C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce: The Nature of Heaven and Hell

C.S. Lewis’ work entitled The Great Divorce is an allegory of the way that Lewis himself views Heaven and Hell. Lewis undertakes the task of redefining the relationship between Heaven and Hell for the purpose of dispelling the belief that “mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain” (Lewis Preface). The narrative develops from the narrator taking a bus ride up and out of a grey and dank city away to the countryside; he finds himself within the earliest parts of Heaven upon getting off the bus, a land of intense beauty and perfection.

The narrator and his traveling companions on the bus ride find that they are ghosts, imperfect shadows against this country of impermeable beauty. Heaven is shown over the course of the narrative to be the result of a choice freely offered to humankind to make. The narrative itself is revealed to be a dream, and it is this characteristic that makes it all the more real. The boundaries between Heaven and Hell are easily traversed, but a person must be wholly remade if they choose to enter Heaven. Lewis utilizes this image across the narrative of The Great Divorce in order to show that Heaven is the result of a choice given over and over again and that Hell is not an irreversible fate.

The Nuances of Eternity

C.S. Lewis
Author C.S. Lewis

Lewis states even before his narrative begins that he does not believe in the idea of eternal damnation being a fate; rather, he describes it as the sum of a total of error and rejection of God’s mercy and goodness. He writes in the preface:

A sum can be put right: but only by going back until you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop’ into good.

Evil, according to Lewis, cannot be magically erased by the passage of time and turned into good; it must be wholly rejected for Heaven to be embraced. While Heaven and Hell are so closely related, paradoxically they cannot exist at all together: total acceptance of Heaven implies the total rejection of Hell. Earth operates between Heaven and Hell, according to Lewis, in a kind of purgatory-type state because it is not distinctly separate from either Heaven or Hell.

The narrator of The Great Divorce boards a bus after a tumultuous queue to find himself on the way to what he will learn is heaven. The first chapter of the book develops the image of the grey, raining, and dismal town that the narrator has left behind for the reader. The town is a place where quarrels are constant, and wants are nonexistent despite there being no drive for industry or economic cooperation among the town’s inhabitants. The people of the town live in solitude, constantly driving further and further away from each other and expanding the town’s limits to the infinite. The town is an illustration of what Hell is like, and it is a divisive and corrosive environment, despite it not possessing fire and brimstone images akin to many biblical images of Hell throughout history. The bus ascends into the air, dropping its passengers off at a cliff at the edge of vast and gorgeous scenery at the edge of Paradise, full of trees, rivers, and a general atmosphere of beauty and light.

The Problem of Heaven

The Brightness of Heaven

The narrator and the other bus passengers are not fit to enter Heaven yet. The brightness of Heaven renders the narrator, as well as all of his traveling companions, transparent ghosts because of how imperfect they are to enter Heaven. The narrator describes the sight, saying, “One could attend to them or ignore them at will as you do with the dirt on a window pane. I noticed that the grass did not bend under their feet: even the dew drops were not disturbed” (Lewis Chapter 3). They are still in the same form as they ever were, but the glory of heaven render their definition of form incomplete.

It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison. (Lewis Chapter 3)

They need guidance and changing in order to be able to enter Heaven and partake in truly living in the “Valley of the Shadow of Life.” The afterlife is a choice, Lewis writes in Chapter 9, stating 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. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.” Heaven’s gifts exist to be chosen; it is an effort of free will to separate oneself from them fully.

Heaven is a Platonic rendering of the most perfect form of all the earthly things that the narrator and the bus passengers know and are comprised of. Their flesh is less solid than the spiritual flesh of the people that come down from further into Heaven, an approximation only of God’s true intended glory for humankind. For Plato, “particulars fall short of being such as the Form is in which they desire to participate. Particulars desire to be like Forms, but fall short of that end” (Nehamas 105). The ghosts are this imperfect Platonic rendering of the spiritual form. Spiritual flesh is the most perfect form of existence; thus the spirits are the ones sent to aid the ghosts in determining their choices to either enter or return to the grey Hell-town from whence they came. Hell and Heaven are contrasted by using the framework of the mind.

Every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly.
(Lewis Chapter 9)

Heaven and eternity cannot yet be fully conceptualized by the narrator’s still imperfect sight and thinking, but Heaven is the perfect and true form of all that is. Heaven is everything, and Hell is the state of mind being where Heaven is not. Without free will, there could be no such thing as hell.

A Choice

Sun in Hands
Reaching Eternity

The narrator watches as diverse vast amounts of other ghosts, with the guidance of spirits, make their choice to enter Heaven. They must cast off all that ties them to baser desires and their sinful nature in order to fully embrace God’s infinite goodness and enter into his kingdom. In witnessing a conversation between the ghost of a painter and a spirit, the painter’s aspirations to achieve renown by meeting distinguished painters in heaven and painting the landscapes are brought low. There are no people more distinguished than others once in heaven; the original love of painting as a “means of telling about light” are celebrated more than painting to achieve fame (Lewis Chapter 9). The creation and sharing of beauty is the chief aim of art in heaven, not pride and self-fulfillment as it is so often corrupted into on Earth.

Amongst other interactions between ghost and spirit, the narrator witness an angel kill the lizard on the shoulder of a man that cannot get rid of his sinful lust. The man begs the angel to kill the symbolic lizard in order that his lust may die; upon laying down and killing his sinful desires, the man is transformed into a spirit that can enter heaven. The spirits are giants compared to the weakness and smallness of the ghost world. The spirits have grown beyond such sinfulness; they are made great by surrendering their burdens to God. The narrator awakes abruptly from the realization that he is in a dream of things that might not even be real; he leaves the world of light to be thrown back into his own reality, a world of dark and cold, with a siren howling overhead: chaos, compared to the beauty that he has seen. The novel ends there, an abrupt jump back into the lived reality for the reader as much as the narrator, but with the knowledge that perhaps the reality is not yet complete in God’s eyes.

By having framed the narrative of The Great Divorce as a dream, C.S. Lewis does not cling to the idea of a universal truth, but rather invites truths to be considered and reconsidered by the ideas which he writes. The narrator’s dream of a bus ride from Hell to Heaven as he witnesses the consequences of different choices on his fellow passengers’ eternal souls invites the consequences of the earthly life on the afterlife to be considered. The natural question to arrive from such a contemplation of the afterlife centers around the effect of predestination on the afterlife of a person: is a person’s afterlife already determined before their death? Lewis invites the idea that God’s mercy is everlasting, and that evil can be unmade through work. He shows that the final fate of a soul is determined by choice: Heaven or a stubborn clinging to certain aspects of Hell. Indecision is as much a choice as the others; there is no place for indecision in the face of the glories of Heaven. Heaven is the perfect reflection of all that is on Earth; by surrendering all to God, Lewis posits that one can gain the peace of eternal life.

Works Cited

Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce: A Dream. San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 2001. Kindle.

Christopher, Joe R. “The Dantean Structure Of The Great Divorce.” Mythlore: A Journal Of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, And Mythopoeic Literature 29.3-4 [113-114] (2011): 77-99. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 9 Feb. 2013.

Nehamas, Alexander. “Plato on the Imperfection of the Sensible World.” American Philosophical Quarterly 12.2 (1975): 105-17. JSTOR. Web. 9 Feb. 2013.

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  1. Chantell Engle

    This is a great book about the Christian faith. C.S. Lewis uses the setting of a dream to communicate fundamental truths. If I had to choose five books to take with me to a desert island where I would be imprisoned for the rest of my life, this would be one of them.

  2. Great post! I particularly appreciated his critique of Julian of Norwich’s mystic writings (“All is well”) as a possibility of heaven, but a futile point to prove in our intellectual, earthly, and as Lewis puts it, ghostly, faith. This book answers so many questions about the nature of suffering in the context of loving God eternally, so many questions that we are often reluctant to face as we take for granted our existence in Time. Lewis tells us to let go of ourselves-mere shadows- and find the boundless joy in loving God.

  3. Weston Rouse

    By the time the book ended I was completely enthralled by the characterizations.

  4. Luciano

    Scary and beautiful in it’s look into our souls, motives, and sins. I was disappointed to find that I recognized myself a little too often in those “ghosts” who would choose their favorite sins and Hell over Heaven. But, it is a wonderful thing to read a book and see places where you can improve. The mark of a great book is that it makes you feel good and it is still greater if it makes you want to DO good.

    There were so many beautiful truths within the text, so many that I’m sure I missed most of them and I know that I will have to read this book again.

  5. I read this book as a non-religious and non-spiritual person and it lead to me to a three-hour conversation about religion with my friend Dave. Dave’s a faithful Christian and we had some time to kill in Mexico. He was reading a Stephen Hawking book and I was finishing The Great Divorce. Somehow, we got into our afternoon-long conversation, discussing all that encompassed western religion and I must have quoted The Great Divorce at least a dozen times. Seriously, by the end, I was reading him page-long passages.

    It made me realize how welcoming a writer C.S. Lewis is when it comes to philosophy. He creates an atmosphere of wandering and wonderment, hailing the achievement of just being able to politely discuss and debate points. I found myself identifying with both spirits and ghosts, sometimes even understanding why someone would choose purgatory over Heaven (at least in the context of the conversation).

    I bought it thinking it would be a religious book. I read the preface and thought it would be a fantasy book. But then I finished it and realized it was more of a philosophy book.

    It offered me some well-versed challenges of the human psyche. Each character had something to offer, whether it was a do or it was a don’t. I very often found myself thinking, “Yeah, that’s a good point.” It was a very accessible form of philosophy and I enjoyed the book very much. However, I think it’s my fault for thinking it would lead somewhere else. I thought it would end in the narrator entering Heaven or going further into the afterlife experience. I wasn’t anticipating it being him wandering around listening to others.

    The ending, however, infuriated the fuck out of me. It made me so mad. I know the “it was all a dream” twist wasn’t as much of a cliche back when this was written, but it kind of devalued the entire book. It made the philosophy worth much less than it originally was. There was so much to gain and so much to lose when it meant an eternity of Heaven or Hell. Instead, it was just kind of, “Oh, he had a funny dream.” The weight of the conversations lost their purpose, because they weren’t as much about coming change as they were about the importance of reflection and forgiveness. Sure, the narrator would now look to be a better person, learning from the mistakes of others, but they weren’t really others. They were just variations of him. And, if they weren’t, then what were they? Ugh. It made everything seem kind of unimportant.

    Also, does nobody make to Heaven? What the hell (heyo)? I don’t recall any of those conversations ending in someone saying, “Oh yeah, totally. I’m there. Heaven sounds awesome.” Instead, everyone fell back on fear, hate, distrust, anger and resentment. It seemed kind of condescending to all of humanity.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      Wow, great comment here ;^|

    • Helen Parshall

      There is so much going on in your comment, wow. Thank you so much for taking the time for such a thoughtful reply! I agree with you in many ways, especially about how you say that it is much more of a philosophy book than anything else. I think Lewis was on to some real truths about the human condition that extend far beyond the reaches of fantasy or religion. The fatalistic end definitely made me feel cheated as well. But maybe there’s something to be gained from the disappointment and condescension? Perhaps if nothing else it might be a reflection on Lewis’ own doubts. Regardless, this is a book worth sharing. A friend recommended it to me while i was at uni in England for a term and it changed my perspectives in many ways.

  6. I love this book! I remember my mom reading it to me for the first time as a kid and it wasn’t until recently when I read it again that I got the themes and messages as clearly as you stated them. The part of about Napoleon in the beginning is one of my favorites. C.S. Lewis was an incredibly gifted writer.

  7. ScorpiusNox

    I’ve not read this book, but I’ve heard of it before. It sounds like an interesting read. Your analysis here, though brief, was rather compelling, and I was actually kinda disappointed when it ended =P . Good way of tempting someone to read the book, I suppose.

    Two major factors that sound like they’re missing here (and perhaps they aren’t, but just didn’t get a mention in this article): family and friends. If Lewis didn’t include a relative of one of the ghosts in this story, he skipped out on a powerful opportunity; I’ve always said that heaven wouldn’t be heaven for me if certain people weren’t there, and I’m sure I’m not the only one to ever feel that way (“What Dreams My Come” comes to mind, actually). I feel like the choice would become a lot clearer for any given “ghost” if they encountered one of their loved ones on the other side.

    Of course, that could be good or bad depending on which side said loved one exists. That’s a factor of the afterlife I’ve always wondered about. How can anyone possibly enjoy heaven if they know that even one person they care about is in hell?

  8. In that way this book reminded me of “The Screwtape Letters”.

  9. Desmond Higdon

    I really enjoyed it, especially the individual narratives of various personalities and descriptions of why people choose to reject God.

  10. Almanza

    I just liked his vision of hell, heaven and angels

  11. Man oh man, Lewis’ writing gets me every time. Doesn’t matter what the story is, doesn’t matter the setting. My heart for this man’s heart just keeps growing.

  12. Jacque Venus Tobias

    Hello Helen I am not familiar with this author thank you for the introduction. From what I gathered from your article the theme can also be applicable to some metaphysical philosophies. That you can choose your choice. I appreciate the Plato quote he is always a good choice to read and learn from.

  13. I read this book as a teenager, and the impact it had on my life was significant. I am thankful that C.S. Lewis used his amazing writing ability to reveal truth!

  14. To me, the value is in seeing how petty our motivations are to make the wrong decision. We don’t go to hell, really, because God is an Inquisitor and you must prove Him wrong to establish justice. Or, pace Huckleberry Finn, to protect a runaway slave. We do it for such trivial reasons as not wanting to give up a grudge. Admit we’re wrong. Give up controlling the uncontrollable. Or give up a pleasure that’s already beginning to pall, but is familiar.

  15. This is definitely different from Dante.

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