November 4, 2013
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis is a short allegorical story about the separation, or ‘divorce,’ of heaven and hell in which a number of characters meet in pairs on a grassy plane just outside heaven. In life these couples knew each other. But here in death they are divided: one is heaven-bound, the other destined for hell. Arguments ensue as the heaven-bound man of each pair implores the other, one last time, to turn from their sins and to God. It’s clear, however, that everyone’s got some reason to refuse His mercy and reject salvation – earthly achievements, pride, personal grievances and complaints… Despite Lewis’s light-hearted story-telling style, this book is a powerful and thought-provoking illustration of the greatest choice we face in life and the stark divide it creates in death.
Imagery and Comparisons
Morning versus Night
Throughout the story Lewis draws on different imagery to emphasise the totality of this ‘divorce’. The pairs meeting on the grassy plain, for example, have come from two different locations. At the bottom of the verge is a grey town in which the hell-bound individuals have been residing. Here time is frozen just before evening, the sun setting for the last time. Up near the foothills of heaven, on the other hand, time is poised just before the dawn. It’s easy enough to understand why Lewis uses this imagery. Everyone loves the sun! That’s why we complain so much about the weather in England. But it’s also the way Jesus describes Himself in John 8 when he said “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” And without Him there is only night.
Ghostliness versus Solidity
Again, the contrast is clear. Those destined for heaven appear solid, tangible, radiant in their new resurrection bodies. The hell-bound are not so lucky; their take the form of oily, ugly ghosts. Even less than they once were on earth.
Sinners and Saints?
More striking still is the background of the saved. Among those entering heaven are the plain and uninteresting; those who committed hideous crimes in life; and the ones considered narrow-minded because of their faith in Jesus. Those in danger of hell include famous artists, devoted husbands, bereaved mothers… this is not a politically correct book! But the Kingdom of Heaven will be full of such surprises as these. It is the tax collector and ‘sinner;’ the prostitute and criminal; the simple and weak who come to Jesus in the New Testament. While those who are ‘great’ and ‘good’ in the world’s eyes refused to repent.
Grace versus Works
So just as these tax collectors and sinners laid aside their pride and turned to Jesus in the Bible, the heaven-bound in this story do also. They trust in Him, delight in Him and receive the joyful new creation He promised them. But the hell-bound cling only to their own good deeds, their worldly knowledge and their past grievances in the hope of qualifying for heaven. The idea that Christ should simply give them a place, unearned is a horror to them. The beauty of grace and the futility of their cause is utterly lost on them. Despite all their efforts, or rather because of it, they are lost.
As an allegory, The Great Divorce is a helpful book for the Christian, bringing the fundamental doctrine of salvation to life. It is important, however, to remember its purpose: it was written as a story, not a theological treatise on heaven and hell. In it Lewis highlights the extreme polarity of these two camps; the paths that lead to each eternal destination; and the sorrows as well as joys of that knowledge for the Christian.
The Great Divorce is therefore a wonderful encouragement to use the time we now have to persuade others of this truth and the hope we have in Christ. But it is also a glorious portrayal of the future inheritance promised to those who trust in Him.
By the Cornerstone Team