The Great Divorce by CS Lewis: A Book Review

I read this small volume many years ago and it impacted my thinking tremendously. In years since, I have been amazed by the number of other evangelicals who have said the same thing about this book—it transformed their perspective on hell.

Though I remembered its major thrust and recalled a number of specific scenes from the book, I didn’t remember a lot of the detail; so I read it again. And it was as good this time around as it was before.

Let me say up front that this might not be a book for everyone—not because of the content but the style. Lewis was a British classical scholar, and he wrote Divorce in the 1940s around the time of WWII. So it contains literary references, as well as early 20th century British words, issues, and expressions, that may not be familiar; and it might feel old fashioned. Otherwise, I think it is very readable.

The Great Divorce

Click on the book to see it on Amazon

CS Lewis Goes to Hell

Divorce is written in the first person voice—apparently the voice of Lewis himself. We don’t know how long he was in the Grey Town (hell), but he seems to have recently arrived. He observes that Grey Town is a dreary place and the inhabitants are dour, quarrelsome, and cynical. There is no tormenting fire, and in fact no punishment at all; it turns out that they live here because they choose to live here.

Lewis encounters a number of inhabitants on their way to catch a bus for a visit to another place (you might call it heaven), and Lewis joins them. From this point much of the story revolves around conversations Lewis observes between the inhabitants on the bus and him, each other, and the inhabitants of the place they visit. Some conversations are a few pages long, but they are filled with excellent human insight and well worth reading; you might even see yourself in some of the discussions.

I will not describe their contents; I could never do them justice. So I will let you experience them for yourself.

Lewis Meets His Hero

Once they arrive at the new place, Lewis first notices that the people from Grey Town appear insubstantial and almost transparent in the new place. It is a place so solid that the visitors can hardly walk on the grass because it will not bend or crush but penetrates their insubstantial feet; even fallen fruit are so heavy that one can hardly pick them up.

Each visitor is met by some ‘solid’ (or ‘bright’) person from their past life who lives in the ‘solid’ world. These solid people have no difficulty walking in the solid world, as the grass bends naturally under their feet. Their purpose is to show the guests around the area and encourage them to remain there rather than taking the return bus trip to Grey Town. The conversations between the guests and their hosts are very enlightening.

By the way, keep a lookout for the red lizard.

After exploring the area and listening to couples in conversation, Lewis encounters his own host—his favorite author from his past life on earth. If you are familiar enough with CS Lewis, you might guess who this person is. From him, Lewis learns a lot about this solid world, about Grey Town, and about people. Of course, Lewis is invited to stay in the solid world—where he would become solid himself so that the grass and the environment would be comfortable. I will not share the outcome of that invitation.

Some Observations and a Few Choice Statements

The Great Divorce demonstrates tremendous imagination. It is not meant to be a speculation of what the afterlife might be like. It is a story—a fantasy to expand our minds about the issues and possibilities concerning hell and damnation. It certainly did that for me many years ago when the only concepts I had about hell were the traditional ones I learned in church, but after reading Divorce I was never the same again. Lewis did not teach anything new—he only suggested alternate ways of thinking about hell.

One of the things that captured me was the idea that if we are separated from God in the afterlife it is because we choose it—not because we are being punished. Since that time, after much study, I am convinced that this is not a mere possibility but the actual truth of the matter.

Another idea was that even after rejecting eternal life with God, one might reconsider. I still think this to be a possibility, but who can say for sure? Whatever your take away is from this book, I do believe it will stretch your mind on the issues of hell.

I don’t want to give away too much, but I do have a couple favorite quotes from the book:

Quote #1:

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.

Quote #2:

[From a visitor] Oh, of course, I am wrong. Everything I say or do is wrong, according to you.

[His host] But of course! That’s what we all find when we reach this country. We’ve all been wrong! That’s the great joke.

If you choose to read The Great Divorce, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did—twice!

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Have a great day! ~Tim
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11 Responses to The Great Divorce by CS Lewis: A Book Review

  1. tonycutty says:

    It’s a brilliant book, and has also impacted my thinking over the years. Especially intriguing is the final paragraph, about the great watchers looking over the game board….you’ll know what I mean but I will say no more in case of spoilers….

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  2. tonycutty says:

    BTW did you get my email about your login problems for my blog? (Please feel free to delete this after reading!)

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Tony, I did get your email (thank you), and I tried to log in. But I must have made a mistake as I did not receive a password response. I will try again when I am able.

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  3. sheila0405 says:

    I shall add this to my list. Sounds like Rob Bell was influenced by Lewis’ writings.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Sheila, I think you are right about Bell. I could see Lewis’ influence throughout his book. At the end when Bell says ‘Love wins.’ instead of ‘God wins.’ It is almost an echo of Lewis quote:

      “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.'”

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  4. fiddlrts says:

    This book made a big impact on me as a teen. It certainly made more sense than (particularly the Calvinist view) that a vast number of people will be tormented eternally without any genuine choice in the matter.

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  5. Lana says:

    I love that book. I’ve said for along time that if everyone is not in heaven one day, it will only be because Lewis was right tht some people just don’t want to be. Lewis himself remarked that he hoped McDonald was right about univeralism; he just couldn’t go that far.

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Lana, I agree with you; I also think Lewis was right that if some people are not part of God’s kingdom in the afterlife it is because they do not want to be.

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      • Lana says:

        Right, if there is a hell, it’s only locked from the inside. I just have trouble seeing how God couldn’t get through to everyone’s heart. I tend to agree with McDonald.

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        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          I am optimistic, but not certain enough to be a convinced universalist. Free will must be a factor.

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          • Lana says:

            I could see one making an argument that free will is not necessary outside earth and that part of the reason we came to earth was to experience free will. I’m not saying I believe that, but I could see that argument being made, especially if mind-body dualism is true and we dont’ actually have bodies in the next life. But I still believe hta t we can all come to want to experience heaven without our free will being violated – i.e. put everyone in the greatest place for long enough and eventually people will warm up, to put it crudely. Then of course, one could also argue that we have to fully surrender to find complete peace, something surely would require pain. I think that was Lewis’s point in the Great Divorce, that heaven actually hurts at first. It would have to. Even here on earth, there are things I don’t want to think about but that I would have ot think about in order to be healed.

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