Hell As a Bureaucracy

“We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement,” advised C. S. Lewis, “where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.”

Lewis wrote those words in his preface to the 1961 edition of The Screwtape Letters. Although Screwtape is, in one sense, a comical devil, Lewis never lets his readers forget what lies at the heart of hell: the self, with all its outcroppings of jealousy, bitterness, and backstabbing.

Yet his picture of hell is not what most would imagine. Instead, he compares it to modern bureaucracy. “I like bats much better than bureaucrats,” he mused. And you can bet he didn’t have any real fondness for bats.

Interestingly, I first ran across Lewis’s description of hell as a bureaucracy not in this preface (somehow its existence escaped me until recently), but in Ronald Reagan’s famous 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals, the speech dubbed by some “The Evil Empire.”

Reagan quoted Lewis in the speech and referenced Screwtape in doing so. Yet I was puzzled at the time by the quote because I didn’t recall ever reading it in the actual letters. I was delighted, therefore, to come across it in this preface.

“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of ‘Admin.’” To Lewis, that was as close to hell as possible. He then expounded on that opening thought:

The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result.

But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.

Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.

Hell, Lewis opined, is a “society held together entirely by fear and greed.” The “whole organisation” operated on the principle of “dog eat dog.”

Everyone wishes everyone else’s discrediting, demotion, and ruin; everyone is an expert in the confidential stab in the back. Over all this their good manners, their expressions of grave respect, their “tributes” to one another’s invaluable services form a thin crust.

Every now and then it gets punctured, and the scalding lava of their hatred spurts out.

Lewis, of course, is doing more than merely painting his portrait of how hell functions; he’s sending out a warning to us who live in a world that often resembles hell.

How do we function? Are we, behind our impeccable manners and outward show of civility, undermining our associates secretly? Do we operate on the principle of “dog eat dog”? Does our thin crust of respect for others occasionally reveal itself as a “scalding lava of hatred”?

As always, Lewis wants us to examine ourselves, to look into our own hearts and, if we see anything there that has even the remotest connection with hell, to expunge it immediately.

We must live in a continual state of self-examination (not obsessive, but realistic) and an eagerness to repent of anything we see amiss. We want the fragrance of Christ to show in our lives, not the sulfurous odor of hell.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 2 Corinthians 5:17

Snyderian Truism #13–Sincerely Wrong Beliefs

Well, at least he’s sincere. How many times have you heard that? It’s a cliché that’s supposed to cover all sins. The problem is that we equate sincerity with truth, or at least we say we “respect” someone who is trying to follow what he/she believes.

There is one thing we need to keep in mind, though:

A sincere belief can be sincerely wrong.

That’s Snyderian Truism #13 in my ever-expanding list of what I think ought to be undeniable truths.

One man sincerely believes Jesus is the only way to establish a relationship with God; another claims Allah is the one to obey; still another follows the Buddhist path, while yet another says there is no God.

All might be sincere. All cannot be correct. And there are eternal consequences if you are wrong.

I take my stand on the words of Jesus:

I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No man comes to the Father except by Me.

Being sincere is not enough. Hell is populated with sincere people. If that offends you, I can’t be sorry for saying it. I don’t respect any belief that sends people into an eternity separated from the presence of their Creator.

Heaven & Hell

Lewis: Hell’s Operating Principles

Screwtape LettersFor many, their first encounter with C. S. Lewis’s marvelous works is The Screwtape Letters. This witty little book, which consists of letters from a superior devil, Screwtape, to a junior devil, Wormwood, continues to be a bestseller. Why? I think it’s because it captures so well the essence of the sinful heart as it displays not only Screwtape’s advice on how to lead a person into hell, but also the manner in which the inhabitants of hell treat one another—the fact that it is a place where all the deviousness and self-centeredness of sin is in full play.

Lewis explains in his introduction the nature of the hellish operation:

[Hell is] an official society held together entirely by fear and greed. On the surface, manners are normally suave. Rudeness to one’s superiors would obviously be suicidal; rudeness to one’s equals might put them on their guard before you were ready to spring your mine. For of course “Dog eat dog” is the principle of the whole organisation.

Everyone wishes everyone else’s discrediting, demotion, and ruin; everyone is an expert in the confidential report, the pretended alliance, the stab in the back. Over all this their good manners, their expressions of grave respect, their “tributes” to one another’s invaluable services form a thin crust. Every now and then it gets punctured, and the scalding lava of their hatred spurts out.

In other words, hell is merely the logical extension of the evil one sees in men every day, except infinitely worse.

If you haven’t yet read The Screwtape Letters, you should. And if you happen to see yourself in any of Lewis’s depictions, you can thank God you’re still on this side of eternity, and that there’s still time walk away from the deceptions of sin and enter into His righteousness.

Lewis: The Self-Centeredness of Hell

C. S. Lewis 4Modern man doesn’t like to talk much about hell, unless it’s in some fanciful movie creation where one doesn’t have to worry about its reality. The reason we avoid thinking about the possibility of hell can be traced back to our similar reluctance to consider seriously our sinfulness. And what bothers us the most, I believe, about the idea of sin is that we know the root of it is our self-centeredness. We like being self-focused; we feel justified in rationalizing our selfishness. So hell, sin, and selfishness are a package. C. S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, deals with this package:

Though our Lord often speaks of Hell as a sentence inflicted by a tribunal, He also says elsewhere that the judgment consists in the very fact that men prefer darkness to light, and that not He, but His “word,” judges men.

We are therefore at liberty—since the two conceptions, in the long run, mean the same thing—to think of this bad man’s perdition not as a sentence imposed on him but as the mere fact of being what he is. The characteristic of lost souls is “their rejection of everything that is not simply themselves.”

HellWhatever we are in this life—our character, reactions, etc.—won’t be magically changed in the next. If we are unreconstructed sinners, devoted to our selfish ambitions, that trait will only be magnified once we are forever separated from any hope of the Divine. Lewis, in his preface to The Screwtape Letters, tells us how he perceives it:

We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment.

Perhaps hell is only a constantly burning fire, but Lewis’s description captures what will accompany that eternal fire. There will be no repentance, no tears of remorse, but only a deeper degree of the selfishness that never was dealt with in this life. That, in itself, would truly be a hell.

Lewis: Hell Cannot Veto Heaven

The Great DivorceOne of my favorite C. S. Lewis books is The Great Divorce. This fanciful account of a busload of occupants of hell getting an opportunity to visit heaven allows Lewis, through conversations between the passengers from hell and heavenly denizens, to discuss all the objections to the faith raised by those who reject it.

In one such discussion, Lewis deals with those who say it’s unfair that those who enter into eternal bliss should be so happy when the rest have to endure eternal torment. In the words of one of his characters, he provides this rejoinder:

What some people say on earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved. . . .

That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it. . . .

The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.

Although we will mourn for those who selfishly chose to follow their own path rather than God’s, that cannot diminish the utter joy of living in the very presence of the Lord. Those who are hellbound have no grounds to demand we be miserable. They have made their choices; we have made ours. In one very real sense, God sends no one to hell. Here’s how Lewis expresses it, again in The Great Divorce:

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, in the end, “Thy will be done.”

All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.

It all comes down to our choice. We have no one to blame but ourselves if we live a life apart from Him. And that earthy choice will go with us into eternity.

C. S. Lewis: Why Only One Chance?

Some people may critique what the Bible says about having only this one life to get things right with God. Isn’t it rather drastic that if we blow it this time around and end up separated from God that we don’t get to try again? Why not multiple opportunities? C. S. Lewis has a rather unique way of explaining the justice of it all:

[Some say] that death ought not to be final, that there ought to be a second chance. I believe that if a million chances were likely to do good, they would be given. But a master often knows, when boys and parents do not, that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again. Finality must come sometime, and it does not require a very robust faith to believe that omniscience knows when.

Lewis: Two Kinds of People

C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce is one of my favorite books, as it depicts a fanciful journey from hell to heaven so that those in hell can see what they have missed. Any Lewis book is full of pithy insights. Here’s one from The Great Divorce that I find particularly lucid:

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, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.