Visions of the Eschaton in the Fictional Works of C.S. Lewis
The writings of C.S. Lewis have been treasured by Christians all around the world for more than half a century; and yet, the reason as to why this Oxford don experienced such prolific rise in popularity is not immediately clear. He was not a known as a great exegete of scripture who unfolded the obscurities and mysteries of scripture for God’s people. He wasn’t a well-known preacher who stormed across country-sides, winning innumerable souls to Christ. Nor is he remembered as great theologian, someone who extolled the richness of Christian doctrine for all to bask in. By his own estimation, in fact, Lewis said of himself, “I am a layman, indeed the most lay of layman, and least skilled in the deeper questions of sacred theology.” Albert Mohler even remarked once that the theology of C.S. Lewis “at several points, simply is not trustworthy.” In spite of these assessments however, many great expositors, preachers, and theologians claim that Lewis was one of the seminal influences on their intellectual development and theological understandings (John Piper, Douglas Wilson, Sam Storms, Randy Alcorn, Alister McGrath, J.I. Packer just to name a few). Besides the well-known names of contemporary Christianity, many conservative evangelicals have claimed that the writings of this, at times, liberal and ecumenical Anglican were instrumental in bringing them to faith in Christ—I include myself in this aggregate. What are we to make of all this? What is it about Lewis that Christians, and evangelicals in particular, seem to find so alluring? And why should fundamentalists or especially people in the reformed community—who are typically, and rightly, wary of anything that smells like liberal theology or ecumenism—grant Lewis such a pardon and count him among their ranks? The simplest answer I can give to this question is that evangelicals are willing to forgive Lewis for what he got wrong, because of the extraordinary and wondrous manner in which he expressed what he got right.
One way I think it is helpful to think of C.S. Lewis is that he is more like a painter than a theologian. When I look at Rembrandt’s mesmerizing painting The Prodigal Son, I don’t focus on the historical anachronisms, the misplaced ethnic identities, or the fact that his painting hasn’t captured the nuance of every theological truth contained in Jesus’ original parable. Instead, I see that the painter has focused in on one singular glorious truth and portrayed it in a new way so that I would be moved by it. I can almost feel the arms of the Father wrapping themselves around me, I identify with the one-shoed son who sinks in front of his Father, desperate to be restored. This is what Lewis does for me in his fictional writings especially. When Lucy Pevensie asks whether Aslan, a lion, is “quite safe?” and Mr. Beaver replies “course he isn’t safe, but he’s good!” I don’t focus on the fact that Jesus doesn’t have fur or a tail, but that his power and goodness perfectly coalesce such that I should fear, love, and trust him. When Aslan lays down his life to save Edmund from the Queen, I don’t focus on the fact that Lewis pictured a form of redemption that was closer to ransom theory than penal-substitutionary atonement, I rather think of the Powerful Jesus who didn’t have to lay down his life, the Jesus who could’ve slain all his foes, but instead, surrendered his power and went to the cross like a lamb instead of a lion, and that he did it for me. Lewis’s fictional works are filled with glorious paintings like this. Paintings that call us to wonder and gaze at the truth being communicated and not the tertiary subtleties that have not been captured perfectly. Finally, these considerations bring us to what I think may be one of C.S. Lewis’s most wonderful portraits, namely: the way his fictional works envision the eschaton. . Let’s gaze at this painting for a while and see if we aren’t moved by the brushstrokes of his pen.
The Great Divorce
The Great Divorce is an allegorical story in which Lewis depicts certain truths about Heaven and Hell. It is not a story about what he thought Heaven and Hell are actually like; but rather, one in which particular glories regarding Heaven, and particular miseries regarding hell are highlighted for the reader’s consideration. The story opens with the main character, who is never identified or named, walking the streets of Greytown. As he walks through the dismal, monochromatic streets he is “always in the rain” and “always in twilight.” The shops he passes by are “dingy houses, small tobacconists…and bookshops of the sort that sell The Works of Aristotle.” The people he encounters in this place are quarrelsome and easily disgruntled. Everyone in this place seems to be so bothered by other people and so pleased with themselves that they really have no ability, or more accurately no desire, for relationships at all. This place is meant to depict some of the horrible realities of hell. People seem to continue their lives much in the same fashion as they had on Earth, yet, they live in such a way that is totally devoid of hope, joy, love, or God. God has left everyone here to their fate; they have become gods in their own eyes, but they have no power to see what miserable deities they really make now that the true God has removed himself from their lives. Eventually, the main character stumbles into a queue to board a bus, “a wonderful vehicle, blazing with golden light, heraldically colored.” The driver of this bus is himself “full of light” and cheerful in his demeanor—a quality that the cranky residents of Greytown find annoying. As they board and depart, they have no idea that this bus ride will actually transport them new a place of vibrant color and glorious beauty—Heaven.
A Bus Ride to Heaven
The first thing our passenger from Greytown hears as the doors of the bus to Heaven open is “the singing of a lark.” When he exists and gazes upon this new place for the first time he feels “a light…coolness that drenched me…like those of summer morning.” He looks around at the landscape and observes that “I had the sense of being in a larger space…as if the skies were further off…and the green plain wider than they could be on this little ball of Earth.” His experience of the immensity of this “new Earth” was such that “The Solar System seemed to be an indoor affair.” Remembering that our character is, after all, a resident of Greytown, he says that he doesn’t feel very safe in this new place. He feels exposed, this place seems dangerous, and he has a sneaking suspicion that something ill will befall him. Still, he continues to explore. He notices that he and the other passengers appear to be as translucent as “ghosts” when compared to the vivid landscape. His body is not really different than it had been on Earth, instead, it seems to be that the sheer color and vibrancy of this place makes his body appear opaque. The trees, the land, the grass “appear much solider than things in our country [so] that men were ghosts by comparison.” He bends down and tries to pluck a daisy, but finds the flower to be hard like a diamond and he hurts himself trying to wrench it free of the earth. As he walks on the grass, he notices that it is almost cutting his feet. He clearly was not made to endure this place. This grey man, this man who forgot joy or hope, who has been condemned to the miseries of his own heart cannot seem to be at home in this strange place. But alas, the glory of the countryside is nothing compared to the glory of the people who inhabit it. He sees the inhabitants from a long way off, but in spite of their distance, they were radiant. As they approach, “The Earth shook under their tread as their strong feet sank into the wet turf.” These people are as glorious as the place they live and more glorious still. They were clearly made or prepared to be here in a way that he was not. These glorious people begin to interact with the “ghostly people” from Greytown. One of the luminous beings walk up to a grey man that he knew on Earth. The grey man becomes indignant because the luminous man was a murderer in his previous life when he last knew him. “Aren’t you ashamed?!” he cries. The luminous man smiles and replies “No, not as you mean. I do not look at myself. I have given up myself.” Of course, what he means is that his sin caused him to repent and look to God in his former life, and he is still looking at God even in his glorious state. This is especially interesting since the grey man is far less beautiful than his friend now is, and yet, the grey man is only satisfied to continuously gaze upon his own ugliness. At one point, Lewis alludes to the verse in Revelation where the author says “the smoke of hell goes up forever in the sight of the saints” What he means is that the “saints” of Lewis’ Heaven feel immense pity for the residents of Greytown who cannot, will not see the beauty of this glorious place. It’s this refusal to see beyond themselves and behold the beauty of God that leads Lewis to say in another place, that “the gates of hell are locked from the inside.”
The Pursuit of God
Much more could be said about the interactions between the characters from Greytown and the residents of Heaven. However, that is not what I want to consider here. Further on into the story, the main character encounters George MacDonald, his favorite childhood author, who is there to help him understand all that he is seeing. Their conversation turns at one point to the range of mountains that loom large in the background of the landscape. The man from Greytown asks about them and MacDonald tells him that “Everyone of us (the redeemed) lives only to journey further and further into these mountains.” As real, as glorious, as colorful, and as vivid as this place that the man from Greytown is now in, the mountains only get more real, more glorious, and more intensely vivid as you travel into them. The joy of the saints is depicted as a barefooted sprint into the glorious presence of God, and with every step, that glory intensifies. This, for Lewis, is the aim of eternity. To run headlong into God’s glory, forever seeking to enjoy his presence more and more. The run never ends. The journey is never over for the saint. There is always more of God to be had, however intense the present weight of his glory is, that weight will increase all the more as the trek continues. This brings us to another story that Lewis wrote concerning this theme: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the fifth installment in The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s a maritime adventure filled with swashbuckling, sea-monsters, buried treasure, and even dragons. However, as the story comes to a close, the heroes find themselves sailing through placid, crystal-blue waters. The calamities have all passed away and the passengers of the Dawn Treader find themselves beholding a glorious horizon: Aslan’s Country. The further they sail towards “the end of the world” they begin to notice lilies floating on top of the deep water, they can see the first peaks of the mountains of Aslan’s realm, and they start to feel peculiar. They notice that their desire for food diminishes, the sailors are talking less and less, and people merely stand aboard the deck on gaze off into the distance. Lewis tells us that, “Every day the light became more brilliant and still they could bear it.” Prince Caspian declares that “I feel that I can’t stand much more of this, yet I don’t want it to stop.” The reason for all this is that the passengers are feeling the effects of the glory of “Aslan’s Country”, and the joy they experience and the glory they feel only becomes more intense as they sail onward. Eventually, the crew can go no further and four passengers, Lucy, Edmund, Eustace, and Reepicheep board a small vessel in order to continue on alone. The serenity of the voyage continues to increase until, at last, they come ashore on a white, sandy beach. The entrance to Aslan’s Country is blocked by a towering tidal wave that continuously rolls, yet never moves. Suddenly, Reepicheep—a mouse who dresses and talks after the fashion of a musketeer—leaps from the boat, plunges his rapier (sword) into the sand and declares “I shall need it no more!” He then proceeds to ascend the wave and enter the eternal home of Aslan where he will run forever, deeper and deeper into the mountains. One of the grandest allusions to Jesus in The Chronicles of Narnia immediately follows this scene, and I recommend that you read the story for yourself, however it does not directly pertain to what I want to focus on here. Instead, I want to draw attention to the fact that Lewis depicts Aslan’s Country, or Heaven, in a very similar fashion as he he did in The Great Divorce. In addition, Lewis cultivates in his reader’s mind the notion that the glory of Heaven is something that the saint must be prepared for while on Earth. The journey to Aslan’s home was purposefully slow; the crew members of the Dawn Treader had to grow more and more accustomed to the wonderful things that they were experiencing. By the time the protagonists reach the “celestial shores”, they crave nothing else besides Aslan himself. Their joy of Aslan’s glory was so wonderful that it eventually and finally vanquished all other desires in the souls of the crew members by the time they make landfall. This is a wonderous comparison for the believer’s journey toward Christ. The Joy of walking with the savior makes war on all our idolatrous passions throughout the course of our lives until at last, he wins. By the time we reach the shores of Heaven, we are finally ready to mimic Reepicheep by plunging the swords of our former lives into the sand, and venture forth to chase the presence of God for all time.
A Few final Thoughts
Everyone wonders about the afterlife. We eagerly anticipate what glorious raptures await the saints in Heaven, and we shudder to think of what horrors await the unrepentant in Hell. We imagine that Heaven will be a place of reunion, of fun, of activity; while imagining that Hell is a place primarily of physical torment—and these things may very well be true. Yet, the genius of Lewis is to remove all of the “extracurriculars” from our visions of Heaven and Hell, and to help us imagine them in a different way. With Hell, Lewis seems to be aware that people consider fire and torture to be the primary reason for the misery of those who are confined there, and yet, Lewis seems to suggest that this is not the case. He tells us a story about people who are prisoners of their own device, people who cannot seem to get past themselves and see the glory of God for what it is, and most importantly, he tells us that the journey into eternity is the climax of a journey they started in life. He expresses it beautifully when he says in The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people: Those who say to God ‘thy will be done’ and those to whom God says ‘thy will be done’.” Do you see? The real punishment in Hell for Lewis is not the physical pain, rather, it’s the torture of the soul who will forever attempt to be the source of their own joy only to repeatedly find that they cannot. Similarly, Heaven is the result of a journey that we start here. We fall in love with God here, we desire him here, we know him here. It serves to reason then, that the real glories of Heaven will not be barbecues with Friends and Family or pursuing our favorite weekend hobby, but loving, enjoying, and knowing God more and more on into eternity. This is not just Lewis’ vision, but I believe it’s the vision of scripture. The Bible tells us that “22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” The reward of Heaven is nothing less than experiencing the glory of God as it washes over his people and his world. Everything will be made new, everything will be restored, and everything will reflect God’s glory. It’s a world that Lewis helps me to yearn for, and I hope it’s helped you too.