Freely given & gratefully received
Apr 27, 2023
‘What do you keep on arguing for? I’m only telling you the sort of chap I am. I only want my rights. I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.’
‘Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking & nothing can be bought.’
This is one of my favorite exchanges in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. Here the “Big Man” (the first speaker) is insisting on his own decency in his earthly life—ironic considering the reader is introduced to the Big Man when he beats a man up to take his place in the line for the bus to Heaven—& how Heaven is therefore his “by rights.” Len (his guide to Heaven & apparently a former employee of the Big Man’s) keeps trying to dissuade him from thinking about Heaven as a matter of deserts.
This is something I encounter, semester after semester, in my students’ thinking about Heaven & Hell: it must be a matter of what one deserves. But as Len himself notes, no one in Heaven gets what they deserve: “It’s not so bad as that. I haven’t got my rights, or I should not be here. You will not get yours either. You’ll get something far better. Never fear.” No one is really good enough to actually deserve the joys of Heaven; this is not so much a comment on the smallness of human goodness as a comment on the largeness of Heaven’s joys.
If Heaven is a matter of being eternally enfolded into the love of God—into the love that is God—then it cannot be the case that Heaven is a matter of just deserts. That’s not only because humans have a self-destructive tendency to turn from love when they encounter it (Len again: “You weren’t a decent man & you didn’t do your best. We none of us were & none of us did. Lord bless you, it doesn’t matter”), but also because that’s not how love works. Love is not something earned or merited: it is a gift, freely given & gratefully received.
To think about Heaven as something someone earns—as a reward for good behavior—is to go about it all wrong. But if we think about Heaven instead as God’s offer of self in love, well, now we’re on to something.