I have just finished reading C. S. Lewis’s book The Great
Divorce, and it now moves to the to the status of favorite of all the C. S.
Lewis books I have read.
I will soon be reviewing Wayne Martindale’s Beyond the Shadowlands, for Mind & Media. Beyond the Shadowlands is a study of Lewis’s views on heaven and hell and this has piqued my interest in the matter. I had scanned The Great Divorce several years ago and had read the Chronicles of Narnia, where I got a glimpse of his views on heaven and hell. But I wanted to delve deeper by reading The Great Divorce thoroughly.
The trouble is that I will need to read The Great Divorce
again to really get it. There are very few books that I
read that I ever have the urge to read again. Yet, having read this one once I now feel compelled to read it
The best way I can describe this book is to say that it is an allegorical study of the psychology of the hell-bound vs the psychology of the heaven-bound. If you are looking for a theology of heaven and hell I would recommend you stick to some of the standard texts of systematic theology.
This is not to say that there are not snippets of theology
here, because there are. From what I can
discern in this book, Lewis does not have an orthodox doctrine of hell,
although his picture of heaven is certainly compatible with orthodox
doctrine. He leans on his literary
mentor, George MacDonald, the old Scottish preacher and writer, for his
understanding of hell and final judgment. At least as regards the final judgment, MacDonald did not hold an
orthodox view of this. He believed that
there may be a chance for the unrepentant on earth to repent after their death.
Having read some of his fiction I could never quite nail down what he thought
happened to those who were unrepentant after death.
As Lewis fleshes out his view of hell here, relying on MacDonald, he does not picture it as a place of eternal conscious torment. He doesn’t exactly seem to be annihilationist either. Hell is a place of unreality, where the souls of the damned wander around, forever bound to their sinful desires and forever doomed to frustration in their attempts to fulfill their desires. When I speak of Lewis fleshing out his view of hell, I say that tongue in cheek, because the residents of hell have no flesh, they are ghosts, phantoms without weight, without mass, or matter.
And that is setting for the entire book. In the book we find that the residents of
hell are all ghosts. Part of being
damned is to have no flesh, to be a ghost. But, in this fantasy ghosts are allowed to have holidays, where they are
allowed an excursion from hell to heaven. In this case, the damned are allowed to take a bus ride from hell to
heaven, where they come in contact with “real” reality. Heaven is place of matter, of weight and mass
and the inhabitants of heaven are the “solid” people.
The ghosts of hell cannot abide the flesh of heaven. When the ghosts reach heaven the “solidness” of heaven is painful to them. The ground of heaven hurt, the very blades of grass are too solid to walk on. It is akin to the feel of a tenderfoot walking on hard rocks. Should the raindrops of heaven fall on the ghosts it could shred them.
And this is the brilliance of Lewis in the book. I mentioned that the book gives a picture of
the psychology of the hell-bound vs. the psychology of the heaven-bound. It does so by showing the repulsiveness of
heaven and the things of heaven, to the hell-bound. To the hell-bound, heaven is a place of pain
We think that anyone would be delighted to go to heaven, if they only knew the joys of heaven. Yet the things of heaven that bring joy to the heaven-bound bring immense pain to the hell-bound as can be seen in the way that even the grass of heaven hurts the feet of the ghosts. The book is peppered with dialogues between ghosts and solid people which illustrate this.
There is the man who doesn’t want any part of heaven because
he wants his rights, see, he wants what’s coming to him, he doesn’t want no
charity, see. There is the wife who will
only go to heaven on the condition that she is allowed to continue to control
her husband – while on earth she was trying to make something of him and she
must be allowed to continue doing that in heaven. There is the artist who wants to paint
pictures of heaven rather than enjoy heaven. There is the mother who claims to love her son and who is mad at God for
taking him away. She finds out that,
from heaven’s perspective she didn’t love him, she merely wanted to possess
him, and God took him away for his good and for hers. If she goes to heaven she will not be
permitted to possess him, but must love him, and this is something she cannot
In all of these cases and more, Lewis demonstrates that, in heaven we will see that all of our highest earthly loves were not love at all and that all of our earthly desires were for phantoms which have no weight and cannot satisfy.
He shows that heaven is a place of joy, unencumbered by
misery. This was an especially good
insight. Those who love misery demand
that others share their misery. In fact,
the heaven-bound often feel that their joys must be tempered by sharing the
miseries of the miserable. Yet Lewis,
through the voice of George MacDonald, turns such a notion on it’s ear:
That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it?
The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that their should be the final power; that Hell should be allowed to veto Heaven.
Again through MacDonald Lewis goes on to describe the difference between the passion of pity and the action of pity. The passion of pity is a feeling that can be used as a weapon by bad men against good men. This is not to be tolerated. The action of pity, on the other hand, will live forever. It is an action that stoops to bring healing and joy, no matter the cost to itself, “but it will not, at the cunning tears of Hell, impose on good the tyranny of evil.”
I say that this is an especially good insight because there
are some Christians who feel they have no right to unencumbered joy, in light
of the misery of others. They take a
kernel of truth and turn it into the whole cob. The kernel of truth is that we are not to be calloused toward the
situation of others and that we have an obligation to extend grace wherever we
can. Yet, when that grace is rejected,
we are not bound to bear the misery of the miserable.
So, as I said, I would not turn to this book to develop an orthodox theology of hell. Yet I can’t recommend it too highly as a wonderful treatise on the psychology of the residents of Heaven and Hell.