Let’s Go to Theology Class: C.S. Lewis and The Great Divorce

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!

Notes

(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.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Apologetics Interview

After some delay, I am able to share my final paper in “Apologetics” as part of my master’s in theological studies at Colorado Christian University. Instructions were to interview someone who was an atheist or skeptic regarding Christianity. I hope you will find this paper beneficial. I really enjoyed doing this assignment.

Introduction

The primary reason for Christians to engage in apologetics is to better prepare them for giving a defense for their faith, and to do so with gentleness and reverence (1 Pet. 3:15, NRSV). Koukl, author of Tactics, believes proper defense of the gospel begins with a game plan. Apologetics consists of three primary elements: defending the truth; defeating false ideas; and destroying speculation raised against God. And yet, this is not done through a frontal attack. Rather, the prudent plan is to proceed as God’s ambassador.[1]

Groothuis believes Christian apologists should offer answers for skeptics and non-believers based on rational arguments. The apologist’s method of arguing for Christianity will unavoidably be rooted—at least to some degree—in his or her personality and style of argument. Groothuis advised that apologists are often met with belligerent response. Such vehemence stems from atheists’ and skeptics’ belief that Christianity is indefensible. In addition, non-believers build their objections on a mantra that simply says, “…religion rests on blind faith and not reason for so long that many even within the church have actually come to believe it.”[2]

R. C. Sproul states that believers are to answer all inquiries—even the abusive ones—with gentleness and meakness. Indeed, this describes the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ. It is remarkable that many Christians today believe they should not participate in trying to “prove” the veracity of the gospel. Sadly, they base this assumption on their conclusion that faith and proof are incompatible. Additionally, as Sproul notes, an apologist may present a response to a non-believer that proves the argument for Christianity, but “[I]n their bias they refuse to be persuaded.”[3]

The Interview

This writer was able to secure an interview with Dale, a skeptic at best. When he agreed, he remarked, “You’re not going to like what I have to say, but sure, why not?” At times he shared rather determined and caustic comments about God and Christianity.

Regarding belief about God or an ultimate reality, Dale said,

God is a crutch. He doesn’t exist. I can’t see him and he hasn’t answered my prayers. I cried out to him hundreds of times while I bounced from house to house in the system.[4] He didn’t answer my prayers to stop my mom from abusing heroin. She died of a heroin overdose. What kind of God is that?

Dale was asked how he views humanity in general. He did not mince words: “People suck! I hate people. I’d rather live deep in the woods somewhere.” Dale added, “I can’t relate to the “essence” of people you asked me about.” This writer explained, stating, “Essence is basically the core nature of a person.” Dale does not believe humans are made in God’s image. He believes the basic problem concerning mankind is rampant evil. He noted recent violence in America over racism, and said, “There have been lots of wars, and people taking what others have… there is way too much selfishness and me first.”

When asked about Jesus Christ, Dale responded,

You believe in Jesus, so that’s your higher power, like it says in the 12 Steps. My higher power is not a specific god. I get my power from the universe. I don’t believe God is looking down on me and judging me. If he is, well then it sucks to be me, I guess. I see no evidence of God or Jesus. In fact, the opposite. Guys in jail, or people struggling with addiction, buy into Christianity and go to Bible study in the prison to look good. They “find Jesus” while in jail.” Christians are a bunch of hypocrites.

Given Dale’s harsh remark about hypocrisy in the Christian church, it was important to address duplicity. Decidedly, hypocrisy is partially responsible for keeping people from attending church services. This writer shared with Dale his struggle with hypocrisy over the years. One’s personal life and character have a direct effect on efforts to share the gospel. He addressed Dale’s concern about evil in the world, quoting Grudem: “We must never blame God for the evil men do. Secondary causes, such as the actions of human beings, bring evil upon others.”[5] He told Dale it is impossible for mankind to have free will to literally choose anything at any given moment and not expect wrong or evil choices to be made.

Dale’s hope for eternity, salvation, or redemption is vapid. He said there is nothing for him to “hope about.” He denied the existence of heaven and hell. When pressed, he said his spirit will leave his body when he dies and become (or return to) the ultimate spirit in the universe. He stated, “To me, that’s god or a higher power.” He believes in an unnamed higher power, as demonstrated by the beauty and magnitude of the universe.

Dale’s concluding remarks:

I don’t think our morals came from “up there somewhere.” Maybe Heaven and Hell are right here. I always thought American Indians had a clear idea of the grand spirit. Other religions too. If God exists, then he must be in everything. But thinking about evil, how can we work that in with God? I told you flat out when we started, belief in God is a crutch. And God has an evil side. It bugs the crap out of me that he punishes everyone for the sake of a few. You can’t tell me all those who drowned in the flood were bad people. So why be God if you’re doing evil. A loving God? Come on man.

In closing, this writer said,

I lived a life of complete disobedience. My own motives and desires fueled me. I had to come first, even at the other person’s expense. I got into booze and drugs, ending up in prison. I kept struggling for four decades with no concept of compassion or trustworthiness. Yet, inside I believed in ultimate truth and salvation. I decided to hit my knees and ask Jesus to renew my relationship with him and to forgive my rebellion.

Dale’s final rebuttal:

When I think about religion, I think of 9/11 right away. Religious fanatics. So, I’m on the fence. One thing the Bible got right about man is his deceitfulness.

Analysis

As is often seen in 12-step programs, Dale has a rather vague idea of spirituality. He reiterated his belief in an ultimate power somewhere in the universe but cannot provide a concrete description or identity of that power. He believes this power has “always been.” He said mankind would “…not need Jesus to die for sin if God just outlawed evil. I can’t believe in a benevolent God in the face of terrorism, murder, cancer, wars, rape. Why can’t God stop evil?”

A key criterion underlining this writer’s approach to evangelism and apologetics can be summed up by Colson and Pearcey: “As agents of God’s common grace, we are called to help sustain and renew his creation, to uphold the created institutions of family and society, to pursue science and scholarship, to create works of art and beauty, and to heal and help those suffering from the results of the Fall.”[6] There is a bit of Christianity’s social mandate.

Chandler believes the purpose of Jesus’ ministry was “…to bring the kingdom of God to bear on the earth.”[7] He believes salvation includes a real world reconciliation. He says, “For the reconciliation enacted by the cross to be cosmic, then, it must encompass more than just our individual relationship with God.”[8] In other words, Christians are reconciled “to reconcile.”

Christians are not simply “the recruited,” nor are they to merely be recruiting others. Certainly, the entirety of creation is out of sorts with the effects of sin. God expects Christians to participate individually and corporately in reversing the curse by setting things right. Christians are the eyes, ears, feet, and hands of the Body of Christ, and are commissioned to help bring about redemption and reconciliation.

Conclusion

Apologetics and personal evangelism are certainly intertwined, with personal testimony about faith in Jesus Christ being narrower than the broader discipline of apologetics. Regardless, it is not possible to genuinely engage in evangelism or apologetics while harboring an anti-Christian or hypocritical worldview. It is critical to ask one’s self, “How would I behave in the world if my outward actions matched what I claim to believe in my heart?” This question was a substantial factor in this writer’s change of orientation toward God and others. Once this has been established, the real work of evangelism and apologetics can begin. 

Footnotes

[1] Gregory Koukl, Tactics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 19-20.

[2] R.C. Sproul, Defending Your Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 8.

[3] Ibid., 18.

[4] Dale was a ward of local child services for 7 years.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, IL: Zondervan, 1994), 328.

[6] Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1999), xii.

[7] Matthew Chandler, The Explicit Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 136.

[8] Ibid., 143.