The Substance of Heaven
In the fourth chapter, the ghosts are confronted by the natives of Heaven. This applies to both living and non-living things: in Heaven, even the grass and birds are of a substance so much more solid than the ghosts of Hell that they barely notice them. The point is: The ghosts are not made for Heaven. They’re not real enough, yet. But, there is opportunity to transform.
Salvation After the Grave
In this sense, the Great Divorce is a projection of the core Christian dilemma into the afterlife. Where the mortal is on Earth with the opportunity to join the Kingdom of Heaven, which Jesus says is among us (or within us, depending on translation), in Lewis’ story, this opportunity to join the Kingdom remains even after death. This is more akin to a Buddhist or Muslim idea of the afterlife than the traditional judgment-at-death view of most Christian writers. In Lewis’ fantasy, the afterlife is not a place of instant and eternal reward or damnation, but a place where there is still a chance to make progress toward the divine, if you are willing to change. (Perhaps it is even possible to go the other way, but it seems unlikely, and Lewis never hints at this.)
The core confrontation in this chapter is between the Big Ghost and Len, a former employee who murdered their mutual friend, Jack. Len tells the Big Ghost that indeed, Jack is here in Heaven, too, and that he can take the Big Ghost to see him if he likes. But of course, he does not like this, because it is too humbling. The Big Ghost was not a murderer in life, and refuses to be mentored by the spirit of an underling who murdered his friend, even though this spot of pride will deny him entry to paradise.
The Big Ghost is only interested in what he’s earned – a noble-sounding trait on Earth that causes problems in Heaven. (In truth, the Big Ghost wasn’t nearly as noble as he thought himself, as Len points out. Further, even the brightest and hardest working of us have a support network to which we pay little notice. Nothing is ever accomplished alone.)
The Big Ghost is further insulted when Len implies he didn’t take good care of his own family, which he considers a private affair. But in Heaven, Len tells him, “there are no private affairs.”
This is something I find to be an interesting conundrum, because it is a rather un-American idea of paradise. Lewis’ Heaven is, frankly, communist – or if that’s too shocking, we can say, communal. There are no individual “rights.” There is no “privacy.” There is no pursuit of self-interest or self-improvement – in fact, that idea is impossible there.
Monarchy in Heaven
Normally this Biblical/Heavenly language is shaped in monarchy, but even serfs under kings have free time to do whatever they like. Len implies this is not the case here in Heaven. There is work, but it’s not needed. There is progress towards God (walking towards the mountains), but it’s not in support of one king or people versus another. Really, the whole monarchy thing is inaccurate here, because there is only one people, and only one Lord, and bliss through service and worship – not progress towards a goal. Not improvement, as we understand it. Heaven is so unlike the competitions of life which we’re all used to that it’s unsettling for the Big Ghost, as well it might be for even the “best” of us.
This whole idea parallels an ongoing debate in my own mind, connected to politics. It would seem the more Heavenly thing to do, for example, would be to offer free health care to all, paid for by all (but, of course, paid for more by those able to pay more). This would be no more unfair to the rich than paying for our sins is unfair to Christ. Who else could pay? No one. But that is a socialist idea, and in the current dialogue, a slippery slope towards resurrecting 1930s Germany.
So, what to do with Lewis’ communal, egalitarian idea of Heaven? I’ll let Lynn take that on, in Chapter 5, where the land is further explored. 🙂