The Great Divorce
C. S. Lewis
Clive Staples Lewis was a British writer and lay theologian. He held academic positions in English literature at both Oxford University and Cambridge University. Learn more.
Born: November 29, 1898, Belfast, United Kingdom
Died: November 22, 1963, Oxford, United Kingdom
I have always been a fan of C.S. Lewis and have always had a great deal of respect for him and for his work, and I think the only published writings of his that I have yet to read is The Chronicle of Narnia series, which is the only piece of his work that most people I know have actually read. I am not sure why I have never read about Narnia, but perhaps it is because I somehow view it as just a children’s story, though I know it is widely believed to be one of the greatest Christian allegories of all times.
One of my all time favorite books, and one of my top two favorites of the entire works of C.S. Lewis, is The Great Divorce. A few years ago I loaned my copy of The Great Divorce to a friend and never got it back, and since I can not remember who I loaned it to, I will probably never get it back. A few days ago, having completely given up hope on ever getting my book back, I went to the local book store and purchased another copy. Since the city in which I live is not all that large, just over 50,000, I think it is amazing that we have a book store that is not associated with any of the colleges in the area. It is even more amazing that they had the exact book I was looking for and I didn’t have to order it online.
Saturday was a rather nice day, the first really nice day we have had here in Southern Missouri since last fall, so when I got home from the funeral of a friend I sat on a wicker chair in my back yard and read the The Great Divorce, cover to cover, in a few hours. It is amazing how much I can read when I don’t have anything to distract me from doing so. The Great divorce is, in my opinion, not only a great work of literature, but one of the best Christian works of all times. If you haven’t read the book yet I highly recommend it, but in case you haven’t, there be spoilers ahead. However, I don’t feel bad if I spoil the ending for anyone since it has been in print since 1946 and everyone should have had ample time to read it by now.
The Great Divorce is told from the perspective of the narrator, a man who is never named, a character who could be summed up as “an every-man”who finds himself in a place that is unfamiliar and uncomfortable, though he is unaware of how long he has been there or how he got there. The place where the narrator finds himself is a vast but mostly vacant city that is in a perpetual state of twilight, seemingly only minutes from total darkness, and the rain never stops. Everything in the city is grey and all of the people he encounters are unhappy and miserable.
While the unnamed narrator is wondering through the mostly empty streets of the city he sees that most buildings and homes are abandoned, and the ones that are occupied are far from the next occupied building. At this point it is not apparent why so many seemingly good buildings are abandoned.
Not knowing what else to do, the narrator keeps walking until he happens upon a bus stop to a destination that is unknown to him, but assuming it can’t be worse than where he is already at, he decides to wait for the bus. Initially there is a massive line for the bus and the narrator is not sure if he will even be able to take the bus at all due to the sheer number of people waiting for it, but the other people in line seem to find anything to complain and fight about, and long before the bus ever arrives there are not nearly enough people remaining to even fill half of the bus. As people get discouraged and give up on waiting for the bus due to not liking the others in line or due to fighting, the narrator continually finds himself closer and closer to the beginning of the line.
When the bus arrives everyone immediately notices that it is not dark and grey like everything in town but instead is bright, and the bus driver has a pleasant smile on his face. Some of the people waiting in line take offense at the bus driver and make some snide remarks about him, but they are still eager to get on the bus.
Despite there being plenty of room on the bus, most of the people fight to be the first ones to board. The narrator, who has no desire to fight his way onto the bus, is the last person to board, and he sits by himself in the back. Not too long after the bus leaves the station a would be poet comes back and insists that the narrator reads his poetry, but he says that he can’t because he doesn’t have his glasses. The poet keeps going on and on about how talented he is and how his work should have changed the world and even thinks that where they are going he will be recognized for his singular genius. For a minute the narrator is afraid he is going to have to hear the young poet recite his poetry, but they are interrupted by another man who wanted to talk about what a difficult life he’d had and eventually jumped under a train. The narrator is startled by the confession of jumping under the train, but doesn’t have time to think about it because a fight breaks out.
After a fight is over the narrator finds himself seated with a different man, and this man explains to him why the streets are all empty and why the city goes on forever. The city, it is explained, is created by people simply imagining the stores or house they want, though they offer no real protection from anything, not even the rain. Whenever anyone has any issues with his or her neighbor they move to a new area of town and either make a new home or else move into one that was abandoned by someone else. The bus stop, it is explained, is close to where people arrive when they are first sent there and the longer a person has been there the farther they have moved outward. Seemingly the only thing everyone has in common is they are not happy.
The man who was telling the narrator about the city started to talk about why everyone was afraid and why everyone wanted to make sure they had some shelter before it got dark, but everyone else got angry and said it was just rumors and that it would be twilight forever and never get dark and that there was nothing to get them. The other passengers even threatened the man to drop the subject of they would beat him up.
As the bus flew farther away from the city, the sky got lighter and lighter and at some point the narrator realized that everyone, including himself, were translucent and that the light hurt his skin and his eyes. It was at this point that the narrator fully realized that he and everyone else on the bus, as well as everyone in the grey city, were dead.
After some time the bus stopped in a place with green grass, flowers, rivers, trees, a mountain in the distance and happily singing birds. Everything seemed perfect, especially in contrast to the dark city he had just left.
When the bus stopped everyone fought to be the first one off, but everyone quickly realized that the light hurt their eyes and their skin and the grass hurt their feet as if they were standing on razors or sharp rocks barefoot. Even the largest of the people were unable to so much as move a blade of grass or disturb the dew when they stepped on it, and pulling a blade of grass or picking a flower seamed to be all but impossible. After everyone got off the bus one of the passengers asked the driver when they had to get back on the bus and the driver responded by saying that they never had to get back on the bus if they didn’t want to and that they could stay here forever if they liked.
Not long after everyone got off the bus people could bee seen approaching in the distance, and all of them were solid and looked healthy and happy, and each one seemed intent on making contact with a specific passenger of the bus. Not knowing where he was or what he was supposed to do, and being a little intimidated by those who were coming to meet the passengers, the narrator started exploring his new environment and listened to the conversations between the other spirits who had been on the bus with him and those he called the “solid people.”
The solid people came from the mountain, which is the book’s representation of heaven, and the reason they came back was to help those who had been in purgatory to have the chance to go to heaven. The majority of the book deals with the conversations the narrator overhears between those who came on the bus and those who were sent back from the mountain to assist them. From these conversations we learn a great deal about theology, and a lot of the things that people will willingly trade a heaven for, all the while thinking they are being mistreated for not being allowed to take their little piece of hell to heaven with them.
As George Mc Donald said, “No, there is no escape. There is no haven with a little hell in it—no plan to retain this or that of the devil in out hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather.”
The first conversation the narrator hears is between a big man from the bus and a former acquaintance of his from earth named Len. It quickly becomes apparent that the big man had been Len’s boss and never liked him much, especially after he had murdered Jacks. We never learn much about Jack other than he was murdered by Len and is now in heaven. The big man thought it was extremely unfair that he had been such a good man, by his estimation, and went to hell when a murderer like Len would go to heaven.
The big man kept going on and on about how he had worked for everything he ever got and wanted to get what he deserved and demanded that he get his rights the same as Len did, so Len said, “Oh no. It’s not so bad as 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. Never fear.”
I like to say that grace is when God gives us things we don’t deserve and mercy is when he doesn’t give us what we rightly deserve. The honest truth is that we have all fallen short of the glory of God and are only saved through the grace of God.
After a fair amount of arguing and demanding he get his rights, and never letting Len forget that he is a “bloody murderer,” the big man said that he has never asked for anything he didn’t deserve and said he wasn’t “asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.”
Len’s response is one of the truest things anyone has ever said about Christianity and it lays out what grace really is, he said “Then do at once. Ask for the bleeding charity. Everything here is for the asking and nothing can be bought.”
Like the big man, a lot of people say they want what they deserve and what they have earned but I know better, and like Len, I know that I deserve the just punishment of God and the only thing my best works have earned me is a spot in hell. No, I don’t want what I deserve and what I have earned, I want what God is freely giving me.
After going on about what a decent chap he was Len corrects the big man and informs him that he was not a decent man and all of the men who worked under him hated him because he was so hard on them and said, “I will tell yo one thing to begin with. Murdering Jack wasn’t the worst thing I did. That was the work of a moment and I was half mad when I did it. But I murdered you in my heart, deliberately, for years. I used to lie awake for hours at nights thinking what I’d do to you if I ever got the chance. That is why I have been sent to you now: to ask for your forgiveness and to be your servant as long as you need one, and longer if it pleases you. But all the men who worked under you felt the same. You made it hard for us, you know. And you made it hard for your wife too and for your children.”
At the end of a tirade of insults the big man said to Len, “Tell them I’m not coming, see? I’d rather be damned than go along with you. I came here to get my rights, see?”
The thing about heaven is that we don’t go there because we deserve it, because we have earned it or because it is owed to us, and anyone who believes differently is putting far too much stock in their own abilities and accomplishments. We can only go to heaven by the grace of God. Hell is where we have to go if we want to be given what we deserve and what we have earned by our “good” works. The big man in the story decided that he wanted nothing of the grace of God and did not want heaven if murderers could be forgiven and granted a place there and he did not want heaven if he could not earn it. What a foolish decision, but there are people who make the same decision every day.
The next conversation that is overheard involves a man who, despite the fact that he was sent to hell, is unaware that he was an apostate and was teaching heresy. For the sake of popularity and wealth, the man had taught that the resurrection was a lie, as well as teaching many other anti-Biblical doctrines. The crazy thing is that even though he had died and was in hell, the apostate man still believed that heaven and hell were only states of mind and that God was more of an idea than a reality.
The apostates guide said to him, “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. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.”
When the man demanded some guarantee that he would be given something to do to be useful and where he could still debate theology he was told a truth that is true for all of us, that he was not needed in heaven at all.
“No,” said the man who was sent to guide him. “I can promise you none of these things. No sphere of usefulness: You are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: Only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere for inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.”
In the end, the man decided that he would rather get back on the bus and go back to hell where other people were in awe of his theological intellect rather than go to heaven without a promise that he would be given a position of provenance and importance.
One of the conversations that we read about involved a man who had a lizard living on his shoulder and he had to get rid of the creature in order to progress and make his way to the mountain. The lizard kept whispering in the man’s ear and telling him that he could not live without his company and that he would be happier back in the grey city with him as his companion than he would be in heaven without him. The lizard was a representation of sexual sin.
The guide told the man that in order to make it to heaven he had to allow allow the guide to kill the lizard, and that he could not do it without his consent. Even though it was extraordinarily painful, the man finally allowed the lizard to be put to death so he could go to heaven. Whatever we have to give up for the sake of God, no matter what it is, is worth it.
Paul told us that all of our sin must be put to death so that we can live a new life in Christ, and the lizard living on the man’s shoulder was a representation of someone putting their sin to death. As mentioned before, we can’t take even the smallest piece of hell into heaven.
Another passenger from the bus was met by her brother and was outraged because she was not bet by her son. This woman was obsessed with her son and mistook it for love and when her son died instead of showing her daughter, husband or other family members love and affection she obsessed over her lost son and made the rest of the family miserable.
The woman’s brother told her that she would never be able to see her son until she loved God more than she loved anything, including her son. This woman had no interest in God for the sake of knowing God and viewed him only as a means to get back to her son. Eventually the woman proved that she did not truly love her son because she said she would be happy to have him return to hell with her. When a person truly loves someone they want them to be with God in heaven, even if it means they will never see them again. It is the most vile form of selfishness that would consign another to an eternal misery in hell so that they could have them by their side, not love.
One of the passengers from the bus thought he would take apples and other things back to hell so that he could sell them fore profit, but was only able to pick up the smallest of apples, and only with great exertion. While struggling with the small apple as if carrying a boulder, trying to take it back to the bus, a loud voice told the spirit to leave it and was foolish for trying because nothing from heaven will fit in hell. What I thought was the most foolish thing was not that the man thought something from heaven would fit in hell but that he would rather take something from heaven back to hell in an attempt at making a profit than giving up hell and all of his worldly ambitions in order to have heaven.
There are a lot of people who are so caught up in their desires to be in charge over others that they subscribe to the saying, “It is better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven.” I don’t care what it is or what anyone promises you, nothing about hell, not even the very best thing, if there is one, is better than the worst thing about heaven.
One of the common themes that runs throughout the book is that all of us has our favorite or pet sin and that we must willingly abandon in order to gain heaven, not that we are in any way buying or earning heaven, but that none of hell is compatible with heaven and by deciding to keep our part of hell we are, in essence, deciding that whatever it is we were choosing in more important to us than heaven and more important to us than God. There are many who are quite unwilling to give up their little piece of hell for all of heaven. I think that in order to make that choice one must not truly know what they are giving up by choosing not to be with God.
One woman we encounter in the story had ruthlessly controlled every aspect of her husband’s life on earth and made his existence miserable, and when she found out he made it to heaven and she did not she was irate and insisted on being allowed to control him again, arguing that he is incapable of making any sensible decision without her, which was obviously false since he made it to heaven and she found herself in hell. The woman was so set on controlling her husband that she decided she was unwilling to go to heaven if she were not allowed to dominate the poor man and instead opted to get back on the bus and return to hell.
There are a lot of people who think it is their right and even their duty to control other people, even when doing so makes the other person completely miserable. Control and domination is not born out of love and has no place in a Christian’s life.
The narrator in the story is guided by the famous writer George McDonald, not because he knew him personally but rather because he respected him and would trust him. McDonald was one of C.S. Lewis’s favorite authors, so that is likely the reason he was chosen for the story.
One of the key things the narrator is told by his guide is, “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.”
A lot of people say they could not serve a God who would send any of his children to hell, but the truth is that God doesn’t send anyone to hell and gives every single person ample opportunities to accept him. As Lewis said, all of those who find themselves in hell do so because that is what they chose.
The narrator is told that when he wakes up that he is to share what he learned on his journey. The guide said, “Ye are only dreaming. And if ye come to tell of what ye have seen, make it plain that it was but a dream. See ye make it very plain. give no poor fool the pretext to think ye are claiming knowledge of what no mortal knows.”
C.S. Lewis never meant The Great Divorce to be an accurate portrayal of the afterlife but rather a work of fiction with designed to teach true Biblical principles of the types of things that may prevent us from entering heaven. In the introduction Lewis was careful to point out that he was not trying to tell us what the afterlife would be like
“I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course-or I intended it to have-a moral. But 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 after-world.”
I think it is important to read The Great Divorce, as well as the other works of C.S. Lewis, not because it offers some insight into the afterlife but because it presents important theological issues in a way that are easy to be understood. There are a lot of themes in the book that many of us do on without thinking much about from mistaking obsession or selfishness for love to getting so caught up in being trendy and well thought of that we pervert the gospel until it is no longer recognizable and had none of the saving power, and even mistakenly thinking that we can in any way earn our salvation.
I want to end with this quote from the book, “No natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God's hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.”