Further Chances in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce
June 23, 2012 — 12:58

Author: Keith DeRose  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: ,   Comments: 27

For Christian universalists of my basic type, as well as many other Christians who stray from traditional, mega-nasty doctrines of hell in certain vaguely universalist directions, C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce has been a godsend.
The “basic type” of universalists in question are those who accept what I call “strong exclusivism,” which goes beyond the claim of “exclusivism” that it is only through Christ that any can be saved to add a condition to the effect that in order to be saved, one must somehow explicitly accept Christ and the salvation he makes possible. The exact nature of the explicit acceptance can be worked out in various ways, but the problem here, of course, is that many people die without having explicitly accepted Christ on just about any way of working out those details. The solution to the problem is to hold that saving explicit acceptance can occur after death.
But while some Christian universalists are thus moved to believe in “further chances” after death (FC), and many other Christians also accept FC for reasons other than that it is the way to square universalism with strong exclusivism, I am still inclined to believe something in the vicinity of what I wrote quite a few years ago in my on-line defense of universalism about the strength with which the opposing doctrine of “no further chances” (NFC) is held in many evangelical circles:

I think no other doctrine can even compete with “no further chances” in terms of the following three factors. No doctrine even comes close to a) being so strongly believed by so many evangelicals despite b) being so utterly disastrous in its consequences and c) having so little by way of Scriptural support.

Well, I suppose I can now come up with some serious competition for NFC here–and even one example of a belief that can beat NFC on this score. (And this not so much because the conditions “on the ground” in EvangelicalLand have changed, but just because I’ve become more aware and appreciative of the tough competition NFC faces.) Still, I think NFC scores very high on this measure.
To the extent that attitudes are softened at all toward FC, it seems to be largely through the influence of Lewis’s Divorce, which has been running interference for universalists and their fellow-travelers for years now. Many evangelicals admire Lewis, and that he presents a picture on which there are further chances constitutes for them a reason for giving FC at least some credence–or at least to not react quite so vehemently those who accept, or even just seriously consider, FC.
So I’m working a bit against my own cause here, but still, I have to question whether Lewis is really promoting FC in Divorce. What is largely at issue is how to read this bit from the end of his “Preface” to the book:

I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course–or I intended it to have–a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.

I should say right off the bat that I am very far indeed from being an expert on Lewis. So it’s very possible that–and indeed it would be great if–some readers know about other things he wrote that bear on how to read him here. (Indeed, for all I know, he directly addressed FC in some context where he was writing more straightforward, expository prose.) In fact, I guess this post can be viewed largely as a bleg in this regard. I’m going mostly just by what is in Divorce itself.
But I always assumed that the ability of the characters in the story to move from hell to heaven was in the scope of the “transmortal conditions” that were just an “imaginative supposal.” As such, I took Lewis to be saying that was “not even a guess or a speculation at what might actually await us.” So I was quite surprised to find people thinking that Lewis was promoting FC in Divorce. But, focusing especially on the last sentence above (which is also the last sentence of the “Preface”), I suppose I can see how they might think so: One might think it’s the details of the story that are added for effect as an “imaginative supposal,” while some of the more basic and important features of the story, including the ability to move from hell to heaven, are being presented as features of what will actually–or at least may (well) actually–await us.
So I should say a little about why I thought the further chances in the story were supposed to be among the “imaginative supposals” of Divorce. And I guess I was largely led here by what I took the “moral” or main point of the book to be. I’ve always taken Divorce to be mainly about the various tendencies we have–different ones for different people–to “choose against joy.” These are tendencies we (many of us: again, different ones for different people) have now, and constitute a problem for us now, and so are worth exposing. That account of what Lewis was trying to get at provides an account of why he would include the ability to move from hell to heaven as an “imaginative supposal” of his story, even if he wasn’t even speculating as to whether that will be the case in the afterlife. Sometimes a good way to explain a feature of something is to show how that feature would manifest itself in counterfactual situations. And that’s what I think is going on in Divorce. Imaginatively supposing that folks can move from hell to heaven allows Lewis to make points he wants to make about our current condition. He is saying that we have self-destructive tendencies that are so bad that we can easily get to the point that even if we were in hell but then got to experience heaven and had the chance to stay there, we would choose to return to hell. That the ability to move from hell to heaven could function so well as an “imaginative supposal” to help Lewis make important points should, I think, make us quite hesitant to conclude that that feature of his story was anything more than such an “imaginative supposal.”

  • Matt Benton

    Hi Keith,
    On your bleg: Lewis has some discussion of hell in *The Problem of Pain*, pp. 120-128; portions of it are reproduced in the compiled *The Joyful Christian* entry on Hell, pp. 222-226. Might be of some help to see if he considers FC.

    June 23, 2012 — 14:12
  • Bilbo

    If I remember correctly, Lewis actually comes out and says he believes in purgatory. I think it was in his book, Letters to Malcolm [or is it Malcom?], Chiefly on Prayer. I would need to read through it again for a page reference. Would Lewis think that purgatory was only for believers or for anybody? I would guess the latter.
    Meanwhile, I first read The Great Divorce when I was a teenager, and it laid to rest at least one troubling question: Do people go to Hell against their will? And Divorce answered with a resounding NO!

    June 23, 2012 — 14:38
  • I don’t know of any other writings where C.S. Lewis explicitly defends “Further Chances”. Other writings, such as The Last Battle, seem to indicate that he was probably an inclusivist. Nothing he wrote, that I know of, would indicate he was a universalist.

    June 23, 2012 — 14:38
  • Keith DeRose

    Yes, well, I think I recall that Lewis has the universalist George MacDonald appear in The Great Divorce. As I recall, it was this kinda slimy move by Lewis, having the dead MacDonald coming in to say how he now sees how he was wrong about these things during his life, and Lewis has it right. Something like that! (It’s been a while.)

    June 23, 2012 — 15:58
  • I see somebody already did the work for us. And it is “Malcolm”:

    June 24, 2012 — 5:05
  • I found my copy of Malcolm. The site I linked to left out a bit. After the first paragraph Lewis continues:
    On the traditional Protestant view, all the dead are damned or saved. If they are damned, prayer for them is useless. If they are saved, it is equally useless. God has already done all for them. What more should we ask?
    “But don’t we believe that God has already done and is already doing all that He can for the living? What more should we ask? Yet we are told to ask.
    “‘Yes,’ it will be answered, ‘but the living are still on the road. Further trials, developments, possibilities of error, await them. But the saved have been made perfect. They have finished the course. To pray for them presupposes that progress and difficulty are still possible. In fact, you are bringing in something like Purgatory.’
    Well, I suppose I am. Though even in Heaven some perpetual increase of beatitude, reached by a continually more ecstatic self-surrender, without the possibility of failure but not perhaps without its own ardours and exertion — for delight also has its severities and steep ascents, as lovers know — might be supposed. But I won’t press, or guess, that side for the moment. I believe in Purgatory.

    There’s more that the site skipped. But I think I’ve quoted enough to show that Lewis did in fact believe in Further Chances.

    June 24, 2012 — 10:17
  • “Slimy move by Lewis,” eh? Nevermind that you probably never would have even heard of George MacDonald if it weren’t for that slimy Lewis. The fact that Lewis said that no author he knew came closer to the Spirit of Christ than MacDonald apparently doesn’t mean that we should think twice before labeling Lewis’s dealings with his master’s thought as “slimy.” I guess I’ll have to look up that passage, also.

    June 24, 2012 — 10:26
  • Keith DeRose

    Yeah, I’m inclined to think that taking someone who’s dead, but who held a view different from yours, writing them in as a character in your story, and putting into their mouth that since dying they’ve come to see that their view (universalism, in this case) should be given up for yours (roughly: well, free will is involved, so there’s really no saying) is a kinda slimy maneuver–esp. when the view in question had been so important to the person you’re dealing with.

    June 24, 2012 — 21:04
  • Bilbo:
    A belief in purgatory does not imply a belief in further chances. The standard Catholic understanding is that these days (i.e., after Christ’s resurrection–before, there was also sheol) at death people are sorted into three or maybe four groups based on their state immediately preceding death: hell, purgatory, heaven and maybe limbo. All those who go to hell, heaven or limbo are guaranteed to stay there for eternity. All those who go to purgatory are guaranteed to end up in heaven for eternity. There are no further chances.
    On further chances, another available view is that God can stretch out a dying person’s subjective time, so that she has a century’s worth of further chances in her last second. (But we who have heard about Christ early in our lives had better not count on such a thing.) The advantage of this view is that it fully fits with the long-standing Christian tradition of NFC, and has almost all the theological benefits of FC. (And if supertasks were possible, it could have all the theological benefits of FC, plus the further advantage that it makes it possible for a really persistent sinner–one who persists for a subjectively infinite time–to choose hell, but alas for Grim Reaper reasons, I don’t think supertasks are possible.) Granted, there may be little empirical evidence of such stretching (though maybe something could be made of some near death experiences), but there is no more empirical evidence of FC.

    June 25, 2012 — 14:11
  • Heath Whiet

    In The Problem of Pain Lewis says that “the doors of hell are locked on the inside.” I take that, and Great Divorce, to mean that the damned do not want to enter heaven, so they won’t. If “having no further chance” means they are constrained by outside forces, then the damned have infinite further chances. If it means there is no genuine possibility of leaving hell, then they have no further chances. Roughly, they are free if you are a compatibilist but not if you are a libertarian.
    Also, I think one should distinguish questions about purgatory from questions about further chances.

    June 25, 2012 — 15:14
  • Keith DeRose

    For those who would be interested, below is the end of Ch. 13 of THE GREAT DIVORCE; the narrator is talking with George MacDonald:
    “In your own books, Sir,” said I, “you were a Universalist. You talked as if all men would be saved. And St. Paul too.”
    “Ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible in those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But it’s ill talking of such questions.”
    “Because they are too terrible, Sir?”
    “No. Because all answers deceive. If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see-small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope-something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. But ye can see it only through the lens of Time, in a little clear picture, through the inverted telescope. It is a picture of moments following one another and yourself in each moment making some choice that might have been otherwise. Neither the temporal succession nor the phantom of what ye might have chosen and didn’t is itself Freedom. They are a lens. The picture is a symbol: but it’s truer than any philosophical theorem (or, perhaps, than any mystic’s vision) that claims to go behind it. For every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom. Witness the doctrine of Predestination which shows (truly enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing Freedom which is the deeper truth of the two. And wouldn’t Universalism do the same? Ye cannot know eternal reality by a definition. Time itself, and all acts and events that fill Time, are the definition, and it must be lived. The Lord said we were gods. How long could ye bear to look (without Time’s lens) on the greatness of your own soul and the eternal reality of her choice?”

    June 25, 2012 — 20:52
  • Alexander,
    From my quotation of Lewis, I think it’s clear that Lewis rejected the Catholic view of Purgatory, also. He didn’t think that one’s final destination is decided at time of death.
    Lewis says, “You talked as if all men would be saved. And St. Paul, too.” It’s not clear that Lewis was willing to accept that Universalism was in fact the correct way to interpret MacDonald, just as he wouldn’t have been willing to accept that would have been the correct way to interpret Paul. So I don’t think your accusation of “slimy” holds. And do you really want to continue using that adjective? Would you have known about MacDonald if it weren’t for Lewis?

    June 25, 2012 — 22:10
  • Keith DeRose

    “In your own books, Sir, you were a Universalist.”
    I don’t think Lewis leaves any question, nor is there one, really, about MacDonald having been a universalist.
    As a description for the maneuver I described above (putting into a dead person’s mouth that a view they held and was important to them should be given up in favor of a view your yourself hold), which is what I applied the term to, yes, I think ‘kinda slimy’ (which is what I wrote) fits pretty well.
    You think that maneuver is just fine? Not even kinda slimy?

    June 25, 2012 — 23:03
  • John Alexander

    I have always been puzzled by this: if universalism is true and all will be eventually saved then why would God put us thru all the hassle? Why not simply start with the endgame and avoid all the suffering?

    June 25, 2012 — 23:21
  • Keith DeRose

    This probably shouldn’t turn into a discussion of the pros and cons of universalism, but since you’ve already asked, John …
    It turns out that Michael Murray asked basically that question (though in a more detailed form, of course, since it was a full paper), and Thomas Talbott (my fellow universalist) answers it here:
    I don’t really remember much of Michael or Tom’s paper, so I’m not in a position to recommend them or not, but I do know of them, so I thought I’d mention them & send you to Tom’s, which has a reference to Michael’s.
    In general, I get puzzled by such puzzlement. Am I right to suppose that you think that you have a good answer to why we have to go through all this if universalism is false, and universalism messes that good answer up? And is the good answer something like that this life is a good way for God to determine who will get an eternity of eternal bliss and who will suffer in hell? If so, then I guess I can understand what’s behind the question. It’s just that this life seems to me a very bad way to attain that goal.
    Anyway, I’m very uncertain about God’s purpose for having us go through all these hassles, but the best answers I can vaguely come up with don’t seem to be ruined by universalism.

    June 26, 2012 — 0:04
  • John Alexander

    Thanks Keith for the link to the paper. I will read it with great interest.
    You are correct that this post is not the place to work out this issue. I raised it in hopes that maybe Lewis or some interpretation of him could provide an answer and one could alert me to this response. Regarding Universalism, basically my position is this:
    Assume that God will only create a world where evil exists iff it is necessary for a greater good to exist or to eliminate an equal or greater evil.
    1.God can create any world that does not involve a contradiction.
    2. Creating a world containing only human beings that are ‘saved’ is not contradictory.
    3. Evil is not a necessary condition for creating saved beings.
    4. Therefore the world we live in is either one that contains only ‘saved’ human beings or God does not exist.
    5. This is not a world that has only human beings that are ‘saved.’
    6. Therefore God does not exist.

    June 26, 2012 — 12:04
  • Keith DeRose

    Sorry, John: I misjudged where you were coming from. As you are arguing for an atheistic conclusion, you are of course not committed to God having some reason or other for putting us through all the hassles. Your puzzlement no longer puzzles me!

    June 26, 2012 — 12:18
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    John Alexander,
    “Why not simply start with the endgame and avoid all the suffering?”
    Because the endgame depends on how one gets there. Whom would you value more, a climber who got to the peak through a lot of hard work, or somebody who was flown there by helicopter? And who of the two would you rather be yourself?

    June 26, 2012 — 15:09
  • Zach Manis

    Hi Keith,
    Another passage from Lewis to consider is this one from _Mere Christianity_, Book II, Ch. 5 (“The Practical Conclusion”):
    “Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.”
    It’s not a clear endorsement of FC, but I’ve always interpreted the passage to be good evidence of Lewis’s inclusivism, at least, and FC is one common way of fleshing out an inclusivist view.

    June 26, 2012 — 16:00
  • John Alexander

    Keith: I do not know if there is a God or not. It depends on the definition. For all I know there can be a creator and sustainer of the universe who would allow evil because He (or She) lacks the ability to create a universe without evil. Or maybe there is some sort of Jamesian emerging God – who knows. I try to keep an open mind. I just like to argue/discuss. I suppose I am more like the character of Dr Rieux in Camus’ The Plague.
    Dianelos: It does depend on how one gets there. We do respect those that ‘adapt and overcome’ because we are in a universe not of our choosing that contains evil. But that is not the issue from God’s perspective. He has a choice of either creating a universe with evil with being who are capable of adapting and overcoming or a universe without evil with beings who are ‘saved.’ Evil is a necessary condition for the former but not the later. If God will only allow necessary evil then he should choice to create the latter universe.
    Imagine that you can create a world for your child. You know that if your child suffers some disease that he or she may adapt and overcome that condition and become a stronger person for it (Adam’s overcoming horrendous evil). Would you give your child a disease so that it could have this opportunity? This is different then deciding to have a child knowing that he or she might have a serious disease. We cannot create perfect children in a perfect world. But if God exist as theism defines Him then He can create such a world. There is a big difference between God’s moral starting point and yours and mine. He created the basic conditions for the situation we are in, if He exists. We deal with the world as we find it and adapt and overcome to the best of our ability. But, some people are defeated before they really have a chance. Does not seem fair. Anyway, I agree that we value actual achievement over…. But that seems to actually favor not believing that there is a God.

    June 26, 2012 — 16:37
  • Keith,
    First, I notice that you haven’t answered my question: Would you have known about MacDonald if it weren’t for Lewis? My guess is that no, you would not have known. I think the modern world owes a debt to Lewis for rekindling interest in George MacDonald and his works. And Lewis did this by noting his own debt to MacDonald in becoming a Christian; and in noting that no other author came closer to the spirit of Christ than MacDonald; in having MacDonald be his “Virgil” in Heaven; and in producing an anthology of MacDonald’s works.
    So let’s make it clear that the man you are accusing of slimy behavior towards MacDonald came seriously close to worshipping him.
    Let’s also make it clear that you haven’t acknowledged your debt to Lewis for your even knowing about MacDonald. Perhaps this suggests kinda slimy behavior on your part?
    Let’s also note that Lewis was a professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and probably knew a thing or two about the importance of faithfully interpreting an author’s work. So if Lewis uses the sentence, “You talked as if all men would be saved,” right after saying that MacDonald was a Universalist in his books, then perhaps Lewis was making a distinction that we would be wise to understand, or at least not pass judgment on Lewis before we try to understand it. That would be acting on the principle of charity, which I understand is much valued in certain places.

    June 26, 2012 — 18:20
  • Keith DeRose

    I have no idea whether I would have heard of MacDonald without Lewis. It’s been a while, but I believe I was taught about MacDonald in an English course at college, when studying T.S. Eliot, who was, as I recall, influenced by MacDonald. That’s likely not the first time I heard of him, but it’s the first time I now remember. But take C.S.L. out of the world and do I still hear of MacDonald? Can’t say. My guess is I likely would have, but I don’t know, and it’s also likely I wouldn’t have heard as much about him. If it strikes you as “kinda slimy” for me not to acknowledge something I’m quite unsure is right, well, ok, I guess.
    (It may be worth adding that the writings of neither GM nor CSL have been particularly important to me, directly. I am interested in CSL largely because he seems very important to lots of current Evangelicals, and, in particular, in addition to his “running interference” for many with views in the vicinity of mine in terms of acceptance of the possibility of FC, his thoughts about freedom form the basis of a lot of current thinking that free will blocks universalism. I hope to address that free-will-based pessimism in the future. As for MacDonald, I know his writings have been extremely important to many of my fellow-universalists, but that hasn’t really been the case for me. I think how helpful a universalist finds his writings depends a lot on what one thinks of as the main issues that most stand in the way of universalism, and the issues he’s strongest on aren’t the ones that most bothered me.)
    I can’t help but notice that you haven’t answered my questions (at the end of the JUNE 25, 2012 11:03 PM comment), and, more generally, that, though my criticism was of a particular move Lewis made (I called it a “kinda slimy move”), you don’t seem to like to talk about the particular move which is what I was criticizing.
    You keep dropping my qualifier; please keep it on. I described a particular move of Lewis’s as “kinda slimy.” That move was, as I described it above, “taking someone who’s dead, but who held a view different from yours, writing them in as a character in your story, and putting into their mouth that since dying they’ve come to see that their view (universalism, in this case) should be given up for yours (roughly: well, free will is involved, so there’s really no saying) … when the view in question had been so important to the person you’re dealing with.” Perhaps that characterization strikes you as inaccurate (things are complicated here). Or maybe you just think that maneuver is not even kinda slimy — in which case we disagree. if you have anything to offer about why that move is all right, I’m ready to hear.

    June 26, 2012 — 20:54
  • Keith DeRose

    Probably the thing I read (outside of the New Testament) that did the most to influence me in becoming a universalist was REVELATIONS OF DIVINE LOVE by Julian of Norwich. I think I’m far from alone in being influenced by that work. This despite the fact that I think RDL does not advocate universalism. (I think it’s best read as holding that *somehow*, in a way Julian says she can’t understand, “all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well,” even though some humans never make it to heaven. The two are compatible somehow.)

    June 26, 2012 — 21:46
  • Keith DeRose

    Much of the section of THE PROBLEM OF PAIN on hell is available free online at googlebooks here: http://books.google.com/books?id=qGxZkKdB-68C&pg=PA119
    the page numbers don’t quite match what Matt listed in the first comment, so this must be a different edition in which the section on hell is pp. 119-131. googlebooks does not include pp. 123-126, but seems to have the rest of it. The famous remark that “the doors of hell are locked on the inside” is on p. 130.

    June 27, 2012 — 0:35
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    John Alexander,
    Theism entails realism about values. So perhaps we are mistaken in valuing actual achievement, but if we are right about it then it is because achievement is valuable, independently from anybody’s “perspective”.
    We cannot reason about God without trusting our own sense of value, and therefore holding that it leads us to understand God’s sense of value too. And the more one considers the issue the clearer it gets that earned personal value is infinitely greater than given personal value, and thus one realizes that God would want to create a world in which personal creatures are given the opportunity of earning their worth, rather a world in which they are made perfect right away – for that latter kind of perfection is hollow and not worth having at all. This by the way is the basis of John Hick’s soul-building theodicy.
    You seem to suggest that there is good naturalistic explanation of why we have this particular sense of value, namely of respecting those who “adapt and overcome”. I agree, but from this it does not follow that this sense of value is misleading. On the contrary, since on theism God is the author of nature this is how one would expect things to be. For it stands to reason that God would not create nature in such a way that judging value correctly would be an unnatural phenomenon.

    June 27, 2012 — 19:49
  • Keith DeRose

    There is a passage in the Hell section of THE PROBLEM OF PAIN that addresses further chances — though I can’t see that Lewis commits himself on whether there will be further chances. Here is the passage:
    A simpler form of the same objection consists in saying that death ought not to be final, that there ought to be a second chance. I believe that if a million chances were likely to do good, they would be given. But as master often knows, when boys and parents do not, that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again.
    This occurs in the pages skipped in the link I gave above, but if you’d like to see some of the surrounding context, you can go here:

    June 28, 2012 — 20:59
  • Diane Castro

    I think The Great Divorce does open the door to the idea of “further chances,” but it also makes it clear that not everyone will accept the chance to turn to Christ after death. I’m happy that someone like Lewis, who is so revered in the evangelical world, gives some reason to hope that people can be saved after death, but I think he gives too much weight to human free will as the ultimate determiner of our fate. I wrote about it here: http://blogs.christianpost.com/ambassador-of-reconciliation/the-great-divorce-15248/

    January 5, 2015 — 7:29
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