“I am the resurrection and the life,” replied Jesus. “Anyone who believes in me will live, even if they die. And anyone who lives and believes in me will never, ever die.” [John 11:25-26 (NTE)]
I thought of that great fixed chasm between heaven and hell again after reading C.S. Lewis’ fantasy, The Great Divorce. Lewis clearly warns his readers that the book is a fantasy, what he calls “imaginative supposal,” and should be read that way. He does, however, add that it does have a moral. The book’s unnamed narrator (presumed to be Lewis) describes what seems to be hell as a grey, dingy, and utterly joyless place where quarrelsome souls continually argue with one another and move further and further apart. Finding himself there, the narrator joins others as they take a bus ride from this grey world to a vibrant, beautiful, and substantial place that appears to be heaven.
Although they aren’t ghosts, his fellow travelers appear insubstantial, almost wraithlike, in comparison to this new world—a place more real than anything he’d ever known—and the solid radiant people they see there. Full of life, love, and joy, each vivid being tries to convince one of the ghostlike travelers to stay. Those who choose to remain may do so and are reassured that they will gradually become more substantial as they drink from the fountain and journey up the mountain. Those who choose to reject the offer are free to return to the bus and their joyless lives.
The narrator’s travelling companions are people like us. Some are self-absorbed or greedy while others are embittered or selfish. One traveler is sure he’s better than the “riff-raff” around him and another, sure that he’s earned his way there, demands his rights. One wants to be assured of his position before staying, another remains skeptical of its promise, and still another person refuses to stay because of shame. One refuses to forgive, one wishes to live in the past, and one prefers wallowing in misery and self-pity. When none of these choose to stay, the narrator’s guide explains that the choice of those “lost souls” is best expressed in the phrase, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” He adds, “there is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery…always something they prefer to joy.” Only one traveler chooses to give up the lust that controlled his life and stay. When he does so, the narrator watches as he solidifies into a new-made man.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote: “The more we get what we now call “ourselves” out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. … It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.” The contrast between the ghostlike non-believing souls with the vibrant solid people they meet is a perfect illustration of Lewis’ point. Indeed, it is only when we die to ourselves that we truly become alive and complete. Giving up oneself to follow Jesus is a real choice each person must make!
Even though the narrator takes a bus ride from hell to heaven, this fantasy really isn’t about heaven or hell. It merely answers the question so many people ask: how can a loving God send someone to Hell? The simple answer is that He doesn’t! Rather than being condemned to hell as punishment, each person freely chooses how they will spend both life in the here-and now and in eternity. The narrator is told by his guide, “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.”
When the narrator wonders if he’d actually witnessed choices made long before death, his guide doesn’t answer. Instead, he explains it was just a dream and cautions the man to make that clear should he ever write of it. As Lewis said in the book’s preface, the story is just a fantasy but, as he promised in the preface, it does have a moral: our loving God never sends people to hell—they do that of their own free will!
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. [C.S. Lewis]