Screwtape is in Hell Because God Loves Him

The devils in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters do not understand love. Or, rather, they do not understand disinterested love. They clearly understand love in a sense of appreciating another’s instrumental value as well as passionate, romantic love. In fact, Screwtape tells his nephew Wormwood how each can work to their advantage in turning humans away from God. Prima facie this sort of disinterested love that God is interested in requires a desire for the best for someone, genuine actions in accordance with that desire, or both, regardless of situational factors. If the love fades away as soon as passion fades away, it’s not the requisite kind, and of course if the love is really instrumental it is also not of the right kind. The question then is whether God is loving in this way. (From here on I will use “love’” without a qualifier to reference disinterested love of the kind these devils do not understand.}

There are two challenges one may levy against God in Screwtape:
If God created beings for a purpose, that would suggest instrumental love as he loves beings he created for their completion of the ends he has. This ultimately can be resolved. The harder question once that is answered: Why Hell? This will require yet further analysis. I will present four options of punishment and one of choice, and through close examination of several passages, find that choice is enabled by love and for love, and this love is compatible with Hell.

Let’s consider the first accusation against God, that he created us for a purpose. This suggests he has some sort of instrumental purpose for us. What purpose did he create for? In his toast, Screwtape discusses the recent turn from great sinners who taste good to scores of mediocre sinners who are less fulfilling, Screwtape explains this is not so bad for the devils:

The great (and toothsome) sinners are made out of the very same material as those horrible phenomena, the great Saints. The virtual disappearance of such material may mean insipid meals for us. But is it not utter frustration and famine for the Enemy? He did not create the humans—He did not become one of them and die among them by torture—in order to produce candidates for Limbo; `failed’ humans. He wanted to make Saints; gods; things like Himself.


Here Screwtape provides us with a goal God had in mind in his creation of humans: to make things like himself. Moreover, that goal becoming farther is a source of frustration and famine for God. Before this can be used as evidence against God, we must first be justified in believing Screwtape is being honest and is correct. On the other hand, if it doesn’t condemn God anyway, Screwtape’s accuracy is irrelevant. That God would not want humans to end up in Limbo (or Hell) is apparent. Dying among them by torture would make no sense if that were the case. However, what a “great Saint” is is left undefined here. Screwtape earlier, in letter 14, describes God’s desires for humankind another way:

He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognise all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things. He wants to kill their animal self-love as soon as possible; but it is His long-term policy, I fear, to restore to them a new kind of self-love—a charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own; when they have really learned to love their neighbours as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbours.


If this is what God wants from people, and the great Saints are those who succeed in this, then God’s wanting beings like himself amounts to wanting beings who enjoy the good while exercising the virtues of love and charity. If to love is indeed good for one to do in itself, then wanting others to love fits within both unselfishness and charity so long as the motive is for the good of the other. That love is good for oneself is evidenced by God’s exhibiting love in himself. Screwtape explains, “He claims to be three as well as one, in order that this nonsense about Love may find a foothold in His own nature.” Therefore that God created and died for humans so that they may take part in love as well is entirely compatible with his being loving.

There is another worry with God’s purpose in creation. Screwtape describes the difference in purpose between devils and God:

He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.


This combined with that God exhibits love in himself out of a desire to love suggests that God’s act of creation is actually selfish. Thus while Screwtape may be wrong in claiming unselfish love itself is paradoxical, God’s creating out of love is. If Screwtape is right that God is overflowing with love and wants some beings to direct his love at, then he is ultimately using humans instrumentally. The alternative, that God created out of love for other beings in the first place, would require there be other beings in the first place, which cannot be the case prior to creation. The defense may be made that instrumental love does not preclude unselfish love, but there is no apparent difference between instrumental love and selfish love, so one may be substituted for the other and the contradiction made obvious.

Perhaps instead, then, the creation itself was selfish to enable unselfishness, and while God created selfishly he ever after loves unselfishly There are substantial theological points that would have to be made regarding an eternal or unchanging God making such a change. Screwtape mentions God’s atemporality in letter 27. The devils, too, are not in time as humans are, yet a lot of activity is still happening, presumably to make a coherent story. What would be needed theologically to make the change make sense would be for one relation to the first moment of creation and a different relation to every other moment. In this way the devils’ interactions with humans may also correspond temporally, so for the discussion of how humans are affected, the story is at least plausible. So then God’s unselfish love is saved outside of one justified act.

But God’s love is not entirely clear yet. The existence of Hell and presence of beings in it demands an explanation. Sending beings to a world of suffering appears to be neither charitable nor in the interest of the being. If it’s a punishment for failing to love, the punishment is either retributive, deterrent, preventative, or rehabilitative. If it were preventative, i.e. to prevent the damned from doing any more damage, then we would expect those in Hell to not be able to affect those outside of Hell. But throughout the story, devils are clearly influencing humans outside of Hell. Hell doesn’t act as a deterrent, either, as an effective deterrent wouldn’t be so intentionally hidden. God wants people to freely chose to come to him, and a clear and distinct awareness of Hell (and Heaven) would subvert a full kind of freedom’s realization. Moreover, the devils are quite aware of Hell yet have not turned to love or even submission. Retribution would be wholly unloving, except perhaps to anyone who has condemned them in the first place. However, it’s not clearly not the case. Some evidence that either the purpose of Hell is rehabilitation or not punishment at all, but something else, is needed to conclude Hell is not retributive or vengeful.

That Hell is not a punishment at all has a few pieces of evidence in its favor. The first is that God and the devils are pulling humans in either direction. When explaining how state of mind is more important than actual actions, Screwtape writes, “Nothing matters at all except the tendency of a given state of mind, in given circumstances, to move a particular patient at a particular moment nearer to the Enemy or nearer to us.” The story told here involves two directions humans can choose to go, influenced by opposing forces, rather than pulled or pushed by God in either direction. If God does unselfishly loves but also demands freedom be preserved, then he would indeed only draw people nearer himself but without compulsion.

An immediate objection may be levied here that God has no reason to allow the devils to be involved at all. However, to do so would be to prevent the devils from acting freely. If they were unable to do any real harm, they would be unable to make moral choices. If Hell is already a realm of the condemned, they can do no damage there. If Earth is not an option, then they must be able to act in Heaven, which is a worse option. Thus the devils being able to influence humans on Earth is necessary for God’s purposes. Moreover, that they are needed for evil in the first place seems false: there were no proto-devils tempting them Hellward in the first place. At worst, they are making the situation more dire for humans by a matter of degree rather than kind.

The state of Hell may be then a place humans choose to go, but what of the devils? Screwtape tells the story of their descent as a choice:

[Our Father] admitted that he felt a real anxiety to know the secret; the Enemy replied `I wish with all my heart that you did.’ It was, I imagine, at this stage in the interview that Our Father’s disgust at such an unprovoked lack of confidence caused him to remove himself an infinite distance from the Presence with a suddenness which has given rise to the ridiculous Enemy story that he was forcibly thrown out of Heaven.


The story here displays a particular ambiguity in honesty. The devils are clearly prideful, exemplified by Satan (“Our Father”‘) leaving Heaven because he was offended by God’s lack of confidence. On the other hand, he acknowledges the other side of the story is that they were forcibly thrown out of Heaven. If leaving Heaven was a choice, then we should also believe Satan chose to remove himself an infinite distance from the Presence,” which would entail going to Hell. This resolution of the ambiguity resolves the mystery of Hell: everyone in Hell chooses to be there.

This resolution also explains how the devils may be allowed readmittance to Heaven. Screwtape writes, “Members of His faction have frequently admitted that if ever we came to understand what He means by love, the war would be over and we should re-enter Heaven.” Rather than being prevented by God from returning to Heaven, their own pride and conviction that love is impossible drives their continued choice to remain in Hell. That they do not experience time makes any sense with their coming to understand something not already understood unclear. They may then be freely stuck in Hell, able to be in Heaven if they (atemporally) understand love, but they (atemporally) do not. For the sake of telling the story, this atemporal counterfactual may be understood as a temporal possibility.

The other possibility is that due to pride, they refuse to acknowledge that they were kicked out of Heaven. Given Lewis is likely to consider the story in Heaven more trustworthy than the one in Hell, this is a serious possibility despite the closure the straightforward interpretation gives. If God forcibly threw Satan and the rest into Hell for not understanding, then the aforementioned types of punishment must be reexamined. The other possibility that God threw away a failed creation fails to explain why he did not annihilate them or at least restrict them, and also evokes moral disgust toward God. On the other hand, a rehabilitation motive presents a new light both on the possibility of reentering Heaven as well as human contact. If they can reenter Heaven upon coming to love, Hell can be seen as a project wherein the damned are heavily incentivized to reconsider their ways. Continued access to humans can also be explained as an opportunity to be in regular contact with both love and the ongoing process and struggle to come to love. This hearkens back to a love entailing “a charity and gratitude for all selves.” God continues to show them love, including allowing access to humans, out of an all-encompassing love.

Complicating this matter is two further factors: Wormwood’s reeling from the Heavenly and eating souls. When Wormwood’s patient dies and is confronted by Wormwood and Them, “Wormwood reels back, dizzy and blinded, more hurt by them than [the patient] had ever been by bombs.” Unless Heaven was blinding and painful to be in for the devils prior to going to Hell, Hell has made them worse off after all: they now cannot even approach Heavenly spirits. They are farther than they were before. Given God is not just very unwise in his rehabilitation methods, this points directly towards the Hell by choice options. Eating souls, as far as the story suggests, annihilates them. At least without any evidence suggesting otherwise, having your soul eaten is not going to aid in developing love or otherwise getting better or closer to God. So still, the rehabilitation account does not fare well, but to choose Hell and be eaten as a consequence is not eliminated. The objection that one choosing against love may be even defended against, as Screwtape exemplifies the sort of justice promoted in Hell: “At any rate, you will soon find that the justice of Hell is purely realistic, and concerned only with results.” Thus, one who chooses against love and instead towards results for oneself is choosing this sort of justice. That they do not know they are in fact a weaker being does not revoke their decision; it only realizes it.

Even with the possibility of rehabilitation apparently untenable, the straightforward option of Hell as a choice is entirely compatible with God’s love. Moreover, it demonstrates God’s continued love, even to those in Hell, like Screwtape. The remaining problem is this seems to make a liar of God, given the “Enemy story that [Satan] was forcibly thrown out of Heaven.” This, too, can be reconciled. Given the verbs that only make sense for temporal beings are already easily interpreted as non-literal, Satan’s being thrown out of Heaven should also be. In this case, Satan’s pride and incompatibility with God led him to Hell. The elliptical clause leaves open to interpretation who threw him into Hell. If he was “thrown” out of Heaven by himself out of pride, then the choice account is clearly upheld. If he can honestly be said to have been “thrown” out of Heaven by God, then the throwing out is nonetheless due to the incompatibility driving a choice to leave, just as I could be said to throw someone out of a room by playing a very loud, obnoxious sound that drives them to choose to leave. The choice is still ultimately theirs, and if they found the noise amenable, they would not leave. Likewise, Satan and the devils (and humans) choose Hell, and if they found God and love amenable, they would choose Heaven.

In sum, \textit{The Screwtape Letters} provides a case for our ultimate destination in Heaven or Hell as a choice to be made. Moreover, this choice is able to be made because of God’s love. While his creation appears to be a selfish act, the selfish act is driven by unselfish love in the first place. Thus Lewis has successfully presented an account of a God that loves humans and all spirits, but still maintains the doctrine of Hell.

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