The Comforts of Hell: C.S. Lewis and The Great Divorce |

The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

The Comforts of Hell: C.S. Lewis and The Great Divorce

Hell is referred to as “home” eight times in The Great Divorce.

It’s not so bad, after all. You can make a house appear just by imagining it. If you need something, you can bring it to mind and it will materialize. There are little shops, even book shops, and there are “cinemas and fish and chip shops and advertisements and all the sorts of things they want.”

Sure, the grey rain never really ends, and the houses don’t seem to quite keep it out. But there’s plenty of space if one wants to be alone…which most people do.

Hell is huge when you’re inside it. But what about the many Very Interesting People in Hell? Well, they mostly want to be left alone as well. So there aren’t big, fascinating parties. Napoleon, who we’re told is one of the closest of the “great men,” lives fifteen thousand years and “millions of miles” away. And once you get there, he won’t talk to you. He’s completely consumed with his own life, blaming the people around him for his misfortunes in those days.

It’s no great surprised that the spirits in this story think of Hell as Home, given that—as we discussed in the previous article—Lewis believed that staying in Hell was a conscious choice. Not that they don’t understand that the grey town is lacking somehow. They all get on the bus to heaven because they desire something…whether a sense of adventure, a reunion, or a chance to get out of the rain.

The “Big Ghost,” for instance, is a bit outraged to discover that Len—a murderer he knew in real life, and one of his employees—got to live in Heaven while he was living in the grey town in a “pigstye.”

The conversation between the Big Ghost and Len is one of the first in the book, and it’s instructive. Big Ghost has been a decent man in life…or so he says. He wasn’t religious, but he never killed anyone at least, never stole a beer. In fact, he’s pretty sure that he and Len should be in the opposite places…that he hasn’t gotten what he deserves.

Len explains that no one gets what they deserve, they get something much better. That if Big Ghost would stop going on about how great he is, if he could just lay that aside, then he would get something better. In fact, Len encourages him to “be happy” and come toward Heaven…Len sees Big Ghost’s resistance as something in opposition to achieving happiness. Big Ghost is too satisfied—too comfortable—where he is.

When Big Ghost says he’s not going to ask for “bleeding charity,” Len begs him to do just that. Everything is available for the asking, but nothing can be bought. Len at last begins to push against Big Ghost, telling him what we already know…if Big Ghost wants to move into the Heavenly Realms he’ll need to leave comfort behind and embrace something more difficult. He needs to recognize himself and his own flaws, and he needs to “become solid” so he can not just walk on but enjoy the grass of paradise. Big Ghost was not, it turns out, a “decent chap.” He did not, in fact, “do his best.”

But Big Ghost can’t help himself. He keeps comparing who he was to who Len was…a murderer. Len has words about that, too. The murder, in the larger scheme of things, was less of a big deal than other things in his life. It was the decision of a moment, made in a rage. What was worse was that he spent years hating Big Ghost and fantasizing about murder in his mind. And, after all, his murder victim was in Heaven now, too. We get the impression that he and Len have gone on to become rather good friends.

So Len has come here, after all that, to apologize to Big Ghost, and to offer to be his guide (in fact, his “servant”) as long as Big Ghost needs it and “even longer,” should Big Ghost desire it.

The Big Ghost, bitter and triumphant, assures Len he’ll never be “pals with a murderer.” “I’d rather be damned,” he says. He’ll “go home” to Hell rather than share Heaven with someone beneath him. And the Big Ghost picked his way back to the bus, whimpering all the way as Heaven pricked his intangible feet.

This is a major theme of The Great Divorce. Heaven is not a place of comfort. As Len says, there’s joy there, but also a great deal of work on the journey. We cannot remain who we are…we can’t keep the corrupt parts of ourselves, the selfishness, the self-focus, and enter into the joy of Heaven. As Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “We are therefore at liberty … to think of [a] bad man’s perdition not as a sentence imposed on him but as the mere fact of being what he is.”

This is a pattern that repeats over and over with the ghosts Lewis encounters in the book. In chapter 5 we have a ghost who is an apostate (meaning, in this context, that he has renounced his faith in God and, specifically, in Jesus). He doesn’t know it, though. He denies that there is such a place as Hell or Heaven, though he lives in the one and is standing in the other. He has a little theological society back home in Hell. And when the Bright Spirit of his old friend Dick shows up and tries to show him the error of his ways, all it takes is a little misdirection and condescension for the ghost to return back to Hell, still confidently sure he understands the spiritual world while denying his own experience.

Then there’s the ghost with the lizard. It is, for me, one of the more striking moments in the book. A ghost has brought a lizard—we learn later that it’s some form of Lust—which insists on sitting on his shoulder and saying horrible things. The ghost knows at once that it can’t be allowed in heaven, not with that corrupt thing attached to him. But he can’t get rid of it, either.

Here Lewis shows us again that comfort and the avoidance of pain can be one way that a spirit finds itself home in Hell. A bright, gigantic spirit offers to remove the lizard, but our ghost friend flinches away… when the Spirit comes close, it burns.

The ghost is terrified and keeps making excuses. The Spirit—an angel—offers, over and over, to kill the lizard. But it must have the ghost’s permission. The lizard begins to promise that it can give access to pleasure or—well, pleasure can’t be had in Hell, but at least dreams that are about pleasure, almost.

The ghost agrees at last to let the angel kill the lizard, and he immediately breaks the thing’s back and tosses it into the grass. Then we see something that happens only once in the story…the ghost becomes solid in a moment, a true Person now. The lizard turns into a horse, and the Man immediately leaps on its back and rides it into the mountains, and all of Nature begins to sing a hymn…the whole world is full of joy.

Lewis, astonished that even the lizard could stay in Heaven now, gets some instruction from George MacDonald, his teacher:

Nothing, not even the best and noblest, can go on as it now is. Nothing, not even what is lowest and most bestial, will not be raised again if it submits to death. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. Flesh and blood cannot come to the Mountains. Not because they are too rank, but because they are too weak. What is a Lizard compared with a stallion? Lust is a poor, weak, whimpering, whispering thing compared with that richness and energy of desire which will arise when lust has been killed.

To kill Lust gave rise to Desire…something greater, more pure, and more godly than Lust could ever be. By entering into the pain of death, the spirit was broken of what could not enter deeper Heaven, and the shadows of the things he once thought he wanted were replaced with something worth wanting. And he rose like a star into the joy of eternity.

It’s no mistake that the next chapter shows us the beauty of a transformed Person in all her glory. But I think we’ll save that for next time. I’ll end with this:

I’ve been thinking about moments in our lives where we have a choice to embrace change and become better people, or resist it, protect our current states, stay comfortable. It’s a common enough event in our lives, I think. The most dramatic example of it right now may be those folks who are showing up at the hospital having contracted COVID-19 and are telling the doctors they don’t have it because it doesn’t exist.

It’s this astonishing moment, not unlike the ghosts in these stories, where what is objectively true is discarded in order not to face the painful reality…they have been deceived, or lied to, or tricked, and thus find themselves in the embarrassing position of having to say, “I was wrong” or to save face and say, “It was never me who was wrong, it was all of you.”

That’s an extreme example, and an easy one for me to choose. A comfortable one, you might say, because it’s not one that’s close to my own temptations. I can feel compassion for those folks or, on a bad day, feel superior to them. But to use them as an example is not only easy, it’s a bit of cowardice to do that…if it’s the only example given.

So allow me to be honest for a moment.

If I were a ghost in Lewis’s story, there’s any number of character traits he could have chosen from my life, any number of issues I face that need to be burnt away or broken to bits by an angel or at the very least left behind on the bus.

But just for drama’s sake, if he were looking to bring one of my issues into the story it might be this: I hate asking other people for help in my life, even when I very clearly need it.

Not because I don’t want the help (I surely do), but because the idea of showing other people that I have needs is uncomfortable. I’d rather muddle through on my own, rather than relying on my community. I’d rather someone noticed without me asking. I don’t want to ask for help. I don’t want to share what I need. It’s not unlike what Big Ghost said. I don’t want any bleeding charity.

Sometimes it’s those places of discomfort that show us where we’ve settled into the grey town of our internal lives. Where we’ve chosen something lesser because it’s comfortable, and to crawl out of it would be painful. It’s in those moments when we need to realize that we’re still calling Hell home. That, perhaps, some of our suffering comes from who we are allowing ourselves to be.

And that maybe if we can just bring ourselves to say to the great angel before us, “Kill this in me…” we can be transformed. Because, it turns out, we can’t do it on our own. “You will never get there alone,” Len said. “And I am the one who was sent to you.”

There will be pain. We will have to move beyond what is comfortable. But such things are necessary when we are learning to walk in the Real world of Heaven.

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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