CS Lewis and Progressive Evangelicalism

Last week was the 50th anniversary of CS Lewis’ death—November 22, 1963.

I remember that day very well, but not because of Lewis; it was the day President Kennedy was shot. Though I was not acquainted with Lewis at that time, I think he has ultimately influenced me more than anyone except the gospel writers.

I did not mention Lewis’ anniversary on Friday because it was Kennedy’s day and I did not want Lewis to be buried by the attention given to Kennedy.

C. S. Lewis

The Darling of Conservative Christians

Conservative Christians embrace Lewis because of his strong apologetic in favor of God and the Church. He provides down-to-earth ways to think about God, philosophy, and theology that appeal to everyone—from the uneducated to biblical scholars. His writing is comprehensible and easy to digest. But I often wonder why conservative Christians revere him, because in a number of ways he sabotages their world view.

Lewis’ Mere Christianity continues to sell strongly; both the paperback and kindle editions are in Amazon’s top 50 Christian books. It is also #21 and #25 in spirituality books of all kinds. However Mere Christianity is #1 and #2 in Christian personal growth, and Lewis has seven books in the top 20 of this category. It is also #1 and #2 in Christian apologetics, while Lewis has a total of eight books in the top 20.

I first read Lewis when Abolition of Man was required reading for Christian Ethics class at my evangelical college. A bit later I read the Chronicles of Narnia and was blown away! Since then, I have read essentially everything Lewis wrote. He opened a new world to me beyond my flat, colorless, fundamentalist cocoon.

Lewis the Dragon Slayer

Lewis expanded my thinking. Many evangelicals like Lewis because of his arguments for Christianity and his reasoned approach to biblical and theological issues.

On the other hand, I find that Lewis slays many of the dragons of evangelicalism. He introduced ideas, often without elaboration, that made me think beyond my preconceived notions. He opened my mind and set me on a journey that actually destroyed most of the conservative certainties I was taught and led me to new visions and possibilities.

I am not the only one so affected. As I read other progressive evangelicals I often detect Lewis’ influence on them. I wonder why conservative Christians have not commented more on this problem. Lewis gave tremendous impetus to progressive evangelical Christianity.

Let me share two examples.

What Happened to Hell?

CS Lewis wrote a book about heaven and hell called The Great Divorce. It is only a fantasy and not a description, as Lewis is careful to point out in the preface. In the book, heaven is more pleasant than the heaven I was taught to anticipate. It was a paradigm changer for me in thinking about heaven, but not nearly as much as it was for my thinking on hell.

Hell was one thing I knew very well. It was a place of torturous fire that would inflict unimaginable pain on the ungodly for eternity. Most of those who ever live will go there, millions upon millions are there already, and they will never escape. Hell is hot and eternity is a long, long time.

But Divorce painted a different picture of hell. Hell was a dull, shadowy place, and people were there by choice because they preferred it to the alternative of living in heaven.

The book is only a fantasy, but it made me think. I didn’t discard my views on hell right away, but I did question what the Bible actually said and began to study it with new perspective. What I discovered is that the real fantasy about hell was the one I was taught as a fundamentalist.

Narrow is the Road to Eternal Life

In a passage I cannot now locate, Lewis refers to Matthew chapter 7:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.

But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Lewis comments that, whatever this passage means, it is not to be taken statistically.

In The Last Battle, the final book of the Chronicles of Narnia, Emeth the Calormene was devoted to the god Tash, and he hated Aslan. Then Emeth encountered Aslan and was prepared to die. He tells his story:

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 Thine but the servant of Tash.

He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me…no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him.

Wow! The possibilities this suggests!

Lewis and Progressive Evangelicalism

These are only two examples of the refreshing insights Lewis has brought to evangelicalism. I am so thankful to CS Lewis and his influence.

I invite your comments and observations below.
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Also consider sharing this post using the buttons below. Have a great day! ~Tim
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18 Responses to CS Lewis and Progressive Evangelicalism

  1. That is an interesting take on it Tim. I never thought of CSL in that light. I’ve read a good bit of what he’s written and he is a hero to a number of my friends too, but I still think of him as very fundamental because even though he has a bit of a different interpretation on a couple of these things (which I never knew) I still think his public paradigm was that the text is inerrant and inspired…along with substitutionary atonement, creation, etc… That said, your last story does suggest a more open minded take on things. Maybe he was afraid to share some of his deeper views at the time he lived, and instead chose to nest them into his fantasy for those who would notice…

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    • Mere Dreamer says:

      Interesting to think Lewis might have been muzzled by the religious culture of his time. Hmm… He much admired George MacDonald, who was “shockingly” open minded …. at least, as I read him back when I needed to know there were other views of the world. I wonder if Lewis simply kept silent over the more extreme elements, due to his official position representing an organization.

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      • Dreamer, I doubt that Lewis was concerned about representing his organization; he was not employed by the church. But he did value general unity of Christians over divisiveness, and a lot of his progressiveness was suggestive rather than delivered as arguments.

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    • I’m excited to read him now as an adult! Thank you for this post! I will be in touch! 😉

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    • Eric, CS Lewis certainly was a fundamental (mere) Christian, but that is the opposite of a fundamentalist. He wrote his religious books in the 1930s-50s, and there is an old-world aura about his writing.

      Though he held some views that would not be considered progressive by today’s understanding, he also broke a lot of barriers in thinking about Christianity. Those are the things that I think make an impact on the development of evangelical progressivism, because evangelicals flocked to his works, and they still do.

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      • scraffiti says:

        I’m a big fan of C S Lewis too. In the book C S Lewis On Scripture by Michael J Christensen there is a chapter devoted to CSL’s attitude to inerrancy and it is well worth the read. In short he is very open minded. You’re quite right Tim in pointing out the difference between fundamental and fundamentalist. ‘Fundalmentalism’ is really regarded as an American thing and I’m not sure that he would have been that clued up on the subject- even though he married an American. I could be wrong of course. He was also a smoker and a drinker – not much Fundamentalist there!

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  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James’ Ramblings.

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  3. michaeleeast says:

    I’m sorry to be a bit of a wet blanket but from the little I know of C. L. Lewis’ writings – The Chronicles of Narnia – I have some serious problems with him.
    Like Tolkien he divides the world into good and evil. He resolves this conflict with violence.
    And he weaves orthodox Christian doctrines into the mix.
    I cannot agree with any of these things.
    And while he may be more open minded than this suggests he seems very old fashioned now.
    I’m sorry if this taints a hero of yours but that’s how I see him.

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  4. fiddlrts says:

    There is a lot of Lewis that I have yet to read. For those of us with a more fundamentalist background, he is a breath of fresh air, and a reminder that one need not check one’s brain and conscience at the church door.

    I grew up with the Narnia books – and later with the sci-fi trilogy.

    I read The Great Divorce as a teen. I was not expecting it to be that way, and it really did make me think. I probably need to go back and read it again, now that many of my own views have been changed by time and experience.

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  5. lotharson says:

    C.S. Lewis was undoubtedly a Christian giant. It is true he defended Christianity but was by no means a fundamentalist. I know Calvinists who assert he is burning in hell because he did not teach the right doctrine.
    In some sense he greatly influenced my thinking.
    I try to point out both the flaws of conservative Christianity and of harcore atheism but always in a respectful tone towards respectful opponent.

    I hate this culture war.

    To be honest I am agnostic and don’t know if Christianity is true or not. But I think it is worth hoping.
    Tell me Tim, do you feel intellectually convinced that what you believe about Jesus is true?
    Or is it also a leap of faith?

    Cheers from the UK.

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    • Lothar, what I believe about Jesus is not a leap of faith. I know the gospels were written by mere men and that they had agendas, but the portrait of Jesus written from the memories of his earliest followers is convincing, and the resurrection makes me sit up and pay attention to what Jesus says.

      Though they were not without error in their understanding of all the details, I do not think their stories of Jesus are deceptive or fraudulent. They were energized by the resurrection after being all but destroyed at his death. They devoted their lives to telling his story when it would have been easier to go home and live in peace.

      This does not mean I cannot be mistaken, but it is a case of being intellectually convinced rather than a leap of faith. Thanks for the excellent question.

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