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Eric Rodgers

The Gospel and C.S. Lewis
Rev. Rossow

Lewis on Sin
Thesis 24: Yet that wisdom [the knowledge of damning sin in our
lives] is not of itself evil, nor is the law to be evaded; but without
the theology of the cross man misuses the best in the worst
manner.
Luther, The Heidelberg Disputation

What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if
it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would
not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You
shall not covet.”
Romans 7:7

At first glance, this title would not seem to be an essay about the Gospel in the writings

of C.S. Lewis. But it is my goal in this paper to demonstrate that his conception of sin –

especially within the Space Trilogy and The Problem of Pain, but also drawing on other works of

his corpus – is inextricably connected to his portrayal of the Gospel in all of its forms.

It is fair to say, from the outset, that Lewis, in many ways, speaks contrary to the

Lutheran worldview. The footnote on page 79 of The Problem of Pain, for example, tells the

reader that Lewis does not propose to weigh in on the Pelagian-Augustinian debate, but by his

denial of the doctrine of Total Depravity,1 his confusion of the two kinds of righteousness, 2 he

shows himself to be of Arminian persuasion over-against Lutheran and Calvinist monergism.

1
C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996) 61.
2
Ibid. Lewis writes, “I disbelieve the doctrine [of Total Depravity]… because experience shows us much goodness
in human nature.” Human experience can only show us righteousness coram hominibus, and yet he is now crediting
this earthly goodness as righteousness towards God. This line of thinking is present also in The Last Battle when
Aslan saves Emeth despite Emeth’s lifelong devotion to Tash, the Calormene god (see The Chronicles of Narnia,
755-757 for the full account).
And this is as good as his aligning himself with Arminius, Erasmus, and indeed, even Pelagius,

regardless of what he intended.

Even so, Lewis offers many subjective but universal and valuable insights to the pathos

of the wickedness of man and its function in leading people to repentance and salvation.

View of Sin

"Evil," writes Augustine, "[is] nothing but a privation of good, until at last a thing ceases

altogether to be."3 For Augustine, the existence of sin constitutes a falling, a turning, a

separation from God, but none of these things exists as a substance or an existence in and of

itself any more than a hole in the side of a bucket has existence in and of itself. Similarly, a hole,

by itself, is nothing, but it creates a leak by which the contents of a bucket are lost. Implicitly

and explicitly, Lewis echoes Augustine's words.

But within all his writings, one sin always surfaces as the greatest of all sins. This

particular vice – the one which he loathed and feared the most – is, of course, Pride. He calls it

"the complete anti-God state of mind."4 It is the base sin of which every one of his fictional

villains – along with a good number of his heroes – is guilty.5 Though they may also be guilty of

a good many other sins, they are all – from Jadis to Shift, from Mr. Enlightenment to the witch of

Luxuria – guilty of pride.

The evil of men, and even of Satan, according to Lewis, is rooted in this particular vice,

and it lies under every other lapse. Indeed, he writes, “This act of self-will on the part of the

creature which constitutes an utter falseness to its true creaturely position, is the only sin that can

be conceived as the fall.”6 And with man’s betrayal of his “creaturely position” also comes the

3
Confessions, III.vii.12.
4
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996) 110.
5
Gerard Reed, C.S. Lewis Explores Vice and Virtue (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2001), 26.
6
The Problem of Pain, 76.
actual loss of his identity as a creature of God. “The process was not, I conceive, comparable to

mere deterioration as it may now occur in a human individual; it was a loss of status as a species.

What man lost by the Fall was his original specific nature.”7 Now, our original nature lost, we

live under the dominance of Adam’s first sin.

This is his description of the creation of perfect mankind and the role of pride in its

ultimate fall.

We do not know how many [Paradisal men] God made, not how long they
continued in the Paradisal state. But sooner or later they fell. Someone or
something whispered that they could become as gods—that they could cease
directing their lives to their Creator and taking all their delights as uncovenanted
mercies, as “accidents” (in the logical sense) which arose in the course of a life
directed not to those delights but to the adoration of God.... They wanted, as we
say, to “call their souls their own”. But that means to live a lie, for our souls are
not, in fact, our own. They wanted some corner in the universe of which they
could say to God, “This is our business, not yours.” But there is no such corner.8

The theme of the predominance of pride over all sins is echoed in Maleldil's first and

only command to the Green Lady and the King of Perelandra – the only two persons of the only

race of hnau on the planet. Offering no reason, Maleldil commands them never to stay overnight

on the Fixed Land. Until the demon inhabiting Weston’s body arrives, they have known no

temptation, so the right action is obvious to them, and they continue to spend their nights on the

floating islands. To break this command, however, is greater than simple disobedience. If they

had broken this command, they would have been guilty of a lack of trust in Maleldil. But even

greater than that, because of that lack of trust, they would have taken their own fates into their

own hands and tried to assert themselves over the will of Maleldil, creating for themselves a self-

7
Ibid, 78.
8
Ibid, 75.
made security.9 They would accuse Maleldil of not being able to provide for them day-by-day,

moment-to-moment.

Effects of Sin

Lewis also ventures to describe the myriad ways this new sinful nature affects us in our

lives.

The first thing sin effects in man is the inability to see, understand, or know righteousness

or even true, unblemished pleasure. As such, sinful men cannot understand purity, even when

they see it in others. In That Hideous Strength, Mark Studdock, the converted protagonist of the

story tries to escape Belbury and make his way to St. Anne’s to join up with his wife Jane,

Ransom, and the others who oppose the N.I.C.E. As the people of the N.I.C.E. are trying to root

out the contact Mark has to Ransom, they narrow it down to three Christians. The one they rule

out completely, without much discussion, Dimble, is Mark’s contact. The grounds on which

they rule him out are that he is too moral to do the dirty work that they assume St. Anne’s must

be doing. In their minds, the men of the N.I.C.E. have superimposed upon the righteous men at

St. Anne's their own foul, self-serving motives.10 Evil has so pervaded their minds that they

cannot conceive of any other possible mode of existence.

Indeed, even to many readers and critics, the motives and actions of the non-

confrontational, meek occupants at St. Anne’s seem less realistic than the N.I.C.E.11 Perhaps this

is as much an indictment on these very critics as on the villains themselves.

9
Gilbert Meilaender, The Taste for the Other: The Social and Ethical Thought of C.S. Lewis (Grand Rapids: Wm.
B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1978) 19. See also Gunnar Urang, Shadows of Heaven: Religion and Fantasy in the
Writing of C.S.Lewis, Charles Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1971) 17.
10
Richard Purtill, Lord of the Elves and Eldils: Fantasy and Philosophy in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (Grand
Rapids: Zonderban, 1974), 80.
11
Ibid, 73-94.
This suspicion is not exclusive to non-believers in Lewis’s fiction. While he is on

Malacandra, Ransom, who is a Christian and ought to have some knowledge of perfection,

shows that he does not fully grasp a non-hierarchical society between the sentient species.

Repeatedly, he demonstrates that he holds the same sinful presuppositions about knowledge and

power as his depraved kidnappers. He repeatedly asks about the hierarchy of the Malacandrian

hnau, always supposing, based on his erroneous first-impression, that the séroni call the shots

and that the hrossa are subordinate to them. Ransom has ascribed his Earthly, fallen ethic to the

perfect peoples of Mars, even after he has met his first eldil. Weston should be the one to assume

that because the séroni have the greatest understanding of science, they would be the dominant

hnau on Malacandra. If sin had entered Malacandra as it had Thulcandra, perhaps Weston's

assumptions would be right. The hrossa might have been seen as little more than slave labor to

the séroni.

This is not the case, however, in an unbent world. All of Maleldil’s gifts are valued

equally for what they are. In this way, Weston's brutally intolerant attitude toward the simpleton

Harry in the book's opening pages, his superior and patronizing approach towards the very

intelligent, albeit primitive, Malacandrians, his impatience toward the non-research scholar

Ransom, and even his skepticism, insubordination, and pride in his conversation with Oyarsa, are

mocked by his perfect counterpart within the three co-equal but different species of hnau on

Malacandra. Weston cannot understand or appreciate the diversity and wideness of the created

order; he is seeking to rise above them.

Diversity is not truly celebrated among the depraved. It is enforced or ignored, parodied

or parroted. But never is it understood to its truest extent. Among the sinless, however, diversity

is Maleldil's grace upon creation. It represents the wide range of reality found in God's being.
This is why there is more than just peaceful co-existence between the hnau on Malacandra.

There is peace and cooperation far beyond the realm of comprehension of either of Ransom’s

greedy kidnappers or even Ransom himself.

This is not a problem he considers to be fictional. The Problem of Pain likewise

addresses this issue, especially in light of secular science-fiction works of his day. The non-

Christian authors simply did not – and still do not – realize that sin cannot necessarily be

projected on all other possible life in the universe. On page 81, Lewis writes, “I think the most

significant way of stating the real freedom of man is to say that if there are other rational species

than man, existing in some other part of the actual universe, then it is not necessary to suppose

that they also have fallen.”12

Second, sin is self-masking, and the deeper a person is under its sway, the less they see it

in themselves. “Now error and sin,” Lewis writes, “both have this property, that the deeper they

are the less their victim suspects their existence; they are masked evil.”13

Now that man’s original nature, originally created perfect, has been spoiled by sin, it

takes great wisdom for a man to be able to see into himself and dredge up all of his private faults

so that he might examine them and see them for what they are.14 Ransom, as a Christian, brings

up his awareness of his fallen nature and even of his individual faults, particularly in light of his

debate with Maleldil. The thoroughly evil Weston, by contrast, considers himself to be doing

12
And indirectly on page 56, “It is wise to face the possibility that the whole human race (being a small thing in the
universe) is, in fact, just such a local pocket of evil—an isolated bad school or regiment inside which minimum
decency passes for heroic virtue and utter corruption for pardonable imperfection.”
13
The Problem of Pain, 90. This concept is also treated more in-depth in Mere Christianity, 88. “Remember that,
as I said, the right direction leads not only to peace but to knowledge. When a man is getting better he understands
the evil still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately
bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right.... Good people know about both
good and evil: bad people do not know about either.”
14
Even so, Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters demonstrates his wisdom and literary prowess to be able to do just
that.
good for the sake of humanity. The worse he gets – the further away from Christianity he goes –

the more irrational his reasoning sounds. 15

Third, sin is divisive. This theme is perhaps subtler than any of the others made herein.

Sin, as has already been mentioned, finds its roots in Pride, and Pride is by its very nature

divisive and competitive.16 But this division that sin produces is seen most clearly in two of the

many gulfs that Ransom must cross in his interaction with the unfallen races he meets on his

journeys.

The first division is obviously the distance. After Earth’s rebellion, Maleldil has

“quarantined” it, so to speak, from the rest of the solar system. Earth, in its great quarantine of

space, has by its depravity, cut itself off from the abundant but inorganic life of Deep Heaven.17

This is not seen, however, as quarantine, as such, but rather as exile. The demon possessing

Weston’s body is described as the “outcast creature.”18 In being confined to Thulcandra, the evil

eldila have been exiled from community with the others of their order. This is Maleldil’s way of

isolating sin to one planet.19

The second division is linguistic. This is not simply to say that Ransom spoke a different

language and needed to learn it in order to communicate.20 On Malacandra as well as on

Perelandra, this skilled but sinful linguist runs into barriers, difficulties in the sinless language. It

15
See especially Weston’s debate with Ransom. C.S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York: Scribner, 2003) 75-82.
16
Mere Christianity, 111.
17
This image may also be seen, albeit to a lesser degree, in The Silver Chair. Aslan tells to Jill that as she descends
into Narnia from His Country, the air will thicken, and she will have more difficulty remembering the signs he has
given her. It is as if there is some added clarity to the thinness of the mountain air over which the atmosphere draws
a haze.
18
Perelandra, 130. This is also the entire theme of Lewis’s essay entitled “Religion and Rocketry.”
19
Lewis also writes speculatively on this very subject in his essay “Religion and Rocketry.” “I have wondered
before now whether the vast astronomical distances may not be God’s quarantine precautions. They prevent the
spiritual infection of a fallen species from spreading.” The World’s Last Night and Other Essays (San Diego:
Harcourt, 1987) 91.
20
Although this is certainly a major point that Lewis made. If not for the sin of man on earth, if not for the proud
self-aggrandizement of the Tower of Babel, mankind would also, presumably, speak the Old Solar language and
would not be cut off from other hnau of other planets.
stems from the fact that the language of the unfallen does not take into account a state of being in

which sin holds sway.

In one of the most poignant scenes of the book, this becomes much clearer. The hross

Hyoi has just been fatally shot by Weston and Devine, partially as result of Ransom’s own

negligence and denial. Ransom tries to beg for his forgiveness, but he cannot find the words.
ā
“Hyoi, it is through me that this has happened. It is the other hm na who have hit
you, the bent two that brought me to Malacandra. They can throw death at a
distance with a thing they have made. I should have told you. We are all a bent
race. We have come to bring evil on Malacandra. We are only half hnau—
Hyoi…” His speech died away into the inarticulate. He did not know the words
for “forgive,” or “shame,” or “fault,” hardly the word for “sorry.” He could only
stare into Hyoi’s distorted face in speechless guilt.21

One might chalk this up to the fact that even a philologist of the highest order would need

much more time fully to learn a language, and the ease of his experience in Malacandra prior to

the death of Hyoi did not make his learning of these words necessary. But that is not the entire

reason for this difficulty. If a society’s language is a reflection and an outworking of its culture

and worldview,22 then the language of an unfallen race for which sin is not a reality would not

allow for substantive speech concerning sin. For Ransom, this causes more of a problem than

mere difficulty in translation; it requires that he also become “unbent.” Old Solar would not take

into account a term for forgiveness because there is no fault or shame to forgive in a faultless

world akin to Eden.23

On Malacandra, at least, the inhabitants have knowledge of death, evil, and fear because

they have been the victims of attacks by the bent Oyarsa of Thulcandra. But Ransom becomes

21
C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Scribner, 2003) 82.
22
I have heard this claim from two reputable sources. I first heard this put forth explicitly by Dr. Schumacher while
I was in Pastoral ministry. Almost two years later, I read it in a book for a speech class I took in the summer of
2005, so I cannot cite it directly. I have since sold the book and cannot find it again, but my notes from the
presentation I made say that the theory of Linguistic Relativity “states that the worldviews of different cultures are
seen, not by what can be said but rather by what can be said easily.”
23
This is also shown as Ransom translates for Weston and the Oyarsa.
even more keenly aware of this division in Perelandra because it was populated after the

quarantine of the exile and his ilk and had thus never experienced the breaking of Maleldil’s

commandments of any kind. With the innocent Green Lady, Ransom must use the primarily

substantive language of Old Solar to describe the essentially privative concept of human sin in a

sinless world.

Finally, sin, when left unatoned for, effects complete and utter damnation in mankind.

Apart from separating man from his fellow man, sin also drives a wedge between man and his

Creator. And this wedge, if left in place, will lead to eternal division from Him, which is the

very nature of Hell. In a moment of clarity, Dr. Weston describes the way this has dawned on

him during his time being possessed by a demon on Perelandra. In those last lucid moments

before his death, he explains to Ransom that for him, life has been one step of self-will at a time

farther and farther away from God until one day at his death this will lead to final and ultimate

separation from Him; for, God is not the God of the dead but of the living. 24 That is hell.

Lewis also describes this process of self-will in damnation by answering its greatest

objections.

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a
question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all
costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every
miraculous help? But he has done so on Calvary. To forgive them? They will
not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.

Lewis’s concept of damnation is the final, eschatological realization of man’s self-will

and pride. It is the ultimate end to which sin will lead.

But Lewis would never intend to leave his readers on such a gloomy note. All of this

discussion about sin, even for Lewis, is a means to proclamation of the Gospel of Christ.25

24
Perelandra, 143.
25
The Problem of Pain, 148.
The Function of Evil in the Act of Proclamation

To leave this essay simply about the Law would be to write an incomplete account of

Lewis and to miss the point of his writings completely. Indeed, the last chapter of The Problem

of Pain is dedicated to the finality of joy and heaven. The concept of evil has a very important

role in the communication of the Gospel.

Sin, however evil it is, never falls outside of the realm of the sovereignty of God.

Whether a man will or will not serve God, all of his actions will serve His purposes.26

Ransom, in his conversations with the Green Woman and the Unman points this out.

Of course good came of [sin]. Is Maleldil a beast that we can stop His path, or a
leaf that we can twist His shape? What ever you do, He will make good of it. But
not the good He had prepared for you if you had obeyed Him. That is lost for
ever. The first King and first Mother of our world did the forbidden thing; and He
brought good of it in the end. But what they did was not good; and what they lost
we have not seen.27

While sin is to be seen and understood as a terrible thing, Lewis also shows it to be under

God’s sovereign control and subject to his divine power. In addition, He often uses sin to draw

people back to Himself. Above, I showed how Lewis describes unrecognized sin within a

person’s life as “masked evil.” In one of his most famous excerpts, he writes, “Pain is

unmasked, unmistakable evil; every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt....

We can rest contentedly in our sins and our stupidities… we can ignore even pleasure. But pain

insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience,

but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”28 For those who overlook

pleasure and do not heed conscience, pain – or evil unmasked – is often the first thing to
26
See especially The Problem of Pain, 111. “A merciful man aims at his neighbour’s good and so does ‘God’s
will’, consciously co-operating with ‘the simple good’. A cruel man oppresses his neighbour, and so does simple
evil. But in doing such evil, he is used by God, without his own knowledge or consent, to produce the complex
good—so that the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool. For you will certainly carry out God’s
purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.”
27
Perelandra, 104.
28
The Problem of Pain, 90-91.
demonstrate that not everything is as under his control as he would like to admit. By that means,

he may be made aware of his own sin. Lewis believed that Christus Victor must often be

preached as a gateway to the Christus Vicar proclamation.

In this way, we see that for Lewis, knowledge of sin is imperative before repentance can

take place. For Lewis, this was the center of repentance, and repentance was the basis of

conversion. Sin holds sway over our lives, damning, dividing, and making us unaware of the

extent to which we are ruined. Left alone, we would be lost forever to our own self-will and

pride. But because of Christ’s work on the cross, we are forgiven. As St. Paul wrote in his

second letter to the Corinthian Church, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to

salvation without regret.”29

29
2 Corinthians 7:10a (ESV).
Works Consulted (if used but not directly cited)

Michael D. Aeschliman, The Restitution of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Case against Scientism
(Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1998).

Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: A Companion & Guide (New York: HarperCollins, 1996).

Clyde Kilby, Images of Salvation in the Fiction of C.S. Lewis (Wheaton: Harold Shaw
Publishers, 1978).

C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966).

Jared Lobdell, The Scientification Novels of C.S. Lewis: Space and Time in the Ransom Stories
(Jefferson: McFarland, 2004).