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Hell or Something Like It: C.S. Lewis and The Great Divorce


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Hell or Something Like It: C.S. Lewis and The Great Divorce


Published on June 30, 2021

This week in Portland, Oregon, where I live, temperature records were broken multiple times. Portland, typically the home of mild, pleasant summers, was suddenly one of the hottest places on the planet, with the temperature in my back yard reaching 114 degrees Fahrenheit. I couldn’t help but wish for our more typical grey, rainy days. Which, as I sat down to write this article, seemed ironic given that Lewis doesn’t give us a burning Hell with flames and undying worms, but rather a soggy city with roofs that don’t keep out the wet and unpleasant, unhappy people waiting to board a bus.

“Who goes home?”

In other words, Who goes to Hell? Who goes to Heaven? Who gets in? Who’s out?

Is there such a place as Hell, really? Is Heaven real? Can a loving God send people to Hell? Can loving people truly enjoy Heaven if some of their loved ones are still in Hell? Is purgatory a thing? How does time work? Is love always good?

Those are just a few of the many questions C.S. Lewis tackles in this short book.

Lewis, we’re told, spent almost ten years reflecting on the thoughts that eventually came together to form The Great Divorce. The title is (as Lewis tells us in the preface) a reference to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, though it’s not meant to be antagonistic or even a direct rebuke of Blake, given that Lewis doesn’t “feel at all sure I know what he meant.”

But he does tell us right off the bat that the idea of Heaven and Hell being more or less the same thing, or that there’s never a definitive choice we make between the two of them, is the reason he’s writing the book: “I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road.”

If you grew up in the churches I grew up in, you might expect that the pages to follow a statement like that would include a detailed description of exactly which road might be the right one, but Lewis doesn’t do that. Not exactly, anyway.

The story of the Great Divorce follows our narrator (who is, we will discover in time, Lewis himself) as he stands in line for a bus. There are a variety of unpleasant characters in the line, and the bus station is in a grey and mildly unpleasant city. Anyone who pleases can get on the bus—there’s plenty of room—and it is headed directly from this city on a supernatural journey to Heaven (sort of) and away from the city which is Hell (maybe). When Lewis arrives in the Other Place, he’ll be witness to a bevy of souls making decisions about whether to return to the grey city or stay in the pastoral paradise they’ve found themselves in.

Lewis eavesdrops on a variety of conversations, sometimes between the (maybe not) damned, and sometimes between those poor souls and bright, powerful beings which have come from the distant mountains. In time he’s joined by one of those beings himself…a sort of guide for his time, the author and minister George MacDonald, a figure of great importance in Lewis’s own spiritual journey.

The original title of The Great Divorce was, in fact, “Who Goes Home? or The Grand Divorce.” You’ll notice that every chapter seems, more or less, self contained. That’s because the book was originally serialized in an Anglican newspaper called The Guardian. Lewis was Anglican himself, and the chapters of the book were printed weekly starting in late 1944 and through early ’45. The first edition of the book itself was released in November 1945 as The Great Divorce: A Dream.

Lewis doesn’t hide the literary pedigree of this book at all. He makes it abundantly clear that the book is not meant to be taken literally as a statement on what he thinks happens after death. He goes to great pains to make it clear that it’s meant as visionary literature in the tradition of Dante and Bunyan (among many others).

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As astonishing as it seems today, Lewis had been on the cover of TIME magazine three years prior to The Great Divorce because of the monstrous popularity of The Screwtape Letters. Walter Hooper and Roger Lancelyn Green, both friends of Lewis, say in their biography that this little book is “undoubtedly a maturer and more serious work than Screwtape.”

There is no question, certainly, that The Great Divorce is a heavier piece of philosophy, and the bits of humor in it are fewer and perhaps more pointed. There are some lovely bits of description, some striking images, and the characters—many of whom appear for a few pages and disappear again—are often compelling.

The literary references are constant. With a casual read there are overt references to Blake, Dante, Bunyan, Charles Williams, Lewis Carroll, Prudentius, George MacDonald, Emanuel Swedenborg, Augustine, Milton, Jeremy Taylor, an unnamed science fiction author (it’s Charles Hall, but Lewis couldn’t remember his name), among others. There are a lot.

And, as is often the case for Lewis, he assumes his readers will pick up on the various resonances and references that he makes less overtly. For instance, he wrote in a letter to William L. Kinter that, “the bus-driver in the Divorce is certainly, and consciously, modeled on the angel at the gates of Dis, just as the meeting of the ‘Tragedian’ with his wife is consciously modeled on that of Dante & Beatrice at the end of Purgatorio: i.e. it is the same predicament, only going wrong. I intended readers to spot these resemblances.”

Okay, I have to admit I didn’t quite get all that, even re-reading as an adult. I haven’t read Dante in detail in quite a while. Still, I did catch that MacDonald takes, essentially, the role of Virgil. But whereas Dante’s great tour of the infernal and celestial kingdoms shows him the results of choices that people made in their lives, Lewis’s tour shows him something quite different: the people making the choice itself, after their deaths.

So, there’s plenty to talk about here.

A few things to be paying attention to as you read:

  • The centrality of human choice. You’ll notice that Lewis rejects a few theologies as he goes along, simply because they don’t give enough space for human decisions.
  • Pay attention to how Lewis deals with the philosophical ideas of both love and time. They’re key parts of his argument.
  • There’s a LOT of Platonic theory of archetypes as we move into the “realness” of almost-Heaven (no doubt partially due to Charles Williams’s influence… note the reference to butterflies, which is almost certainly a reference to Place of the Lion)
  • There’s actually a decent amount of Charles Williams in this book… there are some striking similarities to Williams’s Descent Into Hell, and if you have the time to read that one, it’s an interesting comparison.
  • There’s a quick scene with Napoleon that is often rewritten and misquoted these days to be Hitler. It’s interesting to read the scene and consider both that this was written late enough that Lewis could have easily made it Hitler, and to recognize that he consciously chose someone a bit more remote in history.
  • Note the number of denizens of Hell who specifically reference being Christian. Lewis’s argument about who enters into Heaven is not based on whether they believe a creed (though do note the lengthy conversation with the Christian who doesn’t believe in God or a literal Heaven or Hell).
  • Related: pay close attention to the reasons why someone might fail to enter the heavenly kingdom. While several stories connect in some way to “belief” most of them don’t. What keeps someone from entering the heavenly realms?
  • There’s a fair bit of metaphor that’s fighting through “pastoral” vs. “urban” settings. There are some little wrinkles in it, but it’s an interesting thing to note.
  • Lewis isn’t afraid to hold conflicting theologies, which is on display (and even pointed out) in this book
  • Watch very carefully when the characters refer to “home” and where they mean when they say it.
  • Note also, it’s a book about heaven in which neither God nor Satan make an appearance.
  • And, just for fun, be sure to note that Lewis uses evolution to argue for one of his points in the preface, and also he manages to work in a reference to masturbation. Not exactly what I would expect of a 1940s Christian book!

In Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote that “[e]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses…either into a Heavenly creature or into a Hellish creature.” Lewis believed very deeply that we choose who we become, and we choose what happens to us in spiritual realms. I, for one, find that deeply comforting in the world we find ourselves in today.

So as we read The Great Divorce, let’s keep that in mind: Lewis is saying we have a choice. It is ours, and no one can take it from us. One more thing to keep in mind, is how pedestrian Hell seems… how like our everyday lives.

This goes, I think, to one of Lewis’s deeper points: Perhaps we can make a choice today to embrace a better life.

Matt Mikalatos is the author of the YA fantasy The Crescent Stone. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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