The Great Divorce, An Essay
C. S. Lewis wrote this book in 1945 in response to an author named Blake who wrote the "Marriage of Heaven and Hell". Lewis' book is a response to that error. Blake's error is the philosophical belief that all roads lead to God. They view the roads of life like radii of a circle. If we keep going down any path we will eventually end up in the middle. This argument will eventually even make evil into good. Lewis is arguing against this philosophy.
The audience of the book would seem to be anyone who has read Blake's book and also anyone who has been influenced by the philosophical concepts endorsed in that book. This was a popular train of thought in that day as it is now.
The dangers of a widely held erroneous view are profound and I believe Lewis felt he needed to attempt to speak to that issue. He lived in a time when this type of philosophy was growing in acceptance and popularity among the masses. When ever a society embraces a philosophy there are ramifications to that held view, either for good or for evil . Lewis saw the error of this view, which was that any direction would come out fine in the end. The subjectivity of that view was a real danger to society at large. When we hold that any direction is as good as any other direction we embrace our own destruction as a society. The common good is maintained only by the common morality. Societies that become morally subjective are doomed to failure. Lewis puts it this way, "...some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development of adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain. This belief I take to be a disastrous error."
This book is delightfully insightful in it's content. Lewis uses a dream as the vehicle to carry his ideas. You don't find out it is a dream until the last chapter.
I really enjoyed the contrasting themes within the book. You see those people from hell as "phantoms" as opposed to those "bright solid people" from heaven. The contrasts are wonderful. Lewis does a good job here with imagery. You find at once a difference when the bus arrives in heaven. The colors are so strong they almost make the people disappear. They realize they are phantoms. The grass is sharp on their feet. The rain would go through them like bullets from a machine gun. They can't even pick flowers. The stems are far too strong for them. I especially appreciated the concept of heaven being very large and hell being infinitesimally small, smaller than a grain of sand. Lewis put it like this, "All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World." We see first the physical contrast, but Lewis moves onto a far more important contrast.
Lewis shows the contrast in choices through most of the book. The phantoms have their reasons for coming to heaven which mostly involve getting their rights or stating their position. This is very well contrasted with the solid people attempting to explain the grace of God to them. These people chose unwisely based on selfish motives, their own roads and expected heaven to accept them anyway. They blame heaven for not accepting them. He shows the folly of Blake's philosophy by doing this. We see humorously the silliness of having it our own way. When Lewis contrasts the grace of God with the folly of man this is the best contrast of all. In each discussion we see some of the more common things that keep men apart from God's love.
Lewis has a discussion with George Macdonald in the book as one of the solid people. They discuss the issues of the phantoms and the reality of heaven and hell. The question of choices comes up and Macdonald says this, "Milton was right," said my Teacher. "The choice of every lost sould can be expressed in the words, 'Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.' ..... There is always something they prefer to joy --- that is, to reality." Choices are important according to Lewis (and Macdonald). This contrasts what Blake says in his book.
Lewis makes his point well, God honors the choices of individuals. My favorite quote in the book is this, "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 chose it."
Lewis' strengths in this book are his use of illustrative fiction to put his point across. He catches the imagination and addresses many different kinds of people's life styles. We can all think of people we know just like these phantoms. The same arguments in their lives are made. They are self righteous people who deny the grace of God. His use of contrast is striking in his argument, particularly when in the beginning of the book we see Hell as a great expanse. It seems so large and then we realize how very small the people must really be who are in Hell. His argument is absolute genius. I honestly don't find any weaknesses in Lewis' argument. I would have serious problems with his argument if this had not been a dream due to the discussion of choice after death and of purgatory. But since this is a dream and an illustrative fiction I have no such problems.
I would recommend this book to those who were intelligent people with objections to the Christian faith due to a subjective moral position. Those who reject Christianity because they think it is too rigid are the most likely to get a lot out of the book. It is an intelligent book so those who don't have at least some basic understanding of philosophical concepts will not understand the book. For those who are philosophical and good thinkers this book will stimulate their imagination in many ways. It will challenge their presuppositions. It will stimulate their imaginations. It will give them a good understanding of the Christian position in a non threatening way.
Also I would recommend the book for the Christian who is struggling with subjectivism. Our culture has shoved this concept down our throats in recent times and I am sure many Christians struggle with these issues. If they are relatively intelligent people they will find the book very stimulating and it will help them to put all of these issues in perspective.
Thirdly I would recommend this book for Christians to use to understand how non believers think. It is helpful to get inside the minds of those we desire to reach. When we see the struggles the phantoms make with the truth, we see exactly how many people around us also see life. This will be helpful in having a meaningful discussion of the truth with them. When we understand others positions it does two things, it lets them know we have heard them, and it helps us to see how to best answer their objection.
The Great Divorce is my favorite book of C. S. Lewis. I think it is a masterpiece of literary work and apologetic work also. It will impact people for generations to come.