Hell is a state of mind – Ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains. – C. S. Lewis ‘The Great Divorce’
We make a choice. Every day we make a choice between living in Heaven (or as Jesus put it – ‘The Kingdom of Heaven’) and Hell. I’ve begun to realise this more and more recently. There have been a number of problems, some small, some a bit bigger, coming my way. Every time it seems I could consider myself ‘hard done by’ or that life is unfair. Or I can take a deep breath, relax and thank God for the blessings I have. Generally, of course, I do both. I’m very far from saintly so I often have to go through the ‘Its unfair’ stage before seeing things in the proper light.
In ‘The Great Divorce’ C. S. Lewis illustrates this conflict in two ways: The first is by making the physical substance of Heaven very different from Hell. The second is by a series of conversations in which visitors from Hell talk to the inhabitants of Heaven. I like the way that Lewis mixes the social, spiritual and physical. The visitors arrive from Hell on a flying bus. They are an odd, argumentative crowd, all except our hero, Jack, who seems fairly normal. When they arrive in Heaven they find themselves in a world which looks like a beautiful natural landscape but everything is as hard and strong as diamonds. Even walking on the grass in this world is painful. They themselves are ghostly phantoms, almost without substance.
A word of warning here. Lewis says in his introduction:
I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course – or I intended it to have – a moral. But… the last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.
Yet there is an underlying truth in this strange, hard world. There are a number of clues in the Gospels that suggest the substance of Heaven is not the same as that of Earth. After his death Jesus appears to his friends:
Eight days later, his disciples were again in the room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came through the locked doors, stood among them, and said, “Peace to you.”
Then he focused his attention on Thomas. “Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don’t be unbelieving, believe.” – John 20: 26-27 (Message translation)
Jesus is the same yet clearly different. He can go through locked doors. He can do normal things while still having the mortal wounds inflicted on him during his crucifixion. Many Christians (including myself) experience the physical world in unexpected ways. This can be an awareness of the presence and power of the Holy spirit but it can also mean seeing and hearing things that come from God and are not simply ‘natural’. This is often glossed over in the Church in the UK but it seems important to acknowledge and celebrate this. We are physical creatures. If the Kingdom of Heaven is only an idea in our mind it will never truly be real.
But the main part of the book is a series of conversations. I certainly can’t do justice to all of them in this blog post but I’d like to look at a few of them:
Jack, as he is walking around this diamond hard country, comes across a man with a ‘hard-bitten’ look leaning against the tree and smoking a cigar. He is one of those people, and we have all met them, who know that everything is run by a sort of faceless management and it is their job to sort things out. He is considering whether to stay in Heaven or go back on the bus back to Hell.
‘What would you like to do if you had your choice?’ I asked.
‘There you go!’ Said the Ghost with a certain triumph.’Asking me to make a plan. It’s up to the Management to find something that doesn’t bore us, isn’t it? It’s their job. Why should we do it for them? That’s just where the parsons and moralists have got the thing upside down. They keep asking us to alter ourselves. But if the people who run the show are so clever and powerful, why don’t they find something to suit their public. All this poppycock about growing harder so that the grass doesn’t hurt our feet.’
(In the story the ghosts are assured that as they continue in the heavenly country and think less of themselves they will harden and solidify.)
The hard-bitten ghost has a very modern counterpart. The sort of person who believes that everything is someone else’s fault. Usually a sort of faceless ‘Them’. So their lives are spent in a sort of disdainful superiority where they feel that, if only they were listened to, if only the people in charge would do what they say then everything would be fine. But this assumes that there is ‘someone in charge’ and, if there is, they are able to do what these people want.
I watched a TV program recently where the leader of one of our political parties was answering questions from an audience in their teens and twenties. The party leader kept his composure remarkably well throughout as the teenagers kept on saying that there ‘was no one like them in Parliament’ and they were not going to vote as ‘they were not represented’. Finally, a very articulate young woman of 15 or 16, put this point and the party leader turned to her and said ‘Why don’t you go into politics? Then there would be someone just like you in power?’. She was a bit taken aback. It hadn’t occurred to her that she should actually do something herself. I hope she does.
Jack overhears another conversation between one of the bright people and a ghost. The ghost is a mother who had lost her son. Her only concern, her only thought, is to see him again, to ‘have’ him. She asks the bright person: ‘When am I going to be allowed to see him?’ But he explains:
‘There is no question of being allowed, Pam. As soon as it is possible for him to see you, of course he will. You need to be thickened up a bit.’
‘How?’ said the Ghost. The monosyllable was hard and a little threatening.
‘I’m afraid the first step is a hard one,’ said the Spirit. ‘But after that you’ll go on like a house on fire. You will become solid enough for Michael to perceive you when you learn to want Someone Else beside Michael. I don’t say “more than Michael”, not as a beginning. That will come later. It’s only a little germ of a desire for God that we need to start the process’
Of course, Pam is not convinced. But it does make sense. Without God it is easy to make idols of the people we love. We try to make them fit the empty place in ourselves that only God can fit, demand more than any human being can give. Being a mother is hard and confusing and it is easy to think that we should get something back from those we gave so much to. But that is not the way it works. I have found that my faith in God has allowed me to let go of my children as they have grown up and still love them. A gift indeed. As Lewis says:
‘Pam, Pam – no natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods’
The final conversation I want to look at in this post is that of a ‘liberal’ bishop who has cast off even the doctrine of the Resurrection in his search for ‘honesty’. In his biography of C.S. Lewis Alister McGrath identifies this as a ‘Cultural stereotype of his day’. I agree. ‘The Great Divorce’ was written during the 2nd World War and published in 1946. I don’t think you would find any clergy in today’s church who do not believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet there are plenty of people (and I know a few of them) who have reasoned themselves out of faith altogether. Indeed I did this myself in my teens. It took me more than 20 years to find my way back.
The conversation is between two colleagues in the Church. It goes on for a number of pages because the ghost visitor from Hell keeps on trying to evade the point and change the subject. Finally, Dick, the Bright person, asks:
‘Do you really think there are no sins of intellect?’
The ghost asserts that he was honest and ‘brave’ to follow his ‘Critical faculties’ to their obvious conclusion, even though they only brought him fame and promotion. Dick continues:
Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At College, you know, we just started automatically writing the kind of things that won applause. When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur? when did we put up one moment’s real resistance to the loss of our faith?’
‘If this is meant to be a sketch of the genesis of liberal theology in general, I reply that it is a mere libel. Do you suggest that men like…’
‘I have nothing to do with any generality. Nor with any man but you and me. Oh, as you love your soul, remember. You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn’t want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude Salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid(above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes.
The truth is, there are two ways faith in God can start. For a few lucky souls it starts with an experience of the supernatural so powerful and profound that they have no way of denying it. But for most of us it starts with learning something. Maybe hearing someone talk or reading the bible. And then we have to start to believe in the supernatural nature of God before we can experience it. Some of the most powerful experiences of God have been when I have ‘gone forward’ for prayer during a service. It is as though I need to take a step towards God before he will give me His Grace.
Dick, and the ghost he is talking to, started in the same place. They both started with being clever and modern, but ended up in very different places. There are still a lot of clever, modern people about. People who see religion as a ‘cultural construct’ or a ‘crutch’ for people who can’t cope with life. I don’t think it is impossible to be intelligent and a true Christian. I have listened to Oxford Professors who are passionate about their faith and truly believe in the supernatural power of God. But when that intelligence becomes an end in itself, that is where the danger lies.
This is already quite a long post but I want to end with a question: Is ‘The Great Divorce’ a book about what happens after we die or before? Well, as ever, Lewis himself answers this question:
This 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 into their past and contaminate the pleasure of 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, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except Heaven,” and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” and both will speak truly.
First I would like to recommend reading ‘The Great Divorce’ itself. It is not a long book (146 pages) and has so much depth that it will repay any effort.
If you are interested in C. S. Lewis’ life, Alister McGrath’s biography ‘C. S. Lewis, A Life’ is well worth reading.