C.S. Lewis Goes to Heaven: A Reader’s Guide to The Great Divorce is a book by Dr. David Clark that was released earlier this year. Dr. Clark is a retired professor of New Testament and Greek, who has taught on the Bible school, liberal arts college, seminary and graduate school levels. I recently spoke with him about his new book.
Clark: I think it started with all the questions the students had about this book in my classes. They began to see the difference between justification and sanctification and that was important. Forgiveness is one thing, but the soul must be cleansed of all sin and Lewis really came down hard on that point. To even hold on to one sin and not let God remove it was to eventually choose Hell.
And that leads to the next point: Lewis emphasized that people choose Heaven or Hell. No matter who you are or when and where you lived, there will come a time when the ultimate choice must be made. There is no escape. And since Lewis believed that the spirit world was not limited by time or space as we are in the natural world, all of humanity was somehow present when Jesus descended into Hades after the crucifixion and before his resurrection.
O’Flaherty: How did your students react to this perspective?
Clark: The students went crazy at this point; many jumped up and gave each other high fives when they “got it,” while others got a head ache from thinking so hard. And often when alumni of the class hadn’t yet graduated, they would join us at the end of the semester just to sit through the Divorce discussion again. That sure didn’t happen in my other courses! And many who had deceased loved ones who didn’t know Christ found great relief knowing that they would hear the gospel as Peter wrote in his first epistle (4:6). Others were justifiably concerned about the millions who lived before Christ- would they go to Hell just because they lived at the wrong time? The course showed them how Lewis removed this huge stumbling block to Christianity and vindicated both the justice and mercy of God.
O’Flaherty: Looking specifically at the book, it’s divided into three parts…explain why you took this approach.
Clark: This approach emerged from class discussions. The students didn’t have any problem grasping that people needed to own up to their sins and let God sanctify them. But they wondered why Lewis depicted Hell (or was it Purgatory?) as a drizzly, gray town of huge proportions. And yet at the end of the book, it was incredibly small! And what about the bottomless chasm between Hell and Heaven? And why does it hurt to walk on the grass in Heaven (or it is Purgatory?) So there were many “geography” questions; just think of it–the ghosts were more comfortable in Hell than in Heaven! Clearly, Lewis was using landscapes for theological purposes, and my expertise as a PhD in Biblical Studies gave me the background for bringing all these things to light. In fact, my book has four tables showing the Biblical passages Lewis quoted, alluded to, paraphrased or was somehow influenced by.
Naturally, we needed to discuss the wonderful variety of people Lewis observed on his journey so we could identify the sin that was keeping them from enjoying Heaven. The cynical Ghost was a challenge for many; is skepticism of the motives of others a sin? But the “sociology” of the book brought a surprise; only when researching this book did I go deep enough to realize that Lewis had secretly “sent” two contemporaries to Hell who were even more famous in their time than he! And another Ghost, a young poet who preferred to live in Hell, was modeled after his pre-conversion self! Yet other research convinced me that his first visit to Oxford when he went the wrong way from the train station gave him the idea for describing Hell as he did. Wrapping up with an explanation of Lewis’ theology, and providing Biblical support for it, gave me the three divisions of the book.
O’Flaherty: Picking just one of those segments, give us more details about what the reader will find.
Clark: In the sociology section, Lewis displays one of his skills that often is referred to by the phrase “mere Christianity.” Many have commented on his use of metaphor, his wit and humor, his terse and clear writing skills, but he also has the ability to get down to the nub of the issue. People are quite complex, but the ghosts we meet each have just one sin keeping them out of Heaven and making Hell their preferred environment. We should be so blessed to have only one thing between us and God!
By focusing upon just one sin, Lewis keeps the interactions between the ghosts and the spirits who come to meet them simple enough for anyone to grasp. The principle that emerges is just this: every sin must go, God wants to remove it, but we must give Him permission to do so. This is “mere” sanctification, and obviously Lewis believed it would for most people continue after the death of the body. This would be “mere” Purgatory. And it must continue to completion if Heaven is to be bearable.
O’Flaherty: Taking a step back, tell us more about your journey with the works of C.S. Lewis and how he has influenced your thinking.
Clark: What I’ve come to appreciate about Lewis is his insights into the Bible. There is hardly an obscure “corner” of the Bible that his keen mind hasn’t visited and reflected on. I’m a professional Bible scholar and he an admitted novice in Biblical studies, but he sure got much farther along in his insights into the text than most!
He was an Anglican and so recited the creed every week. The doctrines in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds are the basic beliefs of the historic church which believers must accept. But there are many other Biblical subjects that aren’t included, and I’ve come to believe by much experience that his poetry and fictional works were the venues he used to speculate about what the Bible meant; especially in the area of eschatology. The ending of The Last Battle strikes many chords with the Revelation of John, and That Hideous Strength does also, to give just two examples.
I think the circles Lewis usually moved in weren’t as conservative as he, so fiction gave him a great way to “suggest” what the Bible in his opinion probably meant on a wide variety of subjects that were somewhat controversial and at the same time, disguise his opinions from all but a few who really know the Bible.
O’Flaherty: In closing, what final thoughts would you like to share?
Clark: C.S. Lewis held his book The Great Divorce in high regard and felt it was overlooked in favor of most of his other fictional works. And he was correct, it has been neglected, until now. In fact, there are things Lewis concealed in this book which I reveal for the first time. That’s huge! Anyway, his book deserves better, since it makes a huge theological contribution and resolves one of the largest stumbling blocks of Christianity; the fate of those who never got the chance to hear the gospel.
Lewis was able to settle on what was most important: our relationship with God. That, in turn, is key to our relationship with our fellow human beings and even the environment. He had quite a heart for animals, you know, and his passion for them really comes through forcefully in his essay “Vivisection.” The Biblical perspective, for him, was the most important world view a person could have. When he finally gave into that perspective, it was like the rising of the sun, he said, because by it he could see (understand) everything else.
And for Lewis, that relationship centered upon Christ. Everyone must choose or reject him; there will be no escape. Lewis was bold enough to stand for this truth at a time when he complained that so many of his fellow Britons seemed to have no sense of sin, and therefore no conviction that they needed to repent of anything or that they needed salvation. I don’t think things have improved very much since his time! It’s a real privilege for me to be able to write about him, and I hope that now many more than just my students will see what a wonderful legacy he left for us in The Great Divorce. He would want us to know what he wrote and meant, because he was pointing us to Christ, his Lord and Savior.
Read more from William O’Flaherty at essentialcslewis.com.