Revisiting The Great Divorce

 

It’s been at least ten years since I last read The Great Divorce. So I picked it up again last week.

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis entertained possibilities that most evangelicals would deem heretical — if anyone other than Lewis had suggested them, that is.

He imagines hell as something other than a place of fiery torment. He imagines the damned are offered periodic excursions to heaven, complete with opportunities to repent and be rescued from hell.

To be fair, Lewis seems to have set his fantasy — and he calls it a “fantasy” in the preface — at some point prior to the final judgment of Revelation 20. And he hints (possibly) that when THAT particular curtain drops, the outcome will be sealed for good.

For example, early in the book, one of the passengers on the bus ride to heaven reveals that the present dimness in hell is to soon be replaced by something far more sinister:

“It will be dark presently,” he mouthed.

“You mean the evening is really going to turn into a night in the end?”

He nodded.

Some might argue that Lewis wasn’t actually suggesting a possibility of reprieve for those in hell. They might point to the disclaimer in his preface to The Great Divorce:

The transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.

But Lewis seems to be referring to his depictions of heaven and hell. There’s no reason to believe he was anything less than serious in exploring the possibility of a second chance after death.

So what did Lewis propose?

For starters, he embraced the possibility of escape from hell — at least up to a point:

If [the damned] leave that grey town behind it will not have been Hell. To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory…but to those who remain there [it] will have been Hell even from the beginning.

Second, Lewis took at face value the controversial passage in 1 Peter which says that Christ “made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits.” Lewis includes the following exchange between the narrator and his heavenly guide (who happens to be George MacDonald…more on that later):

MacDonald: “Only the greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell… Only One has descended into Hell.

Narrator: “And will He ever do so again?”

MacDonald: “It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way when once ye have left the Earth. All the moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.

Narrator: “And some hear him?”

MacDonald: “Aye.”

Third, Lewis turns to the question of universalism near the very end of The Great Divorce… and refuses to give a categorical answer:

Ye can know nothing of the end of all things… It may be, as the Lord said to [Julian of Norwich], that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well…

If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it.

But…if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be…then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears.

Which sounds an awful lot like something Rob Bell says in Love Wins. In fact, the only biggest thing separating the two writers’ viewpoints here is their degree of optimism. Rob strikes a relatively hopeful note, suggesting a real possibility that “all will be well” for everyone in the end. Lewis sounds less hopeful by comparison, quoting John Milton at one point:

The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” There is always something [the damned] insist on keeping even at the price of misery…

But for me, the most interesting thing is Lewis’ choice of George MacDonald as the heavenly guide in The Great Divorce. MacDonald had a profound influence on Lewis, not to mention J.R.R. Tolkein, Madeleine L’Engle, and a host of other writers.

MacDonald was also a hopeful universalist — one who accepted that some might reject God to the last but was far more hopeful that God would eventually melt every heart. He rejected the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, which John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and others in the Neo-Reformed camp have made into a nonnegotiable tenant of orthodoxy.

In other words, the theology of C.S. Lewis’ heavenly guide bears a striking resemblance to that of a certain book called Love Wins.

So…who wants to label George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis heretics? Any takers?

 

It’s been at least ten years since I last read The Great Divorce. So I picked it up again last week.

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis entertained possibilities most evangelicals would deem heretical — if anyone other than Lewis had suggested them.

He imagines hell as something other than a place of fiery torment. He imagines the damned are offered periodic excursions to heaven, complete with opportunities to repent and be rescued from hell.

To be fair, Lewis seems to have set his fantasy — and he calls it a “fantasy” in the preface — at some point prior to the final judgment of Revelation 20. And he hints that when this particular curtain drops, the outcome will be sealed for good.

For example, early in the book, one of the passengers on the bus ride to heaven reveals that the present dimness in hell is to soon be replaced by something more sinister:

“It will be dark presently,” he mouthed.

“You mean the evening is really going to turn into a night in the end?”

He nodded.

Some might argue that Lewis wasn’t actually suggesting a possibility of reprieve for those in hell. They might point to the disclaimer in his preface to The Great Divorce:

The transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.

But Lewis seems to be referring to his descriptions of hell and heaven — one as a rather sprawling, derelict town (think Milton Keynes or some of the older housing projects of Chicago) and the other as a wild, rugged country where everything is even more real and more solid than on earth. There’s no reason to believe that Lewis was less than serious in his exploration of a second chance after death.

So what did Lewis propose?

For starters, he embraced the possibility of escape from hell—at least up to a point:

If [the damned] leave that grey town behind it will not have been Hell. To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory…but to those who remain there they will have been Hell even from the beginning.

Second, Lewis took at face value the controversial passage in 1 Peter, which says that Christ “make proclamation to the imprisoned spirits.” Lewis includes this exchange between the narrator and his heavenly guide (who just so happens to be George MacDonald…more on that later):

MacDonald: “Only the greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell… Only One has descended into Hell.

Narrator: “And will He ever do so again?”

MacDonald: “It was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way when once ye have left the Earth. All the moments that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to Whom He did not preach.”

Narrator: “And some hear him?”

MacDonald: “Aye.”

Third, Lewis turns to the question of universalism near the very end of The Great Divorce… and refuses to give a categorical answer:

Ye can know nothing of the end of all things… It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well…

If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it.

But…if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be…then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal years.

Which sounds an awful lot like what Rob Bell suggests in Love Wins. The only thing that seems to separate the two is the degree of optimism. Rob sounds a relatively optimistic tone, expressing the hope that “all will be well” for everyone in the end. Lewis seems less hopeful, quoting John Milton:

The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” There is always something [the damned] insist on keeping even at the price of misery… 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.

But for me, the most interesting thing is Lewis’ choice of George MacDonald as the narrator’s heavenly guide in The Great Divorce. MacDonald had a profound influence on Lewis, not to mention J.R.R. Tolkein, Madeleine L’Engle and a host of other writers.

MacDonald was also a hopeful universalist — one who accepted the possibility that some might reject God to the end but was far more hopeful that God would melt every heard in the end. He rejected the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, which John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and others in the Neo-Reformed camp have made into a nonnegotiable tenant of orthodoxy.

In other words, the theology of C.S. Lewis’ guide to heaven bears a striking resemblance to the theology of a certain book called Love Wins.

So…who wants to label George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis heretics? Any takers?

 

9 thoughts on “Revisiting The Great Divorce

  1. Just curious if you’ve read much of George MacDonald’s works…?

    I a big MacDonald fan. In relation to whether or not he should be labeled a heretic; some of the greatest men of faith in the history of the church were heretics. According to the pharisees, Jesus himself was one. So perhaps it’s a good thing to carry that label!? 😉

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  2. Oh… and regarding MacDonald’s hopeful universalism:

    “But with this divine difference: that the outer darkness is but the most dreadful form of the consuming fire–the fire without light–the darkness visible, the black flame. God hath withdrawn himself, but not lost his hold. His face is turned away, but his hand is laid upon him still. His heart has ceased to beat into the man’s heart, but he keeps him alive by his fire. And that fire will go searching and burning on in him, as in the highest saint who is not yet pure as he is pure.

    But at length, O God, wilt thou not cast Death and Hell into the lake of Fire–even into thine own consuming self? Death shall then die everlastingly,

    And Hell itself will pass away,
    And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.

    Then indeed wilt thou be all in all. For then our poor brothers and sisters, every one–O God, we trust in thee, the Consuming Fire–shall have been burnt clean and brought home. For if their moans, myriads of ages away, would turn heaven for us into hell–shall a man be more merciful than God? Shall, of all his glories, his mercy alone not be infinite? Shall a brother love a brother more than The Father loves a son?–more than The Brother Christ loves his brother? Would he not die yet again to save one brother more?”
    -George MacDonald in The Unspoken Sermons: The Consuming Fire

    Sounds pretty hopeful to me…

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    • Hi Aaron, I’m not as familiar w/MacDonald as I’d like to be…though he may be next on my reading list.

      I’m not fully persuaded by the “hopeful universalist” perspective, but there’s enough mystery and ambiguity in the Bible that I think we should hold our opinions with humility, express them with caution, and leave room for God to operate as he sees fit.

      And that’s what bothers me about so much of the discussion surrounding Love Wins. It’s more about shutting down conversation – and being way more presumptuous about the fate of others than Scripture allows us to be.

      In any case, I hope (and I think we all should) that the Rob Bells and George MacDonalds of the world are right. At least if we take 1 Timothy 2:4 seriously, that is…

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  3. Ben,

    Yes, I am saddened when the conversation gets “shut down” as you put it.

    When I learned of Bell’s book, and then read it myself, I was rejoicing in the fact that the conversation may actually happen many places where it couldn’t before. Let’s hope this happens – for the good of all who wish to pursue truth in humility.

    I am a convinced believer in universal reconciliation. I believe that God has the desire and the power to save all men through His Son.

    This came by way of a 2 year journey of questions and objections that fell apart through study of the scriptures.

    I’m still on my journey though… 🙂

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  4. In preparing for a discussion of Bell’s book, I thought I had best read TGD again as for me, too, it has been some years. Also, I have in the last few years become more influenced by reformed theology than I had been as a younger man.

    One of the things I find striking is that both “Universalism” and “Limited atonement” are outcomes derived from the same point – that being the sovereign nature of God. That, at the end of all things, we will see that in all things, God’s will has triumphed. Either God saves all, or He did not intend to.

    I feel about Lewis much the way he felt about MacDonald. Although he was decidedly not “reformed” in his theology, I wonder very much if he would not have thought the question impertinent; that the difference is not one we can understand from our point of view, and it assumes an understanding of divinity that we cannot possess, as in Deuteronomy 29:29 –“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

    Lewis’ take would, I believe, be that the point where theology intersects my decision, now, this moment, is the point at which it concerns me. In TGD, that is what interested him, and is the nature of the book. Every other speculation that is brought up is brushed off, but the need for choice now is always pressed.
    There is a considerable difference of emphasis between the Lewis and Bell.

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  5. Pingback: Everyone else is doing a top 10 list, so… « Ben Irwin's blog

  6. I’m willing to call both Bell and Lewis heretics. Amazingly, many who follow Christ, hold up Lewis as some great Christian author. Let’s earnestly contend for the faith!

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