Book Review–The Great Divorce

April 20th, 2012 § 0

One of my favorite theological concepts to study is eschatology.  Eschatology, or the study of “last things,” centers around what we as Christians believe will happen at the end of time, what happens to our souls and bodies after death, and what the afterlife might look like.  While the questions that eschatology asks may seem nothing more than esoteric speculations for the future, I am fully convinced that our beliefs about eschatology deeply impact how we live our lives.  As Karl Barth writes in Dogmatics in Outline eschatology is the most practical of theologies:

The Christian hope does not lead us away from this life: it is rather the uncovering of the truth in which God sees our life.  It is the conquest of death, but not a flight into the Beyond.  The reality of this life is involved.  Eschatology, rightly understood, is the most practical thing that can be thought.  In the eschaton the light falls from above into our life.  We await this light.

Gustavo Gutierrez makes an even more bold claim in Theology of Liberation

One idea, however, has emerged: the Bible presents eschatology as the driving force of salvific history radically oriented toward the future.  Eschatology is thus not just one more element of Christianity, but the very key to understanding  the Christian faith.

If eschatology really is the key to understanding faith and involves the reality of this life then what is it that we believe? C. S. Lewis wrote many other fantasy stories beside the Narnia Chronicles, one of which, The Great Divorce, speaks to deeply eschatological questions.  The Last Battle, from the Narnia Chronicles looks at eschatological themes in a different setting than The Great Divorce.    Lewis in his The Great Divorce 1945 preface pleads:

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 my actually await us.  The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world

Thus The Great Divorce is not a prescription of what the eschaton will look like, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins should have taken a note from Lewis here.  Rather the eschatology in The Great Divorce is a theological idea of how the afterlife could be ordered.

Hell, known as grey town, is of course  grey, always in twilight and perpetually raining.  The people are quarrelsome, eager to fight and selfish.  Life is endless, anything wished for is granted at a low quality and there is nothing for the quarrelsome people to do but dwell on their own selfish obsessions.  There is no beauty or nature in grey town only street after street of grey abandoned houses stretching to infinity.  The Unnamed Protagonist feels drawn to a line, or queue, for a flying bus with the destination of heaven.

The bus lands in a grassy valley with a river, trees, animals (birds, lions and unicorns) distant mountains and perhaps most important the light of dawn.  The land is strange, it feels bigger to the Unnamed Protagonist than any other place and has a curious effect on the other passengers

At first, of course, my attention was caught by my fellow-passengers, who were still grouped about in the neighbourhood of the omnibus, though beginning, some of them, to walk forward into the landscape with hesitating steps.  I gasped when I saw them.  Now that they were in the light, they were transparent–fully transparent when they stood between me and it, smudgy and imperfectly opaque when they stood in the shadow of some tree.  They were in fact ghosts: man[and woman]-shaped stains on the brightness of that air.

The passengers have no effect on the landscape, they cannot crush a blade of grass or pluck a daisy.  On further inspection it seems that the landscape is more solid and more real than anything in grey town, leaving the passengers unable to fully interact with it.  Not long after the landing of the bus people made of light come to visit the ghost passengers.  These solid people of light can change the landscape, can scatter dew and crush grass with their feet or if they please pluck a daisy.  Soon it becomes clear that the Solid/Bright People are known by the ghosts before death.  The Solid/Bright People have come to ask for forgiveness and to act as servants and guides if their ghost wish to journey with their unsolid bodies up the mountains.  The Bright People are asking

Will you come with me to the mountains?  It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened.  Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows.  But will you come?

Many of the ghost/bus passengers answer their Solid/Bright People with an emphatic NO!  and instead return to the bus and grey town.  Their reasons are all different, but ultimately all selfish.  As one Solid/Bright Person explains:

There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery.  There is always something they prefer to joy–that is, to reality.

Finally the  Unnamed Protagonist finds a Solid/Bright One to ask questions of.

“But I don’t understand.  Is judgement not final?  Is there really a way out of Hell into Heaven?”

“It depends on the way ye’re using the words.  If they leave that grey town behind it will not have been Hell.  To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory.  And perhaps ye had better not call this country Heaven.  Not Deep Heaven, ye understand. (Here he smiled at me.) “ye can call it the Valley of the Shadow of Life.  and yet to those who stay here it will have been Heaven from the first.  And ye can call those sad streets in the town yonder the Valley of the Shadow of Death: but to those who remain there they will have been Hell even from the beginning….”

“But what of the poor Ghost who never get into the omnibus at all?

“Everyone who wishes it does.  Never fear.  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.  To those who knock it is opened.”

If our view of the end helps to shape how we live our lives now what is it that C.S. Lewis is asking of us today?  Surprisingly nothing particularly harsh or severe, but simply to desire joy, to let go of our selfishness, and to allow the will of God,who Lord is over Heaven, Earth and Hell, to be done in our lives.

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