At the heart of The Great Divorce (and Christianity) is the concept of free will. The early Christian thinker Saint Augustine proposed a useful way of understanding free will: if a human being acts a certain way, and, under identical circumstances, could have acted differently, then that human has exercised their free will. Lewis never explicitly defines free will in his book, perhaps assuming that his readers already understand what it is. Nevertheless, The Great Divorce suggests that humans can only enter Heaven by exercising their innate free will.
One of the premises of The Great Divorce is that humans have the capacity to choose to go to Heaven even after they die—a notable digression from traditional Christian doctrine, in which souls either go to Heaven or Hell permanently. Humans are born with the power of free will: they can choose where to go, what to think, and—most importantly of all—whether or not to love God. Even in Hell, humans retain their powers of free will, meaning that they can choose to leave Hell and enter Heaven. Over the course of the novel, the Narrator observes the souls of human beings in Hell as they board a bus that takes them to the Valley of the Shadow of Life, located at the outskirts of Heaven. In the Valley, spirits and angels try to convince the souls of humans to love God and give up whatever sin they’re clinging to that is keeping them out of Heaven. If a damned human being chooses to embrace God, they’ll be welcomed into Heaven with open arms—even if they’ve committed horrific sins on Earth. In this way, the novel shows that going to Heaven is the result of a free, personal choice, not an external action (such as going to church, donating to charity, etc.).
Toward the end of the novel, Lewis emphasizes the importance of free will by declining to clarify whether or not God has “planned” humans’ ultimate fate—an idea which, it could be argued, denies the existence of free will. The notion that God knows whether humans will be saved or damned has been interpreted by some Christian thinkers, such as John Calvin, to disprove the existence of free will: for Calvin, free will is just an illusion. However, when the Narrator asks George Macdonald whether or not God knows which human beings will be saved and which human beings will be damned, MacDonald forcefully insists that the Narrator must not ask such a question. Humans must continue to exist in time and space, choosing their own destinies, whereas God, in Lewis’s view, exists outside of time, and so can see what we perceive as the “future” rather as an eternal present. In short, “the mind of God” is beyond human comprehension. MacDonald’s advice suggests that The Great Divorce’s philosophy of free will is closer to that of the poet John Milton (a major influence on Lewis) than Calvin. Milton argued that God’s foreknowledge of human salvation isn’t mutually exclusive with humans’ ability to choose their own salvation. Even if God does know the fate of humanity, God gives humans the power of free will; therefore, humans can exercise their free will and choose to join God in the afterlife.
While going to Heaven might seem like an obvious choice for one’s free will, the vast majority of the damned souls the Narrator encounters refuse to choose Heaven, suggesting that choosing God—and free will itself—is more difficult than it seems. Many of the damned souls refuse to go to Heaven because they’re frightened. Loving God involves surrendering one’s love of earthly things—other people, one’s pride, art, etc.—and most people are afraid of giving up these things for God. Other damned souls refuse God because they’re under the delusion that damnation and life in Hell are preferable to salvation. For example, the souls of educated, academic human beings smugly suggest that Hell is more conducive to “creativity” than Heaven. (This is a simplified version of William Blake’s argument in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell—an argument that Lewis tries to refute in his novel, even in its very title.) By definition, the concept of free will allows for humans to choose between two or more options. In The Great Divorce, most of the souls the Narrator encounters choose the wrong option—damnation—because they’re confused, prideful, or otherwise corrupted.
Ultimately, the novel shows that free will is potentially dangerous, yet also emancipatory for human beings. If given the option to choose, many people will make the wrong choice, choosing to go to Hell instead of embracing Heaven. Yet the pitfalls of free will make a Christian’s choice to worship God more commendable: the handful of souls who freely choose to love God will be rewarded in Heaven for their difficult decision.
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Free Will and Salvation Quotes in The Great Divorce
I had the sense of being in a larger place, perhaps even a larger sort of space, than I had ever known before: as if the sky were further off and the extent of the green plain wider that they could be on this little ball of earth. I had got out in some sense which made the Solar System itself seem an indoor affair. It gave me a feeling of freedom, but also of exposure, possibly of danger, which continued to accompany me through all that followed.
It is the impossibility of communicating that feeling, or even of inducing you to remember it as I proceed, which makes me despair of conveying the real quality of what I saw and heard.
“What I'd like to understand,” said the Ghost, “is what you're here for, as pleased as Punch, you, a bloody murderer, while I've been walking the streets down there and living in a place like a pigsty all these years.”
Next moment I stepped boldly out on the surface. I fell on my face at once and got some nasty bruises. I had forgotten that though it was, to me, solid, it was not the less in rapid motion. When I had picked myself up I was about thirty yards further down-stream than the point where I had left the bank. But this did not prevent me from walking up-stream: it only meant that by walking very fast indeed I made very little progress.
I could hardly help admiring this unhappy creature when I saw him rise staggering to his feet actually holding the smallest of the apples in his hands. He was lame from his hurts, and the weight bent him double. Yet even so, inch by inch, still availing himself of every scrap of cover, he set out on his via dolorosa to the bus, carrying his torture.
“Fool,” he said, “put it down. You cannot take it back. There is not room for it in Hell. Stay here and learn to eat such apples. The very leaves and the blades of grass in the wood will delight to teach you.”
Whether the Ghost heard or not, I don't know. At any rate, after pausing for a few minutes, it braced itself anew for its agonies and continued with even greater caution till I lost sight of it.
“I thought they were at war?”
“Of course you did. That's the official version. But who's ever seen any signs of it? Oh, I know that's how they talk. But if there’s a real war why don't they do anything? Don't you see that if the official version were true these chaps up here would attack and sweep the Town out of existence? They've got the strength. If they wanted to rescue us they could do it.”
“But I don't understand. Is judgment not final? Is there really a way out of Hell into Heaven?”
“It depends on the way ye’re using the words. If they leave that grey town behind it will not have been Hell. To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory.”
Hell is a state of mind—ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind—is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly.
This put me in mind to ask my Teacher what he thought of the affair with the Unicorns. “It will maybe have succeeded,” he said. “Ye will have divined that he meant to frighten her, not that fear itself could make her less a Ghost, but if it took her mind a moment off herself, there might, in that moment, be a chance. I have seen them saved so.”
“Brass is mistaken for gold more easily than clay is. And if it finally refuses conversion its corruption will be worse than the corruption of what ye call the lower passions. It is a stronger angel, and therefore, when it falls, a fiercer devil.”
“I don't know that I dare repeat this on Earth, Sir,” said I. “They’d say I was inhuman: they'd say I believed in total depravity: they'd say I was attacking the best and the holiest things. They'd call me . . .”
“It might do you no harm if they did,” said he with (I really thought) a twinkle in his eye.
Ye must ask, if the risen body even of appetite is as grand a horse as ye saw, what would the risen body of maternal love or friendship be?
“Don't you see what nonsense it's talking.” Merriment danced in her eyes. She was sharing a joke with the Dwarf, right over the head of the Tragedian. Something not at all unlike a smile struggled to appear on the Dwarf's face. For he was looking at her now. Her laughter was past his first defenses. He was struggling hard to keep it out, bur already with imperfect success. Against his will, he was even growing a little bigger.
“The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.”
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.
Ye saw the choices a bit more clearly than ye could see them on Earth: the lens was clearer. But it was still seen through the lens. Do not ask of a vision in a dream more than a vision in a dream can give.