Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Book Review | The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

“No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little of hell in it– no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather.”
-George MacDonald

In this day and age, where the slogan is “do what feel good,” where appeals to truth are scoffed at, where religious dialogue has degraded to a state of “whatever works for you,” and where Hollywood is fattening us up on such pluralistic dainties as the The Life of Pi, it seems that the unholy post-modern marriage of Heaven and Hell is once again in need of a Great Divorce. Fortunately, C.S. Lewis's classic work remains poised to strike as ever.

Crafted in response to a surge of relativism during his own day, Lewis wrote The Great Divorce to draw a clear, incontestable line between the path to Heaven and the path to Hell. Lewis's antagonists argued that reality never presented a true “either/or” decision, comparing it instead to the radii of a circle, with all roads pointing towards the center. Lewis begged to differ. Life does not move towards unity, but away from it. Reality presents us an unalterable either/or and “if we insist on keeping Hell (or even Earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”

The story opens to find the narrator standing in line for a bus ride out of Hell. He has just returned from roaming the town around him, which consists entirely of dingy, abandoned old buildings. The atmosphere is rainy, and it has been perpetual twilight since the narrator arrived. Over the course of the book, the narrator finds himself transported from Hell to The Valley of the Shadow of Life, where the reality of the land contrasts sharply with his fellow denizens of Hell, who appear as ghosts when compared to the solid land around them. Solid People appear, and a series of dialogues between them and the specters ensue, uncovering layers of entrenched vices and latent rebellion hidden within the hearts of the ghosts.

The dialogues provide an excellent portrayal of the vices of those caught between Heaven and Hell. Lust, gossip, status, complaining, and all the other small relics of this world are draw the person away from the path of Heaven towards the path of Hell. The Solid People demand one thing: absolute and unconditional surrender of one's self to the pursuit of God for His own sake. Anything that smacks of self-centeredness, any desire to hold onto a souvenir of Earth or Hell, must be destroyed before one can become real and dwell in the substantial heavenly realms. Until that point of absolute surrender, to experience beauty is to experience suffering, to be loved is to feel pain, and to receive mercy requires one's undoing. Those who surrender and allow themselves to be “completed” find that they were merely in Purgatory. Those who refuse find that the valley has simply been an extension of Hell. Whatever the case, to reach Heaven, one must abandon Hell entirely, and those who remain in Hell find the taste of heavenly realms to be itself hellish.

Many in the Christian community have expressed concern over the philosophy of Hell espoused in the book. Hell is referred to as a state of mind, not an actual place, and the recurring theme of Purgatory has been enough for many evangelicals to call his orthodoxy into question. When finally given the opportunity to clarify his belief on universalism, Lewis brushes the question aside as irrelevant to the point he is trying to make.

Perhaps it's best to simply take his word for it. The Great Divorce was never meant to be a systematic theology of the afterlife. A quick reading of the preface should assure the reader of that. Rather, it was intended to draw attention to the conscious, lived, eternal choice which leads man towards one destination or the other, the decision whether or not to deny one's self daily, take up one's cross, and follow Christ.

The Great Divorce places the reader on a clear pathway towards Heaven by emphasizing the immense importance of breaking with the path towards Hell. There is no way to bring the two paths together. The path towards Hell points downwards to Nothing, the path towards Heaven points upwards to infinity. Evil must be undone, it can never develop into good. There is no compromising with evil, because there is nothing to compromise with. Man must make a choice, an eternal choice, to deny himself, look to God, and follow Him.

By Nick Barden


  1. I completely agree with your analysis of The Great Divorce. Much like Lewis' other books, the metaphorical nature is one of its great strengths.

  2. C.S. Lewis' great talent of taking complex thoughts easy to understand shines forth again in this classic view of Hell.

    Zairra Lynn (Child Custody)