“The Great Divorce” and Understanding Eschatology

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!

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Thoughts on Easter: “Spiritual but not Religious”

A large number of people label themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”   I can understand this viewpoint; for some it is because of bad experiences with a major world religion, such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.   For others, it is not necessarily because of a previous experience, but just that they are skeptical of the idea of “organized religion.”   Still, some may want to explore different religions before jumping into one; it is dipping one’s feet into the water before fully diving in.   In any case, and no matter what category a person falls under, the individuals who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” recognize that there is something more to life than simply going after common and vain pursuits such as money and power.

However, the label “spiritual but not religious” is misleading; it implies that there is also a group of people who are “not spiritual and not religious.”   To be honest, I do not think it is even possible to be “not spiritual.”   The idea that one could not have a spiritual self at all, or that one could completely destroy or kill one’s spiritual self, does not make any sense.

The spirit is a characteristic of the physical body.   It’s like saying one is one; it simply is.   If you’ve read my previous post, “He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion,” you’ll get a better idea of where I am coming from in stating this.   God created us; God breathed life into us, giving us a spirit.   In this life, the body and the spirit are inseparable.   They are intertwined into one existence – the human being.   What happens to the spirit after death, we do not know exactly (check out N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope); we have many ideas though.   Although, as a minister in Christianity, I believe that at the end of this sinful age there will be a resurrection of the dead and our spirit will return to our body through God’s power; we will live as one existence of the intertwined and inseparable physical and spiritual human being – the way God designed us to be – in a new eternal creation free from the bondage of death.   This is what is supported by Christian scripture and thousands of years of tradition.

There is no one who is “not spiritual.”   It is impossible.   We are all spiritual beings.   Granted, different people may deny or accept the reality of their spirituality on different levels, in effect, respectively, either suffocating or cultivating who they are.   But we are all spiritual on some level.   And as we become more in tune with ourselves, we realize that there is much more to life than simply the pursuit of vain items and materialism.   We begin to realize the importance of the connections that exist within this world.

Jesus summarized it as he echoed the Jewish Shema of Deuteronomy 6: “Jesus answered, ‘The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these'” (Mark 12:29-31).

A few weeks ago in one of my classes at the U.S. Army Chaplain Basic Officer Leadership Course, one of my Chaplain instructors gave us his thoughts on a definition of spirituality: it is a person connecting with the four c’s – the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation.   Even if it is at a very basic level, we are all making these connections; we are becoming more in tune to the bigger picture of life.   And as a Christian, I believe God made each one of us to have a role in this bigger picture; God created us to be people who are not selfish individuals, but selfless people who are always recognizing the connections we have.

Religion is a vital tool in developing this spirituality.   Through religion, we cultivate and grow these connections and relationships.   And perhaps most importantly, we learn to first develop our connection with God so that we can better develop our connections with the community, the conscience, and the creation.   On our own, it is impossible to cultivate these connections.   But through a connection with God, and with God working in us and changing our hearts, our other connections will grow into something we never believed was possible.

Christianity is based on the person of Jesus Christ; this religion is centered on Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.   Through Christ, we can experience the amazing love of God in his grace, forgiveness, and mercy, despite all that we have done wrong in life.   Through Christ, we can become connected with God.   And through that connection with God, we can learn to truly love one another.   We can begin to understand ourselves, how we fit into the bigger picture of life, and be free from vain pursuits.

During this Easter season, I pray that no matter where we are on our spiritual journeys, whether we are struggling to take the very first step or have already been traveling for a thousand miles, we will begin to see the ultimate form of spirituality as a relationship with Christ.   I pray that we will use the tools that thousands of years of the Christian tradition have given us to develop our connections with the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation.   I pray that we will explore and reflect on different aspects of what it means to be a Christian in whatever context we find ourselves in today.   I pray that we will begin to learn how to worship God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.   And I pray that we learn to love our neighbors in the same way that we love ourselves.

This week is Holy Week in western Christianity. Soon our brothers and sisters in eastern Christiany will also be celebrating these Holy days of the Christian calendar.  Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday – this week is the pinnacle event of Christianity.   The significance of these days for our lives is the culmination of what it means to know ourselves and recognize our spirituality.   The life, death, and resurrection of the Christ and the Messiah is the sum of what our connections to the creator, the community, the conscience, and the creation mean in each of our lives.

Happy Easter.   Christ has risen.   Let us celebrate.