Sunday 22 August 2021

If you want to know why so many people choose hell - read The Great Divorce by CS Lewis

It is pretty well recognized that if you want to understand how demons think, the CS Lewis's The Screwtape Letters - followed by Screwtape Proposes a Toast - are the best source. 

It is much less widely appreciated that the best understanding of why so many reject Heaven and prefer to choose Hell can be found in Lewis's later The Great Divorce - text version here, and downloadable ebook from here.  

The story has the protagonist (Lewis himself) visiting Heaven on a holiday from Hell with a group of other (self-) damned souls, with the chance of remaining in Heaven - if only they will repent their sins.

The meat of the book is an exploration of the foothills/ outskirts of Heaven and series of encounters between Lewis and a range of representative unrepentant sinners (insubstantial ghosts - by comparison with the hardness and density of Heavenly beings and landscapes). 

What comes across - in a way that I found revelatory and unforgettable - is why people will not give-up and be cleansed-of what seem quite 'trivial' sins, even when the reward is Heaven. 

It is shown how people come to build their life and self-image around some particular sinful activity, such that they can scarcely imagine putting it aside - even when it makes them miserable. This is a fact of everyday life, found in many people around us - and we can surely see it in our-selves. 

A few examples include a 'liberal Christian' Bishop whose self esteem is so based upon his delight in debate and skeptical analysis, that he does not want to know the real answers to his questions - but only to go on showing-off his cleverness and discussing them forever, without end. 

A particularly hard-hitting instance is when a ghost from Hell meets a man who was a murderer in earthly life but repented and chose Heaven; whereas it emerges that the ghost is kept in Hell by his own consuming resentment against the murderer, and the 'unfairness' that a murderer can be forgiven. He chooses Hell rather than forgiveness. 

A woman who spent her life micro-managing her miserable husband into someone more in-line with her own wishes, wants nothing more than to be 'given him' so she can continue the process forever. Unless she can continue to tyrannize over this husband (now one of the happy and blessed in Heaven) - she insists on remaining in Hell. 

A ghost man called Frank meets his Heavenly wife who has become a saint and is followed by a joyous 'family' of those whom she loved and sustained during mortal life. But this man will not speak to his wife directly, but only via a kind of Shakesperian ham-actor 'tragedian' puppet; who is always speechifying to make her feel sorry for him. 

Lewis here quotes some deep insights about this particular sin, through the mouth of the sainted wife (slightly edited by me):

You are using pity, other people's pity, in the wrong way. 

We have all done it a bit on earth, you know. Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity... 

Even as a child you did it. Instead of saying you were sorry, you went and sulked in the attic... because you knew that, sooner or later, one of your sisters would say, 'I can't bear to think of him sitting up there alone, crying.' You used your pity to blackmail them, and they gave in in the end... 

"And that," said the Tragedian, "that is all you have understood of me, after all these years!..." 

"No, Frank, not here!" said the Lady. "Listen to reason. 

Did you think joy was created to live always under that threat? Always defenceless against those who would rather be miserable than have their self-will crossed? 

For it was real misery. I know that now. You made yourself really wretched. That you can still do. But you can no longer communicate your wretchedness. 

Here in Heaven, everything becomes more and more itself. Here is joy that cannot be shaken. Our light can swallow up your darkness: but your darkness cannot now infect our light. 

No, no, no. Come to us. We will not go to you. Can you really have thought that love and joy would always be at the mercy of frowns and sighs? Did you not know they were stronger than their opposites?"

This is marvelous stuff, making points I've never found elsewhere, and there is a good deal more of it; making The Great Divorce one of the key books in my Christian understanding...

Because it is a very common stumbling block that people literally cannot understand why anybody would choose hell over Heaven; and therefore they jump to the conclusion that God is keeping people out of Heaven and that our task on earth is to persuade God to let us in. 

The truth is almost the opposite. God's intention is, through the experiences of our mortal lives, to persuade us to set aside sin and accept the offer of resurrection (which leaves-behind sin) and follow (as a sheep follows the Good Shepherd) Jesus Christ to Heaven. 

Yet it seem to be the hardest thing in this modern world to persuade Men that it is worth giving up their favourite sin to receive the blessings of Heaven - which can only be Heaven when inhabited by Men who have, voluntarily and by positive choice, set-aside evil.

Probably it has not always been thus - and in the ancient world Men merely needed to be told of Heaven and believe it was possible, to wish to follow Jesus. 

Indeed, those who come to know the truth about Jesus and the possibility of Heaven only after their death, and who then recognize and love him, can also make the choice.

Anyone who loves and wishes to follow Jesus, and is prepared to pay the 'price' of repentance, is welcomed by God. 

But Modern Man does not want this - he prefers to hold onto his favourite sin (often some resentment disguised as a political 'ism'; perhaps a sexual sin - a preference for lust over love; perhaps a clinging to mortal life and the refusal to regard death as a portal to everlasting life; perhaps that despair which prefers extinction to eternal participation in creation)... and to take the miserable consequences. 

And if the above does not make sense to you; then you need to read and ponder CS Lewis's The Great Divorce


William Wildblood said...

I reread this a month ago and agree it is a wonderful book. The title refers to Lewis's rejection of the idea that Hell and Heaven can somehow unite in a marriage because they are all part of the one whole and must be integrated, a popular Jungian (amongst others) misconception. Nothing of hell can get into heaven.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JQ - Thanks - I watched when it was first posted online. Both amusing and disturbing!

Anonymous said...

The seventh-last paragraph ("The truth is almost the opposite. [...]") seems especially clearly 'MacDonaldian', but the whole post gives me a sharper sense of why Lewis's guide on this (dream) journey is George MacDonald. Your readers may like to know (or be reminded) that the book with which Lewis followed up The Great Divorce is his George MacDonald: An Anthology, with a quotation a day for a year (starting at any day and going on for 364 more, if one likes reading it that way) - as well as a candid and interesting introduction about MacDonald's strengths and weaknesses. (And there are now searchable texts - transcriptions or scans - online of many (I'm not sure about all) of the works Lewis selects from, if one wants to see the selection in context.)

Very different from The Great Divorce, but also well worth trying (e.g., at fadedpage, too, I see). I think I read it right through, the first time, but have also read it day-by-day. (I am now finally making the acquaintance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a similar way, with a Dutch daily-selection book - as well as rereading day-by-day Charles Williams's wide-ranging, thought-feeding, conscience-challenging New Christian Year: available by a link on the Williams Society homepage which gives the current day of the Church Year - and a handy index, too.)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Joseph A. said...

My favorite part is the procession in honor of Sarah Smith of Golders Green.

Concerning the topic of your post, though, what of loners? I've reflected upon my own "distaste" of the idea of heaven, and I've concluded that the most objectionable part for me is its apparent hyper-social nature. I'm not a total misanthrope. I appreciate people "from a distance" -- rather as people who do not like arthropods can still find them fascinating and enjoyable to behold behind glass as a zoo. Yet, the idea of forever being among hordes of other souls, never being able to escape, to become invisible, to hide, to dwell alone . . . it's an intolerable thought. A spin on Sartre -- le ciel, c'est les autres! Is paradise exclusively for the nauseating ENFP masses?

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD -

Unfortunately, I don't respond positively to George MacDonald! I've made a fair effort, but he (like most authors!) is beyond my range of sympathy. Also, the Lewisian theological passages of the Great Divorce - about 'time', and mostly put into the mouth of the MacDonald character - are the least good from my perspective. Perhaps because I regard the metaphysics and theology as mistaken, and incoherent.

@Joseph - On the one hand, the idea of Heaven as entailing hordes is indeed unpleasant (as is the actuality of Hell as an ultimate aloneness with one's own circling obsessions, which Lewis describes in this book).

But Heaven certainly is for those who commit eternally to live by Love as their principle of Being - so persons incapable *or* rejecting of Love could and would not choose Heaven.

I have written extensively on this blog concerning my understanding of Heaven, which is (in a nutshell) based upon the extended and inter-married family as the 'unit' of organization, and participation in God's continuing creation as the 'work' or activity being-pursued.

Further; I regard each individual persona as existentially unique from eternity - so Heaven, like earth, consists of beings who have always been different from each other, no two are the same, and Love is the way that such individuals cohere and cooperate in an open-ended way.

(As with the ideal family in mortal life, which most of us can imagine and yearn for, and some will experience - to an extent.)

@William "Nothing of hell can get into heaven."


But I think it is most accurate to regard the reason for this as a necessity for Heaven to exist, rather than something like a exclusion being applied. I think of it that Heaven Just Is the place where all inhabitants have been enabled (by Jesus Christ) to make an eternal unbreakable commitment to live by Love. This entails willingly leaving-behind (at resurrection) all that is Not of Love.

Bruce B. said...

I’m sorry if this comes off as a stupid comment but here goes.

Most people don’t choose heaven or hell because they don’t believe either exist. Most people don’t choose their favorite sin or turning from their favorite sin because they don’t believe such a thing as sin exists. They don’t believe anything except the universe as organized particles.

Isn't nihilism the primary belief of modern man?

Anonymous said...

Lewis and MacDonald seems a fair-sized and engaging 'matter'. It strikes me that I've never tried to line up each thing that Lewis said in a publication about MacDonald in the order he said it - which would be good to see, when most of us have probably encountered what he said in Surprised by Joy - or a quotation from it - first, and when there are lots of things he said on paper, but which have only been published posthumously. Lists of the published and 'private' things would be interesting to compare.

One early public one is in Lewis's third essay (chapter 5) in The Personal Heresy published 'controversy' with Tillyard from 1939: "I am sure that I do not care for these things [things "which seem to give me a new and nameless sensation, or even a new sense, to enrich me with experience which nothing in my previous life has prepared me for"] because they introduce me to the men Morris and Macdonald: I care for the books, and the men, because they witness to these things, and it the message, not the messenger that has my heart." This follows his speaking of finding such 'things' "most of all in the prose works of George Macdonald" - in a sentence which continues "where literary competence is so often so to seek that any of us could improve even the best passages very materially in half an hour" - !

I wonder if by 1946 Lewis expects or foresees the likelihood of people not responding positively at once to MacDonald and tries to give them 365 chances to make a 'bite-sized' fair effort?

The 1945 MacDonald character in The Great Divorce does invite attention. Is this an example of Lewis attempting to improve some of the best things in MacDonald "very materially"? If so, does he succeed? Or is his MacDonald not, in the event, MacDonaldy enough?

If one ends up not responding positively to MacDonald, I suspect Lewis wants to give every one the chance to have as positive an experience as he had.

I can't remember what MacDonald I read when, but I suspect The MacDonald Anthology was pretty early in my experience, and succeeded as I take it Lewis hoped it might for people.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - "Most people don’t choose heaven or hell because they don’t believe either exist. Most people don’t choose their favorite sin or turning from their favorite sin because they don’t believe such a thing as sin exists. They don’t believe anything except the universe as organized particles."

These unbeliefs (heaven/ hell. sin etc) are a *consequence* of having rejected Heaven/ not believing in any explanations except 'physics'.

The metaphysical (by assumption) rejection of any possibility of meaning, purpose and participation - has consequences. And some of these consequences can become self-reinforcing.

One consequence is demotivation - so that nothing is believed deeply or strongly enough to sustain courage; and no effort is made to escape this condition (only Not to think about it, or to distract oneself).