C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce and the LDS Spirit World
A couple of times a year, usually on a Sunday after church, I re-read C.S. Lewis’ marvelous post-mortal novella/fable “The Great Divorce.” It relates a journey of diminutive spirits (referred to as ghosts) to the outskirts of Heaven, where they are greeted by much larger, more powerful exalted spirits, eager to help them take a painful journey beyond the mountains to Heaven. The journey, and its accompanying pain, is a metaphor for repentance and shedding of sins.
Most of the “ghosts,” despite the mild persuasion of loved ones, friends and acquaintances who greet them, refuse the trip to Heaven. They prefer Hell because it allows them to retain their earthly passions and sins, obsessions, earthly pride, angers resentments, self-pity, manipulation, and narcissism. That is the foundation of what Lewis is teaching in his novella; that one must surrender the earth for Heaven.
As Lewis writes, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ’Thy will be done,” and those to who God says in the end, ’Thy will be done.’“
”The Great Divorce“ can be called Dante-like. It’s a journey with many experiences, with a narrator and a teacher. Understand, I make no claim that C.S. Lewis saw any similarities between ”The Great Divorce“ and the Mormon concept of the post-mortal spirit world. In fact, Lewis — on more than one occasion — reminds readers that his story is a fantasy, and says, ”The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.“
Personally, I think Lewis had his tongue in his cheek with that remark, because of course ”The Great Divorce“ ”arouse(s) factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.“ And the concept of spirits retaining their weaknesses and more exalted spirits zealously attempting to teach them ”the right“ is a central tenant of Mormonism. But let me backtrack: From my earliest years in the LDS Church, I was taught that after we die, we either go to paradise or ”spirit prison.“ (For many childhood years, I envisioned ”spirit prison“ as a clean jail with bars, where orderly ”wicked“ spirits waited for good spirits to teach them the Gospel ...)
Instead, Mormon theology puts the spirits world as being on the earth. In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Alma taught that — like Lewis’ ghosts — what’s learned and appreciated on earth is carried to the spirit world. In the LDS post-mortal spirit world, there is no confirmation of any ”correct Gospel.“ Spirits congregate where they are most comfortable. The ”righteous“ spirits — like Lewis’ spirits — attend to spirits who need to learn the truth. I imagine much of the ”missionary work“ is without success. (As a lifelong Mormon, it’s impossible not to imagine these spirit ”missionaries“ as wearing dark suits and ties, or sisters in dresses, and carrying flip charts and Scriptures as they knock on doors in ”Spirit Prison.“)
In ”The Great Divorce,“ Lewis talks about many ghosts who are so obsessed with their earthly lives that they return to homes, places of work, etc., and ”haunt“ them. (Now, what I’m saying next is ”Doug doctrine“ and not LDS belief, but one reason I flinch at watching LDS football on Sunday is that I have this feeling a host of spirits — all obsessed with the Dallas Cowboys, etc., are also watching the game. If I turn the tube off and put on a CD of church music, they’ll take off! I also wonder about those kitschy reality ghost-hunting shows on TV. Are the malicious spirits having fun with us humans?)
(Yeah, I’m still being tongue in cheek now but what comes next is serious.) Lewis’s relating that the souls of purgatory/hell were handicapped by their earthly attachments parallels the LDS belief that missionary spirits are attempting to teach other spirits to shed those same attachments. A chief distinction, of course, is that Lewis considers his ”Hell and Heaven“ as the end result, while LDS theology sees the ”Spirit World“ as a far earlier part of our eternal existence. It is interesting, though, that ”The Great Divorce“ envisions active efforts to convert unbelievers after death; a concept that Mormonism can relate to. ”The Great Divide“ also places a person’s humility and true charity as more favorable than excessive religion and excessive charity, reminding the reader that these can become earthly obsessions which consume our other responsibilities.
As former Standard-Examiner cartoonist Cal Grondahl says, religion exists in one part to comfort us about our approaching death. C.S. Lewis, as a Christian, believed in life after death. To the righteous, his novella comforts, as the Mormon Spirit World comforts devout Mormons. I have no idea if Lewis regarded Mormons as Christians, but his novella — in which spirits find themselves more comfortable in dim, dreary, contentious surroundings and resist missionary efforts that offer a more exalted state — connects with LDS doctrine.
Also, it’s very interesting that in Lewis’ ”Hell,“ there are ghosts who have strayed so far away from the ”bus station“ that offers ghosts the opportunity to visit ”Heaven.“ As a result, they can’t go to Heaven’s outskirts anymore. This is similar to LDS doctrine, in which spirits in ”spirit prison“ are separated by those who are still teachable and those who are not. I recommend ”The Great Divorce“ to anyone, of course, but also to LDS readers who will find the unintentional similarities very interesting.
-- Doug Gibson
This column was previously published at StandardBlogs.