As promised, here is the first of my ETS 2003 hitherto unpublished articles on some of the sessions of the conference.
Did CS Lewis go to Heaven?
John Robbins, The Trinity Foundation
The title was not, as I originally thought, a clever rhetorical device. It was a real question, and to my surprize answer was that if Lewis believed everything he wrote, no, he will not be in heaven. It seemed over the top, but Robbins did do a good job of pointing out all the very liberal ideas that Lewis held and of which conservatives seem to be blissfully unaware.
Lewis does in fact seem to be smuggling certain ideas into conservative thinking because of people’s tendency to accept anything an approved source says. People read Narnia and Mere Christianity, and they are also reminded at every turn of how wonderful Lewis was and how he is the greatest apologist or thinker or theologian of the 20th century. Then they come across views that would be rejected out of hand if they came from another source (like the idea that faithful followers of other religions can be saved) and they think: “Well, it must not be that bad of an idea if CS Lewis believed it!” It’s a pretty sloppy way to form one’s opinions, so I think it is a good thing to point out that Lewis was not a card-carrying fundamentalist and that it is OK to disagree with him.
Before going on, I should mention that Lewis went out of his way to remind people that he was not a theologian. Maybe he was one in spite of his denials (we are all theologians in one sense), but we should at least give him the benefit of the doubt because he was not attempting to craft a total theological picture and much what he said was geared to commending the faith to non-believers.
Robbins focused on three areas in Lewis’ thinking:
1. Lewis’ view of Scripture was fairly non-conservative. He admits error, not only in the Bible, but even in the words of Jesus himself, claiming that when Jesus said he would return within his generation, he was mistaken (Mark 13:30). In Lewis’s words, “Jesus professed himself ignorant and within a moment showed that he really was so.” He also thought that the Old Testament was inspired myth, meaning that it teaches truth, but not historical truth. His view of Scripture was essentially Neo-Orthodox. He believed that the Bible is not itself the word of God, but that it contains the word of God (Christ himself), and that to get that Word, it must be read with the right teachers and in the right spirit.
2. Lewis had almost nothing to say about justification by faith and his own conversion is about the acceptance of the divinity of Jesus. It is not the type of thing we usually look for when we talk about “becoming a Christian.” Robbins claimed that belief in the deity of Christ is not something that saves in and of itself. I am not sure about that, but the question is probably too big for what I am trying to do here. On the question of what it was that God did for us through Christ, here is a paragraph from Lewis that Robbins quoted in his paper,
Of course, you can express this in all sorts of different ways. You can say that Christ died for our sins. You may say that the Father has forgiven us because Christ has done for us what we ought to have done. You may say that we are washed in the blood of the Lamb. You may say that Christ has defeated death. The are all true. If any of them do not appeal to you, leave it alone and get on with the formula that does. And, whatever you do, do not start quarrelling with other people because they use a different formula from yours.
And then Robbins’ response,
…Lewis offers what he says are different ways of saying what he had said in the first [paragraph]. He tells us that they are “all true.” Then, in a most remarkable move, he tells us that we may accept and reject any and all of these true statements, depending on what “appeals” to us. What kind of truth is this, that has no authority? It seems that our taste, our personal preference, is the only basis for accepting and rejecting theses statements that Lewis says are “all true.”
This is an interesting mix because we can see how, on the one had Lewis is trying to point to the richness of contented that may be believed in order to be saved. But Robbins, because he wants he to hear something more specific and creedal sounding, goes too far when he accuses Lewis of subjectivism. Surely there are many different ways to express what God has done for us in Christ, and when Lewis says we can choose whichever way appeals to us, he is not saying we can choose any random idea that comes into our head, but any idea out of that variety. If fact, this is what we do all the time in church and in evangelistic meetings.
In spite of taking Lewis’ side on this, however, it does seem significant that Lewis spends so little time on justification by faith. According to Robbins, he only mentions it one time in all his works, and then only in passing.
3. Lewis believed, as I already mentioned, that faithful followers of other religion could be saved. You see this illustrated in the final Narnia book The Last Battle, where a faithful follower of the false god Tash sees Aslan when he enters Tash’s sanctuary. Again, this seems to minimize the doctrine of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. In Lewis’ words:
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 day he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points.
This is a lot farther than most conservative Christians are willing to go and, it should be emphasized, completely speculative. It is a possible to solution to the problem, but there is not any real biblical basis for it.
Robbins did a good job of pointing out that Lewis is “not a safe theologian,” to borrow from Lewis himself. Some of his ideas are on the borders if not outside the scope of orthodoxy. To go so far as Robbins does, however, and suggest that Lewis will not be in heaven if he believed everything he wrote, is going too far. Robbins is looking too much for formulas and seems to question anything that is not stated in Reformed terminology. He even offers us the Westminster Catechism as a basis for orthodoxy, which is fine, but it points to the fact that he is evaluating Lewis on the basis of an established orthodoxy that does not allow for the kind of thinking that Lewis was doing. I do disagree with much of Lewis’ thinking that Robbins has drawn attention to, but I don’t think this puts Lewis in hell. I even think that it is unfortunate that the question was posed in like that. It feels weird and cold.
The one conclusion I drew from this paper is that conservative Christians should avoid using Lewis’s Mere Christianity as a kind of primer on what it means to be a Christian or as an apologetics tools. As you can see from the quotes I included here, there is much that is controversial and probably ungrounded.
“The World’s last Night,” The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, 1960, 98-99.
Mere Christianity, 156.
Robbins, p. 16.
Mere Christianity, p. 176-177. An example of a Buddhist teaching that would have to be minimized is the idea there is no God (!).
You might be able to build a loose case from Romans 2, where it says that those who do not have the law in written form still have it written “on the tablets of their heart.” But Lewis goes quite a bit beyond that.