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C.S. Lewis - Why So Popular Among Evangelicals?

David Cloud

The late British author C.S. (Clive Staples) Lewis (1898-1963) is extremely popular with Evangelicals today. According to a Christianity Today reader's poll in 1998, Lewis was rated the most influential writer. Though Lewis died in 1963, sales of his books have risen to two million a year. In an article commemorating the 100th anniversary of Lewis's birth, J.I. Packer called him "our patron saint." Christianity Today said Lewis "has come to be the Aquinas, the Augustine, and the Aesop of contemporary Evangelicalism" ("Still Surprised by Lewis," Christianity Today, Sept. 7, 1998). Wheaton College sponsored a lecture series on C.S. Lewis, and Eerdmans published "The Pilgrim's Guide" to C.S. Lewis.

In its April 23, 2001, issue, Christianity Today again praises C.S. Lewis in an article titled "Myth Matters." Lewis, called "the 20th century's greatest Christian apologist," wrote several mythical works, such as The Chronicles of Narnia, which Christianity Today recommends in the most glowing terms, claiming that "Christ came not to put an end to myth but to take all that is most essential in the myth up into himself and make it real." I don't know what to say to this except that it is complete nonsense. In his Chronicles, Lewis depicts Jesus Christ as a lion named Aslan who is slain on a stone table. Christianity Today says, "In Aslan, Christ is made tangible, knowable, real." As if we can know Jesus Christ best through a fable that is vaguely based on biblical themes.

Was C.S. Lewis a strong Bible believer? By no means. Christianity Today noted that he was "a man whose theology had decidedly unevangelical elements" (Ibid.). Lewis was turning to the Catholic Church before his death. He believed in prayers for the dead and purgatory and confessed his sins regularly to a priest. He received the Catholic sacrament of last rites on July 16, 1963 (C.S. Lewis: A Biography, pp. 198, 301). Lewis also rejected the doctrine of bodily resurrection (Biblical Discernment Ministries Letter, Sept.-Oct. 1996) and believed there is salvation in pagan religions. Lewis denied the total depravity of man and the substitutionary atonement of Christ. He believed in theistic evolution and rejected the Bible as the infallible Word of God. He denied the biblical doctrine of an eternal fiery hell, claiming, instead, that hell is a state of mind: "And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind--is, in the end, Hell" (Lewis, The Great Divorce, p. 65). D. Martin Lloyd-Jones warned that C.S. Lewis had a defective view of salvation and was an opponent of the substitutionary and penal view of the atonement (Christianity Today, Dec. 20, 1963). In a letter to the editor of Christianity Today, Feb. 28, 1964, Dr. W. Wesley Shrader, First Baptist Church, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, warned that "C.S. Lewis... would never embrace the (literal-infallible) view of the Bible" and "would accept no theory of the 'total depravity of man.'"

At age 58, the long time bachelor C.S. Lewis married Joy Gresham. She met Lewis in England, returned to the States and was divorced from her husband, then traveled back to England to marry Lewis. According to two of Lewis's friends, Gresham's husband divorced her on the grounds of desertion (Roger Lancelyn Green & Walter Hooper, Light on C.S. Lewis).

In 1993, Christianity Today explained why C.S. Lewis is so popular among Evangelicals. Among the reasons given for his popularity was the following "Lewis's concentration on the main doctrines of the church coincided with evangelicals' concern to avoid ecclesiastical separatism" (Christianity Today, Oct. 25, 1993). CT admits that C.S. Lewis is popular to Evangelicals today because, like them, he despised biblical separation.

C.S. Lewis was very ecumenical. The following is an overview of his ecumenism and his influence on present-day ecumenical movement:

Lewis was firmly ecumenical, though he distanced himself from outright liberalism. In his preface to Mere Christianity, Lewis states that his aim is to present 'an agreed, or common, or central or "mere" Christianity.' So he aims to concentrate on the doctrines that he believes are common to all forms of Christianity--including Roman Catholicism. It is no surprise that he submitted parts of the book to four clergymen for criticism--an Anglican, a Methodist, a Presbyterian, and a Roman Catholic! He hopes that the book will make it clear why all Christians 'ought to be reunited,' but warns that it should not be seen as an alternative to the creeds of existing denominations. He likens the 'mere Christianity' that he describes in the book to a hall from which various rooms lead off. These rooms are the various Christian traditions. And just as when you enter a house you do not stay in the hall but enter a room, so when you become a Christian you should join a particular Christian tradition. Lewis believes that it is not too important which room you enter. It will be right for some to enter the door marked 'Roman Catholicism' as it will for others to enter other doors. Whichever room you enter, says Lewis, the important thing is that you be convinced that it is the right one for you. And, he says, 'When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors.'

Mention should also be made of Lewis' views of the sacraments. The sacraments 'spread the Christ life to us' (Mere Christianity, book 2, chapter 5). In his Letters to Malcolm Lewis states that he does not want to 'unsettle in the mind of any Christian, whatever his denomination, the concepts--for him traditional--by which he finds it profitable to represent to himself what is happening when he receives the bread and wine' of the Lord's Supper. What happens in the Lord's Supper is a mystery, and so the Roman Catholic conception of the bread and wine becoming the actual body and blood of Christ might be just as valid as the Protestant view of the Lord's Supper as a memorial (Letters to Malcolm, chapter 19). ...

This enigma of C.S. Lewis was no more than a slight bemusement to me until recently three things changed my bemusement into bewilderment.

In March 1994 the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement produced its first document. This was a programatic document entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium. It was rightly said at the time that this document represented 'a betrayal of the Reformation.' I saw no connection between this and C.S. Lewis until a couple of years later when the symposium Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Working Towards a Common Mission was published. In his contribution to the book, Charles Colson--the Evangelical 'prime mover' behind ECT--tells us that C.S. Lewis was a major influence which led him to form the movement (Billy Graham was another!). In fact Colson says that Evangelicals and Catholics Together seeks to continue the legacy of C.S. Lewis by focusing on the core beliefs of all true Christians (Common Mission, p. 36). The enigma took on a more foreboding aspect.

The enigma darkened further when just last year (after becoming connected to the Internet at the end of 1996) I discovered, quite by accident, that C.S. Lewis is just as popular amongst Roman Catholics as he is amongst Evangelicals. Perhaps I should have known this already, but it had never struck me before.

The third shock came last autumn when I read that Christianity Today--reputed to be the leading evangelical magazine in the USA--had conducted a poll amongst its readers to discover whom they considered the most influential theological writers of the twentieth century. You will have already guessed that C.S. Lewis came out on top!

After these three things it came as no surprise to me this year to find that C.S. Lewis has exerted a major influence on the Alpha course, and that it quotes or refers to him almost ad nauseum. Could not the Alpha course be renamed the 'Mere Christianity' course? ...

In conclusion, I offer the following reflection. If it is true to say that 'you are what you eat,' then it is also true to say that 'a Christian is what he hears and reads' since this is how he gets his spiritual food. Thus if Christians are brought up on a diet of C.S. Lewis, it should not surprise us to find they are seeking 'to continue the legacy of C.S. Lewis.' The apostle Paul said, 'A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump' (Gal. 5:9--the whole passage is relevant to the present context); thus if evangelicals read and applaud such books as Mere Christianity it should come as no surprise if we find them 'working towards a common mission' with the enemies of the gospel. The young Christian should be very careful what he reads, and those in positions of authority (pastors, teachers, parents) should be very careful what they recommend others to read (Dr. Tony Baxter, "The Enigma of C.S. Lewis," CRN Journal, Winter 1998, Christian Research Network, Colchester, United Kingdom, p. 30; Baxter works for the Protestant Truth Society as a Wycliffe Preacher).

In April 1998, Mormon professor Robert Millet spoke at Wheaton College on the topic of C.S. Lewis. In a recent issue of Christianity Today, Millet, dean of Brigham Young University, is quoted as saying that C.S. Lewis "is so well received by Latter-day Saints [Mormons] because of his broad and inclusive vision of Christianity" (John W. Kennedy, "Southern Baptists Take Up the Mormon Challenge," Christianity Today, June 15, 1998, p. 30).