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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

C.S. Lewis on Heaven and Hell

It seems I'm always doing something else and going somewhere that keeps me from writing to this Blog. Right now Sylvia and I have returned to our vacation home in Pagosa Springs, CO. where we are spending a few weeks enjoying the beauty of fall leaves and cool mountain air.

After we arrived and settled in I started looking around at a few of the books I've had stored here for years. I came across a little volume I hadn't read for a long, long time: The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis.

The Wikipedia article about the book summarizes the plot in this way: "In The Great Divorce, the narrator suddenly, and inexplicably, finds himself in a grim and joyless City (the "grey town", a depiction of Hell). He eventually finds a bus for those who desire an excursion to some other place (and which eventually turns out to be the foothills of Heaven). He enters the bus and converses with his fellow passengers as they travel. When the bus reaches its destination, the "people" on the bus — including the narrator — gradually realize that they are ghosts. Although the country is the most beautiful they have ever seen, every feature of the landscape (including streams of water and blades of grass) is unbearably solid compared to themselves: it causes them immense pain to walk on the grass, and even a single leaf is far too heavy for any of them to lift."

As the narrator (apparently Lewis) wanders about in those heavenly foothills he meets a man by the name of George Macdonald (pp.64 ff). Macdonald, he acknowledges, taught him a great deal through his writings. He shares how his reading of Macdonald's book Phantasies started him on the path to becoming a Christian. Now in these heavenly foothills Macdonald continues to act as his Teacher. A lengthy discussion between the two follows. What interested me in this reading is the way Macdonald describes heaven and hell.

Permit a quote about these two places. He calls their present location "the Valley of the Shadow of Life" for those saved. The sad streets of the town from whence the narrator and the other ghosts came would be "the Valley of the Shadow of Death." This leads to a comment about eternity by the Scotsman Macdonald:

" can get some likeness of it if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. Not only this valley but all this earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell. That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, 'No future bliss can make up for it,' not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say, 'Let me but have this and I'll take the consequences: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin.

"Both processes begin even before death. The good man's past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man's past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say, 'We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,' and the Lost, 'We were always in Hell.' And both will speak truly."

As noted above, everything about the foothills of heaven is so real, so solid that it causes the ghosts pain. That's how the words I quote above struck me. This is so real that it causes pain, but as painful as it is, it is wondrous to hear. Ever since reading this I've been walking around, sometimes with my little dog Wee-Z, admiring and enjoying the mountains, the horses in the neighbor's fence, the sounds of the birds flitting from bush to tree, as well as my dear wife's cooking. And all the while I've been saying to myself, "This is heaven or at least it is the valley that leads to it. And one day, one day very soon I'll have a wondrous, never-ending opportunity to journey onward into the eternity of Deep Heaven itself."