Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
How can the incomprehensible be understood?
To understand C.S.Lewis’ writings on Christianity, take seriously the Christian idea that you may live forever.
These thoughts coming after reading Lewis’ four best known Christian books. A Grief Observed is a selection of Lewis’s private journals on the death of his wife. The Screwtape Letters is a comedy about demons and their surprisingly bureaucratic method of corrupting human souls. The Great Divorce is a journey to the afterlife. Mere Christianity, reads both as a basic introduction to Christianity and its ultimate purpose.
C.S. Lewis describes himself as a student sharing his notes with others, but if so he’s an advanced student. In every work Lewis views as central the Christian belief that Christ will “come to judge the living and the dead,” that Christians “look for the resurrection of the dead, and live everlasting… the life of the world to come.” In other words, that we may live forever.
Lewis seems is the first writer I’ve encountered to truly consider this possibility seriously.
And the wolf will dwell with the lamb,
And the leopard will lie down with the young goat,
And the calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little boy will lead them.
Also the cow and the bear will graze,
Their young will lie down together,
And the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra,
And the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den.
C.S.Lewis fought in the First World War, and lived through the economic disruption of the 1920s. So by “to live forever” in keeping with the Christian creeds, Lewis did not understand flying-babies-with-harps. The literal implication of Christian doctrine is
- A massive disruption in the market for security
- A massive disruption in the market for commodities
- A massive disruption in the market for time
The consequences to these to the government, military, agricultural, industrial, and luxury sectors of the economy — that is much of human life — is clear. The corruption of those who have confused market virtues with personal virtues perhaps less obvious, but no less destructive
If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disasterous. The Devil was an archangel once; his natural gifts were as far above yours as yours are above those of a chimpanzee.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
The seemingly hyperbolic words of the scriptures…
They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat
… may be less a description of eternal bliss, and more a description of the next environment in which bliss might be found through Christian belief and practice, for those willing to do so.
for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”
What Christianity does not promise is the absence of other people. In fact, we are promised there will be others. This next land, where security, commodities, and time are all filled full, is already inhabited. In the midst of our happiness will be some of our enemies.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
But what equilibrium might be found in that situation? How does rational choice work when we aren’t choosing security, or commodities, or time?
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.
Lewis’s answer (explicit in Mere Christianity and The Great Divorce, implicit in A Grief Observed and Screwtape Letters) is that there are only two steady states: to be close to others or to be infinitely far away from them. The life in this world, and even the connections we make in this world, are not ends in themselves. They are the context for an everlasting series of decisions in the life of the world to come, which will lead to the limit of alienation or the limit of Oneness.
You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.
“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up.
That is to say,
Hell is a state of mind – ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind – is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly. For all that can be shaken will be shaken and only the unshakeable remains.
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
But to understand Lewis’s writings on Christianity, take seriously the Christian idea that on this world, we suffer.
But Lewis’ best work here is A Grief Observed, because instead of attempting to defend a theological position using logic, reason, and argument, he is reeling over the death of his wife. No Christianity, no concept of everlasting life, is more than a children’s story without more knowledge of the world than a child has. So as this post began with lofty and general concepts of Christianity, teaching, and the resurrection, I’ll close it with Lewis’s own words on his own grief.
If this world, with its scarcity markets in security, commodities, and time is just a context for the next, what sort of context is it?
Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
For what and Whom is that context necessary?