The Great Divorce

I have always considered The Screwtape Letters as my favorite of C. S. Lewis’s writings, but now I think that book might have to make way for The Great Divorce. I have just finished reading in and have found it to be even more insightful that Screwtape, though with none of the humor. The Great Divorce is a story about Heaven and Hell, perhaps similar in theme and intent to Dante’s Divine Comedy and others, though the Heaven and Hell that Lewis portrays is not much like the conventional pictures of Heaven and Hell.

 

 

The Great Divorce begins with the narrator, presumably Lewis himself, in a gray, dismal, rainy city of empty streets. This is Hell. There are no flames, devils, or torments. These things might make Hell interesting and Lewis makes subtly makes the point that while evil may be hurtful, it is also, in the end, boring. The streets of Hell are empty, not because Hell itself is empty, but because the inhabitants cannot stand each other. As soon as anyone arrives in Hell, he invariably quarrels with everyone around him and moves as far away as he can. So, there are miles, even light years between neighbors.

There is a bus for those who want to travel to Heaven to see what it is like. The narrator, along with a group of quarreling travelers boards the bus to Heaven. Most of the people from Hell don’t much like it there. In Heaven, they are revealed to be ghosts, while Heaven is real and solid, more real and solid than Earth. The ghosts in Heaven cannot lift a single leaf. Grass does not bend beneath their feet. The people of Heaven are bright, shining spirits.

The bulk of the book consists of the narrator overhearing conversations between the ghosts and relatives or acquaintances from Heaven, and the narrator’s own conversation with Lewis’s favorite writer, George MacDonald.  The spirits of Heaven plead with the ghosts to stay but the ghosts all have one reason or another why they cannot or will not.  As MacDonald explains, the one thing that the people from Hell need to do is to forget about their preoccupation with themselves and learn to love God. Once they have ceased to trouble about themselves, they will become more truly the individuals they were meant to be. But, they simply will not do it.

Lewis is careful to be sure that the reader knows that this book is only a work of fiction and most emphatically does not claim to be any sort of prophet or to have any real knowledge of the afterlife. In fact, the story ends with the narrator waking from a dream. Still, I think The Great Divorce shows a great deal of insight into the nature of Heaven and Hell, and of good and evil.

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