The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

Summary: An attempt at refuting universalism whose Kafkaesque depiction of the afterlife ironically shows why it would be a better idea.

An allegory along the lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Christian apologist C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce was written, as Lewis explains in the preface, to combat the universalist notion that everyone will be saved in the end. The book takes the form of a bus ride that carries the damned from Hell to Heaven, where the narrator learns that they are offered a chance to stay there, but ultimately reject it because they prefer to remain in Hell.

Following is an extended review of the book containing comments on specific chapters, concluded by overall impressions. Some chapters have been omitted, since they contain no material I wish to make any specific remarks about; in any event, every claim both explicitly and implicitly made in this book has been answered elsewhere on this site.

CHAPTERS I – III

In the opening chapters of the book, we find that Hell is a bleak, dreary gray town, vast and lonely, hovering in a perpetual rainy twilight. Wandering through abandoned streets, the narrator finally stumbles across a bus stop, where a group of people are waiting for the bus. All of them are angry and argumentative, however, seemingly unable to tolerate each other’s presence; they quarrel, assault each other or drop out of the line declaring that they didn’t want to go anyway at the slightest provocation.

Finally the bus arrives, driven by an unidentified man who “seemed full of light” (p.3). The passengers pile on, and to the narrator’s surprise, as they drive off the bus soars up into the air, the gray town falling away beneath it. The boundaries of the town cannot be seen, however; in fact, the higher they climb, the huger it is revealed to be, filling all the field of vision. We learn that this is because its inhabitants, unable to tolerate each other, keep moving further and further out to be away from everyone else. Since they have no physical needs, necessity does not force them together to build a functioning society. It is further explained that the average damned soul will never meet any of the interesting historical personalities that dwell there, because by now they are so far away from everyone else – millions of miles – that it would take forever to find them.

The bus at last lands atop a great cliff, and as the passengers pile out, Heaven is revealed to be an idyllic wilderness paradise, an Eden-like garden country of rivers and trees. Its sense of scale is enormous, and in a distance unimaginably far away, the narrator catches sight of indistinct cities built on the summits of gigantic mountains. The strangest thing the passengers discover, however, is that the place is suffused with a supernatural reality, in a sense more solid, more real, than anything else. In fact, it is so real that the damned find themselves to be insubstantial shadows by comparison, unable to move a single leaf or bend a blade of grass beneath their feet. From this point onward Lewis refers to them as Ghosts.

It is not long before the residents of Heaven arrive. Unlike the damned, they are as fully solid and real as anything else in this place; Lewis calls them Spirits. Each of them pairs off with one of the Ghosts, trying to convince them to stay, and the narrator’s watching and listening to their conversations occupies the rest of the book.

CHAPTER IV

The first conversation we witness is between a Spirit, who was a murderer that repented and was saved, and a Ghost who cannot understand why he is damned and the other is not. He says he did his best all his life and “never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights” (p.25), and says that all he is asking for now is his rights as well.

This chapter, of course, serves as a vehicle for Lewis to promote his view of no-effort salvation by faith. “You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and we none of us did. Lord bless you, it doesn’t matter” (p.27). The Spirit says that in Heaven, no one has their rights and no one needs them – the only way to get in is through what he refers to as the “Bleeding Charity” (p.26).

Of course, there are good arguments against this position – how can justice be done when the guilty are not punished? is a person deserving of punishment who always strived to do right? why does God hold us to a standard he knows we cannot meet? can a thirty-second profession of faith really achieve what a virtuous lifetime cannot? – none of which are addressed here. Lewis makes no reply to these counterarguments, even though the Ghost presents some of them. Instead, the most he does is to engage in a none too subtle well-poisoning by depicting the Ghost making them as angry and violent (he was first introduced earlier in the book, at the bus stop, where he physically assaulted another passenger for essentially no reason). I could not help but get the impression that Lewis believes that because he has crafted a story in which Christianity is true, that alone renders objections to Christianity, presented within the context of the story, invalid.

CHAPTER V

The next chapter encompasses a discussion between another Spirit and an individual Lewis refers to as the Episcopal Ghost, a damned soul who apparently represents atheists and liberal theists. This Ghost does not believe in a literal Heaven or Hell (even though he just came from the latter; he does not recognize it for what it is), is obsessed with the idea of philosophical inquiry, and speaks regretfully of how Jesus’ ethical philosophy never attained its peak, because he was killed by crucifixion before he had a chance to fully mature and outgrow the brash ideas of his youth.

Of all the chapters in the book, this was the only one that made me genuinely angry. Few conservative Christians are able to accurately portray the skeptic’s mindset; most who attempt to do so fall into the same old false stereotypes so beloved by fundamentalists, and Lewis is unable to resist this temptation.

The conversation begins promisingly enough. The Ghost (who still does not believe he was in Hell) plays along with what the Spirit is telling him and then asks, “Do you really think people are penalized for their honest opinions?” (p.32). He concedes that there are such things as “sins of intellect,” but maintains that that category is made up of things like prejudice and dishonesty and does not include “honest opinions fearlessly followed,” even if those opinions turn out to be mistaken.

So far, so good. But Lewis’ reply (given by proxy through the Spirit) is an awesomely arrogant thing – in essence, he asserts that no one who is not a fundamentalist Christian came by that opinion honestly, that everyone who believes differently does so only out of intellectual laziness or selfishness. “Our opinions were not honestly come by,” the Spirit (another convert) says. “We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful” (p.33). He goes on to claim that nonbelievers are afraid of Christianity being true and that they rejected the supernatural without ever seriously considering whether it might actually occur. The only attempt to mitigate this incredible argument is when the Spirit claims to be speaking only to the Episcopal Ghost himself and says, “I have nothing to do with any generality” (p.34), but if this is not meant to be a depiction of nonbelievers in general, then Lewis becomes guilty of the straw man fallacy by avoiding the issue of whether a sincere skeptic genuinely does deserve or receive damnation, and instead shifting the discussion to a situation easier to deal with. In any event, if this is not meant to be a description of all nonbelievers, then why is it in the book?

A second, similar caricature occurs later in the chapter, when the Episcopal Ghost states that “there is no such thing as a final answer” (p.36) and refuses the offer to stay in Heaven because doing so would deny him the “free play of inquiry”. It is implied that the Ghost no longer asks questions because he wants answers, but only for the sake of asking questions; he does not actually want to possess the truth he claims to be seeking. The Spirit compares this to masturbation.

Again, Lewis misrepresents the skeptical position by creating a caricature of it and attacking that. He implies that anyone who does not accept Christianity does so only because they do not want answers. How would he respond to someone whose “honest opinion fearlessly followed” was that Christianity was untrue, or someone who actively considered Christianity, perhaps even sincerely believed in it for a time, but ultimately rejected it because they decided that the evidence was in favor of atheism? Does Lewis engage in this straw man construction because he does not want to deal with such difficult cases, or is it his belief that no such people exist?

CHAPTER VII

This chapter is among the most puzzling in the book. The narrator meets a paranoid Ghost who spins bizarre claims about a conspiracy among the administration of the afterlife and argues that showing Heaven to the damned is merely a cruel prank meant to torment them further. While this turns out to go nowhere, this Hard-Bitten Ghost (as Lewis styles him) makes a far more interesting point: why don’t the inhabitants of Heaven attack and destroy Hell once and for all and rescue those who dwell there? It is certainly within their power.

Lewis’ narrator admits that this account seems “uncomfortably plausible” (p.50), but the truly strange thing is that no response from the Christian side is given; no Spirit shows up to make a reply. The point is brought up, allowed to linger and then dropped. I am puzzled as to why Lewis mentioned it at all. As will be shown later on, this crack in his theology provides a suitable place to insert a wedge that will split the entire system open.

CHAPTER IX

In this chapter, the narrator meets a heavenly guide, a Scottish preacher named George MacDonald whom Lewis admired, who is now a resident of this place. He explains several of the things that this review has already mentioned.

Knowledgeable readers may already have noticed that Lewis’ damned are given a chance to leave Hell and stay in Heaven, when the Christian Bible itself offers no such opportunity. MacDonald makes some effort to explain this, saying that the gray town is Hell only for those who elect to stay there, and for those who leave it, it was never Hell, but Purgatory (p.63), though Purgatory is itself another concept that is never mentioned in Lewis’ preferred version of the Bible. In the end, MacDonald gives up trying to explain and says that the timeless nature of eternity makes mortals incapable of understanding it.

MacDonald briefly presents a Christian reply to one of the most enduring arguments against theism, the problem of evil. “They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory” (p.64). Exactly what this means is unclear; presumably it is another of the paradoxes of eternity. Pain and suffering are real, all too real, at the time they are experienced, and postulating a future state where some people will be able to look back on them and smile (as reprehensible a thought as that is, in and of itself) does not change this. This argument still does not address the question of why suffering exists in the first place.

In a brief reference back to the encounter with the Episcopal Ghost, MacDonald also states that when Judgment Day comes, “nearly all” the damned who remain in Hell will console themselves by saying that they were always true to what they believed. Evidently, we now have an answer to the question posed in chapter 5: Lewis does consider “honest opinions fearlessly followed” to be Hell-worthy crimes if those opinions do not lead to the predetermined “correct” conclusion.

Then we come to the main thrust of the chapter: MacDonald’s explanation that the damned remain in Hell because they are fundamentally selfish – he compares them to sulky children – and always prefer something else to the glory of Heaven. “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, choose it” (p.69).

But this criticism could be turned right back on the Christians. An atheist could equally well say, as MacDonald does, that “there is always something they prefer to joy – that is, to reality” (p.66). It might be that they are arrogant and want to believe the entire vast universe was made just for them; it might be that they are too afraid to face existence as it is and would rather believe that it is as they prefer it to be; it might be that they want a reason to feel superior to others; it might be that they are stubborn and do not want to face the facts; or it might be that they are brainwashed, too set in their ways to even consider that anything they were taught might be wrong. I am not saying I personally believe any of these things, but a Christian who objects to these characterizations should have a good understanding of how an atheist feels when reading Lewis’ parade of stereotypes.

Finally, we touch upon another caricature that can just as easily be reversed: the damned who desire to “extend” Hell, to bring it into Heaven, by describing at great length the misery they experienced below, and who want only to lecture the Spirits, not to listen to them. This latter situation is, of course, a letter-perfect description of many Christian proselytizers who view others only as targets for conversion. As well, it might be argued that Lewis’ Christianity itself – its gloomy and stifling claims about universal depravity and the inevitable damnation of the majority of humankind, its cruel and vengeful God, and its insistence that its converts forsake reason and live only by the weakly flickering candle of blind faith – is itself a sort of Hell of the intellect, and those lost souls who seek to comfort and reassure themselves by pushing their belief system upon those who dwell, happy and fulfilled, in the light of humanism, are the Ghosts who seek to spread it.

CHAPTER XI

Just as the Hard-Bitten Ghost asked in chapter 7, why don’t the inhabitants of Heaven stage an invasion of Hell to rescue its inhabitants by force? Why doesn’t God force salvation on the damned? Lewis’ answer to this question comes later in the book, when he states (p.125) that the only diseases which shall be cured are those which submit to the cure – and yet an episode in this chapter makes it clear that even a damned soul who had salvation forced upon him would be nothing but grateful in the end.

We begin with a brief conversation between a Ghost and her saved brother. The woman wants to see her son and demands to know why a loving God would deny her that, and again we descend into predictable Christian stereotypes as the Spirit tells her that “human beings can’t make one another really happy for long” and that “You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God” (p.92). This is, to put it plainly, false. It is another example of how religion tries to take exclusive possession of an entire area of life, proclaiming that those who do not follow its tenets, those who do not have its permission, cannot be human or feel human. This is not so. Religion does not have a monopoly on love, and atheists can feel it at least as well as theists can. As Lewis himself has unintentionally demonstrated with these quotes, it is his version of theism that weakens and devalues the power of love. In teaching us to try to love an invisible, silent God who never takes clear action to help us or returns our entreaties in any meaningful way, it detracts from our love for our fellow human beings who can comfort us, who can absorb our grief, increase our joy, and be with us in times of tragedy.

Then we come to the more interesting part of the chapter: a Ghost who is tormented by lust, represented as a lizard that sits on his shoulder and whispers to him. He encounters an angel, and after some persuasion, gives it permission to kill the beast that afflicts him. The angel does this, and for the only time in the entire book, we see a Ghost become a Spirit; the lizard is transformed into a massive, beautiful stallion, which the newly saved soul rides into the distance like a shooting star, accompanied by a rejoicing chorus sung by the land itself.

What is striking about this episode is this. The angel tells the Ghost that he cannot kill the lizard without the Ghost’s permission; this confirms other statements made in the book which sum up to the claim that the damned who remain in Hell do so willingly, because they reject Heaven.

But as this chapter makes abundantly clear, they spurn it because they are not capable of imagining what it is like. According to C.S. Lewis, the damned reject Heaven out of ignorance. Granted, it is an ignorance stubborn and self-willed, but even in Lewis’ caricature, it is still ignorance. They do not realize, do not understand, what they are missing out on.

The Ghost who at last gave the angel permission to kill the lizard tormenting him did so grudgingly, hardly with enthusiasm – “Damn and blast you! Go on can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like” (p.103). But once the deed was done and he was transformed into a Spirit, he was so overwhelmed with gratitude that he kissed the angel’s feet, weeping, literally glowing with love. Why, then, do the residents of Heaven not change the rest of the damned in this way without their permission? Why do they not invade Hell and tear it down once and for all, as the Hard-Bitten Ghost suggested? Why does God not grant them that power? Lewis gives us no reason to believe that any damned soul that had such a transformation forced on it would be any less thankful in the end. Surely he would not argue that Heaven is the better option?

Near the end of the book, Lewis states that “every disease that submits to a cure will be cured” (p.125), but since when has the consent of the patient ever been a prerequisite for treating a disease of this nature? If you were a doctor, would you hesitate to forcibly administer antipsychotic medicine to an insane man because he believed that you were an agent of the worldwide conspiracy against him? Would you hold his refusal to take the drugs as bearing any weight? Would you console yourself that yes, he’ll be unhappy, but at least that’s what he wanted? On the contrary, a humane doctor would understand that his patient was not of sound mind and did not have the judgment to make such a choice for himself.

Or what if you were a parent sending your child to kindergarten for the first time, and they cried and threw a tantrum and pleaded to be taken home again? Would you accede to your child’s wishes, no matter how ill-advised you thought they were, because you wanted to respect their own free choice? Of course, no rational parent would do this. The point is precisely that in these circumstances, you possess a long-term perspective that allows you to see what is best for the other person, even if he disagrees because of his limited short-term perspective. When a person does not fully understand the ramifications of a decision, it is by no means wrong for a person who does understand to steer that person into making the right choice, just as the psychiatric patient would be thankful once his paranoia was cured and he could return to society as a normal functioning person, just as the child, when grown up, would thank his parents for refusing to honor his wishes and instead requiring him to get an education that would allow him to get a decent job and make a living. Yet what it would be right for a human being to do for another human being, for some reason it is not right for God to do under exactly analogous circumstances – is this what Lewis would have us believe? Is he claiming that it is more desirable that the damned be allowed to cling to their damnation? Is it better for Hell to be populated than it is for it to be empty?

CHAPTER XII – XIII

These two chapters, the last except for a brief epilogue, are the most heartrending of the entire book. George MacDonald and the narrator come across an angelic procession honoring a Spirit named Sarah Smith, who evidently saved many souls while she was on Earth. But while passing through the woods, this Lady (as Lewis styles her) comes across a Ghost who used to be her husband. Shrunken and dwarfish, and silent himself, this Ghost leads around a bizarre, ambulatory puppet like a ventriloquist’s dummy, which Lewis names the Tragedian, that speaks for him.

The Tragedian claims to have been worried about the Lady, distressed that she was there without him, believing she must have missed him terribly. But she denies this, explaining that “There are no miseries here” (p.115). She says that she has been perfectly happy without him. The Tragedian is badly shaken by this.

Over the course of their conversation it emerges that, while they were both alive, the Lady loved this man because she was emotionally vulnerable and needed to be loved by someone else to feel complete. She apologizes for using him like this instead of loving him truly, for his own sake, as she should have done. But the Tragedian seems unfazed by this; what upsets him is her confident assertion that she is no longer weak and lonely, but now happy and strong, and no longer needs him. The Tragedian takes this as a personal insult and grows increasingly angry. He demands to know why she does not pity him, but her reply is that she will no longer accede to pity used “for a kind of blackmailing”, to “hold joy up to ransom” (p. 120), used by people who deliberately make themselves feel terrible so that others will feel sorry for them.

As he hears those words, the dwarf Ghost dwindles until he disappears entirely, and only the Tragedian is left. The Lady refuses to speak to him any longer, and with these words the conversation ends:

“You do not love me,” said the Tragedian in a thin bat-like voice: and he was now very difficult to see.
“I cannot love a lie,” said the Lady. “I cannot love the thing which is not. I am in Love, and out of it I will not go.”
There was no answer. The Tragedian had vanished. The Lady was alone in that woodland place…. (p.122)

And, alone, she walks away. The angelic choir accompanies her, singing joyously as if this ending somehow represented a victory. If this is a song of triumph, it is one that, to this atheist’s ears, sounded hollow indeed.

Even Lewis’ narrator recognizes the incongruity of this, and has a long talk with MacDonald about it, a more detailed study than is given to any other theological issue mentioned in the book. “Is it really tolerable,” he asks, “that she should be untouched by his misery, even his self-made misery?” (p.123). MacDonald replies that it is better this way, and in response to the narrator’s claim that “the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved,” responds, “That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it…. The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven” (p.124).

MacDonald explains that “every disease that submits to a cure shall be cured”, but “we will not call blue yellow to please those who insist on still having jaundice, nor make a midden of the world’s garden for the sake of someone who cannot abide the smell of roses” (p.125). In essence, he is saying, the good people in Heaven should not be troubled by the suffering and misery of the damned, because otherwise they would not be able to enjoy Heaven. This is an enduring problem for exclusivist Christians, but Lewis’ method of dealing with it is not inadequate. In fact, it is grotesque.

It is a complete contradiction in terms to say to someone that you love them and want them to be happy, but you won’t be hurt or troubled in the slightest if they reject your love or spurn your offer. It is part of the definition of love that it is a state where the happiness of another is equal to your own. Lewis’ Spirits are no longer human beings at all; they are more like bright machines, emotional cripples, lacking the fundamental human quality of compassion. They no longer care about anyone but themselves. (Reading his book’s descriptions of their behavior, I was reminded of this case…)

The only justification Lewis offers for this appalling state of affairs is that the damned have chosen their damnation, and it would not be fair to allow them to use this as a weapon against the saved. But as we have seen, this is not so. Lewis’ damned have not freely chosen their fate; they have been deceived into making the wrong decision because they do not understand the situation they are in, nor the nature or the gravity of the choice they face. Meanwhile, the saved stand by and watch, in a state of dazed euphoria, unable to question or protest.

All of the self-justifying ink Lewis spills cannot alter the fundamental immorality, the injustice, of this belief system. In the end, we are to believe, the damned will be lost forever, all because they did not understand the choice they were making, while the relative few who reach Heaven will immediately lose all concern for those left behind, and will pass eternity without even a thought for their loved ones who did not make it. This cannot be described as anything other than deeply selfish. (Why did the Ghost who was converted to a Spirit immediately ride away rather than stay behind to help his fellows? After all, he was one of them only seconds earlier; does he no longer care what happens to them?) And we are told that this is a good outcome.

As a counterexample, consider Buddhism. In this belief system, there is a class of beings called the bodhisattvas – human beings who have become enlightened and who have therefore won their freedom from the cycle of reincarnation, who no longer have to be reborn into the mortal world that is dominated by misery and suffering – but who freely choose to stay in that world, regardless, and help other beings escape it. Consider their vow:

“Never will I seek nor receive private individual salvation – never enter into final peace alone; but forever and everywhere will I live and strive for the universal redemption of every creature throughout all worlds. Until all are delivered, never will I leave the world of sin, sorrow and struggle, but will remain where I am.”

Who would you consider a more moral, a more admirable being – the Buddhist who willingly takes that vow, or one of Lewis’ Spirits who blithely ignores the suffering of the damned because he is happy?

But even granting Lewis the benefit of the doubt – even assuming that the Ghosts had freely and willingly chosen their fate – why should this be considered relevant? Why shouldn’t God, whom we are continually told has an infinitely greater perspective than that of finite human beings, make the right choice for them if they will not make it themselves? Why shouldn’t he tear down Hell and change all the Ghosts into Spirits? Would they be unhappy? Would they be ungrateful? If Heaven itself sang with joy for the conversion of one sinner, imagine the exaltation for a billion! All old wounds would be healed, all grievances set right at last; instead of having to be made invincible to the suffering of their damned friends and loved ones, the saved could rejoice to be reunited with them. There seems to be no reason why God should not enact such a plan – no reason, that is, except that Lewis is bound by his Christian beliefs to reject universalism. In fact, this book was written specifically to combat it, and to do this he concocts this bizarre, Kafkaesque Heaven where the saved are stripped of humanity and the damned are condemned for being offered a choice they cannot understand and choosing wrongly. In an ironic twist, Lewis’ effort to defeat universalism only goes to show how it would be a much better plan than the Christianity of the Bible.

CONCLUSIONS

The first thing I feel I must comment on is the general attitude and tone of this book. Though Lewis’ other writings are usually very non-confrontational, The Great Divorce descends into some of the most strident denunciations of skeptics I have seen anywhere in his work. That these attacks are wrapped in a level of allegory does not alter this conclusion.

Regrettably, Lewis has fallen into the same trap many proselytizing Christians fall into when they attempt to speak on behalf of nonbelievers: the black-and-white, us-against-the-world view of fundamentalism that recognizes no similarities between those who believe and those who do not, the mindset that will not for a second entertain the idea that anyone who believes differently might do so for honest or intellectually convincing (even if only to them) reasons, or that such people can ever be moral. In the pages of this book, all born-again Christians are portrayed as noble, kind-hearted, selfless and honest, while all nonbelievers are portrayed as evil, selfish and insincere. Well-poisoning, ad hominem attacks, and other fallacious tactics are frequently deployed, and the sincerity of non-Christians’ motives is constantly questioned and slandered. Few converts will be won by such a distrustful attitude. Until Christian proselytizers recognize that those who disagree with them are still human beings with their own thoughts, feelings and honestly held opinions, no meaningful dialogue between the two groups will ever be possible.

I would also point out one further injustice of Lewis’ conception: there is no real punishment in his Hell. Even the damned who were truly evil during life, those who deserve to be there as much as anyone does, are not made to pay for their deeds in any meaningful way – they are not made to see the wrongness of what they did. However, Lewis states clearly (p.131) that this book is an allegory not meant to be taken as literal description of the afterlife, so the point will not be pressed. (Would that the Bible had such clear directives on how to interpret its passages!)

In the end, The Great Divorce serves, unintentionally, as an illustration of the problems inherent in Christianity, and the difficulties encountered by anyone who tries to put descriptive flesh on the skeleton of the Christian system rather than just chalking the whole thing up to a mystery of faith. It further reinforces the facts that any god who would create Hell would be a monster, and any human being who would enjoy Heaven untroubled by the suffering of the damned only slightly less so.

What is the solution? Shall we dream up a universalist afterlife where all human beings, perhaps after undergoing a punishment commensurate with the harm they caused to others during life, will be admitted to an eternity of happiness? There is nothing stopping us from inventing such pleasant fantasies, but the problem is that all afterlife scenarios suffer alike from the same lack of confirming evidence. At best, such beliefs inspire complacency in the face of the world’s troubles; at worst, they encourage people to throw away what may be the only life they will ever have in futile pursuit of a mirage. Rather than waiting for Heaven to come to us, we should seek to create it ourselves, and make this world a place where hopes of an afterlife where all injustices will be put right are unnecessary. We can only hope that when humanity finally matures, both the pleasing daydreams and the dark nightmares of theism will finally be set aside.


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