The longer Kathy and I are married (34 years yesterday), the harder it is to remember being single. C. S. Lewis suggested a similar dynamic at work in heaven, reminding us why marriage is a metaphor for the gospel. But it also raises a troubling question.
Marriage as a metaphor for the gospel is old news. It’s one of the purposes of marriage (Eph. 5:31-32). The new news—at least for me—is the parallel between what happens in a healthy marriage and C. S. Lewis’ story of the journey from this world to the next.
Lewis came to faith in 1931 and was soon an ardent apologist. His approach at first was propositional, debating opponents of the Christian faith. But Lewis worried that this might be bad for his faith. He confessed to Dorothy L. Sayers that “a doctrine never seemed dimmer in me than when I have successfully defended it.”1
Lewis was straddling two worlds. He appreciated the mysticism of Roman Catholicism but felt it often veered into idolatry. He was Protestant but felt Protestantism was too propositional, too rational. Lewis sought to be Catholic without idolatry, Protestant without an impoverished imagination. Beginning in the spring of 1944, this took his work in a different direction, toward fantasy literature. He wrote The Great Divorce.
The story begins with people living in a “grey town.” A bus arrives, “blazing with golden light.” The bus lifts the passenger above the town’s wet roofs toward a grassy meadow radiant with light. Here, people see themselves as ghosts. Bright spirits come to help the ghosts overcome their besetting sins and enter Heaven. One by one, the people decline.
For Lewis, the grey town is the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Those who refuse the offer—demanding they enjoy their sin and suffer the consequences—return to the grey town, little imagining “how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin.” At the end of all things, the Lost will have forgotten all pleasures and instead say, “We were always in Hell.”
Those who accept God’s offer also witness time going backwards. Heaven, “once attained,” works backwards, turning every agony into a glory, so that “at the end of all things,” we forget our sinful past, saying, “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven.” Lewis felt both the saved and the lost “will speak truly.”
This is a better way to imagine eternity. In Divorce, a spirit tells the ghosts, “You cannot in your present state understand eternity… that is what mortals misunderstand.” We can’t comprehend eternity but can understand marriage. After 34 years, Kathy and I are getting tastes of eternity. Time is working backwards. We’re forgetting ever having been single. It’s as if we have never been anything but married. It’s wonderful.
So how does this raise a troubling question?
There are quite a few ministries today named after C. S. Lewis. Most are Protestant. Most take a propositional approach. They develop curricula. They host debates and lectures. But I have yet to see them writing great fantasy literature. I don’t see them speaking in metaphor, as Lewis urged. I find it curious that they fail to see why doctrines are never dimmer than when they have debated and defended them.
The problem with the propositional approach is that it tackles the wrong questions. Debating how a loving God can allow people to go to hell is the wrong question. It suggests God isn’t fair. But in The Great Divorce, the saved and the lost don’t feel unfairly treated. Both “will speak truly,” Lewis wrote, and feel like they never lived anywhere else. This is a reality we cannot in our present state understand. But marriage can provide a peek.
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1 Quoted in Philip Zaleski & Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2014), p. 314.