In C.S. Lewis’ fantasy novel, “The Great Divorce”, a group of ghostly inhabitants of Hell are given a “bus” trip away from the grey city, where they are left alone with their selfishness, to the out-skirts of Heaven. Each day-tripper is given a mentor to help them give up their old selves and whatever sins or perverse desires are keeping them out of Heaven and God’s melt-your-face-off joyous presence. Most of the trippers are unwilling to let go of that which they are asked to give up, and so, head back at the end of the day to a miserable but familiar existence in the grey city.
The protagonist, and Lewis’ mentor, George MacDonald, is given these words to speak, as part of a longer discussion: “Was joy created to live under that threat? Always defenseless to those who would rather be miserable than have their self-will be crossed? Can you really have thought that love and joy would always be at the mercy of frowns and sighs? The demand of the loveless; that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe; that til 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?” Isn’t this the attitude that many people have: if you are joyful, but I am miserable, than you are cold and heartless? And isn’t this the rationale of those who refuse to come into God’s loving presence: they “…would rather be miserable than have their self-will be crossed?”
All good and truth and beauty come from God’s hand. “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:17, NRSV) Let’s add in here the quote of Lewis above, to the effect that there is no happiness or peace available to us apart from God, because these qualities are not just substances that can be dropped into our lives, but they are contingent on us being shaped to reality, including the reality of God. And further, we only know peace and happiness in a right relationship to the Trinity, to other persons and to other creatures. What brass to demand of God “Let me be happy – as I define it – without you!” Notice then that Hell is asking, demanding really, one of two impossible states of affairs. They want to be happy without God. Impossible!, all good gifts come from God. Or…their demand would permit sin and misery into the New Creation. Impossible!, God has made strong promises to his people: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said,
‘See, I am making all things new.'” (Rev. 21:3-5a, NRSV)
There are also some atheists or agnostics who strike a noble pose because of some atrocity that has happened to someone else. Think here of the character of Ivan in “The Brothers Karamatsov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Nonetheless, not only do they ask for impossibilities, but they demand an injustice toward the redeemed. And are they really concerned so much for someone else or are they merely rationalizing their own refusal to receive what God would give?
By the way, this post is powered by “Ep” (2008) by United Pursuit. I plan to expand these reflections tomorrow evening in my talk before the Southern California C.S. Lewis Society.