The Salvation Theology of C.S. Lewis

The much-vaunted author of both fiction and Christian apologetics, C.S. Lewis utilized his skill with the pen in order to paint a sweeping picture of Christian theology. In many instances, this was done so plainly, as in the case of his book Mere Christianity. But on other occasions, Lewis sought to inject Christian theology into places, settings, and characters that, on the surface, appeared to be anything but a typical exposition on theology. Lewis was and still is famed for his ability to speak to the spirit and identity of many differing Christians, bridging the divide between generations and denominations, all while incorporating some fairly unorthodox beliefs regarding salvation and inclusivism.

Whether in the form of fiction, apologetics, speeches, or correspondence, Lewis’ discussion of salvation provides some clues to his unusually broad interpretation of God’s forgiveness and mercy. The term “unusually” should be noted in reference to the general belief both then and now of Christians conforming to a much more strict and unforgiving doctrine of salvation, not necessarily unusual in terms of theological interpretation. Many have accused Lewis of being a shy universalist (an individual who believes in the salvation of all humankind). It is true, Lewis did revere such figures as George McDonald, a renowned and prolific author of universalist theology; even choosing to incorporate McDonald as one of the main characters in The Great Divorce. Although this is certainly true and perhaps Lewis flirted with some concepts intrinsic to universalism, it served as a means of expanding his theology of salvation to a wider degree, not in relegating his belief in eternal punishment as null and void. In this essay, I will delve into multiple works of fiction, apologetics, and correspondence in an attempt to identify the characteristics and theology of C.S. Lewis’ broad road to salvation in order to demonstrate his underlying sympathies of universalism while clearly defining his soteriology outside of it.

Lewis’ salvation theology incorporates unique ideas surrounding the continuous process of attaining holiness, even following death, especially amongst Protestantism. At first, this concept may seem foreign to most Protestant audiences. Indeed, it even seems foreign, as described by Lewis, to many Roman Catholic faithful. The Great Divorce incorporates a unique discussion of ideas surrounding Purgatory, Heaven, and Hell. “The Gray Town” functions as both a domain of purgatory and one of eternal separation from God (Hell). Even Heaven, as portrayed within the story, is a part of this world, being only a short bus ride away. While Lewis does not contend that universal salvation is a reality, he does make note of the potential for progression toward sanctification following death and explicitly places the possibility of salvation with the individual’s simple acceptance of God’s love. This concept theoretically implies that God has made universalism a possibility, while realistically acknowledging its impossibility due to man’s own inability to universally choose sanctification over corruption, even in the afterlife.[1]

It is curious to note that Lewis utilizes the famed George MacDonald as a character within this work. MacDonald’s inclusion within the story is illustrative of Lewis’ own soteriological development. First, it is telling that Lewis would utilize such a polarizing individual as one of the main characters within the work. It is likely done so as a way to casually attest to him as a theological bedrock of his development. This, of course, does not imply that Lewis agreed with him entirely, but rather, that Lewis’ own theology of salvation is broad and inclusive due to his consideration of MacDonald’s own theology. It is even more telling exactly how Lewis chooses to use MacDonald’s character within the book. The narrator notes, that, MacDonald’s character was a universalist on Earth and yet, it seems as if he does not hold to such beliefs in the afterlife. McDonald’s character responds saying “the choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it.”[2] The turning of MacDonald’s character accurately represents the development of C.S. Lewis’ own theology regarding salvation. In this instance, MacDonald may be speaking solely in terms of sanctification within the afterlife or perhaps he means it to encompass both life and death. Regardless, he does not refute outright the possibility of universalism. Indeed, it seems as if he insinuates that God leaves open the chance, perhaps even hoping for such a result. In other words, MacDonald is recognizing that although the possibility of universal salvation exists, realistically, not all will choose salvation, even in the afterlife.

At first glance, the idea that sanctification may continue as an unfolding process following death appears to be contrary to our understanding of Scripture, or at the least, contrary to our Protestant understanding of salvation and death. Roman Catholic ideas of purgatory as a penitential waystation to heaven are certainly prevalent and considered a variation of this idea, although different from Lewis’ in that Purgatory does not exist as a separate place from Heaven and Hell, nor does Lewis view Purgatory as a place solely intended for penance. Rather, Lewis envisions Purgatory as a place that either leads us to Heaven or becomes our Hell. The protagonist from The Great Divorce notes just this when he asks “but there is a real choice after death? My Roman Catholic friends would be surprised, for to them souls in Purgatory are already saved. And my Protestant friends would like it no better, for they’d say that the tree lies as it falls.”[3] In his Letters to Malcolm, Lewis expands on his personal understanding of Purgatory and how it differs from more reformed denials of its existence and the Roman Catholic idea of a place for the already saved to serve penance. He contends that the traditional Protestant view holds that “all the dead are damned or saved. If they are damned, prayer for them is useless. If they are saved, it is equally useless. God has already done all for them.”[4] Plainly speaking, Lewis contends that Protestants simply believe death to be the ultimate and final endpoint and destination for the individual. In arriving at death, a person will either be identified as part of the elect and rise to heavenly communion with God or damned to an eternity of torment and pain. Most Protestants do not give consideration to any ideas of an afterlife that allows for the continued journey of sanctification (or damnation). Lewis thoroughly rejects such an idea and, as I am contending, argues that it is not so simple. He similarly rejects the Roman Catholic view of Purgatory, believing this to be a system revolving around “purely retributive punishment” as opposed to being a place of purification.[5] Lewis describes a scene in which a rough, dirty, bedraggled individual approaches God to be told that his appearance and state do not matter to anyone in Heaven and he is welcomed into Heaven. The individual responds saying, “With submission, sir and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.”[6] He contends that we simply desire the opportunity to “collect” ourselves prior to communing with God. Rightly so, given the drastic difference in appearance and character between God and the sinful creature presenting itself. Lewis ascribes much of his theology surrounding Purgatory to the writings of Saint John Henry Newman, an Anglican convert to Roman Catholicism, who in his poem The Dream of Gerontius, describes the death of a person and his journey through the afterlife. The poem is lengthy; spending only a short amount of time focusing on the final setting of Heaven and instead electing to discuss at greater length the various sights, sounds and reasons for his soul’s journey to judgement before God and eventual acceptance into Heaven.[7]

This notion of continuing our journey of sanctification is actually common to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. During the celebration of Holy Communion, the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church invokes blessing on the recently deceased saying “and we also bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service, and to give us grace so to follow their good examples…”[8] In this simple wording from a mainstay of the Holy Communion in the Book of Common Prayer, we find validation of C.S. Lewis’ beliefs regarding the continual sanctification of an individual following death. This plays against our common conceptions within Protestantism that sanctification ends where our bodily existence ends. Within the common mind, a man’s life on Earth is judged as being worthy or unworthy and there the story ends. We see, both in Lewis’ fiction and through the doctrine found in the Book of Common Prayer, that this is not necessarily the case.

Turning to Scripture, we are able to find multiple passages supporting concepts of sanctification after death. Two passages allude to the possibility of a continuing journey toward later sanctification one coming from the New Testament and the other deriving from the Apocrypha (Deuterocanonical Books of the Old Testament). For example, 2 Timothy 1:16-18 states:

May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me earnestly and found me—may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day!—and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus.

In this passage from Saint Paul’s second letter to Saint Timothy, we find Onesiphorous discussed in the past tense. It is assumed then, that Onesiphorous has died. Paul is seen plainly praying for the deceased man and in so doing, Paul acts as an example for how we should seek the edification and sanctification of those who have passed on to the afterlife. While this does not necessarily imply a further journey into sanctification, it certainly does not negate the possibility, nor is there any possibility to conclude that we are to assume that judgement is something that occurs immediately upon death. Therein lies the most obvious argument in support of Lewis’ notions of continuing sanctification. If Paul believed that judgement occurred immediately upon death, then his words would not imply an expectant but unrealized future day of judgement.

2 Maccabees 12:44-45 states:

For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin.

Although, to many Protestants, the Apocrypha is not authoritative and perhaps goes unread, it still carries weight within the Anglican tradition that C.S. Lewis ascribed to along with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, where it is considered canonical. This passage from 2 Maccabees is far more explicit in its implication of a potential continuation of the journey toward sanctification after death. The first verse establishes the necessity for prayers for the dead, rooted in an understanding of the resurrection, while the last verse acknowledges a need for atonement from the living on behalf of the dead because their journey toward holiness continues on after death.

In further discussing the topic of universalism, McDonald’s character notes that “ye can know nothing of the end of all things, or nothing expressible to those terms. It may be, as the Lord said to the Lady Julian, that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. But its ill talking of such questions.”[9] In these terms, Lewis is continuing to suggest the possibility of universal salvation, while leaving open the reality that, although possible, it is realistically unachievable. Regardless, in line with the Book of Common Prayer, it seems likely that Lewis maintained a hope for such possibilities in his allowance for its possibility, perhaps even hinting at the hope of such a reality. This idea of hope in universal salvation is not unique to Lewis. Much of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s salvation theology centered around the Christian imperative to hope and pray for the eventual salvation of all people, whether it be a realistic or a theoretical possibility. This is not necessarily a sincere belief in the reality of universalism. Instead, it is an argument that C.S. Lewis would likely agree with, that the proper Christian response to the idea of universalism is not outright condemnation, but rather the sincere hope that all will be saved, even if it is not realistically possible. Can we honestly, as Christians, justify anything less than this response?[10]

Already, we can see that Lewis’ idea of salvation transcends the hard and fast understanding of most. Salvation, to Lewis, is a road that potentially extends long after we have left this physical plain for a spiritual world. McDonald’s character notes that “there are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it.”[11] The simple concept expands our understanding of the nature of salvation and sanctification, which all too often we limit to simply this bodily existence and rightfully so. It is our common experience but is not necessarily relegated to just this earthly existence according to Scripture.

In his personal letters, Lewis noted his own practice of praying for the dead. In Letters to Malcolm, Lewis says:

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 me…Though even in Heaven some perpetual increase of beatitude, reached by a continually more ecstatic, self-surrender, without the possibility of failure but not perhaps without its own ardours and exertions for delight also has its severities and steep ascents… I believe in Purgatory.[12]

The beliefs relayed in this passage align perfectly with his propositions in The Great Divorce. Lewis briefly describes the bulk of his fiction in just a few lines by acknowledging that perhaps even those who have found a place in Heaven (however tangential that may be) likely experience an ever-increasing sanctification, regardless of their status of being saved.

This brief excerpt from his Letters to Malcolm also demonstrates the practical side of Lewis’ theology. Not only is he providing this as scholarly theological insight, he includes it within his own ascetical practice. This is not just a debate to Lewis, it is his lived experience, making it all the more valuable and edifying to us, both academically and practically.

Continuing sanctification is not the only idea intrinsic to C.S. Lewis’ broad theology of salvation. On numerous occasions, both in his literature and his correspondence, Lewis has alluded to a belief in inclusiveness. Plainly speaking, Lewis believes that most, if not all religions, possess some element of truth and therefore, contain some element of God. As such, he believes it possible for an individual who has not accepted Christ, directly, even for an individual who has never heard of the historical and theological figure of Jesus Christ, to achieve salvation in God. In his letter to Mrs. Ashton dated November 8, 1952, Lewis describes just such a belief, saying “I think that every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know Him.”[13] Lewis dives more deeply into this topic in Mere Christianity, noting “there are people in other religions who 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.”[14] In both his correspondence and his apologetic writings, Lewis is quite clear in his belief that all people have the potential at salvation, even those who do not embrace Christianity in its fullness. This view coincides with his broadened theology of salvation and maintains the influences of universalist thought within a context that, perhaps, still refuses to acknowledge it as reality. Lewis does not stop here, however. He also includes his inclusivist theology prominently within his works of fiction. In The Last Battle, Lewis utilizes the character of Emeth as a display for his inclusivist theology. Emeth, an enemy soldier opposed to Aslan (the Christ figure within the story), is a worshipper of the false god Tash. He comes to discover that Tash is indeed a false god and laments to Aslan that all of his worship has been set in opposition to him, though he is the true savior.[15] Aslan responds “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.”[16] Aslan explains his reasoning further saying, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him.”[17]

In The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape notes a similar display of salvation despite misplaced action. Screwtape notes that although it can be beneficial for humans to place their efforts into misguided worldly pursuits, it can just as quickly become a detriment to the demons seeking the demise of their human “patients.” He notes “But that is where He [God] is so unfair. He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophisticated ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew.”[18] He goes on to further note that God “wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand, and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles.”[19] Each of these examples demonstrates a profound inclusiveness to Lewis’ understanding of salvation. This is an inclusiveness that many fellow Christians had and continue to have trouble accepting as a possibility. Is Lewis essentially arguing for the acceptance of sin? It is certainly an argument to be made but rather, it appears that Lewis is arguing for the all-encompassing mercy of the Triune God.

Lewis’ rationale behind each of these examples is a display of true inclusivity, meaning: Lewis believes that God is capable of working in and through all things, including false religions. Logically, such a proposition makes sense; emotionally, however, many Christians feel this to be a step too far. Certainly, there are many places in Scripture where such a notion could potentially be contradicted however, placing boundaries around God’s action and ability changes the very nature of God as described within Scripture and as attested to by the universal church. God is quite capable of doing anything and on that basis alone; Lewis’ conception of inclusivity must be given due consideration.

Lewis actually attributed pagan mythology with having a role in his eventual conversion from atheism to Christianity. “Christianity is primarily the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, but also the fulfillment of what was vaguely hinted in all the religions at their best.”[20] Lewis cited his experience in witnessing a natural progression from the truths displayed in pagan mythology into the incarnation, arguing that it was the incarnation itself that brought the vaguely defined truths of other religions into sharp focus. Indeed, to Lewis it was other religions that ultimately brought him into communion with Christ.[21] Lewis goes so far as to criticize the “elitist” mentality of many Christian missionaries who look down on the primitive religions of those they are evangelizing to. Lewis notes an element of the divine in each of these people, which is theologically sound when viewed in the context of the Imago Dei. We are all, whether Christian, Buddhist, Muslim or otherwise, made in the image of the one Triune God, therefore we bare the divine image. It is not too far a leap to make in assuming that, as a byproduct of this divine imprint, we carry elements of the truth into all aspects of our being, including primitive, undeveloped, and false religions.[22] There is only one requirement for the salvation of those outside of Christianity according to Lewis. That requirement is a sincere and constant effort at seeking out the truth, even if that search leads an individual down paths that are outside of Christianity proper.[23]

What are we to make of this theology of salvation according to C.S. Lewis? It resolves itself to be an interesting middle ground between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism in many ways. It certainly extends far beyond the theology of typical Protestant denominations. Whereas the Roman Catholic Church does maintain a doctrine of Purgatory, most Protestant denominations simply deny its existence. This, of course, is not universally the case, as some Lutheran and Anglican traditions certainly subscribe to some notion of its existence. What path is C.S. Lewis cutting for us? Is this a long road to universalism or a winding path toward a broader understanding of salvation? Ultimately, it appears to be the latter, with some caveats.

It is not possible to ignore the urgency and necessity of George MacDonald and his universalist ideas in the development of C.S. Lewis’ theology. While it did not force Lewis into a total belief in universalism, it is certainly the case that it broadened Lewis’ theology of salvation, to the point that it differs considerably from orthodox, traditional beliefs within both Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church. It is likely, as can be seen in The Great Divorce, that Lewis leaves open the possibility of universal salvation, limited only by our own innate ability to deny God, even in death. This results in a reality that renders the possibility of universalism unlikely, even within Lewis’ expansive theology of salvation. We must again acknowledge his fairly unorthodox belief that other religions contain truth that points back to God. This is a very large leap of faith on Lewis’ part because it flies in the face of many accepted and traditional beliefs within the universal church. Again, however, in choosing to argue for this possibility, Lewis is ultimately arguing for the supreme sovereignty of God to act in any way God deems fit. Lewis does not outright reject the idea of universalism. Instead, Lewis makes provides explicit and detailed examples that together show salvation, while not being universal, is much broader, merciful and understanding than the church has often taught.

  1. Lewis, C. S. (2017). The C.S. Lewis signature classics. San Francisco: HarperOne, 538.
  2. Ibid, 539.
  3. Ibid, 504.
  4. Lewis, C.S. (2017) Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on prayer. HarperOne. (Original work published 1964), 144.
  5. Ibid, 145.
  6. Ibid, 146.
  7. Newman, John, H. (1865) ‘The Dream of Gerontius,’ The Newman Reader. http://www.newmanreader.org/works/verses/gerontius.html
  8. (2015). The Book of Common Prayer: An administration of the sacraments and other rites and ceremonies of the anglican catholic church. Athens: Anglican Parishes Association, 75.
  9. Lewis, C. S. (2017). The C.S. Lewis signature classics. San Francisco: HarperOne, 538.
  10. Balthasar, Hans, U. (1988). Dare We Hope “That All Men Shall be Saved?” (D. Kipp, Trans.) San Francisco: Ignatius Press (Original work published 1987), 18.
  11. Lewis, C. S. (2017). The C.S. Lewis signature classics. San Francisco: HarperOne, 506.
  12. Lewis, C.S. (2017) Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on prayer. HarperOne. (Original work published 1964), 144-145.
  13. Lewis, C.S. (2017). Letters of C.S. Lewis (W.H. Lewis and W. Hooper, Ed.) HarperOne, 548.
  14. Lewis, C. S. (2017). The C.S. Lewis signature classics. San Francisco: HarperOne, 165.
  15. Lewis, C. S., & Baynes, P. (2017). The last battle. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 153-155.
  16. Ibid, 155.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Lewis, C. S. (2017). The C.S. Lewis signature classics. San Francisco: HarperOne, 198.
  19. Ibid, 208.
  20. Richie, T. L. (2008). Hints from heaven: can C. S. Lewis help evangelicals hear God in other religions? Evangelical Review of Theology, 32(1), 40.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. McCormack, E. (2008). Inclusivism in the fiction of C S Lewis: the case of Emeth. Logos, 11(4), 58.

 



Nicholas Harelson

Nicholas Harrelson is a parishioner at St. Benedict’s Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, NC. He lives in Mebane, NC with his wife Codie, son Atticus and soon to arrive daughter, Harlow. Nicholas is a postulant to the priesthood in the Anglican Catholic Church, a student at Duke Divinity School, and is a vowed brother in Christ Mission Anglican Benedictines. He holds a Bachelor of Art in History from Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and a Master of Art in Diplomacy with a concentration in International Conflict Resolution from Norwich University. Nicholas served six years as an infantryman in the United States Army and is a two tour combat wounded veteran of the recent conflicts.


'The Salvation Theology of C.S. Lewis' has 1 comment

  1. April 27, 2021 @ 9:07 am TNAA reader

    Lewis had strengths and Lewis had weaknesses. Although not presented as such, this essay is best read as a catalog of his weaknesses. Moreover, the theology presented in this essay is sub-Anglican. Its method of appealing to the Apocrypha as Scripture, especially to establish doctrine, is ruled out by the Articles (Article 6); its conclusion about Purgatory is ruled out by the force and reasoning of the Articles’ discussion of Purgatory (Article 22); and its hopeful universalism is ruled out by the creeds (the Athanasian Creed). This essay describes various positions with winsome clarity and learning. But for any Anglican who is committed to the Anglican formularies (especially the Thirty-Nine Articles, the BCP 1662, and the Ordinal), the positions advanced in this essay should generate a sense of sadness. They should be rejected; they are not creative explorations in need of further development.

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