CS Lewis famously remarked that “the gates of hell are locked from the inside.” In other words, the residents of the damned are there based on personal preference. It’s not because they’d rather be in heaven but only lacked sufficient information.
Echoing Lewis, Christian philosopher Dallas Williard wrote that hell isn’t “an ‘oops’ or a slip. One does not miss heaven by a hair, but by a constant effort to avoid and escape God.”
But are these famous Christian thinkers correct? Doesn’t it seem crazy that anyone would prefer hell? Based on the statements of many influential skeptics and atheists, the answer might surprise you. Many hardheartedly reject the Biblical picture of God. If such a being existed, they are emphatic about their preference for hell over spending eternity with such a God.
Let’s take a look at some notable examples:
Mark Twain, who is considered to be the father of American literature:
“I am plenty safe enough in his hands; I am not in danger from that kind of Deity. The one that I want to keep out of the reach of is the caricature of him which one finds in the Bible. We (that one and I) could never respect each other, never get along together. I have met this superior a hundred times in fact I amount to that myself.” (Personal correspondence to his wife 7/17/1889)
John Shelby Spong, author, liberal theologian:
“(The God of the Bible is) a God I cannot respect, much less worship, a deity whose needs and prejudices are at least as large as my own.” (Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism)
Desmond Tutu, civil rights activist, liberal Anglican cleric:
“I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry… I would much rather go to the other place.” (Archbishop Tutu ‘would not worship a homophobic God’, BBC News)
Kingsley Amos, novelist, poet:
“I’m an atheist, yes. But it’s more that I hate Him”, explaining his view of God to Yevgeni Yevtushenko. (God Meets the Old Devil, The Independent)
Dan Barker, Founder of Freedom from Religion Foundation, said in a debate with Justin Bass:
“Even if Jesus did exist, even if I agreed with [Dr. Bass] 100%, yep, he rose from the dead, yep, there’s a God, yep, I don’t deny any of that, does not mean that he is my Lord. If he did exist…I will go happily to hell. It would be worse of a hell for me to bow down before a Lord…regardless of the legend and historicity issue…Even if I agreed 100%, I would still reject that Being as a Lord of my life because I’m better than that…I cannot accept Jesus as Lord…You’re much freer to live and enjoy your life unshackled from the demands…” (The Bible and Beer Consortium, Jesus of Nazareth: Lord or Legend? / Dr. Justin Bass and Dan Barker)
Donald Fagen, lead singer of the band Steely Dan:
When asked about the meaning of his song titled Godwacker, Fagen said, “It’s about an elite squad of assassins whose sole assignment is to find a way into heaven and take out God. If the Deity actually existed, what sane person wouldn’t consider this to be justifiable homicide?” (Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen)
Zora Neale Hurston, folklorist, anthropologist, and author of Their Eyes Were Watching God:
“All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise, they would not be worshiped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear, and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.”
JS Mill, philosopher. Mill is considered to be one of the most influential thinkers in the history of classical liberalism:
“Whatever power such a being may have over me, there is one thing which he shall not do: he shall not compel me to worship him. I will call no being good, who is not what I mean when I apply the epithet to my fellow-creatures; and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go.” (An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy, p 103)
William Ernest Henley, poet, in his famous poem “Invictus”:
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Henley is quoting Matthew 7:14 and is pretty brazenly saying he is the captain of his soul, not God.
God gives people what they want – even hell if they choose it
Revelation 16:9 talks about how the wicked respond to God’s wrath: “They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory.”
Similarly, Revelation 9:21 says: “The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.”
So according to the Bible, the lost are those who reject God out of the hardness of their own heart, not insufficient information. God gives them what they want: separation from Him. I see no reason to think that this type of brazen rejection here is going to somehow radically change at the time of judgment. It’s sad, but these examples bear out what the Bible and Christian thinkers like Williard and Lewis have said about hell.
In my own experience, I’ve asked skeptics if they would worship God if they had persuasive evidence. The answer has often been a resounding ‘no’.
I have to think that its attitudes like these are why skeptics have set such a high burden of proof when it comes to Christianity.
If we were preaching a God who makes us his comfortable pets and fails to take sin seriously, then I believe we would get far less pushback. But we’re not defending a god that the skeptic would probably worship, because that god doesn’t exist.
Sources and recommended resources:
- Why Does God Allow Evil?: Compelling Answers for Life’s Toughest Questions by Clay Jones (Many of the quotes come from this excellent book on the problem of evil)
- The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief by James Spiegel
- The Problem of Pain by CS Lewis
- Belief Map – Divine Hiddenness
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.