by Zach Kincaid
"I know that many wiser and better Christians than I in these days do not like to mention Heaven and hell even in a pulpit," says Lewis (The Weight of Glory). He goes on to say that nearly all the references in the New Testament about both destinations come from Jesus himself, and, "If we do not believe them, our presence in this church is great tom-foolery. If we do, we must sometimes overcome our spiritual prudery and mention them."
The Christian calendar defines seven Sundays in the season of Easter before we reach Pentecost, or the act of transposition, as Lewis refers to it. Easter is the heightened period where the eternal meets the temporal in the resurrected Christ, and in this resurrected truth it seems an exaggerated time to reflect on heaven and hell and their more revealed reality post the crucifixion.
The question of afterlife garnered revived attention of late. Take the recent hub-bub about whether hell exists (See the cover of TIME a few weeks ago, for example and then read the book it references). Is it simply the woes of trying to market a book? Perhaps it's an outgrowth of a more settled way of church work with many pastors feeling more compelled to appeal for a "seat at the table" as one institution among many in the culture. Perhaps it's a reaction to a zealous way of offering Christianity wrapped in the bonds of choosing heaven or hell, eternal bliss or damnation. No matter, I'm sure that Lewis and Chesterton before him (and the many who pushed back against the pull toward modernity) would want us to make sure we're at the right table - the one God sets in the presence of our enemies (Ps. 23). Whether a marketing tease, a fight for acceptance that endorses a less orthodox approach to Gospel truths, or a segmentation away from less "enlightened," more directly focused evangelical folk, Lewis offers some good advice.
First, he advocates in The Weight of Glory that we are always inching toward Heaven or Hell and we should always ask the question, "How can you be so frivolous and selfish as to think about anything but the salvation of human souls." For those who are thinking that this lends itself to obnoxious behavior, Lewis suggests that Christians need to define every duty as a religious one. It's a "new organisation," he says, that reorders our human activities and pursuits. "The work of a Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly 'as to the Lord.'" This is not a mere biting of the lip and leaning into "lifestyle evangelism," as some call it. Rather, it's the attitude of Jesus to seek first the kingdom of God.
Second, he offers an example of purpose and clarity of who's who. There are many occasions in Lewis's work that point to this intentional Christianity and accurate labeling. One that I recently came across was in a letter he wrote to Griffths in 1937. He explains that he was talking to an "intelligent infidel" who hung his hopes in humanity's ability to eternally adapt and progress:
When I said that it was overwhelming improbable, he said Yes, but one had to believe even in the 1000th chance or life was mockery. I, of course asked why, feeling like that, he did not prefer to believe in the other and traditional 'chance' of a spiritual immortality. To that he replied - obviously not for effect but producing something that had long been in his mind - 'Oh I never can believe that: for if that were true our physical existence wd. be so pointless.' He's a nice, honest chap, and I have no doubt at all that this is one of the things standing between him and Christianity. (Vol II, 216).
Intentionality is something that is both corporate and individual. The church needs to provide an orderly way to know the Gospel (something that is sadly driven by postmodern drivel today), and our individual lives must also reflect a sincerity that is at once humble and thoughtful. The need to define the community of the saints from pagans is one that promotes love above simple tolerance. If church becomes a mere social organ that weds royals and our brides, buries our dead and entertains itching ears, we have become a resounding gong and a clanging cymbal.
A third point that Lewis brings out is a recognition that we're in an active war for peoples' souls - one that engages demons and angels, powers we cannot see. The Screwtape Letters puts imaginative flesh on the accounts of demons and angels fighting over the bones of Moses, in the life of Job, and in the temptation of Jesus. Screwtape explains that, "the safest road to Hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts."
Lewis unpacks many ideas for demonic manipulation in the life of Wormwood's subject. For example, Screwtape talks about the effectiveness of broadly addressing the "historical Jesus" because it helps distance followers from staring straight onto the "Founder." For, he says, "each new 'historical Jesus'... has to be got out of them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another... [and] We thus distract men's minds from who He is, and what He did."
In the end, the Gospels and the early creeds win: Christianity must teach Jesus crucified and bodily risen from the dead, his descent into Hell and ascent into Heaven. In the end, it's not about marketing the truth, it's about the truth; it's not about expanding the only way we know to the Father, but embracing the ridicule of a narrow way; it's not about exaggerating the next life and forgetting our life lesson to learn how to love Jesus and not to simply why we need to fear him.
Easter is a time where resurrection is retrieved as the linchpin fact of our faith. In it, we are redeemed from a physical Hell made for the devil and his angels; we are redeemed from self-righteousness that says we can harness more compassion (and love) than God; in it, we hold nothing of our own - virtue or vice - and depend solely on the grace of God, and though it sounds like tom-foolery, it is the foolishness that shames wisest ideas.
He is risen; he is risen indeed.