Hell and Heaven
One of my top ten favorite books is C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. The book is not a self-help book for married couples. Rather, the “divorce” to which it refers is between the ideas of heaven and hell. At the time of his writing, C.S. Lewis believed that mainstream Christianity had breezily maintained its hope for heaven while entirely divorcing from that hope the danger of hell.
In response, Lewis offers a thoroughly contemporary vision of what hell looks like. Gone are the medieval murals of red-horned devils with red-hot pokers, cattle-prodding the doomed into a fiery, belching hell. Instead, Lewis’ hell is marked by hazy dusk; an ambient, festering argumentativeness; mind-numbing monotony; and, for us most telling of all, physical distance from one another.
Coincidentally, one year ago last week, just as Houston was shutting down under the spectre of COVID-19, Jill and I were supposed to attend a theatrical production of The Great Divorce at the George Theatre. It was the first of innumerable events we missed over the course of a year that increasingly felt like C.S. Lewis’ hell.
The Great Divorce was a compelling book from the time it was published, because it presented hell in a plausible way. Lewis’ hell was like the worst of earthly life, except worse, and it was depicted not as a place to which God consigned us, but rather a place we choose to dwell. You see, in The Great Divorce a red London double-decker bus makes a constant loop from hell to the forecourt of heaven, and hell’s inhabitants are perpetually invited to get on board. Most choose, however, to stay in the hell of their own making, which, as a priest, I can attest is true to life.
This all sounds pretty dark, but The Great Divorce is, in the end, a hopeful book. You see, there are a few who shake off their hellish malaise, board the bus, and travel to a grassy plain that is the anteroom to heaven. For these, it takes time for their ghostly selves to regain substantiality. It is as if they must slowly remember what it means to be anywhere other than their confined hell, to recollect what it means to interact and be in community, and to share the joy of living. These then turn eastward and begin moving toward God’s horizon, over which the rising sun is just beginning to emerge. That way is eternal life.
These past few weeks I have been reminded of this scene from the book, as COVID levels decrease in our community and vaccination levels rise. Jill and I have now been vaccinated, and we took Eliza on a still cautious, still careful college visit trip last week. While Eliza toured one school, Jill and I sat in a restaurant and had a drink together. We were almost giddy with the normalcy of the experience.
Collectively, we are at that point when the sun hasn’t yet quite risen, but we can detect it peeking over the eastward horizon. This is an incredibly hopeful moment, one suited to our approach to Holy Week and Easter. After a too-long season of hazy dusk, festering argumentativeness, mind-numbing monotony, and physical distance, there is finally real reason for inklings of joy.
My hope is that we will cherish each small step toward a sunlit world in which all those things stripped from our experience return. How much richer life will be if we are fully present to such small occasions of grace rather than taking them for granted as we so breezily did until a year ago. And then, when the day soon comes that we can all see one another smile — unmasked! — we will know firsthand that hell is real, but that we have chosen heaven.
Grace and peace,
The Very Reverend Barkley Thompson,