Christian fiction · fantasy · philosophy · psychology · Uncategorized

A review of “The Great Divorce”

Dr. Michael Ward

OK, I need to update my review. I am watching this last lecture in Dr. Michael Ward’s online course, C.S. Lewis on Christianity, and I finished reading “The Screwtape Letters” as well. I guess I should have waited to post a review after watching his lecture. I have new insights on both “The Great Divorce” and “Screwtape” as a result.

Dr. Ward begins with an explanation of dualism. Dualists believe “there are two equal and independent powers at the back of everything, one of them good and the other bad, and that the universe is the battlefield in which they fight an endless war.” C.S. Lewis did not think of good and evil as equal and opposite, he said, and the same is true about his views on Heaven and Hell.

He asked, “Who is the opposite of the devil? This is a good way of testing to see if you’re secretly a dualist or not,” he said. If I replied, “God,” then I would actually be a dualist.

Satan is not the opposite of God. I think he’d like humans to think he is, which is probably one of his biggest deceptions. He’s the opposite of the archangel Michael, the leader of the angels. He’s a created thing like me and you. He’s the leader of the fallen angel. God has no opposite.

“Heaven and Hell” is the last topic of the “C.S. Lewis on Christianity” series through Hillsdale College. Heaven is not the opposite of Hell. God created this place for humanity to spend eternity. Hell is a place not for humanity, but for ex-people and for the fallen angels who have rejected God, as seen in what happens in both “The Great Divorce” and “The Screwtape Letter.” To enter Hell, we are no longer human. To enter Heaven, we become more ourselves than we ever were in this life. We humans must choose Christ now, must choose to turn over our natural proclivities to self-improvement. We need to submit to supernatural surgery that must take place in the human heart by our Redeemer God, very much reminiscent of the writings of Dallas Willard.

Both “The Great Divorce” and “The Screwtape Letters” depict Heaven and Hell. Both show us why some people reject God to stay in their natural, sin state. Hell looked like a run-down suburb in “The Great Divorce, while “The Screwtape Letters” looked like “a vast government bureaucracy teeming with secretaries and undersecretaries.”

Lewis wrote about Heaven and Hell with a dash of a little in-between space for his characters in “The Great Divorce,” the topic of this first review. Dr. Ward clarified something here. He said Lewis didn’t believe that people have a real choice to make after death. In this story, the characters take an omnibus from the “Grey Town,” Hell, or the Valley of the Shadow of Death to the heavenly places, the Valley of the Shadow of Life.

The story opens with Lewis lining up with several others as they wait for the omnibus. Yes, Lewis. I missed that he placed himself in the narrative! At the last minute, some in line decide to bail. They then board and take off on a day trip as the omnibus ascends like a plane, kind of like the flying Ford Anglia in the Harry Potter series. They’re on their way to the Valley of the Shadow of Life.

Upon arrival, Lewis soon realizes, to his horror, that his fellow passengers are transparent, as is he. His senses take in the beauty of nature, of beasts and birds, and of music, but he has a hard time getting on in his ghostly body. He can’t really walk on the grass. It doesn’t bend under his feet. It’s sharp like rock, and the leaves and petals on plants are heavier than on earth. The ghosts experience horrible pain just walking from the bus through the lush, beautiful landscape.

Lewis meets the Teacher, George MacDonald, and leans on him as he acts as a tour guide. He can move about with less pain and truly take in the supernatural world of beauty. Together, they watch as different ghosts have conversations with specific bright spirits from those phantoms’ earthly life.

During their visit, some meet these bright, beautiful spirits from the great beyond. These solid types of spirits make the journey to meet the ghosts in hopes of helping them “thicken up” and move on from that “Grey Town” over the mountain. They have to want to love God more than their worldly desires and more than whatever idols they’ve created for themselves. The journey over the mountain will take time and they will experience pain, but it’s a rewarding destination.

Lewis presents characters who don’t want to go through the pain of dying to their old, familiar selves. People like:

The Artist took in the beautiful surroundings and wished to paint the scene. The true source of the Artist’s gift created all he saw, so the beauty he wished to communicate as he did on earth wasn’t necessary. He decided he’d rather return to the “Grey Town.” He traded love of God for love of his artistic endeavors.

Ikey, an intelligent man, stands for our materialism. He thought he’d sell some of the golden apples in the Valley of the Shadow of Life to people in the town. They’re heavy and impossible for him to carry. Someone finally said to him, “’Fool…put it down. You cannot take it back. There’s no room for it in Hell. Stay here and learn to eat such apples.” (22). He doesn’t choose to do so though.

Another ghost, Sir Archibald, stands for scientists and philosophers – even theologians – in their quest for knowledge and ways to live and survive here on earth. He’d thought to meet famous people in the Valley of Life, but they live too far away to make the journey, he said. And Heaven held no more mysteries to solve in his mind. He forgot God amid his search for truth.

Other characters held onto people, not out of love, but out of need and a sense of control. The ghost, Pam, meets her brother Reginald. She had lost her son Michael who died young. She wanted Reginald to take her to her son, but he told her Michael wouldn’t be able to see her in her present phantom state.

Reginald tells Pam that he knows she held onto Michael’s memory in an unhealthy way. She made a shrine in his room. She held onto her grief and anger at God and made life wretched for her still-living son and daughter during her time on earth. Reginald said she’d need to first “learn to want Someone Else besides Michael.”

“I don’t say ‘more than Michael,’ not as a beginning. That will come later, he said. “It’s only the little germ of a desire for God that we need to start the process.’”        

She needed to go through a “thickening process,” he told her, and she could not use God just to get to her son. “You cannot love a fellow creature fully till you love God” (42)

She doesn’t want to listen to Reginald. She demanded her rights as Michael’s mother and even wanted to have Michael join her in Hell. She comes across as desperately evil and unhinged.

Now, one of the character has this corrupting influence that attached to him, a lizard of lust. The man eventually allows an angel to destroy it and then he’s on his way to Heaven. Dr. Ward noted that “of the 10 visitors who encounter an angel, only one is saved.” He thought of the 10 lepers whom Jesus healed with one turning back to praise God in thanksgiving. I am wondering though if Lewis had been thinking about Abraham’s request of God to save Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction if only 10 righteous people lived there. Lot was the only righteous one in God’s eyes.

Lewis used the images of Heaven, Hell, and a fictional in-between state to present a collection of characters whose intellects or emotions often get in the way of belief in God and eternity with Him. We argue ourselves out of accepting God’s grace and love for lesser idols to our detriment. Both this book and “The Screwtape Letters” end with an air raid that happened during World War II.

He is self-critical in this depiction, and his story doesn’t go as well as the patient in “The Screwtape Letters”; however, he’s alive at the end. He can still choose the same decision as the patient.

As I read, I could see how many of these earthly roles had no more use in Heaven or Hell. Lewis seemed to point out that we humans are so used to making what we “do” in life who we are. We love our independence and self-reliance. We choose to make the wrong things more important to us than any relationship whether with God or other people. And yet, Lewis showed we were meant to serve and worship God, our creator, but we often serve ourselves and worship these gifts He gave us instead.

In this world, people often are deceived into thinking their “authentic selves” are the ones they have made of ourselves, or at least who the world tells us to become. But if they would repent and accept Christ’s gift of salvation, they gain the Holy Spirit who will make them more like Christ.

“The Great Divorce” ran in serial form in the Anglican newspaper, “The Guardian” in 1944 and in 1945 became a book. Lewis had chosen “Who Goes Home?” as his working title, but the publisher didn’t like it. He opted with a divorce of Heaven and Hell, a reference to William Blake’s poem, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”

The 64-page short story reads like a radio play and reminded me of A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens in comparison. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, the narrator meets with a Spirit, in this case, Lewis’ favorite writer, the Scots minister George MacDonald, a 19th century founding father of modern fantasy writing.

I highly recommend reading the short chapters aloud. If someone really is listening in through Alexa or Google, then that person had a front-row seat to my narration of this crazy bus ride. I had a lot of fun playing all the parts.

Alas, my dog slept through the performance. Everyone’s a critic.

I’m probably going to have to update this review on “The Screwtape Letters.” I wanted to mention this study guide for “The Great Divorce” from the C.S. Lewis website and this study guide I hope you’ll give it a read. Let me know in the comments what you think if you do.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.