The Great Divorce, published in 1945, is another attempt by Lewis to use fiction (primarily in short stories) to illustrate his repeating themes about pain. In The Problem of Pain he had described heaven as an ascent and hell as a descent, with hell being locked from the inside (p.131). In Mere Christianity he had written that human beings, with every choice they made, were becoming more creatures of heaven or hell (p.92). The Great Divorce is the imagining of these themes. Indeed, in the preface to the book Lewis plainly repeats his point that evil cannot be turned into good; you have to go back. Lewis paints a picture of hell as a huge place where people move further and further from each other. Each person can always go to the “bus stop” to heaven – but they have to go back. Those who take the trip to the first steps of heaven experience being confronted with their core sins, and needing to overcome them, with help. Most do not make it; most resist the work and pain and return to hell. The “going back to good” is often painful, and Lewis in this book masterfully shows the importance of pain in the hands of the Father to help humans.
Lewis pictures heaven as a place that is more real than the visiting ghosts, so the grass actually hurts the ghosts (p.55). To be clear – this is Lewis writing (though in fiction) that the early steps of heaven actually cause pain to humans. The ghosts are told that the longer they stay in heaven the more solid they will become. One ghost, though, is mad that heaven doesn’t change reality to take away his pain. Another ghost has come to heaven to take apples, which are perfect apples, back to sell in hell. The weight of these apples causes this ghost terrible pain, because the apples are more solid – more real – than the ghost. Yet the ghost carries the apple away anyway, with much pain (p.47). Some of the ghosts are naked, and one is ashamed of this and is hiding. The visitor who comes down from the higher regions of heaven tells this ghost that shame is a pain that must be accepted: “Don’t you remember on earth— there were things too hot to touch with your finger but you could drink them all right? Shame is like that. If you will accept it— if you will drink the cup to the bottom— you will find it very nourishing: but try to do anything else with it and it scalds” (p.61). To make his point, Lewis is using a fictional story, and an analogy inside of that story! Pain from God is something humans should accept and it will help them. The Teacher in the story, George MacDonald, states Lewis’s point even more clearly: heaven will work backward and turn temporal suffering, no matter how bad, into glory; hell also works backwards and contaminates even the pleasure of sin (p.69).
Lewis also uses these stories to talk about human will. One of the book’s most quotable lines is: “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” (p.75). We are told that humans prefer something, various different things, over joy – even at the price of misery (p.71). The ghost stories show the different things that people have chosen over God’s joy. They have free choice, and in choosing anything over God they have enslaved themselves in hell. Our choices shape our character. We are shown a woman who has grumbled so much that she is in danger – not of becoming a grumbler but of becoming a grumble. There will be no humanity left (p.77). Another woman has wept for years over her dead son, and ruined the lives of everyone around her. Even when her son shows up and tells her that everything is well, she will not let go of her grief. Sorrow is meant by God to purify us, but our misunderstanding of this means sorrow creates a wound that festers. She won’t believe in the real God, but only in her version of “the God of love” who would never take a son away from a mother. We are told that even natural love must be buried to rise again. God is the only true good (pp.101-102).
A vivid illustration about pain, and how it is part of God’s plan to help humans, is the story about the ghost who was controlled by lust. Lust is represented as a lizard on the ghost’s shoulder. An angel is present and offers to kill the lizard. The ghost is hesitant and wants it to be done gradually, but the angel says that the decision must be made. The ghost is afraid that it will hurt him. The angel tells him that it will hurt immensely but it will not kill him. The ghost finally agrees, the angel kills the lizard, and the ghost lifts a cry of agony and fell to the ground. But he rises a shining man, made for heaven. And even the lust, the lizard, is transformed into a horse that he rides away, ascending the heights of heaven (pp.108-111).
One of the last points that Lewis makes in this book is that misery will not be used as a weapon to hold heaven hostage (p.135). The book has given several warnings about our sorrows: sorrow must be given to God, we don’t fully understand our pain until we reach heaven, our pain can be turned into glory, and we must continue to choose God through our pain. The book also warned about not talking to others about sorrow until one’s own heart has been broken (p.105). The final warning is that hell cannot blackmail heaven; hell cannot veto the joy of heaven. Those in misery, who have rejected God’s way (which includes pain) and have locked themselves up in hell, do not get to force those in heaven to be miserable out of pity. Lewis implies the point: those in heaven have accepted what God has accepted: people will choose hell over the joy of heaven, and descend away from their humanity, away from true reality.