Book 5 – The Great Divorce

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)


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.


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.
It’s not that I don’t find this description compelling – it is! What troubles me that it doesn’t seem biblical and seems to fit in with the general impression that the city is bad and the country is good. Similarly, it contributes to the belief that God’s ultimate plan is to take us out of this place “way beyond the blue,” as I remember singing in Sunday school.

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)


About Jeff Barneson

Husband to Tara Edelschick Dad to Zachary, Ezra & Nafisa Keeper of Bees Campus Chaplain Bicycle Racer Coffee Drinker Follower of Jesus View all posts by Jeff Barneson

11 responses to “Book 5 – The Great Divorce

  • David R. Thom

    The Great Divorce is my favorite too. I wish I had the text with me but it’s at home and I’m in Colorado. One of my favorite portions has to do with the spouse who doesn’t need, anymore, to try to satisfy the bottomless pit of dissatisfaction of the spouse in hell. The spouse visits from hell and is practically ignored by the spouse in heaven and the spouse from hell can’t believe it! The spouse from/in heaven doesn’t need satisfaction in filling the need of the other, which can never be filled by the spouse anyway! I hope I’m getting this right in my faint memory. What a true set of thoughts if there ever were any. Only The Lord can meet our needs.

  • Serena Hildenbrand

    I love this book! It’s been a while since I last read it, and this time I was struck by how grace-filled it was. In my current stage of life (surrounded by nappies and screaming kids), the Christian books that tell you to do lots of stuff are hard, feel like judgment. The Great Divorce felt like real life — we’re all on a journey, we can be faithful or not with the very small things, and we get multiple chances to get it right (or wrong). I do hope that’s the truth! I also liked the comment that heaven can’t be held hostage by hell — that in the end it’s good that gets to dictate the terms, not evil (that’s in the context of the disgruntled spouse that Dave mentions above). As for Jeff’s comment about heaven and cities — this may be C.S. Lewis’ own bias, as you get the impression from his life and writings that he was no lover of cities, and was probably quite a naturalist. I got a bit confused towards the end with the giant beings and chess pieces (can anyone explain?), but otherwise found it remarkably lucid, brief, memorable and easy to absorb.

  • Andy Webb

    Jeff, I thought your city comment was very inciteful. Of course Lewis does say that those is hell are moving further and further from each other….the implication being that heaven is the opposite.

    My own version of heaven, as I sit on a deck in the mountains overlooking a lake with a snow covered mountain on the other side, is to have natural beauty surrounding a large city. People, the church really, growing closer to one another, while at the same time sharing in the joy of what God has made. One of the things I love about mountains is that they push people together. So I hope we will experience both.

    The Bible is really quite vague about what the next life is really like. I think Lewis does a great job of painting an emotional picture that is as winsome for some of us now as the author of Revelation was of painting a picture of a place that was safe and bountiful to a people who were insecure and hungry.

    People need to see and feel that God is on their side, and to recognize Jesus as the best revelation of that.

  • greg

    Likewise a favorite of mine among the works of Lewis. While there are several troubling things about this book for me I agree Lewis’s love for the pastoral and open expenses comes out once again. The conclusion of The Last Battle paints this portrait as well. Speaking of portraits…Tolkin’s Leaf by Niggle has a similar sense. The city and things mechanical (in contrast to that which is of higher/eturnal design) are not the Ideal. It’s a wonder to me that when the created uses creativity to honor The Creator, His Glory is revealed. But when the created uses creativity to honor the created, everything involved is sullied.

    Open up Ps. 46:4 for me Father Jeff, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells”. Tell me a story would you…

    • Thomas B. Grosh IV

      Also one of my favorite books by Lewis. I was so enraptured by it that I purchased a copy & gave as a gift to my college girlfriend. We read it in the car on a trip back from Grove City College. Didn’t even consider the connections the title [The Great Divorce] might make in Theresa’s mind regarding our relationship, but we’re still together 😉

      So much good material, that it might even pull one’s strings for purgatory as one considers the contrast of ‘Love Wins’ with some [even possibly many] preferring ‘self’ over God at the other side of what some have depicted as a one-way door only opened from the inside (Note: not obvious in my reading of Revelation 3:20 none-the-less a concern regarding a whole local assembly, i.e., Laodicea). But I stick with the Biblical Story in which it seems impossible to dismiss not only the amazing glory of heaven but also the despair of hell/judgment for those who have chosen their own way over the Way, the Truth, and the Life is Jesus the Christ.

      With regard to fields in the new heavens/new earth, I would say that it is probably a ‘mythological’/’poetic rendering of the journey/crossing to the ‘heavenly city’ along the lines of what one finds in ‘The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ or ‘The Last Battle.’ The ‘outskirts’ get across that those who have ventured on the bus require familiarization with ‘reality,’ i.e., what is ‘solid,’ and it requires a journey. Reminds me a lot of sharing Christ on campus and the various places in which one finds fellow travelers as one comes alongside them both in/out of the campus fellowship. How short I fall of being a redeemed George Macdonald! How much God has done and still has to do in my transformation to embody Jesus as part of the Body of the Christ (past/present/future) through the leading the Word and Spirit.

      None-the-less, the urban rendering of the ‘city of God’ does not preclude the inclusion of a river, tree, restored garden of Eden . . . AND the image of the ‘new heavens, new earth’ with the ‘city of God’ coming down indicates to me the continuing value of a restored/recreated creation. I doubt those who have cared/tended for the creation (fields, forests, streams, lakes, seas, etc) will be left out of the opportunity to serve in the new heavens/new earth. Vocations are not limited to urban settings 🙂 Maybe I’m too Old Testament (e.g., Isaiah 65) as I imagine animals and vineyards part of the mix, not just images of how we are to be relating to one-another/creation as part of how the new heavens/new has earth has begun.

      The regard to hell depicted as a city, is it in Lewis, “What Dreams Come True,” personal experience, and/or some other place where I picked up the image of the more ‘hellish’ separating further and further from others (i.e., the city opposing the heavenly city)? Why? They become focused upon self. In “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Pilgrim journeys from one to the other. All for now 🙂

  • Daryl Climenhaga

    Re heaven as country-city: In Lewis’ imagery you are not seeing Heaven, but the outskirts. As in Narnia, Heaven lies further up and farther in. There you may find the City. I don’t think, then, that there is any fundamental difference between biblical imagery and Lewis’. Indeed, the way Lewis works it out in Narnia builds on the idea of the New Heaven and New Earth.

  • Tout

    I realize I’m jumping into this discussion one week late, but here are some thoughts on book, and on what you wrote about it, Jeff.

    It has been a year or two since I read The Great Divorce. I remember two particularly striking parts. One is the breathtaking picture of the piercing reality of heaven, which you touched on, Jeff, when you mentioned the contrast between the bigness of heaven and the smallness of hell. In C.S. Lewis’s imagination, heaven is a place that is so much more real than the world of our experience, to the point where it hurts just to walk on the grass because of how solid it is. This makes sense to me, that it may hurt at first to enter into the true, abundant, flourishing life that will be restored to God’s people in the Kingdom, just as it does when taking our body through an activity involving muscles that have never seen such exercise before – like running a marathon, for instance.

    The other striking part of the Great Divorce, for me, was the interaction between the Big Ghost and Len, the redeemed murderer, in Chapter 4. The Big Ghost demands to know, “What about poor Jack? …you murdered him.” Len answers, “He is here. You will meet him soon, if you stay… he sends you his love.” The rest of the narrative describes how The Big Ghost tragically rejects the invitation to enter the Kingdom because he is obsessed with the perceived injustice of a murderer being invited in ahead of someone like himself, who has tried his best to live a good life. “I don’t say I was a religions man… But I done my best all my life, see? …I got to have my rights,” the Big Ghost insists. “I haven’t got my rights, or I should not be here,” Len explains. “You will not get yours either. You will get something far better. Never fear.” The entire interaction is a sobering reminder of how the invitation to enter the Kingdom depends not on the presumed size of our transgressions, but on our embrace of God’s forgiveness.

    As for the questions about whether a city or a garden is the better picture of the Kingdom, I think Daryl makes an important point above, about the imagery being only of the outskirts. Moreover, there are many elements of a modern city that obviously have no place in the Kingdom – poverty, crime, idolatry, pollution… and the list goes on. So I would push back a little on Dennis Bakke’s comment: “You have an urban future whether you like it or not” and ask just what one means by “urban.” Andy Crouch touches on this in Culture Making, where he suggests that a city is a place where culture creation happens, while a garden is a place for the work of cultivation (I realize I’m not defining key terms, and I may also be getting some of it wrong). There was also a really thought-provoking editorial in the Harvard Crimson, “Against Creation,” that approached this topic from a different, secular perspective.

    Finally, I’ll sneak in one last

  • Tout

    (…continued) Finally, I’ll sneak in one last comment. The Great Divorce made me wonder what’s missing from the simple Protestant Sunday school picture of salvation. Thomas commented above that it can “pull one’s string’s for purgatory.” I can also imagine some of the characters who reject the Kingdom having once prayed the Sinner’s Prayer. But all this is probably an even more fitting discussion for the next book!

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