C. S. Lewis on Why Heaven is a Better Tourist Destination Than Hell

I’m giving a talk on C. S. Lewis next week at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando! The argument I’m making there is similar to part of my introduction to Strange Religion and also discussed in a prior post. But I figured I’d dive into a new argument about Lewis in the meantime.

C. S. Lewis in his Letters to Malcolm tells us that “heaven will display far more variety than hell.” What does this mean? The immediate context concerns the forms of acceptable Christian religiosity, of which he encourages a wide view—contrary to the position of his fictional interlocutor, Malcolm:

“Now about the Rose Macaulay Letters [to a Friend]. Like you, I was staggered by this continual search for more and more prayers. If she were merely collecting them as objets d’art I could understand it; she was a born collector. But I get the impression that she collected them in order to use them; that her whole prayer-life depended on what we may call ‘ready-made’ prayers—prayers written by other people.

But though like you, staggered, I was not, like you, repelled. One reason is that I had—and you hadn’t—the good luck to meet her. Make no mistake. She was the right sort; one of the most fully civilized people I ever knew. The other reason, as I have so often told you, is that you are a bigot. Broaden your mind, Malcolm, broaden your mind! It takes all sorts to make a world; or a church. This may even be truer of a church. If grace perfects nature, it must expand all our natures into the full richness of the diversity which God intended when He made them, and heaven will display far more variety than hell. ‘One fold’ doesn’t mean ‘one pool’. Cultivated roses and daffodils are no more alike than wild roses and daffodils” (9-10).

It’s difficult to determine precisely what variety Lewis means in the context of heaven and hell. Some possibilities:

  1. Variety in Christian religiosity
  2. Variety in religiosity in general
  3. Variety in people in general (perhaps including religious diversity)
  4. Variety in environment and phenomena

#1 is almost certainly true, but trivially so. Many Christians will be in heaven and few or no non-Christians, so if this is all Lewis meant he wouldn’t be making a very interesting claim. Also his shift in terminology—from “diversity” in human natures to heavenly “variety” suggests—he talking about something related to, but different from, Christian religiosity.

#2 is interesting, but it doesn’t seem to be true in Lewis’s view because practitioners of all sorts of religions will be in hell, while heaven will be restrained by Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy (more on this later). It is possible that damned souls will be in such a state that they aren’t able to practice the religion they had in Earthly life, so the diversity they once exhibited is homogenized, as it were. But it’s difficult to think that Lewis has this particular view of hell, without him saying as much.

#3 seems to be the most natural reading because Lewis is talking about people: “all sorts” to make a world and a church, many people gathered into “‘one fold.’” He means to say that heaven will be vibrant and varied and far from boring or homogenized. Variety in heaven then justifies a wider view of religiosity on Earth because a diverse church aspires toward its heavenly state.

#4 is also part of what Lewis means. This will be clearest as we turn to The Great Divorce below. But #3 will become less plausible; we’ll find that Lewis may be hypocritical in accusing Malcolm of bigotry.

Heaven and Hell in The Great Divorce

The Great Divorce is Lewis’s most sustained discussion of heaven and hell. It’s a work of apologetical fiction that centers on damned souls on reprieve from hell (Ghosts). They take a bus from hell to the outskirts of heaven, where they meet angels and blessed souls who try to convince them to stay in heaven rather than go back to hell.

Given the popular view of hell, this would not seem to require much convincing, but Lewis’s hell isn’t a realm of fiery torment. Hell is a dreary, rainy, twilit town. It’s lame; the only torture is that which people inflict on themselves and others: everyone bickers with everyone else and spreads out over huge distances because they’d rather be alone than quarrel.

Heaven is natural, dense, bright. It’s strewn with wild and majestic creatures like lions and unicorns. It gives a feeling of freedom, but also of exposure, making “the whole solar system seem an indoor affair.” The grass is diamond-hard and some Ghosts are afraid rain will fall and bore holes in their insubstantial bodies.

Does Heaven Make for Better Tourism Than Hell?

Let’s consider #4, whether heaven exhibits a more varied environment than hell. It’s obvious that Lewis thinks heaven is varied and interesting, but the way this ends up being true is more nuanced. This is because, in hell, Ghosts have the ability to alter their environment by simply imagining new lodgings into existence. This is a trait that we might consider heavenly, but these spectral homes don’t make Ghosts any happier; they don’t even keep the rain off. Rather, they serve to wrap Ghosts more deeply in their own drama.

The most vivid depiction of a Ghost in hell we’re given is Napoleon, who imagined a Empire style manor for himself. Inside he marches back and forth blaming everyone else for his failure.

This power to imagine homes isn’t healthy, but it means that hell has much more variety than it may appear. If Napoleon can imagine a grand manor for himself with “rows of windows flaming with light” everyone else can imagine varied and elaborate lodgings for themselves as well. Bad weather aside, tourism in hell may actually be quite interesting! And indeed, the report of Napoleon Lewis gives us is from the perspective of two Ghosts that spent more than a year to observe him.

But variety in hell is still limited by the capacity of particular human imaginations, much like the creative output of artists is limited by the horizon of their experience and creativity. Whereas heaven is a wide vista of new opportunities to explore: we’re told that blessed souls live for nothing else than to explore the mountains of deep heaven, which are even closer to God. The idea is that meditation upon God isn’t a passive or static thing, but dynamic, freeing, and advances souls to higher reality. Heaven, in being near to God, is “Reality itself” and hell is just a state of mind and so very close to Nothing, however varied the expressions of human minds are.

Later we’ll explore whether #3 (heaven will exhibit greater variety of people than hell) is true in The Great Divorce.