Monday, July 25

Book Review: Beyond the Shadowlands

C. S. Lewis on Heaven and Hell by Wayne Martindale, reviewed as part of a program at The Diet of Bookworms.

In my younger years, I read almost all of the popular books C. S. Lewis wrote; and in the last several years, I've given many of them another run-through as my own children grow interested in them. Circumstances, too, have caused me to spend a lot of time recently thinking about the afterlife. I was pleased, then, to be given the chance to read and review a book that parallels my own interests so closely.

What did I learn? Well, for one thing, I understood more fully how extensively my reading of Lewis influenced my own view of the afterlife, particularly when it comes to how I envision heaven. For a long time, I've considered the fleeting experiences of true loveliness that we have in this life to be brief glimpses into the heavenly realm; and the longing we have because those glimpses are lost so quickly is, deep down, a longing for the everlasting beauty of heaven. Heaven will give us what we long for; and the breathtaking beauty of a wilderness landscape, or a haunting piece of music, or even those moments when husband and wife understand and love each other so deeply that it hurts, point not to the beautiful wilderness itself or the music or the love, but beyond those things to the reality of heaven, when we will experience forever, always, steadily, the quality of perfect fulfillment for which those moments are but the briefest hints. These glimpses of heaven and the longing they cause are a theme found throughout Lewis's work.

Many of the other ideas I have about heaven may well have come from Lewis's writings, too. One of the things about myths and mythical stories is that we learn things without being so aware of it. They speak to us at a level below (or, more likely, above) the analytical one, and something that would have taken pages to explain to us in a didactic sort of writing--and even then we would not have gotten the heart of the matter--we understand fully, deeply, within our souls, with just one image. That's the greatest strength of imaginative stories: Through them we see and feel and know what we might not understand so completely otherwise.

And that's where the danger of mythical stories lies as well. It's easy for an imaginative image of things heavenly or hellish to become part of how we see the real heaven and hell without any thought on our part as to whether they are actually a helpful sort of image. Even when the image was meant to convey something right about heaven or hell, we may give little thought to whether the idea we carry away from that image is the correct one. For instance, in our mind's eye, we may see heaven as streets of gold and white angels and harps. If we take from that image the idea that heaven is a rich place, a pure place, and a joyful place, then the image has served us well enough, for it has conveyed real truth about the real heaven to us. If we see the image of golden streets, angels and harps, and think "How unbearably boring!", then the image has not worked to give us a right idea about the real heaven, which will be the most exciting place ever--the sort of place for which all the Christmas celebrations and birthday parties and thrilling trips of our life have been the palest shadows.

Martindale shows us how C. S. Lewis has remythologized heaven and hell in his work. Lewis's work can help us see which of the ideas we have about the afterlife are wrong, and give us new myths to help us understand things more as they might be. Of course, we need to examine Lewis's myths as well to see if they are helping us grasp heaven as it really is or not. Martindale points to a few places where Lewis might have let what pleased his imagination stand over against what might be reasonably gleaned from scripture. Sometimes, perhaps, Lewis too easily let his love for an idea persuade him of the rightness of it.

There are times, too, when Martindale seems to accept the correctness of Lewis's thoughts when I wouldn't. For instance, there's the idea that predestination is simply historical events seen from the viewpoint of a timeless* God, who sees all of history laid out before him in one glance, and things that from our viewpoint are yet to come into reality are forever existing from his vantage point. It seems to me that this idea misses the boat because it misses the point that God intends to convey when he tells us that something was planned before the foundation of the world. When scripture tells us that something was predestined or planned outside of time, it is not telling us merely that God views that event "timelessly," and thus it is really a done deal before (or outside of) the experience of it by timelocked creatures; rather, it is also telling us something about the logical cause of that event. That event happens in time because God planned it, and God's plan brings it to pass. There may be other causes as well, like the choices of creatures in time, but the first cause is God's thought.

However, this is just a very minor quibble in comparison to the strength of the whole of this book. If you've read several books by C. S. Lewis, you'll probably find this book fascinating. All of his ideas about the afterlife gathered together in one book makes for a thrilling read. You'll be reminded why you long for the real heaven--a longing that is, above everything else, a longing for God himself. If you haven't read much from C. S. Lewis, I suggest you remedy that as soon as you can, and then read this book. We would all do well to think more on the substance of heaven and hell, for those who see the reality of the unseen--who, like the ancients, "desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one"--are those who live more nobly--more faithfully--upon this earth.

*The quibbler must quibble some more. I don't much like to use the word "timeless" in regards to God. He is timeless if all one means by that is that God exists eternally. He is not timeless, if that means that time exists separately from him; rather, God encompasses time. He's beyond it and he includes it. He also works within it.

You'll find more reviews of this book at the Diet of Bookworms.
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