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CS Lewis took Hell seriously – that’s why The Screwtape Letters is so powerful

I shivered when I listened to the Radio 4 broadcast this week

By on Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Hell: is a bad place to be

Hell: is a bad place to be

As I mentioned in Monday’s blog, Simon Russell Beale is reading extracts from The Screwtape Letters on Radio 4 at 9.45 all this week. I listened on Monday and Tuesday and, as always, marvelled at CS Lewis’s understanding of human nature, its capacity for pettiness, vanity and self-deception. Alongside this, there was the irony, the rhythmic and lucid prose (it was Lewis who taught me the beauty of semi-colons) and the sustained and playful wit of the whole conception. The conceit of Screwtape has been imitated often but none is as good as the original.

But I didn’t enjoy the broadcasts merely for their literary qualities or psychological insights. As I listened, I also shivered. Lewis wasn’t just having a piece of erudite fun or inventing a clever exercise. As a Christian he believed in the reality of Hell and with all his satiric gifts he wanted to show the “humans” for whom he was writing and whose eternal destiny hung in the balance between the two devilish plotters, that the theme of the Letters was deadly serious.

What happens to us when we die is a matter of life or death. As Mgr Patrick Burke, the recently appointed Vicar-General of the Edinburgh and St Andrews archdiocese, once remarked: “Life is short and Hell is real.” When I heard Simon Russell Beale, in the unctuous tones we associate with Screwtape, advise Wormwood on Monday morning to “Keep everything hazy” so that when they have finally captured their prey the benighted souls will have all eternity to experience “the peculiar kind of clarity that Hell affords”, I gripped my chair. Yes – that awful clarity of knowing once and for all what they have lost.

Again, Screwtape’s throwaway remark on Tuesday that “war is entertainment” brought me up sharply. I have been reading historian Ian Buruma’s book Year Zero, about 1945 and all the horrors that came to light with the ending of the war: rape, pillage, murder, displacement, starvation and corruption on a huge scale. War is evil – and that is precisely why the demons find it so funny.

I listened to Screwtape explaining to Wormwood in a potent image that “To us a human is primarily food” – to be ingested, absorbed and disposed of. For Screwtape, the “Enemy’s” gift of freedom of the will, the opposite of treating people as commodities to be consumed, is thus “an appalling truth”, something Hell loathes, fears and despises.

In the Herald for 15 November (it’s a good read, actually) I discovered two interesting items, on CS Lewis and on the nature of Hell. The first is Mary Forster’s article about Lewis and Catholicism and the second is Fr Tim Finigan’s column on “Catholic dilemmas.” Fr Finigan was asked: why does God not simply annihilate people instead of condemning them to eternal punishment? Quoting Scripture, he replied that “For those who deliberately sin, annihilation would be both a contradiction to the good of creation and an injustice. Evil has real effects and God has promised that justice will be done…”

Alongside this, I read Stratford Caldecott’s excellent blog, “All Things Made New” in which he discusses the same topic. He also asks, “Why will a merciful God not simply annihilate those who reject him?” and responds, “The answer seems to be that he cannot. Even the Omnipotent cannot do what is by definition impossible.” He then discusses the question of God’s justice and his mercy. Entitled “The second death”, the blog post is well worth reading (and subscribing to, I might add.)

For many Catholics, as well as for those outside the Church, all this talk of the Devil is uncomfortable, an embarrassment. It is simply medieval tosh, elevated to great art by Dante obviously, but it’s still not something an educated, 20th-century, forward-looking Catholic would actually believe in; now that the Redemptorists no longer preach their hell fire missions to an ignorant laity we can make up our own minds on the subject, can’t we?

Well, CS Lewis took it seriously and so do I. Many years ago I was deeply tempted to despair. I knew this was no ordinary depression and that it could not be cured by pills, counselling, psychotherapy or any other purely human remedy. I knew it was a desperate spiritual battle – to the death. I knew that a malign “Presence” (I can’t think of a better word) was subtly and unceasingly trying to persuade me that there was no solution and no escape. At a moment of utter desolation and by a colossal effort, I forced myself to say the “Our Father”. From that instant I knew the power of the “Presence” had been broken.

But I have never forgotten that utterly terrifying experience. That’s why I shivered when I listened to the broadcasts earlier this week.