The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

If the inhabitants of hell were to take a field trip to heaven, and had the option to stay there or go back to hell, what would they do? That question is the subject of C.S. Lewis’ fantastical tale The Great Divorce.

With his trademark mixture of humor and seriousness, Lewis describes his characters taking a bus ride from the dark, dreary “mean streets” of hell to the open sunlit fields of heaven, where they are met by glorious beings of light who try to convince them to stay. The action is seen from the point of view of a narrator who is never named, but who seems to have been some sort of teacher in his lifetime (Lewis himself was an Oxford don). Our narrator spends a large part of his time talking with and observing the others as they make their choices.

This new place isn’t exactly comfortable for any of the visitors from hell; everything in heaven is real and solid, whereas they are “ghostly” and insubstantial. They cannot even bend the grass blades and must hobble around painfully. The heavenly beings assure them that in time they will grow stronger and more solid, but most of them are afraid of being “taken in” or simply prefer the dark. It’s beautiful in heaven (at least it doesn’t drizzle all the time, like in hell), but most of the ghosts prefer a known misery to an unknown promised good, especially one that requires them to change their old established patterns. They want to bring part of hell with them or want heaven to bow to their terms before they will accept the offer.

Lewis clearly shows us that such characters are not really choosing heaven, but hell. They would like to make heaven into a place where they can continue doing whatever it was that got them into hell in the first place. In short, they don’t trust God and His idea of goodness, so they troop back onto the bus.

One of the glorious beings talks with our narrator, and the latter part of the book consists of their conversation. The heavenly messenger sums up the choice this way: “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, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.” There is a great divorce between the two, and you cannot have it both ways.

C.S. Lewis superbly illustrates the tremendous difference between these choices. However, at the same time, he shows us how subtle the difference can seem, how one tweak in our thinking leads to another to another to another, taking us step by step closer to heaven—or hell. It helps to have some signposts, like this thought-provoking book, to point us in the right direction.

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