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Trade Paperback
240 pages
Mar 2005
Crossway Books

Beyond the Shadowlands: C. S. Lewis on Heaven and Hell

by Wayne Martindale

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



I begin with a confession. I have not always wanted to go to Heaven. I can see now that many myths had unconsciously crowded into my mind: Fuzzy logic conspired with pictures of stuffy mansion houses and ghosts walking on golden (therefore barren and cold) streets. Perhaps my biggest fear, until some time after my undergraduate years, was that Heaven would be boring.

I knew I should want to go to Heaven, but I didn’t. I would have said that I want to go to Heaven when I die, but mainly, I just didn’t want to go to Hell. My problem was a badly warped theology and a thoroughly starved imagination. I knew that in Heaven we would worship God forever. But the only model I had for worship was church, and frankly, I wasn’t in love with church enough to want it to go on through ages of ages, world without end. My mental image was of Reverend Cant droning on forever and ever.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, quite unconsciously, Heaven was an extended, boring church service like those I had not yet learned to appreciate on earth—with this exception: You never got to go home to the roast beef dinner. What a way to anticipate my eternal destiny. But then I read C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. It awakened in me an appetite for something better than roast beef. It aroused a longing to inherit what I was created for: that which would fulfill my utmost longings and engender new longings and fulfill those, too. After reading The Great Divorce, for the first time in my life I felt Heaven to be both utterly real and utterly desirable.

It was a magnificent gift. Small wonder, then, that The Great Divorce has always been one of my favorite books because when I read it, it awakened me to my spiritual anorexia. I was starving for heavenly food and didn’t even know I was hungry.

Since then I’ve read everything Lewis has written—at least everything published—and that reading has only expanded both my understanding of Heaven and Hell and my desire for Heaven. Fewer writers bring to any subject Lewis’s theological sophistication, historical grasp, imaginative range, and clarity of expression. My labor and prayer in this study is that our understanding, wonder, and desire for Christ and his kingdom may take wing and soar toward Heaven and home until the day of his appearing, when all shadows flee before the light of his glory.

The Bible tells us plainly that we are “sojourners and exiles here” and that “our citizenship is in heaven.”1 My problem often is that I don’t desire this heavenly home as though I were made for it and it for me. I often feel quite at home here on earth and dread leaving it. Lewis lived in firm belief that this world is transient and that the unseen world of Heaven is permanent.

Conversely, theologian Wayne Grudem suggests that if some giant computer could print out our thoughts with those taking no account of the spiritual world in black and those with spiritual priorities in red, there would be precious little colored ink.2 I know the problem firsthand. Lewis battles such stereotypes with weapons of logic, analogy, and imaginative worlds that shatter our rigid fortifications and call us to a new home, our true country, and our legitimate King. The fiction is the chariot we ride into that new country, and I use it liberally in this section to illustrate. But before we can even see into the distant promised land clearly, we must strip away the misconceptions that blur our vision.

In thinking about why I have been afraid of going to Heaven or have desired it so little, I have identified seven myths or false ideas I have held about it at one time or another and that Lewis’s thinking has helped dispel. They are seven forms of fear, really, each veiling a common human longing that has its legitimate fulfillment. In chasing these fears out of the jungle into good light, I have discovered that behind each is the one big fear: that some desire would be unfulfilled. If I went God’s way, I might lose out on something. What Lewis has helped me discover is that all desires are, at rock bottom, for Heaven. All of them. “There have been times,” says Lewis, “when I think we do not desire heaven but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else.”3 Even the earthly pleasures are but temporary signposts to the “solid joys” of Heaven. If we dig past the myths and fears, we will find something authentic and exhilarating to put in their place. Just as in the Bible every command is the backside of a promise, so every fear is the backside of a fulfillment.4 Here, then, are my hopes and fears, objectified into seven myths or errors and the truth behind them. Similarly, there are six myths about Hell. I haven’t held all of these, but each clarifies something important about Hell, and each drives me back to the positive heavenly quality that Hell by definition excludes. The fictional glimpses of Hell serve the same purpose, salting our thirst for the living water.

Defying Dante’s precedent of putting Hell first, then Purgatory, and finally Heaven—and defying Lewis’s order in The Problem of Pain—I have put Heaven first. I think Lewis would not object to the rationale. Heaven is our natural home in that God created Heaven for us and us for Heaven. There all human personalities and potentials are fulfilled. Hell, on the other hand, is the dustbin of humanity, all ruins and perversions of what  could have been, its occupants a grotesque parody of humanity. Since Heaven is the normative state (not the same as the normal or usual destination), Hell is better understood as its perversion. And if someone is going to read only a portion, I’d rather it be the part on Heaven. Purgatory I have put last because it is least important and can wait or be dispensed with as interest dictates.

The sections with numbered myths on Heaven and Hell may be read without the sections on fiction and vice versa, though clearing the undergrowth of misconceptions may help in reading the fiction, while the fiction unfolds and dramatizes the themes introduced in the demythologizing, nonfiction sections. Though reading straight through would be ideal, skipping around among the fictional works of most interest should not create much confusion. I have arranged the discussion of Lewis’s fiction by simple chronology. Though contrary to custom, I have followed Lewis’s usual practice in capitalizing Heaven and Hell. In his Pilgrim’s Guide, David Mills provides a further rationale for the practice: “Heaven and Hell are places, like, say, Oxford and Grand Rapids. Or perhaps more to the point, to Lewis’s point, they are destinations.”5

Since Lewis’s books appear in multiple editions, the page numbers in the endnotes won’t correspond to every reader’s copy. To help the reader navigate this troubled water, in addition to the page numbers matching the edition listed in the “Works Cited,” I have included chapter numbers as marker buoys, along with dates for letters, and part and book numbers, where applicable. Chapter and page numbers are separated by a colon. For example, “10:145” in the Introduction’s endnote #3 refers to chapter 10, page 145, and in chapter 1’s endnote 24, “IV.9:174-175” refers to book IV, chapter 9, and pages 174-175.

A comment on the word myth might also be of use. Lewis uses the word freely in all of its meanings, and so have I. Even on the Contents page, I use myth in one of the ordinary senses of false beliefs for the numbered Myths and in “Demythologizing.” But I also use it to mean a story that organizes and carries special meaning in the term “Remythologizing.” See chapter 2, “Making the Myths of Heaven and Hell,” for a fuller discussion.

Finally, it might be useful to summarize here at the outset the essence of Lewis’s thought on Heaven and Hell:

  • Heaven is being in the presence of God and enjoying all good things that flow from his character and creativity.
  • Heaven is utter reality; Hell is nearly nothing.
  • Although Heaven is a definite place, it is more relationship than place (not unlike the experience we have in our homes).
  • All our desires are, at bottom, for Heaven.
  • Heaven is the fulfillment of human potential; Hell is the drying up of human potential.
  • We choose Heaven or Hell, daily becoming someone more suited for Heaven or someone who wouldn’t like the place even if it were offered.
  • Hell is receiving our just desert; Heaven is all undeserved gift.