C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, and Solid People

UnknownThis past weekend, my wife and I went to the theatrical performance of C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce in Dallas. It was wonderful, and if the play is coming to your city, I highly recommend you see it. As my wife described it, seeing the book acted out on stage helps one to feel what Lewis was communicating with words. In this post I want to highlight some of my favorite Lewisian insights from the book (and play).

First a brief account of the book. The narrator (who is Lewis himself), in a dream, boards a bus on a rainy afternoon and embarks on a journey through hell to heaven. The narrator meets a host of supernatural beings in heaven that engage in discussion with those visitors from hell, most of whom, through their own choices, prefer to reign in hell than to serve in heaven. These ghosts, these wisps of men proudly head back to the bus and await their return to hell.

Now, to some insightful passages:

  • Hell as isolation. Lewis describes hell as a drab and gray city with miles and miles of abandoned and boarded buildings. Why? Because people can’t get along with each other in hell so they continue to move further and further away. Napoleon, for example, lives on the outskirts of town, “about fifteen thousand years of our time “[1] away from the center and spends his days pacing back and forth in a huge house muttering to himself and assigning blame to everyone but himself for his failed life. It is a picture of loneliness, brokenness, ego, and misery.

 

  • Lewis’s tribute to George MacDonald. The narrator (Lewis) meets George MacDonald who serves as a guide and teacher. The choice of MacDonald might go unnoticed unless one is familiar with Lewis’s conversion story. In his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes how his reading of MacDonald’s Phantastes baptized his imagination, which prepared the way for his mind to assent to the truth of Christianity years later.

 

  • Disordered loves, Disordered lives. For those who choose to go back to hell, the teacher (MacDonald) explains to the narrator (Lewis): “There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy—that is, reality. Ye see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends.”[2] The disintegrated person is the disordered person who prefers the “fondling of unappeasable lust”[3] when joy is on offer.

 

  • Solid people. In heaven, everything is solid and thus painful to the visitors from hell. A blade of grass penetrates the feet. An apple is as heavy as a bowling ball. Water is solid even as it cascades down a river. The metaphor is one of wholeness and disintegration. Those in heaven are solid, real, human beings made whole by the Lord of heaven. Those in hell are miserable, disintegrated souls—ghosts who in living for self have lived for small things, shriveling up in the process.

 

  • Two kinds of lives. The love of God or the love of self. Life or death. There are only two kinds of lives 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.’[4]

 

Lewis bids us to consider our lives on this side of eternity. Are you small in your own eyes and living for something greater or are you great in your own eyes and living for small things? Do you seek joy or settle for unappeasable pleasures? Are you becoming more solid, paradoxically by following another or are you becoming less human, a ghost, as you pursue the agenda of self? Lewis puts the choice starkly before us all: enjoy the happiness that God gives in creaturely response or eternally starve.

P.S. If you are a SWBTS or SEBTS student, join me this summer as we study the apologetics of C. S. Lewis while in Oxford, England from July 6th-July 23th, 2015.

 

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[1] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (San Francisco: Harper San Franciso, 2001 edition), 11.

[2] Ibid., 71.

[3] Ibid., 72.

[4] Ibid., 75.

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