This time last week some of us gathered for the first of our Advent study sessions. This year we are studying C.S. Lewis’ book ‘The Great Divorce.’ There are lots of strands to Advent and one of them is looking forward to the end things, including Heaven and Hell. This is a good book to investigate these topics as well a focusing on our own response to God, particularly at a time when we are thinking about Christ’s coming. This post is based on the discussion we had on the Preface, although comments from lots of people have been put together here.

The title of the book has a passing nod to Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Lewis mentions it at the beginning but also says he wasn’t quite sure what Blake meant. We had a short discussion about Blake’s poem. Blake turns ideas about good and evil on their head and states that both good and bad, love and hate are needed in human experience. At the front of the book is a quote by George McDonald, someone who influenced Lewis and who appears later on in the story. McDonald writes,

“No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little of Hell in it- no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather.”

In this quote is an important part of what Lewis is doing with this book. Unlike Blake, Lewis is with McDonald. Nothing of Hell is needed and we must be prepared to let go of evil for nothing but goodness is found in Heaven.

In the Preface Lewis states categorically

“A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simple going on. Evil can be undone but it can never ‘develop’ into good.”

An important theme in ‘The Great Divorce’ is the place of choice in our walk with God. Free will means that God will allow us to turn our back on Him, on all that is good and create our own hell if we so wish. The choices we make create our character. What we lose as we go along, if we choose for evil, even in the guise of self-interest or self importance, is the ability to see that the choices we are making are taking us down a road. These choices make us less and less likely that we are free to response to God’s goodness and love. Conversely, Lewis says the person whose choices lead them closer to God will find that these choices make it easier to accept God’ invitation of love. He puts it somewhat better:

“I think Earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been all along only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning part of heaven itself.”

There is in this quote an echo of the dwarves in the final Narnia book, ‘The Last Battle’, who refuse to believe they are in Heaven and instead insist they are still in the dark, stinking stable.

In the last quote, there is also the theme of desire. Where is our deepest desire? Is it for Heaven?