Last night I was shown another one — a website whose evangelical authors, surely with the best of intentions, ripped not only multiple C.S. Lewis quotes, but his whole life, out of context.
If I met the person who wrote this material, I would try to be gracious. After all, Christ saved me from so much worse; I was not, as the site’s authors seem to have expected of Lewis, free from un-Godly thoughts and impulses before He saved me, and I’m certainly still working on them! Still, I’d challenge such Christians to survey the contents of this series’ parts one and two, attacking the notion that Lewis was a heretic and/or accepted universalism:
- Lewis clearly believed in Hell, and was not a universalist as some falsely accuse. Thus we must address his direct, written agreement that Hell is real, just and permanent.
- The character Emeth going to “heaven” in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle is at best unclear, given that Narnia is a supposal, not allegory, and the variety of themes and interpretations that can be drawn from the vaguer-in-a-story Emeth Element.
Real Christians read Scripture (or should read it!) with right hermeneutics, not basing a whole System of ideas upon obscure verses, but instead seeking to let clearer passages interpret unclear ones, with heed to the original culture in which a book/text was written. Similarly, those who accuse Lewis of being a universalist need to survey his whole life and direction, and not let certain story tenets (which could “go” one way or the other!) not define his clearer statements.
Not universalist; still slightly fuzzy
That alone could refute C.S.-Lewis-was-a-universalist. Still let’s be fair: from what I have found, apparently Lewis did believe that God might provide some way to reach “good” people who actually did desire to know the true God. This seems close to the modern term anonymous Christians — that is, that some people may be covered by Christ’s grace without having directly embraced Him. Such was Kevin DeYoung’s reminder last month, after quoting Lewis:
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. [from Mere Christianity]
No matter how much we may like Lewis, this is simply a profound misunderstanding of the Spirit’s mission (and a rejection of John 14:6). The work of the Holy Spirit is to bring glory to Christ by taking what is his–his teaching, the truth about his death and resurrection–and making it known. The Spirit does not work indiscriminately without the revelation of Christ in view.
Whether or not Lewis later revised his view, it is impossible to resolve it with Scripture. But is it heresy? After all, many Christians have similar-sounding beliefs about people born with mental issues, or children who’ve died in infancy. And as a scholar in such a secular realm, with even more anti-Biblical ideas about, should Lewis be faulted too much for buying into one early on?
In 2008 during a discussion on this, a friend of mine, Phillip Pugh, summarized Lewis like this:
One has to remember when reading Lewis that he is at heart a Medievalist even if his theology is basically Anglican. When reading Medieval works like Dante’s Divine Comedy (which had a profound effect on Lewis) we find that the “Noble pagans” like Socrates, Plato, and Virgil, are placed in a sort of limbo where they are not suffering and yet there is no light. I think Lewis has something of this in mind, taking some cues from George MacDonald to embellish it (though not taking it to MacDonald’s universalist extreme).
He is saying that Emeth had Tash and Aslan confused because of his cultural background. I disagree, but it’s not as bad as many would think.
I also disagree, but reiterate this: it’s not as bad as many would think. True Christians may believe wacky and/or un-Biblical things, such as: the King James Version (which one?) is God’s inspired Word even more than the manuscripts from which it was translated; the sun orbits the Earth; Madalyn Murray O’Hair and the FCC tried to ban Christian television in 1996 (sadly, they did not succeed); or Christians who read Harry Potter open themselves to demons.
More specifically about salvation, true Christians who understand that Jesus, God’s Son, died for their sins, may also believe that if you don’t speak in tongues, you don’t have the Holy Spirit. They may, out of ignorance, disbelieve in the Trinity — a crucial doctrine for understanding how God works. They may be even fuzzy about the doctrine that Christ was born of a virgin.
But does that automatically rule out their salvation status?
Aiming for essential Christian beliefs
Author and professor Mike Wittmer suggests no. Why? There’s an ignorance clause. Christians may not know some crucial Biblical truths, but they must not willfully reject them. His beliefs-target diagram has gotten about the internet: showing, in the center, truths that Christians must believe to be saved; in the middle, truths that Christians must not reject if they hear and understand them; and in the outside, truths that Christians should believe and study.
In the book of Acts, the bare minimum that a person must know and believe to be saved was that he was a sinner and that Jesus saved him from his sin. As Paul told the Philippian jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:29-31; cf. 10:43). This is enough to counter the postmodern innovator argument that we can be saved without knowing and believing in Jesus.
But any thinking convert will inquire further about this Jesus. While he may not know much more at the point of conversion than Jesus is the Lord who has saved him, he will quickly learn about Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, deity and humanity, and relation to the other two members of the Trinity. Anyone who rejects these core doctrines should fear for their soul.
According to the Athanasian Creed, whoever does not believe in the Trinity and the two natures of Jesus is damned. However, since it seems possible for a child to come to faith without knowing much about the Trinity or the hypostatic union (this is likely not the place where most parents begin), I take the Creed’s warning in a more benign way—that we do not need to know and believe in the Trinity and two natures of Christ to be saved, but that anyone who knowingly rejects them cannot be saved.
The final category is important doctrines which genuine Christians may unfortunately misconstrue. I think that every Christian should believe that Scripture is God’s Word, know its story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, and know something about the nature of God, what it means to be human, and what Jesus is doing through his church. However, many people have been genuine Christians without knowing or believing these things (though their ignorance or disbelief in these facts significantly diminished their Christian faith).
Thus, I believe that every doctrine in this diagram is crucially important for sound Christian faith. And some are so important that we cannot even be saved without them.
— from An Interview with Michael Wittmer, Between Two Worlds blog, Justin Taylor, Dec. 8, 2008 (boldface emphases added)
So — perhaps after checking that suggested diagram to ensure we’re in the faith! — I would put Lewis through these questions. For the center circle: Did he believe he was a sinner and that the Lord Jesus saved him from his sin? Most assuredly. From the outside circle: Did he accept the orthodox (though slightly less vital) beliefs about final redemption in a physical New Earth and the Church’s nature? Not all of it. He also smoked tobacco all his life (!), as the Lewis-criticizing website I mentioned above gravely notes. But that doesn’t make him a heretic.
The most interesting part comes in that center area of things Christians must not reject. Lewis was fuzzy about the Atonement, the nature of the Trinity, and — I would add this to it — the ultimate cause of Hell and sinners’ eternal punishment, and what “total depravity” means. He did not have access to the same resources that more-Biblical Christians may have today.
Therefore, I contend, Lewis was likely not directly exposed to those ideas and did not knowingly reject them for the reasons we hear from actual “heretics” today: humph, that’s not “my” God.
The same is true of a Oneness Pentecostal acquaintance I have, who I think simply hasn’t seen what the Trinity doctrine really states and defines. It’s true of Christians who are hooked on conspiracy theories about Satanism and C.S. Lewis, and for whatever reason refuse to let the God of truth sanctify how they practice truth-telling in those areas. And let’s admit it: this is also true of so many of the early Church fathers, whose beliefs excelled amidst the doctrinal conflicts of their days, defending the faith in those areas, even if they faltered in other fields.
Conclusion: Lewis, though sometimes confused, a Christian
C.S. Lewis, though not a theologian and not a church father, is very similar to them: in the doctrinal areas under greatest assault in his society, he excelled. Rebutting unimaginative Christianity, he gave us The Chronicles of Narnia. Striking back against intellectual attacks on Christianity and anti-intellectual responses from other Christians, he gave us brilliant nonfiction.
He was not a universalist. He was not a closet compromising-with-Satan “pagan” either (that could be another series). From what we can tell, he believed the essentials of the faith: that he was a sinner and that Christ, by grace, saved him. That, at the core, makes one a Christian.
What does that mean for those who insist he was a heretic and/or a universalist? It means that if they’ve read this far, God bless ‘em, they’re now responsible for what they’ve read — just as Lewis would be, had he read and engaged a firm defense of Christ’s absolutely-exclusive claims and rejected them. Here I’ve attempted to show specifically that Lewis did not accept the false notion of universalism. The other attacks I may handle another time, such as the “pagan” thing.
But on this issue, if you go on from here and say again “Lewis was a heretic” or “Lewis believed in universalism,” etc., after already having been corrected and told how to verify it yourself — that is not Biblical discernment or even understandable ignorance. Instead, at best it’s willful ignorance; at worst, God-dishonoring slander of a fellow believer.
Yes, I know that it can be tempting to push back against Lewis’ popularity, especially because of many evangelicals who may actually over-value his works, quote them nonstop, or use his views in defense of anti-Biblical ideas and practices. And yes, as a general rule, if someone or something is popular with The World, that’s a good signal for Christians to push back. But that alone is no reason to reject all of Lewis’ life and works. Christians should not live as if they must constantly Avoid Whatever is Popular in Culture, but instead live according to Christ. If culture happens to echo that, great; if culture doesn’t, we oppose that. But our goal is to be for the Biblical Christ who’s saved us, not merely Against All of The World. His popularity aside, Lewis was and remains a voice that glorifies God. Truth-minded Christians should thank Him for that.