C.S. Lewis is arguably the best-known Christian, theologian, and apologist of the 20th century. Yet he sincerely believed that his books would be unread less than five years after his death. Amazingly, his approximately 52 published books have now sold over 200 million copies, and Lewismania has continued to grow exponentially ever since he died in 1963. And yet, if Lewis has impacted any discipline of Christian doctrine, it is his emphasis on eschatology. Hardly an academic or popular conversation in the Western world takes place without some reference to Lewis and his thoughts on Heaven and Hell.
Lewis’s emphasis and influence concerning future events are interesting because his conversion was purely an intellectual one and without any real knowledge of or concern about Heaven or Hell. In other words, Lewis became a Christian because his intellectual integrity required him to do so. He was raised in a Christian home (his mother’s last words were, “What have we done for Him?”) but left his faith in his early teens. Thereafter, he then spent many years in atheism, and yet even though he was a rabid atheist, he was always an uncomfortable one.
Angry at a God who did not answer his prayers to save his dying mother and living a life that he knew deserved God’s judgment, Lewis simply chose not to believe. Even so, in a paradoxical existence he later acknowledged, he desperately, simultaneously wanted God to exist and not to exist.
In spite of all of this, Lewis spent years trying to deny any numinous existence, but the supernatural, i.e., the Hound of Heaven, always found a way to break into his life just when he thought he had destroyed every argument for Christianity. Ultimately, an insightful conversation with two close friends – Hugo Dyson and J.R.R. Tolkien, convinced Lewis that God is, and the story of God was the only one that could sanely interpret the world with intellectual consistency. As such, neither Heaven nor Hell played any part in his theistic (there is an undefined deity) or Christian (that deity is revealed in Jesus Christ) conversion.
Thereafter, Lewis was always concerned that people might think too much about Heaven and Hell or even believe in them for the wrong reasons. “What,” one might ask, “could be a right or wrong reason to believe in Heaven or Hell?” For Lewis, that was the wrong question.
His belief in Heaven and Hell did not begin with their existence but the reality of the God whom the Bible presents in the historical incarnation of Jesus Christ. This is because right or wrong, there are many ways in which Lewis understood and presented Christianity in the way that he came to Christ. One of them is, God first, Heaven or Hell second. The other is the presentation of Christianity in romantic or fantasy writings.
For Lewis, Christianity should be centered on God, his love for us, and our love for him. He feared that an overemphasis on Heaven or Hell might lead people to love Heaven or fear Hell more than people loved God or feared the Lord. He considered such affection degraded Christianity into a mercenary religion, using God to gain Heaven or escape Hell rather than loving God for who he is. He thought that loving Heaven or fearing Hell first and most, was inconsistent with the greatest command in the Bible to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength (Matthew 27:30).
We should love God first and mostly because he is worthy of devotion. God is, after all, all together and uniquely lovely. And the Bible is God’s revelation of himself. It is the truest story ever told and proven by the incarnation, God’s divine intervention into reality.
For Lewis, the incarnation was the most wonderful and important event in human history. Yet even before his years of unbelief, Jack, as friends called him, loved stories and the power of myth. Since childhood, he read about and appreciated the Roman, Greek and Northern gods even though he knew none of them were true.
This is because Jack was raised in a Church of Ireland congregation (initially pastored by his maternal grandfather) that failed to interpret the story of God with the meaningful excitement it deserves. His early Christianity left him feeling that God was distant, cold, and uninterested in the world. In pagan myths, he found what he considered to be the missing ingredient in the early 20th-century preaching of his generation; awe and majesty – the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, i.e., terrible beauty – that must rightly belong to any God who truly exists.
If God is God, he is to be loved and feared supremely simply for himself. But this picture was sadly absent from his childhood church experiences. Once he had become an avid apologist for Christ, Lewis often commented that if the pulpits of England had been doing their job, he wouldn’t have had one, i.e., reimagining Christianity in new and exciting ways that captured popular attention. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
Since childhood, Jack had seen glimpses of another world in things like the beauty of a toy garden and the smell of a flowering bush. He longed to know what lay beyond the green, low-lying hills just beyond the door of his house. God used each of these things, and more, to awaken a young child’s imagination. He couldn’t put a name on it, so he simply called it, “Joy.” He wrote that his autobiography was wholly yet simply about his search for this Joy.
Nor could his life be properly understood without considering this all-encompassing longing for life that seemed always just beyond sight and reach. In the interim, however, the presentation of an awe-less God left him motivated to look for other mythical pictures of the God he simultaneously hoped was there and wished was not.
On one hand, he did not want such a “transcendental interferer,” to exist because this would require the complete surrender of his life, Lewis says in his book Surprised by Joy.
On the other hand, he longed for a world that only a real, sovereign deity could provide. From Lewis’s perspective, one reason that God stepped into history is to remind humans that any story without God at its center is a false one, a misinterpretation of reality. For him, there were only two stories, the Christian one and all the rest. The Christian story is real and all others, regardless of their individual or particular nuances, are all the same because they are all false. Only Christianity correctly understands, interprets and applies reality, so Lewis turned his focus from the old, false gods of his childhood, like the Norse Balder and the Egyptian Osiris, toward Jesus. And after he became a Christian, Jack appreciated even more the years that he spent in atheism reading pagan myths which to him were failed attempts to discover the real God.
As such, pagan myths contain incomplete plots because they don’t go all the way to the Gospel. And their heroes are fallible. But what human could imagine, i.e., invent a God like Jesus? Nevertheless, he saw these false stories as God’s way of preparing his heart for the true story of Jesus Christ. Each pagan story is, to use Lewis’ words in Miracles, at its best, “a real though unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.”
After all, every other story left him wanting more and with no adequate explanation for the existence of creation. People, of course, feel differently about giving pagan myths such credit, but, for Lewis, they were instrumental in recognizing the true God from the false ones. Like many of us, it was only after he had tried many other routes that he realized the best, albeit not the quickest or easiest, was through paganism to Christianity.
Soon after the outbreak of WWI, 17-year-old Jack went to study at Great Bookham, just 25 miles outside of London, in the private home of a tutor named W.T. Kirkpatrick. From there, he could see the fires caused by incendiary bombs dropped by German Zeppelins and it caused him to think even more about life, death, and the potential of the hereafter. Kirkpatrick had once served in a school as his father’s teacher and had tutored his brother into a scholarship at Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, much like our West Point. He was a former Presbyterian seminary student turned atheist, whom Jack considered the most logical entity he had ever met. Lewis’s atheism thrived under Kirkpatrick, but his tutor’s commitment to rigid intellectualism also sowed the seeds of Lewis’s eventual conversion.
Jack always loved to walk or hike, and one Sunday afternoon, he walked a long way from Great Bookham and opted to return by train. While waiting on the train platform, he noticed a book stall and bought a copy of Phantastes by the Victorian myth writer George McDonald. Looking back, Jack confessed that he had no idea what he was getting into by buying that book. He would later warn fellow atheists to be careful about choosing books. He also complained that God hid in good books, just waiting to surreptitiously reveal himself. When Lewis served in WWI, and during his time at Oxford, he discovered, to his horror, that the men he most respected were Christians and the books he most loved were written by Christians.
In his earlier other-worldly experiences, Jack felt teleported out of this world and momentarily whisked into another. But Phantastes presented a different view and experience of the world, if not a different world altogether. Instead of leaving this world, a “bright shadow” invaded Jack’s world. It was as if a voice had stepped out of the book and sat down next to him, redrawing and reinterpreting the world for him. He had no idea what it was but later defined it as “Holiness.”
He wrote that the book baptized his imagination, although he also confessed that his intellect took longer to accept the reality of the Christian God who was behind McDonald’s book. Once again, however, just as with his conversion, Jack normalized this pre-Christian experience and applied it to his later vocation as an author.
Just as he had for Warnie, Jack’s older brother, Kirkpatrick prepared Lewis for his entrance into the British University system. Interestingly, Jack’s mother, Flora, was one of the first women to graduate from Queens University in Belfast. More, she earned a “first” in physics and mathematics. Jack, on the other hand, always struggled with math. He was so terrible at remembering dates that he sincerely misremembered the date of his own conversion in his autobiography. Even with Kirkpatrick’s’ superb help, however, Jack failed his math Responsions, one of three examinations formally required for entrance into Oxford. (The other two were Latin and Ancient Greek). But WWI cost England what has often been called “the lost generation,” and universities needed students, so Jack gained acceptance into Oxford after the war, even though he never passed his math exam. (Take hope, students!)
Once at Oxford, Jack made friends with Christians and found the required reading list at Oxford to be inundated with Christian authors. One of his most influential friends was J.R.R. Tolkien. Seven years after his conversion, during a two-week Belfast holiday, Lewis wrote his first openly apologetic for Christianity, The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism (1938).
Soon thereafter, he and Tolkien challenged each other to write the kind of stories they liked to read but could not discover. Tolkien never finished the book for this bargain, but Jack wrote the first book in the Ransom Trilogy (also known as the Space Trilogy), a theologized science fiction classic titled Out of the Silent Planet (1938).
The book is a severe critique of “evolutionism,”
the scientific philosophy of another popular science fiction writer of Jack’s time, H.G. Wells.
A pupil of Jack’s espoused that philosophy to him and told Lewis that science would soon enable humans to populate other planets in the hope of perpetuating and improving humanity, even defeating death, thus replacing Christianity as man’s true hope for eternal life. Jack was horrified at the thought of our sinful, evil world infecting the rest of the universe. In the book, he outlines the basic storyline of Scripture, Creation, the Fall and Redemption. After its publication, he was amazed that only two out of 60 reviewers recognized its Christian motif. In response, he lamented that no one of greater talent or more time than himself was available or willing to employ fictional writing for the “evangelisation of England …” After all, the book had proven that that “any amount of theology can be smuggled into people’s minds under cover of romance without their knowing it.”
Lewis’s success in hiding the Gospel in plain sight encouraged his literary genius. In 1942 he published The Screwtape Letters, revealing Hell from the Devil’s point of view. He published The Abolition of Man the very next year. In it, he argued for moral law based on objective knowledge and against “subjectivism,” the belief that absolute knowledge does not exist. Abolition is just one example of how Lewis was far beyond his own time, and his writings are invaluable in the 21st century. That same year (1943), he published Perelandra, the second volume in the Ransom trilogy. In Perelandra, Lewis revisited Eden (recast as Venus) and retold the story of Adam and Eve, but this time, avoiding the ruin of their innocence. In the final book in the Ransom series, That Hideous Strength (1945), he warned readers that science without Christian morality, mere “scientism,” was a threat to the entire created order.
The same year, Lewis published his “Cinderella book,” The Great Divorce (1945), using a dream as his literary device to demonstrate the deceitfulness of sin and the eternal consequences of daily human choices. Two years later, he penned Miracles (1947), his last straightforward apologetic for Christianity, telling his close friend, George Sayer, that he “could never write another book of that sort.” Sayer adds, “And he never did.” Basically, Lewis was frustrated by the modern philosophical world of meaningless language and unverifiable knowledge, and he was exhausted by the illogical discourse that transpired in such an environment.
Three years later, he published The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) and the other six volumes over the next six years (1950-56). While writing the Chronicles, Lewis also wrote and published his classic Christian apologetic, Mere Christianity (1952), and his autobiography, Surprised by Joy (1955). This is why, when Carl Henry, the founding editor of Christianity Today asked Lewis to write an article for the freshman issue of his new magazine in 1955, Lewis replied, “I wish your project heartily well but can’t write you articles. My thought and talent (such as they are) now flow in different, though I trust not less Christian channels, and I do not think I am at all likely to write more directly theological pieces. The last work of that sort which I attempted had to be abandoned. If I am now good for anything it is for catching the reader unaware thro’ fiction and symbol. I have done what I could in the way of frontal attacks, but I now feel quite sure those days are over.”
McDonald’s fantasy fiction, Phantastes had baptized Jack’s imagination. It crept past his preconceived prejudices against Christianity and captured his heart before he realized what had happened. In the same way, he was trying to baptize the imaginations of masses of people through the remythologizing of Christianity in the fairy tale form of science fiction, children’s literature, and fantasy fiction, among others. One part of that plan was, as he wrote to an American schoolchild, to introduce children to Aslan in Narnia so that they might recognize him as Jesus in the real world. Even so, it wasn’t so much a covert operation as it was a work of undeception, opening the eyes of people who, like him, had never seen real, biblical Christianity in all its true awe-fulness. He wrote that most of his books were, indeed, written for unbelievers. Friends recognized him as a missionary, and foes labeled him a zealot. In more ways than this article has time to recount, Lewis’s commitment to popularizing Christian theology cost him friends and promotions. It is one of the reasons he ultimately left Oxford for Cambridge.
With all of this in mind, it is not unreasonable to ask why Lewis was so passionate about his publishing productivity. The answer lies in the eschatological burden that he bore. It is true that neither Heaven nor Hell had any influence on his Christian conversion, but it played a large part in Jack’s everyday life and motivated his writing. Clyde Kilby, an early American Lewis enthusiast and Wheaton College professor (who was from Nolichucky, just down the road from where I live in Johnson City, Tenn.), wrote that Jack’s eschatological vision was second only to the apostle John’s in Revelation. Eschatology was, according to another Lewis scholar, the heart of almost everything Jack wrote. His personal secretary, Walter Hooper wrote that if anyone ever read all of Jack’s books in chronological order, they would discover that the eschaton is the heartbeat of all Lewis wrote.
In other words, Lewis sincerely believed that every human being is destined to exist forever in either Heaven or Hell. Heaven is too beautiful to miss, and Hell is eternal conscious torment. We make our choices, and then ultimately, our choices make us until the very doors of Hell are locked on the inside. It is this inevitable “either, or” of one of two eternal destinations that moved him to write and warn his readers. He personalized the eschaton in The Pilgrim’s Regress, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce and The Weight of Glory. Then he portrayed the cosmic eschaton in the Ransom Trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia.
The bottom line is that C.S. Lewis is “the ‘master of the grand finale.’ ” It was this eschatological burden that caused him to write in so many different genres, each an attempt to attract the widest possible audience in an effort to win our hearts to Jesus while warning us of the eternal consequences of loving anything else more than God. ●