Hell to Pay
By Audrey Stallsmith
I avoid the subject of perdition, probably because in my youth I sat under too many hell-fire sermons. Those included many graphic anecdotes about people who had put off accepting Christ, only to promptly perish—usually in a highly spectacular and gory fashion.
There was a good reason pastors liked such discourses. Handled by skillful orators—and some of them were, I admit, masters at the art—those harangues were temporarily quite effective.
But they implied something those good ministers probably hadn’t meant to suggest. That God was a vengeful Deity, who took great delight in “catching people out,” so he could hurl them into the pit.
In reality—as George MacDonald states in Creation in Christ—“it is no pleasure to God. . .to see the wicked suffer. To regard any suffering with satisfaction, save it be sympathetically with its curative quality, comes of evil.” So “fear of God is actually,” as Catherine Marshall warns in A Closer Walk, “a kind of blasphemy against His character.”
Besides, as C. S. Lewis points out in Miracles, “The ‘hell-fire sermons’ are appealing on the level of self-centered prudence and self-centered terror to a belief which, on that level, cannot really exist as a permanent influence on conduct.” In other words, they appeal to our worst instincts and the effects don’t last.
This tactic seems to work best on young people, since more experienced adults are better able to tell when they are being manipulated. And, as E. B. Philips states flatly in Your God Is Too Small, “The conception of God based on a fear relationship is not a satisfactory foundation for an adult Christianity.” Our King wants the freely given love and loyalty of knights, not the groveling of slaves. And “we are too fond. . .,” G. K. Chesterton notes dryly, “of committing the sin of fear and calling it the virtue of reverence.”
The modern church may, however, have reacted too strongly against scare tactics. Nowadays many have swung to the other extreme and deny the existence of hell at all.
Not long ago I was reading a work of supposedly Christian apologetics and trotting docilely along with most of what was said. But I had to dig in my heels, in a startled sort of way, when I came smack up against a new kind of Calvinism.
God was, the writer asserted, going to save everybody because a good God couldn’t possibly do anything else. To support this truly outrageous statement, the writer had to further posit that God was the only being with any real initiative. Thus, the whole idea of free choice for men was just a delusion.
I had to ask myself, “Has this guy actually read his Bible? What about “strive to enter in?” Or the multiple times that Christ mentions hell in the gospels? We can’t dismiss that as “Paul’s idea,” as some of us females do with “submit” passages we don’t like. And, Dorothy Sayers points out in Introductory Papers to Dante, “We cannot repudiate hell without altogether repudiating Christ.”
Not to mention that a God who forces himself on anyone isn’t a good God. He would, in fact, be on a par with the western villain who tries to compel the heroine to marry him “for her own good.” A true heroine would rather be tied to the railroad tracks than to such a man!
But the same girl would be happy to bind herself to a hero, who had proved his love for her by his actions, and truly had her best interests at heart. Provided that he allowed her the time and space to learn to love him back.
Ever since the Old Testament and “choose ye this day whom ye will serve,” God has given us that time and space. And “hell is,” as Fulton Sheen once pointed out, “the eternal guarantee of human freedom.”
We all know that there are some people who are never going to agree to submit to anything. Rather than force those defiant people to endure his presence, God provides them with an alternative, a place separate from himself. In other words, as Brother Lawrence writes in The Practice of the Presence of God, “He never forsakes us until we have first forsaken Him.” Or as Dorothy Sayers asserts in The Devil to Pay, “damnation is consequence, not vengeance.”
It is, to put it quite bluntly, God giving the rebellious what they want. “There are only two kinds of people in the end,” Lewis writes in The Great Divorce, “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. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.”
Because God is the source of all good, to be thus cut off from him is to be cut off from love and every other virtue that arises from it. So, instead of reaching out to others, damned souls turn in on themselves. “The one principle of hell,” George MacDonald notes, is—‘I am my own!’”
“The doors of hell are locked on the inside,” Lewis agrees. “The lost do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved.”
But how, we might ask, do people come to prefer separation from God? And my answer, dull as it seems, would have to be “habit.” Because the presence of a sinless God is painful to we sinful creatures, we tend to pull away from Him at every opportunity we get. Some of us, however, eventually get desperate—or tired—enough to stop running. Once we turn to meet the “Beloved Enemy,” the better acquainted we become with Him, the more we love him.
If a person continues to avoid God, however, and every choice in his life takes him further and further away, he will eventually cease to hear God’s voice at all. And this is true whether the distant one is actively opposed to Deity or just indifferent.
Because God is the source of all goodness, the further a person gets from Him, the more the prodigal drifts downward. Nothing drastic enough to really alarm him or her at first, of course--just a continual opting for the path of least resistance. “The surest road to Hell,” the demon in Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters gloats, “is the gradual one—the gentle slope without signposts.”
That’s all it takes really, because, as Lewis cautions in The Problem of Pain, “there is something inside you which, unless it is altered, will put it out of God’s power to prevent your being eternally miserable. In each of us there is something growing up which will of itself be hell unless it is nipped in the bud.”
Only God can truly remold our warped natures. But the Artist can’t correct the defects unless He is allowed access to the clay. The longer we wait, however, the more dry and “set” our mud becomes.
It’s no wonder some people show absolutely no interest in God, even as their lives are ending. Why should they? Their habits have permanently hardened. “Hell,” Sayers notes in Introductory Papers to Dante is just, “that state of the soul in which its choice becomes obdurate and fixed.” Such people wouldn’t enjoy heaven anyway since, as John Cardinal Newman points out, “heaven would be hell to an irreligious man.”
So what should you do if you’ve gotten so far from God that you no longer feel any desire for him? Realize that your soul is in serious danger, turn around, and start back. God is always willing to meet us more than half way.
Be warned that you may not like Him or his people at all at first. This is where your willpower has to come in. If you want God to change you, you have to stick around long enough to allow him the opportunity. And doing the right—the unselfish—thing doesn’t come easily to any of us. Virtues are like olives. Some of us have to eat quite a few before we develop a taste for them!
But we do have to start trying now, whether we feel like it or not. Because it is possible to “set” good habits as well as bad ones. As Lewis notes in Christian Behavior, “if people haven’t got at least the beginnings of these qualities inside them, then no possible external conditions could make a ‘heaven’ for them.”
The wonderful thing about all this is that it gives us an ultimate goal to strive towards. Those who attempt to deny hell don’t seem to realize that they have thus made Christ’s sacrifice—made human life itself—meaningless. “The widespread disinclination today to take heaven and hell seriously results,” Dorothy Sayers contends, “from a refusal to take this world seriously. . .what you do and what you are matters, and matters intensely. . .it was for Him literally a matter of life and death.”
“Those who deny the possibility of darkness on the horizon of our life,” someone--whose name I neglected to note--states, “have not somehow liberated us from an illusion but. . .have made our life itself into an illusion, a joyride without a goal."
It reminds me too much of the modern penchant for games where there are no victors. Sure, that eliminates the pain of losing, but it also eliminates the joy of winning. And it makes the games, as the kids subjected to them can testify, absolutely no fun at all. As Chesterton argues in Orthodoxy, “For the purpose even of the wildest romance results must be real; results must be irrevocable.”
In one of his poems, he writes scornfully of the modern era’s “breaking of the sword,/ And man no more a free knight/ That loves or hates his lord.” A knight errant, actually, as that word “errant” originally meant straying from the proper road or erring. And all of us have been traitors to the kingdom of God at some point, turning aside to serve the enemy instead. But there is always a longing in us for that something better we knew when we ate at the true King’s table.
Then the glad news reaches us. Although traitors are deserving of death, the Prince has chosen to take that punishment for us. So there is a pardon waiting back at the castle for any errant knight who chooses to accept it.
The trip will be fraught with tricks and danger, as evil does everything in its power to keep us. And we will probably slip up many times on the way. But it is the direction our horses’ heads are pointing at the end that will determine our fate. “There is,” as Dorothy Sayers reassures, “no power in this world or the next that can keep a soul from God if God is what it really desires.”
Some of us have been fearful for the wrong reason, because we doubted the goodness of God. What we should really fear is our own propensity to drift away from Him, since the road back is all uphill.
But, hey, nobody ever said this fight was easy. And would we really want it to be?
Sayers admits “the kingdom of heaven can never be attained in this world except by unceasing toil and struggle and vigilance.” She even concedes that we can never be completely good nor completely happy down here. But her final conclusion should be enough to make us grab our swords and hit the road. “There are certain eternal achievements that make even happiness look like trash.”