C.S. Lewis massively influenced how today's evangelicals think about Hell —and the people they think are heading there
C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce definitely has a cosmology—an inner set of rules governing its setting. Before we look at that cosmology, though, let’s remember that C.S. Lewis did not in any way intend for the book to be a real, actual, intentional envisioning of heaven and hell.
Its setting is merely a metaphor, nothing more. Thus, I won’t be focusing on how the setting doesn’t fit the Bible’s actual descriptions of heaven and hell.
Still, what we have leftover is a lot.
In this book, it appears that when people die, they become “ghosts.” Ghosts inhabit a bleak urban hellscape of an endless, nameless dark city. Some ghosts immediately begin their journey from this city to Heaven. Lewis conceptualizes this journey as a literal one that passes through fields, forests, and mountains. He describes the first part of that journey as difficult, but thankfully many people receive help along the way. This help comes from other dead people, who are “spirits” who have paused their own progress to try to persuade ghosts to join them. Most of the spirits we meet in the book actually personally know the ghosts with whom they interact; they were friends in life, or spouses, or had other such relational bonds.
One such spirit, in trying to persuade his ghost friend to make the journey, describes it to him:
“Will you come with me to the mountains? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?”
However, the ghosts who are unwilling to make this journey stay in the city. A lot of things make ghosts unwilling to leave, but most of them come down to personality defects and flaws of various kinds.
A bus regularly makes the journey from the city to a sort of park, which is the very first part of the journey to Heaven, which this book characterizes as “the mountains.” This park contains not only the spirits, but also various animals, angels, and forces of nature.
Eventually, we learn that the park and this entire part of the cosmos (fields, forests, mountains, etc.) are the real world. The city—and the life the ghosts led before death—is really just an illusion.
The hell of the endless city
Like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis appears to have had no real love for big cities. Everything we see in this book about the city makes it sound horrifying, from the first paragraph on:
I SEEMED to be standing in a bus queue by the side of a long, mean street. Evening was just closing in and it was raining. I had been wandering for hours in similar mean streets, always in the rain and always in evening twilight. Time seemed to have paused on that dismal moment when only a few shops have lit up and it is not yet dark enough for their windows to look cheering. And just as the evening never advanced to night, so my walking had never brought me to the better parts of the town. However far I went I found only dingy lodging houses, small tobacconists, hoardings from which posters hung in rags, windowless warehouses, goods stations without trains, and bookshops of the sort that sell The Works of Aristotle.
(Exactly what’s wrong with a bookshop selling a classic book?)
Eventually, our hero finds the bus queue and lines up with other people. A resident of this strange city describes his fellow residents:
“They’ve got cinemas and fish and chip shops and advertisements and all the sorts of things they want.”
However, this isn’t a tightly-knit collection of neighborhoods. The people here quarrel a lot with each other. When the situation becomes unbearable, someone moves further out and builds themselves a new house—by just imagining it (though it seems like these residents only imagine bleak hellscape city houses). Thus, the city’s always expanding outward. In fact, we learn that this city comprises literally “millions of miles” of land.
Despite its astonishing size, however, Lewis’ heaven dwarfs it. Toward the end, we’ll learn that even one spirit is far too large to enter the city.
The bus to heaven
The ghosts in the queue board the bus, which then takes them up a sheer cliffside, flies over a field of green countryside, and finally comes to a stop in a grassy field. Far, far in the distance, the narrator sees what must be an impossibly-huge mountain.
And here we get a taste of the huge size of this book’s Heaven:
The light and coolness that drenched me were like those of summer morning, early morning a minute or two before the sunrise, only that there was a certain difference. I had the sense of being in a larger space, perhaps even a larger sort of space, than I had ever known before: as if the sky were further off and the extent of the green plain wider than they could be on this little ball of earth.
Here, the ghosts seem insubstantial. They can’t even make impressions on the grass under their feet. Nor can our narrator pluck any blades of grass or flowers, nor even pick up any leaves.
Finally, the spirits join this group of ghosts to try to persuade them to begin their journeys to the mountains.
Heaven as reality
Very soon after the spirits join the ghosts, the narrator witnesses an exchange between a spirit and his overly-ecumenical ghost friend (who seriously reminded me of the Evil Ecumenical Pastor and his evil ecumenical church service from This Present Darkness!). The narrator asks his guide:
“Then those people are right who say that Heaven and Hell are only states of mind?”
“Hush,” said [the guide] sternly. “Do not blaspheme. Hell is a state of mind–ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind–is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly.”
One reason that heaven is so large is that hell is simply an imaginary place, the guide tells our narrator:
“Yes. All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World.”
The logic really doesn’t sit well with me, but we’ll provisionally accept the notion for now.
Choosing hell in The Great Divorce
Repeatedly, C.S. Lewis hammers readers with one idea above all:
People choose to inhabit the city. They decide for themselves if they want to ride the bus to the park, and from there, they decide how long they wish to stay. And of course, they decide if they want to begin their journey to that faraway big mountain.
When the narrator asks George MacDonald, his spirit guide, if there really is a choice offered to the ghosts about staying in Heaven, he answers:
“For those that will take them. Of course most of the silly creatures don’t. They prefer taking trips back to Earth. [. . .]”
“But if they come here they can really stay?”
“Aye. Ye’ll have heard that the emperor Trajan did.”
The guide helpfully expands on the idea:
“Milton was right,” said my Teacher. “The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.’ There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy- that is, to reality.”
And then he delivers the death knell to Christian morality:
“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. To those who knock it is opened.”
Y’all, I almost screamed when I read that.
Victim blaming in The Great Divorce
Over and over again, as we meet the strawmen that C.S. Lewis offers us as ghosts, we see that those people suffer from serious character flaws and personality problems that keep them from accepting the spirits’ offers of help.
One of these ghosts, in fact, makes that clear immediately after the spirit guide makes the observation quoted just above. As she complains and harangues her spirit friend, the narrator judges her thusly:
“I am troubled, Sir,” said I, “because that unhappy creature doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation. She isn’t wicked: she’s only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling, and one feels that a little kindness, and rest, and change would put her all right.”
And I could really say that same sort of thing about almost all of the ghosts we meet in this book. Most people do the best they can with what they have. Sometimes we have to make choices in life that aren’t perfect, but they’re just the best option out of a sack full of even worse ones. Some of us might even suffer from psychological problems that impair our ability to think clearly and critically, or render us far less able to change.
None of that matters in The Great Divorce. In it, people die and end up in the bleak dystopian city, and they must figure things out without full knowledge of what it is, why they’re there, what exactly has to happen for them to leave, and what happens if they never do. They don’t even get a Handbook for the Recently Deceased.
It’s almost funny that C.S. Lewis can’t even imagine a cosmology in which people make informed decisions about their own fates. Not even his extra-imaginary imaginary god can make that happen for him.
The selective nature of consent in The Great Divorce
And it’s beyond weird that C.S. Lewis is so coy and mincing around consent in some places, when he gives full-throated support to coercion in others.
Just before the narrator meets George MacDonald, his Spirit guide, he encounters quite a strange scene: a spirit tries his best to persuade a female ghost into making the journey with him. She keeps refusing. Frustrated, he finally blows a horn, summoning a herd of ferocious unicorns to the field. These beasties scare the wits out of the ghost, and she flees. In fact, they also scare the wits out of our narrator, who flees in another direction.
The goal of the horn-blowing and the unicorns was to scare her into starting the journey.
Eventually, the narrator asks his spirit guide about that spirit’s deliberate attempt to scare his ghost into running toward the road to the mountain. And here is what the guide replies:
“It will maybe have succeeded,” he said. “Ye will have divined that he meant to frighten her; not that fear itself could make her less a Ghost, but if it took her mind a moment off herself, there might, in that moment, be a chance. I have seen them saved so.”
But wait. I thought people had to choose to make the journey. Ghosts had to be given full and complete liberty to decide to set their feet upon that path, even if the master of this cosmos (cough*JESUS*cough) had chosen not to give them any information with which to make that decision. But now, it’s suddenly totes fine to scare ghosts out of their wits?
Let’s ignore that Lewis is dead wrong about what fear does to people. (In fact, fear makes us focus like lasers on our own survival and preservation. That’s a big part of why love and fear can’t coexist. It’s also why a person focused on defense can’t engage meaningfully with new or contradictory ideas.) He’s just trying to excuse an inexcusable violation of another person’s consent.
Instead, let’s wonder why this violation of consent is fine, but even giving people enough information to make up their own minds is not okay at all.
What makes the city so hellish in The Great Divorce
During our Journey into Hell, we’ve seen a slow metamorphosis of Hell. It shifted from a straight lake of fire to one with magic fire that burned extra-lots. Eventually from there, the real pain in Hell became separation from Jesus (though the fire still hurt too, of course, totally).
We see a lot of that stuff in The Great Divorce. Imagine a city where you could make a house look like whatever you wanted! Where you could just think up food, drinks, games, whatever you liked! And where you wouldn’t need to work for anything unless you just want to, but you could spend your days as you please (as indeed one ghostwrites books and broadsheets advocating an economic stance he likes)!
To me, that sounds pretty spiffy.
But because this city has somehow been separated from the master of Heaven (cough*JESUS*cough), its residents are argumentative, surly, depressed, dour, and endlessly fighting with each other. They don’t behave like people, in short. They’re just caricatures, aka strawmen, of the worst aspects of human nature. And it is on them to figure out a way to fix their flaws so they’re able to begin their journey to the mountains.
I don’t understand why it’s all on them, though, why the master of Heaven (cough*JESUS*cough) can’t find a way to help them at all, nor any of the spirits.
You see, we actually see a spirit who has been magically and it seems surgically divested of her codependent nature: Sarah Smith.
Where did Sarah’s fatal flaw even go?
In life, Sarah Smith was, we learn, a very sweet, generous, and loving woman. Now, she’s of course a spirit. Her husband, Frank, has become a ghost, and she’s in the story now trying to talk him into beginning his journey. During their conversation, it becomes clear that she put up with way too much from this troublesome, controlling man. Now, she seems to be completely healed of whatever flaws held her so firmly under Frank’s control.
Sarah reminds Frank about how he used moodiness and sulks to manipulate everyone around him, constantly demanding their time and obedience through these means. After his numerous attempts to try to do that to her here, in the park, she puts her foot down:
“No, Frank, not here,” said the Lady. “Listen to reason. Did you think joy was created to live always under that threat? Always defenceless against those who would rather be miserable than have their self-will crossed? For it was real misery. I know that now. You made yourself really wretched. That you can still do.
And I had to ask: how did Sarah suddenly find herself able to examine the flaws she’d had in life that had made her so controllable for Frank? How did she get herself fixed? The city certainly provides no resources whatsoever to its residents for this kind of 180-degree turnaround. Did her flaws get carved out of her somehow?
However Sarah’s flaws were fixed, why can’t that happen for the people in the city? It’s obvious that C.S. Lewis is fine with violating consent, so why is this idea just a bridge too far for him?
“Locked on the inside”
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis presents us with a metaphor for heaven and hell. Hell isn’t really that bad-sounding, and heaven isn’t that great-sounding, despite his solid attempts to make them sound unbearable and glorious, respectively.
He sets up his metaphors to explain why so many people reject Christian control-grabs and sales pitches, and to explain how an all-good, all-powerful God can possibly allow anybody to suffer. If anything, though, he makes his god sound incompetent, and his god’s followers sound completely horrifying.
All too many Christians today have absorbed these metaphors into their package of beliefs, however. They’re too indoctrinated to look at his metaphors without their Jesus goggles on to filter the words. So they parrot beloved C.S. Lewis phrases like “the doors of Hell are locked on the inside” and “He cannot ravish. He can only woo.”
And they all nod at each other sagely and think they’ve finally licked the Problems of Evil and Hell both. Yep yep. It’s all those heathens’ fault that they don’t believe and go to Hell. Certainly not Christians’ problem, and certainly not their god’s problem. I’m sure they’re quite relieved!
But they haven’t at all defeated these problems. They still linger, undefeated and unanswered, until they overwhelm all those mental defenses.