This short book is Lewis’ admittedly fictional account—he was inspired by some sci-fi stories he’d read—of a dream/vision of Heaven and Hell. The story itself is a bit complex, though beautifully written. (Though, keep in mind, Lewis wrote his books sixty-some years ago as an Irishman in England, and the language he uses reflects that.)
The story, however, is merely the vehicle by which Lewis offers the reader some thoughts and ideas he’s had concerning the afterlife. One of the passages I liked best was one in a woman, beautiful and bright, in Heaven tries to convince her husband, a twisted and dwarfish soul, to remain with her in Heaven where he can grow and flourish and be freed from his misery. He rejects her love, the love of Heaven, and the little bit of joy he had tasted in her presence. He tells her that if she really loved him then she would come back with him to Hell. This, of course, does not happen, and the dwarfish figure vanishes, consumed by its own misery and self-pity.
Lewis and his spiritual guide then have a conversation about the scene where Lewis finds it hard that the woman wasn’t touched by her husband’s misery. The love and joy that flowed through the woman, in the face of such suffering from a loved-one, seemed somehow wrong:
‘…Is it really tolerable that she should be untouched by his misery, even his self-made misery?….What some say on Earth is that the final loss of one soul gives the lie to all the joy of those who are saved.’
‘Ye see it does not.’
‘I feel in a way that it ought to.’
‘That sounds very merciful: but see what lurks behind it.’
‘The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven….Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it: or else for ever and ever the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves. I know it has a grand sound to say ye’ll accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside. But watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the universe.’
To be honest, I had no idea what that phrase “Dog in a Manger” meant. After a short trip to Wikipedia, I found out the basic idea of the phrase is of someone who guards something of value from others, preventing them from enjoying it, while at the same time refusing to enjoy it himself. Thus, the point is that some will never open themselves up to the love of God—no matter what some might say (Matthew 23:13).
I could go one writing about the various lessons communicated in this book, but the most pertinent one for me was this: Heaven is vastly confounding to the finite mind, and it is good that it is so. If we were now able to understand Heaven in such a way as to say, “It’s like this and that and so on…” then it must not be much of an eternal paradise. The Heaven that Lewis describes is one that is more real, more layered, and more complex than could be understood in a single visit, especially when that visitor is observing Heaven with a still finite of the first creation. If Heaven is for Real is a true account of visiting Heaven, then Heaven must be a fairly simplistic and un-challenging place.
Paul experienced a reality so startling and shattering that he was forbidden to relate the experience to anyone. John was only allowed to relate certain vignettes from his peek behind the veil and even these passages of Scripture are layered in apocalyptic imagery, poetry, symbolism, and incomprehensible prophecy. To point to these passages as literal statements of how Heaven will be at The End—for the Heaven in which we will spend eternity with God after the war has finally been won has not yet been revealed—is to assume too much about the various layers that comprise the text. This is a mistake that many “I went to Heaven” stories make: their Heaven is too small.