C S Lewis on the moment before damnation

That Hideous Strength.jpegOne of my favorite works by C. S. Lewis is The Great Divorce, which is awkwardly billed on the paperback cover as “a fantastic bus ride from hell to heaven—a roundtrip for some but not for others.” Lewis’ conviction in that book, which he expresses elsewhere, is that hell is the self-conscious decision to resist heaven and God for the self. It is a subtle, sleepy drifting inward to ephemeral joys without regard for the more robust, lasting joy that comes form God.

I just finished re-reading That Hideous Strength, the third novel of Lewis’ Space Trilogy. One of the most poignant moments on this theme of the sleepy, self-conscious decision for hell comes near the end of the book, after the descent into chaos that afflicts the headquarters of N.I.C.E. (The National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments) in Belbury. Lewis writes of Wither:

He had willed with his whole heart that there should be no reality and no truth, and now even the imminence of his own ruin could not wake him. The last scene of Dr. Faustus where the man raves and implores on the edge of Hell is, perhaps, stage fire. The last moment before damnation are not often so dramatic. Often the man knows with perfect clarity that some still possible action of his own will could yet save him. But he cannot make this knowledge real to himself. Some tiny habitual sensuality, some resentment too trivial to waste on a blue-bottle, the indulgence of some fatal lethargy, seems to him at that moment more important than the choice between total joy and total destruction. With eyes wide open, seeing that the endless terror is just about to begin and yet (for the moment) unable to feel terrified, he watches passively, not moving a finger for his own rescue, while the last links with joy and reason are severed, and drowsily sees the trap close upon his soul. So full of sleep are they at the time when they leave the right way.

The moment before damnation is not necessarily something tremendous and noticeable, but apparently one more, subtle, sleepy decision for the self and lesser joys. I could not help but also hear another quote from Lewis in his essay “The Weight of Glory.”

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Choosing Hell: W. H. Auden on Charles Williams’ view of Hell

Here is W. H. Auden in his introduction to Charles Williams‘ The Descent of the Dove:

The popular notion of Hell is morally revolting and intellectually incredible because it is conceived of in terms of human criminal law, as a torture imposed upon the sinner against his will by an all-powerful God. Charles Williams succeeds, where even Dante, I think, fails, in showing us that nobody is ever sent to Hell; he, or she, insists on going there. If, as Christians believe, God is love, then, in one sense, He is not omnipotent, for He cannot compel His creatures to accept His love without ceasing to be Himself. The Wrath of God is not His wrath but the way in which those feel His love who refuse it, and the right of refusal is a privilege which not even their Creator can take from them.

Auden’s comments on Williams remind me of C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, which is one of my favorite books by Lewis. There, souls are invited to respond to the love of God and enter into the Eternal City. Too often, however, they do not see the beauty for what it is, and resist it so that they might have their own way, which is, in a sense, a simple description of what Hell is really all about.