C.S. Lewis's Divine Comedy
September 1991By Sheldon Vanauken
Sheldon Vanauken is a writer in Virginia and author of the award-winning A Severe Mercy. His Under the Mercy was recently reissued by Ignatius Press, and his novel, Gateway to Heaven, was recently reissued by Richelieu Court.
The Great Divorce. By C.S. Lewis.
Here is not the Blakean Marriage of Heaven and Hell that so appeals to us, but their absolute and final Divorce. We are all interested in Survival -- life after death. And today book after book attempts proof by recounting the visions of people recalled from momentary death, while films playing with the subject appear. Thus, though written nearly 50 years ago, C.S. Lewis's vivid portrayal of what may await us is timely. Moreover, in the catch phrase, it contains both good news and bad. The good news is that everyone is welcome to the Joy of Heaven; the bad news is that one cannot hold on to the tiniest bit of Hell -- not one little sin, not one little obsession. Many souls, therefore, prefer Hell: their choice.
I've read The Great Divorce a dozen times, including yesterday afternoon before beginning this essay (the book isn't long), fascinated anew each time. I read it first at Oxford long ago when I was still an Anglican agnostic with a leaning towards Christianity. And it fell into my mind with a sort of inevitability: If Christianity were true, as f had begun to suspect, then this book was. And still is, I deeply believe.
Perhaps because The Great Divorce is so slender, some critics have dismissed it as of slight importance -- Chad Walsh in The Literary Legacy of C.S. Lewis for one. In reviewing Walsh's book (NOR, Dec. 1979), I protested, calling Divorce a gem among Lewis's writings, in which he makes Heaven "not only utterly believable but infinitely desirable.... the most difficult of all things." Then George Sayer in JACK, the best of all books on Lewis, calls Divorce "perhaps the most profound and nearly perfect of all his works," adding that in it we have a miniature Divine Comedy -- Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. All of Lewis's great gifts as a thinker and writer are here: the sweet reason, the humor, and the brilliant imagination.
Today in the U.S., according to the surveys, most people are, at least, "sort of" Christians and believe hopefully in Heaven. Very much fewer believe in Hell or that Jesus came to save sinners: The psychologists have done away with sin. So, if Heaven exists, we'll all be there. A good God could not be so cruel as to condemn anyone to Hell. In fact, we believe, Lewis says, that "reality [God] never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable 'either-or' [requiring] a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain."
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