Images of heaven and hell were quite vivid in my imagination as a kid growing up in a 1960’s Mennonite church. Becoming “saved” was a big deal and it ensured that we were heaven-bound. I made my “decision” for God as a young child, as did many of my friends and family. It was a a sincere decision and a consolation for my parents, but it also created a problem for me. I worried that I hadn’t done a good enough job of it. Again and again, I would ask Jesus into my heart, trying to be more sincere than the last time. What if God hadn’t really heard me, or worse, accepted me? What if Jesus came back and I wouldn’t be taken? To tell the truth, descriptions of heaven sounded a bit boring to me with everyone living forever. It sounded like I’d have to be in church for a long, long time, but despite this grim future, I still didn’t want to be one of those “left behind”.
I’ve written about discovering the writings of C.S. Lewis in our church library, and it was a huge relief to read The Great Divorce as a teenager. I realized that there was more than one way to understand heaven and hell. Lewis provided a story that gave my imagination (and my worries) room to breathe. I didn’t know it then, but I was embarking on a life-long journey of my understandings becoming broadened. Thank God.
The course in C.S. Lewis that our community is doing got me re-reading this marvelous classic lately. I began reading it at the lake in early July and by now in late August, I’m almost done reading it for the second time. A Lewis scholar wrote that it’s his favorite Lewis book and he makes a point of re-reading it every year and I can understand why. It’s chock full of life-lessons and wisdom.
The Great Divorce is an imaginary telling of people in hell who board a bus to visit heaven and are given a chance to reconsider. The book starts off with the narrator, presumably Lewis himself, in a gray, dismal, rainy city of empty streets. This is hell. There are no flames, devils or torments and that description alone is worth the read. Hell is empty because the inhabitants can’t stand each other! As there is a conflict, people can imagine a different house in a different neighborhood and poof, it happens. No one actually lives together. There are miles, even light years between neighbors. Life in hell is always moving away from core values such as love or cooperation or peace-making. Self-interest is what makes hell so empty and so boring. Sounds pretty accurate to me!
The other thing about hell is that it is very, very tiny, which was a great balm to my vivid childhood imagination. In fact, heaven is described as being very large and hell infinitesimally small, smaller than a grain of sand. Lewis described it like this, “All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World.”
The people from hell who visit all have reasons for coming which are mostly about getting their rights or stating their position. However, when they get there, they realize they are phantoms, unlike the “bright, solid people” from heaven. The phantoms have come to argue their rights, but the solid people attempt to explain the grace of God to them. In other words, the phantoms have a chance to gain substance and become real.
The phantoms also experience heaven differently than the solid people. Heaven is bright and beautiful, but because they have no substance, they can not experience the beauty. The blades of grass are as sharp as knives. Raindrops would go through them like bullets from a machine gun. They can’t even pick flowers, because the stems are far too strong for them.
Lewis receives a wise Guide, one of the solid people, by the name of George MacDonaldand together they overhear conversations between other ghosts and their Guides. In real life, MacDonald was a huge
influence for Lewis. Lewis wrote after reading one of MacDonald’s books, that his imagination was “converted, even baptized.”
Lewis begins to see that every phantom has a choice to make. My favorite quote in the book describes this freedom that God gives us all – the power of choice. “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” The first choice points to us putting our trust in God when we can’t understand the way. It’s like the verse that says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5) Invariably, almost every phantom seems to be one of the second kind of people, whom God will allow to have their own way and their own beliefs.
One woman who arrives receives her brother as a Guide, but she is disappointed. She had wanted her son to meet her. She demands that she be united immediately with her son, but her Guide gently tells her that she can’t see him because he would not be able to see or hear her. The mother needs to be “thickened up” so she can gain substance herself. Until she does so, says the Guide, she can not see her son.
What is preventing her from growing solid is her all consuming desire to see her son. In life, the mother became obsessed about her son after his death, keeping his room the same, ignoring the rest of her family and choosing to live in the past. The Guide tells her that she must learn to see God first. Her own feelings for her son seemed holy to her, but because her love never moved beyond her son, she was unable to become solid and love God.
As I re-read this book on my summer break, the effect it had on me was the same as it had on me as a teen. It evoked wonder and a much more evocative, inviting understanding of heaven than I received as a youngster. I realized that God is a God of incredible love who not only gives us an infinite number of second chances on earth, but in the afterlife as well. Even after choosing hell over heaven, the ghosts can always re-board the bus and visit heaven once again (though this choice became more and more remote the more times the ghosts choose their own will). Lewis was insistent that his book was just a fantasy and that readers shouldn’t take his imaginings literally, but I want to hang my hat on his view of the grace that God extends to all, no matter who we are or what we’ve done.
The childhood fear of a frowning God who wouldn’t accept me followed me into adulthood. It wasn’t the only aspect of my faith life, but showed up as a shadow of perfectionism and this feeling that I had to earn my salvation. The Bible calls this “works righteousness”, and I had it bad, but as I grow older, I realize I am being healed of this. Through the persistent and solid teaching in my faith community, my mind and heart have been shown another way and like Lewis himself, my own imagination has been baptized by a God who is incredibly loving and doesn’t expect me to be perfect before being accepted.