I was invited by some friends to meet with them to discuss C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. They have been reading it as part of a practice of Bible study and spiritual reading they have done together for a number of years. There questions were very perceptive. I thought I might review a few of them here, with them some possible answers and directions.
The Great Divorce is not a difficult book to read. It is a story with a number of conversations between “ghosts” (unsubstantial souls) on a trip, a little holiday, from Hell to Heaven, or as Lewis puts it, from the “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” to the “Valley of the Shadow of Life.” It can be read on a number of levels, and has some delightful as well as some harrowing scenes. It is a fictional dream, not intended to portray Heaven or Hell as they might be in reality, but to use the trip, the setting, and the discussions to portray the nature of our souls, the choices we make, and how those choices make us.
One of the questions they asked was what is happening with the souls who travel from Hell to Heaven? Why are they taking this trip?
The story includes some theological discussion, appropriately sandwiched in the second half of the story (chapter 9 of 14), on topics that may have arisen in the reader’s mind as the story has progressed. The Great Divorce is a simplified Divine Comedy. The narrator is someone like Lewis, a fictionalized Lewis, and his theological mentor is the Scottish novelist and theologian, George McDonald. Unlike Dante’s story, however, souls are not fixed in Heaven or Hell, but those in Hell are offered the choice to pursue goodness and God, to pursue the love of God over the love of self. Most, sadly and tragically, sometime humorously, choose themselves. As McDonald explains, there are two kinds of souls, those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “thy will be done.”
The souls on their trip are greeted by those whom they knew in life, who have come down a mountain which they have previously climbed toward “Deep Heaven,” to encourage and fan into flame, any “spark” of selflessness, goodness, true love, as opposed to selfish desire masquerading as love. The travel down the mountain is a sacrifice for the substantial, “solid souls,” of Heaven, a sacrifice of love for those, the ghosts (unsubstantial, see-through souls) who have taken the holiday from Hell. They are drawn to love, and love impels them back down to the ghostly souls who may make the choice to follow them, and lean on them as they travel up the mountain. As in Dante, the souls we know in life who have chosen to follow God and his love, are the agents of God’s grace, we must lean on them, learn from them, trust in God’s goodness and not our own.
What are the souls doing? This is the central question that story asks us to consider. We see something like catalog of selfish souls, and their responses to genuine love.
One of the sobering elements of the story is that only one soul, in addition to the Lewis character, chooses to move up the mountain from the Valley of the Shadow of Life up toward Deep Heaven. That soul is tormented by a “red lizard” that sits on his shoulder and whispers in his ear. The lizard symbolizes lust, lust which is never satisfied, and which becomes habitual. The ghostly soul finally consents to allow the substantial soul to kill the lizard, which then is raised to the form of a stallion on which the soul rides up the mountain. Contrary to the (sometimes deserved) misconception that Christianity is a religion that fears the body, Lewis, like Dante, sees the entrapment of the soul by lust to be a lesser sin, that can be more easily overcome than others, with more dramatic results.
The other ghostly figure who moves up the mountain, the Lewis character, does so slowly and hesitantly, leaning on the arm of McDonald, asking questions, and noticing, or eavesdropping (as one of the members of the group put it) on the conversations of others and wondering who they are and what brought them to their current state.
Most of the other souls suffer from some form of a desire to dominate others and to be known or recognized for their brilliance or understanding. Lewis portrays the difference between our desire to correct people, make them into our image, to justify our own selfishness, avoid vulnerability, and live with the uncertainties and difficulties of this life, and a courageous love that risks allowing others to experience the love of God, a God who offers all the choice to live in fullness beyond themselves, or to suffer the contraction of themselves as they pursue their own ways of protecting themselves from God’s love. That love requires a response that risks losing control of themselves for a greater goodness. These high themes are developed out of everyday situations and relationships—between parents and children, husband and wives, bosses and employees, teachers and students, creative artists and their work.
Why is the landscape hard on the ghostly souls? And where is Hell compared to Heaven?
Lewis dips into a very old tradition, one of deep understanding and a recognition that our world is not the final or most true, lasting world. He recognizes that our situation calls for a greater good, and that desires and seeks a more complete and fuller existence. As souls choose against the true good or God, they become smaller, and more wraith-like, ghosts. Hell, a city millions of miles wide and long, ever expanding as the souls there seek to move away from each other, away from friendships, relationships and community, is contained in a small crack in the dirt of Heaven. As the flying bus takes souls from it to Heaven, they fly out of the crack, and grow in size so that they can be seen. As one soul chooses against truth and goodness, it shrinks until it cannot be seen. I liken the place of Hell to the cracks we see form in the dirt in Fresno, as it dries in our very dry heat. Heaven meanwhile is pure being, large, full, green with plants and life, flowing with water. Souls pursuing goodness, selflessness, God, and love, become substantial, gain bodies, and beauty.
I enjoy meeting with friends to discuss ideas and literature. The desire for knowledge as well as what is good and healthy is infectious, a good infection (which unfortunately our contemporary culture seem to try to inoculate us against). If God is, as our tradition says, the origin of and characterized by truth and goodness, how can we not seek him? There are great resources for that pursuit in Christian literature. Lewis and his works are friends to share with friends. I have only touched on a few of its themes and characters of The Great Divorce. I hope you enjoy reading it.