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
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 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.
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.
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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