Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis

Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce. 1946. New York: Touchstone, 1996.

The Great Divorce is a fantasy; it’s an imagined trip from hell to heaven. Lewis is careful to describe it as a fantasy and a dream. He doesn’t claim to have had a vision, or a revelation, or to have actually traveled their. The dreamland setting of this little book isn’t even strictly heaven or hell, but a land in the twilight of the impending final judgment, what he calls the “Valley of the Shadow of Life.” While his speculation on heaven and hell are interesting, they are the smaller part of what he explores in this story.

In the preface, Lewis acknowledges a science fiction story as the source of the idea that things and people of heaven are super-solid and that hell and its residents are insubstantial. Those who love and desire God before everything else gain everything, because it is the ultimately reality and the source of all. Those who long for anything more than God end up with nothing but their regrets. As he puts it, “Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good.”

As he explores the foothills of heaven (Lewis imagine George McDonald as his guide), he sees other residents of hell (like himself who he sees as ghosts) interacting with the angels and saints (bright, solid people) who reside in heaven. The heavenly woo the ghostly visitors with the joy of God. Most of the visitors choose something else, if it brings them misery. They want what they want at any cost, more than they want God even though he contains all they could truly desire.

This second element is the heart of the book. What the narrator learns and observes is mostly about the choice we face, and how we make it, and a little about the nature of heaven and hell. “What concerns you,” explains the imagined McDonald, “is the nature of the choice itself: and that ye can watch them making.”