The Cognitive Value of Theological Fiction: C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce

This is part of a series of posts about the value of speculative fiction in understanding religion.

I’ve expressed skepticism about the cognitive value of speculative fiction insofar as it’s understood as merely imagining possibilities because possibilities—like the future impacts of artificial intelligence or of global warming—can be described in a synopsis. This lacks most all of what we call literature, and the problem before us isn’t whether speculation has cognitive value but whether speculative literature does.

But that doesn’t mean that the literary features of a work are irrelevant in whether we are willing to entertain a possibility as a candidate for our belief. Literary features of works, like how character psychology is portrayed or how cohesively the world is built can make a possibility more plausible to us. Now I have also written dismissively on the value of plausibility because humans, flawed as we are, readily confuse plausibility and probability (We think that a state of affairs is more likely true just because it “makes sense”). Even so, we should be open to a work of literature being of cognitive value if it can “hack” our flawed faculties in favor of genuine understanding.

Cognitive Estrangement

This brings us to Darko Suvin’s notion of cognitive estrangement. For Suvin, science fiction is realistic fiction with the introduction of a novum, a scientifically plausible innovation (e.g. genderless aliens, anti-matter weapons, etc.) that’s lent plausibility by being described as though it were fact within a narrative. Through this technique, science fiction authors put a mirror to reality so as to estrange or defamiliarize us from our assumptions about how societies function, what will characterize the future, and so on. This allows us to entertain possibilities that would seem simply weird or ridiculous without the support of a narrative.

Suvin understood cognitive estrangement to distinguish science fiction from all other genres, including fantasy. He even calls publishers’ tendency to lump them together “sociopathological” because fantasy operates in a secondary world divorced from reality; the nova introduced—mythical creatures and the like—have no scientific plausibility so fantasy does not lead us to reflect upon reality. He later revised this strong position, admitting that fantasy can have cognitive value as deployed by writers like Marx and Kafka and when it’s used to scrutinize tropes we engage with in the real world like the occult and supernatural.

Suvin would be wise to include understanding religion as another case where fantasy can be of cognitive value. Suvin’s Marxism aside, storytelling based on Biblical tropes—angels, elemental spirits, and the Leviathan—isn’t necessarily an otherworldly escape for Christians and Jews. Moreover, the religion of the other often presents itself to us as fantasy and even authoritative texts within our own religion can strike us as “other” because they were composed in a very different time and place within communities that operated under very different assumptions about reality. A novum that initiates us into the thought processes of the religious other, whether it appears in fantasy or science fiction, has the potential to be cognitively valuable.

C. S. Lewis on Souls Wanting to Be in Hell

I’m going to discuss how literary features of speculative fiction, such as portrayals of character psychology and worldbuilding, help us better appreciate C. S. Lewis’s answer to a specific question, “How is it that damned souls want to be in hell?” in his The Great Divorce. The suggestion that this question admits of an answer might alarm us, but it’s of theological significance for traditions—notably Christianity and Islam—that commonly attest to an afterlife of exquisite pain that is ordained by an omnipotent and recognizably good God. Many Christians and Muslims do not take God’s goodness to be mysterious or inscrutable. Rather, He is good in a way that we can understand and appreciate. This is why hell presents a difficulty. But if our question can be answered in the affirmative, hell is no difficulty because souls in hell have chosen their final destiny for themselves.

The first time I read an affirmative answer to our question was in a nonfictional work of of C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain:

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.

I found this possibility intriguing, but I had my doubts: Where’s the hellfire? How is hell God’s judgement upon sinners if He is merely letting them be? If God and heaven are so wonderful, how is it that sinners can forever want the opposite?

Hell in The Great Divorce

At the time, what I lacked was a narrative context to give Lewis’s answer plausibility. This is what Lewis gives us in The Great Divorce. The hell of Lewis’s tale is perpetually gray and rainy; it’s lit by twilight that might either be the first light of morning or the last ray of sunset. Souls in hell (Lewis calls them Ghosts) are so bound up in their selfish desires and personal drama that they inevitably feud with their neighbors and relations. They move on to empty streets or head further out to the edge of town where they can be alone. They imagine a new dreary house into existence, which doesn’t keep the rain off any better than their old spectral home. Over centuries, hell has swelled to span many millions of miles and Ghosts drift further and further away. Their chance of escape dwindles along with their very existence as their self-isolation grows.

Lewis’s portrait of Napoleon is telling:

“He’d built himself a huge house all in the Empire style—rows of windows flaming with light, though it only shows as a pin prick from where I live.”

“Did they see Napoleon?”

“That’s right. They went up and looked through one of the windows. Napoleon was there all right.”

“What was he doing?”

“Walking up and downup and down all the time—left-right, left-right—never stopping for a moment. The two chaps watched him for about a year and he never rested. And muttering to himself all the time. ‘It was Soult’s fault. It was Ney’s fault. It was Josephine’s fault. It was the fault of the Russians. It was the fault of the English.’ Like that all the time. Never stopped for a moment. A little, fat man and he looked kind of tired. But he didn’t seem able to stop it.”

Lewis’s answer to our question is that Ghosts want to be in hell because their will has turned toward themselves and bent away from God. This is a state of suffering because God is the source of all that is good. If Napoleon could stand outside himself, he would realize how foolish and wretched he has become, but he has lost the ability to do so.

Redemption for Ghosts

Of course, not every Ghost is so far gone as Napoleon. The two that discuss him above report Napoleon’s wretchedness from the outside. This is why most of The Great Divorce follows some Ghosts on reprieve from hell (what some Medieval theologians called refrigerium). They take a bus to the outskirts of heaven where blessed souls and angels have come to meet them and convince them to leave hell permanently. But the Ghosts feel tremendously out of place. One worries that heaven is a trap; if he stays, the rain will fall and bore holes him like a machine gun because everything is so much bigger and harder in heaven. Another insisting on his intellectual autonomy, prefers to reinterpret hell as heaven; he decides to go back to hell because he has a theology group meeting there next Friday. Another feels he’s unneeded in heaven and returns to hell out of self-respect. A mother is so insistent that she see her son Michael, who is in heaven, that she’s lost the ability to love anyone else; she rejects God on grounds that He has kept her son from her. All these furnish us with different paradigms of Ghosts. This is important because we will deny that people in large numbers can want to be in hell if Lewis’s Ghosts don’t have diverse psychologies we can recognize as real and human.

The most instructive case is the conversation between an angel and a Ghost afflicted by lust, which takes the form of a red lizard that whispers in the Ghost’s ear:

“Oh—ah—look out! You’re burning me,” said the Ghost, retreating.

“Don’t you want [the lizard] killed?”

“You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.”

“It’s the only way,” said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to the lizard. “Shall I kill it?”

“Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point, isn’t it? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here—well, it’s so damned embarrassing.”

This goes on for a few pages, the angel insisting the lizard must die and asking over and over again because he needs the Ghost’s permission to eradicate the lust that is holding the Ghost back. The Ghost comes up with various excuses: he’s not feeling well, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps after consulting his doctor, can’t it be a gradual process? In the end, he relents, but only barely: “Damn and blast you! Go on can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,” bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, “God help me. God help me.” When the lizard dies, the Ghost momentarily thinks he’s died as well, but he’s transformed into an angel and the lizard into a glorious stallion.

This portrait is effective at showing both how sincerely the powers of heaven want to save Ghosts and how difficult it is for Ghosts to make a new start. Insistence in staid theological discourse that God wants everyone to be saved—say by citing 1 Timothy 2:4, with the addendum that He won’t overrule the free will of those who prefer separation from Him—raises more questions than it answers without being grounded in particulars of human psychology and how God interacts with His creations. The narrative context is crucial.

Objections to Lewis’s Hell

This isn’t to say that Lewis’s hell raises no questions. For one, Lewis’s hell is not a fiery place, and the Bible repeatedly characterizes hell as such. Lewis’s answer is that from the perspective of Ghosts, hell is far less interesting: “It’s a flop too. They lead you to expect red fire and devils and all sorts of interesting people sizzling on grids—Henry VIII and all that—but when you get there it’s just like any other town.”  We may contend that his vision of hell would be theologically more successful if he more explicitly cast Ghost psychology as fiery. Others may contest that fiery Ghost psychology would weaken Lewis’s portrait theologically because he wants their self-centeredness to operate inversely to their reality (his theology is Augustinian and Neo-Platonic). They do not get brighter and hotter the more they drift from God. They become smaller, dimmer, and less substantial.

Another objection that will occupy those concerned with the apparent injustice of hell is: Why don’t the angels do more to help Ghosts? Why is it that Ghosts have to take the first step of coming to heaven? Lewis’s answer is that the angels “couldn’t fit” in hell. His unique worldbuilding explains how this can be the case. Recall that hell is many millions of miles wide, but we learn at the end that heaven is inconceivably larger. Hell is only huge from the perspective of Ghosts, but from the perspective of heaven—from the perspective of reality—hell is smaller than an atom; it’s merely a state of mind.

But God can fit in hell. Indeed He did when He died as Christ. Even though this seems a brief reconnaissance mission, a mere three days before Christ was resurrected, Lewis tells us that time works differently after death, so God preached to all Ghosts when he died and He does eternally. This might strike us as theological sleight of hand. But we can’t expect Lewis to tell us how this works from God’s perspective because eternity isn’t a narrative, one thing after another. The kind of time he gestures at can’t unfold in a story.

Which is why Lewis relies upon more traditional theological discourse, but he uses George MacDonald as his mouthpiece. This kind of framing technique is a literary device, even if the words themselves could appear in a treatise. MacDonald was a major influence upon Lewis, but in this, they are intellectual opponents because MacDonald was a universalist. He thought that eventually everyone will be saved, that hell is only temporary. For Lewis, the difficulty is that universalism would undermine human freedom because, in the long run, no one would have the real option of distancing themselves from God, which is precisely what his hell is supposed to achieve.


The point here isn’t whether we find Lewis’s answers theologically satisfying. This is why I haven’t laid out every turn in his arguments in detail. The point is that we can talk about how successful his work is theologically—how his worldbuilding, how the flourishes in his dialog and the struggles of his characters contribute to our theological understanding. Lewis’s hell is not what we expect hell to be. It’s a novum that allows us to rethink our own theology and that of others.

In their Inferno, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle have even taken Lewis’s approach further by letting his theology play out in Dante’s hellscape (thereby putting the hellfire and divine judgement back in). I’m not going to delve into how Niven and Pournelle engage with Lewis here (this post is already getting long!), but the fact that they intentionally combined Dante with The Great Divorce suggests that works of speculative fiction can stand in dialog, much like traditional works of theology stand in dialog.