The Great Divorce is C.S. Lewis’s allegorical take on Heaven and Hell. C.S. Lewis is one of those people I would like to sit down and have lunch with. What is interesting to me about this book, in light of all of the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s “Love Wins,” is how I see many of the same principles. He says in the introduction, “I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region of Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.” This idea is also present in Bell’s book. Throughout The Great Divorce, the narrator (who is obviously supposed to be Lewis himself) meets “ghosts,” who must choose to “get on the bus” that will transport them from Hell to Heaven. He discovers that the ghosts get to make periodic trips to the lowest parts of Heaven, where they are met by loved ones who have already made the choice to go “further up and further in” (as Lewis puts it in The Last Battle). They have the choice to continue on the journey to Heaven, even though it is difficult, or to go back to the Hell, which is at least familiar and seems safe to them. Hell, as Lewis describes it here, is not a place of demons and physical torture and fire and brimstone. Rather, it is a desire to hold on to lesser things rather than giving them up in favor of moving up to true joy. The souls that inhabit Hell really don’t even seem to know that they are in Hell. They think the things they are clinging to will eventually make them happy. They are not convinced that giving them up and moving on to Heaven will the worth the effort.
Most telling, Lewis’s own guide, or Teacher, is George MacDonald, whose writings actually inspired both Lewis and Tolkein. Towards the end of the book, Lewis says to MacDonald,”In your own books, Sir, you were a Universalist [the same theological stance people have accused Rob Bell of]. You talked as if all men would be saved. And St. Paul, too.” MacDonald responds, “Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions….because all answers deceive.” In the end, MacDonald cautions Lewis to “make it plain that it was but a dream. See ye make it very plain. Give no poor fool the pretext to think ye are claiming knowledge of what no mortal knows.”
This, I think, was Bell’s point as well. Neither Lewis nor Bell claimed to know for certain what Heaven and Hell are really like; they are both merely adding to an important discussion. But one is held up (quite rightly) as one of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time and one is denounced as a heretic.
Sorry for the tangent, but I couldn’t talk about this book without making that observation. I think The Great Divorce is a great work and really got me thinking about those things I may cling to at the expense of truly experiencing joy. There is a chapter on a woman who wants her son, who has already moved up to into the realms of Heaven. She would prefer bringing him back to Hell with her, thus revealing that her love for him was not really love at all. This really pierced my heart. That would be my greatest struggle as well, and I know that my fears and worries about my children do keep me from the joys of Heaven even now.