C. S. Lewis once said, “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside” (The Problem of Pain, 130). Lewis was heavily influenced by the universalist George MacDonald but wrote that he could not agree with him on universal salvation: “I parted company from MacDonald on that point because a higher authority – the Dominical utterances themselves – seemed to me irreconcilable with universalism” (David Mills, The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness, 253). While Lewis was not a universalist himself, his idea that hell is locked from the inside has been used by universalists to argue for a kind of purgatorial hell that people can choose to leave of their own free will. This has become the standard response of universalists to those passages in the Bible which mention hell. But hell is not locked from the inside.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus teaches that no one can leave hell to enter heaven: “And in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’” (Luke 16:23-26). There is a great gulf fixed between heaven and hell. Universalism is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus and the rest of Scripture (Matt 16:26; 18:8-9; 25:30, 41-46; 26:24; Mark 9:47-48; 2 Thess 1:9; Jude 1:7, 13; Rev 14:9-11; 20:10-15; 21:8; 22:15).
The belief that hell is locked from the inside undermines how horrible hell is. The Bible uses the language of fire, burning sulfur, smoke, darkness, and torment to picture hell. The rich man in Luke 16 is depicted as wanting to leave the torment of hell but unable to do so. If hell is locked from the inside, then the rich man would have unlocked that door. If the rich man had no desire to leave hell and enter heaven, then why does Abraham bother to tell him that there is a great gulf fixed between the two so that those who want to leave hell cannot? But from Lewis’ perspective, there is no one in hell who wants to do this. Those in hell have no desire to worship the one true God, but that does not mean they have no desire to leave. If they were to enter heaven, their sin would defile it (Rev 21:27). As Charles Spurgeon once said, “A change of nature [is] absolutely necessary, for if a thief went to heaven without it, he would be a thief still, and would go round the place picking the angels’ pockets.” They do not want to enter heaven to worship God, but to escape suffering. In hell, their rebellion is contained and their sin can no longer disturb the people of God (Rev 22:11, 15). The lost do not stop sinning when they enter hell. Only those who are in the Spirit can do that which is pleasing to God (Rom 8:7-9). Only those who have been glorified can cease from sin by loving God with all their heart, soul, and mind (Matt 22:37; Rom 8:29; 1 John 3:2).
The mistake that is being made by both Lewis and the universalists is their precommitment to man’s libertarian free will. They believe it would be unfair for those in hell to desire something that could not be given to them. For the universalist, if those in hell desire to leave and enter heaven, then God must allow them to out of respect for their free will. For Lewis, those in hell must not want to enter heaven and would rather remain in torment than to surround themselves with the sights and sounds of the worship of God. Though they begin with the same starting premise, they come to radically different conclusions regarding the wills of those who are in hell.
But if man’s will is not absolute, then we can imagine a place that corresponds with the hell of Luke 16 where those who are in it do not get what they want. Those in hell receive perfect justice for their sins, not the freedom to do whatever they want. What makes hell so horrible is that those who dwell in it can do nothing to change their fate. Their punishment is eternal because they have sinned against an infinite and eternal God. But the good news of the gospel is that today is the day of salvation for all who trust in Christ alone for salvation (2 Cor 6:2). Put your faith in him and what he did for sinners when he died and rose again (Rom 10:9-13). No sin is worth an eternity of torment in hell.