I love it when God, in his perfect timing, decides to give me just the right information, just when I need it. That happened last week, when I was reading C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce for the second time in my life. The first time I read it, I was in high school, and the thing went right over my head. This time, I read it, and I at least knew what questions to ask when I got confused. It’s progress, I suppose.
Poor Dan. He took me out for a romantic dinner last weekend, and all I wanted to do was pepper him with deep theological conundrums this book was creating for me. I could tell he was looking to unwind, and I was just revving up for some heavy analytical work. But, as always, he was patient with me and helped me sort out some of my questions.
And this week, our pastor was teaching on a very helpful portion of scripture, I Peter 3:17-22. I felt blessed by God’s providential timing, that I could get some more answers to the questions that were bothering me. Verses 18 and 19 are particularly appropriate: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” It’s the “spirits in prison” bit that particularly confuses a lot of people, and in The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis is merely giving his own take on the verse.
The plot of the short story is fairly straight forward. A bus load of people from hell go to heaven for a little vacation. Obviously, trouble ensues. But the confusing stuff comes from Lewis’ ideas coming out of the mouths of the heaven dwellers, about the relationship between heaven and hell.
In this highly unorthodox version, hell and heaven aren’t so neatly separated. Traffic can flow from hell (or the Valley of the Shadow of Death) to heaven (or the Valley of the Shadow of Life) but not the other way around. Unsaved souls can choose to take their vacation on Earth to visit old “haunts” or see what they are missing in heaven. When they visit heaven, they are ghostlike (“man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air”), while the heavenly people are surreally solid, like everything else in heaven. The longer ghosts stick around in heaven, and the more they climb the mountains, the more solid they become, just like the other folks there. So, basically, there is hope for the unsaved to find salvation after death. They just have to accept Christ once they are there, which most of the vacationers can’t manage. So, they choose hell anyway: “All that are in Hell, choose it” (75).
I know I haven’t done Lewis’ elegant explanation of this heaven/hell/purgatory any justice, but for brevity’s sake, I hope I hit the basics.
Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology has also come in handy, as I think about these issues. I’m inclined, along with most Church tradition, to assume that after death, you don’t get second chances. Think about the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16. When the rich man, dwelling in hell asks Lazarus for some water, Abraham responds: “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us” (25-26). There are no tour groups passing from hell across that “great chasm.”
In addition, there’s a great verse in Hebrews about judgment following death: “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (9:27). There’s nothing mentioned about any second chances in the middle.
So, now that I’ve sorted out some of these key issues, I’m left with discussing the merits of the book. Lewis hasn’t offered up heresy here. He’s not challenging any of the key issues of the Christian faith such as the resurrection, the nature of God, Jesus’ divinity, and the like. The book doesn’t come close to failing in the same serious ways, theologically, as the Shack (read my review here). And its quality of writing puts the Shack to shame in every regard.
Read the book for the characterizations of people who are so entrenched in sin that they can’t see Jesus standing right before them. Lewis portrays several people who journey from hell, only to hop right back on the bus, when their creature comforts are challenged. This is the heart of the book, not the details about why people can go from one place to another. I certainly felt convicted when I saw in myself some of the qualities of the hell dwellers. I want to be one of those solid types that hangs out with Jesus.
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