The following is from my class “Topics in Theology” as part of my master’s degree program in Theological Studies at Colorado Christian University.
I find C.S. Lewis more engaging every time I read another of his amazingly theological stories. I cannot help but compare The Great Divorce to Dante’s Inferno. Although the towns people were given a “glimpse” of heaven, such is not our lot as Christians. In Luke 16, we read about Lazarus and the rich man at the gate. Lazarus dies and is carried to heaven. The rich man also dies, but he is transported to Hades. He sees Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom and cries out for mercy. Abraham insists that the rich man had his “good life” and (as we surmise) he did not repent for his evil ways. Abraham tells the rich man it is too late; he cannot cross the chasm. Abraham also denies the rich man’s request to send someone to warn his family to repent. Abraham said, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31, NRSV).
The narrator in The Great Divorce is “Everyman,” who finds himself on the streets of a dismal gray town as night falls. He sees no one on the streets but discovers a throng of people waiting at a bus stop. The people all seem discontent and are verbalizing their sorrow, complaining of petty and desolate lives full of loneliness and dissatisfaction. As they murmur and shove against one another, it seems they cannot wait to get “somewhere else.” The bus rises above the gray, wet town, arriving at a beautiful sunny meadow. Although the people find themselves in a wonderous land, they cannot settle in; they cannot even feel the ground. They are opaque ghosts, incompatible with this new land. Many become discontent and decide to return to the bus, the “solid” people try to convince them to walk toward the beautiful, majestic mountains in the distance. If only they let go of their pride and petty grievances, they can become acclimated to heaven. But they are stubborn and would rather be miserable than humble.
Lewis describes the wandering masses thusly: “They were all fixed faces, full not of possibilities but impossibilities, some gaunt, some bloated, some glaring with idiotic ferocity, some drowned beyond recovery in dreams; but all, in one way or another, distorted and faded” (Chapter 3, p. 17). Everyman comes to realize what he must give up so he can pass from “earth life” to the “afterlife.” He encounters a guide who will lead him throughout this strange experience. Lewis identifies Everyman’s guide as the Scottish author and Christian minister George MacDonald. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both attribute much to MacDonald as one of their “guides” on earth, making him a logical choice to accompany Everyman and answer his questions. MacDonald explains to Everyman that the ghosts can stay if they are willing to take excursions (paths to the afterlife), but they choose not to make the effort. As Everyman’s experience ends, MacDonald informs him he is not yet dead; that this has all been a dream. But it is suggested that choices made during earth life have an impact on the afterlife. Indeed, Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter” (Matt. 12:36).
It is important to note that these discontented “ghosts” are not being given a “second chance” to move from “limbo” to paradise. This dream is meant for the benefit of Everyman. Each one of us as “Everymen” must choose our path. We all must acknowledge our pride and our “fallenness,” and admit our need for rescue from the dismal gray streets of “earth life.” Quarreling and complaining fall on deaf ears. Lewis suggests that we are blind to the role we play in our “less than” life. We are unfulfilled, but merely murmuring about our lot will change nothing.
Stories provide a unique apologetic narrative. Lewis used stories to open the imagination to new ways of interpretation. He invited his readers to go with him to another place, another possibility. Lewis understood the cultural and intellectual importance of narrative. For Lewis, the Christian narrative provides a vantage point from which to understand reality. Alister McGrath says, “Narrative apologetics is best seen as supplementing other approaches, reflecting the rich and deeply satisfying nature of the Christian gospel itself” (1). We have a built-in narrative instinct, as if we have been predetermined to thrive on story for memorializing our past, making sense of our present, and shaping our future.
In Divorce, Lewis inserts Everyman and others between heaven and hell in a sort-of literary purgatory (or observation deck) rather than a weigh station. Lewis presented a mental picture of heaven and hell coexisting side-by-side in linear time. He wrote, “But I notice that Our Lord, while stressing the terror of Hell with unsparing severity, usually emphasizes the idea, not of duration but of finality” (2). Knowing that man is fixated on the physical, the sensory, and the material, Lewis effectively uses allegory and illustration. Lewis, Tolkien, Aquinas, Augustine, all believed we are part of a larger, ongoing story of redemption. Perhaps Divorce is meant to help Lewis explain his stages of “Unenchanted Age,” “Enchanted Age,” “Disenchanted Age,” and “Re-enchanted age.” I want to end with a famous line from Lewis said, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” (3).
What I loved about this reading is the almost palpable sense of what each scene was truly like. The “earth life” conditions were vivid: never-ending rain, clouds, cool air, and a never-ending dusk. People were walking aimlessly, looking for improvement, hope, something other than a dreary existence, but they never found the “good part of town.” No “grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” Lewis does a great job explaining how stubborn, self-centered, self-seeking, and closed-minded we can be. The townsfolk were more than stuck in a miserable town with no money for a moving van and a fresh start. They were proverbially chained to a life devoid of peace, love, joy, contentment, a sense of purpose. What an amazing metaphor. The more I read Lewis, the more I want to read Lewis!
(1) Alister E. McGrath, Narrative Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2019).
(2) C.S. Lewis, The Joyful Christian (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1977), 226.
(3) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 136-37.