, , , , , , , ,

One Lewis book that almost failed to pass the evangelical smell test, however, is The Great Divorce. It’s about a group of people in hell who board a bus to heaven, where they get to decide whether or not they want to stay. One-by-one, most of the people find a reason to get back on the bus, finding they prefer to wallow in their petty jealousy, self-pity and bitterness rather than submit to the healing on offer in heaven.

This is a difficult book for many evangelicals, because it seems to suggest that Lewis believe there might be an opportunity for postmortem salvation–a second chance to get things right after death. It also smacks of an Orthodox understanding of the afterlife, which sees heaven and hell not as separate places but as distinct psychological conditions.

~from Hellbound? blog

As someone who has read The Great Divorce several times, I have to say that I believe it has been one of the most misunderstood of C.S. Lewis’s books. Many universalists, Rob Bell-ites, and others who promote heretical doctrines about hell, promote The Great Divorce as a manual for the idea that hell may be locked from the inside.

Most evangelicals turn this grit of sand into a pearl by saying, “It’s just a story.” Lewis didn’t actually mean to suggest there might be a second chance after death; he was merely seeking to demonstrate that wherever we wind up after we die, our destination will ultimately be a result of the choices we make here on earth. In fact, the road to heaven or hell doesn’t begin at death; it begins right now.

Lewis sums up this view in an oft-quoted line from the book:

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.

I call this the “C. S. Lewis defense” of the traditional Western doctrine of hell. In a sense, hell is simply a ratification of the human will. In the end, God gives all of us what we want. He’s not going to override our will simply to get what he wants. He loves and respects us too much.

The Great Divorce it is not an allegory for universalism. Some of the characters that come from the grey town do decide to stay in heaven, but many others reject it for various reasons. They have the option to travel back to the grey town. In the grey town there are rumors of impending darkness. No one is quite sure what will happen when darkness finally falls, but it is implied that at that point judgment will be brutal and final.

In fact, according to Lewis himself, The Great Divorce is “just a story.” On page 131 of the book, Lewis explicitly wrote that the book was an allegory, never intended to be taken literally. In fact, if most universalists bothered to read the introduction Lewis wrote to the book, they would see the message of the allegory was not that hell is locked from the inside, but that heaven and hell cannot mix, any more than oil and water.

If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.

~C.S. Lewis

Some characters were allowed to stay, but they had to acclimatize themselves to the new heavenly environment, and they had to give up the least scintilla of sin. The characters who went back to the grey town were unable to adapt to the new environment, and unwilling to sacrifice self and give up bitterness, liberal theology, and other sinful aspects of their lives.

Some universalists will, no doubt, object to this interpretation of the book. Some might even point out that one of the main characters of the book is George MacDonald, a Christocentric universalist, who Lewis considered his spiritual father. However, I am just presenting the interpretation of the allegory that C.S. Lewis actually gave. We also have other writings of C.S. Lewis that clearly demonstrate he was not a universalist.

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.

~C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Rather than being an allegory of universalism, The Great Divorce is actually an allegory of the “C.S. Lewis defense” of hell that Hellbound? criticizes.