(CMCSL-7): C.S. Lewis was a Universalist

UPDATE: It’s seems I’ve “over-summarized” MacDonald’s views on Universalism…inadvertently creating, or continuing a misconception about him. Because of time commitments related to just doing a book on misquotes related to Lewis, I will formally update the article below at a later date. If you are wanting a better understanding of his views, then read this online article: GEORGE MACDONALD’S VIEWS ON UNIVERSALISM by David L. Neuhouser

This is part of an occasional series exploring questionable claims about the life or writings of C.S. Lewis.  For a list of the topics either already explored or planned to be examined you can visit the introduction to this series


Saying C.S. Lewis is popular among Evangelicals is like reporting the grass is green. However, there are those who are on the other end of the spectrum, believing Lewis is dangerous because of some of his views. One of those issues deals with the heart of the Christian faith – the issue of salvation. Specifically, whether or not everyone will be saved. Those who believe ALL will be saved are called “Universalists.” That is, if you hold to the idea that all will eventually go to Heaven, you are a Universalist. Some believe that Lewis held this position. However, a careful consideration of his writings clearly shows he did not hold this perspective.

Specifically, there are three main reasons some believe Lewis held a Universalist position. The first has to do with the Emeth character from The Last Battle, the final Narnia story. A second common factor for thinking he believed in Universalism is his praise of George MacDonald, who was a proponent of universal salvation. Finally, another concern expressed by some is comments Lewis made related to salvation in Mere Christianity, as well as other writings.

Let’s consider the weakest proof that Lewis held Universalist beliefs, his connection to George MacDonald (1824-1905). Before doing that a short summary of who MacDonald was is in order, along with considering how we know Lewis looked up to him. Obviously, he was a writer, because Lewis read his works, but about what subjects did he write? Similar to Lewis, MacDonald penned works in a variety of fields. The Wikipedia page on him begins with stating he was “a Scottish author, poet, and Christian minister.” The next sentence brings some clarity to his writings by proclaiming him as “a pioneering figure in the field of fantasy literature.” This immediately overlooks the fact that he published non-fiction material, but then he is not well-known for this genre. However, it is important to point this out because one of those works, Unspoken Sermons, was beloved by Lewis. Yet it was at the age of 17, when not a Christian, that Lewis was profoundly impacted by MacDonald’s fictional work, Phantastes. Years later when Lewis’ The Great Divorce was released a central character in that fictional work is the “real life” MacDonald. Finally, when Lewis wrote the preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology he stated, “I have never concealed the fact that I regard him as my master.” Thus, clearly there is no denying that Lewis had great respect for MacDonald and he influenced him greatly. However, as will be shown later, Lewis did not agree with MacDonald on Universalism and especially not on his most extreme statement about it; “hell is not everlasting, there is…no hell at all.”

Next let’s consider Emeth, a character from The Last Battle, the final Narnia story. Obviously, this is a work of fiction, so basing an author’s beliefs from a story is shaky ground to begin with. Yet, valid objections can be raised from the picture Lewis does paint. Emeth is a Calormene soldier, whose race is known for worshiping Tash, a false god who is very cruel. It is clear in the story that he served Tash before he died and yet when he speaks with Aslan after this he discovers that anything he did that was good in the name of his false god, Tash was accepted as service done to Aslan. Therefore, Emeth gets to go to the equivalent of Heaven in Narnia. Thus, opponents claim this is proof that Lewis believed all go to Heaven.

The third and final concern to note has to do with what Lewis wrote in his non-fiction that relates to this matter. It is, of course, beyond the scope of this article to consider every passage related to the subject. Interested readers can consult the additional resources given below to gain greater detail on this and the above topics.

Two key passages in Mere Christianity are found in the tenth chapter (Nice People or New Men) of Book 4 (Beyond Personality). In this chapter Lewis addressed the question of why some non-Christians are nicer than Christians. He then stated the obvious that when Christians “behave badly, or fail to behave well” that they make “Christianity unbelievable to the outside world.” But then after this he explained why it was irrational to think one could simply label an individual either a Christian or not. Here is where one should be careful to not miss the context of what is said overall. Lewis wrote that he thought some “who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ” could still be “so strongly attracted by Him that they are His” more than they realize. This passage alone would merely suggest there are those who had not yet accepted Christ, but are on the way to doing so. But Lewis didn’t stop there. The next sentence proclaimed:

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.

There is a letter from 1934 (not long after he became a Christian) where Lewis stated he believed there are those “outside the visible Church” who “are finally saved” based on the fact they were directed “to concentrate solely on the true elements in their own religions.” Lest one think Lewis changed his position on the matter, he wrote the following in a 1952 letter:

I think that every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god or to a v. imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know Him.

As Donald T. Williams states in Deeper Magic, “Traditional Evangelicals are disturbed by Lewis’s line of reasoning because they think it unbiblical and fear that, if accepted, it might blunt the urgency of the task of world evangelization.” But, as disturbing as all of this is, it does not amount to labeling Lewis as a Universalist. Instead, all that can be said is that Lewis either believes, or hopes a position called Inclusivism is possible. Williams explains this belief “holds that not all men are saved, that those who are saved are saved by the death of Christ, but that it is possible for some who have never heard the name of Jesus to be saved by that death through ‘implicit faith’ by following the light that they had.”

Taking this understanding and recalling other events in The Last Battle, one realizes that not everyone in that story got to Narnia’s version of Heaven. One, Susan, who was once a queen in Narnia didn’t go (but then she technically didn’t die in that story either). Also, not all Calormenes went to Heaven and Shift, the ape didn’t go either (among others). Thus, if one were looking for proof that Lewis was a Universalist from the final Narnia tale, one would have to overlook these facts.

Finally, regarding Lewis’ association with George MacDonald, in addition to what has already been stated there are a couple of letters not available in The Collected Letters that present a clear picture of what Lewis thought of his master’s belief in this regard. Those letters will be published in the next edition of Journal of Inklings Studies (October 2017). In that article Reggie Weems presents them and explains why they can be considered the final authority on the matter. Those letters were responses to Rev. Alan Marshall Fairhurst, who in his first letter to Lewis asked why he did not agree with George MacDonald’s views about Universalism. Lewis’ reply on September 6, 1959 found him stating he wished he could “follow G.M. in this point,” but that he “parted company from MacDonald on that point because of a higher authority,” words from Jesus himself.

In conclusion, while the information presented here does not place Lewis within the bounds of teachings advocated by Evangelicals, it also does not warrant labeling him a Universalist. Likewise, his view on these matters are not a point that he went about emphasizing and so because he had many more things to say that are useful to Christians it would be a shame to turn away from his other wonderful writings.


The next article to be posted is:

TBA


RECOMMENDED READING:

Updated 9/30/2017

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7 comments

  1. Dianne mosley /

    Thanks, William for shining some light on a very difficult subject.

    • William OFlaherty /

      Thanks, Dianne!
      I plan to expand this essay for the book version I’m working on that will explore misconceptions and misquotes.

  2. A little bit of clarification about MacDonald. It is fair to say that he was ‘a proponent of universal salvation’, but that was rather his strong belief and hope, rather than something he dogmatically insisted upon. In fact, in his semi autobiographical novel ‘Robert Falconer’, he has the hero Robert admit the possibility of some ultimately rejecting God’s love, which a strict universalist would not allow. I would be interested to see the source of GM’s ‘most extreme’ statement about universalism, as shown above, because I have never come across anything like the assertion ‘the is no hell’ in his writings, and indeed it seems very much to contradict the rest of his teaching as I understand it.

    • William OFlaherty /

      Oops, I made notes on the sources for the book version and should have put them in. Even thought I will update the article, let me put it here:
      Preface to Thisted’s Letters from Hell (1866)
      It can be found here:
      https://archive.org/details/lettersfromhell02thisgoog

      It seems that link does have the 1885 edition with MacDonald’s preface. Here is an article that quotes it (on page 8):
      https://library.taylor.edu/dotAsset/4cd7e050-a4dc-42ad-ae52-e6cb104c7904.pdf

      • I managed to look up a separate link to the preface, and the fuller context shows that while MacDonald WAS saying that hell is not permanent, he was strongly OPPOSING the view that it does not therefore exist. Here is the wider context: “in these days has arisen another falsehood — less, yet very perilous : thousands of half- thinkers imagine that, since it is declared with such authority that hell is not everlasting, there is then no hell at all. To such folly I for one have never given enticement or shelter. I see no hope for many, no way for the divine love to reach them, save through a very ghastly hell. Men have got to repent ; there is no other escape for them, and no escape from that.”

        • William OFlaherty /

          Thanks for clarifying this. I will leave your comments even after I revised the article because it will not likely go into as much detail.

  3. William OFlaherty /

    THIS COMMENT FROM DAVID ISN’T SHOWING, SO I’M POSTING IT HERE:
    I managed to look up a separate link to the preface, and the fuller context shows that while MacDonald WAS saying that hell is not permanent, he was strongly OPPOSING the view that it does not therefore exist. Here is the wider context: “in these days has arisen another falsehood — less, yet very perilous : thousands of half- thinkers imagine that, since it is declared with such authority that hell is not everlasting, there is then no hell at all. To such folly I for one have never given enticement or shelter. I see no hope for many, no way for the divine love to reach them, save through a very ghastly hell. Men have got to repent ; there is no other escape for them, and no escape from that.”

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