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C. S. Lewis: Hell and the Heretic - The Great Divorce Movie and George MacDonald
C.S. Lewis, Hell, and The Great Divorce Movie
I wasn’t even aware, when I sat down to write this article about C. S. Lewis’s views on the topic of hell, that The Great Divorce, his well-known-within-certain-circles novelette on that ominous topic, is rumored to be hitting the big screen sometime in 2011. According to Variety, Mpower Pictures and Beloved Pictures are to co-produce the movie, led by Steve McEveety, who produced “The Passion of the Christ” and “We Were Soldiers”. He was also executive producer for “Braveheart”. Given the vast Christian audience already enamored with Lewis’s The Great Divorce, given the recent popularity of the Chronicles of Narnia series (also the brainchild of C. S. Lewis), and given a producer with such a track record, this author suspects that The Great Divorce may not do too badly in the box office. But predictions about the movie’s profitability aside, I set out to report on C. S. Lewis, Hell, and “The Heretic". And that I will proceed to do.
In the book The Great Divorce, a man named George Macdonald acts as the narrator’s sage tour-guide of sorts through realms of the afterlife, much like the poet Virgil led Dante through hell. And like Virgil, George Macdonald is no fictional character, but a long-dead Scottish novelist and theologian who was rarely in good favor with orthodox Christendom due to his “heretical” opinions on such matters as hell.
In fact, George Macdonald was a staunch Christian universalist. Christian universalists believe that every human being who ever lived or ever will live is going to end up in heaven eventually. Hell, from their perspective, is a bit like military boot camp for deviant youths. It is a miserable place, and should you wind up there, you’ll probably be there for quite a while. However, hell’s solitary purpose is to discipline wayward souls until they are prepared to fully repent, and thus enter into a blessed union with their creator.
So the question most obvious, to me at any rate, is this: what is George Macdonald, a so-called heretic as concerns the doctrine of hell, doing in a book on the subject of hell that was written by C. S. Lewis, who was a very eminent, respectable, and non-heretical sort of Christian?
It turns out that George MacDonald was much more to C. S. Lewis than some old heretic that he decides randomly to include in one of his novels. Indeed, MacDonald could easily be known as the single most important influence (besides, perhaps, Jesus Christ) on Lewis’s life and teaching. It was while reading George MacDonald's novel Phantastes that Lewis’s lifelong atheism began to be shaken to the core. Essentially, it was Macdonald who would bring C. S. Lewis to Christ.
Of Macdonald, Lewis wrote that no writer struck him as being closer “to the Spirit of Christ himself”. Further, Lewis expressed his doubt that he (Lewis) had ever written a book in which he failed to quote George Macdonald. And finally, to remove any doubt from our minds as to what he felt for George MacDonald, Lewis wrote, “I have never concealed the fact that I regarded [George Macdonald] as my master” (emphasis mine). Aha! Now the plot thickens, and the question of pressing importance becomes: why did the likeable orthodox fellow C. S. Lewis not only include a random "heretic" of seemingly unorthodox persuasions in his novel The Great Divorce, but further laud the man as his master? Did C. S. Lewis share Macdonald’s unpopular conceptions of hell? Did he believe that all souls in hell would eventually be saved?
Ironically enough, C. S. Lewis did not agree on the matter of hell with the man that he honored as a main character in his novel about hell. Lewis was not a Christian universalist, and so did not believe that all condemned souls would eventually leave hell for heaven. For Lewis, that idea seemed to take free will away from man, and C. S. Lewis believed in free will. For Lewis, hell was a state of mind, the essence of which was self-absorption. Such self-absorption, magnified and left to its own devices for eternity, would be a hell indeed. For Lewis, no person would be abandoned by God to such a state of mind: they would have to eternally choose their hell of self-absorption, for the moment they should decide they want something different, that is, that they want to repent, they would be able to leave their mere state of mind and enter “reality” (heaven). In The Great Divorce, Lewis does portray certain things that go outside the bounds of most protestant orthodoxy today. He portrays that some (although very few) souls do leave hell and enter into heaven. From this, it can be seen that he supports the doctrine of purgatory. As he believed in purgatory, he also prayed for the dead.
George MacDonald, on the other hand, did not believe in purgatory, in the usual sense. That is to say, for MacDonald, all hell was a “purgatory” of sorts, as it was inevitable that all souls would escape from it. Further, he didn’t believe in any kind of free will that was capable of resisting the eternal, infinite love, wisdom, and power of a kind and merciful God. Eventually, every soul would break under the weight of its own burden--the burden of that state of self-absorption that Lewis conceived, and the natural consequences and pains of such a state--and run full throttle into the open arms of God. It might take thousands of years of untold misery, but it would happen. He, like most other Christian universalists, believed what he did about universal salvation both because he understood these beliefs to be taught by the New Testament (especially when one reads it in its original language of Greek), and because he trusted in the infinite compassion of God’s nature.
Why All the Irony?
So having explored both Lewis’s and MacDonald’s views on hell, the question remains: what did a “reasonable” Christian like Lewis see in a “heretic” like MacDonald? For one thing, although he had a different opinion than MacDonald, Lewis did not see that as detracting from MacDonald’s status as a true child of God or his status as a spiritual visionary of utmost importance. Perhaps this is because Lewis remembered something often forgotten among Christians today: that the only opinion of real importance is one’s opinion of the truth and love of Christ. All mere doctrines and traditions pale before “Christ and Him crucified.”
It is sadly in fashion today, perhaps as always, for any large group of people presuming to hold sole ownership over that elusive commodity called “orthodoxy”, to feel justified in treating those with differing views however they like. Just do a Google search for “universalism”, and you’ll find no shortage of abuse and slander directed at anyone who believes the doctrine.
I like to think that C. S. Lewis secretly hoped that George MacDonald was right about universalism. In The Great Divorce he has MacDonald say, "St. Paul talked as if all men would be saved." To that expression of universalist sentiment, an angel replied merely that it wasn’t for man to ask those questions. So perhaps C. S. Lewis, while hoping that MacDonald was right, simply didn’t feel that it was his place to investigate such deep matters. Things like that were for God alone to know for certain.
The Gadfly of Scotland
I, for one, hope that The Great Divorce does appear in theatres as scheduled. I hope the screenplay is well written. I hope it draws crowds. I hope they love it. I hope Steve McEveety ends up with a bigger hit than “The Passion of The Christ”. But more than anything, I hope that George MacDonald shows up in the movie as he does in the book: big and prominent and inescapable. I hope this because today, most people have forgotten MacDonald, and I fear that many have forgotten his message: that God’s love, power, and wisdom are greater than any force that could possibly hold any one of us in our own hell of self-absorption. I hope that the movie will remind people of who George MacDonald was, so that he can remind us all again of who Christ was.