Amy’s Marginalia: The Great Divorce

greatdivorceI 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.

If I recommend any books that you’d like to purchase, consider buying them through Amazon using the links on my site, so I get a percent of the purchase price back to buy more books to review!

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’ve just been reading The Great Divorce, and came across your review. I wouldn’t get too worked up about the “unorthodox” presentation of the afterlife. C S Lewis says in the Preface:
    “I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course – or I intended it to have – a moral. But the trans-mortal 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”

    I don’t think you can draw direct conclusions about C S Lewis’s beliefs about the afterlife from this book. It seems to me that The Great Divorce is not suggesting that the unsaved actually have a chance for salvation after death, but uses an imaginary version of the afterlife as an allegory of our situation now, where the offer of the Gospel is available and the choice is indeed still open to us.

    AL: Thanks for bringing his statements in the preface to our attention. I also like your point about how this could be read as an allegory of our situation here and now, which is why his pictures of the individuals making choices for sin over Christ are such a central point in the book. I do find it odd that Lewis would make such a statement in the preface and then go to such pains to explain the intricacies of how souls can always choose heaven or hell in the afterlife. These detailed explanations of the workings of heaven and hell work very well as arguments for a particular position. I’d be curious to read in non-fantasy sources about his beliefs about the final judgement.

  2. I enjoyed the Great Divorce in high school, along with Screwtape Letters. They seem to go hand in hand. My favorite part of TGD is when the bus from hell is described as tiny as a blade of grass. It made me feel more secure about how vast heaven was in comparison to hell.

    AL: There are some incredible images in this book. I’ll always think about how solid everything is, how hard the grass is, because it’s more real, the most real.

  3. The whole point aside, I think that he has the slightest bit of a point. One who is in hell would of course be totally depraved, to use the Calvinist term. This is a statement that such a person has set his heart entirely against God, and were he in God’s presence, then he would likely be quite tormented. In short, heaven would be quite hellish.

    AL: I love that point: “heaven would be quite hellish.” Very much summs up what the tourists from hell were experiencing, except one, the narrator, who we get the impression is going to be sticking around for awhile. Lewis demonstrates that people who are hell ultimately choose it. God is just but allows free will, and people choose where they end up. Keep turning away from him, and he’ll grant you what you want, an eternity apart from him.

  4. This is one of Lewis’ works that I have not yet read, and you’ve got me intrigued. I was going to suggest something to the effect that Lewis may have only created this “bus tour” for the sake of illustration, but I see from your first commentator that this was indeed the case.

    Thanks for the review!

    AL: It’s certainly worth the read. There’s no doubt that Lewis’ mind, so keen on creating fantasy and allegory, was creating this “bus trip” as a fantastical method of showing the “vehicle” to get people from heaven to hell in a comprehensible fashion. I’m still trying to figure out whether he states anywhere definitively about his own beliefs about the choice of salvation after death. If anybody comes across anything, please be sure to let me know!


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