C.S. Lewis is quite a good storyteller. Now, I know that statement is obvious to anyone who has read any of his fiction. Nonetheless, when we read fiction, we often have a tendency to say, “What a nice story,” and leave it at that. We forget that the metaphor speaks to something greater; there is a legitimate direction of truth in metaphor. It is why, in reading the gospels, one will often find Christ saying, “The kingdom of God is like….” He spoke in metaphors because a metaphor will illustrate the greater truth, reality, and concept behind the words themselves.
The main theme of The Great Divorce says that, often, there is some grain of good desire even at the heart of an act that appears evil; good, even the smallest amount, taken in a selfish direction will be misused and abused and turned into something horrible. But when taken in the right (‘right’ in and of itself is a word that needs to be unpacked in today’s post-modern world!) purpose, right defined here as being used for the purpose and intention of God’s design, that grain of good turns into something beautiful and amazing. Additionally, there are themes and metaphors of heaven, hell, and even purgatory (believe it or not – it is a doctrine that has its basis in some legitimacy!), as well as the examination of the depth of God’s love and victory. These are aspects of what is commonly called eschatology. It is looking at, well, the end. It is trying to understand the end of this age, bonded to death through sin, and the beginning of a new age, with freedom in God to love.
And it begs us to ask questions; some might even call them dangerous questions. What do we believe will happen at the end of this age? And the even more threatening question – what do we believe will happen when we die?
Oftentimes, the quick, easy answer we receive in western, non-Roman Catholic theological traditions (sorry – I don’t like the term ‘Protestant’ very much; I’m not really protesting Rome anymore!) is that you die and your soul goes to heaven or hell. And that’s the type of bottom line, hard and fast answer we receive. Simplistic and easy – but that is the exact problem with that answer. In truth, it’s neither a simplistic nor an easy answer! And it should not be treated as if it were a simplistic and easy answer!
There are all sorts of issues with this answer.
The first issue is that none of us has died and returned. That is, none of us except Jesus Christ. And apart from Christ’s death and resurrection, we do not exactly know what comes after death. Christ is our best guide to understanding life after death. What the resurrection points to, and in line with scripture, is a physical resurrection in a renewed body.
The second issue is the concept of a dualistic eternal soul and non-eternal body; it does not come from Christianity nor the Hebrew Bible. Remove Greek and Platonist influence and you have the unified psychosomatic concept of the person as a whole; body and mind are together. It is the way God designed us to be as people; he did not design us to have a partially separated non-physical ‘soul’ for all of eternity – the person would be incomplete! I encourage you to take a journey through both the Old and New Testaments and explore this on your own.
The third issue is that it does not take into account the physical resurrection of the person, and all people, at the end of this age; again, this is in line with scripture; again, I encourage you to explore the Old and New Testaments. Moreover, in saying that someone will immediately descend into hell upon death turns God into an unjust judge. Scripture is clear that there will be both a day of physical resurrection and a day of judgment; neither has happened yet. It will be at the end of this age. God is not going to condemn a person to eternal damnation before the day of judgment! C.S. Lewis makes a great point here in The Great Divorce – ultimately, it won’t be God’s rejection of the person; rather, it will be the person’s rejection of God and his beautiful love that brings despair.
It should be known that on that day of judgment in the future, it will be God, and God alone, who is truly able to judge the person’s heart. This is not a responsibility that we, as Christians, ignorant of a totality of information, should take on for ourselves; we cannot claim to be God. However, it should make all of us, Christian and non-Christian alike, want to seriously examine the condition of our own hearts and our receptiveness towards God’s grace.
Finally, it downplays the significance and the beauty of a new creation! As I mentioned before, God created us as physical beings, originally designed for good, beauty, life, and love; however we have been corrupted by sin and its effects through death. God did not create us to be an eternal, non-physical soul, yearning to escape a physical realm; that is the heresy of gnosticism. But in living in a new and beautiful creation, it will be a remade, physical world! There will be eternal, physical life available, with freedom in love and freedom from evil. One will not have to worry about needs or wants; there will be no pain or tears of sadness.
That, my friends, sounds absolutely amazing. Imagine the beautiful, remade beings of The Great Divorce. That could be our remade body one day. Imagine the rivers and the mountains, the grass, the apples, and the leaves that Lewis described in his story. Consider, at the very least, the abounding love that conquers all.
Think of hiking through a beautiful mountain path, living in conjunction with God’s Spirit and praising the Father for his works, all the while thanking the Son for making your participation in it possible through his work in this present age. Think of sitting on the most beautiful beach that God has ever made, while enjoying loving fellowship with others. Think of an awe-inspiring sunset or sunrise. Think of entering through the gates of the incredible city of God that John describes in Revelation. Think of walking with Christ, our King but also our friend, and embracing the love that is his very existence.
It will one day be a physical and true reality. It will be God’s beloved world, remade.
Do you see how the answer of saying that one will go to heaven or hell after one dies and that’s the bottom line is not only simplistic and easy, but a bit misleading? This fall-back and default answer, especially when there is a much better, truthful, and scripturally accurate answer, can even be damaging!
This gives us a fairly good picture of the future and where God is taking the world; the incredibly beautiful thing is that God invites each of us to participate in this awesome story! If that is not an expression of love, I am not quite sure what is.
Nor is it the promotion of a selfish ticket to heaven, but an invitation for us and an opportunity to participate in and perpetuate God’s amazing, redemptive love to the world; we continue in the work of demonstrating this kingdom as we respond to God today!
Nonetheless, we still ask the question of what will immediately happen after one dies. The short answer, and probably the best and most honest answer, is we don’t know.
There are a few possibilities, but we can’t talk about it with nearly as much certainty and scriptural accuracy as we can of the new creation.
The first is that one simply dies and then is raised again at the resurrection. At first this might come as a shock and the question is inevitably asked, “What? No heaven?” Well, if you’re really honest with yourself, it’s not that big of a deal. You’ll be dead; and the good thing about being dead is that you won’t know you’re dead! So the time between death and resurrection will fly by in the blink of an eye. It could be a possible reason why, in Luke 23, Jesus told the man next to him on the cross that, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
Or, if one absolutely insists on keeping the Platonic idea of an eternal soul not subject to death, then upon death, a soul could go to a type of Hades or Sheol to await the day of reunification with a physical body at the resurrection, when God will examine the person’s heart to bring them into eternal life in the new creation or damnation and eternal death (by the way, this opens a whole new can of worms as to what exactly damnation and eternal death means, which I won’t go into in this article). I explore this idea in one of my stories out of my new book, An Intertwined Reality: Short Stories for the Already but Not Yet. This is perhaps a more accurate understanding of an idea similar to purgatory. The grey town in The Great Divorce could be an illustration of this concept. At any rate, this idea could potentially explain a phenomenon of ghosts; still, supernatural forces that do not come from God are not to be trifled (there’s a good word!) with.
The last possibility is that by Jesus saying, “Today, you will be with me in paradise,” he means that the person’s soul who is in relationship with God will indeed wait in heaven for the day of reunification with a physical body to live in the new creation. Nonetheless, living in the redeemed physical body in the new creation is still the goal! In going with this idea, it does not mean that one who is not in relationship with God will go to hell; the day of judgment has not yet happened! They may either simply die or their soul waits in a type of Hades or Sheol.
Nonetheless, these are not known certainties. They are only ideas and theories. Like I said before, we don’t know! Moreover, we have such a lack of understanding between the concepts of time and space in eternity as opposed to the concepts of space and time as constructs that God has given us in his creation. We only know what we know through Christ, the physically resurrected Savior, a sign of the general resurrection and renewal yet to come!
But does it really matter what may or not happen immediately upon death? Again, if you’re really honest with yourself – no! Because ultimately we have the promise that there will be life again in the paradise of a new creation with God!
Moreover, I pray that we as the Church do not rely on simplistic, easy, or misleading theology. We should faithfully be ready to wrestle and struggle with our challenges, our questions, and even our doubts.
And sometimes, a good story can help offer a better explanation than one might initially think.
Eschatology – it can at first be an intimidating theological word, but it is a word we should be ready to explore. C.S. Lewis, in his imagination, helps us do that in his storytelling. His works of fiction are not simply stories to say, “What a nice story,” and leave it that, but stories to open our imagination to metaphors and illustrations of truth we find in scripture. The Great Divorce is one of those excellent works of fiction.
*A lot of what I discussed in this article can be found in N.T. Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope. He goes into all of the issues I summarized on a much deeper level. Check out the book!