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How “Christian” was C.S. Lewis… and Why is He an Evangelical Hero?

His books have influenced more Christians than possibly any other author; his stories are classics, beloved by children and adults alike. There are foundations to his legacy, a movie about him, bumper stickers that quote him and his caricature can be found on t-shirts and coffee mugs. C.S. Lewis is the lewis_portrait.jpgposter boy for “Christian thinkers,” inspiration for vast numbers of Christian authors, an icon in the already crowded pantheon of religious heroes.

But does he deserve the acclaim? Not only do some question the uncritical embrace of Lewis by American evangelicals, they question his Christian faith.

Christianity Today columnist Bob Smietana, in an article entitled, C.S. Lewis Superstar, sums up the essence of the “Lewis resistance” :

Clive Staples Lewis was anything but a classic evangelical, socially or theologically. He smoked cigarettes and a pipe, and he regularly visited pubs to drink beer with friends. 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. How did someone with such a checkered pedigree come to be a theological Elvis Presley, adored by evangelicals?

Somehow, Lewis’ “checkered pedigree” has become of little concern to the average evangelical admirer. Nevertheless, some have described his Christianity as a “myth” and John Robbins goes so far as to ask, Did C.S. Lewis Go to Heaven? In his essay, Robbins concludes, “So we ask again: Did C. S. Lewis go to Heaven? And our answer must be: Not if he believed what he wrote in his books and letters.”

For instance:

  • He believed in purgatory. In Letters to Malcolm, he wrote “I believe in Purgatory. The right view returns magnificently in Newman’s Dream. There if I remember rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer with its darkness to affront that light. Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they?” (pp. 110-111)
  • He believed in evolution.
  • He was unusually tolerant of mythology and paganism. On a visit to Greece with his wife in 1960, Lewis made the following unusual statement: “I had some ado to prevent Joy (and myself) from lapsing into paganism in Attica! AT DAPHNI IT WAS HARD NOT TO PRAY TO APOLLO THE HEALER. BUT SOMEHOW ONE DIDN’T FEEL IT WOULD HAVE BEEN VERY WRONG–WOULD HAVE ONLY BEEN ADDRESSING CHRIST SUB SPECIE APOLLONIUS” (C.S. Lewis to Chad Walsh, May 23, 1960, cited from George Sayer, Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis, 1994, p. 378).
  • He believed in prayers for the dead. In Letters to Malcolm, he wrote, “Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter men. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden” (p. 109).
  • He believed in a type of “soft universalism.” “[H]ere 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” (Mere Christianity pp 176-177).

Perhaps these are why renowned Welsh preacher D. Martin Lloyd-Jones warned that C.S. Lewis had a 1101470908_400.jpgdefective view of salvation and was an opponent of the substitutionary and penal view of the atonement (Christianity Today, Dec. 20, 1963). And in a letter to the editor of Christianity Today, Feb. 28, 1964, Dr. W. Wesley Shrader, First Baptist Church, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, warned that “C.S. Lewis … would never embrace the (literal-infallible) view of the Bible” (F.B.F. News Bulletin, Fundamental Baptist Fellowship, March 4, 1984).

Andrew Greeley in an article entitled, Narnia: Not Just for Evangelicals writes,

C.S. Lewis was not a Christian in the sense of the word that “evangelicals” insist upon. He was an Anglican who sometimes skirted, in his writings at any rate, dangerously close to the thin ice of Catholicism. Indeed, many in my generation of Catholics simply assumed he was one of us. But even as an Anglican he would certainly fall out of the realm of the “saved” when the Rapture blasts all of us who do not believe in word-for-word inerrancy into oblivion.

Despite all this, C.S. Lewis is still considered one of the greatest Christian theologians, thinkers and authors of all time. But why? Of course, disbelieving in the innerancy of Scripture is far more serious than smoking tobacco and swilling suds. But nowadays a Christian author / thinker who smoked cigarettes, drank beer, believed in evolution, felt compelled to pray to Apollo, and rejected biblical innerancy would have about as much chance of becoming an evangelical hero as Paris Hilton does of becoming relevant.

So, given the facts, how “Christian” was C.S. Lewis. . . and why is he an evangelical hero?

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{ 101 comments… add one }
  • jed August 28, 2012, 5:42 PM

    (from my post on Facebook) In Mere Christianity, Lewis upholds all of the fundamental doctrines of historic Christianity.

    It is this core that all Christians can agree upon; the rest, as he says, are ‘in-house’ arguments that are not essential to the nature of God, His revelation of Himself to us, or the Gospel.

    You or I may disagree on much of what Lewis believed around the periphery, but he is saved by belief in the same Gospel as all believers.

    To impugn Lewis’ Christianity for hanging out at the pub is simply ludicrous; Christ himself came ‘eating and drinking’.

    Lewis is appreciated in Christian circles (even evangelical) because he gives us a how-to guide on apologetics that allows us discuss Christianity intelligently with our secular friends.

    In addition, Lewis was a harsh critic of Materialism and Naturalism masquerading as science in which the absence of God was a forgone conclusion based on philosophy.

    This parallels evangelicals’ struggle with evolution being taught as final fact, and claiming to function as a proof against the existence of a creator (which it most assuredly does not).

    Ravi Zacharias, a Catholic, occupies a similar position as “the great apologist of our time” (according to Chuck Colson) with evangelicals, even though he does not line up on all doctrines.

  • Simon September 9, 2012, 4:15 PM

    The Nicene Creed was commissioned by the pagen Constantine. He laid the foundation for most basic church teachings today. By the way he killed his son and wife as well so ….

    Noone should be the judge of who goes to heaven, but God know the heart better than any man. St Peter is not going to be asking any questions about evolution at the pearly gates I am sure. But that we have lived pure and victorious lives.

    From C S Lewis’s writings I would think that he had a hidden life with Christ in God and God will be the judge.

  • Scott October 9, 2012, 6:20 AM

    Hey Mike – thank you for the article.

    I think the title is a little vague – perhaps it could be adjusted to read, “How “Dispensational / Fundamentalist” was C.S. Lewis… and Why is He an Evangelical Hero?

    Lewis lived what he believed – you tried to make two points out of Purgatory and praying for the dead. The fact that Lewis believed in Purgatory means of course he would pray for the dead! Are you finding fault with Lewis – that he would ask God to have mercy on the soul of a departed friend? He is not praying TO the dead, but for them. Was it wrong of Lewis to believe that God has the power to decide the fate of a man’s soul? Was it wrong of Lewis to believe that God could do anything for the dead – especially since evangelicals have declared that person’s fate already sealed? Both Abraham and Moses interceded on behalf of those whose fate was already sealed (but they were Hebrews – not evangelicals…LOL)

    I am not a believer in Purgatory – but I like the doctrine – it comes across as fair in my mind. There is about as much evidence for Purgatory as there is for the Millennium or the Rapture (a doctrine that did not gain popularity until the 19th century) . Perhaps – before we pass judgment on one of our brothers from the past, we could spend some time encouraging our brothers and sisters from other denominations to faithfully live out what they believe. In the spirit of Romans 14 – we can say that there may be some differences in the way we practice our faith – but all those who believe, declare and live the Lordship of Jesus will share in his inheritance.

  • Nathan December 12, 2012, 5:01 PM

    Have you considered the fact that in his day in Europe smoking and drinking were not seen as sinful things, but rather, it was a part of their culture. Smoking and drinking are only seen among fundamental Christians in the United States as a sign that a person is not a Christian, but let me offer this arguement, Jesus drank, does that make Him not a Christian? I am 16 and know this much, it is a sin to drink to get drunk, but it is not a sin to drink any alcohol.

  • Nathan December 13, 2012, 2:32 PM

    I’m not advocating alcohol, I am just pointing out that just because he drank and smoked, this does not make him a heathen/nonbeliever. I don’t and won’t drink, but that is just a personal choice, I know many Christians who do drink, again I am not supporting this at all.

  • Sam Starrett December 29, 2012, 2:23 PM

    C.S. Lewis is a thinker everyone wants to claim. Heck, Reformed theologian Douglas Wilson has labeled him a “time-travel Calvinist” (a claim that I think is wishful thinking at best on Rev. Wilson’s part, but that’s beside the point.) Evangelical critics of Lewis have a point, from their own perspective. Lewis was not evangelical, he shared little theology with evangelicals, and, as an example of just how un-evangelical he was, I will testify that he was a key influence in my own journey out of evangelicalism and into Eastern Orthodoxy.

    If you look at Lewis’s thought, he was clearly a high church, catholic Anglican. Catholics and (especially, IMO) Orthodox Christians can share a certain affinity for many aspects of his thought, but if we are intellectually honest, we will have to concede that he is not part of our tradition per se. Evangelicals have even less in common with him. That being said, I think I can explain their attraction to him:

    Lewis has no particular attraction for evangelicals as such. Rather, he has an attraction for people. His theology is true on a lot of points where much of the Christian West (and especially low church Protestantism) has gone astray. Because it’s true, it makes sense, and also because it’s true, it resonates with the human heart, because the human heart was designed to work within the framework that Lewis so well understands.

    All that being said, if you are committed to the evangelical tradition, you had better reject Lewis (and anyone else who’s studied classical philosophy and theology, or church history, or been steeped in Arthurian romance or Greco-Roman myth or Renaissance art…). He is not yours. He will not help you. From their own angle, the evangelical critics of Lewis are completely right. He represents a tradition of Christianity alien to their own. He is, if I can be pardoned for returning for a moment to the theological language of the tradition I was raised in, downright romish on numerous points.

    If you want your children to remain evangelical, by all means do not let them read Lewis. Or Tolkien. Or fairy tales. Or myths. Or witness a Latin Mass or the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Don’t let them hear a Gregorian or Byzantine chant. Never show them a Gothic cathedral. Don’t let them hear classical music. Let them keep thinking that miserable “communion table” is an altar. Don’t let them see a real altar. Don’t let the longing for beauty mystery and awe and eternal glory made manifest on earth awaken in their hearts. Because you won’t win them back.

    • Brad May 3, 2013, 9:00 PM

      Once I was saved, I had no more relish for Tolkien or fairy tales or Latin masses or any of that. Don’t know how anybody could leave Jesus to go after that kind of stuff. Sounds ridiculous.

      • Roger February 3, 2015, 12:07 PM

        Brad – Did you say that in order to read Tolkien or fairy tales, attend a Latin Mass or even listen to a Gregorian chant that you have to leave Jesus? How did you reach that conclusion? Does the world hold no beauty for you?

  • John Williams February 10, 2013, 8:03 AM

    I too rely on God’s grace through Christ to get into heaven. Smoking cigarettes and having a brew once in a while is not a sin per say. Lewis has caused me too look hard at some of the leagalisms put on us by Churchianity. Things that come under the heading of touch not tastes not handle not that Paul warns us to reject as leagalism. We are exhorted to earnestly contend for the faith that was first delivered to us. If C.S. Lewis believed these things he is probably not a Christian. We already have a hero Christ, and we do not need any other.

    • Brad May 3, 2013, 8:56 PM

      I think those things (smoking, drinking) are a sin, per se. The grace of God teaches us to live soberly, righteously, and godly (Titus 2). Why can’t I see the Apostle Paul say, “Ahh – those legalists – give me a cigarette!”? Because he said that we knew how godly and unblameably he lived. It’s easy to call something “legalistic” because you don’t want to admit that few people are really saved. You’re not saved by not smoking, but I don’t see how someone who has found Jesus can need a “prop” like that any longer.

      • Chris Curzon May 4, 2013, 11:35 AM

        It would be interesting to ask, if it were possible, how many things we NOW know to be polluting of the body, but which were not known to the people of Apostle Paul’s time. We know smoking tobacco is harmful to the body, but does that make it sinful? What about those people 100 years ago, for whom smoking was not known to be harmful? Were they still in sin?

        There is some freedom in these matters. Eating food offered to idols was in a middle area. Paul was free to eat such (1 Cor 8), but often refrained having a merciful attitude to those of his brethren whose conscience might be troubled by it. So I think that we need to be careful against raising up hard boundaries, which even the Apostle Paul would not have done!

  • Amarilys Gacio Rassler February 20, 2013, 6:39 PM

    It’s not hard to love many of C.S. Lewis’ writings. The sacrifice of Aslan in The Lion,
    The Witch and The Wardrobe has always moved me. A reflection of the sacrifice of The Lion Of Judah? I have to admit though, that I went to hear a speaker on Lewis and his writings right after the movie and I took him aside at the end of his talk and shared this with him. I once practiced the occult. Then, after becoming a Christian I have counseled people demonically oppressed.
    One of the persons I counseled years ago had a figure of a half-man half-horse lying upon her every night … driving her crazy. After we found out why it was there and renounced the open door we prayed and it left. Now, this is what I asked the professor giving his talk on Lewis. Should we use images that represent other gods or represent evil and picture them as good? It was clear to me that what the lady had experienced was a demonic manifestation…. Then, what about Christian fantasy? Can we say some dragons are good? How far does our freedom as writers go? Often puzzled.

  • michaelm March 4, 2013, 1:30 PM

    C.S.Lewis is dead . Or is he ? The Bible says that ‘the soul that sins , shall die ‘ In 1 Cor 15 Paul says ‘If only in this life we have hope in Christ we are to be pitied…..if the dead are not raised ….’ Is Paul saying that apart from this life there is no human life after death Apart from Resurrection ?.
    If so , where does that leave the popular teaching that ‘souls’ of dead people are alive in heaven , Hell , purgatory or Limbo ?.

  • Brad May 3, 2013, 8:49 PM

    Thanks for a great article on C.S. Lewis. Whereas most of those replying didn’t like it, I did. Why does someone have to smoke and drink and whatever else to be “real”? To be “as real as they come”? I don’t want to be “as real as they come” – I want to be made different by the grace of God only. Can’t we be real in Jesus and in getting close to Him, rather than being “real” in the sense of being “free” and being “world-conscious”? Some of Lewis’s statements are interesting, but to put him on a great pedestal is a bit nauseating. Some of his writing doesn’t seem to be that edifying, either, in my opinion.

  • Matthew Sample II May 7, 2013, 6:01 AM

    It seems that this is less a problem with Lewis, and more of a problem with Christians’ reading and thinking skills. “What do they teach in those schools?” And our ability to pass on a balanced faith to our children.

    George MacDonald is my favorite universalist. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is my favorite liberal theologian. Making statements like this angers some I know who like their work, but do not understand how much their ideas affect their work. However, I find it best to know the worst about a man and to appreciate the best, than to appreciate a man as an icon, ignorant of some of his humanity.

    Thanks for yet another great thought-provoking article.

  • Grace September 6, 2013, 7:43 PM

    It’s a shame that in your post you tried to determine whether C.S. Lewis was saved by whether he:

    1. Believed in purgatory
    2. Believed in evolution
    3. Had ever been tempted to pray to another god
    4. Believed that God could reach people in other ways
    5. Whether his understanding of salvation was deep enough

    Reminds me of the time that Christian leaders sat around discussing whether Mary Magdalene had blue eyes or green, while the Mohammadeans destroyed their city. Also reminds me of this joke by Emo Philips: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2005/sep/29/comedy.religion

    Our salvation doesn’t depend on whether our theological views fit with yours, but whether we have trusted that Christ’s blood has paid for our sins. And he certainly did that.

    Remember the thief on the cross? All he did was to ask Jesus to “…remember [him]”. That was enough to save him. His beliefs on purgatory, temptations, scientific understandings had nothing to do with it.

  • Heather V February 6, 2014, 9:21 PM

    As soon as someone quotes CS Lewis- it’s over- I do not listen to another word. I’m not a fan of his writings and don’t think they should be sold as “Christian.” Thanks for the post.

  • heidi February 10, 2014, 5:29 AM

    Thank you for posting the truth about c.s. lewis. We may appreciate what a mere man may write, but when other Christians start pointing out facts about the man that do not line up with scripture, we had better put up the red flag about c.s. lewis. Our loyalty to Christ must be our first priority as Christians, and anything outside of His truth should be shunned. We are living in a time of compromising Christianity. If we can’t die to a man’s writing for the sake of Christ, how will we ever stand against what is coming.

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  • Frank July 18, 2014, 10:33 AM

    Wow! The hypocrisy of “Christians” judging others here is unbelievable! I guess all Catholics are damned by your logic? I know so many Baptists, Methodists and many other protestant brethren that smoke and drink beer and they don’t think much of it even when I politely point out that they shouldn’t be doing it. It’s ironic that as a Catholic myself I don’t smoke or drink. I don’t judge anyone but, try to live according to Christ’s teachings and practice love towards all and preference to none.

    Strangely, I am a former atheist and “The Screw Tape Letters” was one of the first books I read that helped me to see that forgiveness and salvation is never too late or impossible to achieve as long as you accept Jesus.

    God Bless.

  • Anthony DeDona August 8, 2014, 3:41 AM

    Mike, the problem with evangelicals like you is narcissism. You think you have the powerful position to judge wether a person is qualified to get into heaven. You qoute some parts of the bible to fit your position. When did Jesus say that being saved guaranteed you anything. He warns at the end of the semon on the mount to put His teachings into practice or you may even be rejected. Humble yourself pal!

  • Gina October 29, 2014, 1:51 PM

    I discovered Lewis as I was completing three years in a hyper-strict fundamentalist Baptist high school. I cannot tell you how happy it made me that he smoked and drank. A Christian with a couple of habits that weren’t squeaky clean? A Christian who didn’t hide behind a plastic facade and pretend to be perfect? At last! Hallelujah!!

  • RSJ April 30, 2015, 6:24 AM

    I study C.S. Lewis. Did he ponder things that don’t line up with classical evangelical opinions? Sure he does…he’s an intellectual and is not afraid to question and ponder many things. Other than the core of the Gospel, most concepts in our faith are open to discussion. C.S. Lewis’ famous quote about Jesus “…A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” Should put to rest anyone who thinks he wasn’t really a Christian or did not go to heaven. He obviously believed in the Lordship of Jesus Christ and that Jesus was who he said he was and is the way to salvation – don’t be afraid to THINK – too many Christians are good at parroting their preacher or some denominational rule book instead of engaging their brains like Lewis did….he is one of the greatest Christian thinkers ever…don’t fear thinking!!

  • JaredMithrandir December 14, 2015, 12:00 AM

    I won’t judge his Salvation but he certainly has many doctrinal problems.

    I enjoy the Space Trilogy.

  • Daniel December 23, 2015, 2:57 PM

    I believe, at a glance at least, that Lewis was revolutionary regardless of passed judgments placed on him. If we were to place everyone’s thoughts on the chopping block as Lewis done willingly himself I think many people would find inconsistencies of different proportions. Do I think he should be followed and quoted as if he is the chosen disciple of Christ? Absolutely not.

    While there may be many problems in his world view or logical conclusions, one thing is for sure – I would hope in the man’s salvation regardless. Not only, but as easily as I see men fall into the pitfall trap of evolution, Lewis doesn’t seem to have fallen for such. He believed only what could be reasonably asserted within Christian belief, and laid hold of Christ as being God.

    The man was not of science, but logic. Much is assumed by pulling bits and pieces of text with his thoughts laid out for all to read, yet context is left hidden in the original document excerpted from or even more so hidden within history itself without record.

    While I may have personal disputes with his overall views or particular statements, the piece I just read from, “Is Theology Poetry? which is found in They Asked for a Paper. (1962 Geoffrey Bles London 211 p.),” leaves me wondering why the link to such a piece would be labeled, “He believed in evolution.” In fact, the man more than once stated his renouncement of the theory altogether and also stated his reasons.

    No, I don’t think he is a master evangelical, or even a hero of Christianity. But I believe he was a Christian and a flawed one as every Christian is. Yet let us not forget Romans 14:4. As everything in life is tainted, and I have known myself in the past to hold faulty views, I believe his work is of good use for God’s glory. I would take everything he writes with a salty grain, and would check it against the Bible as I do with any author. Would he be offended if I did? Far from it… I believe he would encourage it.

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