The Great Divorce: Review

the-great-divorce-cs-lewis-coverThe Great Divorce is a book by C.S. Lewis. In it, an anonymous narrator takes a trip to Hell. Once there, he boards a bus for Heaven. Here, people in heaven try to convince the insubstantial inhabitants of Hell that they ought to stay in Heaven. The narrator explores the lowest level of Heaven while observing these interactions, guided by George MacDonald, a figure Lewis was influenced by.

Hell is portrayed as an immense town, stretching on forever, eternally caught in a grey light that could promise sunrise or nightfall. Everything seems perfectly natural and normal, though the people are slightly more quarrelsome than normal and are able to think homes into existence. This immense town is a state of mind, and its inhabitants ghostly incorporeal figures.

A bus full of figures from this Hell visit Heaven.

Heaven is so real that the ghostly inhabitants of Hell cannot affect it. Grass does not bend beneath their feet. They cannot displace even a droplet of water. Sunrise would obliterate them, the light destroying their bodies. The “Ghosts” explore (with great difficulty) and are approached by inhabitants of Heaven who beg them to stay in Heaven rather than return to Hell.

It’s easy to get sidetracked by theological issues with Lewis’ portrayal of Heaven and Hell. Lewis’ The Great Divorce describes the afterlife as a place full of gradations… for instance, there is Hell where the damned go, but Hell is at the same time Purgatory (one can get out and into Heaven). Much of the story takes place in “The Valley of the Shadow of Life” which is part of Heaven, but distinct from “Deep Heaven.” Ultimately, anyone can get out of Hell simply by making a choice to visit and then stay in Heaven. Lewis is aware of the theological issues this raises, and puts them in the mouth of the story’s narrator:

“But there is a real choice after death? My Roman Catholic friends would be surprised, for to them souls in Purgatory are already saved. And my Protestant friends would like it no better, for they’d say that the tree lies as it falls.”

“They’re both right, maybe. Do not fash yourself with such questions…”

This shows that Lewis is not so concerned with what “is” in the afterlife. His story is about people and choices. This is the truly fascinating portion of the work. We meet a variety of characters who would rather live in Hell than in Heaven, and for plausible reasons.

One figure, the “Episcopal Ghost” is an interesting sketch of a clergyman who even after death does not believe in a literal Heaven and Hell. In fact, he goes so far as to believe that Hell has the potential to become (metaphorically speaking, of course!) Heaven:

“Ah, I see. You mean that the grey town with its continual hope of morning (we must all live by hope, must we not?), with its field for indefinite progress, is, in a sense, Heaven, if only we have eyes to see it? That is a beautiful idea.”

This sad figure could be simply read as a caricature of a liberal Christian, but Lewis is careful to present him as a reasonable (if obstinate) figure. Not only that, but in reading the dialogue, it becomes clear that the clergyman’s fault isn’t the details of his liberal theology, but the fact that he is rather attached to being skeptical, intellectually free and able to constantly innovate in the field of abstract thought. The idea of Heaven ultimately repels him because he will at last have to accept answers, facts and realities not of his own design. He turns his back on Heaven to hurry back to Hell to write a paper for a Theological Society that he is part of.

In this sense, the “Episcopal Ghost” could have just as easily been titled “The Skeptical Ghost” or “The Spiritual But Not Religious Ghost” or the “Atheist Ghost.” He stands in for all people who make their own truth – whether that truth includes God or not.

Truth be told, there are many other interesting Ghosts, but I don’t want to make this too long, so you’ll need to read the book for the others.

The narrator also observes a woman named Sarah Smith while exploring Heaven. She tries to convince her husband Frank (visiting from Hell) to join her. He ultimately refuses to join her, feeling that he is too hurt by the way she has treated him. The conversation that the narrator and MacDonald have at this point is pertinent for so many discussions in today’s culture that I thought I’d include it here:

“And yet . . . and yet … ,” said I to my Teacher, when all the shapes and the singing had passed some distance away into the forest, “even now I am not quite sure. Is it really tolerable that she should be untouched by his misery, even his self-made misery?”

“Would ye rather he still had the power of tormenting her? He did it many a day and many a year in their earthly life.”

“Well, no. I suppose I don’t want that.”

“What then?”

“I hardly know, Sir. What some people say on earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved.”

“Ye see it does not.”

“I feel in a way that it ought to.”

“That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it.”


“The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.”

“I don’t know what I want, Sir.”

“Son, son, it must be one way or the other. Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it: or else for ever and ever the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves. I know it has a grand sound to say ye’ll accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside. But watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.”

“But dare one say-it is horrible to say-that Pity must ever die?”

“Ye must distinguish. The action of Pity will live for ever: but the passion of Pity will not. The passion of pity, the pity we merely suffer, the ache that draws men to concede what should not be conceded and to flatter when they should speak truth, the pity that has cheated many a woman out of her virginity and many a statesman out of his honesty-that will die. It was used as a weapon by bad men against good ones: their weapon will be broken.”

“And what is the other kind-the action?”

“It’s a weapon on the other side. It leaps quicker than light from the highest place to the lowest to bring healing and joy, whatever the cost to itself. It changes darkness into light and evil into good. But it will not, at the cunning tears of Hell, impose on good the tyranny of evil. Every disease that submits to a cure shall be cured: but we will not call blue yellow to please those who insist on still having jaundice, nor make a midden of the world’s garden for the sake of some who cannot abide the smell of roses.”

I really wish more people would read this conversation in particular, and take it to heart. The victim mentality is alive and well in today’s society.

The Great Divorce also contains a discussion of Predestination and Universalism at the end, which, in sharp contrast to the rest of the book, is difficult to follow and ends up with Lewis dismissing both. Lewis puts these words in the mouth of MacDonald (in real life a Universalist, believing all would be saved):

“For every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom. Witness the doctrine of Predestination which shows (truly enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing Freedom which is the deeper truth of the two. And wouldn’t Universalism do the same? Ye cannot know eternal reality by a definition.”

Lewis does not address this directly, but simply asserts that one cannot know “eternal reality” by a definition. This is followed by an odd, unclear separate vision of souls as chess players moving bodies like chessmen. This is meant, I suppose, to show an inexplicable picture in place of a definition of reality. In the end, Lewis presents the whole experience of Heaven and Hell as a dream, ending with the narrator waking suddenly.

Verdict: Read it!

The good:

+ Amazing portraits of human nature and what keeps us from salvation

+ Interesting meditation on the nature of Heaven and Hell

+ Engaging, easy to follow, easy to finish

The bad:

– Bizarre discussion / Chapter 14 at the end

The ugly:

As much as this story downplays theological issues, Lewis does have a definite belief (expressed here and elsewhere) that “hell is locked from the inside” and a soul in Hell can be saved after ending up in Hell, something that nearly all Christians deny.



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