Stories of people who experience heavenly visions move quickly through some Christian circles. Like a spark into parched fields, they find in their hearers a kind of thirst for any kind of ember—some evidence of the eternal to quell the voice of doubt. Given all this, I’ve wondered why C. S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce isn’t more popular. Of course, his vision was purely imaginary—a kind of speculative fiction that, as he wrote of the book, was never meant to “arouse factual curiosity about the details of the afterworld.”
Not unlike in his The Screwtape Letters, Lewis sees the human condition with an uncanny clarity: Chapter by chapter, we meet the souls of the dead newly arrived in heaven, each to have his or her own confrontation with the utter reality of God, whom they are decidedly not prepared to meet. God’s life contains and suffuses all with a realness so real, in fact, it’s physically painful to those who have not yet been nourished by the rivers and waterfalls and trees of heaven, where even the grass hurts to walk upon and a single apple is too heavy to be lifted.
The greater pain, of course, is in the encounters these souls have with the people sent by God to greet them. The luminous hosts are embodiments of God’s love—transformed spouses and colleagues, siblings and friends, who have already been in God’s country for some time. Their assignment is to help the newly arrived take their next steps into infinite joy, except that in most cases, the men and women are met not with gratitude and relief but with anxiety, pride, and derision.
In the ghostly figures’ rejection of their counterparts’ offer to finally become who God made them to be—to embrace the freedom from all that ensnared them on earth and caused them to harm others—Lewis holds up for us a mirror. He wants us to see now, not when we arrive in the afterlife, the ways in which we mistake our chains for freedom and come to prefer their weight. To see and turn from the ways in which we choose again and again to remain in the hellish prison of our pride, rather than receive the liberation Christ promised us.
Illustration by Makers Co.