“The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in these words, ‘Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.’” — C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
I recently picked up my dog-eared copy of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. The pages are yellowed and filled with the scribbling of a young teacher desperately trying to break through to the young minds of curious and doubtful teenagers.
It has been 10 years since the last time my students and I wandered through these chapters in search of some insight about our God looking for some foothold on which to anchor our faith. It has been 25 years since the fading pencil underlining and commentary were carefully and tentatively entered by a naïve and eager new teacher.
Lewis wrote The Great Divorce in response to moral relativism and in response to the persistent attempts to marry heaven and hell. He writes, “The attempt is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable ‘either-or.’” Published in 1945, it’s hard to imagine how Lewis might respond to the rapid and ubiquitous evolution of relativism in contemporary culture.
Lewis might appear to favor a fundamentalist approach. He does not. Lewis returned to the Anglican Church in his 30s. I like to think he would find his home there again if he were alive today.
What I find most fascinating and so engaging about Lewis and The Great Divorce is that he and his writing challenge most typical concepts of evil and good.
Lewis confirms what so many good people know in their hearts regardless of their faith tradition or denomination. The concept of good and evil has been bastardized to serve the ends of immoral men. What I discovered in my teaching is that most young people know this intuitively. As a result, many inwardly reject faith and the empty promises of empty men. Many adults suffer the same ends.
Lewis offers readers perspective, and through that perspective, hope. One character, a murderer who has somehow found his way to heaven, speaks to a lost soul from his past: “Murdering old Jack wasn’t the worst thing I did. That was the work of the moment and I was half mad when I did. But I murdered you in my heart deliberately for years.”
Through a host of unlikely characters, Lewis explores evil in a way that is both surprising and profoundly perceptive. A bishop, a grieving mother, a nagging wife, a cad — these ghosts all appear on Lewis’ finely crafted stage and the truth of the matter, of good and evil, is made clear.
In the end there are two primary themes that emerge. The first is one of choice. The individual ultimately will choose between good and evil. The second and most significant is the idea that good flows from the ability to step back and engage in honest self-reflection.
This particular point is of great consequence to me. Looking out and living in the world, I have discovered how painfully accurate Lewis was. If ever there were a time for self-reflection for this country, for its people, it is now.
That self-reflection must include recognition of good and evil, of right and wrong. It must also include the courage to acknowledge we have sinned. Therein is the greatest difficulty, the thing most likely to prevent — dare I say it? — our salvation. Without it we are ruined.
Still, I remain hopeful, inspired by my students, by friends and intellects. There are many committed to finding a collective voice while also understanding that ultimately, “It begins and ends with me.”
I will close with a poignant and favorite quote from the book. “There are only two kinds of people in the end: Those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”
I whisper, “Thy will be done.”