Heaven and Hell as Idea and Image in C. S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis was deeply interested in heaven. In his nonfiction prose he frequently discussed the nature of heaven (and, less frequently, the nature of hell) and explained how to take part in it. In his works of fiction he created several striking descriptions of what heaven (and, in less detail, hell) might be like. Many writers have either discussed or depicted heaven and hell; few have done both well. It can be illuminating to compare the two approaches, to see how Lewis’s discussions of the idea of heaven shape and clarify the images of heaven he created.
It should be noted first that Lewis had not always been interested in heaven and hell. That must have been true during the years (roughly 1913-1929) when he was, or considered himself to be, an atheist. But even when he returned to belief in a divine being, he did so without initially believing in life after death. In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he says of his conversion to theism that it “involved as yet no belief in a future life. I now number it among my greatest mercies that I was permitted for several months, perhaps for a year, to know God and to attempt obedience without even raising that question” (chap. 15, par. 2).
In Reflections on the Psalms, he expands that idea to the early Hebrews, who had no belief in a future state of any sort; only later, after the people had learned “to desire and adore God” selflessly, could the hope of Heaven and fear of Hell be revealed to them, “as corollaries of a faith already centred upon God” (chap. 4, par. 17). Lewis regards it as a mercy that he became a Christian without believing in heaven because it reassures him about his motive: he did not return to God to obtain a reward, to gain a blissful afterlife in heaven; he did it solely out a desire for God as the source of goodness and truth. Lewis had little sympathy with those who urge people to become Christians in order to avoid hell and instead attain a blissful existence after death (“too often, I am afraid, [heaven is] desired chiefly as an escape from Hell” – Reflections on the Psalms, chap. 4, par. 18).
I have borrowed the words idea and image in my title from Perelandra, chapter 10, paragraph 1, where the narrator says “What emerged from the [Un-man’s] stories [about tragic heroines] was rather an image than an idea.” I am using idea as a synonym for doctrine (the Truth about heaven and hell) and image as a synonym for picture or metaphor, the use of words to create visual images that help us at least partially to grasp that Truth. Focusing on those two terms is important because it is difficult to talk about the doctrines of heaven and hell without slipping into pictures of heaven and hell. Ask people what hell is, for example, and you may get answers like, a pit of fires that will burn forever, perhaps surrounded with devils jabbing the damned with pitchforks. These are images, not ideas, and Lewis warns us “not to confuse the doctrine itself with the imagery by which it may be conveyed” (The Problem of Pain, chap. 8, par. 9).
Ideas of Hell
How then does Lewis explain the idea, or doctrine, of hell? Most of what he says appears in the eighth chapter of The Problem of Pain, the book he wrote for the Centenary Press’s “Christian Challenge” series in 1940, in a series of replies to objections people often raise against belief in hell, or their way of conceiving what hell is. Lewis answers by showing that many of the objections fade if we concentrate on the ideas behind the images. He starts with the fact that people often focus on descriptions of hell as a retributive punishment inflicted by God on lost souls for the evil deeds they have committed in their lives. Lewis tells us that may confuse rather than clarify our understanding of the truth about hell.
Jesus at times does describe hell as what follows a sentence imposed by a judge (as in Matthew 25: 41-46). This itself is an example of Jesus using a picture (or parable) to convey a truth. The image of a judge imposing a sentence upon the guilty should vindicate God, not the opposite. A judge in a courtroom is (or ought always to be) not a vindictive punisher, but one who weighs evidence objectively, reaches conclusions impartially, and imposes sentences equitably. The King in Jesus’ parable is not a prosecutor, accusing the defendants, building a case against them. The defendants have already been found guilty: their deeds have condemned them. The King summarizes the case, the grounds on which they will be sentenced. A trial should always be about the defendant, not the judge. And that is the point of Jesus’ courtroom imagery. Lewis also notes Jesus’ words in John 3:19, “And this is the judgment, that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil,” and comments: “We are therefore at liberty . . . to think of [a] bad man’s perdition not as a sentence imposed on him but as the mere fact of being what he is” (PofP, chap. 8, par. 7).
In the Matthew 25 parable, the judge tells the defendants, “Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” This too is imagery, not idea. As Lewis puts it, “The prevalent image of fire is significant because it combines the ideas of torment and destruction” (PofP, chap. 8, par. 9). For Lewis, the essence of hell can be seen in what the defendants have done, as shown by what they have not done. They have lived for themselves, not for others, thus not for God, and this, for Lewis, gets at the idea of hell. Anyone who is totally self-centered and self-satisfied cannot seek forgiveness or recognize the need for forgiveness, cannot love or see the need for relationships with others, including God. Self-centeredness, thus, means separation from others.
Separation seems for Lewis to describe the essential idea of hell, capturing what is conveyed by the biblical imagery of torture, destruction, and privation. To be forever cut off from God’s presence, eternally unable to know God’s love and mercy, would be a torture best described by being burned ceaselessly by fire. To be totally separated from other creatures, to be wholly and increasingly self-absorbed, makes that self smaller and smaller, and ultimately will result in the person ceasing to be a self. To someone who has been wholly centered on self, having that self cease to exist would be the ultimate possible loss, a horror describable for us, Lewis says, only through images of physical destruction. The torture of separation and the terror of ceasing to exist are better seen not as punishments imposed by God, but as the natural and inevitable outcome of choices humans themselves make and attitudes they themselves develop.
“Destruction” indicates that Lewis thinks hell may not be eternal. It is, after all, the opposite of heaven, which is everlasting. He puts it this way: “I notice that Our Lord, while stressing the terror of hell with unsparing severity, usually emphasises the idea, not of duration, but of finality. Consignment to the destroying fire is usually treated as the end of the story—not as the beginning of a new story. That the lost soul is eternally fixed in its diabolical attitude we cannot doubt: but whether this eternal fixity implies endless duration—or duration at all—we cannot say” (PofP, chap. 8, par. 10). And Lewis does not believe souls have a “second chance” at salvation after death. “I believe that if a million chances were likely to do good, they would be given. But a master often knows, when boys and parents do not, that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again. Finality must come sometime, and it does not require a very robust faith to believe that omniscience knows when” (PofP, chap. 8, par. 8).
Images of Hell
Lewis creates pictures of hell in four of his books of fiction, and in each case the images he creates are consistent with the ideas discussed above. In the earliest of his fictional works, the allegorical book The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), Lewis’s depiction of hell as a “Black Hole” clearly was influenced by the cone-shaped pit described in Dante’s Inferno. As Dante places the virtuous pagans in a vestibule just outside the gate to hell, so Lewis consigns men like Mr. Wisdom to “Limbo, or the twilight porches of the dark hole” (book 10, chap. 3, par. 2). They are not in hell but are excluded from heaven because they did not know about heaven and therefore did not seek it. Like Dante’s inferno, Lewis’s black hole is made up of regions, with souls guilty of graver sins falling “into far darker regions at the very bottom” (book 10, chap. 3, par. 8). In this image of hell, as in his explanation of the doctrines, Lewis treats hell not as punishment imposed from without, but as the natural working out of what the person has chosen to be: “The Landlord does not condemn them to lack of hope: they have done that to themselves” (book 10, chap. 3, par. 8). And this book, like The Problem of Pain, emphasizes that the existence of hell is not God’s desire, but is a result of the willingness of God (the “inveterate gambler”) to take “the risk of working the country with free tenants instead of slaves in chain gangs” (book 10, chap. 4, par. 4, 6).
In The Screwtape Letters (1942), Lewis describes hell in a less traditional way, one appropriate to our “Managerial Age”: “My symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern” (preface to the 1961 paperback edition, par. 17). For Lewis, the ruthlessly competitive, self-centered atmosphere in such an organization is hellish: “Everyone wishes everyone else’s discrediting, demotion, and ruin; everyone is an expert in the confidential report, the pretended alliance, the stab in the back” (preface, par. 20). Most of Screwtape’s letters to Wormwood project a polite façade that hides the hatred and hunger for power usually boiling just below bureaucratic surfaces. In our world bureaucrats metaphorically devour anyone who gets in the way of their advancement. In Screwtape’s hell, the devouring is literal: “To us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense” (letter 8, par. 3). As in any bureaucracy, the devils are willing to take advantage of junior associates and to chew up those who prove unproductive: “Bring us back food or be food yourself” (letter 30, par. 1). Thus Lewis shows each stronger devil desiring to “suck the weaker into itself and permanently gorge its own being on the weaker’s outraged individuality,” and he says that Satan (“Our Father Below”) dreams “of the day when all shall be inside him and all that says ‘I’ can say it only through him” (preface, par. 20). Lewis emphasizes that this is “only myth and symbol,” not speculation about diabolical life (preface, par. 21). He is depicting in images what he articulated elsewhere as idea, that the essence of hell is the total and permanent loss of personality and selfhood.
Lewis also provides a passing image of hell in The Last Battle (1956), the final volume of the Chronicles of Narnia. The last battle is an apocalyptic encounter of a small band of Narnians against invading forces from the large neighboring country Calormen. At its conclusion, Father Time awakens, as we were told in The Silver Chair that he will “at the end of the World” (SC, chap. 10, par. 24). He raises a horn to his mouth and blows on it, analogous surely to the last trumpet in 1 Corinthians 15:52, and the stars begin to rain down from the sky and great dragons and giant lizards come crawling and sliding into the land to devour the forests and foliage. At that point all the Narnian creatures run up to where Aslan stands next to the stable door and, as they come up to him, they look into his face: “And when some looked, the expression of their faces changes terribly—it was fear and hatred. . . . And all the creatures who looked at Aslan in that way swerved to their right, his left, and disappeared into his huge black shadow, which . . . streamed away to the left of the doorway. The children never saw them again.” And the narrator concludes, “I don’t know what became of them” (LB, chap. 14, par. 12). In a children’s story, Lewis does not want to picture hell in detail, but he does acknowledge that some creatures will turn away from Aslan, no matter how gladly he would welcome them. The dark shadow resembles the “Black Hole” of The Pilgrim’s Regress. The perpetuity is left in doubt, but the sense of separation is made definite by the dismissive words “never saw them again.”
Lewis’s most detailed depiction of hell occurs in his Dante-like fantasy story The Great Divorce (1946). He images hell as a large, gray city, where it is always rainy and constantly in that stage of twilight just as the lights are being turned on. The narrator walks through empty streets lined with dingy boarding houses, small tobacco shops, windowless warehouses, and “bookshops of the sort that sell The Works of Aristotle” (chap. 1). The narrator joins a queue at a bus stop and boards a bus that takes him to the outskirts of heaven. We don’t see hell again, but we learn more about it as the story continues. The citizens of the city are quarrelsome—fights break out, even on the bus, and we are told that the streets are empty as residents keep moving further away from each other because they can’t stop quarreling with neighbors. We also learn that the city is unsubstantial. One can construct a house or come by various commodities just by thinking them, but the houses can’t keep out rain or intruders and the commodities don’t satisfy needs. Most striking is the fact that, though the gray city seems huge, it actually is tiny—“nearly Nothing” (chap. 9, par. 51). “All Hell is smaller than one pebble of [the] earthly world” (chap. 13, par. 47).
The focus of the book is not so much on imaging hell as on explaining why some souls are in hell, and why they choose to return there even when they are offered the opportunity to stay in heaven. The souls are not condemned to hell as punishment: they put themselves into hell. As the character George MacDonald tells the narrator, “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” (chap. 9, par. 41). The book concentrates on two characteristic hellish attitudes. One is self-centeredness. Damned souls are totally wrapped up in themselves, and as they turn increasingly inward, they grow smaller and smaller. “A damned soul is nearly nothing,” MacDonald notes. “It is shrunk, shut up in itself.” The other is unlove. Hell is characterized by degraded forms of love—jealousy, possessiveness, manipulativeness. Instead of reaching out to others in love, damned souls love only themselves and as they become more and more self-absorbed, they become smaller and smaller.
The images are consistent with the ideas in The Problem of Pain. The essence of hell is not physical torture. The cynical ghost in The Great Divorce finds that disappointing: “They lead you to expect red fire and devils and all sorts of interesting people sizzling on grids . . ., but when you get there it’s just like any other town” (chap. 7, par. 14). The pain of hell is internal, the agony of literal self-absorption (growing ever less and less in personhood) and of resulting increases in quarrelsomeness and isolation. As souls become fixed in these attitudes, they are in hell; they are hell. Here the idea and the images come close to merging.
Ideas of Heaven
Lewis’s fullest explanations of the idea, or doctrine, of heaven can be found in Miracles and in The Problem of Pain. In Miracles, Lewis begins with different ways in which the word heaven is used. The first of these is “the unconditioned Divine Life beyond all worlds” (chap. 16, par. 25)—that is, heaven as God knows it, which is utterly inconceivable for human minds. It is totally unspatial and nontemporal; it gives our minds no basis for forming images, gives us nothing even to imagine. When Lewis writes in Surprised by Joy, “What I learned from the Idealists (and still most strongly hold) is this maxim: it is more important that Heaven should exist than that any of us should reach it” (chap. 13, next to last par.), he means heaven in this sense: Heaven as Utter Reality. If there is no such Reality, then of course none of us can reach it. It is this sense that George MacDonald invokes in The Great Divorce when he tells the narrator, “Heaven is reality itself” (chap. 9, par. 27). In a Platonic sense, this “heaven” is the place from which all the Images that appear in our world as “shadows” come. But even the need to say “place” betrays our inability to cope with something entirely beyond our range of conception: heaven is “where” God is, but that doesn’t refer to a place. Thus the utter reality is heaven and is God: to feel anything contradictory in saying that results from our difficulty in conceiving of anything existing that does not exist in a space.
The second meaning of heaven is “blessed participation in that Life by a created spirit” (Mir, chap. 16, para 25), that is, being in the presence of the Divine. This is equally inconceivable for our finite minds. God is omnipresent—totally present at all times in every place (except hell)—but being present with God is not limited to a specific location. Heaven, Lewis writes in Reflections on the Psalms, means “union with God,” just as hell means “separation from Him” (chap. 4, par. 15). The reality of such union must be non-spatial, but the very word presence inevitably suggests, from our earthly perspective, a place. Lewis tries to avoid that suggestion by saying that we enter God’s presence by self-surrender: as he put it in a letter, “What indeed can we imagine Heaven to be but unimpeded obedience” (Collected Letters, vol. 2, 8 January 1936). Later he wrote in The Problem of Pain, “Wherever the will conferred by the Creator is thus perfectly offered back in delighted and delighting obedience by the creature, there, most undoubtedly, is Heaven” (chap. 6, par. 3). This meaning expresses the essence of the heavenly condition, being united with the Divine Life: “that,” says Lewis, “is what [we] mean by Heaven.” But forming a mental picture of such union is beyond our human capabilities. Lewis knew this answer couldn’t be wholly satisfactory because our nature craves something more concrete. That’s why he gives us the fictional accounts of heaven—they aren’t “true,” but they express Truth. They get across the bliss and beauty that awaits us. They create a longing for what Lewis often refers to as a true home. In Mere Christianity he writes, “I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death.” The stories help awaken and sustain that desire.
The third way the word heaven is used means “the whole Nature or system of conditions in which redeemed human spirits, still remaining human, can enjoy such participation [in the Divine Life] fully and forever” (Mir, chap. 16, para 25). The word forever here seems deliberate: heaven is the beginning of a story which will go on eternally, in contrast to hell, which, as quoted above, “is usually treated as the end of the story” (PofP, chap. 8, par. 10). This meaning of heaven has an even stronger spatial sense than the second. Thus we think of heaven as the location in which our new bodies will live after the resurrection. The Apostles’ Creed says, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” When we think of “body,” we naturally think of the physical beings we are now. But Lewis believes the creed can’t mean that. St. Paul, after all, says it will be different: “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44). “Spiritual body” seems paradoxical: a spirit is that which lacks a body, and a body is the physical material that contains, but is of a different nature from, a spirit.
The very existence in heaven of anything that can be referred to as a “body” involves “some sort of spatial relations and in the long run a whole new universe.” It will be the old Nature remade: “The old field of space, time, matter, and the senses is to be weeded, dug, and sown for a new crop” (Mir, chap. 16, par. 12). The resurrected bodies also will be remade, but not out of physical material: the resurrection of the body, Lewis believes, does not mean the soul re-entering the corpse (Letters to Malcolm, letter 22, par. 12). We will not recover the units of matter that made up our physical bodies: those particles have been, are, and will be reused in other bodies—they are not “mine” and do not constitute “me” in any particular way. And the New Nature will not be made up of a material physicality like that of the Old Nature.
Instead, Lewis speculates, the resurrection of the body and the New Nature involve a reunion of the senses with the intellectual soul. “What the soul cries out for is the resurrection of the senses,” Lewis writes in Letters to Malcolm (letter 22, par. 13). Even now, he goes on, matter means nothing to us apart from our apprehension of it through the senses. And we have already a glimpse of dead sensations being raised from the dead, through memory. He doesn’t mean that the dead will have excellent recall of their sensory experiences on earth. Rather, “memory as we now know it is a dim foretaste, a mirage even, of a power which the soul . . . will exercise hereafter.” It need not be intermittent, or private, as memory is now. “I can communicate to you the fields of my boyhood . . . only imperfectly, by words. Perhaps the day is coming when I can take you for a walk through them.” Now, he goes on, we speak of the soul as somehow being “inside” the body. But the glorified, risen body as Lewis conceives it—the life of the senses resurrected from death—will be “inside the soul. As God is not in space but space is in God” (LtoM, letter 22, par. 15-16).
Images of Heaven
How can we conceive, or even imagine, what this New Nature, thus what Heaven, will be like? It is incredibly difficult. We attempt to grasp such conditions through images and metaphors. In doing so, we are following the example Jesus gave us. Thus he said, before his death, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; . . . I am going there to prepare a place for you. And . . . I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2). “House,” “rooms,” and “place” are metaphors that make heaven familiar and homey. They are often used at funerals and afford grieving friends and relatives great comfort. But they are imaginative language, as is other biblical imagery for heaven, not literal. In this life we can “see” heaven only through the imaginations God has given us, and what we imagine is limited because it is impossible for us to conceive images that do not depend on space and location.
Lewis stresses that the biblical images used to describe heaven, as well as the non-biblical images, are only pictures and symbols, not a literal depiction of what heaven is. Thus he writes in Mere Christianity, “All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. Musical instruments are mentioned because for many people . . . music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity. Crowns are mentioned to suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share His splendour and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of Heaven (gold does not rust) and the preciousness of it. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs” (book 3, chap. 10, last par.).
He makes a similar point at the end of the preface to The Great Divorce: “I beg readers to remember that this [story] is a fantasy,” not even a guess at what heaven actually will be like. When someone wrote to Lewis asking if he wanted heaven to be similar to what he described in that story, he replied, “No, I don’t wish I knew Heaven was like the picture in my Great Divorce, because, if we knew that, we should know it was no better. The good things even of this world are far too good ever to be reached by imagination. Even the common orange, you know: no one could have imagined it before he tasted it. How much less Heaven” (Collected Letters, vol. 3, 7 August 1956).
However significant the imagery of sky and mountains is, it is only imagery. Artists and writers have tried for centuries to come up with satisfying depictions of heaven. Words work better than visual art, but even words inevitably prove inadequate to describe that which is utterly beyond description. There is wide agreement that the best depiction of heaven is in Dante’s Paradiso. It works best, perhaps, because it is so fantastical, so unrealistic, in its depictions: an ascent through the heavenly spheres culminating at the top in a mystical vision of the triune God. Many people regard Lewis’s description in The Last Battle as almost equally effective, partly because it too uses a fantasy setting, and because the imagery it uses is more easily accessible to many readers than Dante’s is. However good and appealing the pictures, they are only pictures. There is no way finite human beings can imagine or know the infinite beauty of heaven. The most the images can do is to awaken a hunger to be there and find out what it’s like.
Lewis’s images of heaven start with a fourth sense of the word heaven in Miracles: physical Heaven, the sky, the space in which Earth moves (chap. 16, par. 25). It is natural for humans to look upward as they think of divine beings: “light and life-giving heat do come down from the sky to Earth” (Mir, chap. 16, par. 26). So the Hebrews thought: “For as the heaven is high above the earth . . .” (Psalm 103:11). Thus, at his ascension, Jesus was carried upward until a cloud received him out of their sight. It is no accident, Lewis says, that people blend ideas of heaven with the sky above: “The huge dome of the sky is of all things sensuously perceived the most like infinity” (Mir, chap. 16, par. 26). When God created that dome and the stars and planets that move through it, and when he gave us sight and imaginations, “He knew what the sky would mean to us.” If Jesus had descended into the earth instead of ascending into the clouds, we would have a very different religion, Lewis adds. For similar reasons Lewis associates heaven with mountains: they are magnificent, they are high, and they reach upward toward the sky. As the Greek gods were above the Greek lands, on Mount Olympus, so Moses goes up Mount Sinai to meet with God and be given the Ten Commandments, and the Old Testament is filled with references to the “holy mountain of God” (e.g., Psalm 48:1; Ezekiel 20: 40 and 28:14; Zechariah 8:3).
It is therefore no accident that Lewis’s images of heaven in the Chronicles of Narnia involve mountains. Lewis first brings heaven, here called Aslan’s Country, into the Chronicles of Narnia in The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader.” Three children—Edmund, Lucy, Eustace—and the gallant mouse Reepicheep catch a glimpse of Aslan’s Country beyond the long ocean wave that marks the end of the world, and even beyond the sun which comes up behind the wave: “What they saw . . . was a range of mountains . . . so high that either they never saw the top of it or they forgot it,” and Reepicheep reaches Aslan’s Country by riding up and over the wave in his little boat (chap. 16, par. 53, 56). In The Silver Chair Aslan’s Country is sketched broadly, as extremely high up and surpassingly beautiful, filled with blazing sunlight, riotous birds, huge trees, and rippling streams (chap. 1, par. 74, 80, 81, 85). Digory visits Aslan’s Country briefly in The Magician’s Nephew (chap. 13), when he journeys deep into the mountains beyond the end of Narnia to fetch an apple that will preserve Narnia from harm for an indefinite period.
The fullest depiction of Aslan’s Country occurs in The Last Battle. As the battle, pitting the outnumbered forces of King Tirian (with two children, Eustace and Jill, among them) against impossible odds, nears its end, the Calormenes begin seizing the Narnians and throwing them into a stable, thinking they were giving them as sacrifices to their fearsome god Tash. The door, however, becomes a symbol of death and a portal to another world. When the Narnians go through it, they find themselves not in a smelly, dark stable, but in a huge land of light and joy. It is a place of youth (as Jill puts it, the Professor and Aunt Polly aren’t “much older than we are here”), of health (Edmund’s knee ceases to be sore and the Professor suddenly feels unstiffened), of abundance (they have crowns on their heads and are in glittering clothes), and of freedom (it feels like “the country where everything is allowed”). And it is a place of beauty and of bounty: They see groves of trees, thick with leaves, and under every leaf there peeps out the rich colors of fruits “such as no one has seen in our world,” fruits compared with which “the freshest grapefruit you’ve ever eaten was dull, and the juiciest orange was dry” (LB, chap. 12, par. 43 – chap. 13, par. 14).
They are in Aslan’s Country, heaven, but only on the outskirts. They need to travel further up and further in to reach deep heaven. As they go, traveling higher into the mountains, things begin to look familiar. They see all the old places they loved in Narnia, and the old Professor from the first book explains it all in Platonic terms: “Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here: just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world” (chap. 15, par. 36). After trying his best to say what it was like, the narrator confesses he can’t describe it: you can’t grasp fully what it is like unless you get to that country and experience it for yourself (chap. 13, par. 5).
Most of all, it is a place where those who love and long for Aslan find fulfillment. Soon after entering Narnia, Tirian sees a brightness and turns around: “There stood his heart’s desire, huge and real, the golden Lion, Aslan himself” (chap. 13, par. 67). In the words of Jewel the unicorn, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now” (chap. 15, par. 39). Those who have a deep desire for Narnia and for Aslan, discover that they now have found both. Lewis again holds the prospect out before the reader enticingly: “I can’t describe it any better than that: if ever you get there you will know what I mean” (chap. 15, par. 37).
Another of Lewis’s stories, The Great Divorce, is set mostly in heaven, or rather in the outskirts of heaven. It doesn’t take us close to the heavenly heights, the way The Last Battle does. Still, the two accounts share a good deal, imaginatively. Both depict heaven as utmost Reality: that is conveyed in The Great Divorce by the solidness and heaviness of things in heaven, and by the insubstantiality of buildings in hell and the transparency of the ghosts visiting heaven (even things in our world, called “the Shadowlands” in The Last Battle, seem shadowy by contrast to this Reality). Both books use images of light, height, intense colors and tastes, and utmost delight and gladness (“Joy,” Lewis writes, using the word in its ordinary meaning, “is the serious business of Heaven” – Letters to Malcolm, chap. 17, last par.). Both are full of activity and growth; they are not static and immobile: spirits seek constantly to go higher and deeper, ever closer to and experiencing more fully the Glory that is heaven. “Every one of us lives only to journey further and further into the mountains,” George MacDonald says to the narrator in The Great Divorce.
In The Great Divorce, Lewis stresses that its depiction of “transmortal conditions” is “solely an imaginative supposal. . . . The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world” (preface, last par.). Those words perhaps contain an apt warning for all of us. Lewis believes that the ideas and images about the afterlife have value. They can contribute to the theological virtue of hope, to the longing for glory and the desire to be in God’s immediate presence, that is important to our Christian lives. “I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; . . . I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same” (Mere Christianity, book 3, chap. 10, par. 5).
But at the same time it is possible for us to become too concerned about what heaven will be like and to spend too much time thinking about the next world instead of carrying out our Christian and civic duties in this world. Lewis warns against that firmly: “it is of more importance for you or me to-day to refrain from one sneer or to extend one charitable thought to an enemy than to know all that angels and archangels know about the mysteries of the New Creation” (Mir, chap. 16, par. 31).
Peter Schakel is professor of English at Hope College. His teaching and research specialties are eighteenth-century English literature, especially verse satire and Jonathan Swift, and the life and works of C. S. Lewis (see his website C. S. Lewis, Literature, and Life). He and his colleague Jack Ridl have recently published Approaching Literature in the 21st Century, a culturally diverse introduction to fiction, poetry, and drama.