CS Lewis is famous for saying, “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”. Lewis believes this truth, that “hell is locked from the inside”, because of the fact that “man has free will and that all gifts to him are therefore two-edged. From these premises it follows directly that the Divine labour to redeem the world cannot be certain of succeeding as regards every individual soul”¹. Of course, implicit in this statement is not just that God doesn’t lock the door from the outside. What Lewis is really saying is that God really wishes that every person could be saved, but his purposes are foiled by the free will of man. And so, in Lewis’s framework, man’s choice wins supreme.
Is Lewis right in saying this?
Jared Wilson, a prolific author, doesn’t think so. He says,
Does love demand giving the thing loved what he or she wants [i.e., hell]? The new inclusivists insist yes, and while their desire to maintain the biblical teachings on hell are admirable, we do not find much in the Scriptures to support the idea that, a la Lewis, the doors there are locked from the inside. The sentimental tail wags the theological dog when we say that love demands freedom, and that therefore when God cosigns the unrepentant to judgment he says, “Thy will be done” to them. In one sense, he is saying this, of course, but in the most crucial sense, he is not. In the most crucial sense, when God cosigns the ultimately unrepentant to eternal conscious torment, he is saying, “My will be done”²
I like Wilson’s points here. What he is trying to point out is that, when we think over this issue, God’s will must be taken into account. Because of course, God is sovereign. He is in control. And so, if men go to hell, and if God is sovereign, it must be true that it is God’s will (however permissive that will may be) that those men go to hell. In this way, God’s will, as opposed to Lewis, is that not every soul will be saved.
Of course with this whole conversation, questions of predestination, sovereignty, free will, and sin are necessarily brought up. And we could wade these doctrines to see what conclusion we would come up with. But we must, more than anything, understand how the scriptures address hell and condemnation.
And I think biblically, the answer to this complicated questions is yes: God sends people to hell and people send themselves there. What I mean is that biblically, the responsibility is given to both parties. And I believe that this testimony is clear from Romans 1.
Paul tells us in Romans 1:24-32 that God judges guilty sinners by “giving them up”. Clearly then, God is active in condemnation. But, also, notice just exactly what God is giving them up to. Paul says that God is giving the sinner up to “the lusts of their hearts” and their “dishonorable passions” and their “debased minds” (vs. 24, 26, 28). In other words, God is not forcing the sinner into condemnation. Rather, he is leaving them to the sin they love so much. He is allowing them, permitting them, to choose what their hearts already want. And so, while God is active, he certainly isn’t twisting anyone’s arm. He is judging yes, but he is doing it by cosigning them to the same end they are passionately pursuing. He is nudging them the very direction they were already going. And so, I think that both man and God are active in condemnation.
Douglas Moo says of this passage,
[The meaning of God “giving them up”] demands that we give God a more active role as the initiator in the process. God does not simply let the boat go [so to speak] — he gives it a push downstream. Like a judge who hands over a prisoner to the punishment his crime has earned, God hands over the sinner to the terrible cycle of ever-increasing sin…
[And yet, as Paul states in verse 32,] those who engage in [sin] know that what they are doing is wrong. They act “knowing the righteous decree of God, that those who do such things are worthy of death”… People generally, as Paul claims, have some degree of awareness that the moral outrages they commit are wrong and hence deserve to be punished by God³
Moo here demonstrates that, for Paul, and for the rest of the Bible, God’s sovereignty over those going to hell by no means diminishes personal responsibility. But also, personal responsibility doesn’t cancel out the sovereign activity of God in justly condemning man. God punishes the sinner, thus resulting in that person going to hell. But also, the sinner willfully and even knowingly rebels against God, thus sending themselves to hell. They want to go there.
And in fact, I believe Romans 1:18-32 describes all of us apart from God’s gracious and effectual calling of sinners to himself. How else could it be? Without God’s intervening grace by which he opens blind eyes, gives a new heart, and accredits the merits of Christ to us, we are but sinners walking into “ever-increasing sin”.
There is much mystery to this, especially when we consider how free will and sovereignty fits into it. However, it is certainly in Romans 1. And it is certainly in the rest of the Bible. And therefore, we must trust God with the mystery, and revel in the fact that we are sinners saved by grace, contributing nothing to God but sin and rebellion.
So then, does God send people to hell, or do they send themselves there?
¹ Problem of Pain, CS Lewis
² Gospel Deeps, Jared Wilson
³ The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Romans, Douglas Moo