Theological works on Heaven and Hell have been varied and many. From Dante’s Divine Comedy to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, many of these great works have enveloped our fears about Hell, and our ideas of Heaven, with differing thematic emphases. Amazingly, Lewis does the same thing with The Great Divorce, with barely more than 100 pages.
The Great Divorce is a theological fiction story, following Lewis speaking in the first person as he takes a bus from Hell to Heaven – sort of. The bulk of the book actually takes place in a sort of “in between” plane, on the fields leading up to Heaven’s gates, if you will, and is largely encompassed by stories of the spirits of men and women conversing with the saints, or interacting with angels, which provides a ground in which to discuss theology, Christianity, and morality.
Not unlike the aforementioned classic works when it comes to theology, Christianity, and the afterlife, there are elements of the story that are theologically suspect, although perspectives on this may depend on your theological background. For evangelicals, and possibly protestants more generally, the existence of purgatory in the story (and how purgatory and Hell end up related, especially) constitutes a problematic framework in which to talk about God and Heaven. Lewis was an Anglican, and most Anglican doctrines would affirm the existence of purgatory, similar to that of Roman Catholicism.
However, speaking as someone who holds many evangelical views, I think this is a minor issue. In view of the story’s overall theological elements, it’s hardly an issue at all. Lewis’s point is not to lay out a specific picture of how the afterlife functions anymore than Dante intended to lay out what was objectively true about the structure of Hell in circles. As he notes in his introduction, this is a fiction book.
There is an element of that backdrop that gives me pause, however. Lewis describes Hell, the beginning of the book, as an esoteric sort of city, where certain more notable people in Hell are years of travel apart from others, and where a variety of vices (some implicitly rather than explicitly) are expressed more or less without inhibition. As such, it probably won’t strike the reader as being particularly similar to Jesus’s description of a place where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In fact, many a spirit some quite content to be there, rather unlike the apocalyptic lake of fire, and far indeed from the torturous descriptions of Dante.
So to start with, it is a flaw of the work that Hell does not seem like quite so terrible a place as Jesus is insistent that it is. But when it comes to these aforementioned conversations, the practical and everyday elements that Lewis infuses into this work are enough to shame every generation of supposed Christians since the days of Lewis himself. For example, one of these conversations takes place with a liberal theologian, who has envisioned God as being largely metaphorical and greatly enjoyed the intellectual pursuit of deconstructing traditional beliefs about God, in an almost postmodern sort of way. He says, to his friend from life who is now a saved saint, that he held these beliefs sincerely, and so he must be accepted. The saint, on the other hand, points out that this was done largely due to ulterior motives, and rejecting any semblance of seeking after faith, and continually going down a path that appealed more to their fancy and the academic leanings of the day that it did to actual truth. As such, he proclaims that such a belief, though sincere, is “hardly innocent.”
Similar thought-provoking conversations take place throughout the book. Ones involving a man drowning in self-pity, a controlling wife, and a lust-ridden man, among others. But the thing that I find most remarkable throughout the book, which is a common theme in Lewis’s more theological works, is that what we often take to be the less obvious sins, or the sins we really only noticing when reading of them passively in scripture, are often more serious vices than those which we commonly dub the “baser evils.”
An example of this from another of Lewis’s works is the Screwtape Letters, in which one of the demons proclaims proudly that they have so desensitized Christians to gluttony that it is hardly considered a sin anymore. The same idea reverberates in this work, wherein one of the saints says to Lewis’s first person character, speaking of motherly love on Earth, “there’s also something in it which makes it easier to stop at the natural level and mistake it for the heavenly . . . and if it finally refuses conversion its corruption will be worse than the corruption of what ye call the lower passions. It is a stronger angel, and therefore, when it falls, a fiercer devil.”
In short, The Great Divorce is practically a more thought-provoking book even than The Screwtape Letters. In its best moments, it explains to us how even the most virtuous of things, when God is removed from the picture, actually become vices. That’s something far too few Christians talk about anymore, and something that could greatly use to re-enter the realm of theological discussion.
Consensus: 9/10. Brief and readable, The Great Divorce is Lewis at his best – practical, engaging, and challenging for the Christian in the ways that matter.