I first read The Great Divorce when I was in college – it was an undergraduate special course that was offered mainly as an excuse to read C.S. Lewis. Seeking any relief I might find from engineering problem sets I dove in and loved every minute.
I heard then that Lewis thought his best fiction book was Till We Have Faces. That book is remarkable. But this one, The Great Divorce, remains my favorite – Here’s why…
Lewis says there is a choice to make and how we choose really matters.
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. Those who knock it is opened. (p. 90)
In the book, Lewis introduces us to a bunch of ghosts who live in hell, who struggle first to get on the bus from heaven to hell, and then with the invitation to stay in heaven. He writes about young lovers, an artist, a businessman, a theologian, a bereaved mother, a seductress, a domineering wife.
What is remarkable are the number of different reasons that each of these ghosts have for resisting heaven and returning to hell. The various ways they get stuck are simultaneously funny (if you like dark humor) and tragic. At times I found myself speaking out loud to them, urging them to chose joy. But in nearly every case they chose hell because, as Lewis quotes Milton:
The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words, “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” (p. 86)
THINGS I LIKED
1. Heaven (p. 52) is the “land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.”
2. You can’t bring hell with you into heaven. In fact, whatever is not of heaven has to be killed first. Anything – esteem for our God-given talents, desire to know the truth, and even the love of a mother – can become a corrupted idol in need of conversion.
3. The declaration of the shining spirit (p. 54) “We know nothing of religion here: we think only of Christ.” Carl would like that!
3. Hell is small, insubstantial and going from gray to black. Heaven is big, solid and is going from dawn to brilliant day. The description of the gray city where you can have anything by merely imagining it is brilliant and terrifying.
4. The idea of a theological society in hell (p. 56) just cracks me up as does the reference to Napoleon (p. 23) rattling around in his mansion millions of miles away from his closest neighbors.
THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT
There’s only one thing that slightly troubles me about the book – the images of heaven and hell. I realize that Lewis isn’t trying to paint any sort of picture of heaven and hell that might correspond with what might actually be there. That being said, I still have a question about his description. In particular:
• Heaven is pristine wilderness – hell is a dirty city.• Heaven is above in the sky – hell is down below.
The Bible tells a different story. Rather than taking his people out of the planet, God’s intention is to renew the earth. It doesn’t happen somewhere in the sky, but right here. Nature is renewed and the earth is restored (Romans 8).
It also doesn’t just happen in the country. In fact the main event seems to be the descent of the city of God – the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21) on the earth. I remember hearing Dennis Bakke saying on numerous occasions, “The Bible began in a garden but it ends in a city. You have an urban future whether you like it or not.”
At the same time I can’t imagine how even C.S. Lewis could write those ideas into the text in a way that seems as beautiful as lines like these…
…the solitude was so vast that I could hardly notice the knot of phantoms in the foreground. Greenness and light has almost swallowed them up. But very far away I could see what might be either a great bank of cloud or a range of mountains. Sometimes I could make out in it steep forests, far withdrawing valleys, and even mountain cities perched on inaccessible summits. At other times it became indistinct. The height was so enormous that my waking sight could not have taken in such an object at all. Light brooded on the top of it: slanting down thence it made long shadows behind every tree on the plain. There was no change an no progression as the hours passed. The promise—or the treat—of sunrise rested immovably up there. (p. 36)