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Review: The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

The Great DivorceThe Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This fictional story raises thought-provoking questions about Heaven, Hell, and salvation. Lewis’ insights have inspired me to think and study more about the afterlife. In the preface, Lewis makes it clear that "this is a fantasy…the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the afterworld." I’d like to do more research to learn more about Lewis’ beliefs about the afterlife.

I read this book because I saw many comparing it to Rob Bell's Love Wins (read my review). Although there are several points on which I disagree with Lewis, I feel closer to his view of Heaven and Hell than to Rob Bell’s. I differ from both authors in that I’m a Calvinist, and they’re both Arminian; Lewis believes that everyone can be saved, but not all choose to be; Bell believes that all will be saved despite themselves. Beyond that, I’ll leave the detailed theological analyses and debates to others.

The narrator (Lewis) begins in The Valley of the Shadow of Death, a gloomy town where the residents keep moving further and further away from each other, because they can’t stand each other. He then travels to The Valley of the Shadow of Life, a place on the threshold of Heaven. Chapter 9 provides more backstory. Those in The Valley of the Shadow of Death are allowed to take excursions to The Valley of the Shadow of Life. They can also return to earth to trick mediums, haunt houses, or spy on people. Those that go to The Valley of the Shadow of Life are allowed to stay, if they so choose, and eventually “graduate” or “migrate” into Heaven.

When Lewis asks, “is the judgment not final?”, his Teacher replies that to those who leave the town, it will not have been Hell, but Purgatory. To those who stay in The Valley of the Shadow of Life, it will have been Heaven from their first arrival. To those who stay in The Valley of the Shadow of Death, it will have been Hell from their first arrival.

The Teacher says that Hell is a state of mind, but Heaven is reality itself. When Lewis asks if there can be a choice after death, his Teacher replies that he can’t understand the relations of choice and Time until he’s beyond them.

The Teacher later states, “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. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”

In chapter 13, the Teacher (the Spirit who Lewis talks to) says that we can’t understand salvation from within Time, since it’s an issue of eternity. He says that neither Predestination (that God eternally saves some and damns others, and they have no say in the matter) nor Universalism (that God saves everyone) is correct, and that the real relationship between God’s judgment and Man’s freedom is more complicated that we can understand.

In the preface, Lewis says, “Earth, I think will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.”

Lewis records the conversations that he has and observes in Heaven. Those arriving in Heaven are called ghosts, and the saved who are there are called Spirits. Here are a few memorable conversations:

The Big Ghost complains that he hasn’t gotten his rights because he went to Hell, not Heaven, despite his living a good life and the man in Heaven being a murderer. The saved murderer replies that “I haven’t got my rights, or I should not be here. You will not get yours either. You’ll get something far better.” Chapter 4

The Episcopal Ghost complains about being judged for his opinions. He says that “honest opinions fearlessly followed” are not sins. Dick, who’s saved, replies that their opinions weren’t honestly come by, because they simply followed ideas that seemed modern and successful. He asks, “When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur?” Chapter 5

A ghost asks what we’re born for, and a Spirit replies, “For infinite happiness.” Chapter 8

A Spirit explains that no one in Heaven is distinguished, but they’re all famous, because they’re all known and recognized by God. Chapter 9

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