The Deeper Meaning of “The Great Divorce” (Feature Friday)

It’s difficult to know why, but this post has remained among the most popular for the last few months. For the past few years I have been trying to encourage a recovery of The Great Divorce. It is a great work, and important one, and I am glad this post still gets some traction. This post was part of a 2014-15 series of original and guest posts on C.S. Lewis’ dream of last things. You might also be interested in this post that has a character chart and some photographs of the original newspaper version, or this post on Lewis’ difficulty in naming the book

Bible Code

This is dangerous territory–partly because some have trumbled into the “real” meaning of this or that book and caused an awful mess. When read this way the Bible most especially becomes secret code for everything from American foreign policy to the missing political allies of Atlantis to the reason why its words mean the exact opposite of what they say. That’s right, the picture to the right is about the hidden Roswell UFO links in the King James Bible.

C.S. Lewis is certainly not immune to being co-opted by this group or that. You know what I mean, I think. Moreover, Lewis warned us in the preface to The Great Divorce that we should avoid certain sorts of speculation when reading the book:

“I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course-or I intended it to have-a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.”

great divorceIn The Great Divorce, Lewis describes heaven and hell with vivid clarity: the great, apathetic, narcissistic, blandness of hell contrasted to the bright, sharp, penetrating beauty of heaven. Lewis wants here to avoid a school of thought that would blame him for redrawing the faint lines of historic teaching about the after-life. He only wants to go as far as Dante, telling a morally invested story with the artistry that he has.

But Dante really did redraw the lines of eschatology; he is influential even for those who have never read him. His cosmography of hell, purgatory, and heaven has stuck with us, shaping our cultural understanding, repainting every bit of our imagination from catechism classes all the way up to the works of the greatest modern artists. Perhaps Lewis is trying to have the reader keep the moral, and even the tang of heaven and hell, without accepting its landscape.

So why do I push in to what he has created, trying to discern meaning that he seems to resist? Besides the Dante Effect–the reality that art and culture shape culture and thought–there are two reasons.

Collected Letters vol 2

First, there is this little statement that Lewis makes in a letter to fellow poet Ruth Pitter. Pitter had said that there was something jarring or frightening or personally vivid about The Great Divorce. On July 6th, 1947, Lewis wrote back:

“I was rather frightened myself by the Great Divorce. — condemned out of my own mouth.”

There is something of The Great Divorce that tells the truth about C.S. Lewis’ understanding of the world. Without trying to bend Lewis, or find the super secret Bible code, that something that frightened Lewis is worth exploring.

Second, Lewis really is telling us something about his beliefs on what heaven and hell means. This is C.S. Lewis speaking in the preface:

“I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) was precisely nothing: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in “the High Countries.” In that sense it will be true for those who have completed the journey (and for no others) to say that good is everything and Heaven everywhere.”

The Problem of Pain weeping CS Lewis

Lewis cautions against trying to live the heaven-in-all-good now, suggesting that if we do “we are likely to embrace the false and disastrous converse and fancy that everything is good and everywhere is Heaven” (Preface). Otherwise, though, he is saying something definite about heaven and hell. For Lewis, we are not to imagine heaven and hell as distinct, geographically specific domains.

In this way, Lewis is carrying on a conversation begun in The Problem of Pain. His chapter on hell captures the trilemma of hell: something seems to be wrong with the teaching of a good, loving God who puts sinners in an eternal hell for conscious, non-reforming punishment. After setting aside common objections to the doctrine of hell, he chips away at our understanding of time in the after-life. Finally, he hints at a solution of the trilemma on the issue of consciousness:

“[Hell] is in no sense parallel to heaven: it is ‘the darkness outside’, the outer rim where being fades away into nonentity” (“Hell”).

This was written about 5 years before The Great Divorce. Not quite a decade later, Lewis encapsulated some of his understanding of heaven in the final Narnian chronicle, The Last Battle (1956). There is a great deal to say about that complex little book, but two sets of characters show us something of Lewis’ eschatological imagination. In one scene, a group of Dwarfs sit in a tight circle, refusing to admit that they are in heaven. In another scene, a Calormene officer, Emeth, is invited into this Narnian heaven even though he had served as an enemy of Aslan. Aslan says, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash.” These two scenes show The Great Divorce idea of the continuity of earthly life into either heaven or hell, as well as the blurring of the regional boundaries.

clark lewis goes to heaven great divorceIt’s true that Lewis draws the picture in The Great Divorce a little differently than he does elsewhere. He resists George MacDonald‘s universalism–intriguingly by having MacDonald adjust his own views!–and affirms the essential difference between heaven and hell. But he does so in surprisingly unorthodox way. Here is one of those pictures, where George MacDonald, a spirit of heaven, is explaining why the saved cannot go into hell to rescue the damned:

“… a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see” (ch. 13).

These sorts of images have led some people to draw theological conclusions using C.S. Lewis’ work. David Clark argues in C.S. Lewis Goes to Heaven that people will get a chance to accept Christ, whether that is here on earth or in heaven. Clark argues that when we follow Lewis’ understanding of heaven and hell, we will discover that:

“Lewis removed this huge stumbling block to Christianity and vindicated both the justice and mercy of God” (see here).

rob bell love winsAnother author, and one with a far greater influence, is Rob Bell. Though often missed by reviewers, Bell’s work is shot through with Lewis’ influence. In Love Wins, that book that transformed millions of readers and set the stage for his exit left from the evangelical conversation, Bell argues exactly for the continuity that Lewis sets up in The Great Divorce. Heaven and hell are both experienced here on earth, and one’s decisions sets one in a heavenward or hell-ward direction. We can bring heaven into our earthbound reality, or we can sow hell into everyday life. While Bell isn’t very clear about what this means for the actual movement of the human being into the realms beyond, it is a powerful image as a spiritual truth. Bell leans on Lewis for this road map.

Still, as we think about heaven and hell, we remember Lewis’ caution. Is this arousing “factual curiosity about the details of the after-world?” I have to admit that as he poignantly captures the landscapes of heaven and hell in imagination, I’m tempted to believe that his landscape hints at something factual. And it may be that Lewis offers something to Christian thinking about choice, salvation, and the after-life.

cs lewis the great divorce 1st edBut I don’t think that’s the deepest meaning of The Great Divorce–as much as I like a good controversy. Through this speculative fantasy, Lewis captures the truth of the human condition–the truth of his human condition. Most of us are not murderers or rapists or dictators, yet we play with evil within the subtle inclinations of our hearts. We do this not to evil men or even to strangers. Instead, we rage against or manipulate the ones we claim to love. I rage against and manipulate the ones I love. In this I am sowing hell on earth, bending myself toward self–that is, bending myself toward damnation.

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.

What is the deeper meaning in The Great Divorce? It is, I think, the thing that shocked Lewis so much. On the great stage of this heavenly dream vision, Lewis saw his own sin and selfishness played out, scene after scene. While as readers we can close ourselves off to its message, Lewis could not. It stripped bare his willful blindness, and this is what he was left with:

“One  dreadful  glance  over  my shoulder I essayed-not long enough to see (or did I see?) the rim of the sunrise that shoots Time dead with golden arrows and puts to flight all phantasmal shapes.
“Screaming, I buried my face in the folds of my Teacher’s robe. ‘The morning! The morning!’ I cried, ‘I am caught by the morning and I am a ghost.’
“But it was too late. The light, like solid blocks, intolerable of edge and weight, came thundering upon my head. Next moment the folds of my Teacher’s garment were only the folds of the old ink-stained cloth on my study table which I had pulled down with me as I fell from my chair. The blocks of light were only the books which I had pulled off with it, falling about my head. I awoke in a cold room, hunched on the floor beside a black and empty grate, the clock striking three, and the siren howling overhead” (ch. 14).

What is the secret code of The Great Divorce? It’s the basic principle that it matters how we live, and whatever lies we tell ourselves in the dark will be set to flight in the truth of that last great sunrise. The deepest meaning about The Great Divorce is that it is about today, not about tomorrow.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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39 Responses to The Deeper Meaning of “The Great Divorce” (Feature Friday)

  1. cgruenler says:

    Thanks for posting this again. All that you say here about _The Great Divorce_ could be said, and needs to be said over and over, about Dante’s _Commedia_.


    • Yes, you are right–though I’m not sure if their centre of spiritual theology is exactly the same. I’m still working on Dante (I’ve been reading it yearly, but I still have gaps). I just read Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s chapter on Dante in Great Divorce. A strong resource for the question you are asking.


  2. Joe R. Christopher says:

    Amen about the model of Dante. Have you read Daigle-Williamson’s _Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C. S. Lewis_?


  3. salooper57 says:

    Put another way, in another place (Mere Christianity): “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Andy Pines says:

    Keep up the good work! Sorry I haven’t been liking much of your posts anymore. I have been busy with my new blogs, and following other blogs and reading them. I think it feels nice to like your posts again.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Another insightful column, as always.

    The Great Divorce is my favorite Lewis book, and in my top five favorites of all that has ever been published.

    More than any other book, it opened my awareness to the way that the human imagination can be used by the Lord to open our minds and hearts to complex concepts that are not always best served by narrative presentations.

    Here Lewis takes on one of the most difficult of all–why a loving God would allow anyone to be eternally separated from his presence–and Lewis succeeds with the task.

    Lewis was a courageous writer. He was also a humble writer, never presuming to speak with any theological (or, much less, doctrinal) authority. He merely hoped to open our minds that we might have eyes to see and ears to hear. And that, to the glory of God, he has accomplished abundantly.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad I’m not alone in thinking this is the great one. I think you capture this well, theme-wise. But do you think that Lewis was unaware of his doctrinal or theological influence? He tells us in this book not to speculate in eschatology, but…..


  6. Bookstooge says:

    Codes, schmodes! 2nd Hezekiah speaks definitively about UFO’s. Especially when you read it backwards *wink*


  7. loritischler says:

    I completely agree with your thesis (conclusion). TGD has always been a favorite of mine and so, for the final paper toward a PHD class on Lewis, I wrote a 20 page play, directly based on it. What I found as I developed each of 12 characters was how very much their earthly life affected, and continued into, their afterlife. It was indeed about lives lived on planet earth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Objectively speaking, was the play ever producible? A lot of great plays aren’t, of course.


      • loritischler says:

        Was it produced? No. I’ve written sketches for Sunday worship service sermons, and this was def NOT palatable for an average, somewhat, sleepy Sunday am crowd, tho I can’t help but believe (wish?) it could be attempted for a more academic crowd, or even reworked for a professional theatre company. 🎭👍💐

        Liked by 1 person

  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    In the gray city, urgency is not evident (though we get glimpses of a deep fear of darkness coming) – there’s a certain sense of plenty of time – go on an excursion – come back – maybe go again – and this seem true of many of those who go on resisting after having arrived. But, before that last scene you quote of Lewis-the-narrator’s experience of intense temporal urgency, there is, for those who have not gone on resisting in the past, or who cease to resist in the present, a wonderful implicit imaginary communication of ontological urgency, with a thoroughly positive further sense of temporal urgency: this is how it can be, this is how it should be, this is how you are meant to be – so, why wait a second longer, how could sooner not be better?


  9. L.A. Smith says:

    I enjoyed reading this again. TGD is definitely one of my top 5 books of all time. There are so many images that stick with me and offer me such profound contemplation. About heaven and hell, certainly, but also about how I live my life, here and now. And all the justifications I use for not doing what I know I should. And how so often we prefer (urg. “I” prefer) to stay comfortable in hell rather than to be exposed to that great Light. Honestly, I think I should read this book every year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We seem to be part of a club of secret TGD readers. I even reread it by audiobook this year to get that different feeling. Last year, actually. I probably read every year too.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I vividly remember my wonderful junior-high school art teacher telling me he reread Animal Farm every year, and always got more out of it: I should probably heed you – maybe we should all reread The Great Divorce annually (though it’s not ‘easy reading’ for the reason you note: “all the justifications I use for not doing what I know I should”) !


  10. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    When did Lewis start writing it, again? Tolkien notes on 13 April 1944 having heard the concluding chapter.


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I was wondering, because I’m rereading Williams’s ‘Dialogue on Mr. Eliot’s Poem’ (the Four Quartets) for the first time in ages thanks to Stephen Barber’s excellent new collection, The Celian Moment and Other Essays, and one of the four dialogue characters discussing the relationship of the second part of Little Gidding with the “familiar compound ghost” to Dante’s Inferno, says, “the whole passage […] seems to me full of infernal reminiscence, though the English poet is ostensibly speaking of time ending here and not time unending there”. This was published in April 1943, and one can imagine it might have been read out to the Inklings first (or after it appeared), or have occasioned discussion of contemporary London at night and Hell. In June, Williams was working on the early version of what turned out to be his last novel, when it was about a psychic detective, and the devil tying to have a child with a woman, and before it became All Hallows’ Eve as we know it. Might Williams have introduced elements of Eliot’s night city to Lewis, whose imagination worked upon them (among other things), as did his own?


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