C. S. Lewis is one of the best-known Christian writers and apologists. His works have made a huge impact on generations of readers, and have brought Christian thought and doctrines to many who otherwise would not have shown any interest in them. In “The Great Divorce” he tackles one of the darkest topics in all of Christian doctrine: the topic of Hell.
C. S. Lewis’ views and writings were always to a large extent designed to shake up the comfortable complacency of the society around him. This particularly holds for the Christians who were all too happy to give up the hard and sometimes uncomfortable tenants of their faith and embrace the ever more libertine ethos of the modern culture. Two of the most salient points that Lewis is trying to get across in “Great Divorce” are 1. Hell is real, and 2. Hell is not just reserved for the most egregiously evil people. Chances are, if you are a Christian today you’ll get more criticism and ridicule for the belief in these two points than almost any other tenants of Christianity.
This book more resembles “The Screwtape Letters” than any of the other of Lewis’ apologetic works. “The Great Divorce” showcases Lewis’ narrative skills and imagination, in addition to his deep theological insights. Presenting a clear and convincing vision of the afterlife can be exceedingly challenging. Most literary and artistic attempts fall short, as the picture they paint more often than not end up being cheesy and sentimentalist. This could be one of the reasons why today it’s much more likely to see the afterlife depicted in humorous cartoons or with a heavy dose of irony – those tropes help shield the author from potential ridiculing. Authors who manage to depict the afterlife in a convincing and profound ways – Dante, Milton – are almost invariably the giants of arts and literature. No one will ever put Lewis in the same category as those giants, but nonetheless he manages to depict a very believable and thought-provoking vision of what Hell is all about. It’s a vision that is in many ways at odds with most theological schools of thought – something that is mentioned quite explicitly in the book in fact – but it’s not entirely incompatible with them. This book will not please either a very strict fundamentalist Protestant or a punctiliously scrupulous Catholic, but for almost everyone else it will be a neat exercise in theological speculation. In fact, it’s much more than that – “The Great Divorce” is a powerful reminder of the Last Things and a call for all of us to a life of holiness. That’s, ultimately, what lays behind all of theological speculations on Heaven and Hell.
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[NOTE: I am reissuing my Amazon.com reviews on Amazon.co.uk. This review was originally published on Amazon.com June 8, 2000]
"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 `Thy will be done'."
This is a quote from this little volume, and effectively sums up the entire book in that one sentence. THE GREAT DIVORCE, like Lewis's TILL WE HAVE FACES, is his song of songs, his great achievement. Tolkien's was LORD OF THE RINGS, Adams' WATERSHIP DOWN, Sinclair Lewis' MAIN STREET. These novels are generally regarded as their major works. This little book, published in a little periodical called The Guardian, is one such book. (It was this periodical that Lewis's classic book THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS also appeared). Sadly, SCREWTAPE, though excellent in and of itself, is often given much more credit than this, which is a deeper work (and to those who know THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, know what a feat that is).
Perhaps one reason that this work is such an excellent little volume is its length of gestation: it was concieved in 1931 and written in 1944. Insipred by a sermon found in Jeremy Taylor's WORKS, suggested such a premise as to think, or take, the absuridity of damned souls getting a real refreshment from hell. Also another source was the fourth centru Latin poet named Prudentius Aurelius Clemens (his contribution can be found in "Hymn for the Lighting of the Lamp). Assuredly, one of the reasons that it took so long to be written (the first known written account is a diary entry by his brother Warnen on Paril 15, 1932) is he had not had it visualized. In terms of inspiration his fiction arose from "seeing pictures" in his mind. (Example: One of his images he received when he was about 16, and it was a faun with parcels in one hand and an umbrella in the other, standing in a wintery, snow laden forest).
Much of this short little novel has a direct comparison or parellel to Dante's DIVINE COMEDY. Just like Beatrice to Dante, so also was George MacDonald to C. S. Lewis. MacDonald was almost a Universalist. He believed most of the world populace would submit and enter into joy, and know God's love. A lot of this would occur after death. According to Sayer, Lewis did not believe this, but thought it was a possibility (much my view on purgatory). What Lewis had to do was to rectify this belief with the others of purgatory, hell, heaven, predestination, damnation, etc. How he did so was a stroke of genius: he made hell and purgatory the same place. To those who would leave and give up a vice, it was only purgatory; but to those who were determined to keep their wickedness, instead of entering into joy, were damned. To enter into Heaven, the only prerequiste was to give up a vice. That was all. Some lust, some apostasty, some selfishness and false love (the mother Pam for her son Michael). Just like Dante, Lewis has an Apostate Anglican bishop in there.
One of the things that he has done most brillantly is the potrayal of the Platonic belief that the essence of something is more real than the thing itself. Virture is more real that the vitrue that is practiced. Everything in God is much more real and tangible than hell, and Lewis does this marvelously. A device he borrowed from a writer whose name was unknown to him, Lewis made everything very, very real, and the damned men and women were but ghosts in that heavenly place. Each had an accompaning Spirit, one who has surrendered to God. In that place, the ones saved are real and can bend the grass and walk and swim, but always traveling further up and further in (to borrow a Narnian phrase, although it equally applies here). To aid the damned, the real, the saved, must go back and forsake their journey for a time, to aid those that will.
One of the grandest scenes is toward the very last, in which a lady named Sarah is seen. In this, another of his master's ideals is expressed. Sarah Smith is no great woman by earth's standards, but she is so close to God, everyone she meets she changes for the better. God wants to use you, not only for his own intimate purposes, but for you also to update and bring the quality of the life for others around you to a much better place. Her whole train of follows is transformed by her love, because she allows God to work through her, and submitted to her; in turn, she transforms others, because she is a yielded vessel. Macdonald states of her "There's joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life". Likewise, because of Lewis being yielded to God, this book has a similar effect (as, perhaps, all of his books do -- I cannot say all because I have not read all).
Ultimately, the entire point of this beautiful little book is that there could be no damnation without free choice. God made us to fellowship with us, not to damn us to hell. We are to enter into joy - but because we live in a fallen world, we might choose to hang onto some vice instead of entering into joy. Joy, that grand and beautiful intimacy with the Lord, real satisfying water that will forever quench your thirst, that is what C. S. Lewis is about. Let us not choose to stay in Hell. But one must understand this - Lewis is not advocating there is such a thing as bus rides to hell. The novel is, of course, but a dream. It is no way an examination of what lies after we die, although it does give thought to MacDonald's view on Universalism, though Lewis did not hold that view himself. Enter into joy, dear child, and meet Christ.