I originally started this thread on March 30 2011, and finished it in early May, but I’m starting to consolidate some of my larger and more important threads to my author’s category which might change the initial thread date; so I’m noting the composition time here. Subsequent entries to the original post should show the proper composition date anyway.
Note that the whole essay is broken up into several entries composed across the space of about a month and there are other comments meanwhile, so keep going down the thread.
I’ve also added a related essay from March 2013 on how Lewis regarded free will and how he fit this (inconsistently I argue) into his understanding of salvation and condemnation.
This is important because very many Arminian apologists and scholars (and even some Calvinists, weirdly enough) currently try to follow Lewis on this; not noticing the internal inconsistencies, and not much noticing (or caring if they do notice) the huge disjunction between Lewis’ theory and how the scriptures represent God’s very active judgment and punishment of sinners including post-mortem.
Certainly I don’t blame them for trying to follow Lewis, because that’s usually a great idea! He doesn’t make a mistake often, but he’s making one here that’s self-contradictive to his own positions elsewhere, and one way or another this needs to be resolved.
Some related threads prior to this one: Why wasn’t C.S. Lewis a Universalist? How close did he get? Didnt C.S. Lewis reject ECT? Why isnt he treated like Bell?
*essay starts next
Despite the fact that Lewis was never a universalist, I can say with some assurance that he was the first person to suggest to me in a serious (if inadvertent) way that universalism might be true.
I have been a student of Lewis and his works over 20 years now, including dubbing his books to tape to listen on my business trips. My study of Lewis’ theology and apologetics was how I got into internet writing at all–I was invited to join the email correspondence group of Victor Reppert (another Lewis expert) based on my Amazon reviews of some of Lewis’ books. Not only have I analyzed his apologetics extensively and critically in correspondence with believers and unbelievers since before there were internet web journals (including a massive project of metaphysical apologetics constructed as an update and expansion of Lewis’ Miracles: A Preliminary Study), but those apologetic efforts led to my invitation to write as a main author for the Cadre Journal (which in turn partly led to being invited here at the beginning of the EU forum as a guest author).
Over the years as I studied his work, pro and con, some of the things Lewis said began to slot into place for suggesting I ought to look into whether Christian universalism (of one sort or another) might be true. Until then, I had the same overly withered notion of universalism that most people have today, based mostly on the so-called “Unitarian Universalist” group. Even by late 1999, long after I had been thoroughly studying Lewis for ten years, when I began work on Sword to the Heart’s first Section of chapters, my notion of “universalism” was the worthless concept of a religious pluralism where all truth claims are supposed somehow to be equally true (a concept I ripped to shreds, and still do today!) I had never once, before Lewis, heard anyone even suggest that Christian universalism might be true, and at the time I started SttH I still (thanks to Lewis) believed that it couldn’t be true. It didn’t even register on my radar.
On the other hand, thanks to Lewis, some other things were registering on my radar!
First, and least: even though I followed Lewis in dismissing it (on the vague ground that it had to be a misunderstanding somehow), Lewis was the first person I had ever read to acknowledge something I had sporadically noticed myself: that some of the things said here and there by St. Paul seemed to point toward and even (a surprisingly strong word for Lewis) to warrant that universalism might be true. The testimony of Christ, he thought (as did I), showed that that interpretation couldn’t really be true, but still it was at least a puzzle, though not one I spent any time really thinking about.
Second, and rather more importantly: Lewis was the first person I ever read to take seriously the idea that people could be saved post-mortem. And he didn’t only take it seriously, he wrote pretty strongly in favor of it! He seemed to be basing it as an inference from metaphysical reasoning and from pieces of scriptural testimony that, put together, pointed that way in principle; not on direct scriptural testimony. Which, I thought (and still think), was why he probably didn’t affirm it even more strongly, and occasionally (as in The Great Divorce) seemed to pull himself up short self-critically on the topic. Still, thanks to Lewis I could see the theological logic of the concept–a topic I will be mentioning again as I go along!
Third, and related to TGD: the man, after Christ and the Apostles, whom Lewis seemed to think the most highly of in theology, going so far as to call him his “Teacher”, was George MacDonald. I didn’t know much about him for years, other than Lewis referenced him a lot (a lot more than I realized at the time, as I came to realize later!) And that he was a Scottish fantasy writer as well as a theologian. And that Lewis actually set up a fictional meeting with him in heaven (or heaven’s outskirts) in TGD. And that he wrote as though he thought universalism was true. (But Lewis explained in TGD that, no, he couldn’t really have thought that, heh! He must have been an annihilationist instead, which explains, I thought, how Lewis first came to be so impressed by that idea.)
Third-and-a-half: I eventually bothered to read MacD’s theological work (after beginning to suspect thanks to Lewis that universalism might be true), and discovered to my shock that not only was Lewis dead wrong about him not being a universalist, but that MacD was strongly in favor of it over-against annihilationism. And furthermore, while he didn’t base his case directly on scriptural citation, I thought MacD did make a pretty strong conceptual case for it, on much the same piece-together-scriptural-principle grounds that Lewis appeared to be using for promoting post-mortem salvation. But what really struck me here was realizing that Lewis somehow had salted the pizza around, on a man he himself greatly admired, so that the man said something practically the opposite of what the man had actually said. Considering that Lewis had done so in order to deny universalism was true, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison between this and what Lewis said about St. Paul–and about Christ! If Lewis had flipped things around so drastically for MacD, could he have done so for Paul or even Christ??
Fourth: Lewis was the first person I ever read who even sporadically connected trinitarian theism with the concept that God is essentially love. And what I thought was more surprising, was that when he did so he did so extremely strongly. Yet despite this, it seemed to feature very little in his theology overall. But it did, sort of, feature in his soteriology, where because God is essentially love, God is still loving even people in hell. While Lewis’ position on this took various forms over his life as a Christian author (from his very first theological work, the allegorical autobiography The Pilgrim’s Regress to Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer), the basic concept remained solidly the same. Trinitarian theism is true, therefore God is essentially love, therefore God must always be acting in love as well as justice toward all people, even in wrath and including in hell.
Fourth.1: But Lewis, despite this solid theme throughout his work, never seemed entirely comfortable with how this fit into hopeless damnation. Which doubtless explained why his outworking on it shifted around quite a bit.
Fourth.2: In fact, the closest he seemed to come feeling comfortable with it, involved God just outright losing to sinners and being overpowered or outthought or otherwise defeated. This ran very strongly against his affirmation of God’s omnipotence and omniscience elsewhere, even with his reasonable provisions about how even God could not do what was contradictory. I understood that it would be contradictory for God to force someone to freely love Him (or anyone else for that matter); that part didn’t bother me. But I couldn’t see how this resulted in it being contradictory for God’s omnipotence and omniscience to prevent sinners from scrunching themselves into a state where their freedom to repent was lost despite God’s actions and intentions otherwise. How does letting them get that far respect and protect their freedom??! When Lewis wrote, “It doesn’t take a very robust faith to trust that omniscience knows when” it is hopeless to keep trying to save someone from sin, I wanted to answer (as I do routinely answer now): “It doesn’t take a very robust faith to trust that omniscience and omnipotence would be able to keep the sinner from getting to that point!” But since even Lewis denied that universalism could be even possibly true, I didn’t have anything better to offer, other than an observation that the Calvinists seemed to have a trust in God over sinners that Lewis somehow, despite his great strengths, lacked.
Fifth: Except that Lewis didn’t always lack that trust in God’s persistence either!
And that leads me to the actual point of this article. Just how close did Lewis get to universalism?
Christian universalism at the minimum involves the following points:
(a) Salvation is by Christ alone (thus by God alone if ortho-trin is true);
(b) Salvation is primarily from sin (“He shall be called ‘Jesus’ for He shall save His people from their sins”), including where chastening from God is involved;
© God (through Christ) acts truly and seriously, not merely potentially, toward saving all people from sin, not only a chosen elect;
(d) God (through Christ) acts persistently to save from sin those He intends to save.
Arminians (such as Lewis, or to pull a name from the hat, Greg Boyd as an extreme Arm) and Calvinists (such as, off the top of my head, Paul Helm, a hardliner who criticizes other Calvs for being too Arminian in their scope of God’s love) would both despite their differences agree with (a). And they typically both agree with (b), at least if they bother to sit down and think it out a little. (They could hardly affirm instead that salvation is primarily from punishment or the devil or whatever and NOT from sin!–even if they normally rhetoricize otherwise.) Arms would affirm ©, Calvs would affirm (d), and each would deny the other on those points.
Lewis took the Arminian side of the debate between © and (d) in light of final perdition. In The Problem Of Pain, in the chapter on hell, he thus asserted (as elsewhere) that God just eventually gives up trying to save some souls from sin because He knows when they have made it impossible for Him to do so. But even in that chapter he is oddly inconsistent. “It is only to the damned that their fate could ever seem less than unendurable.” Wouldn’t that logic mean that only sinners would think of hell as endurable, whereas the righteous would believe that sinners would not endure it?!–and wouldn’t the righteous include God Himself??! To Lewis the notion of hell seems “intolerable”, yet he seems prepared to tolerate it, and to expect God to tolerate it, and even to expect God to help the righteous saved to tolerate it!
But more importantly, in the exact same book, Lewis spends practically all of chapter 3 expounding on what “Divine Goodness” means–which one might have thought ought to be important to factor back into the account when it came time to talk in chapter 8 (on “Hell”) about “vaster good and evil” instead of primarily about “categories of pleasure and pain”.
What is the vaster divine goodness that Lewis recognizes?
And Lewis there, yet not in chapter 8, goes extremely far in talking about the persistence of God’s love in salvation from sin. Any Calvinist would recognize the concept–except of course that Lewis technically applies this persistence in salvation to all sinners not only a chosen elect. So it couldn’t be Calvinistic persistence, yet neither is the problem the scope of salvation. On the contrary, Lewis simply turns around later and denies the persistence in salvation (with the excuse that God does not persist in salvation, though He does persist in love toward the sinner, because in effect the sinner has of himself made it impossible for God to save him–a position Calvinists would strenuously deny of course.)
But in chapter 3 there is no such denial of the persistence. Nor is there any obvious explanation for why the extreme persistence of God’s love in salvation, affirmed in chapter 3, should even quit, much less fail, in chapter 8. Logically Lewis should have affirmed the continuing persistence of saving love (not merely providential love) in a stalemate at worst.
The chapter is well worth considering in some detail; but I’ll do that in a following post.