The Ridley Institute

C.S. Lewis and the Road Trip from Hell

The Ridley Institute is excited to partner with the Whitfield Center at Charleston Southern and the C.S. Lewis Screen Shot 2017-02-01 at 4.22.35 PMInstitute to host an evening at St. Andrew’s, Mount Pleasant on the life, writing and impact of C.S. Lewis.  On Feb 8th, St. Andrew’s will host Dr. Jerry Root and Bill Smith to discuss the topic of “C.S. Lewis and the Spiritual Journey.”  The event is free.  Doors will close and the talk will begin promptly at 7:00 p.m. 

A Road Trip from Hell.  That’s the basic premise of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, an allegory wrapped in a dream about the “divorce” between heaven and hell.  The title is a play on William Blake’s poetic work The Marriage of Heaven and HellMore than a mere play on Blake’s disorienting yet nevertheless, grand work, Lewis’ title is also a critique.  “In some sense,” wrote Lewis, “the attempt to make that marriage (between Heaven and Hell) is perennial.”  He went on to write:

The attempt is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable ‘either-or’; that, granted skill and patience and (above all) time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain.  This belief I take to be a disastrous error.

The lines, which come from Lewis’ preface, are something of a brusque dismissal of Blake.  Blake’s allegory presented a universe where contraries fed off one another something like an internal combustion engine.  Just as in the engine, where burning fuel and air combine to power the motor, in Blake’s universe good and evil are merely different forms of energy that join to make the universe go.  Thus morality for Blake is not so much about decisions as it is about balance.  But Lewis is having none of it.  For Lewis, Blake’s marriage of contraries doesn’t represent reality, which as Lewis points out often presents us with “an absolutely unavoidable ‘either-or.”  He went on to write:

You cannot take all luggage with you on all journeys; on one journey even your right hand and your right eye may be among the things you have to leave behind.  We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the centre:  rather in a world where every road, after a few miles, forks into two, and each of those into two again, and at each fork you must make a decision.  Even on the biological level life is not like a river but like a tree.  It does not move towards unity but away from it and the creatures grow further apart as they increase in perfection.  Good, as it ripens, becomes continually more different not only from evil but from other good.

Again, grounded in an appeal to the real world, Lewis notes that even in evolutionary biology, life itself progresses through a series of decisive moments from which the world is left permanently altered.  The same is true in the realm of human decision.  As Kierkegaard learned through his broken engagement with Regine Olsen, his lifelong love and lifelong regret, there are some decisions that one makes that cannot be revisited nor mended.  Decisions, at least according to Lewis, have more than temporal consequences.  Hence Lewis’ road trip from hell, which constitutes the bread and bones of his wonderfully insightful narrative in The Great Divorce. 

Lewis’ story begins with a little crowd by a bus stop.  The bus stop itself is unusual, in that the station is located in hell, the final destination heaven.  Once in heaven, travellers are permitted to walk about and explore.  Each day-tripper from hell has a heavenly visitor whose mission is to persuade the tourists to make a decision to leave hell behind and push on towards the heavenly horizon.  Here Lewis is at his finest, detailing with insightful precision the various burdens of the heart that keep souls anchored in hell rather than pressing forward into heaven.  One man, who must give up his grudge to enter into glory, turns back to nurture feelings of vengeance in hell.  Another, this one a priest and Oxford don, chooses to return to hell to read a paper about God at an academic society rather than press on to meet the real thing.   A mother chooses to return to hell without her son, who is a heavenly angel, because she would have to share him with God if she stayed in heaven.  There are bright moments as well.  Travellers, often painfully, relinquish grudges, vanities, and hatreds that they might run unhindered on to heavenly glory.  Both those who return to hell, as well as those who press on to heaven, function as lessons to the narrator, who himself is on a journey to a final destination.

Lewis’ Great Divorce belongs on the shelf with similar tales of spiritual progress (and regress!).  Dante’s Divine Comedy is the prototypical masterpiece of such storytelling.  Often maligned as nothing more than a macabre story of hell, Dante’s trilogy (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso) is actually a story of one man’s journey from the ruin of hell, through the refining fires of purgatory, to the bliss of heaven.  So too is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  Bunyan’s hero begins in the City of Destruction, is strengthened and refined (sanctified?) through the dangers of his pilgrimage, until he cross the river and the trumpet blasts, formally signaling his pilgrimage has ended.  He has reached his heavenly home.  Lewis contributed two stories to this genre, The Pilgrim’s Regress and The Great Divorce.  Traces may be seen in Tolkien, as well as T.S. Eliot, both of whom, along with Lewis, were known to carry copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy with them wherever they went.

What do these tales of spiritual progress have to teach us?  I would suggest at least two things.  First, these stories communicate an ancient truth of the Christian faith that I fear has been lost in recent years.  That truth is this:  the Christian life is a journey.  This truth seems self-evident, but I would argue it has been greatly diminished by the emphasis on “getting saved,” which has been a hallmark of the evangelistic strategy in the United States over the past several decades.   “I said the prayer!  I gave my life to Christ!”  But old sins often return.  Sins previously unknown surface.  Sometimes faith can actually be more fertile ground for fears and doubts than faithlessness.  “Getting saved” doesn’t prepare the Christian for the hardship of an earthly pilgrimage.  That’s why these books are so wonderful.  The young, struggling Christian can read these books and see his own struggles written on the page in black and white, clear as day.  Here he will learn his struggles are not unique.  Here he will learn struggle and the Christian life go hand and hand.  Here he will learn that he must make a pilgrimage.

The second reason these books are so useful is that they understand why one would be motivated to make the pilgrimage at all.  These writers understand that we are carried to hell or drawn to heaven by what we love.  Dante’s divine comedy is driven forward by his own love for Beatrice only to discover that the goodness he sees in Beatrice finds its fullest expression in God, whose goodness is in fact Love Itself, and which holds the whole universe together, drawing it to himself, even the pilgrim Dante.  Love is what drives Christian through many trials in Bunyan’s tale.  Love is at the very center of the decisions made in Lewis’ Great Divorce, both those decisions which lead to hell and those which lead to heaven.

There is something of value both for those who are Christians as well as for those who are not.  What we love will give shape to the decisions we make.  The decisions we make will chart a path for our life.  The path for our life will ultimately lead us to a destination.  Where we arrive at the end is determined by what we loved at the beginning.  Here is a warning, as well as an encouragement, particularly to Christians.  Humans ought not undertake a pilgrimage under any compulsion lesser than love.  Fear, ambition, shame, or guilt, don’t have the power to sustain a soul on any serious journey.  Only love can do this.  At least that’s what Dante, Bunyan, and Lewis thought.

This is why the Gospel is vital for the life of the spiritual pilgrim.  Only the Gospel tells us that God already loved the world, so he sent his Son (John 3.16).  Only the Gospel tells us that when we fail and fall, when we experience every kind of setback and trial on our earthly pilgrimage, God’s love does not abate (Rom 8.31-39).  Only the Gospel tells us that God’s love is more invested in our destination than we are, and he will bring us safely home (Jude 24-25).  Only the Gospel can create love in the heart to sustain the pilgrim on his journey (1 John 4.10).

Lewis wrote that “If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven:  if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”  Only Love has the power to displace such powerful trinkets.  And thus only love can empower us for life’s many great ‘either-or’ moments.  Only love can set us on those many forked roads that lead to ultimate bliss.  But of course if the Christian Gospel is to believed, even if our own love fails, there is still another Love waiting to put us back on course.


This post was written by Rob Sturdy

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