Summary: An examination of C. S. Lewis’ view of Heaven and Hell in The Great Divorce and The Problem of Pain.
The Life & Legacy of C. S. Lewis #5
“The Great Divorce”
This weekend we’re continuing our series on The Life and Legacy of C. S. Lewis by turning our attention to one of his most intriguing works of fiction, The Great Divorce. The title The Great Divorce is a twist on William Blake (1757-1827), a British poet, painter, mystic, and engraver who wrote a piece called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. “If I have written of their Divorce,” Lewis tells us in his preface, “this is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius, nor even because I feel at all sure I know what he meant. But in some sense or other the attempt to make that marriage is perennial. The attempt is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable ‘either-or’; that granted skill and patience and (above all) time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain. This belief I take to be a disastrous error.” (1)
The story, which Lewis insists is a fantasy, tells how people in hell are offered a free bus trip to heaven. Remarkably, they get to decide if this trip will be one-way or round trip. In other words, they can stay in heaven if they choose to do so. This device gives Lewis an opportunity to make one of his most important points about hell, that it is a place people choose to go, not a jail they’re sent to by God. While the book was written in 1943, Lewis was exposed to the idea that inspired the book a decade earlier. He’d been reading the works of a 17th century writer named Jeremy Taylor when he came across an old, odd theological idea called the Refrigerium. While punishment in hell is never-ending, God in His grace grants intermittent periods of relief, a sort of Holiday from Hell. While there is absolutely no biblical basis for the idea, Lewis thought it would be a useful plot device. Like The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce was published in 14 weekly installments in The Guardian from November 1944 to April 1945.
In this message I’d like to highlight five great ideas that are either explored in or assumed by The Great Divorce. First, C. S. Lewis embraced the biblical view that Heaven and Hell are real places. They are not symbolic representations of spiritual truths but actually locations [thus the capitalization]. One of the more memorable characters in The Great Divorce is the Episcopal Ghost, a theologian who arrives in Heaven all the while insisting that neither Hell (from which he’s come), nor Heaven (on whose outskirts he is standing), are anything more than symbols. Ironically, the Episcopal Ghost decides to return to Hell because he is scheduled to deliver a paper to the Theological Society there. While Lewis believed in the literal reality of Heaven and Hell he was deeply troubled, as we all should be, by the idea of Hell. In The Problem of Pain (1940), a book in which he explores how some people choose to use the gift of free will that God has given them to make self-destructive choices, Lewis writes, “Some will not be redeemed. There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, our Lord’s words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason.” (2) The question, of course, is why someone would want to choose hell, which is precisely the point of The Great Divorce.
Second, Lewis insists that Heaven and Hell are diametrically opposed. That is why the book is called The Great Divorce. There is no place for evil in Heaven; there is no desire for good in Hell. The two are polar opposites. Quoting his mentor George MacDonald (who appears as a character in the book) Lewis reminds us on the title page, “No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little hell in it– no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather.” (3)
Third, Lewis tells us that Heaven and Hell are not comparable. While they are polar opposites, they are not remotely equal. For instance, Hell is drab, boring, dreary, and uninteresting. Hell, in The Great Divorce, is pictured as a place where it is always raining. It is dismal, dingy, empty, a place where people snap at one another, scowl, whine, and growl. Heaven, on the other hand, is a place of breathtaking, literally unimaginable beauty. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2.9, “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imaged, what God has prepared for those who love him.”