On coming late to The Great Divorce

I’ve just finished C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce for the first time. It is a strange genre of writing, certainly not a novel in a conventional sense. Somewhat like Pilgrim’s Progress, it has a series of encounters with representative people in heaven, hell and in-between, whose responses to their situations have much to teach and warn us about our lives today.

Despite its disclaimer (‘a dream’), the book must surely horrify many evangelicals with its set-up of the afterlife. People’s fates are not fixed; they have the opportunity of visiting heaven and even staying. Their entry seems to depend upon their letting go of the sins which they have become attached to.

Lewis performs a deft twist at the end to exculpate himself and maintain his orthodoxy; the encounters we have read of are perhaps ‘only the mimicry of choices that had really been made long ago’ or perhaps ‘anticipations of a choice to be made at the end of all things’ (107). Better to say neither, advises George MacDonald (C.S. Lewis’s literary hero and his guide in heaven) – ‘do not ask of a vision in a dream more than a vision in a dream can give.’ MacDonald, warns him to be sure to ‘give no poor fool a pretext to think ye are claiming knowledge of what no mortal knows’ (108).

It is one of those rare books which inspire me to be a better person. Actually, perhaps it scares me to be better as much as inspires me – it is frightening to see parts of myself in all these people who are shutting out heaven and holding onto sin. The worst sin in The Great Divorce seems to be joylessness – those who shut out joy will shut out God. This is hard for a gloomy person like me to hear. It’s not the sin Jesus spent the most time on, but I see much truth in Lewis’s depiction of a series of people who will not embrace joy and truth because they are holding onto resentments of various kinds:

…it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine. (60)

Also frightening is Lewis’s depiction of a liberal bishop, who would rather return to the ambiguities of his theological reading group in the gloomy city (hell) than embrace the certainties of knowing God face to face. This is how he became what he is:

Having allowed oneself to drift, unresisting, unpraying, accepting every half-conscious solicitation from our desires, we reached a point where we no longer believed the Faith. Just in the same way, a jealous man, drifting and unresisting, reaches a point at which he believes lies about his best friend: a drunkard reaches a point at which (for the moment) he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm. (28)

There should be more books like this. The Shack probably belongs in the same genre, but unfortunately not in the same league.

4 thoughts on “On coming late to The Great Divorce

  1. Hi Nathan
    This is my favourite CS Lewis book. I read it when I was 19 and again 3 years ago. Of course Lewis was one step away from being Catholic thus the purgatory-like possibility he presents of people being purged (or being made perfect) if they should choose. i remembered being touched by the perfected souls who would travel miles and miles from heaven to meet the day trippers from hell in the hope of assisting them into paradise.

    His point re: heaven or hell is that people ultimately choose where they wish to be for eternity. Reminds me of Yoder’s point that whilst on earth we are to co-operate with God Spirit in order to be changed into the kind of people who will feel at home in the kingdom and not at odds with it. Anyhow, never read any of his other fiction. Have you read his sci-fi trilogy?

    1. Hey Brad, I’d forgotten you were a fan. I, too, think it is beautiful. I read the first two of his trilogy in my teens and got stuck on the third, always with vague intentions of returning one day. I have a half formed intention to read more of this nonfiction this year, having always avoided it. (Unfortunately, there was a man at a church I went to as a teenager who would go on for hours describing CS Lewis’s books to me and I found it so boring I decided not to read them. Poor CS Lewis, maligned by his readers.)
      Thanks for reading!

  2. This is my favorite Lewis book as well. I’ve used it as “book study” with a variety of adult Christians through the years. The episcopal ghost resonates most loudly with me, not because I’m prone to prefer theology to Jesus, but because (as a veteran pastor and military chaplain) I’ve known far today who do.

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