The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

Choosing Hell: C.S. Lewis, the Great Divorce, and Human Freedom

When Lewis finds the queue for the bus he has been walking in endless rain in a twilight town that is ever expanding but mostly empty. The line for the bus is something different than the monotonous city blocks, and he joins it as two others—a couple, apparently—end a disagreement by leaving the line. Others are fighting, jostling for position. Still others are disgusted by the class (or lack thereof) of the people in line. There’s a moment where someone cheats their way to a place further up in line. There’s a fistfight. Through it all there’s a sort of certainty that there won’t be room for everyone on the bus. And yet, when Lewis finally boards there’s plenty of room…indeed, it could have held every poor soul who had initially been in the line.

Lewis has made his choice and joined the tour, and others have made their choice and stayed in the grey city. The story of The Great Divorce hinges on this precisely: the choices that human beings make, and how those choices may or may not influence their place in eternity.

This is no great surprise. As we mentioned last time, he said this in Mere Christianity: “[e]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses…either into a Heavenly creature or into a Hellish creature.” And we’ve noticed in earlier posts in this reread that the Narnian idea that one is always either growing or devolving is central to Lewis’s understanding of human spirituality.

In chapter seven we meet a “hard-bitten ghost” who thinks that the idea that any of the denizens of Hell could stay here in this Heavenly kingdom is “pure propaganda.” They can’t eat the food, can barely walk on the grass. Of course he’s never liked anywhere he’s been, whether China or Niagara Falls. It’s all tourist traps and advertising. Even Hell is, in his words, “a flop.” “They lead you to expect red fire and devils and all sorts of interesting people sizzling on grids—Henry VIII and all that—but when you get there it’s just like any other town.” Heaven isn’t great either. In fact, it’s “darned uncomfortable.”

Lewis suggests that perhaps one becomes comfortable over time, and the Hard-Bitten Ghost goes on to say that, no, he suspects Heaven and Hell are run by the same team, that there’s no war, no disagreement. What’s the point of staying in heaven then?

Lewis finally asks him, “What would you like to do if you had your choice?”

The ghost, triumphant, points out that this is precisely what the problem is. All this insistence that he make a choice, instead of giving him something great. It’s all deception, it’s all dishonest. Lewis isn’t particularly impressed with the argument.

Lewis has already decided he will stay if it’s allowed. “If only I could find a trace of evidence that it was really possible for a Ghost to stay—that the choice were not only a cruel comedy—I would not go back.” This is, in fact, his first question to his guide George MacDonald: “Is this a real choice?” Does anyone choose to stay, and are they allowed to do so? Can one really change places from Hell to Heaven?

MacDonald answers in the affirmative, and then suggests an example that Lewis would be familiar with: “Ye’ll have heard that the emperor Trajan did.” This is almost certainly a reference to Dante’s Paradiso, where Trajan is shown to be the first of the “pagan converts” —those who chose to follow Jesus after their deaths. In medieval times the story went that Trajan died, and Pope Gregory, so impressed by the emperor’s justness, prays that he’ll be resurrected, which he is. Trajan, having seen the spiritual reality after death, quickly prays to become a follower of Jesus and is baptized before he dies again.

Lewis is astonished by this and pushes MacDonald to explain, then, how there can be free will or any sort of choice after one’s life is judged. How can you be sent to Hell and choose to leave? MacDonald then explains one of the more interesting theological ideas of this book…the grey town is not Hell. Not exactly. It’s—as Lewis says it—“a state of mind.” For those who choose to stay there, it will have always been Hell. For those who choose to leave, it will have never been Hell at all, but rather Purgatory. So some residents of the great town will have never been in Hell, and others will have always been in Hell. Hell is a state of mind because to be trapped in one’s own self is Hell. (Heaven, on the other hand, is pure reality…it’s the Platonic Ideal of all existence, more real than anything anyone has ever known. And, ironically, we cannot inhabit Heaven until we become more fully ourselves…more “real.”)

Lewis pushes on this again, because what MacDonald appears to be saying is that there is no final judgment. Not really. Not if people can just go back and forth whenever they feel like it. He says that both Catholics and Protestants would object to this. Because a soul in purgatory is “already saved” in Catholic theology, just being purified for Heaven. And the Protestants say that “the tree lies where it falls.” When a person dies, their chance to make a choice has already passed, there is no post-mortem decision to be made.

Here we see Lewis move into one of his favorite theological structures. Lewis is not afraid of a theological vision that appears to be in conflict, or that sidesteps hard questions with the answer “maybe it’s just a mystery.” MacDonald answers Lewis by saying, “They’re both right, maybe.” Don’t bother yourself with such questions. You can’t, after all, truly understand what Time is when you are still in it. You can’t understand how Time and Choice are related when you’re still wrapped up in it all. “And ye were not brought here to study such curiosities. What concerns you is the nature of the choice itself: and that ye can watch them making.”

Lewis, always pragmatic about the vagaries of theological musings, pushes us to see that it matters very little exactly how it all works…what matters is that there is a choice to make. There is something happening here, and Lewis (the character) has been brought here so that he can observe those choices.

Then MacDonald says something that may be the core thesis of this entire novel. Lewis asks him, how can these souls choose to return to Hell? (At this point in the book it’s the only choice he has seen the souls make.) MacDonald says, “The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.’ There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery.”

MacDonald’s quoting Satan from Paradise Lost, there. “The damned” are all consciously choosing Hell rather than entering into relationship with God…a relationship that might require them to give up something along the way. Like Satan, they look at what is available to them in Heaven, and what is available outside of Heaven, and they say, “I choose Hell.” The so-called damned are not damned by God but by their own will, of their own volition. It is a preference, and God gives them what they want.

MacDonald says there are innumerable examples of this choice. There is the Christian who has become so focused on proving God’s existence that they cease to care about God as a person. It’s like someone who collects rare books but doesn’t read them. Or someone who works for a charity but hates the poor. Heaven is full, and many of its residents were not religious in their earthly lives. Hell is sparsely populated, but there are plenty of “good Christians” in the outer reaches of that grey town.

As the book progresses, they get into deeper questions about all this.

Lewis (the character) says he knows MacDonald was a universalist in life. We should pause on that for a moment. “Universalism” is a theological idea that says all people will “be saved.” There are a lot of different versions of Universalism, and a lot of strong feelings and beliefs about those who are universalists in different branches of Christianity. MacDonald never used this term to describe himself, but he often said things like, “When Protestant decided three places in the afterlife were too many, they got rid of the wrong one” (Protestants don’t typically believe in Purgatory).

MacDonald believed that God would “punish souls” after death, but those punishments weren’t punitive. They are designed, rather, to bring a soul to a revelation of what is broken in itself, and then to turn that person back toward healthy relationship with God. He said many times that it might take thousands or even millions of years, but that he believed that all people—without exception—would one day be made healthy, whole, and connected to God.

In fact, MacDonald fought strongly against Calvinism, a strong and respected theology in Scotland during his life. He saw it as evil, a misunderstanding of God that didn’t allow God to be loving. There’s even a story (which may be a legend, I haven’t been able to track down a firsthand account) that when George MacDonald was first told about the Calvinist theology of Predestination (which teaches that God chooses some people, but not others, to be in eternal relationship and enter Heaven) he burst into tears. In one of his novels, he does have a young boy who hears something similar and says, “I do not want God to love me if he does not love everyone.” (The Calvinism of MacDonald’s day taught that God loved “the elect” but not the damned.)

An important distinction of MacDonald’s theology is that he doesn’t believe God will force anyone to salvation. He believes, rather, that God is patient, and whether it takes a thousand years, a million years, or “ages upon ages,” that God will never give up on any human, until they come to a place where they can choose of their own volition to enter Heaven.

Here’s a quote that gives you a good taste of how MacDonald spoke about these things: “There is no salvation but having God in the heart. The very life of your life; all that is good and true and noble and grand—there is no salvation but that, and that our Lord is moving every one of us to accept. He has done all—except what is still waiting to be done for each individual—that He might get you into His kingdom of light, and love, and truth.”

In any case, Lewis’s question in the novel at this point is, well, “How can there be true choice if—as you say—all souls comes to heaven in time?”

MacDonald (like Lewis) basically sidesteps the question, because it’s the wrong question. As creatures of Time, every answer about Eternity is necessarily limited. “All answers deceive.” We’re looking at the question through the lens of time, and the lens distorts the image. Predestination is true in one sense: there is a “final” state for every soul. But the way it’s described removes human Freedom (the “deeper truth” of the two). Universalism—the “opposite” theology—would also remove human choice, and thus must also be rejected as little more than a symbol, an image that gives us some facet of the truth but not the truth itself. “Ye cannot know eternal reality by a definition. Time itself, and all acts and events that fill Time, are the definition, and it must be lived.”

Lewis wonders if these choices were all made long ago, then, and MacDonald says, hey, why not suggest they are choices that were all made at the end of time, or after? One is the same as the other. He tells Lewis, this is a dream. It’s a vision. Don’t try to make complete sense of it, but realize that it’s the story, it’s the picture, the image, that matters. Human choice, the freedom of the human soul is real…despite what any theological construct might suggest. That’s a great mystery, but it must be embraced.

MacDonald says it most concisely like this: “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. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”

When I first read this book, I was shocked by these ideas. In my churches in those days I had been taught a very traditional Protestant theology about this whole thing: you die, and if you know and follow Jesus, you go to Heaven. If you die not knowing Jesus, you’re off to hell. It’s the driving engine of evangelism (telling others the good news about God). It’s the stick and the carrot. It brings up constant questions like, “How is that fair if someone lives in some remote island, never hears about God, and dies? Is God loving then? Is God good?” And there are, of course, entire libraries of answers to such questions, some more compelling than others.

Lewis’s answer is simple, and it’s not much different than McDonald’s: What we know is that God is good, and that God loves people, and God both desires to be in relationship with human beings and requires that human beings choose to be in that relationship…God cares about human volition and won’t lightly override it. If those things aren’t true, then God is not God, but a monster.

If we know all these things, then, who cares what the theological constructs look like that try to explain it? They are metaphors and theories only. What matters is that human beings have a choice. MacDonald believes that door remains always open, into eternity. Lewis believes that maybe, at some point, the door is shut…or at least that no one chooses to walk through it ever again.

I, for one, find it comforting to read theologies that say what MacDonald and Lewis do here: If one is mistaken about God, and discovers it after death, then God would still allow us to grow in knowledge after death. If one chooses in life to turn away from God, one can still choose in Life that comes after death to turn toward God.

Hell is a choice.

But so is Heaven.

And God keeps giving us the choice, over and over, in the hopes that we’ll choose what’s better.

Matt Mikalatos is the author of the YA fantasy The Crescent Stone. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.


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