C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce: 13 Quotes

Everybody loves C.S. Lewis. And not just for The Chronicles of Narnia. I’ve known for years that if I were a better Christian — you know, the kind of Christian who reads important authors and can quote them in everyday conversation — then I would read Lewis, too.

But lately, I’ve been trying to throw out my perceptions of what a “good Christian” is. To stop feeling bad for not being good enough: not being the theologian-quoting, homeless-serving, uber-volunteer Christian, and to just be me.

Me, making an effort to serve Jesus in whatever ways I can.

And in the time since that, I have read some of C.S. Lewis’ non-Narnia books. And you know what? I get why people love him.

In The Great Divorce, Lewis paints a picture of how a smart, competent person could voluntarily chose hell over heaven. In his story, a man gets on a bus — later revealed to  be a bus that takes people from hell to heaven.

The problem is, everyone in hell is pretty content right where they’re at. Heaven is a nice place to visit (for a change of scenery, perhaps.) But there’s a lot there that makes them pretty uncomfortable. Try as the angels may to convince them to stay, the vast majority get straight back on the bus.

The bus bound for hell. For all that is comfortable … familiar … safe. They stare joy, love and brightness in the face, and they turn their backs. It’s painful. It hurts. And even though the light, joy and love do seem great,  ultimately they figure it’s probably just an illusion anyway. And they get back on the bus.

  1. How could a person willingly choose hell over heaven? Lewis’ hell isn’t at all the familiar picture of pain and eternal fire.

“They’ve got cinemas and fish and chip shops and advertisements and all the sorts of things they want. The appalling lack of any intellectual life doesn’t worry then. … I found a few fellows I’d known before and tried to form a little circle, but the all seem to have sunk to the level of their surroundings.” (5)

2. So what’s the problem?

“The trouble is they have no Needs. You get everything you want (not very good quality, of course) by just imagining it.” (13)

3. But being in hell changed people. They didn’t realize it, but they were just a shell of their past selves.

“I gasped when I saw them. Now that they were in the light, they were transparent–fully transparent … They were in fact ghosts: man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air.” (20)

4. The moment they step into heaven–the difference between heaven and hell becomes shocking evident.

“The men were as they had always been … It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of a different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison …” (21)

5. Everything in heaven was so much more bright, solid, and beautiful.

“The little flower was hard, not like wood or even iron, but like diamond … I tried to pick the lead up: my heart almost cracked with the effort, and I believe I did just raise it.” (21)

6. But the people in heaven weren’t all the sort of perfect people you’d expect. Some were murders, criminals.

“‘I have given up myself. I had to, you know, after the murder. That was what it did for me. And that was how everything began.'” (27)

7. The murderer was in heaven. He’d seen his mistakes. That was his first step in being transformed. It was the person who’d done everything right–who was confident in his goodness–who’d ended up in hell.

“‘I gone straight all my life. I don’t say I was a religious man and I don’t say I had no faults, far from it. But I don’t my best all my life, see? … If I wanted a drink, I paid for it.'” (27)

8. The visitors loved the beautiful things in heaven. But instead of wanting to stay, they tried to take bits of heaven back with them.

To a man trying to pick up an apple (to heavy for his ghost hands to even lift, 

“‘Fool,’ (the angel) said, ‘put it down. You cannot take it back. There is not room for it in Hell. Stay here and learn to eat such apples.'” (49)

9. Many ghosts had loved ones who came to try to convince them to stay. But no one from heaven got on the bus to hell. There was no great rescue mission down to save them. But why not?

“I asked why the Solid People, since they were full of love, did not go down into Hell to rescue that Ghosts …

‘Ye will understand that better, perhaps before you go,’ said he. ‘In the meantime, I must tell you they have come further for the sake of the Ghosts than ye can understand.”

1o. The angels who came to visit the ghosts had stopped their own journeys. They were on a path of their own — a path they’d left behind in hopes of saving a lost ghost.

“Every one of us lives only to journey further and further into the mountains. Every one of us has interrupted that journey and retraced a miserable distances to come down today in the mere chance of saving some ghost. […] The sane would do no good if they made themselves mad to help madmen.'” (71)

11. No one is going to force them to leave hell. Their right to free will is too important.

“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.” (75)

12. It is a choice, pure and simple.

“‘There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” in those to whom God says in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it.”

Lewis’ heaven is beautiful. It’s full of joy and bright color and strength–a beauty that everyone who sees wants. But to get it, people must give up instant gratification. They must give up what they want. They must give over control of their lives.

Once they’ve given control of their lives over to God, they find joy, peace and hope more than they could ever imagined. But it isn’t easy. Keeping control over our lives is so much easier.

In the end, do we have enough courage to give up our hopes and dreams so that God’s plan can take over?

Even with the beauty of heaven staring us in the face, holding on to our version of reality … our control of our lives … it seems so much easier.

In Lewis’ story, so many people turned their backs on heaven and got back on the bus. But given all this, is it really such a surprise that they did?

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