Recently I was drawn back into a discussion on one of the best books ever, well, best books, anyway, by C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce. Still, one of my old time favorites. The book, simply, is a story that reflects on the realities of heaven and hell. The narrator finds himself in a “Grey Town,” a joyless, very grim city, where it is always raining—even indoors. In the story, Lewis describes hell as an ever living, separation from God, moving further and further away from God’s love.
Yet, it is even worse in Lewis’ depiction: Hell is also moving further and further away from each other. Isolation becomes the destiny of Hell. Dante picks up a similar track with his depiction of the circles of hell, in that the lowest, furthermost away from God, the last and most inner circle of hell is not one of fire, but of ice, a frozen lake where the rays of God’s love are completely gone.
This is truly a masterful depiction (from both Lewis and Dante) of what Hell is like. So often, people with very shallow understandings of Christianity like to say of hell, “Well, at least my friends will be there.” There is a problem with this: if heaven and hell are best explained by the gospel and of heaven where the gospel will be revealed in its fulness, hell, then, is just the opposite.
The Lewis-Dante depictions are not unrealistic nor far fetched. If the gospel moves us first toward the the payment for sin—which is separation from God—and then, even now, draws a community together so that they may love one another, then Hell is the total opposite, the final separation from God and His love and separation from one another. No wonder much of the New Testament pictures the outworking of the cross as fellowship among strangers and unequals, a fellowship where no one is to be isolated.
The church, a local church in a place, is the picture of God come in Christ, which is a way of seeing and experiencing heaven on earth, even if only in part. Fellowship matters. Church matters. If you are trying to live a Christianity apart from church, there is no way around it, you are in a living hell (living totally the opposite of the gospel). On a path of isolation and separation from God. Sounds harsh. Certainly. But this notion that a Christianity apart from a local body of Christ is a false, hellish notion. No wonder the writer of Hebrews (which I believe was Luke) says:
We, now, live in “Grey Town” as we try to make our way upon the earth. And, so much of earth's social and cultural systems are to drive us toward separation from one another. Yet, God has set up in the midst of these “Grey Towns” small enclaves of heaven, certainly not perfect but always perfecting the maturity of the saints and strengthening the fellowship of believers so they may, indeed, one day fully know Christ and fully experience the fellowship of the saints—and that will be heaven.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.