Tag Archives: Christ

‘The Great Divorce’ between Heaven and Hell – Looking at C. S. Lewis’ fantastic book.

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.

Reading Suggestions

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.

How did England lose its Faith?

To most people in this country the answer would be: Why not? We know better now than to believe all that superstitious nonsense. But I knew there had to be an answer. It just took a long time to find it.

It came to me at the beginning of the hot summer of 2011. I was called to do jury service and it was altogether an odd experience. I was warned that there would be quite a lot of waiting around so I brought a book to finish. The book was one of my favourites ‘The Varieties of Religious Experience’ by William James. So I sat on the bank of padded, but not too comfortable chairs and read. ‘What are you reading?’ The tall, thin man opposite asked. I showed him and explained it was about the way that people experience God. ‘Oh, I’m a born again Atheist’, He said, ‘God is just something you have constructed in your mind because you need an authority figure’.

Now it seems very interesting to me that someone can be so certain that something is not true. For instance, I rather like the idea of UFOs. I’m fairly sure they don’t exist but it seems intriguing  that so many people believe they do. This man (his name was Alex) had all the arguments and had obviously read ‘The God Delusion’ with attention. But what Alex, and Dawkins, never seem to take into account is that many people experience God in very direct ways. But I am getting off the point…

One major difference between doing Jury service and my normal existence was the amount of free time I had. During long lunch breaks I would wander round Guildford looking in the shops and, of course, ended up in the local bookshop. It was quite a large bookshop but had the usual measly couple of shelves on Faith matters, perhaps 100 books altogether. Many of these were arguing against God rather than for Him. Initially, the book I picked up looked as though it was one of these. It was called ‘The Rage against God‘ by Peter Hitchens. As I looked through it seemed the ideal book to give to my new friend Alex.

I never gave it to him. As I read it on the train, moving through the parched Surrey countryside, I realised it was saying something unique and important. That the English people, even while they sat comfortably in their beautiful old churches, were worshipping the wrong God. As Hitchens puts it:

I hope to show that one of the things I was schooled in was not in fact religion but a strange and vulnerable counterfeit of it, a counterfeit that can be detected and rejected while yet leaving the genuine truths of Christianity undamaged.

The relevant Bible text is from Exodus 20:

No other gods, only me. No carved gods of any size, shape, or form of anything whatever, whether of things that fly or walk or swim. Don’t bow down to them and don’t serve them because I am God, your God, and I’m a most jealous God, punishing the children for any sins their parents pass on to them to the third, and yes, even to the fourth generation of those who hate me. But I’m unswervingly loyal to the thousands who love me and keep my commandments. (The Message translation)

Which is the first commandment. Its strange really but even completely non-religious people are comfortable with most of the 10 commandments. Some are even written into law. Others, such as the prohibition of adultery, they know to be right even if inconvenient. But this first one appears to be uncompromising to the point of cruelty. I’m going to come back to this later but first I want to continue with Hitchens view of English religion. He talks of the ‘Faith in Science’:

The Christian conservatism of my schools did not protect me from the rather Victorian faith in something called ‘Science’ which was then very common. Perhaps this is because Christianity was not implied in every action and statement of my teachers wheras materialistic, naturalistic faith was. This faith did not require any great understanding. Mainly, it was just an assumption, a received opinion we all accepted.

But faith in science can only dilute and misdirect religious faith (and taken seriously it can even strengthen it, but that is for a future post…) . It takes something stronger to poison it. He comes to this in chapter 5:

Now we come to the very heart of the cult that enthralled us all, especially children… I possessed for many years a comic book biography of our Great Leader, called ‘The Happy Warrior’, one of thousands of more or less idolatrous publications which concentrated rather heavily on Mr Churchhill’s good side. I knew more about his life than the life of Christ. He was our saviour.

Hitchens describes the central ritual of the year:

As pseudo-religions go, ours was attractive and elegant, and it contained many decent and godly elements. Its central ceremony was Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday closest to the 11th of November…In the very depths of this season of universal drab coloured gloom we were marched in ranks and files down to the town war memorial, absurd caps on our heads, for the crowning ritual of the year.. A Vicar in austere black and white vestments intoned uncompromisingly Protestant prayers, we kept in silence, a quavering bugle blew, we sang ‘Oh God, Our Help in Ages Past’, a hymn that seemed to have been carved from granite much like that of the memorial itself. It was a deep evocation of everything we liked about ourselves, an indulgence in melancholy and proud self restraint. No outsider could possibly have penetrated its English mysteries, or imagined that we were, in fact enjoying ourselves. But we were.

There is a great deal more in the book about the cult of the Second world war and it is well worth reading but I will end my quotes on this subject with this summing up:

… the proper remembering of dead warriors, though right and fitting, is a very different thing from the Christian religion. The Christian church has been powerfully damaged by letting itself be confused with love of country and making of great wars.

There was a sort of double whammy effect here. On the one hand the content of what was being offered by the Church became thinner, less convincing and more boring. Also, the Church (especially the Church of England) became associated with increasingly old fashioned values. The generation born after the war wanted to move on and the Church was not moving with them.

Timothy Keller, in his book ‘Counterfeit Gods’, describes something similar happening in the USA.

Why did our culture largely abandon God as its Hope? I believe it was because our religious communities have been and continue to be filled with these false gods. Making an idol out of doctrinal accuracy, ministry success, or moral rectitude leads to constant internal conflict, arrogance and self-righteousness, and oppression of those whose views differ. These toxic effects of religious idolatry have led to widespread disaffection with religion in general and Christianity in particular. Thinking we have tried God, we have turned to other Hopes, with devastating consequences.

But, you may well ask, why didn’t I realise this? I was born and raised in England, why did I spend 15 years pondering this question? Well, I was raised in this country but my parents were not. My mother rejected the rather austere Dutch Protestantism she was raised in. My fathers parents had already ceased to be practising Jews by the time they arrived in England, from Germany in the late Thirties. As a girl, Churchill was no more than an interesting historical figure to me. The fact that ‘we’ had won the war was no more to me than a fact. When the bugle blew and we stood in silence I was remembering quite a different war.

Last November I turned on the TV on Saturday night expecting to watch the usual hospital drama. Instead there was a program from the Royal Albert Hall. Groups of various parts of the armed services were processing into the centre of the Hall with great ceremony. A Welsh newsreader was describing the function of each of these armed services with great dignity and ceremony. A glittering brass band played sombre music for the men and women to march to. It was all very touching, just like a religious ceremony. But who was being worshipped? Was it the actual men and women there? Or those who had died? Or some abstract noble warrior? Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against soldiers. Those who I have met are fine, courageous people and they do a difficult job. But so do a lot of people and when it comes down to it they are just people. To put them in place of God is certainly wrong.

By the time I was an adult the cult of Winston Churchill had faded but it was to be replaced by another, equally potent, figure. Diana Spencer was married to Prince Charles at 19. She was a year older than me. The summer I left school I watched her arrive at her wedding on the TV with millions of other people but she did not figure much in my life after that. When her marriage fell apart I can remember thinking how sad it was. She was badly treated, a genuinely tragic figure. So, it wasn’t until her death in 1997 that the scale of the focus on her became apparent. I remember the morning she died. We were preparing to go on holiday. I was hoping that our 3 year old son would be happy watching kids TV for an hour while we did the last of the packing. But instead of Teletubbies and cartoons there was only an endless reel of a wrecked car in a Paris tunnel. I switched the TV off and spent the next fortnight in a campsite on top of a hill in Dordogne. While we were there we found out that Diana had died and, of course, this was a big story but it wasn’t until we returned to England I realised just how big. It seemed the whole country was in mourning. I just kept quiet and watched the TV news: The weeping mourners, the young Tony Blair talking to camera, the acres of flowers outside Kensington Palace. I had started going to church the year before and there was a prophecy being spoken at our church in Reigate…

I said I would come back to the passage from Exodus. Churchhill and Diana are not the only gods revered by the English people. You only have to wander through the cathedrals dedicated to shopping or corporate success to realise that. It seems incredibly harsh for generations to be punished for worshipping the wrong god but the problem is that it is true. Sin is an odd word but, in this case, I would call something a sin that hurts other people. And we all know families that repeat hurtful actions generation after generation. It could be addiction, alcohol abuse, pride or anger. And these families can look to their ‘gods’ all they like but, you know something, they are not going to help. Some people reading this may say that God won’t either but He seems a much better bet and Jesus offers us the hard, deep magic of forgiveness that we must offer first before we receive it. In the ‘Rage Against God’ Hitchens describes a Russian society that has almost completely forgotten God. It is a bleak and hopeless picture and he says that we are heading the same way. I don’t agree.

The prophecy I heard went something like this:

Before the flowers have faded around Kensington Palace God will have started something new.

I don’t know if this was just something said in Reigate or was more widespread. At the time I dismissed it. After all there were no accounts of people flocking to Church. But, by 1998, the Alpha Course was successful enough to be described as a ‘cult’ by the newspapers, thousands of people were spending their holidays at New Wine or Spring Harvest Christian conferences,  many new churches are being started in school halls and ordinary people’s front rooms. Something was starting. The installation of our current Archbishop of Canterbury is another sign of the rebirth of Christianity in this country

But we need to be careful. Jesus did not insist on his ‘rights’. He did not define himself as better than those categorised as sinners in his society. When we define Gay people as sinners we hurt ourselves as much as them (especially those who wish to become Christians). I will end with a quote from Sir Andrew Stunell MP.

Making Christians angry is easy. Making Christians think is the hard part.

Suggested Reading:

‘The Rage Against God’ by Peter Hitchens. Well worth reading, if only for the description of modern Russia.

On Forgiveness: ‘What’s so Amazing about Grace?’ by Philip Yancey.

On modern ‘gods’ (but from an American point of view): Counterfeit Gods by Timothy Keller.

The quote from Sir Andrew Stunell from ‘Liberal Democrats do God’ – Edited by Jo Latham and Claire Mathys

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