Last spring, after I read Rob Bell’s bestseller Love Wins, I knew I had to go back to C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. Though often missed by reviewers, Bell’s work is shot through with Lewis’ influence.
My first encounter with The Great Divorce came when I was working in Japan. I was attending an English book study composed mostly of Japanese moms with young children. The Great Divorce was chosen by the study leader to fill a year’s worth of conversation. I was excited to read Lewis for the first time outside Narnia, but thought I was in trouble when I had to look up the ninth word of the first chapter.
It turned out, though, to be a brilliant read. The ninth word was “queue”; I was okay once I had that one in hand. The Great Divorce was quite difficult for the class, but as we worked all year on the text in close, word-hunting detail, I really came to love it. It was, I think, my first real exercise in exegesis, trying to draw out from Lewis’ dream sequence a sense of the meaning buried within.
And in The Great Divorce, meaning comes at a number of levels. It is called an allegory by some, but I think fantasy is a better word, or speculative fiction. Within his peculiar imagination, Lewis explores the geography of heaven and hell to teach a deeper meaning about life right now.
In The Great Divorce, hell is a dim town of eternal drizzle and never-ending twilight. Our protagonist, as if discovering he is awake after a long sleep, finds himself in a disorganized “queue” for a bus. Those waiting at the stop are variously quarrelling, spiteful, greedy, cynical, distrustful, conspiratorial, self-assertive, manipulative, and detached, but these are the first people our man has seen in the drizzly evening, so he chooses to see where the bus might go.
From behind-the-hand conversations on the bus we soon discover than everyone aboard is dead—though each passenger is in a different stage of spiritual denial or intellectual decomposition. As the bus leaves the grey town it ascends to a high country shot through with harsh, penetrating light. The passengers stumble into the light, finding themselves on an immense, bright landscape. The very scope of it frightens some, who retreat back to the “safety” of the bus.
For those that dare to venture into the green plains, they soon discover that in the Real of these high countries they are but ghosts, shadows of human existence. The realness and the hardness of the high country make walking nearly impossible. Birds native to that world scatter through the brush, chasing dew drops across their feathers. For the ghosts, though, the slenderest blade of grass rakes at their feet and single rain drop would tear through them like a bullet through flesh. Walking is nearly impossible, so the ghosts stumble forward, drenched in sweat from a ten yard marathon.
Their disorientation is soon interrupted and accentuated by the appearance of solid people, angelic spirits of frightening glory who try to draw the ghosts into the mountains, the deepest part of the highest country. These angels, though, are not unknown warriors in a heavenly army. Instead, they are people from the ghosts’ lives who have gone on before them: mothers, sons, brothers, friends, mentors, victims, and, in one case, a murderer. Each of the solid people approaches a ghost to try to get it to stay in the high country rather than return to the grey town.
Through Lewis’ protagonist we hear these conversations, each one a study in the weight of sin. The sins, though, are not murder and theft and rape and genocide and oppression—the stock ticker of 20th century human destruction. Instead, Lewis begins with the far more nefarious sins: manipulation under the guise of help, prejudices hidden as taste and propriety, intellectual snobbery buried under critical inquiry. Selfish pride and stubborn close-mindedness are dressed up as great gifts. And love, oh, the decrepit imagination of what love is among the ghosts is tragic. In one story, a ghost whose wife is a beautiful free spirit is offended that she doesn’t need him anymore—what could she possibly need in this country? He cannot see that unbounded love is far deeper than a love that loves because of necessity.
One of the most frightening encounters has a ghost demanding to see her husband. After all, she had helped him improve so much on earth, so that he was able to buy a bigger house and increase in social status and become more useful and ambitious. She helped him move past his low-class friends and helped him set aside his childish dreams of writing a book. And, when he finally had a nervous breakdown, she helped him still by doing her duty as a nagging wife to his very end. When the solid person realizes that the ghost is buried too deep within a coffin of self-deceit and begins to walks away, the wife begs the bright spirit:
Please, please! I’m so miserable. I must have someone to-to do things to. It’s simply frightful down there. No one minds about me at all. I can’t alter them…. Give him back to me. Why should he have everything his own way? It’s no good for him. It isn’t right, it’s not fair. I want Robert. What right have you to keep him from me? I hate you. How can I pay him out if you won’t let me have him? (ch. 10; emphasis mine)
At the very least, The Great Divorce makes clear what love is not.
Part of the genius of Lewis’ assessment of sin is that it is full of self-critique. He doesn’t just characterize nagging wives and indignant lovers. He also places the axe at the root of lies that are dear to his own heart. This is captured well in a conversation a solid person, Dick, has with a theologian he knew before they died. The theologian—now a ghost who is mostly unaware of his ghostliness—is always committed to the most modern ideas and is always warmed by academic nostalgia.
“Ah, Dick,” [the ghost exclaimed.] “I shall never forget some of our talks. I expect you’ve changed your views a bit since then. You became rather narrow-minded towards the end of your life: but no doubt you’ve broadened out again.”
“How do you mean?” [Dick, the solid person inquired.]
“Well, it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that you weren’t quite right. Why, my dear boy, you were coming to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell!”
“But wasn’t I right?”
“Oh, in a spiritual sense, to be sure. I still believe in them in that way. I am still, my dear boy, looking for the Kingdom. But nothing superstitious or mythological. . . .”
“Excuse me,” Dick asked. “Where do you imagine you’ve been?”
“Ah, I see. You mean that the grey town with its continual hope of morning (we must all live by hope, must we not?), with its field for indefinite progress, is, in a sense, Heaven, if only we have eyes to see it? That is a beautiful idea.”
“I didn’t mean that at all. Is it possible you don’t know where you’ve been?”
“Now that you mention it, I don’t think we ever do give it a name. What do you call it?”
“We call it Hell.”
“There is no need to be profane, my dear boy. I may not be very orthodox, in your sense of that word, but I do feel that these matters ought to be discussed simply, and seriously, and reverently.”
“Discuss Hell reverently? I meant what I said. You have been in Hell: though if you don’t go back you may call it Purgatory.”
It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic—or so relevant in theological circles. But it captures the heart of Lewis’ lesson so very well. We discover in The Great Divorce that heaven and hell are not thrust upon a person, given without choice and against the free will of the individual. And, more than that, it isn’t so much that a person is locked out of heaven or trapped in hell, but that heaven is completely inaccessible to someone unprepared for its realness.
As the protagonists wanders through the high country, he is helped by solid people and begins to toughen up to the heavenly environment. To go deep into the mountains, though—to experience what heaven really is like—requires a death to the self. Each of the argumentative ghosts choose, in the end, themselves. The wife cannot leave her manipulation of Robert behind so that she can see what love is really like, just as the theologian can’t leave his prejudices behind so he can see what reality is really like. As the book progresses, the protagonist is helped by George MacDonald, the 19th century pastor and novelist. MacDonald—with a gruff Scottish accent in the audiobook—explains that every ghost gets a chance to go to heaven if it wants. Most, though, do not want it:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened. (ch. 9)
“Thy will be done.” As Lewis says in The Problem of Pain, the damned are successful rebels to the end—“the doors of hell are locked on the inside” (115).
The picture of heaven, as a result, is that when one arrives, the joy of heaven washes back over their entire lives, so that even the suffering of earth or the quarrels in the bus queue or the first tentative steps in the high country were heaven too. This picture, sadly, is precisely the same for hell, and the dim town offered to them is far better than the cruel ecosystem of heaven for those who cannot live beyond their own petty desires and ingrained habitudes.
As we think about heaven and hell, it is important to remember Lewis’ words about his own thoughts on the book. The Great Divorce is a moral story, a fantasy. He says in the preface that “the last thing I want is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.” As poignantly as he captures the landscapes of heaven and hell in imagination—and as much as I’m tempted to believe that his landscape hints at something factual of heaven and hell—we have to remember that the eschatological narrative is fiction, merely a story.
Despite the fantasy, Lewis captures the truth of the human condition so very well. Most of us are not murderers or rapists or dictators, yet we play with evil within the subtle inclinations of our heart toward the ones we claim to love. Each of our choices here on earth invests us further into heavenliness or hellishness. In this way, The Great Divorce is not really about heaven or hell and the afterlife, but about whether or not Galatians 2:20 is true in this life:
I have been crucified with Christ. I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. So the life that I now live, I live in faith in the son of God who loves me and gave up his life for me.