Back of the North Wind

Discussions of theology, philosophy, religion and life inspired by the writings of George MacDonald (and perhaps others such as CS Lewis) posted by "recovering fundamentalists".

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I am a "recovering fundamentalist". The trick is to figure out how not to throw out the Baby with the bathwater. I learn through dialogue, and so invite commentary on my posts to Back of the North Wind.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Eternal Hell (Part III): Virgil for CS Lewis

For many years, my favorite book was The Great Divorce, by CS Lewis. I still read it at least once or twice a year, often aloud. The Great Divorce was written as a response to Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and is a little reminiscent of Dante's Inferno.

By the way, I never really enjoyed Dante's Inferno as much as it seems I ought -- there seems to be too much satire on Dante's local political situation, a situation into which I have no insight. A very enjoyable re-write, which focused on more universal topics, is Inferno, by sci-fi team Niven and Pohl.

Back to Lewis and The Great Divorce. The book is a series of vignettes where "Ghosts" (souls that have been somewhere unpleasant--purgatory, or hell, or something) leave a dreary town (representing hell) to meet "Bright Ones" (souls which are already on their journey to bliss) who interrupt their journey to return and speak with the Ghosts. Each Bright One, who during their lives had a relationship of some sort with the Ghost being met, attempts to convince the Ghost to come with the Bright One to heaven. The resulting dialogues are fascinating, enjoyable and familiar.

Part of the appeal of that story, and what is reminiscent of The Inferno, is that Lewis "channels" George MacDonald (GMD) as his own personal Virgil. What's interesting, in the context of the discussions of the GMD perspective on hell I've been posting here, is that Lewis doesn't seem quite altogether comfortable with GMD's view of hell. His channeling isn't quite the same as the original. Here is Lewis' dialogue between himself and George MacDonald, starting with Lewis:

"But I don't understand. Is judgement not final? Is there really a way out of Hell into Heaven?"

"It depends on the way ye're using the words. If they leave that grey town behind it will not have been Hell. To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory. And perhaps ye had better not call this country Heaven. Not Deep Heaven, ye understand." (Here he smiled at me.) "Ye can call those sad streets in the town yonder the Valley of the Shadow of Death: but to those who remain there they will have been Hell even from the beginning."
[Lewis eventually reposes the question]
"But there is a real choice after death? My Roman Catholic friends would be surprised, for to them souls in Purgatory are already saved. And my Protestant friends would like it no better, for they'd say that the tree lies as it falls."

"They're both right, maybe. Do not fash yourself with such questions. Ye cannot fully understand the relations of choice and Time till you are beyond both. And ye were not brought here to study such curiosities."
The dialogue continues, and Lewis wraps it up with the George MacDonald character concluding:
"Never fear. 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.' 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. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened."

Note that Lewis' punchline: "...those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.'" has a sense of finality to it. (Emphasis mine.) George MacDonald would never surrender "the end" to man's will triumphing over God's.

But even though there are differences here between Lewis and MacDonald, there is more in common. MacDonald would certainly agree that "No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it." And he would especially approve of Lewis using the active verbs: "seek" and "knock".

And that's the most important part to take away, and why Lewis and MacDonald would probably both agree that we shouldn't "fash ourselves with such questions". (Though, it's hard for me to help "fashing" -- perhaps because I'm really "un-fashing" all the fundamentalist "fashing" that happened in my childhood religion.) "Seek", "Knock" and of course, "Obey".

And now it's time for me to go and re-read The Great Divorce!