I first picked up The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis some years ago when I found it on sale in a bookstore. I wasn’t sure what kind of divorce the title was talking about, and the description on the front about a bus ride from hell to heaven seemed really weird, but it was Lewis and it was on sale, so I got it. But it sat around for all these years unopened. The TBR challenge of reading things that have been unread on our shelves spurred me to work this book in this year.
Lewis explains in the preface that the title and concept came in response to William Blake’s book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Lewis explains that there can be no such marriage.
“We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the centre: rather in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks in two, and each of those into two again, and at each road you must make a decision. Even on a biological level life is not like a river but like a tree. It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection. Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but also from other good.”
“Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop’ into good. Time does not heal it.”
To illustrate some of those fork-in-the-road choices as well as the opposite directions of heaven and hell, Lewis developed this fantasy of a group of people on a bus ride from hell to visit heaven. When they arrive, they are surprised to find that they are transparent and that contact with solid objects is painful (“It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows.”) They are called ghosts, whereas the inhabitants who come to meet them are called Solid People or Spirits. Most of the people decide not to stay for various reasons, despite the Spirits encouraging them to put away whatever is holding them back and enter into joy.
The cleric who does not believe in absolutes refuses to believe in them still: “For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? ‘Prove all things’…to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.” The Spirit speaking with him, a friend he knew in life, responds, “If that were true…how could anyone travel hopefully? There would be nothing to hope for.” The artist prefers his painting to reality. “Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.” The overbearing wife wants to continue “managing” her husband. The mother who has developed motherly love into idolatry would rather take her son from heaven back to hell with her than lessen her focus from him to love God. “Mother love…is the highest and holiest feeling in human nature,” she says, and is told, “No natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.” The man who lives for manipulating people with his self-pity is told, “Did you think joy was created to live always under that threat? Always defenseless against those who would rather be miserable than have their self-will crossed?”
But a few are willing to have their besetting sins taken and killed, and they grow more “solid.”
“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. ”
“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 mouth for food, or their eyes to see.”
Lewis, or the narrator, finds George MacDonald, someone he has greatly looked up to and learned from, who then becomes a guide and teacher for him, similar to Dante and Virgil in The Divine Comedy.
Lewis assures in the preface that he is not writing to propose anything about what heaven might be like: he is simply using this scenario as a vehicle to discuss truths.
There are a few similar themes as are found in The Last Battle, the last book in the Narnia series written about 10-11 years later: the idea of moving “further up and further in” and the effusive joy of heaven.
I don’t know if Lewis believed in a purgatory or if he was just using the idea of the dead getting “second chances” to illustrate that many of them would not take it. The Bible says in Hebrews 9:27 that “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,” so I would have a problem with this book promoting the idea of purgatory, but I think the whole second chance scenario is just part of the plot device.
One character in the book says, “Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.” Again, I don’t know if the idea of hell being just a state of mind was part of Lewis’s own philosophy or if it was just the nature of it in this as a fantasy, but the Bible does speak of hell with literal terminology.
Overall this was quite a fascinating and thought-provoking read.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)