Influential stories: The Last Battle (or: Losing eternal life)
C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series was an important part of my childhood. Not only did I read the books a number of times, but we also had BBC dramatisations of them that were frequently played.
I think The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was probably my favourite, with its tales of travel, but one particular section of The Last Battle had a much larger impact on me. In fact, arguably it affected my view of the afterlife more than the Bible itself, and the effect of that endures today, years after I rejected the Christadelphian “kingdom”.
As promised, here is the obligatory spoiler alert. I think most of my target audience will either already be familiar with Narnia or won’t want to have anything to do with C.S. Lewis. However, if you should happen not to have read the Narnia series and you still want to read them, this post will contain spoilers.
The end of an era
If the title didn’t already give it away, the first chapter of The Last Battle starts with “In the last days of Narnia”, while the second chapter introduces “the last of the Kings of Narnia” (Tirian).
In previous Narnia stories, children from our world have come to save Narnia from whatever disaster is threatening. This also happens here: The protagonists from The Silver Chair appear about ten minutes after King Tirian summons them.
However, this time the problems run too deep. Each temporary victory is followed by setbacks, and Narnia itself is doomed. As we are reminded several times, all worlds must come to an end (except Aslan’s own country).
After the eponymous last battle (and final defeat), our protagonists are joined by the rest of the “friends of Narnia” from our world. In a Revelation-like scene, Narnia is judged by Aslan and ended.
At first, this seems sad, but then those who survived the judgement discover the Narnia they loved was just a shadow of the “real” Narnia in Aslan’s country. They will be able to stay in Aslan’s country forever.
The money quote
However, it is this quote, the final two paragraphs of the book and of the series, that had an enduring impact on me:
“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”
And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
As a good Christadelphian child, I expected the return of Jesus and the establishment of “the kingdom” on Earth. And I got some specific details of this kingdom from the Bible, in particular it being a time of peace and of harmony with other humans and with nature. I expected an end to tears and sorrow and pain.
However, I think the words from C.S. Lewis had more of an effect on me, precisely because they didn’t have too many details. Even where he does talk about specific experiences or objects, he also says that he can’t properly describe it - you need to be there and experience it for yourself.
What it left me with was the general expectation that the kingdom was going to be wonderful and would continue to get better. Why wouldn’t I want that?
I actually found out later that I’d possibly based this kingdom vision on a heresy: While Narnia was clearly considered good Christian literature by my parents and some of the Christadelphians I knew, others were very vocal in condemning the orthodox Christian views presented, particularly the substitutionary atonement on display in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
The continuing impact
If I had any lingering fear of God’s judgement at the time I quit, I’m pretty sure it was gone within months. What I haven’t got rid of is the feeling that the kingdom was meant to be something wonderful, and that I’ve lost it.
It’s now more than four years since I officially quit religion, and must be at least ten years since I first started to feel doubts. That’s long enough that I start to wonder whether I’ll ever be completely free of that feeling of loss.
This doesn’t stop me criticising the Christadelphian kingdom story, or C.S. Lewis’s “Aslan’s country”. I don’t have any reason to believe in any afterlife, let alone the very specific afterlife visions they presented. There are various ways in which they don’t make sense, and they deserve criticism.
But that wasn’t the hook. Some people I knew had very specific visions of the kingdom, like “Being able to hug a tiger*”. I don’t think I did. Instead, I was left with the general sense that it was going to be wonderful. That seems to have been embedded so deep in my psyche that the specifics don’t have to make sense.
That means it can still feel like something I’ve lost, even though I know I never actually had it. This can fill me with a range of emotions: Not just grief, but also anger at those who use it in their sales pitch and sadness for those who still believe in it and make decisions based on it.
The truth is that I have filled my life with new purpose, and I know that my life is better as a result. This helps with managing the feeling of loss, but I still don’t know if it will ever completely go away. If I’m already feeling low it can make the world feel purposeless, bleak, and empty. Perhaps even reduce me to tears.
* A grass eating tiger, of course.
For one example of this: Last year I watched the 2012 film version of the musical Les Miserables for the first time. I already knew I liked the music, and I already knew that songs like Empty Chairs at Empty Tables were going to affect me.
However, the finale had an impact on me which I didn’t expect, because the words weren’t meant to be so sad:
Take these words, for example:
They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord
They will walk behind the plough-share
They will put away the sword
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward!
Here I recognise clear Biblical language that we applied to the kingdom, while on screen those who have died come back. It’s meant to be uplifting, and I love the music, but the concept just isn’t true.
It goes on:
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
And that’s when I answer “Yes!” Yes, there is a part of me that wants everything to be perfect, just like I was promised. But I have no reason to believe that world exists.
A little apologetics
I clearly read The Last Battle long before reading some of C.S. Lewis’ more serious works. Reading it again, I can see he was using his argument from desire.
Both Narnia and England are part of the “Shadowlands” - the characters only love them because they are shadows of the Real, True Lands in Aslan’s Country:
All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.
However, I don’t find it even remotely logical to think that, just because I like some things about Australia, there must be some perfect Australia somewhere that I will go to when I die.
His professor character also brings up Plato:
It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!
I remember discussing Platonic forms in philosophy of mathematics. The ideal circle is a useful concept. So is the number “2” (not two of something, just the number “2”). But does that mean they really exist in some separate perfect world?
Elsewhere, he expresses the argument from desire like this:
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
But to me this is nothing more than bald assertion. I’ve tried reading several defences of this argument online, but I just can’t get past the fact that it sounds like wish fulfilment and makes no sense.
He doesn’t give us any evidence for this other world’s existence, nor do I think his argument gives us any reason to believe it exists. Just because I want a more perfect version of our current world doesn’t make it exist.
However, in my case I see another problem. Yes, there is a part of me that desires the better world I was promised, but I’m not convinced it’s an in-built desire. I learned to desire it as a child because adults I trusted (including the story-teller C.S. Lewis) told me it existed and was special. If so, it would be rather circular to then use that desire to prove that that world exists.
And yes, we might be so used to being the central observer of our universe that we find it difficult to imagine what it’s like without us at the centre. I know I do.
However, I think in my heart of hearts I know there was a time in the not-so-distant past when I wasn’t conscious and present as the centre of my universe, and there will come a time in the not-so-distant future where I’m dead. After that, I expect life will go on without me being conscious. But even if my consciousness did continue in some form, why should I expect it to be in a hypothetical perfect world?
Meeting those we’ve lost
Another common reason for wishing for an after-life is to be able to see loved ones again. The Last Battle has this too, when King Tirian meets his father in Aslan’s Country.
I have lost close relatives as an adult, and those losses hurt. And I’m assuming that if I don’t die young there will be more such losses, and probably some of them will be people closer to me.
However, I think the timing of the losses made a difference. Even while still officially religious, I’d already had to come to terms with not expecting to see those relatives again.
I certainly got the message as a child that we shouldn’t be too sad when people died, because we expected to see them again. But I’m not sure it had the same impact as looking forward to a perfect future world did. Perhaps if I’d lost close relatives while a child I would have internalised that hope more, and thus felt it more of a loss having to let go of it.
What about those who didn’t make it?
Being able to meet again those you love is all very well, but what about if they didn’t make it? C.S. Lewis presents “Aslan’s Country” as a place of perfect happiness - but how can it be without these people? I don’t know I ever really considered this as a believer.
In the case of Susan, C.S. Lewis seems to end up just dismissing the question - and her along with it. When they were first crowned, Aslan said “Once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia”, but by The Last Battle that idea seems to have gone.
She gets about half a page of discussion when Tirian asks about her. Peter simply says “My sister Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia”. The others expand on this: It seems she’s trying to be too “grown-up” in a way C.S. Lewis disapproves of (I don’t think it’s coincidental that she’s female…). Then Peter says “Well, don’t let’s talk about that now. Look! Here are lovely fruit-trees. Let us taste them.”
And that’s it. She’s never mentioned again. Peter, Edmund, and Lucy continue to be mentioned frequently. Their parents - who have never been to Narnia - make it to Aslan’s Country. They all conveniently died at the same time in a railway accident, so there’s no waiting. Instead, they all live happily ever after.
Not only is Susan not mentioned, but her parents are only called the parents of Peter, Edmund, and Lucy. She has been erased from the narrative.
I never realised how much of a problem that was until I read Neil Gaiman’s The Problem of Susan. I now think that story is almost required reading for anyone who, like me, didn’t consider the implications for Susan. In one stroke of the author’s pen she had lost her entire family and would be left to face a hostile world alone. Did she lose herself in wild parties and being “grown up”? Perhaps not.
And what do we see? The author didn’t care. The Great Lion Aslan didn’t care (he wanted his chosen ones to be happy - who cares about those left behind?). Her family may have cared at one point, but it seems she was very quickly forgotten.
So where does that leave me? I know my relatives are upset by the idea of me being excluded from the wondrous kingdom. It may not be mentioned often, but it’s there. And I really don’t know what mental contortions allow them to see me as a decent person worth spending time with as well as someone deserving future punishment for rejecting God.
Re-reading The Last Battle just makes me wonder: How are they supposed to achieve the perfect happiness of the kingdom? Am I meant to be erased from the narrative, like Susan? Are they meant to forget I ever existed? Or are they meant to still remember me, but without any more pain or regret because God knows best?
I’m not sure which of those options I like least.
So far, I’ve talked mostly about feelings of loss, but it isn’t all bad. I believe I’ve found reality, and that’s much more valuable than a perfect future that never actually happens. I know that our world isn’t perfect, but I’ve found it can be enough.
Since quitting religion I’ve been more aware of my mortality - but I’ve also been more aware of the changing of the seasons, of the turning of the years, and of the many opportunities that religion didn’t leave me time for. My choices have come to matter more, because I can’t just expect to magically catch up on the things I missed in a future afterlife. And so I’ve also had to learn that making choices also means letting other possibilities go, sometimes for ever.
In The Problem of Susan, Neil Gaiman captures my current attitude so much better than C.S. Lewis ever could. His professor dreams that she’s reading her own obituary, and “it has been a good life”. And that’s what I want: I don’t expect my life to be perfect now, nor am I willing to sacrifice myself now in preparation for the perfect after-life that I no longer expect. But I want to be able to feel satisfied with the choices I’ve made, and to feel that it has been a good life.
However, this isn’t just about me. While I don’t expect to see again those I’ve lost, I continue to remember them, and they continue to have an influence on my life. In the same way, I would hope to have a continuing influence for good on those I care about that I leave behind.
I completely reject C.S. Lewis’ worldview, and believe I’ve replaced it with a healthier worldview. That doesn’t mean I’m magically free from its influence.
That vision of a perfect after-life, mixed with ideas I had of “the kingdom” and eternal life, definitely affected me. I’d been taught them from an early age, and they seem to have buried themselves deep in my mind.
However, I still feel I’m better off realising it’s not true than continuing to look forward to a perfect future life that will never come.