“The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis
Though I’ve read many of C.S. Lewis’ books multiple times, I just finished this one for the first time. How did I never read it sooner?
The Great Divorce takes readers on a bus ride through an “imaginative supposal” (as Lewis put it) of the afterlife. The narrator travels from the grey city — described later as either Purgatory or Hell, depending on where one ends up — to the foothills of Heaven. Along the way, citizens of Heaven plead with those from Grey Town to turn away from the petty things that they cling to, and embrace the better, more Real life offered in the high country.
The title of the book is an allusion to William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. Lewis intends to show that one can only obtain eternal life and enter Heaven by completely divorcing oneself from all the attachments to things that we love more than God. Sometimes the things we hold on to are obviously sinful: lust, gambling, pride, etc. But sometimes — perhaps even most of the time — the things which keep people from coming to Christ are those things which seem like good things: love of one’s children or country, for instance. It is as Tim Keller wrote in his recent book Counterfeit Gods: “Sin isn’t only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God.“
Many have criticized Lewis for his use of the term “Purgatory” to describe the state of those who are not in Heaven, but are being offered the chance to get there. Is this proof that he affirmed the Roman Catholic dogma of Purgatory?
I don’t think so. First of all, what is described in this book is certainly not a description of “Purgatory” that would please a Catholic. Whatever Lewis means by the word “Purgatory”, it is certainly not the traditional Catholic understanding.
Instead, I believe Lewis was using “Purgatory” as a literary device, meant to depict that our time here on Earth is the period during which we have the opportunity to purge the sin from our lives, divorcing ourselves from Hell and betrothing ourselves to Christ. For those who are being sanctified and made more like Christ, this world will become more and more like Heaven. For those who reject Christ’s offer of salvation, life becomes Hell on Earth. In this way, what we make of our lives we will carry with us into eternity.
In any event, this is a great novel, and worthy of your consideration. Buy it here.