The Mixed Blessing of C. S. Lewis (Part 2)

(Read Part 1.)

As far back as 1963 Martyn Lloyd-Jones warned that C. S. Lewis had a defective view of salvation—and with good reason. Let’s take a look at several soteriological errors in Lewis’ theology.

The Substitutionary Atonement

In Mere Christianity Lewis was clear that he rejected the substitutionary atonement:

Now before I became a Christian I was under the impression that the first thing Christians had to believe was one particular theory as to what the point of this dying [Christ’s] was. According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem to me quite so immoral and so silly as it used to…. Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works.11

While Lewis reframes this doctrine to make it sound a bit ridiculous he is nevertheless clear that he is not a fan of what is considered one of the fundamentals of the faith. That Christ died in our place, taking upon Himself our sin and satisfying the righteous wrath of God is not an “immoral” or “silly” theory—it is the very heart of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

Justification & Sacramentalism

J. I. Packer lamented that Lewis never mentioned “justification by faith when speaking of the forgiveness of sins, and his apparent hospitality to baptismal regeneration.”12 In Mere Christianity Lewis wrote,

There are three things that spread the Christ-life to us: baptism, belief, and…the Lord’s supper…. And perhaps that explains one or two things. It explains why this new life is spread not only by purely mental acts like belief, but by bodily acts like baptism and Holy Communion…. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us.13

Lewis obviously had a faulty, sacramental view of justification which only naturally leads to the next problem.

Eternal Security

Lewis believed that a Christian could lose his salvation: “There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians…. A Christian can lose the Christ-life which has been put into him, and he has to make efforts to keep it.”14

The mission of Screwtape was to bring a young man who has just become a Christian back to the devil’s fold. “I note with grave displeasure,” the demon Screwtape admonishes his apprentice demon Wormwood, “that your patient has become a Christian…. There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us.”15

Inclusivism

Lewis was an inclusivist believing that some moral non-Christians would be saved: “Though all salvation is through Jesus, we need not conclude that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him in this life.”16 In the Last Battle, the final volume in the Narnia series, Aslan (the Christ figure) accepts the service of a follower of the god Tash: “Son, thou art welcome,” Aslan says to this individual. Emeth (the Tash-server) protests, “I am no son of Thine but a servant of Tash.” But Aslan insists, “All the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.”17

Even more clear, and more shocking, is this statement:

There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points. Many of the good Pagans long before Christ’s birth may have been in this position.18

Miscellaneous

True to his Anglican faith Lewis confirmed that he made confessions to a priest, believed in purgatory and prayed for the dead. Lewis expert Wayne Martindale writes,

Lewis believed in Purgatory, both because of tradition and because it appealed to his imagination…. His argument goes like this. We are all sinners. We die with a sin nature. The gap between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of the creature is so unimaginably wide and deep that a profound transformation must happen. And, borrowing from Dante’s view that the soul in Purgatory willingly and even joyfully undertakes the discipline of each step in learning to love properly… Lewis sees Purgatory not as something formed upon us as punishment, but willingly embraced for the good it will do us.19

Conclusion

An article in Christianity Today admits, “Though he shared basic Christian beliefs with evangelicals, he didn’t subscribe to biblical inerrancy or penal substitution. He believed in purgatory and baptismal regeneration.”20 His attraction to evangelicals may have been because of his evangelical-like conversion—“He had an evangelical experience, this personal encounter with the God of the universe.”21 His works actually fell out of fashion in the 1960s only to come roaring back more recently. In fact, sales of his books have increased 125% since 200122 and, since his Narnia series is being made into movies, his star will continue to rise for some time to come.

So how should we view Mr. Lewis? His ability to cut through the intellectual clouds and offer insightful analysis of human nature and our relationship with God perhaps has no equal. Most of us have gained much because of the writings of C. S. Lewis. On the other hand, he was no evangelical. His theology is deficient at best in the key areas of Scripture and salvation. He believed in neither sola fide nor sola scriptura, the two battle cries of the Reformation.

Those who read him must keep these things in mind, filter his teaching through the grid of Scripture and hold him to the same standards that we are to hold all others. Because Lewis was a man with an incredible ability to package his insights in thought-provoking ways does not mean that what he writes always aligns with God’s Word. He was a man who had keen analytical abilities and incredible writing gifts. But he was a man who rejected or minimized many of the most important truths given to us by God.

Notes

11 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1969),pp. 57-58.

12 J. I. Packer, “Still Surprised by Lewis,” Christianity Today (September 7, 1998), p. 56.

13 Lewis, Mere Christianity,pp. 62, 65.

14 Ibid., p. 64.

15 C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1961), p. 11.

16 C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1983), p. 102.

17 C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: Collier Books, 1951), p. 156.

18 Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 176-177.

19 Wayne Martindale, Beyond the Shadowlands ( Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), p. 203.

20 Bob Smietana, “C.S. Lewis Superstar,” Christianity Today (December 2005), p. 29.

21 Ibid., p. 31.

22 Ibid., p. 42.

Gary Gilley Bio


Gary Gilley has served as Senior Pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois since 1975. He has authored several books and is the book review editor for the Journal of Dispensational Theology. He received his BA from Moody Bible Institute. He and his wife Marsha have two adult sons and six grandchildren.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I've always loved CS Lewis so these articles are kind of painful. That said, I can't disagree with any of it. 

For me, Lewis' value has been twofold, (1) his talent for reminding me in deep-down way that we do not really live in a material world and (2) his knack for provoking me to think about questions I would never even thought of asking. As a subset of 2, his very historically-informed (esp. Western historically informed) way of looking at the modern world.

Theologically though... very messy.

Sean Fericks's picture

Great articles.

Do you believe that C.S. Lewis is in heaven now?  If he rejected faith in the substitutionary atonement of Christ alone, what is his eternal destiny?  

The author doesn't seem to want to go where the evidence leads him.  If Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, and Sola Christo are fundamentals, then I would thing most SI articles would paint Lewis as a dangerous and condemned man.  Why the disconnect when it comes to Lewis?  I feel like I am missing something here.

Don Johnson's picture

Sean Fericks wrote:

Do you believe that C.S. Lewis is in heaven now?  If he rejected faith in the substitutionary atonement of Christ alone, what is his eternal destiny?  

The author doesn't seem to want to go where the evidence leads him.  If Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, and Sola Christo are fundamentals, then I would thing most SI articles would paint Lewis as a dangerous and condemned man.  Why the disconnect when it comes to Lewis?  I feel like I am missing something here.

I don't think we need to answer that question. How could we? We can't know the heart of another individual and we aren't the judge anyway. From our perspective, we can wonder, but we can't know.

We can use Lewis as a resource in certain circumstances, although his many errors make him one I wouldn't cite very often myself. I find him an interesting, even fascinating man. He lead a very unusual life and had a brilliant mind. There are aspects of his writing that are very useful. But we can say the same of G. K. Chesterton, for another example, who was a Catholic. I don't know where these men are. I hope they are in heaven, but I can't know for sure.

When it comes to my own proclamation of the gospel, I don't cite Lewis or Chesterton or any other man, I cite the Lord and the apostles and that's it.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Joel Shaffer's picture

 Several paragraphs later Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:

"We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed."

 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Also to Sean's question... a couple of things I'd add on that.

(1) What must one believe to be born again?

(2) How confused can one be and still be born again? (Galatians is fascinating on this one)

(3) Atonement theories/views...  It's hard to address the topic briefly. I don't want to understate the importance of explanations of the atonement. But it's also important to try to avoid overstating. Of the two, I'd rather err in overstatement. But there's a kernel of truth in the quoted portions in the article: to some extent, fully developed views of the atonement are explanations of how Christ's payment for us works.

I believe "penal substitution" is the correct view. But it's possible to accept the reality that Christ's death saves us and have different ways of understanding how that works. I believe the non-PS views are incorrect, and some of them of more seriously incorrect than others. But the Bible does also use ransom language and so various views that see Christ's death as a payment for us (which is sort of substitutionary language), but not as penal substitution... This, in itself, is not a false gospel, though I see it as an inadequate understanding of the cross.

For my part, I came to saving faith as a child and had no specific view of the atonement at all. All I got was "He died to save me from my sins" with no idea how His death could actually do that.

Lewis being how he was--we can't fairly evaluate his view of the atonement only from what it was not. What was his view of "how it works"? Well, the excerpts from Mere Christianity show that, not surprisingly, his view seems to have been complex.

I'm getting long-winded here, but one more observation that goes back to #2. The Galatians believed and were saved, but then later embraced ideas that were quite incompatible with the gospel they had already embraced. Hence Paul's incredulity and frustration that comes out in a couple of places. But Paul places stronger blame on the outsiders who went there and "troubled" them. And from the middle of ch5. on, he gives them practical teaching on Christian living like they are still very much in the faith... which they were.

The moral is that human beings are messy thinkers and we often hold to mutually exclusive ideas... and we don't really know what the precise boundaries of saving faith vs. confused  vs. non-saving faith are.

Lewis liked mystery. On some points, he liked it too much. Sometimes we students of systematic theology like it a bit too little perhaps.

AndyBoni's picture

Thanks for the articles on CS Lewis. My goodness, I too am disappointed to read all that, but still glad to know the truth.

Andy Bonikowsky

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