters. I guess my tongue-in-cheek use of the word didn’t come across! I applied the same word to myself, then also raised the point that perhaps neither of us were being disingenuous at all. 

A better word for me to have used might have been sly or cunning. One thing we know about Lewis is that he was always cunning. I think calling my use of disingenuous “uncharitable” misses the larger point I was trying to make, that speculation was inevitable, and I believe Lewis knew it. Again, so that we don’t miss the other necessary larger point...such speculation is about the larger perspectives involved, not the specific factual details.

You speak of the “implicit theology” inherent in The Great Divorce. I would make, and have made, precisely the same contention about Hell and Beyond, that it does not bear specifically on “what happens in the post-mortem state.” In that sense, the two books are attempting to do—granted, through distinct imaginative scenarios—exactly the same thing, with exactly the same limitations, and subject to exactly the same critiques. Your sentence about The Great Divorce remains precisely applicable if reworded just slightly: “The implicit theology of Hell and Beyond hinges on important truths concerning human nature and the psychology of sin.” All I am asking, is: Where is the difference you seem to see in the approaches of the two books? If people take offence at Hell and Beyond being compared to The Great Divorce, I suppose I cannot help it. That comparison is being made by others, not me. The only parallel I make is to say that I drew my inspiration from Lewis, and attempted to write a similarly-conceived afterlife fantasy. Of course, being a devoted fan and admirer, I would always say that Lewis has done the job infinitely better than I have.
RP 8: Although you say here that “Hell and Beyond… does not bear specifically on ‘what happens in the post-mortem state’”, you did suggest earlier in this interview that the book was written to “[invite] people to think about the afterlife and to examine some of our standard assumptions”, and grew out of your struggle with questions such as “Who goes to heaven, who goes to hell...and what are the entry requirements for both destinations?” By contrast, Lewis’s claim that The Great Divorce doesn’t speculate about the types of things that occur in the afterlife, can at least be taken at face value since elsewhere (The Problem of Pain, chapter 8) he repudiated the notion that some people can leave hell.

MP 8:  In a sense we are wrestling over semantics. I am trying to draw a distinction between the “big picture” and the details, between large perspectives and getting lost in the weeds of doctrine, or, to use a timeworn analogy, between the forest and the trees. That’s why I used the word “specifically.” By “challenging some of our standard assumptions,” I was trying to point to the big picture, the larger perspectives, the forest, while at the same time discouraging the notion that people are going to die and encounter precisely and specifically any certain kind of experience.

To draw that distinction and avoid that pitfall just now, I used the word specific. Lewis used the word factual. We are saying the same thing: This is an “imaginative supposal” (Lewis’s expression for the “big picture”); don’t get lost in the specific and factual details. It’s just that I made more of a point of adding that, subject to this caution, I hope that readers will look at the bigger picture of that “imaginative supposal” in ways that may, as I say, challenge some of their previously held assumptions. But when Lewis, in his Preface, admits to The Great Divorce having, by his intent, a “moral,” I believe he is making precisely the same point (acknowledging the importance of the forest, while discouraging analysis of the trees) that I am trying to articulate.

You see a “contrast” between Lewis’s approach, priorities, and intent and mine. I do not.

C.S. Lewis
The linking of statements made in The Problem of Pain and The Great Divorce—assuming that they speak as one and represent a single perspective on the afterlife in general, and specifically on hell and its potential permanency—I believe to be flawed. Though their publication is separated by a mere five years, what in retrospective seems a brief span of time to us, they represent vastly different periods in Lewis’s life. The potential development (and changes) of his ideas and thought as a Christian man between the writings of these two books must be considered.

You seem to indicate that his repudiation of “the notion that some people can leave hell” (from The Problem of Pain) was a lifetime view. I do not think such a position can withstand the light of serious scrutiny. I believe, on the other hand, that a strong case can be made for the possibility that he later may have altered that view.

Indeed, I read the Preface of The Great Divorce as a ringing acknowledgment of the potentiality that people will be allowed the free will choice of leaving hell after death (subject, of course, to the imperative necessity of putting to death all the pet lizards that made hell necessary in the first place.) When Lewis writes, “I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road,” I believe he is speaking about both sides of death’s curtain. This statement—and the tone and implication I read between the lines of his entire Preface—indicate to me that he has moved on, if not abandoned altogether, the more traditional position he affirmed several years earlier in The Problem of Pain.
But obviously I am interpreting both its Preface, and the entirety of The Great Divorce, differently than you are.

RP 9: Are you suggesting then, between the time when Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain and The Great Divorce, that his thinking about the afterlife evolved?

MP 9: This is a fascinating question, and goes to the heart of what Lewis may or may not have believed, and when and how he came to believe it. It is also a more complex question requiring a longer answer than would normally be appropriate for an interview. 

As Christians we are growing, maturing, developing, spiritually evolving individuals. Not only, as Lewis says, must we hatch or go bad, we must grow or become stagnant. Thinking Christians grow...change...develop. Our views and perspectives deepen and mature. Sometimes they change dramatically. Other shifts in perspective are more subtle. I would shudder to think of myself as still bound by all the superficialities that clung to my faith and my doctrinal outlook during my first ten or twenty years as a growing Christian. Thank God for growth! 

In no area of doctrine and theology have my views undergone more deepening and expanding than concerning the afterlife. Most of us are initially schooled in the traditional theology of hell. We take what we are taught and accept it. Then slowly we begin to think for ourselves. This is part of the process of moving from milk to solid spiritual meat. Gradually over time we read, we think, we explore the Scriptures, we pray. By degrees in some cases a bigger picture emerges of God’s eternal purposes. The growth continues. New ideas take time to get used to. When we find ourselves going against our early training and indoctrination, often a personal struggle ensues. We continue to explore new authors. Additional writings are added to our spiritual diet. Our former perspectives become revised. 

We observe this process in George MacDonald. Reading between the lines of his towering poetical autobiographical glimpse into the spiritual struggles of his youth in “A Hidden Life,” we are given a picture of a young man in the formative stages of spiritual development. There are doubts, uncertainties, inner conflicts, questions. More than thirty years later, as we read his boldly assertive and uncompromising treatise on “Justice,” we now witness a man in the full flower of his powers. His spiritual doubts have been laid to rest. He knows his God!

Do we think because he was an intellectual genius that C.S. Lewis did not go through this same process of growth? Of course not. The background of his early years as an atheist necessitated that he had to grow in the ideas of faith even more than I did or MacDonald did. Both of us were steeped in Christianity from very infancy. Lewis was not. He grew up in an atmosphere of Irish “political Protestantism” (rooted more in hatred of Catholicism than in deep personal faith.) After his conversion, insofar as a biblically-grounded personal walk with God, he had to learn everything, basically starting from scratch. This fact, I think, gives credibility to his frequent insistence that he was a learner and novice in things of faith, as we spoke about earlier. Perhaps I was a little too hard on him in that regard because, in a sense, he was a beginner alongside those he was often called upon to address. I think we would all admit, however, that he was a very rapid learner! His intellectual genius and his rapid learning curve notwithstanding, we must still recognize that C.S. Lewis was all his life a growing, thinking, developing Christian man. 

In this light, then, it may be instructive to place some of his writings on a potential learning curve and inquire what this may tell us about the development of his perspectives. To do so, in a sense, is to get to know Lewis the man through textual criticism of his books. I study the writings of Paul in the same way, looking for clues and insights into the development of his thought as his faith deepened. Galatians is early, Philippians and Colossians are late. Paul has changed. His theology has matured. I witness that same progression in C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald. It is visible in the development of their corpus of writings.

Lewis came to Theism in 1929 when he “admitted that God was God.” By his own admission, however, the progression from Theism to Christianity was slow. Lewis gives us no dates or benchmarks to this internal process, but it may have taken several years. I tend to think that the opening of Mere Christianity (originally his Broadcast Talks given on the air in 1942) gives us a pretty clear picture of the progression of his ideas during this time. But how long it took, we have no idea. A.N. Wilson calls it in several places merely “the early 30’s” and moves well into the mid-thirties in describing Lewis’s first years as a Christian. Even as late as 1935, Lewis might have still been in that process of entering into the fullness of Christianity and its wide range of theological ideas.

This was the time when he probably underwent his initial indoctrination into Christian theology. (Again, though what specific processes and books and through the teaching of what priests and ministers we know only sketchily; we know some of his Christian friends, and his affinity for the writings of Chesterton and MacDonald, for example, but not a great deal about how and why he came to believe as he did.) It was during this time that, as he describes, he went to church out of duty and sang hymns he hated and tried to accustom himself to the Prayer Book. These are all stages of beginning Christianity. I am sure, as we all were, he was instructed during this time in the doctrine of endless punitive hell. In his biography, Wilson references the “atmosphere of belief” (my noted emphasis) of his childhood that surely still lingered in his subconscious so many years later when he came to Christianity: “Lewis’s boyhood Protestantism...the doctrine of hell...was the air he breathed as a child, the religion he imbibed with his mother’s milk.”

It was toward the end of this introductory period of Lewis’s Christian walk, in 1939, that he began writing his first overtly “Christian” book (omitting from consideration for the moment The Pilgrim’s Regress.) This first non-fiction Christian treatise was The Problem of Pain. He had been a Christian less than ten years and was clearly still developing his thought and ideas. Of this period, a strange thing to say of Lewis to our ears—even so late as 1939—Wilson says that he “had read almost no works of biblical scholarship.” He was still, by all accounts, a “beginner.” That he would still hold to the doctrine of hell as taught by the majority of Christendom at this early point in his growth is not surprising. The position you reference from The Problem of Pain emerges out of what, by any measure, we must view as Lewis’s spiritual youth.

But might he have grown from this position over the years? Of course. I consider it a grave mistake, therefore, to set down as a lifetime doctrinal position his repudiation of the possibility that the doors of hell can open. I would see this, rather, as the lingering effect of the initial Christian indoctrination of his spiritual infancy, which, over the years to follow, we witness gradually expanding more toward the thought of his mentor MacDonald. We cannot know that Lewis abandoned his earlier view. Yet his later writings seem to raise that as a distinct possibility.

The specific chapter on Hell in The Problem of Pain is very interesting from this “textual criticism” standpoint. It is classic Lewis, in his oft-used method of “handling objections.” There is not much new in the chapter. He merely analyzes (and shrewdly, to be sure!) some of the common arguments against the doctrine of hell. However, there is not a single reference to George MacDonald. This is strange, in that MacDonald’s perspective of a redemptive hell was such a formidable aspect of his entire theology. How could Lewis write a whole chapter on hell and omit this enormously significant alternate perspective from his favorite Christian author? Lewis usually covers all the bases of an argument, looking at things from every side. But not here. It is a theologically superficial analysis. As a near lifetime student of Lewis, this glaring omission (a major element in the discussion completely missing from his analysis) utterly baffles me. Had Lewis not yet, in 1939, completely digested and assimilated MacDonald’s thought on the matter. That suggestion seems incredible to me. I would assume that by this time he had read all five volumes of MacDonald’s sermons, probably more than once. Yet this omission of such an important element of the discussion about the purpose of hell renders Lewis’s analysis one-dimensional and lacking in the depth and breath such an important subject deserves. I can only conclude that his perspectives on the afterlife still had room to develop subsequent to his writing of this chapter...and did. I do not find inconceivable that at the end of his life he still held to the position articulated in Chapter 8 of The Problem of Pain. But I also suggest the possibility that he moved beyond it.

The years of the early 1940’s were years of explosive spiritual development in Lewis’s life. His “Christianity” took deep root and he became a prominent spokesman for the faith. Screwtape and the Broadcast Talks and many Christian essays followed. By the time The Great Divorce was published in 1945, Lewis was on a far different spiritual footing than when he wrote The Problem of Pain in 1939 (published 1940.) His years as an active Christian have, if not quite, almost doubled. It is to be expected that his perspectives would evolve greatly during this period of developing growth. From a novice, he has become a mature spiritual man. 

I see the two perspectives you reference in The Problem of Pain (hell has no exit) and The Great Divorce (hell may have exits) from precisely the opposite side of the argument than your question implies. I would urge us to consider the possibility that Lewis has grown since 1939 to the larger view encompassed by The Great Divorce. Taking a statement “at face value” because of something said at an earlier stage of a man’s growth strikes me as upside-down to the way in which ideas actually progress. Again, we have no evidence that he forsook the earlier view. But The Great Divorce admits to the possibility of such being a legitimate thesis to consider.

Fast forward from The Great Divorce eleven years further on the developmental curve of the growth of Lewis’s ideas. The Last Battle (1956) can be seen as the culmination of the process with respect to this one area of doctrinal inquiry—the afterlife. While he doesn’t directly address the question of hell and its permanency or potential exits, the vision Lewis presents as Aslan stands at the great door is so large, so all-encompassing, so magnificent, so breathtaking, that we are compelled to conclude that Aslan’s creator has come miles along the road following in MacDonald’s footsteps toward “the larger hope.” We still don’t know what he believes for certain. But we know that his vision has enlarged considerably since the early years of his faith as represented by The Problem of Pain. 

All that to say that I do not think your statement “can at least be taken at face value” is one that can be substantiated by the reality of how ideas progress, and by the reality of Lewis’s maturing bibliography.


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