Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Wrestling With Emeth, Part 2: Was Lewis a Universalist?

It has been far too long since the first post of this series, Wrestling With Emeth, Part 1: On Three Ways of Reading Lewis. Lord willing, the time between this second part and the third and final part of this series will not be so greatly delayed.
 To begin with, the previous post considered three ways of reading Lewis's writings:

1.       To become so enamored with Lewis that one either attempts to reconcile points where Lewis goes beyond mere Christianity and ventures into speculation, or one actually embraces the these errant teachings despite clear biblical evidence to the contrary (or a lack of biblical support). This ends up placing Lewis over Scripture.
2.      To throw out all of Lewis's writings along with the errors and shun him as a heretic despite the many useful and biblically orthodox things he says and writes.

3.      To read Lewis as we read any other Christian writer, namely, as one who is human and therefore sinful, fallible and prone to error just as much as the rest of us. Rather, we should subject what Lewis - or any Christian - says and writes to the authority of God's Word. In addition to this, we do well to remember that the overwhelming majority of Lewis’s writing is faithful and true to Scripture, not to mention useful and formative for the Christian and non-Christian declaring and defending the faith.
However, Lewis was not without his critics, both from without and within Christianity. In particular, Christians across denominational lines have challenged Lewis on such theological issues as the nature of Scripture, Purgatory and Universalism, just to name a few. For more on where Lewis goes beyond mere Christianity, read an essay by Dr. Steve Mueller of Concordia University Irvine in the Christian Research Journal entitled, Beyond Mere Christianity: An Assessment of C.S. Lewis. He outlines all three in great length and detail. And in many ways his essay has helped me wrestle with both Emeth and Lewis.

The chief goal here is to address the third point: universalism. Specifically Universalism in relation to the narrative of Narnia in The Last Battle where the conversation between Aslan and Emeth the Calormene takes place. In this exchange, the frightened Calormene, Emeth expects judgment from Aslan, for he was a worshiper of Tash. And instead Aslan invites him into his country.

Most people are troubled after reading the following words:

“...Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honor) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him...But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son thou art welcome. But I said, alas, Lord, I am no son of of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.”

In fact, many have read this portion of Narnia and never picked up the books again (or perhaps just The Last Battle), or at the very least, are left with an unsavory taste in their mouths. Admittedly, it always makes me uneasy, especially given the thoroughly clear and faithful biblical imagery throughout the rest of the series. It’s particularly unsettling that Lewis makes this point books written both for children and adults. No doubt, many parents have paused to converse with their child when coming to this section. I know I will when Zoe and I read them together in the future. Usually the kids get it better than the adults: “Ok, I know that was weird; it doesn’t sound right. And I know that it is Jesus alone who saves. Now, let’s read the rest of the story.” At any rate, I am thankful the book doesn’t end there. Even in spite of Emeth, the ending of The Last Battle is still one of my favorite sections in all of literature. Further up and further in!

What Lewis writes fictionally in Narnia he also parallels with similar statements in Mere Christianity.

“There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There 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 still may 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. And as always, of course, there are a great many people who are just confused in mind and have a lot of inconsistent beliefs all jumbled up together.” (Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book IV, chapter 10).

“There you have it,” says the critic. “Lewis is a Universalist. What further evidence do you need?” It would seem logical that if a faithful follower of Tash or Buddha, such as Emeth or Joe-Buddhist, could be saved simply by doing what was right according to Christianity within their false religions then all must be saved. That, after all, is universalism. But that was not exactly Lewis’s position. One must examine the whole body of Lewis’s writings to get the full picture.

A brief look into at Narnia alone reveals that Lewis was not a Universalist. First of all, Aslan clearly denies that he and Tash are one:

Emeth goes on to say, “Then by reason of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false.”

If Lewis were a true Universalist, all the other Calormenes would have been saved merely for worshiping Tash. But this is not so. Emeth is the only Calormene who arrives in Aslan’s country while the rest of his countrymen who served truly Tash are swallowed in the darkness of Aslan’s shadow. In one of the saddest parts of Narnia, the dwarfs march of alone into the darkness and refuse to enter into Narnia shouting all the while, “The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.” Later in The Last Battle, we also find out that Queen Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia; she is in apostasy (however anxious we might be for an answer as to why, we are given no details).

The damnation of the dwarfs and the Calormenes, the rejection of Aslan and the apostasy of Susan are inconsistent with the doctrine of universalism. That doesn’t make Lewis’s exchange between Emeth and Aslan any easier to swallow nor does it make it any less of an error. It simply helps to clarify the error. Contrary to universalism  – and Rob Bell’s new book – Lewis wrote, taught and believed that Satan, hell and demons actually exist. The Screwtape Letters is but one piece of evidence. In the Great Divorce, Lewis writes:

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no hell” (C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, p. 75).

Lewis was not a Universalist, per se. However, that doesn’t make what he wrote in regards to the “righteous pagan” is any closer to the truth. It happens to be a different sort of error, one that can, no doubt lead to Universalism, but is not Universalism in its classic definition. And though Lewis may not have been a Universalist, he does go beyond Scripture’s clear teaching of salvation when he speculates concerning those the "righteous pagan" or the "anonymous Christian." Is it possible that God speaks to them in a way we don’t know or that is not revealed to us in Scripture? Sure, but we are given no clear revelation in Scripture about that being the case; if any such thing occurs it belongs to God's hidden will, a place we dare not attempt to go. The moment we go foraging into the hiddenness of God for answers to questions he has not revealed in Scripture we are chasing after ghosts. We can’t speculate into the deus absonditus when it comes to the question: why some, not others? We must look to the clear revelation of Scripture and the certain hope, comfort and life that come from Jesus’ death and resurrection on our behalf. If you find yourself in heaven, Christ gets all the credit; if you find yourself in hell, it's your own fault. Lewis attempts to resolve some of the tension or the paradox here.

Christians cannot say no more or no less than what Scripture has revealed to us. And Scripture has not revealed the sort of idea Lewis presents in that brief exchange in Narnia and in Mere Christianity. We can say no more and no less than Scripture: “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Romans 10:17) and “There is no other name under heaven by which men must be saved” (Acts 4:12). However, it must be noted that Lewis himself recognizes the exclusivity of the Christian faith in Mere Christianity when talking about the Trinity:

"If you are looking for something super-personal, something more than a person, then it is not a question of choosing between the Christian idea and the other ideas. The Christian idea is the only idea on the market." (Mere Christianity, Book IV, chapter 2).
Earlier in the book, Lewis writes, "But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Jesus Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him" (Mere Christianity, Book II, chapter 5).
Again, Lewis is right in the first half of the quote above. According to Mueller, this is the problem: “This particular description of salvation lacks biblical support” and “Lewis gives a specific answer about these cases without clear biblical backing. Certainly God can do whatever He pleases, and He alone sees and judges the heart, but Lewis’s speculation on this topic goes beyond God’s clear revelation” (Steve Mueller, Beyond Mere Christianity: An Assessment of C.S. Lewis, Christian Research Journal).
Now what? toss Lewis out altogether? No. Embrace his mistakes or try to explain them away? No. As faithful readers – and students of Lewis – we must do two things: on the one hand we must point out the mistakes and errors made by Lewis. But on the other hand, we must acknowledge the fact that the vast majority of his corpus of writing is common to the Christian confession of faith (i.e. mere Christianity), faithful to Scripture and edifying to the reader, both Christian and non-Christian. An honest, intellectual examination of Lewis's writings must include both critique and commendation, neglecting neither. We also continue to thank God for the work of men such as Lewis, whose confession of faith and writing continue to bring Christians and non-Christians alike to the foot of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. That's why Lewis’s apologetics, for example, are without equal. And his story telling continues to do exactly what Aslan says, “That by knowing me here for a little while in this world, you may learn to know me better in your own world.”

Mueller goes on to inquire, “Would the story of Emeth have been less compelling if Emeth had known and loved Aslan while his countrymen served Tash?”

In the third and final post of this series, I will take Dr. Mueller’s question and attempt to put it into practice, to re-write a bit of the dialogue between Aslan and Emeth in view of Scripture’s revelation.


  1. I actually just finished a class specifically covering C.S. Lewis, and this happened to be one of the topics. One thing the professor said on the matter is that there are three different views on who is saved, exclusivism, inclusivism, and universalism, not simply exclusivism and universalism as we tend to think. Inclusivism teaches that not everyone is to be saved, but there are still opportunities for those who never get to hear the Gospel to be saved.

    What Lewis believed was that the image of God and also of Christ was present in every culture and also in our own nature and that through a surrender to that image we could be saved through Christ without explicit knowledge of Him. This tends to make more sense when we remember that Lewis believed in part that the way the Crucifixion worked was by "teaching us" how to die (being a Platonist, Lewis argued that one major problem with our sinful condition is that all that we are in some sense flows out of God and yet as mortals we must all do something that God, simply as God, cannot do), even though the nature of Aslan's death clearly indicates that Lewis also believed in substitutionary atonement. Anyway, the point is that with the model of the Crucifixion instilled in our nature we could receive salvation through Christ by imitating in our own lives His perfect, godly death.

    As with many of Lewis' more controversial ideas, it is important to remember that he put this forward with at least some formal reluctance. When he said that "we know we can only be saved through Christ, we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him" (I'm paraphrasing because I'm too lazy to look up the actual quote) what he actually said was only that there was room for inclusivism in the Christian doctrine. He was stating it as a possibility he tended towards, not an essential part of his belief system. I think that in the Narnia series and in "The Great Divorce" he suggested this possibility in stronger tones than are appropriate to such a thing, but in that I feel he was only letting his emotions get the better of him, especially as he ended "The Great Divorce" with the insistence that all he had seen was but a dream and that nothing specific should be taken too seriously.

    Personally, I believe that the quality which makes Lewis such a target for many critics is the same one which makes him such a powerful representative of the Gospel: namely, his accommodation of non-Christian philosophy. Lewis wrote that Christianity was "a school where they can always use your previous work" and his work clearly bears the mark of his vast experience with Plato and the Romantic writers. I know that many may feel this to be a contamination and even I would agree that he might have made more use of the Bible, but in most cases what Lewis did was to make Plato and Wordsworth bow down to Christ. He may well have crossed the line at some points, but if that is the cost at which he brought so much of literary history into the redemptive life of the Kingdom, then I say that it was worth it.

  2. I'd love to see a bibliography list from that class, if you still have one.

    Also, I don't disagree, entirely. The point of this series is not to belittle Lewis, but rather take an honest look at his work as one should do with any scholarly subject. As I mentioned, his contributions to Christianity far outweigh any of the places where he goes a bit too far. In fact, if we only look at those rare instances where he does go beyond mere Christianity we have entirely missed the point of his work (and to one's detriment, I think).

    The manner in which we treat Lewis I think should be done as he suggests in Mere Christianity, namely, when you find someone in the other rooms of the house, outside of the main hallway, treat them with gentleness and respect as they are learning the ways of the house. That's my approach with him, although I would add that it is a profound respect.

  3. We only really read the "Chronicles of Narnia", a few chapters from each of the classic works, and "Surprised by Joy." There were plenty of critics brought in but they were just in the slideshows and the lectures. Also, I understood what you were saying; I didn't mean to argue against you, I was just throwing in my own two cents. It's a great post.

    1. Marvelous reading choices! I sensed no argument against me on your part (only me perhaps trying to clarify further where I am coming from) and I appreciate your "two cents" as a fellow Lewisian!