Book review: “The Great Divorce” by C. S. Lewis

My parents came up to Washington to visit this past week. They REALLY wanted to see the grandkids, but I did sneak in an entire book in there too. Every night after the kids went to bed, we read a few chapters from C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. This is a re-read for me; I originally read it in high school (not assigned reading though!) after I got hooked on Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters (admittedly, assigned reading). It is a quick read, but I have come back to it again and again over the years. I quoted it in my post over at Northstar while reflecting on the painful and rocky journey I have had as a gay Mormon. I loved Lewis’s concept of a retroactive grace, the idea that even your worst experiences in life not only bring you to who you are today, but that you will view them as a part of your own heaven. Not just in a rose-tinted glasses kind of way, either:

That is what mortals misunderstand… They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory… And that is why… the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except Heaven”, and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.

The basic premise of The Great Divorce is that a few souls in Hell take a bus tour of Heaven. They have the option to stay too– but many choose to leave because it doesn’t fit their expectations. Lewis is clear this isn’t meant to accurately reflect what our entry to heaven will be like– he calls it a fantasy or dream more than anything else. But the doctrinal concepts really hit home.

I found myself drawn this time to a few passages in particular, the basic theme being, the gospel is a gospel of second chances– and third and fourth and fifth chances, an infinite number of chances. In Lewis’s conception, there is no one barring entry to heaven. You can even come to heaven and experience it. But you will not be comfortable there until you have shed every last souvenier from Hell. I believe in a merciful God, and growing up Mormon, we have many doctrines that clearly show His mercy. But there were some that didn’t fit quite right with me, at least in how they were taught. For instance, take the doctrine of the three kingdoms of glory. Every individual will inherit a kingdom of glory. But once you have been assigned a kingdom– celestial for those who fully accept the gospel, terrestrial for those who were good people but not quite right, and telestial for the baddies– you can’t move from one to another [1]. We perform baptisms and other ordinances for the dead, because we believe everyone will be given the chance to receive the gospel, even after this life. And yet we also put limits on how much change can actually occur after this life, citing 2 Nephi:

And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.

Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.

Lewis’s picture here largely agrees with Nephi’s description above. In fact, we encounter several “that same spirit”s, and they indeed struggle with the exact same problems they did on earth. But they are given the chance to change, however difficult it may be. In one example, we meet a woman who has a bad case of the grumbles. Nothing can satisfy her. Our narrator (and tourist from Hell) asks his spirit mentor why she is not allowed into heaven. After all, she isn’t a bad person. His mentor responds:

The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye’ll have had experiences… it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.

The other aspect that surprised me when I first read Lewis’s work was what he considered the “worst” sins, if you can classify them as such. In Lewis’s configuration, what makes a sin worse than another is how difficult it will be to give up to enter heaven. It doesn’t have to do with the amount of “punishment” associated with it that you can look up on a table of sins. Perhaps we don’t technically teach such an approach as Latter-Day Saints, but that’s how I internalized it when I read scriptures like the one in Alma that puts the three worst sins in order: (1) denying the Holy Ghost, (2) murder, and (3) adultery. At least as commonly taught [2]. Another soul had a struggle with sensuality. That’s all we learn, but the specifics are not important. To Lewis, it isn’t the act itself that is keeping this young man from heaven: it is the state of mind, putting something higher than God. In the end, it was easier for this young man to put aside his sensuality than it was for another character, a mother to give up her unhealthy version of love for her son:

But am I to tell them at home that this man’s sensuality proved less an obstacle than that poor woman’s love for her son? For that was, at any rate, an excess of love.

Ye’ll tell them no such thing. Excess of love, did ye say? There was no excess, there was defect. She loved her son too little, not too much. If she hadn’t loved him more there’d be no difficulty. I do not know how her affair will end. But it may well be that at this moment she’s demanding to have him down with her in Hell. That kind is sometimes perfectly ready to plunge the soul they say they love into endless misery if only they can still in some fashion possess it.

While Lewis’s picture paints a heaven that is open to all without arbitrary barriers or punishments, there is something that seems a little cold. The narrator struggles with it too. It is the fact that the miserable spirits from hell don’t get any sympathy or pity from those in heaven. Pardon the extended quote:

Lewis: And yet… even now I am not quite sure. Is it really tolerable that she should be untouched by his misery, even his self-made misery?

MacDonald: Would ye rather he still had the power of tormenting her? He did it many a day and many a year in their earthly life.

Lewis: Well, no. I suppose I don’t want that.

MacDonald: What then?

Lewis: I hardly know, Sir. What some people say on Earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved.

MacDonald: Ye see it does not.

Lewis: I feel in a way that it ought to.

MacDonald: That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it.

Lewis: What?

MacDonald: The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.

Lewis: I don’t know what I want, Sir.

MacDonald: Son, son, it must be one way or the other. Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it: or else for ever and ever the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves. I know it has a grand sound to say ye’ll accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside. But watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.

Lewis: But dare one say– it is horrible to say– that Pity must ever die?

MacDonald: Ye must distinguish. The action of Pity will live for ever: but the passion of Pity will not. The passion of Pity, the Pity we merely suffer, the ache that draws men to concede what should not be conceded to flatter when they should speak truth, the pity that has cheated many a woman out of her virginity and many statesman out of his honesty– that will die. It was used as a weapon by bad men against good ones: their weapon will be broken.

Lewis: And what is the other kind– the action?

MacDonald: It’s a weapon from the other side. It leaps quicker than light from the highest place to the lowest to bring healing and joy, whatever the cost to itself. It changes darkness into light and evil into good. But it will not, at the cunning tears of Hell, impose on good the tyranny of evil.

My dad noticed this too when we read it. He commented that while he agrees that the wicked can’t hold heaven hostage, God suffers when we suffer. I think this is a fairly unique doctrine in Christianity. Mormon scholar Terryl Givens elaborated on it in The God Who Weeps, basing his analysis around Moses 7:28:

And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon teh residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as rain upon the mountains?

Lewis’s heaven always seems grand, beyond understanding. I don’t know how he would interpret Enoch’s interactions with God if he had the chance to read it. I agree that the wicked can’t “blackmail” heaven. I felt a sense of relief for the woman Lewis describes here, that she was finally free of the misery her husband put her through on earth. It felt like emotional manipulation. But Mormons don’t believe that all passions will be washed away, and that God feels sorrow knowing that agency can result in those who choose to hurt others.

[1] At least according to Bruce R. McConkie’s “Seven Deadly Heresies.” James E. Talmage taught that there was potentially the opportunity to move from one kingdom to another. Today, Elder Oaks provides some possibility of progression after this life, but that it is limited.

[2] Not necessarily the only source, but I like this interpretation that Corianton’s sin was the fact he violated his ministry, and that he was supporting unjust systems.

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