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 poster 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.”
- 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 defective 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?