Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:
Chapter 4 – Human Wickedness
Chapter 5 – The Fall of Man(kind)
Response to Chapter 4. Human Wickedness
Lewis is entirely correct to emphasize the unhappy truth that we habitually deny our sin, or at least its seriousness, and that we deploy self-deceiving means to do so. Lewis is right to emphasize: (a) evil (anti-Trinitarian “Lord of the Flies”-type localist tribal) clique-dynamics that only look evil from the world of the broader public realm; (b) the role of certain sin-denying popular trends in (pretentiously boastful pseudo-intellectual pseudo-wise) psychoanalysis; (c) a reductionist approach to virtue (which stresses a chav-ethics of outwardly-brutal ego-centric drama-triangle sentimentality and victim-aping self-pity); (d) the finger-pointing self-evading blame-projecting strategies deployed within the superficial outward comparisons used by sin-deniers who binary-categorize only others as evil (using terms like “offenders” and “scum”); (e) the evil things said about “nature” and “finitude” as though God (the very paradigm of innocence, more innocent than a baby) were at fault; and, (f), the view that time alone (rather than Christ’s high-priestly work of (re-)consecrating the defiled and unclean) brings about cleansing from sin and guilt. All these emphases – (with my views added in brackets) – are true.
Two points come to mind, however, in response to what Lewis says: (a) Lewis’s use of the notion of “virtue” has more of a classical feel than a biblical feel. One can speak in terms of “the seven virtues” and of the “seven deadly sins”, but in my view there are more biblical ways to speak of “right and wrong”. To speak only classically about “sin and virtue” is itself a liberal sin-denying strategy. (b) There are also more biblical ways of speaking about the ways in which we disguise sin and hide it from ourselves. Lewis is correct to point out some of the contemporary manifestations of sin-denial, but there are strategies of sin-denial that pervade all cultures and that are manifest in the contemporary manifestations of sin-denial that Lewis notes.
Taking righteousness and sinfulness first, then we may affirm at least eight axes of “goods” that are ours by divine creation: (a) that we are valuable enough to God to warrant new creation and apocalypse; (b) that we are unique persons with unique identities, and not reducible to general naturalistic categories; (c) that we are created to enjoy a relational freedom that is structured as love, first to God, then to neighbour; (d) that we undergo a temporal development process that is not redemption; (e) that, as unique persons, we are unique active agents who have unique creativities, giftings, callings, and vocations; (f) that we have valued embodied gender-specificity which, by creation, is either male or female; (g) that God has ordained for us covenants that relate to marriage, family, and singleness; (h) that God has ordained that we belong to different races and cultures.
An alternative overlapping set of points about created goodness can be gleaned from the early work of Anthony C. Thiselton: (a) selves are persons of great worth and dignity, created in God’s image as “uniques”, and are vocationally gifted existential individuals, each self having a unique story and history distinguishable linguistically only by the particularizing language of historical narrative. (b) The various characteristics of selves are interwoven into a “whole person”. (c) Selves have valued physicality or concrete embodiedness – conceived individually and in relation to gender – that unites mutually interpreting word and deed in consequence-laden public sphere action. (d) Selves exhibit creative, self-involving decision as active agents – individually and corporately – whether as response to God or to others, or as initiative. (e) Selves exhibit temporality, being activated from ahead, by the unfinished, the unexpected, the ideal, or by promise. Openness to the eschatological future liberates selves from conventional determinism. (f) Selves are social, relational, inter-subjective, and corporate, fulfilling their individuality or “wholeness” of personhood in sociality, relationality, communication, community, and in institution – in the lived-out person-to-person encounter of I-Thou dialogue in which the other is treated as a “Thou” rather than instrumentalized and depersonalized as an “it”. ‘I-Thou’ relationality involves vulnerability, mutuality, reciprocity, dialogue, presence, listening, and giving and receiving. (g) Selves are involved in inter-subjective understanding as a fundamental mode of existence. Subjectivity is largely pre-consciously involved in understanding at the level of worlds, horizons, presuppositions, pre-understandings, and questions. Unconscious pre-judgments are more fundamental for understanding and for human identity than conscious judgments. Reader- or listener-subjectivity, in understanding and in communication, shares a prior common or mutual world, language-community, language-game, pre-understanding, agreement, empathy, or involvement with the speaker or writer at a predominantly pre-conscious, pre-cognitive, life-experiential eventful level. Understanding presupposes a pre-existing life-relation between the reader’s subjectivity and textual subject-matters. (h) Selves possess an unconscious (cf. pre-conscious, heart) – the locus of existential forces, strong feelings (e.g. fears, yearnings), and moods. Shared conceptualities, ideologies, pre-judgments, worlds, horizons, pre-understandings, ways of asking questions, language-games, orientations, attitudes, perspectives, dispositions, and concerns are largely unconsciously inherited from traditions. Engaging with texts or with others may transform the unconscious. (i) Selves function pre-reflectively, pre-cognitively, pre-conceptually, or pre-philosophically at the level of life-experience, reflexivity, or of living-through – as when reading a novel or playing a game – where this functioning involves both unconscious and conscious aspects of subjectivity. (j) Selves consciously reflect, exercising historical rationality, though self-understanding is not always understood to be the same as self-consciousness or self-awareness.
A third alternative overlapping set of points about created human goodness may be posited as being equally biblical: (a) Love for God as genuine worship, involving: (i) union with Jesus Christ; (ii) communion with Jesus Christ, with God the Father, and with the Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ’s mediation, in the Spirit; (iii) glorying in God’s holy name; (iv) giving thanks in all circumstances; (v) remembering the wonders God has done; (vi) shunning unbelief regarding the promises of God; and (vii) drinking from God’s Spirit. (b) The social outworking of God’s law (also an aspect of genuine worship) or lawfulness as love for others, involving: (i) love as biblically wise relating to others that stands over and against anti-intellectualism; (ii) the repudiation of sinful manipulative strategies; (iii) Trinitarian inclusiveness that confers freedoms; and, (iv), helping others into the freedom of right relating.
Moving on to biblical ways of thinking about fallenness or sin, then we may affirm at least the following eight axes for consideration: (a) the idolatry of self or of the relationship to self (idolatrous self-relationality, narcissism) leading to the pursuit of false notions of self (the counterfeit, issues to do with performance); (b) the idolatry of schemes, leading to larcenous apostasy or unlawful taking as opposed to covenant receiving; (c) the idolatry of the wider creation, including demons, leading to the addictive profligacy that results from feeding on creation (including created spirits) alone; (d) iniquity, or lawless relating with one another; (e) infirmity: rage, dread, grief, and guilt associated with specific experiences, along with physical infirmities; (f) juvenility: complex interrupted normal development profiles in all; (g) mortality: due to the Fall and to God’s merciful curse on the created order; (h) sophistry: geniuses at self-deceptive self-justification.
Again, we may draw an alternative list of characteristics pertaining to fallenness and sin from Thiselton’s early work: (a) the biblical notion of the heart, as the seat of evil, relates to the unconscious, as the locus of existential forces (fears, yearnings), chaotic lawlessness, self-deception, counterfeit image construction, and of potential mental illness. Theological criteria are required to distinguish between genuine experience of God and unconsciously generated experience. (b) Paul sometimes uses the Greek word translated as “flesh” to denote sinful hostility to God as a mode of existence (not necessarily overt public behavior). “Flesh” sometimes means “selfishness”, or sometimes connotes pro-active self-assertion and/or evasive self-defensiveness. “Flesh” can denote trust in oneself as being able to procure life by the use of the earthly and through one’s own strength and accomplishment in independence from God. Self-sufficiency, self-reliance, self-definition, self-orientation, and self-actualization are related notions. “Flesh” can also denote self-righteous substitution of one’s own rights and wrongs for God’s law, or a futile attempt to obey God’s law apart from God’s grace in Christ. (c) Sin results in suffering or evil, notably predicament, estrangement, longing, anguish, alienation, isolation, loneliness, insecurity, loss of self-respect, escapism, and crisis involving adverse psychological, social, or even demonic pressures. Thiselton argues that there is no comprehensive water-tight, neatly-packaged system of answers that adequately addresses the moral difficulties of the Bible or of the problem of evil. (d) Inserting a point of our own, then we should note that sin has numerous corporate or cultural manifestations, including aspects of, and aspects of the results of, especially, Platonism, Cartesianism, rationalism, empiricism, Kantianism, neo-Kantianism, positivism, existentialism, structuralism, post-structuralism, neo-pragmatism or – alternatively – atheistic naturalism, secular humanism, utopian materialism, materialistic capitalism and materialistic socialism, consumerism, imperialism, colonialism, digitopianism, and so on and so forth. We could also broadly speak of ancient, modern and postmodern cultural manifestations of sinfulness. (e) Thiselton speaks of divine judgment, noting sin’s consequence of vanishing possibilities culminating in death. Divine eschatological verdicts unveil all disguises, deceits and misunderstandings, and judgment may partly consist of the final consequences of being left to the desires of our own hearts.
A different way of looking at sin biblically may be outlined as follows: (a) rebellion against God; (b) wicked hardening of our hearts against God; (c) shunning relationship with God; (d) separation from God’s life; (e) suppressing truth about God; (f) ignorance concerning God’s life and truth; (g) insensitivity to God’s life and truth; (h) susceptibility to oppression by demons and to being deceived by hollow and deceptive philosophy; (i) foolishness or darkened understanding and heart coupled with futile thinking; (j) idolatry of creation; (k) being given-over to the sensory realm; (l) experimentation – or inventing ways of doing evil; (m) addiction or slavery to sin and its ‘cravings’; (n) iniquity – especially lawless relating to others.
Moving on, then “goodness” is not only related to creation, but also to redemption. We may suggest a biblical scheme related to behaviours consistent with redemption as follows: (a) submission: relegating self-relationality relative to worship; (b) consecration: renouncing self-centred schemes for call in the wider world; (c) self-control: subverting addictive patterns; (d) love: perfecting forgiving release and promotion of the other to build church; (e) faith and endurance: trusting God with injustices caused or suffered; (f) wisdom: regaining normal developmental patterns via biblical understanding; (g) hope: persevering towards the certain redemption of our bodies; (h) humility: exposing face-saving sophistry and coming clean.
Drawing on Thiselton again, then we may also conceive of redemption in terms of: (a) selves being acted upon from beyond their situatedness by divine loving, saving action. Both the Christian and the Church are made and transformed by divine speech-action, paradigmatically through biblical writings liberated by hermeneutics to strike home afresh in interpreters’ worlds, drawing them into biblical worlds, exposing truth, lies, and falsehood, and consecrating interpreters to authentic, health-giving existence. (b) Selves, being saved by God, experience the cleansing event of coming to the end of oneself and of casting oneself on God alone, thereby becoming a new creation. Paul’s notion of “being-in-Christ” denotes a mystical relationship between Christ and believers that is prior to all other relationships. God evaluates, encounters, loves, names, and addresses the believer. The believer (not a mere case or number) receives full dignity and the only stable guarantee of personhood in this relationship of reciprocity and mutual presence, responding uniquely and personally to God as a Thou in address, trust, and obedience. (c) Paul’s notion of “being-in-Christ” involves sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is, (i), believers live in two eras – that of the visible natural world and that of the hidden Kingdom already inaugurated in Christ’s resurrection. Believers look back to redemption and forwards to future deliverance, a scenario that implies a temporal contrast. (ii) Believers also receive the verdict “sinful” in the historical juridical context, but receive the verdict “righteous” in the eschatological context of justification. (iii) Believers also participate in two modes of existence – the natural mode (cf. “flesh”) and the Kingdom or resurrection mode (cf. “Spirit”). Life “in the Spirit” involves an already-inaugurated transformation in which believers are helped to sit loose to the sensuous, sinful, self-centered, transient world and to adopt the ethical response of love. Finally, (iv), believers experience both suffering (even eschatological tribulation) and consolation (even unto eschatological glory). (d) Thiselton develops the “now versus not yet” temporal contrast of Pauline promissory eschatology in terms of responsibility and freedom. Thus believers, belonging to the Kingdom era in which promise fulfillment has already begun but is not yet complete, are responsible under the freedom-constraining imperative of building towards the same eschatological goals as those of the Spirit who transforms them. Yet believers, in still belonging to the natural era, also remain responsible under the freedom-constraining imperatives of corporate conventions. Therefore, liberation cannot be conceived of individualistically as “Kantian” ethical autonomy or as “Heideggerian” possibility: rather, promise and responsibility qualify futurity and possibility. (e) Regarding believers’ “life in the Spirit”, Paul’s notion of the human “spirit” is a mode of existence in alignment with the Holy Spirit’s work in which the believer is given new desires, capacities, and horizons that begin to transcend sinful existence. Believers begin to experience liberation from the pre-conceptual conflicting forces and self-deceptions of the heart or unconscious. Eschatologically, personhood is intensified and enriched, not dissolved, dispersed or transcended. The Holy Spirit creatively inspires understanding, and gives individuals gifts. Spirituality recognizes eschatological futurity – against enthusiastic over-realized eschatologies that over-stress present experience, that fall into epistemological absolutism, that appeal to manipulative persuasive re-definition of terms, and that conceive of “freedom” in terms of individualistic autonomy. (f) The Christian’s life in the Spirit is to be a life of faith, hope, love, and truth. Faith and hope are neither individualistic nor wholly passive. Love incorporates self-involvement in fully inter-personal transparent relationships and in reconciliation – in contrast to manipulative deception, concealment, and pietistic introspection. Spirituality backs or gives hard currency to words – in honesty, integrity, sincerity, transparency, and straightforwardness. Spirituality involves obedience to God, reverence for biblical truth, true and/or reliable speech, future-oriented commitment, faithfulness, and critical testing (including self-criticism) relative to theological and biblical criteria. Christ crucified, as criterion, exposes false claims to apostolic authority. Spirituality employs mind and rationality to assess the true versus the false, the correct versus the incorrect, and the authentic versus the inauthentic – relative to truth-criteria. Spirituality includes readiness to submit all pre-conceptions to the test of truth. Spirituality also distinguishes between spiritual verdicts and natural verdicts, where the latter are not all bad. Spiritual verdicts juxtapose thought, rational argument, a provisional biblical frame of reference, and the Holy Spirit’s agency.
Redemption also involves the “good” of the advancement of God’s law into the realm of human laws. The Bible teaches that our default position in relation to human laws is submission, but that we may testify to (but not impose) what is biblically-right for those outside the church from a position of working with the state to refine traditions of legal practice from within. We should have qualified respect for human judgments – whether these emerge from conscience or from human courts. Conscience, being human, is fallen, and so is not necessarily any more reliable than decisions made by the court. In the first instance, the court is to be trusted, and the conscience interrogated, and not vice versa. Human laws, however, often resonate with biblical laws in any case, and so must be followed. Human laws that demand that we go the extra mile – beyond what the Bible teaches – should be followed as an aspect of our witness, a redemptive accommodation. All laws, however, must be followed in the mode of love, and not legalistically. Love determines obedience by how the other – God, or the state, or the Church, or one’s boss – would have one obey laws. Finally, right versus wrong principles must be held in tension with good and bad outcomes, by wisdom. Love neither simply “shelves” all considerations to do with outcomes in the name of legalism, nor simply shelves all considerations to do with principles in the name of consequentialism.
We could go on. Our point, though, is that reducing the “good” to “the seven virtues” and the “bad” to “the seven deadly sins” is nowhere near the complexity that is attained by a biblical consideration of good and evil, and could even be construed as a way of hiding from the complexities of a biblical viewpoint. In our view, Lewis potentially falls into this trap.
We also noted above that there were more comprehensive ways of speaking about strategies for suppressing awareness of sins. We liked Lewis’s exposure of certain contemporary ways of denying sin, but more fundamental strategies could be perceived from Scripture as to more historically universal means of denying sin.
Briefly: (a) we exalt ourselves as judge and law-giver, assuming ethical authority to be ours, not God’s; (b) we invent laws that pertain to fantastical humanistic utopian sociological constructs, designer-realities, or designer selves, rather than to creation as it actually functions; (c) we see ourselves, our consensus, as the local origin of laws, when in fact they are transcendentally given and revealed in the first instance; (d) we tend to conceive of laws only as prohibitive rules, rather than also as paradigmatic relations that centre upon love for God and neighbour; (e) we tend to focus on outward embodied actions, rather than focusing both on these and on dispositions and attitudes; (f) we tend to be lax in terms of standards and enforcement when it suits us; (g) we tend to project our laws onto Scripture, and call them “a possible reading of Scripture”; (h) we tend to use laws as a means of self-deceiving, self-righteous self-justification by which we judge others but not ourselves; (i) we tend to de-relationalise law in legalistic ways, rather than use a biblical notion of love to interpret law relationally.
That is, we tend to disguise our sins through the following self-deceptions: (a) anthropocentric self-arrogation; (b) utopian fantasies about designer-realities; (c) localist distortions that serve socially-constructed formats; (d) emphases solely on prohibition; (e) merely outward emphases; (f) laxness and glossing-over; (g) projection of our own standards onto authoritative texts; (h) self-deceiving, self-righteous self-justification that focuses on others’ sin; (i) oppressive legalisms that gloss-over love.
True, biblical law, however, is: (a) theocentric, or centred on God’s authority, not on our pretentious self-exaltation according to a self-deifying paradigm of ‘adulthood’; (b) realistic, or true to God and to created reality, not to some humanistic utopian fantasy about a ‘designer world’ and about ‘designer selves’; (c) given or revealed, or created and made known by the transcendent God; and not socially, individualistically, or humanly ‘designer-constructed’ locally; (d) relationally configured as love for God and neighbour – i.e. not only as prohibitive rules but also as paradigmatic relations; (e) concerned with disposition and attitude as well as with embodied actions – i.e. both inward and outward; (f) strict in relation to standards – even if the notion of strictness requires qualification when it comes to enforcement; (g) accessible, such that there is no excuse for simply projecting our own content onto Scripture and calling that content ‘biblical’; (h) convicting, or that which shows up our sin – particularly that which shows up our judgments about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ as the self-deceiving, self-righteous self-justification that they are; and yet also, (i), somehow liberating – i.e. not enslaving, being unlike the legalism imposed by demonic spirits.
Lewis is thus correct to argue for a fuller notion of virtue, for an exposure of sin-concealing strategies, for a right view of God’s goodness that hates and opposes our true sinful condition, and for the fact that God thus takes us through painful processes that involve us feeling guilt and shame, and that involve us choosing sometimes painful paths of self-sacrifice.
However, my problem with Lewis’s arguments is that Lewis’s notions of sin, of righteousness, and of sin-concealment are inadequately developed biblically.
Response to Chapter 5. The Fall of Man
In Chapter 5, Lewis rightly argues that God created us as ethically righteous (God-centred, loving God and others), as embodied but in a manner that was more under our control, and as having some kind of kingly rule over the animals. Lewis is also correct to argue that only our Western modernistic and materialistic idolatry of artefacts would lead us to regard Edenic humanity as savages.
Lewis is also right to argue that the sin of pride is very close to the heart and origin of human fallenness. Pride, as Lewis rightly notes, is not only a form of centralised self-orientation or self-relationality (living for ourselves, rather than for God), but is also a delusional self-arrogation (thinking of our selves as though we were more than we are, in terms of assumptions of authority and ownership over ourselves and the world, and in terms of self-reliant actualisation of destinies that we supposedly determine). Rightly, Lewis points to the attempted relationally-distorted “instrumentalisation” or exploitation of God, others, resources, and time that results from self-arrogating centralised self-relationality – from pride.
I also feel that there is much truth in Lewis’s notion that, when our sin cuts us off from God’s being, power and joy, we become de-centred relative to our organism, losing control of it, becoming like mere lodgers or bad kings who are both subject to the “sub-spiritual” laws of nature and guilty of instructing our bodies in ways that are even worse than those demanded by the “sub-spiritual” laws of nature. Being thus askew from our created mode of existence, we feel fundamentally insecure, and so attempt to generate a sense of security through outward comparisons with others whom we compete with in order to gain dominance or superiority. Lewis rightly sees all this as a detestable perverted reconfiguration of our natures that leads to a constitutional change of our status before God, whilst at the same time allowing that much of it is not our fault in an immediate sense, but is inherited.
It is against this backdrop that Lewis argues that God redeems us through painful processes of “remedial good” that involve (a) us regaining a sense of guilt and shame over our sins and, (b), us making painful self-crucifying decisions with respect to resisting habitual backsliding and making the effort of seeking God.
In my view, then, there is much that is right with Lewis’s arguments in this chapter. But Lewis’ argument that the Fall lowers our natures such that we become subjected to nature requires qualification in that, first, it would be better to speak of “creation” than of “nature”, and in that, second, Lewis misses our relationship to the angels, which adds specificity to the notion that we bear God’s image, and which clarifies where we have fallen from.
In relation to speaking of creation, and not nature, then this is not just semantics. The term “nature” suggests “naturalism” which, being either atheistic or deistic, and these days mostly atheistic, can lead to big compromises in the Christian worldview. Naturalism substitutes “big bang-primordial chaos-evolution-order-entropy-final chaos” for “creation-primordial chaos-creation processes-order-curse-redemption”, and so one of its biggest problems is “de-eschatologization” – the substitution, when combined with secular humanism’s resistance to “nature’s” entropy, of an earthly utopia for the heavenly Kingdom, which completely alters what human beings are aiming at in life – telescoping aims and goals into this life, rather than the next, leading to frantic hoarding and frenetic accelerated living.
Another catastrophic problem with naturalism is that it substitutes physical determinism for divine relational redemption. Physical determinism – which prioritises material substance categories such as matter, energy, fields, and so on – leads, by way of reaction, to the humanistic focus on a material utopia. By contrast, God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom of love that priorities relational categories over material categories. Thus, naturalism substitutes a material earthly utopia for a relational heavenly city as its goal, in effect “de-relationalising” the goal of human existence. Materiality replaces sociality as a value, such that social acceptance of others no longer depends on the value of sociality itself, but is made to subtend to materialist achievements: “I accept you because you have shown a great contribution to a materialist goal, not because the goal of relationality or sociality says that acceptance is heavenly”.
Naturalism, in its physical determinism, its materialism, also demythologizes a biblical worldview, rejecting all belief in a so-called “supernatural realm”. Even Christians are told to “look for natural explanations first, and only if all such explanations fail should we consider spiritual explanations”. The reality, though, is that we live in a creation that has dimensions to it that are way, way beyond materialist explanations. Materialism, though, by its de-eschatologization, de-relationalisation, and demythologization, imprisons people into accelerated, relationship-suppressing, and therapeutically-unaddressed corridors of oppression.
There is never enough time or resources to build a material utopia on earth – but there is enough time and resources to steward the earth. There is never enough real relational living and joy when political, economic, and industrial “systems” over-mechanise life into anti-relational corridors of behaviour – but there is enough real relational living and joy when political, economic, and industrial organisation serves Kingdom or relational ends. There is never enough therapeutic wisdom in naturalistic materialism to address the myriad of problems that stem not only from physical and psychological ailments, but also from relational distortions and demonic interference – but there is enough wisdom in true biblical Christianity to address the whole gamut of issues that are not simply “medical”.
Thus, whilst we agree with Lewis’s basic arguments, there is more than a hint of syncretism in his explanations – i.e. of a mixing of biblical and non-biblical frames-of-reference. This is not just an issue of semantics, but affects Lewis’s entire interpretative datum or preunderstanding. We have already noted how, in typical mid-twentieth century liberal style, Lewis tends to begin to assimilate biblical categories to the more “classic”-based categories and curricula of the university arts and social sciences departments of his day. This is not to deny the insights that Lewis certainly does achieve – but it does lead us to be able to point out certain biblical emphases that are lacking in his arguments, which leads to the kinds of imbalances that we have already begun to note.
When it comes to our relationship to the angels then the Old Testament teaches us that God had around him a divine council of angels known as the sons of God. God involved these angels in his creation of the world, and this council governed the world from Eden – the well-watered garden and mountain of God, symbolising an actual geographical location where the chaotic forces of the created environment were overruled by the divine presence. Humanity was created – in order to govern the earth – as an extension of the divine angelic council, of the divine family. Since the Fall, we have been failing in our governance of the earth in that as modernists we have plundered it for the purposes of pursuing grandiose utopian fantasies. Through the redemption, however, we shall be restored to our place within a world-wide Eden – a heaven-on-earth – as beings who are like the angels and who, effectively, replace the angels who fell.
Thus, when Jesus performed miracles, he was not just signalling that he was the Christ, though he was doing this; he was also signalling what we had fallen from. He expresses exasperation at the disciples’ inability to drive out demons. He argues that if they even had a little faith of the kind that pertained to their exalted origins, they would be able to do miracles by their own commands – although, admittedly, such power would come from a capacity that relied on full communion with God.
Lewis, then, needs to add more about our relationship to the angels in order to better ground his points about the fallen perversion of our created “natures” and about our prior kingly rule over the animals as part of an extended divine council and family of God.
Moving on, then Lewis over-stresses the evils of self-orientation. Jesus says that we should love God first, and then love our neighbours as ourselves. What is wrong with self-orientation, or self-relationality, is that we exalt it to the place of self-lordship, dismissing divine Lordship, and placing others as a very poor second. But, so long as we put God first, and so long as we treat others as better than ourselves, then there remains a place for taking care of oneself, for self-stewardship, for the self-relation – a place that is not selfish or narcissistic, but “sober” according to Paul.
Lewis is entirely incorrect when, in Chapter 10, he speaks of “being caught with self” as “fault” and of “clinging to self” as “death”. Do not the very notions of self-control, self-stewardship – and even the notion of self-surrender – logically presuppose that a healthy relationship to oneself remains part of Christianity? Lewis becomes very oppressive, and unbiblical, when he speaks in near Buddhist terms about “utter self-emptying self-abdication”, where he often uses similar language. Such terms leave the reader feeling exhausted and oppressed, not because they are sinners to whom the ways of heaven seem impossible, but because, as we noted earlier and following Thiselton, eschatologically-speaking, personhood is intensified and enriched, not dissolved, dispersed or transcended.
Lewis would agree with this last point, and in Chapter 10 does indeed stress the fully satisfying nature of heaven’s particular preparedness for each individual person. But Lewis so stresses “giving oneself away” that the self does indeed seem to be dissolved and dispersed through impossible levels of sacrifice in Lewis’s notion of the “dance” of heavenly righteousness. Lewis seems to forget that Jesus’ extreme sacrifice in his incarnation and death on the cross was a heavenly response to an abnormal situation, not a heavenly norm.
Admittedly, Paul says that we should follow Christ’s example in this respect, but we too are living in an abnormal situation that is fallen, and thus more strenuous than the heavenly norm. Furthermore, it may be true that the Father exalts Christ as a reward; but Christ also says, “I lay down my life, and I take it up again”. I would argue that the heavenly norm has far, far more to do with resurrection than it has to do with crucifixion.
No wonder some ultra-reformed church cultures seem moribund: they focus too much on Jesus’ death, and not enough on his resurrection; on the negative aspect of the means, and hardly at all on the end, the goal, and the norm. No doubt, though, Lewis is just like the disciples: when told by Jesus about his forthcoming death and resurrection, the disciples were filled only with grief. This is unfaith, however, and not faith – though is admittedly normal.
Another distortion that pervades Lewis’s writings, and which exhausts the reader with oppressive feelings of the overwhelming inevitability of doom, is his over-stress on human responsibility, on works. Lewis almost seems to argue that we, by brute effort, force ourselves to face our guilt and shame, and then force ourselves, against all our fallen tendencies, to crucify the self in order to adopt the utter self-abdication of the heavenly mode of being. For Lewis, God uses suffering to wake us up, and as a chisel to remake us, but again, there is very little sense of us being scooped up and carried to heaven; there is no sense of deliverance from that which humans cannot, ever, deliver themselves; there is no sense of the cavalry arriving, of the absolute God demolishing demonic forces in order to rescue his children. In short, for Lewis, grace, if it exists at all, seems almost to equal pain. There is little sense in Lewis of Paul’s triumphal declarations about God always delivering, and always giving us the victory. Lewis’s God is not a hero, but a beleaguered and desperate God who grabs us by the scruff of the neck and tries to drag us through salvation, sometimes failing to do so.
Again, though, we must be careful here. It is not as though what Lewis says is always wrong. In fact, normally he is correct. The problem is with what Lewis leaves out of the equation. And the gentler, efficacious sides of grace often seem to be left out of the equation – even though Lewis does speak of God’s tenderness in his analogy of a husband’s love for his bride. Lewis’s notion of God’s saving acts actually failing is also disturbing. Paul actually teaches that God is not even remotely threatened or challenged by our sin, but justifies and glorifies all those whom he foreknows, predestines, and calls.
In fact, we cannot even come to Christ at all unless the Father draws us by the Spirit, and gives us saving faith. Thus, it is not as though we have no responsibilities. We most certainly do, and will be held responsible and accountable. And yet, Lewis exhausts us and flattens us by assigning to the realm of human responsibility that which is God’s responsibility. Even our goodness is sourced by God, as Lewis rightly notes, and certainly our redeemed righteousness is from God, by faith, from first to last. Yes, we are to do good works, but these are prepared in advance for us to do, and are empowered by God’s grace and giftings such that, if done properly, our burden is light. Lewis’s writings almost seem to stress a level of self-crucifying toil and pain that is more akin to fleshly works than to Spirit-wrought works.
Life is hard because we are separated from God’s grace. Lewis, though, seems to say that being redeemed is even harder than normal life, which he views more as a blissful ignorance and pursuit of false happiness that is interrupted by suffering. But being redeemed, even with all its hardships, is actually an experience of grace – a rich blessing, an assurance, a knowledge of future victory, a guarantee of heaven, a great relief, an un-burdening. In fact, for those who want a harsh salvation by works, God even re-burdens certain Galatian Christians so that they can re-feel what it is like to be enslaved to oppressive demonic masters all over again, rather than serve God, who is gracious and who does not demand like the demons demand. Lewis’s God, however, seems almost to mirror the harshness of demonic masters.
Another distorted emphasis in Lewis’s writing seems to focus on an overly negative view of the human condition. Now, yet again, we must be cautious here. It is not as though Lewis’s incisive criticisms of human sin are too harsh. In fact, we argued above that Lewis does not go far enough in his critique of human sin because he speaks in classical terms of the virtues rather than in fully biblical terms about the more complex structure of sin.
And yet, in my view, Lewis under-emphasizes human goodness and human righteousness. In our expositions of “good” and “bad” above, we noted how human sin is sandwiched between the “good” of creation and the “good” of redemption (and the “even better” of the consummation). It is a bit of a cliché to say that “everything is not black and white”, but it is true – human existence really isn’t black and white most of the time, but gray.
Now, this is not to acquiesce to neo-pragmatic liberalism which simply “accepts” the “grayness” as “true to what postmodernism has taught us about good and bad being mixed” in “real life”. At the judgment, God will weed out the bad, separating it from the good, burning up the former, and keeping the latter. And “if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment” – so we are to separate good from bad now as part of a refining process. Our point though, is that Lewis’s talk about human vileness, inexcusable corruption, and detestableness to God seems to avoid the subtleties of divine judgment processes which condemn the bad but reward the good.
Now, admittedly, Jesus died in the place of all, and so all deserve death due to their sins. And yet, it is also true to say that “a man is more valuable than many sheep” and, in God’s eyes, definitely worth saving. I do not align with Lewis’s view that God’s love is only a “tough love” that, basically, detests us but, for the sake of being true to the principles of love, makes us lovable. Are we really to believe that a mother’s love for her son, despite all his faults, is greater than God’s love for us? No, the mother’s love for her son is a pale version of God’s love for us, which is affectionate beyond even that of the greatest mother.
Now admittedly, it would be unfair to say that Lewis misses all these positive emphases at every point in the Problem of Pain. However, what he under-emphasizes is the true level of demonic responsibility for human sin. We are responsible to a great extent, yes; but we are redeemable. There is no redemption for the demon or the fallen angel, however. The reasons for this need to be brought out more fully by Lewis in order for him to avoid conflating demonic and human levels of “sinful detestableness”.