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‘The Great Divorce’ Horrified Me (Review)

‘The Great Divorce’ Horrified Me (Review) September 25, 2021

Hi and welcome back! For a while now, I’ve planned to end our Journey Into Hell series with The Great Divorcea book by C.S. Lewis. So this week, I hunkered down to read it. To say the very least, I was completely gobsmacked by how awful it was. The ideas in this book, had I encountered them without having a thorough indoctrination ahead of time, would have kept me out of Christianity for life. It’s that bad. Today, let’s review The Great Divorce — and get an idea of how its ideas have unfortunately infested Christians’ thinking today.

it's just rubble now but nobody knows yet
(Cuma Umaç.)

(Previous Journeys Into Hell and Hell-related posts: John Milton Changed the Hell Game (Again); Dante in Hell; Medieval Christians Changed Hell AgainHow Augustine Changed the Hell GameHell in the 4th Century2nd-4th Century Thoughts on HellHell in Early Christian WritingsThe Night My Fear of Hell Died; But WHICH Hell Shall We Fear; Why Hell Fails as a Christian Threat; We’re Made Out of Meat; Why Hell Succeeds as a Threat; Dealing With Hell Disbelievers; A Brief Prehistory of Hell.)

(Our hooch today is simply beer. I’m starting with a Samuel Adams “Sam ’76.” Very enjoyable, all-around balanced beer with a light, enjoyable taste. This would go very well with a hot dog with all the fixins. Sorry to all those who kiss Hank’s ass. I eat my hot dogs with condiments: savory pickle relish and basic yellow mustard at the very least, sauerkraut if I can get it.)

Everyone, Meet C.S. Lewis, Writer of The Great Divorce.

Most people know C.S. Lewis because he wrote the iconic children’s fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia. However, most people reading the series realize right away that it’s really not much more than a thinly-disguised (often not-disguised-at-all) metaphor for his brand of Christianity. And they’re quite right.

Lewis was born in 1898 to very religious parents. His parents belonged to the Church of Ireland. By his own accounting, he says he became an atheist at 15. He sounds like one of those Christians who just got disillusioned for a while, because he also describes himself as having been “very angry at God for not existing.”

In his early 30s, he reconverted to theism, and from there back to Christianity by 1931. Apparently, his dear friend J.R.R. Tolkien (met in 1926) helped bring that about. However, Tolkien was dismayed that his friend chose to join Anglicanism rather than Catholicism, which was his own flavor of choice (thus confirming as well that evangelists’ product is active membership in their own group, not faith in Jesus or even acceptance of Christianity itself; the job ain’t done till the mark joins their flavor).

Once he joined Anglicanism, Lewis went in whole hog. When he was about 40, World War II broke out. He served in a defense militia and made radio broadcasts about religious themes. And he wrote books.

(It’s important to note that all of his prose books were written after his reconversion to Christianity. Before that, he released a couple of poetry books (in 1919 and 1926).)

Sidebar: Defining Apologetics.

An “apologist” defends a particular idea. Christian apologists, then, defend Christianity. We call their defenses apologetics.

Apologists try to make Christianity sound plausible. Officially, Christians usually think apologists aim their work at non-believers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Unfortunately, apologetics is stuffed full of logical fallacies, cognitive biases, and other such breakdowns and gaps in critical thinking. It must be, because Christians completely lack credible, objective, real-world support for a single one of their claims.

Apologetics really aims completely at existing believers — preferably those who very firmly believe or just need a tiny nudge to resolve their minor doubts. In essence, then, apologetics is for Christians who just need to feel like they’re not completely whackadoodle for buying into Christianity. Anybody else is going to find the contents of an apologetics book something less than satisfying or persuasive.

And as Christian numbers have toppled and Christian dominance has collapsed on the cultural level, apologetics as an industry has exploded in popularity.

C.S. Lewis, Beloved Apologist.

When I was a Pentecostal, I didn’t read a lot of apologetics books. In one of my college classes, we got assigned The Screwtape Letters (1942). It fascinated me and my then-boyfriend Biff with its descriptions of how demons operate. I also had long familiarity with his Narnia books (while only vaguely recognizing their extremely religious themes). But we didn’t dabble much at all in his other work. He wasn’t Pentecostal and certainly didn’t buy into our beliefs, so his writing couldn’t really be a resource for us.

So I was aware of books of his like Mere Christianity (1952), but they didn’t inform my beliefs much if at all. As a result, I really missed out on some of his most popular ideas — because this guy is still a much-beloved Christian apologist.

Indeed: somehow, C.S. Lewis has become a huge big name in apologetics. He’s even called “the Apostle to the Skeptics” in a 1974 book because he himself had briefly been estranged from his beliefs.

In 1945, during the thick of the war, C.S. Lewis published his Heaven-and-Hell allegory, The Great Divorce. (You can find a PDF of it here.) And it has been regarded as an apologetics book ever since, it seems. Its ideas quickly infested Christian thinking.

Hell-believers particularly adore the book, as you can see here. They long ago accepted its ideas as canon, so they perceive it as agreeing with their beliefs — when in truth, they took their beliefs from it. 

The Setting of The Great Divorce.

The Great Divorce is an allegory in the style of Dante’s Divine Comedy (which we discussed here) and Pilgrim’s Progress.

In the book, an unnamed narrator finds himself in a dreary, drab, endless urban sprawl. He wanders around till he finds a line of people waiting for a bus. Though he has no idea where the bus is going, he gets into line. Eventually, amid the fighting of the other people waiting, he boards.

The bus goes to a beautiful park area full of fields and forests. Our narrator wanders around, talking to the various bus riders (whom he calls “Ghosts”). Eventually, people emerge from the woodland to talk to the Ghosts; these, the narrator calls “Spirits.” Most of the Spirits personally know the Ghosts they approach — they were spouses once, or siblings, etc. Our narrator realizes the Ghosts are dead people.

The Spirits try very hard to persuade their chosen Ghosts to join them in a trip across the fields, through the forests, and over the mountains. One even tries to terrorize his target into joining him. But almost none of the Ghosts take the Spirits up on their invitations. One by one they return to the bus, so they can go back home to the city.

Eventually, the narrator encounters George MacDonald (a real author and minister; he wrote those Princess and the Goblin books). MacDonald turns out to be the narrator’s Spirit guide.

The Cosmology of The Great Divorce.

(We have moved on to Samuel Adams’ “Octoberfest” beer, having run out of the ’76. It has a strange sweet tinge that I’m not sure I like, though I do like berry beers/ales. Still, it’s very drinkable. I sure wouldn’t turn it down if someone offered me one.)

Toward the end, George MacDonald reveals that yes, the urban city is Hell — or Purgatory, to the Ghosts who leave it.

The bus comes from Heaven, as do the Spirits. Indeed, the Spirits choose to pause their own progress to Heaven to come help the Ghosts. Some were even Ghosts once themselves. MacDonald explains that all souls must journey to Heaven, which seems to take a long time.

But the Ghosts overwhelmingly choose to return to the city — if they ever choose to board the bus at all. MacDonald sadly laments that Heaven can only be chosen, even while he approves of coercion and advocates the violation of consent in countless ways, and more importantly even while he approves of the use of terror to coerce Ghosts into compliance.

MacDonald also tells the narrator that the Spirits can’t go directly to the city (Hell/Purgatory) because it’s teeny-tiny compared to the real world, which of course is where they are now — the woodlands and mountains and whatnot. All of Hell couldn’t possibly contain one single Spirit, he says.

At some point, the narrator learns that he isn’t dead yet. This is a dream. He awakens in his study to the sound of air-raid sirens blaring, a very common — and dreaded — part of English life in 1945.

(Indeed, the Narnia books also contain some really visceral (if subtle) details about the War’s impact on children.)

This Book Is Absolutely Awful.

The Great Divorce is a quick read at perhaps 50 tablet pages. And I’m a crazy fast reader.

So you know things are dire indeed when I say it took me a solid week to finish this book. I found myself inventing reasons to put down the tablet. My socks needed alphabetizing, what can I say? The grout needed reapplication! There was this new recipe I desperately had to try! Bother really needed to play!

the cat in question
CAN’T YOU TELL. (Also: the coveted double-paw-curlies that indicate that all is just fine in her little world.)

Now, the reason it’s awful isn’t its shockingly non-Biblical imagery and ideas. C.S. Lewis himself is on record as stressing that this is not a literal depiction of Heaven or Hell:

I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course – or I intended it to have – a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.

So unlike those so-called “tourists” who falsely (or mistakenly) claim to have really and truly visited Heaven or Hell, Lewis disavows the idea right up front.

I do appreciate that. Christians get confused enough as it is by untrue claims.

But as I said, that’s not why I take serious exception to this book.

Why I Hated The Great Divorce.

No, I hated The Great Divorce because it contains some of the very worst ideas I’ve ever seen a Christian put to paper. I’m not even talking about atrocity apologetics, though it certainly does contain that aplenty.

Its supposed good guys constantly violate other people’s consent. The book constantly insists that life is utterly meaningless and that nothing’s worth doing or caring about if it isn’t 100-and-crazy-percent focused on Jesus. It blames victims of their god for not Jesus-ing correctly or accepting Christianity without credible evidence and beats up strawman enemies without mercy.

Perhaps worst of all, it praises an end to curiosity and discovery, even to creativity itself.

The Great Divorce is the print form of trampling a child to death.

And I hate The Great Divorce most of all because so many Christians have completely absorbed these horrific notions as canon beliefs, thus making themselves and those around them more miserable than ever.

I’d originally planned to devote just two days to The Great Divorce. But it seems clear to me now that it cries out for a little more attention than that. So we’ll be talking about it for a couple more posts, at least.

NEXT UP: The Hell we apparently choose in The Great Divorce (and the end of our Journey Into Hell!). See you then!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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