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.”