The Great Divorce
And of that second kingdom will I sing
Wherein the human spirit doth purge itself
And to ascend to heaven becometh worthy
Dante, The Divine Comedy
The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis is a fictionalized journey to heaven “in the similitude of a dream.” 1 The author’s journey begins in the grey town; a city perpetually in twilight, where the populace is spread over millions of miles and getting further apart every minute. The author joins a group of people on a holiday excursion of the damned. 2 They ride a bus to heaven where each ghost is met by a Saint who has been sent back on their journey to bliss to give one last chance to the ghost in their charge to relinquish whatever keeps them in the grey city. This book raises question about Lewis’ theology of heaven, hell, and purgatory. 3 The subjects to be addressed are: does Lewis believe in unforgivable sin; does the doctrine of purgatory make an appearance; and does Lewis appear to believe in universal salvation.
Does Lewis believe in unforgivable sin? The Great Divorce shows a variety of types of sins. Some of the ghosts were guilty of “minor” sins; a propensity to complain, the desire to be attractive, or of putting too much stock into another human. Some clung to “moderate” sins; self pity, cruelty, and seeking intelligence instead of Truth. There are the Catholic “deadly” sins; pride, lust and greed. Damnation is not based on the severity of the sin: one of the saints had been a murderer. Redemption depends on what the ghost does when given a chance to relinquish its hold on whatever caused its banishment to the grey town. All sins are forgivable. Small sins are just as damning as great ones. The murderer was a Saint because he had thrown himself on the “Bleeding Charity” and was shown mercy. The man he was sent to save was a ghost on holiday, determined to only have his rights. He though himself a decent man, and only wanted his just deserts. God wanted to give him better than that, but the ghost wouldn’t accept anything not based on his own merits.
The ghost with the lizard on his shoulder presents the opposite circumstance. He had a certain level of self-awareness the first ghost had not; he recognized his sin and felt shame. He had tried, with all of his feeble power, to subdue the sin he couldn’t relinquish. It was still beyond his power to fully conquer that sin, and he knew that it could not accompany him to heaven. On the point of turning back to the grey country, where he and his lizard would both belong, he finally gave the lizard over to someone more powerful than himself. He gave permission for the lizard to be killed, and in turn he was transformed into a Saint. His sin also became its true self, not a hindrance, but a helpmate that sped his journey to the mountains. All sins can be redeemed only if they are given over to God to do what he wills with them.
Is Lewis’ view of Heaven in The Great Divorce similar to purgatory? Purgatory, according to Catholic Doctrine, is an in-between world for those that die in a state of grace to undergo purification in order to achieve the holiness necessary to enter heaven.” There is no true purgatory in The Great Divorce, only heaven and the grey town. The grey town is not purgatory because the people there are trapped outside of the state of grace: they cling to something other than God. It is not limbo – an unofficial doctrine of a place where the unredeemed good go to wait for Christ to redeem them. It is perhaps closest to what the Greek myths called Hades, and the Hebrews, Sheol. Hades is the gloomy abode of the dead, where almost all mortals go. When the belief of judgment after death became part of Greek thought, Hades became the destination of those who were not particularly good or bad. The grey city cannot be purgatory because the inhabitants of there are not redeemed. The suffering they undergo is of their own making and not intended for purification, which is the sole purpose of purgatory. George MacDonald tells Lewis of the grey town, “If they leave that… behind it will not have been Hell…it is Purgatory.” 4 So the grey area is not purgatory, it is hell. It may only be called purgatory in the past tense, by those that managed to escape. 5
Lewis does not appear to believe in Universal salvation; that all people will eventually find salvation and reconciliation with God. Lewis clearly expresses the opposite. The majority of those in the grey town never seek to leave it. Most of those who take the bus to heaven go back again because they cannot meet the demands placed on them; Some get back on the bus because Heaven is too foreign or not what they expected; Some are sent back to the grey town when, after being given their last chance for redemption, they refuse it, and disappear forever. In The Great Divorce, there is only limited neutrality. Once the sun rises, the boundary between Heaven and Hell will solidify. There will be no more transit from the grey town. “Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it.”6 When the morning comes, time will end. Though every soul has been and will be given a chance to accept God or deny him – Christ descended into hell for that very reason – the gift of free will means that each person will have their own way in the end. If a person hasn’t prayed “thy will be done” and meant it, they will not be reconciled.
The Great Divorce is one of my favorite Lewis books because it presents him at his best: able to bring difficult doctrine down to a layperson’s level. It is not an easy book, but the theme that runs through it reminds me of how I fall short. It is easy to substitute religion for a relationship with God and presume that I am doing alright. I can faithfully go through the motions my whole life, but in the end that won’t matter because nothing I do will earn my way into heaven. My first full sentence as a child was, “I can do it myself,” and as far as I am able I still depend on myself more than others. But reading The Great Divorce reminds me that relying on my-self is the thing that gets in the way of my relationship with God. I go to him only as a last resort, preferring to handle things as long as I am able. But this book holds up the mirror mentioned in James and reminds me for a while that I must want God more than my own dependability. I have to be willing to seek help instead of relying on my own strength. I am similar in character to the ghost that wanted only those rewards he’d earned. By trying to win my way to heaven, I am essentially saying that I want the rewards of the afterlife without actually having to go through God to get them. Lewis reminds me that “…[God] will not be used as a convenience.”7 I often shy away from God, preferring to substitute charity and religion, theology and service; it’s easier to commit to tasks than a relationship. I want to get into God’s kingdom, but I want to have as little to do with him as possible. The Great Divorce reminds me again to “ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.” 8
1 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1987), 2.
2 C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Harper Collins, 1973), 67.
3 It would be useful to differentiate between Lewis’ personal theology and the fictional afterlife presented in The Great Divorce. First, in The Great Divorce there are no sins which are not capable of being forgiven. Lewis, in his other writings, discussed the one “unforgivable sin” – blaspheming the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29, New International Version). Secondly, though what exactly is supposed to represent purgatory is not clearly defined, Lewis himself strongly believed in purgatory. In Letters to Malcolm he says, “the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed…the process of purification will normally involve suffering.” (pp. 109) Last, even though George MacDonald – one of the most renowned advocates of universal salvation - is Lewis’ spiritual mentor, both in life and in The Great Divorce, Lewis did not share that belief. He does, however, extend the possibility that those outside the faith may still be saved. In Romans, the apostle Paul states that those outside the law who still live according to it are an exception. (Romans 2:24-16, New International Version) Lewis’ fictionalization of this passage is in The Last Battle In the chapter ‘Further Up and Further In’ of The Last Battle, p.165; A young Calormene officer is admitted into the new Narnia, though he’d been a servant of Tash all his life. Aslan tells him, “all the service [you have] done to Tash, I account as service done to me…unless [your] desire had been for me, you [would not] have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”) Though it is clear what Lewis himself believes, The Great Divorce is not strictly his particular view of the afterlife. He allows multiple doctrines, both Catholic and Protestant, and does not limit this writing strictly to his own beliefs.
4 Lewis, The Great Divorce, 68.
5 An alternative to the grey city for purgatory would be the difficult journey through the mountains to “Deep Heaven.” I would argue that Lewis meant this journey in a different capacity. In his Letters to Malcolm, Chapter XX, p.108-9, Lewis speaks of purgatory as a process of purification that “will normally involve suffering.” This process is done at the instigation of the saved soul that “at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed.” He clearly contrasts this with process once in heaven of the “perpetual increase of beatitude, reached by a continually more ecstatic self-surrender, without the possibility of failure, but not perhaps without its own ardors and exertions.” In The Great Divorce the Saints promise, “It will be joy going to the mountains, but there will be plenty of work.” This is not a suffering, but the becoming of their true self. Both processes involve toil, but the first is made of suffering, and the second of joy.
6 Lewis, The Great Divorce,140.
7 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1942), 127.
8 Lewis, The Great Divorce, 28.