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The Strawman Ghosts of ‘The Great Divorce’

The Strawman Ghosts of ‘The Great Divorce’ September 29, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Recently, we got a look at C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce. In this book, he tried to square the idea of Hell with his belief in a completely good, all-powerful god. And to sell his ideas, he introduced a number of residents of his vision of Hell. These characters, called ‘Ghosts,’ exist only for him to defeat with his beliefs. Today, let’s meet these strawman Ghosts — and see why C.S. Lewis created them.

the scarecrow and mrs king this ain't
(Mateusz Raczynski.)

(Previous posts relating to C.S. Lewis and ‘The Great Divorce’: How C.S. Lewis Completed the Hell Puzzle; ‘The Great Divorce’ Horrified MeApologetics from Wishful Thinkers.; The Trilemma and the Gripping Hand; Shane Hayes and the Cult of Before Stories: Totally An Ex-Atheist Edition. All page numbers quoted come from this PDF edition of the book.)

How a Strawman Works.

When people want to demolish a criticism of their claim, sometimes they find that they simply can’t. The support they can muster for their own claim simply can’t defeat the criticism.

So instead of tackling the criticism itself, they turn their attention to a second criticism, one that they themselves have made up as a distortion of the actual stated criticism. They create this distortion specifically for the purpose of demolishing it with whatever strong support they think they can muster. Then, they defeat that made-up criticism. Having successfully defeated the criticism, they declare victory over the first criticism, the one they couldn’t otherwise defeat. And then, they hope that person doesn’t point out that they didn’t address the stated concern at all.

Examples of strawman arguments exist everywhere in real life. The dearer the belief and the worse the support believers have for buying into it, the faster they devolve into attacking only distortions of their critics’ objections to the belief.

  • “Oh, so you want to murder babies then?”
  • “I guess you just don’t love America and the Constitution like we do.”
  • “What do you have against the poor?”
  • “Why do you want the Communists to have such an easy time defeating us?”
  • “You’re just a prude who hates sex.”

When your immediate response is I absolutely did not say that at all, or you put words in my mouth, you’ve probably just encountered a strawman argument.

Strawman arguments are an example of antiprocess. They’re a powerful part of the mental defenses people use to avoid engaging meaningfully with challenges to their beliefs. 

And C.S. Lewis has turned strawman argumentation into a series of characters in his 1945 book The Great Divorce.

Turning a Strawman Into a Ghost in The Great Divorce.

C.S. Lewis wrote The Great Divorce as a sort of allegory. In other words, he meant for it to be a metaphor for how the afterlife worked. He didn’t want any readers to think he was showing a glimpse into what he sure thought was the real Heaven and Hell. No, he just wanted readers to get a good idea of why some people went to Hell and others went to Heaven.

But he needed those reasons to square completely with his belief in a god who was all-powerful, all-knowing, and completely good. (Christians sometimes utilize a catch-all term for these qualities: omnimax.) He was a very wishful Christian who really needed his god to be like that. Not all Christians are. Many need to believe in a god who is vengeful, vicious, petty, and cruel, often because that gives them a sense of permission to be the same ways. But C.S. Lewis wanted a god who ultimately wanted only the best for his followers, even if his ways of giving it to them looked so mystifying to even his most devoted followers.

Unfortunately for Lewis, the Problem of Hell gets capitalized for a reason. No Christian has ever managed to successfully square any kind of Hell with an omnimax god. Reality doesn’t support either proposition at all, and it especially does not support the two of them together.

So our author had to invent strawmen to support his idea. And he did it by making them into anthropomorphic beings, which he calls Ghosts in his book.

As C.S. Lewis judges each of the Ghosts’ unworthiness for Heaven, he mistakenly thinks he gets closer and closer to solving the Problem of Hell. I’ll show you at the end of this post why he fails so miserably, yet thinks he succeeded so grandly.

Let’s Meet the Ghosts of The Great Divorce.

Most of the Ghosts we meet in The Great Divorce don’t get names or full characterizations. They are all strawmen, all the same, just not fully-developed as characters. When Christians write parables or allegories, they never worry about their characters not acting like people at all. That’s not the point of the story. The story is meant only as a framework to use to defeat strawmen.

Our first two Ghosts in The Great Divorce (p. 2 in the PDF) are “a little aspish woman” and “a man who seemed to be with her.” The Narrator has wandered for a long time without seeing any people at all in the hellscape city. Now, he’s found a line of people waiting for a bus. Not knowing what else to do, he gets into line himself behind these two Ghosts. And the pair argue briefly before leaving the queue:

“Very well, then. I won’t go at all. So there,” [she said,] and left the queue. “Pray don’t imagine,” said the man, in a very dignified voice, “that I care about going in the least. I have only been trying to please you, for peace sake.” [. . . H]e also walked away.

The Narrator moves up the line quickly thanks to the Ghosts in front of him leaving it. The next Ghosts in front of him seem to be having similar trouble as the first two. A “Short Man” complains about the low class of people in line, which angers the”Big Man” in front of him. In the ensuing fistfight, the Short Man loses and limps away from the queue for a destination unknown. Big Man remains, and we’ll meet him again shortly.

About half of the Ghosts in line have similar flaws that prevent them from getting onto the bus. They talk themselves out of boarding or are otherwise pushed away by other Ghosts. Though they fought like wild dogs over there not being room on the bus for everyone, in the end the Narrator boards a half-full bus.

The Great Divorce Does Not Approve of Us.

On and on it goes as the bus begins its journey to a parklike area.

We meet the “Tousle-Headed Poet” (p.3). He’s a youngish man who had died by suicide. In life, he had found something to complain about regarding literally everything and had considered himself better than everyone he encountered. Now, in the afterlife, he still suffers from magnified forms of both flaws.

The “Intelligent Man,” or Ikey (p. 5), sees situations and people only as ways to advance his own interests. He can’t even perceive Heaven (or rather, in terms of this allegory, the ultimate goal of the journey to “the mountains”) as the glorious realm that it is. Instead, he only wants to find some way to make a serious profit back home from the fruit he finds in this park.

The “Hard-Bitten Ghost” (p. 18) is a rough, plain-spoken, salt-of-the-earth type. I’ve read that C.S. Lewis loved those kinds of men to hang out with and be friends with, though he clearly found something to criticize in the personality type. This ghost sees both Heaven and Hell (or rather, the journey’s destination and the hellscape city back home) as “rackets.” When the Narrator hears about the wondrous places the Hard-Bitten Ghost has visited, he just scoffs:

“Not worth looking at. They’re all advertisement stunts. All run by the same people. There’s a combine, you know, a World Combine, that just takes an Atlas and decides where they’ll have a Sight. Doesn’t matter what they choose: anything’ll do as long as the publicity’s properly managed.” [p. 19]

This Ghost just loves to deflate anyone else’s sense of wonderment. In fact, he almost succeeds in destroying the Narrator’s own joy.

How the Ghosts of The Great Divorce Damn Themselves.

All of these Ghost characters in The Great Divorce damn themselves, according to C.S. Lewis. Their personality defects make it impossible for them to engage meaningfully with the Heaven-bound Spirits who try to help them. They’re completely incapable of understanding their own situations, but even more incapable of understanding that their would-be helpers know something they don’t.

One very vain female Ghost (p. 21) refuses to go with the Spirit trying to help her because she feels she’s not dressed well enough. How many times have we heard Christians guess that people refuse to go to their church services because they don’t have nice clothes, and thus those folks doom themselves to Hell? Even Christians themselves will eschew church services for that reason, so they assume it’s uppermost on the minds of those outside their bubble — and thus miss out on life-altering information as a result. (See endnotes for a specific example of this mindset.)

Shortly after encountering the vain Ghost, the Narrator encounters his own Spirit helper, identified as the real-world fantasy writer (and Christian minister) of the Victorian age, George MacDonald. His new guide tells him,

“Everyone who wishes it does. Never fear. 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. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.” [p. 26]

And just on the heels of this bestowed wisdom, we encounter a Ghost who perfectly illustrates MacDonald’s point: a grumbling old woman who’s so busy complaining that she’s not able to perceive anything but her own short-sighted complaints. What amazing timing!

Why Strawman Characters Don’t Persuade Anybody.

Over and over again, we see these Ghosts act in ways that simply don’t seem natural to us. There’s nothing about their behavior that speaks to the human situation. Their choices don’t resonate at all. Every time we see a Ghost, it’s someone doing something that doesn’t seem in the least human.

In fact, Lewis shows us that the book’s urban sprawl of a city (his representation of Hell) looks so bleak and dystopian because the people there can’t imagine anything better. Literally. They build houses with nothing but the power of their own imaginations, but they’re so short on that quality — being sad widdle godless sacks — that the houses leak and are miserable (p. 6). Even when a great Ghost, like Napoleon, builds a gorgeous palace for himself, Lewis tells us that he’s miserable within it (p. 5).

Instead, we’re told that an endless hike that physically hurts our feet for a long time is actually the best possible experience, and that we’ll totally love the destination even though it won’t be like anything we actually enjoyed during life.

And someone like me reads this book and just can’t accept these ideas. I’m not thrilled with an urban hellscape, but can you even imagine how cool it’d be to explore all those abandoned houses? To get out into the outer edges of it to see the oldest and most powerful denizens of Hell?

That sounds a lot better to me than a seemingly endless hike through mountains with boundary-violating, joy-demolishing companions like the Spirits.

Sidebar: The Case of the Artist.

For example, C.S. Lewis needs readers to understand that only single-minded focus on Jesus gets people to Heaven. So he introduces us to the Artist (p. 29). This Ghost enjoyed great fame for his paintings in life.

After running a verbal spear clean through the Artist’s joy at the beauty of the park, George MacDonald tells him that art is no longer necessary in Heaven:

“When you painted on earth-at least in your earlier days-it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the messages came. There is no good telling us about this country, for we see it already. In fact we see it better than you do.” [p. 29]

Undeterred, the Ghost asks “how soon” it’ll be before he can start painting again, once he begins his journey. MacDonald graciously informs him that the answer is “never.”

“Why, if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.”

“But that’s just how a real artist is interested in the country.”

“No. You’re forgetting,” said the Spirit. “That was not how you began. Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.”

“Oh, that’s ages ago,” said the Ghost. “One grows out of that. Of course, you haven’t seen my later works. One becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.”

I’m straining to remember any artists I’ve ever heard talking like that. Ever. I’ve known a lot of artists in my day, many professional people in all kinds of artistic fields. But not one’s acted like this Ghost.

Eventually, after MacDonald drops one steaming pile of turds after another on the Ghost’s artistic passions, the frustrated artist throws a wobbler and refuses to begin his journey to the mountains at all. He returns to the bus to go back to the city.

That, too, feels unrealistic — because he clearly loves the park at least. One wonders why he doesn’t come here often to soak up the scenery, then return to the city where he can do his best to paint it for others’ enjoyment. Who wants a Heaven without art? I don’t, and neither does the Artist.

Why C.S. Lewis Invents Strawmen in The Great Divorce.

As I said earlier, C.S. Lewis needs his strawman Ghosts in The Great Divorce. These are the only arguments he can actually demolish. He needs Ghosts who act unnaturally for the situation, so he can show how their return to the hellscape city is really their own fault.

Even when a Ghost seems pitiful rather than mean or malevolent, even when a Ghost’s return to the city seems like a shame — or worse, a defect in his god’s planning — rather than that person’s just deserts, Lewis goes to pains to insist that no, really, this is exactly what that Ghost wanted after all.

That’s how Lewis thinks he’s solved the Problem of Hell, ultimately: by setting blame for it on the shoulders of people themselves.

Those silly-billy non-Christians reject Jesus’ kind offer of lifetime enslavement because they just can’t get past their own flaws! They refuse to go to Heaven, so Jesus reluctantly shrugs his divine shoulders and lets them rot in Hell. It’s what they want after all, and Jesus is just so, so, so very concerned with giving people exactly what they want all the time.

Gosh, y’all, Jesus never, ever violate our consent, I mean, unless he decides to do that with Lewis’ full approval.

Why Sidestepping the Problem of Hell Doesn’t Work.

Remember the vain Ghost I mentioned? Her Spirit companion tries to terrorize her so she’ll run away from the bus and toward the path to the mountains. Here’s what George MacDonald, who is C.S. Lewis’ self-insert voice, has to say about that disgusting violation:

“It will maybe have succeeded,” he said. “Ye will have divined that he meant to frighten her; not that fear itself could make her less a Ghost, but if it took her mind a moment off herself, there might, in that moment, be a chance. I have seen them saved so.”

So ultimately, C.S. Lewis’ rhetoric about Jesus’ sad acceptance of our boundaries and rejection doesn’t work because he himself shows that these aren’t really hard lines for him in the first place. Nor are they for his god.

For that matter, the Bible contains many references to this god violating people’s boundaries and not accepting their rejection. Just think about the Exodus myth, where the Bible’s writers repeatedly stress that their god deliberately “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” so he’d refuse to release the Jewish slaves.

This god doesn’t care about consent, any more than his followers tend to care about it. So a self-made Hell and a sad, forlorn widdle Jesus curling up in the doorway to Hell to cry about the people within not wanting to love all over him? That doesn’t make any sense at all.

The Dealbreaker in The Great Divorce.

And Lewis faces the dealbreaker that all Christians eventually face in the Problem of Hell: an all-powerful god who truly is the ultimate embodiment or expression of love and mercy should be able to think of some way to help the people in Hell. If nothing else, he should be able to find a way to help them build nicer houses and send emissaries to the city to teach the people there all the information they need to make informed decisions.

You know, like he could for people on Earth, here, now if he existed. That he does not in the book reminds us that he does not in our world either. And the Problem of Hell demolishes Christians’ claims once again.

No strawman can rescue C.S. Lewis from the logical inconsistencies in his own religion. And that’s why The Great Divorce ultimately fails as Christian apologetics. All it does is remind us why we don’t want to tangle with this religion, nor with its salespeople.

Something’s seriously wrong with someone who’d blame people for going to Hell, rather than the inept god who apparently designed the cosmology and refuses to give us the right of informed consent over our earthly decisions.

NEXT UP: Next time we take up this topic, we’ll check out the end-run roles of curiosity, passion, and even art in The Great Divorce. That thinking vastly influenced the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 70s — and has formed such a big part of evangelicalism today. Now that we’re on a 3.5x/weekly schedule, it’s always possible something big will stop our presses, but so far that’s the schedule at least. See you Friday!


Endnotes.

Alas, my dishevelment: This comment from this Christian’s blog post caught my eye, but the replies even more so:

My 3 year old and I went to Sunday School this morning [Easter Sunday, from the date of it] but we skipped the church service. Why? Because it is Easter and everyone was dressed like a photo shoot from GQ and we only had jeans to wear. [. . .] [Christina Joy Gilley, quoted from this post’s comments; March 27, 2016, 11:05am]

Predictably, three other people answered her: the writer of the blog post himself (Carey Nieuwhof) in a rare sighting in his own commbox, another person identifying as a preacher, and some rando, leaped in to tell the commenter that jeans were plenty fine for TRUE CHRISTIAN™ churches.

Her secondary concern was that she hadn’t trained her child to behave in quiet situations yet. Neither Nieuwhof nor the preacher bothered to address that concern. They zeroed in completely on the bit about not having nice clothes to wear, because that part’s something their flavor of Christianity considers very important. In fact, Nieuwhof actually tells her, “Don’t let your worry take you out.” Out of what? The glorious church service itself? Membership in a proper TRUE CHRISTIAN™ church that’ll welcome her in jeans? Or Heaven? He doesn’t say.

The rando, interestingly, zeroes in on the poorly-behaved child. Their reply insisted that a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ church service will seem so fascinating and relevant that the child will behave. In fact, the boy will “love going to church and you will love taking him.” LOL citation needed!

(Back to the post!)


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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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