Book Review: The Great Divorce

In preparation for a sermon series on hell, I have a large pile of books to read through.  Some I skim, while others I read intently.  The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis is one of the books that I read thoroughly.

I love narrative theology.  It’s much more enjoyable to read.  And listen to. (Jesus may have been on to something with the whole story telling thing…)  Our world needs more stories.

But what I found most amazing about The Great Divorce was the way that it painted vivid pictures of heaven and hell in ways that are accessible for all readers.  Not in terms of vocabulary or plot, but in terms of acknowledging all the different approaches to afterlife.

You can read of second chances and no second chances in the same chapter.  Same with the ideas that everything is predestined or it’s all based on choice.  Hell as a place of conscious thoughts vs. not, as a place or torment vs. not, as a place you can leave vs. not, purgatory vs. not… it’s all there.  The genius of C.S. Lewis shines through everywhere.

There is so much going on in this book, but here are 3 thoughts that have stuck with me (both when I first read the book ten years ago, and again recently):

1)       His description of hell:

a.  Shades of reality.  It’s like our world, but worse. Grey, dreary, always raining, bland, heavy and half-alive are the adjectives I’d use to describe his hell.  You can have anything you want, but it will not satisfy.

b.  Alone.  You don’t like your neighbours?  Move.  You can do that.  You can move as far away as possible from anybody who bothers you.  And in the end, you can be the king of your castle, pacing back and forth, muttering to yourself about who annoys you and how you’re better than everybody else.

2)      His description of heaven:

a.  Shades of reality.  It’s like our world, but better.  Vivid, colourful, joyful, light, passionate, and fully alive are the adjectives I’d use to describe his heaven.  Everything is better than in our world, more real, but the kicker is that you don’t really care, because all your needs are satisfied.

b.  Community.  I found the spirits coming back for the ghosts to be quite comforting.  And it’s that exact community, (the people that drove us nuts here on Earth that are in heaven), that keep some of the ghosts from entering heaven.  But if only the ghosts would let go of their hang-ups, the hang-ups would cease to be hang-ups.  There’s something deep in that.

3)      His description of our present lives and how they intersect with heaven and hell.

“Son,’he said,’ ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say “Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why…the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven, : and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.”  (Chapter 9)


So, in the end, maybe our present lives are all about heaven and hell.

Or, maybe heaven and hell are all about our present lives.

Either way, C.S. Lewis has done something I have a hard time doing; writing about an issue where people who disagree think that the writing supports their own worldview.  I have much to learn.

Oh yeah.  And read the book.

Final Verdict:  5/5 stars.  A good read that’ll make you think and hopefully invite you to live a fully alive life.  (Plus it’s short.  Short books are good when you have small children, because it not only takes less time to read, but when they drop it on their toes, it doesn’t do any eternal (see what I did there?) damage.)


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