The Imagery of Heaven in C.S. Lewis

Jerry L. Walls
Wednesday, August 31st 2016
Sep/Oct 2016

Several years ago, one of my students wrote a paper comparing C. S. Lewis’s account of heaven with that of a noted theologian. He remarked that while their formal beliefs were essentially the same, the writings of the theologian left him cold, while reading Lewis made him actually want to go to heaven.

The power of Lewis’s writings about heaven is largely due to his ability not only to make a rational case for it, but also to picture heaven in memorable images that awaken our deepest yearnings. It’s a theme that runs through all of his various writings, but the imagery of heaven is especially powerful in two of his fictional works—namely, his theological fantasy The Great Divorce and The Last Battle, the final volume of The Chronicles of Narnia. Even when Lewis is not imaging heaven for us in his stories, he taps into our inescapable longing for eternal joy. His chapter on hope in Mere Christianity diagnoses our restless quest for deep and lasting happiness as nothing less than a desire for heaven. We are hardwired to want heaven, even though many people do not recognize that is what is really driving them and the various activities they pursue.

We see this truth brought to life near the very end of The Last Battle when the children are going deeper into Aslan’s country, a place of indescribable beauty and sensuous delight. The fruit was so beautiful that they initially thought it could not possibly be for them, that surely they were not permitted to pluck it. To their great delight, however, they learn that here everything is allowed (unlike the forbidden tree in Eden). The fruit, moreover, is so delicious that it makes the freshest grapefruit seem dull and the sweetest strawberries sour. Jewel the unicorn sums up what everybody was feeling and experiencing as they went “further up, and further in”:

I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.1

The claim that “this is my real country” represents another important thrust in Lewis’s writings on heaven, one aimed at those inclined to dismiss the doctrine as a matter of mere wishful thinking that has no basis in reality. To appreciate this point, let us turn to The Great Divorce, which narrates a story of a busload of people who take a ride from the grey town (hell) to heaven, where they are invited to stay. While common sense might suggest that all these fortunate passengers would jump at the chance to leave hell and stay in heaven, most of them do not. Instead, most of them, for one reason or another, choose to return to hell. A big part of what makes this book so powerful is Lewis’s ability to make psychological and moral sense of this choice.

Why do most of the characters return? The answer, in short, is that in their current condition, they find heaven unpleasant. They are shadowy, insubstantial creatures who live in a world of illusion that is spun by their sinful desires, and they have grown comfortable in that world. They are so fragile they cannot even walk on the grass without hurting their feet. They are assured, however, that if they are willing to stay, they will become more solid, their feet will thicken up, and in time they will adapt and be delightfully at home.

Here is where Lewis offers one of his most telling definitions of our subject: “Heaven is reality itself.”2 This wonderfully concise definition of heaven is offered in the narrative by George MacDonald, the nineteenth-century writer whose works so profoundly affected Lewis, and whom Lewis honors by giving him the main role in this tale. This suggestive definition implies that reality is far more expansive and remarkable than we could ever guess from our present limited experience. Shortly after arriving in heaven, the narrator relates that he “had the sense of being in a larger space, perhaps even a larger sort of space” than he had ever known before, and that he had “got ‘out’ in some sense which made the Solar System itself seem an indoor affair.”3

Now the claim that “heaven is reality itself” is hardly obviously true for one simple reason: There are lots of ways reality might be such that coming to terms with it would be better described as hell. When people say, “Come on, you have to face reality,” they are typically not thinking of reality in positive terms. And indeed, if ultimate reality was destructive or demoralizing or ugly, or merely blind and impersonal matter, then it would not be heaven to know it fully and truthfully.

So what is it about the very essence of reality that makes it heaven? We receive further insight a page or so later in a passage where MacDonald is characterizing the fundamental essence of the choice of those who go to hell. He invokes Milton’s famous line ascribed to Satan, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” and then goes on to elaborate: “There is always something they prefer to joy—that is, to reality.”4 So the equation of heaven with reality is taken a step further in the equation of reality with joy. Heaven is reality and reality is joy, so heaven is joy.

But why should ultimate reality be joy? Perhaps the best clue we have in this book is in a later chapter that features one of the most radiant of the saints in heaven—namely, Sarah Smith, a woman of no earthly reputation who has attained immortal splendor by a life of extraordinary love. She is accompanied by a host of Bright Spirits who sing a song in honor of her. The first lines of the song are both striking and revealing: “The Happy Trinity is her home: nothing can trouble her joy.”5

The phrase “Happy Trinity” calls to mind Lewis’s discussion of this distinctive picture of God in Mere Christianity. There Lewis points out that the popular truth that God is love in his very essence is an implicitly Trinitarian claim; because if God did not contain more than one person, he could not have been love before he created the world. Indeed, Lewis claims that the most important thing to know about the relationship between the persons of the Trinity is that it is a relationship of love: “The Father delights in His Son; the Son looks up to His Father.”6 Lewis elaborates on this delightful relationship of love with colorful and appealing images, describing God as “a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.”7

This explains what it means to say that Sarah Smith is at home in the Happy Trinity and why her happiness is so profound and secure. The bedrock reality is the three-person God, whose delighted love is an unquenchable source of vitality, joy, and pleasure. To be at home in such a reality is heaven indeed.

It is important to emphasize another aspect of heaven that has been recovered in recent theological and biblical studies—namely, that heaven is not a matter of the immortality of the soul in some sort of ethereal, otherworldly “spiritual” existence. Rather, it is about the redemption of the entire created order, and ultimately that we will be at home with God in resurrected bodies on a fully renewed earth. This account of heaven is well represented in contemporary evangelical circles by Randy Alcorn’s excellent book Heaven, which strongly defends a robustly physical view of the life to come, complete with the full range of human society and activity. It is notable that Lewis is quoted dozens of times throughout the book, and many of these quotes come from The Chronicles of Narnia.

Alcorn quotes at length the passage near the end of The Last Battle that describes the characters from the book delightfully exploring their “real country” that they had been seeking their whole lives. He emphasizes the continuity between the real Narnia they are now experiencing and the old Narnia they now realize they loved because it “looked a little like this.” The mountains in Aslan’s country, for instance, remind them of the mountains in old Narnia, but here they are “more like the real thing.”8 Again, Aslan’s country is “reality itself,” but there is continuity with the old Narnia.

Alcorn gives us a good gauge of Lewis’s influence on contemporary evangelical thinking on this issue when he writes:

Lewis captured the biblical theology of the old and New Earth, and the continuity between them, better than any theologian I have read. Did you catch his message? Our world is a Shadowlands, a copy of something that once was, Eden, and yet will be, the New Earth.9

And once again, Lewis accomplished this through stories that awaken our imagination and stir our desires for the happiness that eludes us in this world.

It is worth noting, however, that one aspect of Lewis’s thinking about heaven has not gained much traction among evangelicals, or perhaps the church at large. In his view, for us to get into heaven and to enjoy being there, it is not enough simply to be forgiven of one’s sins and to have them “under the blood.” The deeper issue is not merely one’s sinful acts but the sinful, self-centered dispositions that motivate those acts. Unless our sinful dispositions and attitudes are transformed, heaven would not be heaven to us, as Lewis depicts in the various characters from the grey town who find heaven painful and unpleasant. What Lewis pictures for us is the theological truth that we can only enjoy the delights of intimate fellowship with a holy God when all sin has been purged from our hearts and minds.

The same point is depicted near the end of The Last Battle by the dwarfs who “refused to be taken in.” While they have entered the same stable door, which turned out to be the door to Aslan’s country for the children, their experience is altogether different. What the children experience as a country of indescribable beauty and delight is to them a dark, smelly stable. Sweet-smelling flowers, for instance, are thrust under their noses, but all they can smell is filthy stable litter.10

Coming to terms with “reality” can be painful, since it requires thorough repentance and moral transformation. Lewis took this so seriously that he affirmed a version of the doctrine of purgatory to make sense of how God “purges” our sinful tendencies to prepare us to enjoy heaven.

It is important to note that Lewis viewed purgatory through Protestant eyes: he thought it was fully compatible with the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone. After we have been justified, the work of sanctification remains. So Lewis believed that the point of purgatory is not punishment for sins that have not been properly repented, but rather to finish the sanctification process and perfect the holiness without which no one can see the Lord.11 In his words, that is what thickens us up, hardens our feet, clarifies our sight, unstops our noses, and sharpens our sense of taste so we can relish reality and exult forever in its endless delights.

Jerry L. Walls is scholar in residence in the department of philosophy at Houston Baptist University. His recent books include Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory (Brazos, 2015) and Tarantino and Theology, coedited with Jonathan L. Walls (Gray Matter Books, 2015).

  1. C. S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 760.
  2. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 70.
  3. The Great Divorce, 20.
  4. The Great Divorce, 71.
  5. The Great Divorce, 134.
  6. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 174.
  7. Mere Christianity, 175.
  8. The Chronicles of Narnia, 759.
  9. Randy Alcorn, Heaven (Wheaton: Tyndale, 2004), 239.
  10. The Chronicles of Narnia, 742–48.
  11. See Jerry L. Walls, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things That Matter Most (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2015), 91–116.
Wednesday, August 31st 2016

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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