Review: C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce
A controversial topic in Christianity, the doctrine of the afterlife has inspired a multitude of questions and concerns regarding its existence, details, and morality. Indeed, heaven and hell have been variously represented in church sermons, pop culture, and Christian philosophy; moreover, the debate over the nature of the Christian afterlife features a dynamic range of perspectives and arguments. Given the broad scope of material on the subject, it can be hard to find a reliable source that serves as a logical entry into the discussion. C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce is one such accessible and useful resource for understanding a more conservative conceptualization of hell and engaging with the broader conversation involving various interpretations of the doctrine. Though Lewis’ text presents only one of many perspectives on heaven and hell, it provides a comprehensive explanation of his understanding of them and addresses a full complement of questions about the afterlife, as well as many about the nature of God and of Christianity. In so doing, Lewis’ The Great Divorce offers a holistic discussion of the concerns associated with the afterlife, ultimately emphasizing the role of an individual’s choice in determining his or her fate and utilizing a metaphorical tone to argue that we cannot, and perhaps are not meant to, know precisely the nature of hell or its operation but should focus on understanding general facets of the afterlife necessary to help us make the best choice.
Questions about hell are many and complex, with the most basic question asking what hell actually is. Indeed, hell is variously seen as a fiery pit of misery and punishment for wrongdoings, a psychological state for those individuals who hate the presence of God, or a fiction concocted by the early Church. But there are many secondary questions as well: what must one do to enter heaven, and how can a loving God send people to hell? Again, each of these questions has its own range of proposed answers. Regarding the first question, some believe that only those predestined for salvation are able to enter the presence of God, while others believe that all will enter heaven upon death. Regarding the second question, some have explained God’s use of hell as a natural consequence of his justice, whereas others reject the question entirely because they believe that people send themselves to hell.
It is no surprise that there are many answers to these hell-related questions—the breadth of representations and perceptions of hell likely stems from the Bible’s infrequent and ambiguous discussion of the nature of the afterlife. In fact, the word “hell” only appears three times in the English Standard Version of the Bible, and it is unclear whether other references to the afterlife are intended as metaphorical, literal, or figurative.[i]
In the midst of this cacophony of questions and answers surrounding the afterlife, Lewis champions a relatively traditional view of hell, in which heaven and hell are literal places people will go depending on the choices they make. His text, however, is not intended to be read as a literal account of what will happen to souls after death. Rather, his text acts as a metaphorical narrative that seeks to articulate Lewis’ understanding of the afterlife.[ii] Lewis presents hell as an endless cityscape in which souls live in apartments, quarrel with their neighbors, and move further into the city to new homes. All souls in hell can ride a bus to heaven in order to see it. Upon arrival they discover they are Ghosts—less substantial than the rest of heaven and its inhabitants. They have the choice, however, to stay and to grow solid enough to dwell fully and comfortably in this more concrete land, before travelling inland towards God, or they can choose to return to hell, rejecting eternal life in heaven. Lewis, then, does not present hell as a place of eternal punishment or a prison into which God forcibly throws individuals who disobey him; instead, he depicts a realm that many opt to stay in, despite the exhortation of the souls in heaven for the Ghosts to choose a different way.
The openly fictional nature of The Great Divorce allows Lewis to explore the topic of the afterlife while maintaining his position that the exact details of heaven and hell should not be the focus of any discussion or contemplation. Rather than forwarding a distinctly Protestant or Catholic idea of the afterlife, Lewis combines aspects of both traditions and offers a unique perspective, offering an account of elements of the afterlife that both sects could agree on. Indeed, his portrayal of Purgatory, a plane of the afterlife embraced primarily by Catholics, demonstrates Lewis’ more ecumenical representation; in Lewis’ fictional afterlife, the first realm Ghosts find themselves in is either hell, where everyone begins, or Purgatory, should they choose to leave for heaven.[iii] In this sense, Lewis’ metaphor allows for a Purgatory that is both real and not, in the sense that he nods to its existence, but does not represent it as a physical place, even in his metaphorical narrative. Thus, Lewis does not attempt to argue for any exact construction of the afterlife and, in fact, includes an explicit discussion of the futility of understanding the finer details of heaven and hell, saying:
All answers deceive. If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears.[iv]
Lewis argues that within the boundaries of time we cannot truly understand all the details of the realm of the afterlife, which exists outside the confines of space and time that comprise the world. Rather than dwell on these comparatively unimportant details, however, he advocates that we focus instead on the choices we must make concerning where we will spend our afterlife and what we need to know about how to live and cultivate our hearts in order to optimize those choices.
Further promoting a transfer of focus away from the details of the afterlife, Lewis presents his discussion of hell in the context of the rest of Christianity. Although he considers the exact nature of heaven and hell as somewhat irrelevant, he also views discussion of the afterlife as rightly situated within contemplation of Christianity’s other teachings. Both the conversations that the narrator of The Great Divorce witnesses and those that he participates in address topics such as the nature and proper place of true love or the role of humility and selflessness in the Christian life. In Lewis’ view, thinking about the afterlife plays a significant role in helping us to understand the nature of God and Christian faith as a whole, but it is not the central concern of the Christian life and should not be treated as such; it is properly considered as one facet alongside many other dimensions of equal importance. Thus, Lewis does not just present an image of the afterlife. Instead, he connects each element of his metaphorical heaven and hell and the Ghosts encountered there to values and lessons that Christianity champions. He uses short episodes between newly arrived Ghosts and souls who have grown wise in heaven to highlight the perspective and behavior Christianity encourages and the philosophy behind the lifestyle.
Ultimately, Lewis emphasizes the importance of an individual’s choice in determining whether a soul will end up in heaven. From each soul’s determination to take a chance and board the bus travelling from hell to heaven, to the soul’s decision whether or not to remain in heaven, Lewis insists that no person can be saved unless by his or her choice. In two encounters, one between a great Lady and a Tragedian-and-Dwarf duo and the other between an angel and a man with a demon on his shoulder, the citizens of heaven plead with the respective Ghosts to let go of their sins and sufferings from earth and stay in heaven.[v] Ultimately, the Dwarf-Tragedian duo chooses to remain embroiled in bitterness and shadow, while the man with the demon decides to accept help. In the case of the Ghost who chooses heaven, only by his permission can he be saved. Despite the angel’s great power and the ease with which it can defeat the Ghost’s demon, the demon only dies when the Ghost, desperate and reluctant, gives permission for the angel to kill it.[vi] Both Ghosts freely choose which realm of the afterlife they wish to dwell in, rather than their deeds or decisions leading to their being forcibly sent into one or the other against their will.
Lewis’ work builds on the tradition of previous works to insert his perspective into the existing debate about the nature of the afterlife. The Divine Comedy responds to a previous work by William Blake titled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which itself invoked Emanuel Swedenborg’s highly influential Heaven and Hell.[vii] Blake sought to imitate the medieval tradition of vision literature—a literary form in which the writer or narrator claims to have had visions of the afterlife. This writer often encounters and communicates with departed souls therein and returns at the end of the journey to share his or her acquired wisdom with others who may be saved or improved by it.[viii] Though Lewis primarily challenges Blake’s views, Lewis’ text also draws from the perceptions of the afterlife championed by other authors, such as St. Augustine, Dante, Milton, and Lewis Carroll, engaging their views in his discussion as he challenges some and defends others to propose a holistic treatise on the nature of heaven and hell.
For example, from the opening scene, Lewis’ The Great Divorce alludes to Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. Both texts begin with a narrator who wakes up in a strange place and embarks on a journey through hell and to heaven, ultimately tasked with returning to earth to share the story of the journey with others.[ix] Both narrators encounter a host of different characters, including authors and other figures who influenced them on earth, learning their stories and how they have come to be where they are. But while Dante’s interactions with the figures, also known as “shades,” examine how different sins or virtues will be punished or rewarded in the afterlife, Lewis’ episodes with the Ghosts are designed to address common questions and concerns about the nature and morality of the doctrine of heaven and hell. For example, the previously mentioned episode between the great Lady and the Tragedian-and-Dwarf duo in The Great Divorce confirms the idea of souls in heaven existing in perfect bliss, despite the suffering of those in hell. Similarly, the narrator’s conversations with the Big Ghost explore the stereotype of overly legalistic Christians who lack true faith.[x] Lewis also uses interactions between his characters to discuss concepts such as the literal status of heaven and hell and the accountability of people who unknowingly committed sins during their lives.[xi] Using the Divine Comedy as a foundation, Lewis is able to uphold parts of Dante’s classically medieval view of the afterlife while countering elements he disagrees with and drawing in other writers in the process of carving out his own place in the continuing discussion of the afterlife. The Great Divorce, then, not only offers a compelling case for Lewis’ understanding of hell, but also contextualizes that view within the larger debate and allows readers to consider how Lewis’ ideas stand up against those of other writers and thinkers.
i. See Matthew 10:28, James 3:6, and 2 Peter 2:4.
ii. C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, A Dream (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), x.
iii. Lewis, 35, 68.
iv. Lewis, 140.
v. Lewis, 120-133, 106-112.
vi. Lewis, 110.
vii. Lewis, vii.
viii. Alison Morgan, Dante and the Medieval Other World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 3.
ix. Lewis, 1; Dante Alighieri, The Inferno (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), I.1-106.
x. Lewis, 25-31.
xi. Lewis, 36.
Sara Holston ’17 is from Wayne, Pennsylvania. She is an English major.Tags: C.S. Lewis, Dante, Emanuel Swedenborg, heaven, hell, justice, literature, mercy, narrative, William Blake