The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis

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Having read The Great Divorce many times over the years, I’ve found this classic from the great C.S. Lewis to be full of startling clarity and depth on the differences between Heaven and Hell. The only thing both have in common is that both begin in the human will; we can either let Heaven enter us and rule in us to blossom into love and goodness, or allow Hell to infect and reign in our hearts by the daily refusal to submit to Heaven.
Our hearts were created to be indwelt, unified with, and empowered by their Creator; without him we are merely a craving lack, a hunger, a restless need, and we will unsuccessfully attempt to fill that infinite need with the finite world.

The Great Divorce is a heart-forming book that clearly delineates what it means to live in union with Christ, and what it means to live and die without him. Heaven can exist in the worst outer circumstances if a human being relies on God in Christ; Hell will be our experience even in the best worldly conditions if we push away the Lover of our souls. This book is is a perfect companion to another Lewis classic, The Screwtape Letters.

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Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he's not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin' on audiences around the world, he's taking care of his donkey named "Trash" and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.


8 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    The Great Divorce is a fine work with a bad title.

    I avoided this book for years, even after becoming a passionate admirer of Lewis’s work, mainly because of the title. Either this is a book about divorce, I thought, or it’s some heady theological book referencing some old classic that I feel un-intellectual for not being familiar with.

    Some call this a book about Heaven, and in a way it is. But I think of it as a book about life in Christ, about losing our lives in order to find Life. There’s so much to learn about sin, Heaven, Hell, Hope and Hockey in this book. (Not Hockey. I just went a little H-crazy.)

    It is both fiction and theology. It’s poetry too, come to think of it. Don’t be afraid that you won’t be able to wrap your mind around Lewis’s ideas–if ever there was a man who could make deep thoughts accessible, it’s ol’ Clive Staples, and he’s done so in The Great Divorce.

  2. Profile photo of Jonathan Rogers

    Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    Ron, you used the term “heart-forming” to describe THE GREAT DIVORCE. That’s exactly right. There aren’t many books that have done so much to form my own heart.

    THE GREAT DIVORCE resists every effort to reduce its ideas to abstractions or slogans. It’s a story, and it’s the whole story that does the work on you, so I will resist the temptation to say “THE GREAT DIVORCE IS ABOUT…”

    Actually, I won’t resist that temptation. THE GREAT DIVORCE is about desire. It’s about how your every desire, including the pettiest desires–no, ESPECIALLY the pettiest desires–shapes your destiny. To put it another way, everybody gets what he wants.

    Here’s the biggest way THE GREAT DIVORCE shaped my view of what it means to be a human being: it caused me to see the human will not as a series of choices, but as a collection of desires (desires which are often in conflict with one another…I desire not to be fat, but I also desire gravy–a lot). Maybe that’s an obvious thing, this distinction between desire and choice, but the importance of the distinction hasn’t always been obvious to me.

    The things Lewis has to say about desire in this book are teased out in more detail in Jonathan Edwards’ RELIGIOUS AFFECTIONS and John Piper’s DESIRING GOD (among other places), but THE GREAT DIVORCE goes straight to the heart–or, to put it another way, straight to my own desire. It never fails to do its work on me.

  3. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Our humanity, our desires, our human faculties are not ever wrong in and of themselves; wrongness and rightness is only in the use made of them. Sin is misuse of the human machine through unbelief; righteousness is right use of the human through faith. So – a desire for sex, or money, or even gravy is not wrong in and of itself. The hellish characters in The Great Divorce, through unbelief, through self-ishness, have allowed their humanity to be completely taken over and misused; when read in conjunction with The Screwtape Letters and of course Biblical thought, we can see that the misuse of the human machine is staged and engineered by the demonic forces for the express purpose of destroying the human temples God designed to be filled with himself.

    The common characteristic in nearly all of the negative characters in The Great Divorce is self-justification. It is a relentless hanging on to “my desires” and justifying them rather than saying with Christ, “Not my will, but Thine be done.” If we are believers, and learn to trust Christ in all things, he will direct our desires and they will become rightly used. Temptation will always exist on this plane, and God means it so, but if we abide in Christ, relying on his life in us, we will be able to recognize which desires are from the Center of the temple, where we are “one spirit” with the Lord, and which desires are prompted by the devil using the world and the flesh.

    Another way of looking at it: The human container, or vessel, as Paul calls it, is one vast Need, a Lack, a Zero. It has neutral faculties; affection, intelligence, will, faith, sexual function, food-pleasure. Even those faculties often seen as negative are really neutral, having a right and wrong use: jealousy, envy, hatred, ambition, and the like. God is a jealous God. We can envy someone who has a deep relationship with God and so begin to seek it ourselves. God hates evil. We can be ambitious to be everything God wants us to be. This right use happens as a matter of course when the human is completely relying on the indwelling Spirit of Christ. When wrong use (sin) happens in the life of a believer, there is a problem somewhere in his Christ-reliance, some way in which he is choosing to trust his own ways and means of coping with life rather than relying on the indwelling Holy Spirit.

    The residents of Hell in The Great Divorce have gone against the right use of their humanity, opting instead to be owned and operated by someone other than Christ. The book really shows clearly how the Christian life is an either-or proposition; there are no half-measures, hence the title, “The Great Divorce.” “If we insist on keeping Hell we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.” The book is a call to the reader out of half-hearted Christianity into complete reliance on Christ and his will, a call into right use of all our human faculties and desires.

  4. Patricia

    I have read “The Great Divorce” a few times, the last of which just a couple of weeks ago. I also just finally read William Blake’s “The Marriage between Heaven and Hell,” book to which C.S. Lewis responded with The Great Divorce… and well, it’s…. interesting.

    The genius of Lewis was to make a story, a parable, and describe it so well, and make you see things in a way that you would never have seen it if he had explained it to you plainly. I suppose he learned that method with Jesus. In The Great Divorce, he explores the idea of heaven, makes the point that none of us, as we now are, are fit for it (even the grass would hurt our feet!) but that we can be perfectly transformed if we would but let go of the thing (or things!!), be them good or bad, which we have put before our Lord.

    C. S. Lewis makes his point clear, and yet in image-form, not theological jargon. It’s easy to read, even entertaining, and just brilliant! Highly recommended… 🙂 Enjoy!

  5. Micah Pick

    I read the Great Divorce for the first time this past summer. I devoured in a couple of hours, and it has stuck in my mind ever since. To me the best part of the book is how Lewis shows how the distortion of the good things in life, like a mothers love, is more harmful than other things, such as lust.

  6. Cris Jesse

    my wife and i read this book together over the phone when we were dating (what a title for a dating couple, eh?) we would read a chapter, then talk about whatever thoughts it conjured up. what an amazing time!

    it allowed us to break away from this world just a little bit more. it help us see past the veil that we as fallen people have accepted as the truth of the world.

    it’s no surprise that the same author wrote “you have never met a mere mortal…” that’s a place in literature that will forever alter my perception of reality.

  7. Brad Gornto

    Providence led me to the Rabbit Room this evening and this blog in a way that I can not put into words. I see over 2 years has passed since the last post, so I doubt anyone will see this post. I hope that I am wrong.

    The Great Divorce is definitely one of C.S. Lewis’ masterpieces and one of my favorite books for many reasons. First and foremost, is that he paints a “landscape of a story” that vividly explains why all men/sinners need Christ for eternal life. On his canvas he draws from numerous sources and influences such as Augustine and Edwards, but most importantly the Word of God (for the most part). He explains salvation through faith in Chris alone in a way that few people can understand from a casual read of the Bible or the sermons that are preached from too many pews today. He shows that man, by his very nature (tainted by sin), is utterly incapable of entering Heaven. Much like the smallest drop of ink will ruin a perfectly pure glass of water, so would the entrance of the most righteous of man into heaven, forever ruin the perfect holiness of God. Lewis so clearly portrays the fundamental problem facing all of mankind. The can not get into heaven on their own because of their sin, no matter how good of a person they are. They need a substitute to atone for their sins, and of course, that is what Christ did for us. And it is with his righteousness, and His righteousness alone, that we shall be able to stand before the blazing Glory of God. Or in Lewis’ words (paraphrasing) it is the only way we find ourselves not still a ghost when the morning comes. One of my favorite quotes from G.D. is how Lewis describes Heaven with Our Father when the Lady explains to the Tragedian, “Here is joy that cannot be shaken. Our light can swallow up your darkness: but your darkness cannot now infect our light. Come to us. We will not got to you.”

    Oh well, spent to much time on the first reason I love this book that I won’t go into the others. Perhaps in follow up posts (if any). I’ll end with another one of my favorite quotes: “But you and I must be clear. There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him. And the higher and mightier it is in the natural order, the more demoniac it will be if it rebels. It’s not out of bas mice or bad fleas that you make demons, but out of bas archangels.”

  8. Brianna S.

    This book, like many of Lewis’ writings, encourages us to look at things in our lives and hearts from the point of view of eternity. I find myself still, after several years, thinking of the images he creates… Images of our souls, revealed, as we reach the other side. It’s not a work of plot-driven fiction, but more a series of sketches. If you are anything like the type of reader I am, you will read it, think you understand, and then read it again a few years later and actually understand.

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