The Great Divorce

by C. S. Lewis

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What is Lewis saying about the relationship between good and evil? 

The Great Divorce is a story of the afterlife told by C. S. Lewis, who presents the reader with a fantastical vision of Hell and Heaven, depicting a reality that is not too far off from what Christianity teaches in its theology. Those who have any evil or sin in them or refuse to admit they need God cannot enter Heaven and instead must remain at the border forever. They cannot take their baggage with them over the mountains of God's heaven, so they are forced to leave it behind in order to live eternally in the light.

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C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce is the tale of individuals attempting to get to—or running away from—heaven in the afterlife. Their inability to get to heaven on their own is usually due to some lingering sin, an evil attached to them that needs to be relieved from their person in order to receive true absolution. Lewis’s narrator witnesses this process several times, but more often than not, people choose to hold on to their qualms or return to the Grey Place from whence they came. Many of these qualms boil down to short-sightedness or idolatry, but Lewis argues that they all have the same effect: separation from Heaven, which is separation from God.

Though Lewis is not throwing Christian theology in your face, he is clearly working as the Christian apologist here. His depictions of Hell and (almost?) Heaven are fantastical and of his own imagination, but their nature, if not their appearance, agrees with the Christian Scriptures: Heaven is the presence of God, only to be received when one admits their sin, their inability to solve it, and their need for God. Hell is the absence of God, the presence of one’s sin, and the dreadful eternity of grey living with no purpose.

Lewis’s message is clear: there is no mingling of good and evil. One must give up all evil in order to cross over the mountains and join God in his Heaven. They cannot make it up the rocks with their sensitive half-bodies, half-spirits on their own. They cannot take their malady or their sin with them. They must be free and clear of all of it in order to live eternally in the light. With even a speck of evil in them, or a refusal to admit a need for God, they remain in the in-between place, or take the bus back to the Grey Place to remain for eternity or try again later.

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Our first hint toward the answer to this question is the title of the work itself--The Great Divorce. C.S. Lewis chose this title in response to William Blake's play entitiled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Lewis' "divorce" title proclaims loud and clear his feelings about these two spiritual realms that embody good and evil; that there is absolutely no overlap. They are separate and distinct, not part of any union. As quoted in the study guide to the work provided by the C.S. Lewis Foundation (second link below), the title page of the work confirms this idea through the voice of George MacDonald: "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".  This is particularly important considering the huge influence that MacDonald's writings had on Lewis' spiritual life and conversion, which you can read more about in the enotes C.S. Lewis topic page (first link below).Lewis is sending a clear message that he wholeheartedly believes in--there's no room for relativism there. There is heaven. And there is hell. There is good. And there is evil.

Looking beyond the title alone, we find in The Great Divorcea beautiful allegory that draws on many major texts that came before it, including ideas from Dante's Inferno. The landscape of The Great Divorce shows us Lewis' own vision of the afterlife, and makes clear exactly how he feels human beings may be categorized eternally in heaven or hell. Here, the relationship between good and evil shows itself to be not only irrevocably separate but also highly contingent on human choice and human conviction. Instead of the often seen idea of good or evil as overpowering forces that can consume us, Lewis gives humans all the power, which makes the fall to evil (and therefore Hell) even more of a tragedy. The bus passengers on their way to heaven must make a conscious choice to board, and once they realize all that is involved in gaining admittance to eternal paradise, they must repent completely with their full hearts. The feeble excuses given by many illustrate the fallibility of human nature and further reinforce the idea that the one connection between good and evil is our own ability to determine which of the two will characterize our eternal destiny.

Lewis is categorized as many things, being such a prolific writer.The Great Divorce falls under his work as a Christian apologist (see enotes link below), where he crafts both narratives and essays to create an argument in favor of Christianity. You'll likely find much more about the Lewis' view on the relationship of good and evil in his other apologist works, such as The Screwtape Letters, as well as any outisde literary criticism of Lewis' writings.


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