(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.
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
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
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
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.
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 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.