Here we have before us one of the monoliths of Christian literature in the 20th Century, C.S. Lewis, whose impact through his writings no doubt rivals those of individuals we would consider much ‘greater’ than him. He wrote prolifically over every subject both in fiction and nonfiction and this book is one which tows the line between the two. While written in for the form of a story this is simply a form by which Lewis conveys his arguments and ideas.
The Great Divorce begins during the dreary hours of twilight where our narrator boards a bus which will take him on an odd trip to a land which is more real than the one he left, perhaps even too real. This land is the outskirts of heaven, where the rainy town which he has left is perhaps what one might call purgatory. Both lands lay in twilight, one awaiting a dreaded dusk, the other a glorious dawn.
Taking a step back from the fictional aspect of the text and what we see is an outline of human misconceptions regarding salvation and heaven. The characters which the narrator encounters in his journey each display a different misconception. One displays the works righteousness of attempting to merit heaven, the character demanding that his ‘rights’ be given to him, all the while ignoring that his ‘rights’ would gain him nothing more than damnation. Another displays the idea that if we are simply honest and sincere in our beliefs that this is all which can be asked of us, ignoring the sincerity doesn’t necessarily entail innocence or any sort of goodness. Another asserts that intolerance and stagnation which must occur if any final truth is to be reached, opting for endless skepticism, all the while ignoring that the chief point of asking questions is to find answers.
Other characters, rather than demonstrating misconceptions, demonstrate mindsets which may keep the individual from accepting the truth. Such mindsets include that of shame, of selfish love, and of lust.
Each of these misconceptions and mindsets serve as minor arcs within the greater arc of the story. This greater arc may be summed up in the words of the narrator’s teacher: “But ye can get some likeness of it if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. Not only this valley but all this earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell.”
Even more pointed may be the statement that “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.” It is not a matter of merit or of rights, for if we got our ‘rights’ we would have no hope: “I haven’t got my rights, or I should not be here [heaven]. You will not get yours either. You’ll get something far better. Never fear.”
This is the outline of a great divorce between heaven and hell. It is meant as a contrast, a demonstration of the dichotomy present before us. There is no compromise but rather two distinct options divorced from one another, the good and the bad, where man must choose the one or the other, heaven or hell, where to choose earth is also to choose hell.
The text is at once entertaining and moving, as is to be expected by one who wrote both The Chronicles of Narnia as well as Mere Christianity. It is a book which anybody will profit from reading and at a mere 125pgs there is no reason not to.
-“You have gone far wrong. Thirst was made for water; inquiry for truth. What you now call the free play of inquiry has neither more nor less to do with the ends for which intelligence was given you than masturbation has to do with marriage.”
-“There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God himself… as if the good Lord had nothing to do but exist!”
-“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 able to veto Heaven.”
-“That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. But ye can see it only through the lens of Time, in a little clear picture, through the inverted telescope… For every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom.”
Perhaps the only thing which I might bring against Lewis, in a book which revolves so heavily around man’s path to heaven, is the distinct lack of grace – that is, the distinct lack of Christ. Individuals in heaven come out to meet those visiting heaven’s shores in attempt to persuade them to stay and journey inward, seeking ways to convince them to enter. After one such attempt the narrator’s teacher states that “Ye will have divined that he meant to frighten her; not that fear itself could make her less a Ghost, but if it took her mind a moment off herself, there might, in that moment, be a chance. I have seen them saved so.”
Of course it would be rather absurd to pick apart the theological ramifications of it being up to the efforts of heavenly individuals to save souls, but there is a bigger issue at hand. This issue is simply the idea that the narrator has “seen them saved so.” No word is said concerning the fact that is Christ who saves, and Christ alone, yet these individuals are said to be ‘saved’ by the efforts of these individuals. One might be able to write this off as the individuals simply acting as the means by which Christ is saving them but such a view is presented nowhere in the book (and given Lewis’ denominational background it is unlikely that this was his intention).