C. S. Lewis wrote The Great Divorce as a rebuttal to those who think that heaven and hell are not radically incompatible. Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” suggests to us, Lewis claimed, that good and evil are somehow blurred. At least they’re not contradictory. But for Lewis this was not the case. Evil can be repented, but it can never evolve into good.
Our fate is a matter of either/or, a question of where our hearts find their final treasure. More precisely, heaven or hell is the result of how we define ourselves while on earth. There may be a great divorce between heaven and hell, but there is a great union between our life on earth and our eternal destiny.
The story of the seven Maccabees and their mother says as much. These brothers were arrested and tortured to death.
One of the sons, who was skinned alive, said to his tormentors, “You are depriving us of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever.”
A second brother, before his tongue was cut out and he was dismembered, proclaimed that he died with the confidence of being “whole again.”
Yet another found courage in divine providence, the “God-given hope of being restored.”
The Maccabees became at their death, for all eternity, what they loved most. As they died, so they eternally would live, in love and fidelity. This is why their mother could encourage them:
I do not know how you appeared in my womb; it was not I who endowed you with life and breath; I had not the shaping of your every part. It is the creator of the world, ordaining the process of birth and presiding over the origin of all things, who in his mercy will most surely give you back breath and life.
Life after death also preoccupied the Sadducees, who apparently did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, when they put their questions to Jesus. A man dies, leaving a widow. His brother marries her. This little scenario is repeated until seven brothers have married the woman. The Sadducees want to know who will be her husband in heaven. “Remember, seven married her.”
Christ’s response is that in the life to come there will be no marriage. “They become like angels and are no longer liable to death. God is not the God of the dead but of the living. All are alive for God.”
But a question remains unanswered. What is the nature of the relationship between the resurrected life and this present one? What is the connection?
Some people (we may call them “supernatural dualists”) seem to think there is a profound discontinuity between this life and the afterlife. We must choose between being happy in this world or in the next. It is hell, one might ironically think, all the way to heaven: misery, unhappiness, and unfulfihiment now, but big rewards later. This life is the pilgrimage, the vale of tears, the test. The next life brings the reversal of roles.
Others (we might call natural humanists) seem to agree that there is a radical difference between earth and heaven. But they say we should choose the earth. As the “Humanist Manifesto” proposed, we ought to live this life without heavenly crutches or the promise of reward.In its stronger formulations, the naturalist approach looks upon heaven as “pie in the sky,” or, as one well-known troublemaker put it, “the opiate of the people.”
There is, however, a third option. What if there is no discontinuity between this life and the afterlife? What if there is just life, some of it eternal, some of it temporal? If that is the case, then the way we live now is the way we will always live. How we live is the promise of our destiny.
In this option, God does not threaten us with hell. We fashion it for ourselves by the choices we make: enclosed, egocentric, untrue, uncaring, unloving, That’s a hellishly mean existence, whether in this life or the next.
Thus, as we live and die, so we become eternally outside the limits of space and time. There may not be marriage in the afterlife, but there is the fulfillment of what we have been becoming.
All of us, from the moment we begin, are endowed with an openness to God. But those of us who live long enough to exercise our freedom actually take part in determining our fate.
Like the Maccabees, we become what we have most loved, most believed, most hoped.
Thus, Lewis’s fascinating parable of The Great Divorce is a story of people confronted with the deepest choices they make. Those who cling to their fears, who hug for dear life their resentments, who refuse to let go of their prisons, can only be given what they endlessly demand.
Those, however, who give their lives in hope and trust, who cast themselves into the arms of the living God, no matter what their shame or sorrow, find what their hearts desired.
They encounter not only the graces of the earth and the faces of the beloved, but also the one in whom they lived, moved, and had their very being.