Like many, C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity is one of my most beloved books on what Christianity is all about. It was the first real Christian book I ever read. A few years after discovering it, I stumbled upon The Great Divorce, also by Lewis. I read it as a young teenager and barely understood what it meant. Now that I think of it, I didn’t even finish it the first time around. But I kept coming back to The Great Divorce again and again and began to unravel the story as its impact on me deepened.
The Great Divorce follows a narrator on a journey from Hell, imagined as a dreary city populated by bitter and hopeless humans where it rains continuously, to the outskirts of Heaven. The narrator and his fellow travelers arrive via a flying bus to the foothills of paradise. Shining, perfected men and women meet each person from the bus, trying to help them repent and travel into Heaven.
Lewis called The Great Divorce an “imaginative supposal.” The story asks, “What if sinners were given a chance to visit Heaven and decide if they wanted to enter?” In the book, Hell isn’t a lava field patrolled by winged demons with sinners shackled to prison walls. Hell is, frightfully, a much more relatable place. I found the damned in Hell City a lot like me when I’m hopelessly bitter, prideful, or self-centered to the point of solipsism. Images of fiery punishment and eternal suffering have been much less impacting on me than the idea of a city filled with cynics and people so consumed with their own lives that they’d prefer to stay in their own squalor rather than be guided into paradise.
One big impact for me was that attitudes matter. God has given us the freedom to do what we want. It’s never too late to turn toward Him. Each moment is an invitation to surrender to Him, to trust that He wants what is best for His creation. Living against Him just makes things miserable. It wasn’t what we were created for, and it isn’t what He desires for us. We become petty, selfish, myopic, and destructive creatures without Him. Stubbornness is vicious.
We can’t even be ourselves without God. The narrator says that the travelers are ghosts, half-versions of themselves, shallow, like shadows. They get off the bus and step onto a field of grass that’s so dense and real in comparison to their weightless selves that the feet of the ghostly travelers don’t even bend the green blades. Hell and the kind of people we become as we sin are nothing compared to the deep reality of God’s Kingdom and the true life He gives us. We become what we do. The attitudes we hold slowly mold our hearts. If we surrender to Him and let go of our pride and our bitterness, God will transform us into the men and women that He created us to be.
Another major impact was that what seems to matter here on Earth isn’t what truly matters to God. The Great Divorce is showing how our earthly treasures are distortions of what God truly wants for us. What I think is so important, the great images I have of myself, the reasons I have to barricade God from my heart are all trivial deformities of reality. The narrator looks down from Heaven at the City of Hell below and sees it’s the size of a small crack in the ground that’s barely visible. It pales in comparison to the grandeur of the Land of God.
However, Lewis seems pessimistic about people actually seeing how much better salvation is than our own concerns. One of the people from the bus is so consumed with his reputation and legacy as an artist on Earth that he refuses to enter the green mountains of paradise and to see the Light that has always been his inspiration as a painter. Only one person in the story decides to be led into the foothills of the Kingdom toward God. Everyone else on the bus chooses to return to Hell City.
A third substantial impact for me was that imagination is important. Creative fiction can convey spiritual truths in ways that theology texts, Bible commentaries, and even sermons often can’t. This book has left such a mark on me because I don’t feel the need to analyze each page for doctrinal accuracy. It’s fiction. Although written by a man with a lot of theological knowledge, the story invites us to consider “what if?”
I’d never seen anything like The Great Divorce when I first read it. The story isn’t like a novel, or a parable, or an analogy. What does it mean that my sin has distorted me into a less-than-real creature? God’s vision not only for my life but also for the whole world is one of ultimate reality as He made it. True life.
The Great Divorce does something that few books do: it excites me. God doesn’t want me to be a shadow. He wants me to be full of His life. Is the way I’m living today a preparation for Heaven or a preparation for Hell?
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