Although C. S. Lewis is considered one of the world’s foremost apologists of the twentieth century, we would do well to remember that without George MacDonald, we might not have Lewis. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis explains that his imagination was “baptized” by MacDonald’s Phantastes.[1] Reading this novel set Lewis on the path to recovering the Christian faith in which he was raised and his eventual re-conversion to Christianity; he stated he “had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.”[2] Lewis characterized MacDonald as a genius in mythopoeic art, and so great was MacDonald’s influence on him that Lewis stated he “regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.”[3] Lewis further noted, “[T]o speak plainly I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself. Hence his Christlike union of tenderness and severity. Nowhere else outside the New Testament have I found terror and comfort so intertwined.”[4] Given MacDonald’s godly character and these firm but loving qualities, it is perhaps unsurprising that in his 1946 novel The Great Divorce, Lewis featured MacDonald as the guide to the unnamed narrator, who is remarkably similar to Lewis. The narrator takes a bus ride up to Heaven, where he encounters a number of souls who refuse to give up their sinful attachments, which results in their rejection of Heaven. Acting as the Beatrice to the narrator’s Dante, George MacDonald elucidates to him the other souls’ reasons for their seemingly inexplicable choice to remain in Hell rather than embrace Heaven.

First, we must examine MacDonald’s explanation of Heaven as truth and reality and Hell as falsehood. We then see the importance of our choices in the process of salvation and dying to ourselves. Finally, we see the benefits of choosing to remain in God’s truth and His purifying effect on the entirety of our lives.

The Lies of Hell and the Truth of Heaven

Jeremiah 17:9 teaches, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick,” and we see this condition on full display in The Great Divorce.[5] 2nd Corinthians 6:14 asks, “For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”[6] Both of these verses are embodied in MacDonald’s teachings on the nature of reality, joy, Heaven, and salvation, which are bound together and cannot be separated.

MacDonald explains to the narrator that the only true reality is Heaven because “[a]ll that is fully real is Heavenly.”[7] After the narrator puzzles over why the lost souls he sees choose to return to Hell, MacDonald notes that “[t]here is always something they [lost souls] prefer to joy — that is, to reality.”[8] Thus, we see that accepting God joins together Heaven, reality, and joy for the saved individual.

Our “deceitful” and “desperately sick” hearts, as Jeremiah describes them, must be cleansed of original sin and renewed by Christ before we may attain Heaven’s glory. Like the one soul who agrees to stay in Heaven and must subject to death the wicked lizard whispering sinful thoughts into his mind, we must reject and repent of our sin. Upon accepting Christ as our Savior, we exchange our imperfect will for that of God, and the light of Heaven floods our lives and reveals our reality as joy. We see that God’s reality is so robust that it is painful for those who have not accepted Him. The narrator and the other souls who have just disembarked from the bus are as ephemeral as ghosts yet experience pain from the stabs of the sharp blades of grass beneath their feet. It is only upon fully accepting God that the ghost-souls begin to “thicken” into solid human beings, like those saved who are already in Heaven, and can interact normally with the flora and fauna in Heaven. For much of the novel, the narrator must lean on MacDonald to be physically able to travel in Heaven and witness the other souls’ choices. The narrator sees a “Solid One,” that is, one of the already saved individuals, attempting to convince a lost soul who is vainly worried about her ghostly appearance to remain in Heaven. The Solid One, exasperated, at last asks, “Friend…. Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?”[9] Thus, we see that we who are redeemed in Christ can no longer be self-centered but now focus on God as Creator and Provider. Because God is the full reality, nothing less than the truth remains concealed in Heaven as its light exposes all that falls short. God’s reality in Heaven acts as a floodlight exposing and obliterating darkness, particularly that of our corrupted human nature, and forces us to recognize and confess the many flaws of our fallen state.

Conversely, we also see that if we take seriously the idea of God as the ens realissimum, or the “realest thing,” then we must also consider Hell to be the ultimate unreality. When the narrator inquires of MacDonald whether Heaven and Hell are “only states of mind,” MacDonald strongly denies the claim and states that Heaven “is reality itself.”[10] Hell, however, “is a state of mind . . . And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind — is, in the end, Hell.”[11] This does not mean that Hell does not exist as an actual, physical location; Jesus refers to it as a “fiery furnace” where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”[12] Rather, it means that Hell is the place where the full reality of God is subverted to the greatest extent possible in its denial of the reality of our fallen state. It is the place where the deceit begun by the father of lies himself, Satan, reigns supreme and where lies cloak the land. Our deceitful hearts lie not only about their own fallen nature, but also about God and the full joy and reality we experience in Christ when we choose to surrender to Him.

Why would we prefer the shadows and tainted unreality of sin to the ultimate reality of joy in God? As MacDonald notes to the narrator, there is something lost souls always “insist on keeping even at the price of misery.”[13] Like a child who has “the sulks,” as MacDonald describes it, we cling to our selfish desires and refuse to believe God can give us something better.[14] The narrator sees a number of lost souls reject Heaven for a variety of supposedly noble reasons or causes — a painter who has grown to love the process more than the light he originally loved and wanted to share with the world; a bishop who is enamored with theological speculation and inquiry to the point of rejecting Christ as the ultimate truth in favor of continuing to search for it; and, perhaps most tragically, a mother who longs to see her long-deceased son more than she desires God Himself. According to MacDonald, among adults, such a feeling “has a hundred fine names — Achilles’ wrath and Coriolanus’ grandeur, Revenge and Injured Merit and Self-Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride.”[15] Thus, we lie to ourselves that these sins are somehow respectable and proper for us to keep close and coddle when they in fact prevent us from accepting God. But just as shadows disguise truth and reality, so they also cloak human imperfections, which explains why our fallen nature would prefer Hell’s shadows to Heaven’s reality. It is easier to retreat more fully into sin than to acknowledge Heaven and face its blinding light; it is “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”[16] But once we reign in Hell, we forfeit Heaven’s joy for despair.

As the mere shadow of truth, Hell is automatically the reverse of Heaven in all respects. Heaven is joy: Hell is despair. Heaven is reality: Hell is a deceitful state of mind. Heaven is God and community with Him and other believers: Hell is the individual and utter loneliness. When we reject God, then, the full reality of Heaven we could experience vanishes with Him. After we cast aside Heaven, nothing of reality, including joy, can remain, and we shape the remnants into fiction. Hell as a flawed state of mind fictionalizes reality that would have been joy in Heaven into joy’s opposite, despair. Because God cannot exist in such a fabrication centered on the self, we become consumed by our sinful desires instead of being joyfully focused on God. As MacDonald explains to the narrator, “[There are] those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”[17] Hell’s ultimate deception is to trap us in despair after succumbing to our corrupting sins rather than submitting to God’s perfect will.

“May I Kill It?”: The Importance of Our Self-Choice

The lizard of lust is the most striking example of this deception in The Great Divorce. It whispers temptations into the ear of the only soul, or “Ghost,” who eventually chooses to remain in Heaven. In doing so, the lizard attempts to trap the Ghost into believing that without him, the Ghost’s life would be miserable. The angel, or the “Burning One” who sears the Ghost when he comes too close, informs the Ghost that to make the lizard quiet, it must be killed. The Ghost initially refuses, believing the “operation” will kill him despite the angel’s assurances to the contrary. He agrees once he realizes he will never be free of the lizard unless it dies. The angel seizes the lizard, scorching it and the Ghost, and breaks the lizard’s back, leaving the Ghost shrieking in agony. After a few moments, however, the Ghost rises into a magnificent man, and the dead lizard transforms into a majestic stallion. The man, “his face [shining] with tears,” leaps onto the horse’s back and “like a shooting star” they ride off into the mountains ever present in the distance of Heaven and they “vanished, bright themselves, into the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning.”[18]

Critical to understanding this scene is the angel’s repeated question of “May I kill it?”[19] The angel explains that he “cannot kill it against your will. Is it impossible. Have I your permission?”[20] The Ghost’s choice to allow the angel to kill the lizard is crucial. As MacDonald explains to the narrator, “All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”[21] As Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.”[22] Here, Jesus commands us to ask, seek, and knock — that is, to pursue God actively.

Thus, we see that our own choice is necessary for our salvation. We must give God our permission to burn away and kill our own lizards. But also vital to understand is that once we give over those lizards — that is, our own selfish desires — they are, just as we are, raised to walk in a new life. The Ghost’s lizard of lust dies, yes, but it dies and rises into a glorious stallion: the angel’s burning touch has purified it of the sin that had overtaken it, and the new man rides off on it deeper into Heaven. Jesus teaches that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”[23] Similarly, MacDonald tells the narrator, “Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country: but none will rise again until it has been buried…. Ye must ask, if the risen body even of appetite is as grand a horse as ye saw, what would the risen body of maternal love or friendship be?”[24] That is, if even what we would consider a base love can be transformed into something magnificent by Christ, how wonderful will those loves be that we consider already noble in their natural state?

The Light of Heaven

If we make this choice to crucify our sinful selves in Christ, then we are resurrected into a glorious new life and receive the full benefits of Heaven’s reality and joy. If Heaven is light, then it acts as a cleansing light on our lives — and, as MacDonald explains, it works not only prospectively, but also retrospectively. MacDonald explains,

[B]oth good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. Not only this valley but all their earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. Not only the twilight in that town, but all their life on Earth too, will then be seen by the damned to have been Hell. That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say “Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,” and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.[25]

Both the Blessed and the Lost can “speak truly” because one chose truth, and the other, lies. We cannot fully comprehend and appreciate our experiences while in the midst of life. Thus, once beyond it, our choices between Hell and Heaven either shroud reality or unveil God’s reality. Hell’s shadows, like a curtain drawn over the sun, limit faulty human vision further and darken the happiest experiences into despair because Hell wreaths all it touches in gloom and transforms it into the falsehood of despair. For the saved, on the other hand, MacDonald explains, “what happens to them is best described as the opposite of a mirage. What seemed, when they entered it, to be the vale of misery turns out, when they look back, to have been a well; and where present experience saw only salt deserts, memory truthfully records that the pools were full of water.”[26] Heaven’s dazzling light enhances our weak vision into 20/20 vision and reveals God’s actions in our lives, even the episodes in which we despaired, as being part of God’s perfect plan for reality and our joy.

Thus, we must understand that our choices are retroactive. The shadows of Hell serve only to deceive us further into misery, whereas the light and truth of Heaven has the power to transform even a devastation in our lives and allow us to see God’s hand working in our lives for joy. We cannot cling to even the slightest bit of Hell without it tainting our souls, but Heaven gives us back in a purified, resurrected form what we sacrifice for God. We must ask, seek, and knock. We must not choose to live in the lies and deception of Hell, but rather the truth and reality of Heaven.

The only question that remains is, when Jesus asks to give our lizards over to Him, has He our permission? Will we allow Hell to deceive us, or will we allow him to transform our lizards into stallions?

Citation Information

Megan Joy Rials, “The Lizard or the Stallion? George MacDonald on the Retroactivity of Heaven and Hell in The Great Divorce,” An Unexpected Journal: George MacDonald 3, no. 4. (Advent 2020), 223-236.

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[1] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Orlando: Harcourt, 1955), 181.

[2] Ibid.

[3] C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald: An Anthology (New York: HarperOne, 1946), xxxii, xxxvii.

[4] Ibid., xxxv.

[5] Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV).

[6] 2 Cor. 6:14.

[7] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperOne, 1973), 70.

[8] Ibid., 71.

[9] Ibid., 62.

[10] Ibid., 70.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Matt. 13:41-42.

[13] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 71.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 72.

[16] Ibid., 71.

[17] Ibid., 75.

[18] Ibid., 112.

[19] Ibid., 108.

[20] Ibid., 108.

[21] Ibid., 75.

[22] Matt. 7:7.

[23] John 12:24-25.

[24] Lewis, The Great Divorce, 105, 114-15.

[25] Ibid., 69.

[26] Ibid., 70.