The Great Divorce: read it, see it, live it.

Taproot Theater is presently offering a marvelous production of CS Lewis’ classic book, “The Great Divorce” on their mainstage.   After watching a play or movie derived from a book, I usually come away with a heavy preference for the book; things are left out; the visuals are other than what I’d imagined.  I go back to reading.  In this case the opposite proved to be true.  Taproot’s production is so brilliantly crafted and executed, that I left with a more profound appreciation for the book rather than less.  If you’re in the Seattle area (and for you students from Montana and Canada that are coming) I’d suggest you see it soon, because it’s slated to run only through the end of this month.

Having praised the production, I’ll quickly add that you’ll probably appreciate it best if you’ve read the book, because it’s dealing with some themes that are best digested with a little forethought.  For this reason, I’ve shopped the internet and found this review, which I think gives a good synopsis.   Love for the light, beauty, humility, joy, and strength of the redeemed becomes the main theme of the play.  I left with a deeper love for Jesus and where history is heading.

But this is a play about heaven and hell, as the review link above states.  It might surprise you to know that, among people who believe that Jesus is the single door through which we must enter if we’re going to know God, there are a wide variety of views regarding the afterlife.  This post, also shopped on the internet, offers a catalog of these views.  Some will be loathe to consider anything except view one because it is the most popular view, carrying the weight of history and orthodoxy in its favor.  All of us must rightly be suspicious of any view that deviates from orthodoxy, being slow to overturn centuries of history simply because we find some other view more appealing.  And yet…

We must also have a willing openness to re-ordering, not because a view is ‘appealing’ or unappealing, but because the scriptures themselves might offer a challenge to conventional wisdom.  When it comes to matters of heaven and hell, we need to weigh the prevailing view in light of these questions:

1. What does Matthew 11:21 mean, where Jesus indicates that Tyre would have repented had they received the light of Christ?

2. What does Philippians 2:11 mean, when Paul indicates that ‘every knee will bow, every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father?”  I know the conventional view is that the unsaved will confess after death, under duress.  Still, is there some reason Romans 10:9 (the promise that if we confess Jesus as Lord, we’ll be saved) won’t apply to them?

3. Is there anyone in hell, in the end, against their will?  Lewis’ thesis is ‘no’.  Does this fit with Jesus’ teaching in Luke 16:19-31.  I think it does, because the tormented man doesn’t ask to get out of his hell, only to be comforted in his hell.

In the end, I believe we need to deal with two realities:  1) There is a place of judgement, and there are people in it.  God’s love is infinite and relentless.  2) Provision has been made for everyone to receive the cure for the deathly disease of sin, a cure which includes a confession (Romans 10:9), a confession which all will make (Philippians 2:10,11).

In Tim Keller’s marvelous article on the importance of hell he writes, “Many, for fear of doctrinal compromise, want to put all the emphasis on God’s active judgment, and none on the self-chosen character of hell. Ironically, as we have seen, this unBiblical imbalance often makes it less of a deterrent to non-believers rather than more of one. And some can preach hell in such a way that people reform their lives only out of a self-interested fear of avoiding consequences, not out of love and loyalty to the one who embraced and experienced hell in our place. The distinction between those two motives is all-important. The first creates a moralist, the second a born-again believer.” This, it seems to me, is the central message of Lewis’ work as well.

Lewis’ said that “Divorce” wasn’t theology, or even speculation.  But the themes reflect the beliefs of his literary mentor, George MacDonald, who ultimately believes that God’s character as ‘consuming fire’ will ultimately destroy every last vestige of rebellion in every last human.

There are other themes two in “Divorce” especially regarding the role of the human will in choosing the offer of God’s cure, but I won’t go down that road in this post.  Instead I’ll recommend that you see the play, write down some questions, and we’ll set a date for a hearty discussion of the play and the doctrines it address… coming soon to a Bethany near you!

About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Kevin

    I also greatly enjoyed the book and will try and go see the play. Your post reminded me of an excerpt from John Paul II:

    “Eternal damnation remains a real possibility, but we are not granted, without special divine revelation, the knowledge of whether or which human beings are effectively involved in it (L’Osservatore Romano, 8/4/99)”

    Hell is an eschatological reality but it remains to be seen whether or not anyone will actually end up there. This is a very hopeful message, for me.

  • stephen papineau

    are there already souls in hell? 1 Peter 3:18-19… i know it’s debatable whether that’s hell or not…

  • Jordan

    You preach frequently that Heaven would be Hell if we all went there unchanged… people without a relationship with Christ aren’t changed, so I don’t understand how there would be any justice in it if those people went to Heaven… could it be that people encounter Christ in Hell and change? I’ve always been brought up believing view 1, so I guess it just feels wrong to deviate from that view… when you live in an unjust world for so long, the one thing you want in Heaven is justice… this post is hard for me to read and comprehend

    • raincitypastor

      these are great questions Jordan. Let me clarify some things:
      1. I stand, rock solid, by the teaching that heaven must be utterly free of sin and that heaven will be a place of justice.
      2. I also declare without reservation, that anyone who would insist on hanging on to their sin, no matter the form, is then necessarily excluded from heaven.
      3. though I, like you, believe in view 1… I don’t think we have as much clarity on the question of what capacity there is for transformation and repentance after death. The evidence that our fate is sealed through our choices here on earth is derived from Hebrews 9:27, and various passages in Revelation. I believe these passages in the traditional sense, but need to leave a crack in the door, for the possibility that transformation might still be possible after death. We just don’t ‘know’ it with the same certitude as #’s 1 and 2 in my comment here.

      • Jordan

        Ah, that makes me feel a lot better

      • Dan

        “…but need to leave a crack in the door, for the possibility that transformation might still be possible after death…”

        Wow. Really? That seems WAY outside of Orthodoxy. A little “Purgatorial”. I understand what you are saying, that we can’t know with utter certitude, but to go where you are going…I just can’t square that with historic Christianity.

        What would Major Thomas say about this “crack”?

      • raincitypastor

        what would Major Thomas say about his own discovery, years into his life in Christ regarding sanctification? Thank God that, though he had orthodox convictions, he was open to further revelation — otherwise he’d have spent his life trying to do for Jesus, what Jesus wanted to do through him.

        I have completely orthodox views on heaven and hell. I believe them and defend them. And I’m open to being proved wrong. Aren’t you?

      • Dan

        Richard,
        “Further revelation” about who Christ is, what He does for us and what we do for Him, and the mystery of the whole faith is one thing. A crack in the door that is a crack allowing for the idea that we could be saved after we die (without believing in Christ while alive) doesn’t seem like further revelation. It seems like the opposite of what I’ve always believed, and what the Bible teaches. But you’ve read the Bible a lot more than me.

      • Kevin

        Is death the end?

      • Anne

        “For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.” 1 Peter 4:6
        I don’t really know how people usually interpret that, but to me at least it cracks the door open a bit.

      • Lamont

        God Bless you Jordan.
        Justice, is what people in Hell will get!
        Every last one of us deserves Hell!
        You, nor I, want justice, from God! We want His mercy!
        Remember the tax collector in the synagogue? He didn’t even look up to heaven, beat on his chest, and said: “have mercy on me a sinner!” He went away JUSTIFIED! Lk 18:9:14 Not so the “self righteous Pharisee!” He was relying on “his” own works!

        Grace is; “getting something you don’t deserve!
        Mercy is; “NOT getting something you do deserve!”

        Richard .
        ” I believe these passages in the traditional sense, but need to leave a crack in the door, for the possibility that transformation might still be possible after death. We just don’t ‘know’ it with the same certitude as #’s 1 and 2 in my comment here.”

        I guess now one can live their life at the playboy mansion, and then repent when they get to the pearly gates? Is that the message of the Bible?
        Is that something you want to defend?
        Furthermore, who is the “WE” in the “We don’t know with the same certitude?”
        Just because you doubt, and do not know, does not mean I, or others don’t know?
        Remember your comments on your post modernism article: “the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection and the Bible. There’s evidence; good evidence, but we don’t “know”

        I do! I know for sure! Gods Word say’s that Jesus was raised from the dead! And because I believe God at his Word…
        That’s greater evidence then a personal “hands on eyewitness!”
        2 Peter 1:16ff
        So, who should I believe? You? Or God?
        Which is more Honoring to God? Doubt, or faith (trust)?
        Also…
        Did anyone reading this blog, look at the last sentence in Kevin’s (bless his heart) comment? Kevin was the first person to respond to this article. Did anyone grasp Kevins last statement?

        Does anyone see Kevins need?
        To me, it say’s that Kevin is struggling with his faith!
        To me, (maybe I’m wrong) Kevin is baseing his salvation on his efforts, and not trusting on what God has said in His word!
        ROM 10;9-10 that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, YOU WILL BE SAVED;
        10 for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.

        Soli Dei Gloria!

  • Linda

    Philippians 2:11 ‘every knee will bow, every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”

    This verse is true for saved and unsaved because Jesus is indeed Lord, the difference is the saved received Him as Lord and Savior before they died, whereas the unsaved confess Him as Lord but not Savior after they are dead at the Final Judgement Day. If Jesus is not your Lord and Savior BEFORE you die you will go to an eternal hell. Jesus saves people from Hell, which is the punishment of sin, so if He is not your Savior (and Lord) you will pay for your sin in Hell.

  • http://meghazine.blogspot.com/ Meghan

    This book enlightened me on a visual experience through Lewis’ view of life after death; I’d be glad for a discussion group after seeing the play to discuss it further at Bethany.

  • Linda

    Jesus pronounced woes on Chorazin and Bethsaida because they did not repent (Matthew 11:20 21). He told them that on the day of judgment, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for them. He would not have said this if their time for receiving salvation were yet future. But what about Tyre and Sidon? They had not had the Gospel preached to them. Jesus said they would have repented had they had such miracles performed in their cities. But they did not have such deeds done in their cities. Did Jesus, therefore, hold out hope for their repentance in the judgment? He did not. He only said it will be more tolerable for them in the judgment.

    “More tolerable” is not salvation. It merely suggests a lesser suffering according to the principles in Luke 12:47 48: “That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating.” (These verses in Luke 12, by the way, are stated in the context of Jesus explaining that He, like a thief or like the unanticipated return of a master, will come at an unexpected time, and that once He returns it will be too late. He will deal out the rewards and punishments punishments, albeit lighter, even for those who did not know). A light beating is still a punishment, and is not salvation.

    Jesus did not say that the people of Capernaum will have a chance to be saved in the judgment. He said they “will be brought down to Hades” (Matthew 11:23). Does Jesus say that the people of Sodom will be saved? No. He said that if the same deeds had been performed in it, the city because the inhabitants would apparently have repented would have been spared destruction. He also said that it will be more tolerable for Sodom on the day of judgment than it will be for Capernaum.

    Again, “more tolerable” is not salvation. It only suggests a lighter punishment. Note well that Jesus, even though He is speaking specifically about the day of judgment in these verses, never so much as hints that any of these people, whether they had had the Gospel preached to them or not, will have a chance to repent and be saved at the judgment. Their fate was already sealed.

    Jesus again implies a deadline for repentance in his parable found in Luke 12:16 21. He tells of a man who has such abundance that he plans to pull down his barns and build bigger ones to store all of his grain and goods. That night, God says to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Jesus goes on to explain that this is the way “it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” He makes no distinction for those who have heard the Gospel or not. The implication is clear: after your death, it is too late.

  • Linda

    Here is an excellent article that refutes a person has a second chance at salvation after death…

    http://www.pfo.org/beingsaved.htm

  • Peter

    Greetings Richard, Linda, et al. Never posted before on your blog Richard, but I’m fond enough of Lewis that I thought I would put in my two cents worth.

    First of all, I want to say that I have some serious doubts about whether or not Lewis (at least in The Great Divorce) actually says anything about salvation after death. Yes, that is the way that the book is framed, but it also is framed in a dream, at the end of which Lewis is strictly warned not to presume knowledge of that which no man can know. Paraphrased of course, I don’t have my copy on me. To me, the most telling parts of the book in this way are MacDonald speaking to Lewis, and the angel talking to the man inflicted with Lust. To take it out of order (and to give background for those who may not have read the book or seen the play), the angel asks the man to allow him to kill Lust (envisioned as a lizard on the man’s shoulder). The man, fearing the pain that the death of his Precious Sin would cause, begs off and makes a number of excuses for why he can’t do it right now, but maybe later. The angel’s response is, there is no later. “This moment contains all moments.” Lewis seems to be envisioning, not so much life after death, as eternity itself. Existence outside of time encompasses all of time. There is no such thing as a time before or after salvation. You either are saved, or you are not.

    MacDonald says that for those who repent, they will have always been in heaven, for those who do not, they will have always been in hell. Salvation and damnation both work themselves back through the rest of our lives. The sin contaminates even our purest striving, and the Blood sanctifies and purifies even our worst vice (“…all things must work together for the good…”). While that sanctification doesn’t permit the vice, we can look back at it and say, “Even my weakness was used for good.” But before he says any of that, he says that the mortal mind can’t comprehend eternity.

    In everything, especially for those who go to see the play, please remember that Lewis was telling a story. I’ve read reviews where people get hung up on the specific characters of the ghosts, saying that they are shallow caricatures. To which I answer, yes, they are. It’s a story, not a theological treatise, even if it does touch on theological matters. And it’s a story set in a dream, and in dreams people are…caricatures. That being said, we use caricatures because they touch on truth. In the same way, don’t take everything in the story as literal fact that Lewis would hang his hat on. Think about what it means, why Lewis said it, and the context in which he said it. This book, and this play, are very much “thinkers.” If you don’t think, you’ll walk away either very confused, very angry, or both.

    All of this being said, if we’re going to talk about salvation after death, I would like to draw people’s attention back to a piece of scripture that has already been mentioned in this thread. 1 Peter 3:18-20.

    “18For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19through whom[d] also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built…”

    Whether or not they were in hell at the time isn’t really the point in this case, so much as the fact that they were dead (spirits, not embodied). The only way to get around this that I can think of is to say that he was preaching not to the spirits of men, but fallen spirits of other orders of creation (read: demons). Since that isn’t even alluded to anywhere else in the Bible that I know of, we are left with Jesus preaching to the spirits of the dead from Noah’s time. While I don’t wish to try to second guess God, it seems a little odd that they should get a chance after death, but not a person living in the age of mercy who has never heard the Word.

    In the end, my answer to these kinds of questions is just that I’m not God, and I’m going to leave the God stuff to Him. It seems to me that a huge number of theological arguments that we get really worked up about aren’t really that important in the end. “18But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18-19). If Paul rejoiced when Christ was preached out of false motives, why on earth do we get indignant when someone preaches Christ out of true motives (even if we disagree with some of their conclusions)? To quote Lewis, “Don’t presume knowledge of that which no man can know.” To quote Paul “12Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). I don’t need to know the particulars of how salvation, predestination, sanctification, or anything else works. They’re all interesting topics, but none of them are going to do anything to how I live my life. I believe that they do work, that God has a plan, and that He is (and will be) more just than I can possibly comprehend, and more merciful than I could ever hope (and, let’s be honest, more merciful than we could ever dread. How would you feel if you found out tomorrow that Hitler had been saved as he swallowed his suicide pill? Be honest with yourself).

    Sorry for the extended note, I write long. I lost my train of thought a bit on MacDonald, but I’ll be listening to the play again tonight, so where I was going with that thought might occur to me, and if so I’ll post it.

    • Graham C.

      “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18-19). If Paul rejoiced when Christ was preached out of false motives, why on earth do we get indignant when someone preaches Christ out of true motives (even if we disagree with some of their conclusions)? ”

      Does this mean I have to be OK with Benny Hinn or Joel Osteen?

  • Lamont
  • raincitypastor

    I wouldn’t take issue with any of the scriptures Piper quotes. I just find it interesting that he leaves out the one I referenced above (unless I missed it… I read the post quickly and its late), from Luke. The rich man and Lazarus. If nobody chooses hell, then you’d think that, given the chance the ask anything, they’d have asked to be released from hell. We’re speculating of course – both I and Piper. We both agree that hell is… well, hell!

  • Lamont

    The rich man was already in torment, so, I could understand not using it since I don’t think this verse would be in the context he was looking for to make his point. It certainly was not an exhaustive article.


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