Becoming Oneself: C.S. Lewis’ Allegory of the Afterlife
The relative importance of “the journey” to “the final destination” is a question that manifests itself in multiple contexts but arguably most often when it comes to the afterlife. Christianity upholds the belief that after one dies one either ascends to Heaven or descends to Hell. Heaven, or “God’s Kingdom,”1 is the offer of eternal life for those who have given their life over to God and accepted His son Jesus Christ as their Savior. Within Heaven, “there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”2 Hell, on the other hand, is interpreted as a place of punishment and death. Hell is depicted in Revelation, the enigmatic final book of the Bible, as a “lake of fire” into which “death and the grave were thrown” or as “the second death.”3
Though the terms “Heaven” and “Hell” are widely used, the Christian understanding of how one ends up in either Heaven or Hell is often misunderstood as a reward or punishment administered by God. This is incorrect because, contrary to popular belief, Heaven is not simply a reward bestowed by God at the end of one’s life. Heaven is the product of a spiritual and moral transformation humans undergo as they develop a close relationship with God. This transformation is a fulfillment of self; the goal is to become ourselves, to become what God designed us to be. Therefore, while Christians do believe that everyone has a Day of Judgment where one faces God alone with all of his or her earthly actions laid out before them, Christians also believe that each person’s final destination depends partially on how he or she has exercised her free will. The Christian belief is that our final destination is a reflection of how dedicated one has been to completing the transformation of self and engaging with God throughout his or her life.
C.S. Lewis explores Christian eschatology (i.e., theology considering the Last Things: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and the Last Judgment) and the role of free will in his work The Great Divorce. The title is a reply to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Lewis aims to dispute the idea that all roads lead to the same place. He wanted to point out the error in believing that it is not necessary to pay heed to one’s path because it will work itself out along the way, which is the essence of Blake’s work.
This article aims to explain how The Great Divorce’s allegorical narrative, in the context of Christian eschatology, reveals conscious choice and self-awareness as being integral to one’s entrance into Heaven. For Heaven is not a struggle to obtain but rather a struggle to accept. Lewis’s emphasis on the role of choice in regards to one’s final destination in Heaven or Hell illustrates how conscious choice and free obedience are key components of Christian “faith.”
The Great Divorce opens with the narrator entering Grey Town. He gets in line at a bus stop because that’s what he sees others doing. The bus takes them to the Valley of the Shadow of Life where they can contemplate entering Heaven. If one chooses to enter Heaven, Grey Town was a form of Purgatory where one could realize and renounce one’s sins, but if they choose to stay in Grey Town, then the town becomes their Hell. The residents of Grey Town are insubstantial Ghosts; the Valley is too real for their bodies so that the grass hurts their feet and rain has the capability to “make a hole in you, like a machine-gun bullet.”4 Substantial Spirits, allegorical figures representing the saved saints who dwell in Heaven, inhabit the Valley and each of the Ghosts who come to the Valley from the Grey Town is paired with one of these Spirits, a personal guide whom they knew in some capacity in their earthly lives. The Great Divorce records the narrator’s observations of various exchanges between the Ghosts and the Spirits in the Valley, as well as his confrontation with his own guide, George Macdonald. Macdonald, a nineteenth century Scottish author, minister, and theologian, inspired C.S. Lewis’ own allegorical fictive writing.
The structure of The Great Divorce is indicative of the work’s focus on free will. The narrator’s observations while in the Valley of the Shadow of Life lack a structural connection in that each ghost’s struggle to accept Heaven is wholly individual. Like the narrator, we do not have to fully understand the implications of past choices, whether personal or observed, to be able to choose correctly in the present.
The Ghosts often fail to be present, which keeps them from realizing the opportunity in front of them. Consider the Episcopal Ghost, who is so caught up in the journey that he cannot see that the destination lies right in front of him if only he’d follow his guide. The Episcopal Ghost is called such because he has an affinity for discussing religious and spiritual matters. However, he lacks a desire to actually pursue spiritual significance. He is literally at the gates of Heaven and is still preoccupied by discourse on the fate of self and soul. He is told by his Spirit guide, “We know nothing of religion here: we think only of Christ. We know nothing of speculation. Come and see. I will bring you to Eternal Fact, the Father of all other facthood.”5
The “come and see” of this discourse is significant because it alludes to the fact that the Ghost is not seeing anything around him; he is blind to what surrounds him. He enjoys the search so much that he does not want to find what he began looking for. Therefore, because the Episcopal Ghost has forgotten that there is a destination, he is no longer on a journey. He is simply wandering.
Wandering aimlessly, the Ghost no longer looks for truths; he merely invents them. The Episcopal Ghost represents a broad and popular misconception in regards to free will within Christianity. This Ghost believes that it is unquestionably acceptable for him to pick and choose what parts of the faith he wants to believe in. This type of thinking has led him to lose sight of the destination. For, the freedom of a relationship with Christ comes not as freedom of thought but as the freedom to choose and discover the Truth—who Christ is, not who we make him to be.
Additionally, while Christianity does allow variation in interpretation when it comes to personal conduct and pursuit of the faith, the faith itself is the required cornerstone. One can come to God by whatever means or progression of thought that one wishes, but before one can fully experience His blessings, one has to accept His truth. The Episcopal Ghost would rather trust in his own understanding, which he refuses to broaden, than accept an ultimate truth that would help him better understand himself and his destination.
While the Episcopal Ghost loses sight of the destination altogether, another Ghost misunderstands the purpose of his final destination. The Ghost of an Artist encounters his designated Spirit and wants to know, first and foremost, if he can still be a famous artist in Heaven. His guide answers,
‘But they aren’t distinguished – no more than anyone else. Don’t you understand? The Glory flows into everyone, and back from everyone: like light and mirrors. But the light’s the thing.’ ‘Do you mean there are no famous men?’ ‘They are all famous. They are all known, remembered, recognized by the only Mind that can give a perfect judgment.’6
The Artist often replies “stiffly” and “without enthusiasm” because the idea of a place where he cannot exert his talent and importance does not interest him.7 His concept of Heaven correlates to his interpretation of fame – instead of recognizing that his talents exist for the sake of Heaven, he thinks that Heaven exists for the sake of his talents and hence for the sake of his fame.
Although our personal talents, whether intellectual or artistic, are meant to be developed, used, and celebrated, we can become obsessed with our own creations, over and against the creation they are modeled and inspired by. Like the artist, one can be “drawn away from love of the thing [we] tell, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, [we] cannot be interested in God at all but only in what [we] can say about Him.”8 One’s choices on earth must be grounded in a pure awareness of the importance of God rather than using His message as a means to inflate one’s own individual image. Being “famous” in Heaven is not something one can create for oneself. Fame is not competitive as it is on Earth because there are no varying degrees of fame. No one wears the guise of fame in heaven, for God sees all the inhabitants of Heaven according to their true dignity, as his adopted sons and daughters. Therefore, dignity takes place of earthly fame.
The Artist wants a Heaven that he can create for himself rather than the Heaven that God has created for him. He is not humble enough to find the idea of human dignity attractive, nor is he humble enough to accept the gift of God’s salvation, and thus, Heaven. The Artist reveals that freedom does not mean that we can make ourselves in a kind of self fashioning, but rather it is through freedom that we can be ourselves, which is something more wonderful and “solid” than anything we could create on our own.
In contrast to the Artist, another Ghost, the Lizard Ghost, comes on scene with the realization that the products of his own fashioning are not enough. By welcoming God’s touch on His soul, this Ghost struggling with lust is undeniably the premier example for readers in The Great Divorce. This Ghost is distinct from all the others because he is both aware of his sin and ashamed of it. When describing the lizard on his shoulder that represents his lust, the Ghost says, “‘Of course his stuff won’t do here: I realize that’” and “‘it’s so damned embarrassing.’”9 This expressed embarrassment displays the Lizard Ghost’s humility. Unlike the Artist Ghost, he recognizes that Heaven is something beyond his own making and that he cannot be a part of Heaven until he allows himself and seeks to be made better. By contrast, the other ghosts try to transform Heaven to fit themselves. Yet, for the Lizard Ghost, this transformation raises him to a greater freedom and dignity than he could ever achieve on his own.
The overwhelming realness of the Valley is a metaphor for free will. Like the ghosts arriving in the Valley, humans encounter free will thinking that they can conquer and control it on their own. But when we tread on our own, refusing guidance, we get ourselves hurt and fail to accomplish anything. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”10 The Ghosts must go through the process of substantiation so they can venture into the Valley on their own and experience true freedom. In addition, the Ghosts’ substantiation echoes the narrator’s process of observation and reflection that produces better understanding of one’s self in relation to God, which, ideally, culminates in a spiritual conversion that makes one compatible with God’s guidance.
Therefore, the Lizard Ghost’s realization of his own inadequacy prepares him for God’s services because in granting humans free will, God does not expect us to make all the right choices, but he does expect us to own up to our mistakes. However, the admitting our sin is only the first step. Next, to assure God, and ourselves, that we sincerely want to part with our sin, we must explicitly ask for God’s help in removing it from our lives. The significance of such request is evident in this dialogue between the Ghost and the Spirit:
‘How can I let you tear me to pieces? If you wanted to help me, why didn’t you kill the damned thing without asking me – before I knew? It would be all over now if you had.’ ‘I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?’11
The Spirit’s point is that its assistance would be useless if the Ghost does not desire it. The presence of dignity is akin to humans’ free will; God does not desire to defy our dignity by forcefully transforming us into better versions of ourselves. He honestly does love us the way we are, which is why He asks us to grow in ourselves and become who we really are, which is who He made us to be. This fullness of self can only be achieved through a true conversion of heart and mind, which includes the relinquishing of sin and the vices we love to hold onto.
Lewis elaborates on the freedom of obedience in his sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” when he says,
Apparently what I had mistaken for humility had, all these years, prevented me from understanding what is in fact the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasure – nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure of a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before its teacher, a creature before its Creator. I am not forgetting how horribly this most innocent desire is parodied in our human ambitions, or how very quickly, in my own experience, the lawful pleasure of praise from those whom it was my duty to please turns into the deadly poison of self-admiration. But I thought I could detect a moment – a very, very short moment – before this happened, during which the satisfaction of having pleased those whom I rightly loved and rightly feared was pure.12
Being humble before God and accepting His guidance allows us to become better versions of ourselves. The liberation obtained through relinquishing our perceived superiority is displayed when a Spirit says, “That’s what we all find when we reach this country. We’ve all been wrong! That’s the great joke. There’s no need to go on pretending one was right! After that we begin living.”13
However, if obedience and humility leads to self-realization, the lack of obedience and prideful behavior leads to a destruction of self. The final Ghost, Frank, which attempts to use a persona to communicate with the Spirit, reveals how we destroy ourselves when we hide from God.
His Spirit guide, the “Lady,” is one who loved this Ghost dearly during their time on earth; perhaps she was his wife, perhaps his sister, perhaps a dear friend. Whatever their relationship, the encounter between these two responds to a worry that has troubled any earnest person who has thought about the Last Things: what happens if one that I love is damned but I am saved? How could I want to leave behind those whom I love more than anything?
The Lady continually addresses Frank, but he uses a persona, who is called the Tragedian, to communicate. The Tragedian tries to talk to the Spirit, but she refuses to acknowledge him, only addressing the Ghost, his real self. The Ghost does not understand why the Lady cares for him and not the false Tragedian he tries to present himself as. There is a chain linking the two, which the Tragedian seems to be in control of, and the Ghost becomes more enslaved the more he denies his true self. Additionally, the longer the Ghost hides behind the persona, the more he shrinks, literally losing himself to the Tragedian.
When the Tragedian finally consumes the Ghost Frank, the Spirit responds, “‘Where is Frank? And who are you, Sir? I never knew you. Perhaps you had better leave me…I cannot love a lie. I cannot love the thing that is not. I am in Love and out of it I will not go.’”14 The Ghost chose to forget himself and let his sin take over, and thus, suffered the consequences. The point of his experience is that the Spirit was willing to love him and show him the way, despite his faults, if he would only face her honestly. It was not the Ghost that the Spirit could not love, but his sin, which due to his obstinate choices, had become him. Like the Spirit, God strives to reach the real us, but if we do not want to be reached, there is nothing He can do about it and we have no one to blame but ourselves. Heaven is a struggle to accept rather than to obtain because it requires the realization that God does not need us; we need God.
That is the true difficulty for the Ghosts. With the exception of the Lizard Ghost, they cannot accept the fact that they are not needed by God or their earthly loved ones or for an elaborate journey or for their artistic achievements. God is not going to force us to obey Him or abide with Him in Heaven. It must be a conscious choice. A Spirit puts it simply when it says, “Come to us. We will not go to you.”15 The teaching is hard, as Jesus tells his disciples in the Gospel, but its hardness is not that of a stony heart, one without mercy. No, the abundance of the Christian God lies precisely in his mercy, a mercy that will not love a lie, that will not hold our hand as we leap off the cliff, but instead who will tug and pull with all his might, and if we should fall, weep. The teaching is hard, yes, but also ironic, for Christ has come to us, descended for us, died for us: all that is missing is that we, in humility and freedom, take his outstretched hand.
How far God has come to us, and yet accepting God and Heaven is so hard for the Ghosts because it means accepting their personal failures and their inability to deserve Heaven. Lewis has God require the Ghosts to come to Him to illustrate God’s desire for us to achieve the perfection for which we were made, a perfection that involves our free and everlasting choice to love him. The Ghosts defy this plan by defining themselves by opportunities and relationships that they can create for themselves, situations in which they are needed. They had been provided with definition of self, given by their loving creator, but choose to ignore it because they believe it will be the end of their purpose, the end of their fame.
Essentially, the Ghosts keep trying to bring up the past and are focused on the choices that brought them to where they are instead of fully considering the choice in front of them, which is whether or not they accept God’s offer of eternal life, love, and assistance. This offer is not a reward for a long series of choices but instead the ultimate conversion of self through free choice, the choice to become fit for a reality filled with faith, hope, and love in God, for now and forevermore. This conversion requires humility before God and a free and conscious obedience. After achieving humility and obedience, one is capable of accepting and fulfilling the dignity that God has designated for us all. Accepting dignity rather than attempting to create it requires faith, for we must trust that what God has designed us to be is greater than anything we could mold ourselves into.
Heaven is not merely a reward that we get in exchange for our obedience but instead the natural fruit of our free obedience, an obedience that transforms us into our true, most dignified selves, the selves God made us out of nothing to be, selves that we do not deserve but nonetheless have been made to be as a gift.
1 Matthew 7:13
2 Revelation 21:4
3 Revelation 20:14
4 C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: MacMillan, 1946) 57.
5 Ibid. 44.
6 Ibid. 82-83.
7 Ibid. 81,82.
8 Ibid. 81.
9 Ibid. 99.
10 Galatians 5:1
11 The Great Divorce 100.
12 C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” sermon preached originally Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on June 8, 1942: published in THEOLOGY, November, 1941, and by the S.P.C.K, 1942.
13 Lewis 95.
14 Ibid. 118-119.
15 Ibid. 118.
Macy Ferguson ’16 is from Stoneville, NC. She is a Government major with a Native American Studies minor.art, CS Lewis, death, dignity, faith, free will, George MacDonald, God, heaven, hell, hope, humility, love, lust, obedience, theology