An Inspiration for C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce

Picture by Jason Pensa


The Great Divorce, written by C.S. Lewis, is a response to William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  Lewis believed that Blake’s understanding of heaven and hell was dangerous, as can be seen when he writes that, “…some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development of adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain. This belief I take to be a disastrous error.”  Lewis refutes Blake’s idea that all roads lead to God by telling a story of a man who is ushered into heaven on a bus that he chooses to board.  This man, the narrator of the story, is met by George MacDonald and is led through a series of revelations on the nature of heaven and hell.  MacDonald’s voice comes through Lewis clearly, and many of the themes that MacDonald felt passionate about—namely death and the need for spiritual sanctification—are also present in Lewis’ story.

Although Lewis is a much different writer than MacDonald, Lewis maintains the same goal of MacDonald as he explores deep theological truths in the form of a fantasy story.  MacDonald often debated the way that heaven and hell were described with such great finality; and so it appears that Lewis too takes up the mantle, though be it a little more orthodox, to explain heaven and hell. Through the use of the grey planet and the bus, Lewis is portraying an afterlife where people are still able to choose between heaven and hell. Lewis is able to communicate this tension through the numerous stories of people who arrive in heaven and choose to return to hell. The “phantoms” that exit the bus are met by the “solid people” who try to guide them in maturity and ultimately into the joy of heaven. The narrator and MacDonald watch as a number of phantoms reject his/her guide on different grounds, and ultimately abandon the quest for heaven. After viewing a number of phantoms reject heaven, the narrator concludes that, “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.’ All that are in Hell choose it.” In the end, the narrator chooses to follow George MacDonald into the heavenly city.

The Great Divorce strives to explore a world that cannot be fully explained. In the forward, Lewis reminds his readers that he is not trying to portray an accurate view of what he thinks heaven is like; instead, he is trying to deconstruct Blake’s view of heaven and hell that was being so widely accepted. Like MacDonald, I believe that Lewis is trying to help his readers have a less dogmatic opinion of a realm that is not and cannot be thoroughly explained by the living.

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