C. S. Lewis – The Great Divorce (1945)

For Christmas I was lucky enough to receive HarperOne’s beautiful box set of six C. S. Lewis classics. I have read a couple of them before, but knew almost nothing of The Great Divorce. It is story of someone taking a bus trip from Hell – a drab city where people endeavour to avoid each other – towards heaven. Rather than being impressed by the beauty, realness, and hope of what they see and the people they meet, those from Hell find that it is a place where their own ends cannot be furthered. It is an interesting discussion of the psyche of those in heaven and those in hell, which are seen as fundamentally opposed to one another. However, it is rather unorthodox.

Before commenting further, I should recognise the disclaimer Lewis makes in the preface: I beg the readers to remember that this is a fantasy…the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.

One of the characters in The Great Divorce is the pastor and novelist George MacDonald (author of The Princess and the Goblin), who functions as a mentor to the narrator. MacDonald was a universalist who rejected penal substitutionary atonement (though I haven’t read him on this, so I stand to be corrected if I have assumed too much). Despite not sharing these views, Lewis admires his theology and his view that hell is not a punishment imposed by God, but a self-imposed separation from God.

On this point, Lewis is not so different from what Rob Bell argues for in Love Wins. Bell, MacDonald and, it seems, Lewis believe that God’s love is incompatible with eternal judgement for sin. This does seem at odds with the clear testimony of Scripture, but it also seems to almost naturally flow from what we know of God’s nature, which is seen so purely in his mercy to those who are not worthy of mercy. As Paul writes in Romans 5, ‘God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us!’
Why then should God cease to have pity on those who have died, but continue to be his beloved creation?

Universalists like Bell argue that he doesn’t cease to have pity and will save everyone, a conclusion totally at odds with Scripture. Lewis does not share this conclusion, but he does share their belief that God would not cease to pity the damned, saying ‘The action of Pity will live forever’ (HarperOne 2001, p. 136). We see this in The Great Divorce when MacDonald counsels the narrator:

‘For a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see.’
    ‘Then no one can ever reach them?’
    ‘Only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell. For the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend—a man can sympathise with a horse but a horse cannot sympathise with a rat. Only One has descended into Hell.’
    ‘And will he ever do so again?’
    ‘It was once not long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way when once ye have left the Earth. All moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.’
    ‘And some hear him?’
    ‘Aye.’ (pp. 139-140)

If love in the after-world is anything like love as we know it, there must be hope for reconciliation. So Lewis holds out hope that salvation can come even for those who reject Christ until their deaths, finding grounds for this in the difficult passage of 1 Peter 3. However, The Great Divorce is essentially a denouncement of universalism and a case for why this post-death salvation will only reach some. Lewis sees that people are too committed to clinging to their own autonomy and self-importance and would never give it up, even for heaven.

I was really interested to hear N.T. Wright’s take on this issue, which a friend shared with me the other day. In his chapter on ‘Purgatory, paradise, hell’ in Surprised by Hope Wright proposes that God must cease to pity the damned. He says,

When human beings give their heartfelt allegiance to and worship that which is not God, they progressively cease to reflect the image of God…My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse all whispering of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all prompting to turn and go the other way, all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all. With the death of that body in which they inhabited God’s good world, in which the flickering flame of goodness had not been completely snuffed out, they pass simultaneously not only beyond hope but also beyond pity…

These creatures still exist in an ex-human state, no longer reflecting their maker in any meaningful sense, can no longer excite, in themselves or others, the natural sympathy some even feel for the hardened criminal. (SPCK 2007, p. 195, emphasis in original)

It is a curious idea and he quite rightly (or wrightly?), holds the view lightly, recognising the limits of revelation on this point. But it does, at least provide an answer to the question that preserves the conclusion that salvation is for those who repent and believe (cf. Luke 16:19-31, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9).

While I have strong misgivings about Lewis’s views on hell, I think The Great Divorce – unlike Love Wins – is a worthwhile read which gives glorious insight into the joyful promise of heaven.