The Great Divorce revisited

One of my very favorite books is C.S. Lewis’ classic, The Great Divorce. I realized recently that I hadn’t read the book in several years, and dug out my tattered and falling apart 1978 copy (which I paid $1.50 for) to give it a fresh read. I was again impressed with the depth of Lewis’ ideas, as relevant now as when it was written in 1946.

I highly recommend reading it, if you haven’t, and to read it again if you have. I especially recommend it to Evangelicals of every flavor. While Lewis has been generally “adopted” by Evangelicals, it should be noted that Lewis doesn’t necessarily fit the standard Evangelical mold. The Great Divorce is especially challenging as Lewis posits some interesting ideas about Heaven, Hell, and the nature of judgment and eternity. He is clear that he is not suggesting that this is “even a guess or a speculation” about the truth of Heaven and Hell; the book is a work of fantasy. However, if the book were published under another name today, I have no doubt that it would be immediately criticized as another emergent work of heresy.

In The Great Divorce, Lewis’ protagonist finds himself on a bus on a rather curious excursion, where residents of Hell are allowed to visit Heaven and stay there if they wish. Each traveler is met by someone they have known; the storyteller is himself met by none other than George MacDonald, who Lewis probably respected more than any other English author. Throughout the short book a variety of discussions take place in which Lewis examines why some people would rather choose Hell than Heaven; in fact, he proposes that most of those who are in Hell are there willingly. This is perhaps a shocking concept for most people (especially fans of Dante), but you begin to see that this may not be so far-fetched after all. The fictional MacDonald explains:

There are only two kinds of people in the end; those who say to God, ‘They 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. To those who knock it is opened.

One of my favorite characters in the book is an intellectual ghost (later identified as an Episcopalian, probably representing issues Lewis had with some in the Church of England) who refused to believe that the place he had been was Hell, or that the place he was visiting was Heaven, continuing to argue that they were not literal places. Lewis also speaks of “materialistic Ghosts who informed the immortals that they were deluded; there was no life after death, and this whole country was a hallucination” and those who attempted to extend Hell into Heaven (apparently to make Heaven more livable).

Lewis touches on a number of issues that the non-believing (as well as the believing) world continues to ask, such as why those in Hell should not be pitied (yes, you read that right) and why universal salvation (in spite of the individual’s right to reject Heaven) is a bad idea. The fictional MacDonald again:

“I know it has a grand sound to say ye’ll accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside. But watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.”

The book is full of marvelous quotes, and I am tempted to fill up the page with them. But, it is much better to read the book yourself.

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