ESN has a long history of book reviews of significant works that help us think Christianly about the world. We so appreciate this review from Gregory Rummo of a C.S. Lewis classic, that makes a great summer read!
The Great Divorce â€“ A Dream, is a fantasy â€œwith an intended moral.â€ It is an allegory about Heaven and Hell. Whether inspired by or written in response to William Blakeâ€™s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, The Great Divorce dispels the notion that a person can get to Heaven while still clinging to his â€œbaggage,â€ a metaphor Lewis uses for a besetting sin.
The story begins at a bus stop where there is a line of people. Almost all of them with the exception of the narrator (Lewis) are in a foul mood. Some give up waiting in line and leave in a huff. Finally, the bus arrives and it is a â€œwonderful vehicle, blazing with golden light, heraldically coloredâ€ (3). The dour group rushes to board the bus, pushing and shoving, all the while complaining about its ornate colors and the joyful mood of the driver. The door closes and suddenly the bus becomes airborne, climbing higher and higher until the city below is no longer visible. Lewis meets several riders which he identifies as Intelligent Man, Fat Man, Ikeyâ€”a bowler-hatted man, Big Man and a Tousle-Headed Poet turned Communist who committed suicide by jumping under a train after being scorned by a lover.
In the middle of the ride, a fight breaks out. Thereâ€™s Pandemonium. Knives appear. Gunfire erupts. Gratefully, Lewis is not injured in the fray. What the Hell is going on here? â€”Exactly! â€”These people have boarded the bus from Hell to Heaven where they will be given an opportunity to face their besetting sins with a second chance to be â€œput back on the right roadâ€ (viii). Once they arrive in the outskirts of Heaven, they will meet either a Saint whom they knew on Earth, or an Angel or maybe even God himself. They will be confronted with whatever sin it was that sent them to Hell; be it a misplaced love, bitter cynicism, petty larceny, pride, incessant grumbling and complaining, apostasy, unforgiveness or simply having trusted in good works. Most stubbornly cling to their self-righteousness and return back to the bus for the return trip.
Nearing its destination, the bus slowly fills with a luminous light glowing brighter and brighter. Finally, it comes to rest in a tree-studded meadow. It is dawn. A lark is singing. As the passengers leave the bus, Lewis notes that they are all transparent including himself. The landscape has taken on a strange and heavy weight. It is painful to walk barefoot on the blades of grass. A daisy is impossibly heavy to lift. They have all become Ghosts. One screams in terror and boards the bus for the return trip. Big Man asks the driver, â€œWhen have we got to be back?â€ â€œYou need never come back unless you want to. Stay as long as you please,â€ the driver replies. (22).
Suddenly a large group of people, some bearded, some robed and some naked begins to approach from the distance. Mile after mile they draw nearer. Each sports a â€œmassive grandeur of muscle.â€ The earth shakes as they approach. Two more Ghosts scream and run back to the bus. The rest huddle close to each other, awaiting the arrival ofâ€”Angels? Saints? Lewis doesnâ€™t tell us just yet. He simply calls them â€œSolid Peopleâ€ and â€œBright Peopleâ€ (25).
Lewis sets off on foot to explore his new surroundings. He is followed by Big Man and one of the Bright People. We soon learn that the Bright Personâ€™s name was Len on Earth and he murdered a mutual acquaintance named Jack. But both Len and Jack are there in Heaven and Big Man cannot understand how they got there, saying it is the two of them who should be in Hell and he belongs in Heaven. He boasts he did his best his whole life, and wants â€œnothing but my rightsâ€ (28). â€œIf they choose to let in a bloody murderer all because he makes a poor mouth at the last moment, thatâ€™s their look out. But I donâ€™t see myself going in the same boat as you, see?â€ (29) Len tells Big Man that he is mistaken. The truth is he was not a decent fellow. He treated his employees, his wife and his children like dirt. Len asks Big Man for forgiveness for lying awake in bed at night murdering him in his heart. But Big Man wants none of it. â€œIâ€™ll go home,â€ he says. â€œDamn and blast the whole pack of you.â€ And he saunters off over the sharp blades of grass back to the bus. (31)
Lewis next meets Fat Man, identified as Episcopal Ghost. He is already engaged in a conversation with one of the Bright People, named Dick. Theyâ€™re arguing about liberalismâ€™s effect on Bible doctrine. Episcopal Ghost asserts that he was true to his intellect, when he rejected a literal interpretation of the Bible and â€œhonest and heroic,â€ (36) in his denial of the resurrection. But Dick pushes back, saying, â€œLetâ€™s be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successfulâ€¦ When did we put up one momentâ€™s real resistance to the loss of our faith?â€ (37) Dick encourages the Episcopal Ghost to return to the childlike inquisitiveness that first led him to belief (Matt. 18:3-4). But the Episcopal Ghost replies, â€œThat question and answer conception of thought only applies to matters of fact. Religious and speculative questions are surely on a different level.â€ (42) Dick implores Episcopal Ghost to consider that in Heaven, â€œWe know nothing of religionâ€¦ We think only of Christ. We know nothing of speculation. Come and see. I will bring you to the Eternal Fact, the Father of all other facthood.â€ Sadly, Episcopal Ghost is more interested in deconstructing the word existence than seriously considering what Dick has said. All he can do is bemoan Christianityâ€™s Founder for having never reached his full stature, characterizing the crucifixion as a disaster. â€œWhat a tragic wasteâ€¦ so much promise cut shortâ€ (44).
Lewis then leads us through a lush pasture with green slopes in the distance forming an amphitheater. An immense waterfall cascades thunderously over many colored rocks into a â€œfrothy and pulsating lake.â€ (46) Ikey, Lewisâ€™s bowler-hatted companion, is seen sneaking around on hands and knees underneath an apple tree, trying to fill his pockets with apples for the bus ride back. But this is impossible since everything is so heavy for a Ghost. He finally manages to pick up the smallest apple and is interrupted by a â€œBright Angel who stood like one crucified.â€ In a great, booming voice he says, â€œFool, put it down. You cannot take it back. There is not room in Hell. Stay here and learn to eat such apples.â€ (49) But Ikey saunters off, ignoring the invitation.
Lewis cannot bear to remain alone in the presence of the Water Giant. With much difficulty, he manages to ford a stream where on the other side he is confronted by the Ghost of a â€œlean, hard-bitten man with grey hair and a gruff but not uneducated voice, the kind of man I have always instinctively felt was reliableâ€ (51). But as Lewis soon learns, this Ghost is a bitter cynic. Everything in his life, including heaven, has been nothing but lies or propaganda: â€œYou canâ€™t eat the fruit and you canâ€™t drink the water,â€ he mutters (52) and he too moves off.
The despair is starting to take its toll on Lewis and he wonders how it is that the Solid People, given their reputation for benevolence, have done little to help the people from the Town other than meet them on the plain and endure their mockery. His thoughts are interrupted when he sees the Ghost of a woman wearing no clothes. On Earth, she had been elegantly dressed. She is tip-toeing through the trees, attempting to hide from everyone. A Spirit confronts her and warns her she is going in the wrong direction. But she is so self-conscious of her appearance, she hollers â€œGo away! Go away! Canâ€™t you see I want to be alone.â€ (59) â€œFriend,â€ the Spirit asks, â€œCould you only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?â€ (62) But she canâ€™t. â€œIâ€™ve already given you my answer,â€ She replies. And with that, the Spirit blows a horn which calls forth a stampede of unicorns meant to frighten her into taking her mind off herself for the chance that she can be saved (79).
Dejected, Lewis decides to look directly into the eyes of one of the Solid People. Perhaps he will find his answer there. He comes upon one which he describes as an â€œenthroned, shining godâ€ (65). It is here that we realize the Solid People are Saints. And this particular one is a very important Saint to Lewis. Itâ€™s George MacDonald. Lewis had been an avid reader of MacDonald and he excitedly begins to recount the steps in his long journey to conversion. MacDonald assures him that he is already well acquainted with the biographical details. Lewis is full of questions for MacDonald. â€œI donâ€™t understand,â€ Lewis asks. â€œIs judgment not final? Is there really a way out of Hell into Heaven?â€ (68) MacDonald explains, â€œIf a soul leaves that grey town behind, it will not have been Hellâ€¦ but Purgatory.â€ (68) â€œThen these people are right who say that Heaven and Hell are only states of mind? Lewis presses. â€œHush,â€ Macdonald says sternly. â€œDo not blaspheme. Hell is a state of mindâ€”ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mindâ€”is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All what is fully real is Heavenlyâ€ (70).
Their conversation is interrupted by the â€œthin voice of a Ghost talking at enormous speed.â€ (75) Sheâ€™s not wicked,â€ says MacDonald, â€œjust a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into the habit of grumbling… but the whole question is whether she is now a grumblerâ€¦ and if there is a real womanâ€”even the least trace of oneâ€”still there inside the grumbling, can it be brought to life again?â€ (77) 
They continue on and encounter the Ghost of a flirtatious woman, another Ghost who â€œinformed the immortals that they were deluded: that there was no life after death, that [heaven] was a hallucination,â€ and many other unnamed â€œgrotesque Phantoms in which hardly a trace of the human form remainedâ€ (81).
They pause as they witness what Lewis describes as â€œone of the most painful meetings witnessed.â€ (97) It is a conversation between a woman named Pam and a Bright Spirit named Reginald. Pam is a case of disordered love: She worshipped her son to the point that when he was taken from her, her entire life died with him, a tragedy for which she continues to blame God. Reginald tries to reason with her: You kept Michaelâ€™s room â€œexactly as heâ€™d left it, keeping anniversaries; refusing to leave the house though Dick and Muriel were both wretched thereâ€ (102). During the course of the conversation, the truth comes out: Michael was an unintended pregnancy. â€œYou didnâ€™t intend to have a baby at all, Michael was originally an accident.â€ (103) The conversation fades in the distance as Lewis and MacDonald walk away. â€œIs there any hope? Lewis asks. â€œIt might take a long while, that conversation,â€ MacDonald replies.
Lewis has yet to see one conversion. But this is about to change.
A Ghost with a red lizard on his shoulder approaches. The lizard is whispering into his ear. The two are suddenly confronted by a glowing Angel who asks the Ghost if heâ€™d like to make the lizard quiet. â€œMay I kill it?â€ (109) the Angel asks, approaching so close that the Ghost begins to scream from the heat radiating off the Angelâ€™s body. The Angel explains, â€œI cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible. Have I your permission?â€ An argument ensues. The man offers excuse after excuse: Can you kill it gradually? Can I let it go to sleep? Can I put it off till I come back on the next bus. For each excuse the man offers, the Angel repeats: â€œMay I kill it?â€ In a final act of desperation, the Ghost screams, â€œDamn and blast you! Go on canâ€™t you? Get it over. Do what you likeâ€¦ God help me. God help meâ€ (110). The Angel reaches out and crushes the lizard in his hand, flinging it to the ground, its back broken. And then something wonderful happens, it morphs into a silvery-white stallion with a mane and tail of gold. The new-made Man embraces the feet of the Angel in gratitude for his deliverance, then mounts the stallion and the two ride off towards the mountains in the distance.
CRITICAL THOUGHTFUL RESPONSE
Alister McGrath explains that C. S. Lewisâ€™s position on Hell underwent changes during his lifetime. In his later years, he hardly talked about Hell at all. Lewis was not a universalist but an inclusionist, based on the theology in The Great Divorce. Yet Lewis would be the first to admit that he was not intending this book to be a theological treatise.
The Great Divorce, is better understood as an allegory about Hell in the broadest sense. As such, it offers insights into some of the subtle sins that people cling to that are not so subtle. We tend to think of sin as something big like murdering someone or robbing a bank. But Romans 1:28-31 provides a list of sins, some obviously serious and others, what we might not consider sins at all, among them: covetousness, malice, envy, strife, maliciousness, gossip, slander, insolence, haughtiness, boastfulness, disobedience to parents, foolishness, faithlessness and heartlessness.
The lesson Lewis wants to share with his readers is this: Heavenâ€™s lens offers a clearer view of the choices we make here on Earth. In other words, â€œSet your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earthâ€ (Col. 3:2).
 C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, Harper Colins Publishers, New York, N.Y. 1946, 1973. All parenthetical page references are taken from this edition of Lewisâ€™s book.
 William Blakeâ€™s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, written between 1790 and 1793 is an illustrated book of imitation Bible prophecies filled with heresies about the nature of man, the soul, the Bible and eternity. For example: â€œAll Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors: That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul, That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul, That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.â€
 In C. S. Lewisâ€™s essay, The Weight of Glory, he describes our future glorified state in similar terms.
 MacDonald died before Lewis had become aware of the man, he still looked upon him as a spiritual father and referred to the great Scotsman as “my master,” from The George MacDonald Informational Web.
 â€œThese people are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage.â€ Jude 1:16
 Nick Cady, â€œAugustine & Disordered Loves,â€ Theology for the People, April 11, 2019, â€œDisordered loves means that we often love less-important things more, and more-important things less than we ought to, and this wrong prioritization leads to unhappiness and disorder in our lives.â€
 The full title is The Great Divorceâ€”A Dream and Lewis explicitly states in the Foreword, â€œI beg readers to remember this is a fantasy.â€