The Choice of Heaven or Hell in C.S. Lewis's "The Great Divorce."
In the month of November, we remembered especially the dead, praying for the souls of the faithful departed. At the same time, the readings at Mass directed our eyes toward our own deaths, and to the Second Coming.
That we will meet our own end someday is one of the few certainties in an uncertain life. Yet, what comes after that death is not always easy to imagine. We know, in faith, that we are destined either for heaven, eternal union with God and the fulfillment of all our hopes… or else eternal separation from God, which is hell.
Yet, while we know these things in faith, we may not always find it easy to picture what awaits us. This should not surprise us, for we walk by faith and not by sight. And yet, having been made as body and soul, we are also creatures of sense and imagination. St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote that most men live by sense rather than reason, and so sense and imagination can, and should, come to the aid of faith.
One of the writers who has done most to help us picture, at least in some small sense, heaven is the English writer C.S. Lewis. While, unfortunately, despite his great friendship with JRR Tolkein, Lewis could never bring himself to convert to Catholicism, his writings have still brought profit to many. In many places and, most especially in his book, The Great Divorce Lewis tries to give the modern reader an image of heaven. In The Great Divorce, Lewis imagines hell as a gray, dreary town. It is mostly unpopulated, for the people who live their cannot stand their neighbors and are continually moving further and further away from each other. One thinks of Jean Paul Sartre’s conclusion from his play No Exit: “My neighbor is hell.”
On the contrary, for heaven, he asks us to picture something, but not what we are used to imagining: a place that is neither ghostlike or dreamlike… Modern man often pictures souls in heaven as spirits floating on the clouds, yet for Lewis this is wrong. On the contrary, he asks us to imagine heaven as something being more solid and more real than even our life on earth. The grass, for instance, is so real and solid, it is painful for newly arrived souls to walk upon.
What is most insightful and valuable about The Great Divorce, is not any literal attempt to picture heaven and hell (the book should not be read that way), but an excellent look at the choices we make that, day by day through our lives, are directing us to one of those two fates: eternal salvation or eternal damnation.
In every case, one thing stands out among all: the preferring of our own wills to that will of God. C.S. Lewis refers in one particularly striking passage to a fable of Aesop’s, “The Dog in the Manger.” In that parable, several hungry oxen approach a manger loaded with hay. Yet, they find they cannot eat from it. In their way stands an angry, snarling dog who will not let the oxen approach. The dog in the manger cannot enjoy it himself, but neither will he permit the oxen to enjoy it.
Lewis’s point in The Great Divorce is that God will not let the dog in the manger be the tyrant of the universe. The temptation is for people to demand their own way and their own will, rather than the will of God. This is a temptation to demand happiness on one’s own terms. C.S. Lewis says this is precisely what cannot happen:
“To demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven…. I know it has a grand sound to say ye'll accept no salvation which leaves one creature in the dark outside. But watch the sophistry or ye'll make a Dog in the Manger the tyrant of the universe.”
One of the most important choices that we will make is that decision between our own will and God’s. There are only two types of people in the end, Lewis writes, those who say to God: my will be done or they will be done. God let us be the latter. In the next article, we’ll explore another aspect of these choices.
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