Why do so many Christians love C.S. Lewis?

C. Michael Patton of Credo House Ministries makes a thought-provoking case for why so many Christians appreciate C.S. Lewis – despite his decidedly questionable theology – but nevertheless castigate Rob Bell for superficially similar failings.

Patton makes a good argument: that Lewis set out to defend orthodoxy and the person and work of Jesus Christ, whereas Bell seems to delight in challenging them. And, no doubt, this provides a substantive part of the answer to Patton’s question. Much of what Lewis writes is helpful, and the broad appeal of his apologetic work undeniable. But I am not sure that Patton has quite explained the entirety of Lewis’ attraction.

Now, I am far from an expert on Lewis. I read the Narnia series as a child, along with The Screwtape Letters, and then some of his other works in my early twenties. Much more recently, I read and enjoyed his fictional Cosmic Trilogy. I very much appreciated Lewis’ essay, On the Reading of Old Books, which he wrote as the introduction to a translation of Athanasius’ work On the Incarnation. Everyone should read that essay. Nevertheless, there is very much of Lewis’ work that I have (yet) to assimilate, though his general theological perspective is apparent in what I have read.

Lewis was certainly not orthodox in a great deal of his theology, as Patton observes. Even in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for example, it is decidedly odd that Aslan pays a ransom to the Snow Queen. Lewis’ view of Scripture was rather lower than many of us would think proper. He believed in a form of purgatory. And he had inclusivist tendencies – the belief that a person could ‘belong to Christ without knowing it’ (Mere Christianity). Lewis’ views on evolution, though – particularly in later life – are perhaps not as straightforward as Patton seems to suggest.

Why, then, given his questionable-at-points doctrine, is Lewis as popular as he his among those who would – notionally, at least – subscribe to sounder doctrine?

Patton makes his case well, though I suspect a further factor is that Lewis was possessed both of an extraordinarily fine mind and the literary prowess to be able to communicate his thoughts clearly and engagingly to a wide audience. Whether or not one agrees with him, Lewis makes us think. And this, for the discerning reader, is a great benefit. However, the problems inherent in Lewis’ theology are a potential trap for the unwary. I am not therefore quite as ready to endorse Lewis’ ministry as is Patton. The danger of false doctrine is not lessened by an accomplished and affable presentation, nor by the attending presence of a great deal of truth. Quite the contrary.

And therein perhaps lies another small piece of the puzzle with regard to Lewis’ popularity. I wonder whether too many of us are insufficiently discerning, too attracted by the superficial lure of a cool well on scorching summer’s day to be concerned by reports that it is tainted by a mortal threat. For Lewis’ doctrinal foibles are not excused by his undoubted greatness, but magnified. As the writer of Ecclesiastes observes:

Dead flies putrefy the perfumer’s ointment,
And cause it to give off a foul odour;
So does a little folly to one respected for wisdom and honor.
Ecc. 10:1

Thus, if we are to read Lewis, let us exercise diligent discernment – as indeed we should do with even the most excellent of teachers (cf. Acts 17:10–11).

Like us, Lewis was imperfect, a fallen sinner prone to err. Thanks be to God, then, that we have in Jesus Christ a perfect Saviour who has paid the punishment for all our sins, whether those of doctrinal imperfection or of insufficient discernment. Believing this, we stand before God declared righteous in Christ.

Further resources

The Christian Research Institute has a brief, balanced and helpful assessment of Lewis’ theology (PDF).

A year or two ago, I started to listen to a lecture series (available for free on iTunesU) on C.S. Lewis by Dr. Knox Chamblin at Reformed Theological Seminary. Regrettably, I became sidetracked before I learnt very much. I have recently started to listen to it again, and I am thus far very much enjoying Dr. Chamblin’s manifest enthusiasm for his subject.

22 thoughts on “Why do so many Christians love C.S. Lewis?”

    1. Thank you for visiting and leaving your thoughts, Arron. I wasn’t aware that Piper had written a biography of Lewis. Dr. Chamblin does recommend certain biographies in his opening lecture (if I recall correctly), but I don’t think that one was mentioned.

  1. Hello Daniel, Long time no contact – hope you and yours are well.

    Was particularly interested in this item on C S Lewis. A few years ago he was being heavily ‘promoted’ in this part of the world. In response to that I wrote a number of articles and this link http://www.takeheed.net/Assorted_Articles/Contemporary/Lewis_avoid.htm
    will take you to an article that by its title will sum up my assessment of the writings of Mr Lewis – unfortunately from my persepective there is more than enought doctrinal ‘poison’ contained in them to render them ‘off limits’.

    Hope they add extra flavour to the debate.

    1. Hello, Cecil – welcome back! It has been too long. I appreciate your perspective and I shall be sure to read your summary assessment.

      As C. Michael Patton observed, Lewis is not loved by all, though he uses a provocative title which might suggest otherwise. Indeed, one of the commenters on this blog sent me a thoughtful critique of Lewis’ theology a few weeks ago. In addition to Patton’s post, that was part of my motivation for writing this article.

      Thank you again for your comments – extra flavour indeed!

      Peace and grace.

    2. Dear Pastor Andrews,

      Grace and peace in Christ our Lord!

      Thank you for your faithful service to our Savior. Not too many willing to issue warnings about C.S. Lewis. In fact they could probably be counted on one hand. It is such an enigma to me. What’s even more puzzling is why anyone who declares Reformed Theology would embrace Lewis since he is the fruit of George MacDonald, who despised Reformed Theology, and whose ideas oppose biblical doctrine at every point (much the same as Lewis). It in all respects is just frankly baffling. I’m like Columbo, when a piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit it drives me to distraction:) And none of this makes any sense.

      Blessings to your ministry, charisse

    3. Dear Charisse,

      Many thanks for your kind and encouraging response. For the life of me I can’t fathom why so many supposed ‘evangelicals’ worldwide can sing the praises of this man when he was so wrong on so many crucial doctrines as I discovered when I did the research for my articles.

      May the Lord’s rich blessing be yours.

      Cecil Andrews

  2. I think the draw to C.S. Lewis is his ability to “think out loud”. I don’t read much into conclusions as much as I do spiritual observations and musing to oneself. In his book “Mere Christianity”, you can sense a type of reservation and shyness to definitive statements (maybe why he wrote so much fiction, like poetry…subject to interpretation). It feels sometimes like he is asking the reader questions…and wisely stepping out of the way as a personality. C.S. Lewis very much “lived out loud” and it shows in his writting. When I really understood his place in the great puzzle of the divine, was when I read “A Grief Observed”…Talk about raw and exposing! C.S. Lewis bumped around the light and described shadows as best he could…I believe he was “tortured” for our own edification. As Christians, we should be guided by the Holy Spirit (a really good BS detector) and know that what we hear in Lewis’ voice is poignant and yet still searching. Many men are burdened for the higher purpose much to the destruction of their own understanding. God is mysterious and reveals what He will to whomever He wishes. I bet if you asked Mr. Lewis if he thought it was all worth it now…He would simply laugh in joy!

  3. Dear Daniel,

    It seems that a good apologetics question to ask would be: “How is it possible that an “unorthodox Christian” could be equally loved by Protestants, Catholics and the larger unchurched philosophical, and literary communities of the world?”

    The answer could only be that Lewis appealled to the Broad Road.

    In order for someone’s writings to be enjoyed by the Broad Road two things have to be missing, the rock that causes people to stumble and the offense/foolishness of the Cross.

    Charles Spurgeon made an interesting observation “It were a sad dishonour to a child of God to be the world’s favourite. It is a very ill omen to hear a wicked world clap its hands and shout “Well done” to the Christian man. He may begin to look to his character, and wonder whether he has not been doing wrong, when the unrighteous give him their approbation. Let us be true to our Master, and have no friendship with a blind and base world which scorns and rejects Him. Far be it from us to seek a crown of honour where our Lord found a coronet of thorn.”

  4. I appreciate Patton asking the question about Lewis, and I can understand Charisse reaching the conclusion she does in her comment; I don’t agree with her however.

    Like Daniel, I’m no C.S. Lewis expert, having read about half of his works and a biography. Though it might be damning, I’ll admit the bulk of my education on Lewis comes from Dr. Peter Kreeft, a Catholic philosophy professor with a winsome personality, clear writing style, and extremely mystical theological bent. Mea culpa.

    I think the conversational style that Lewis chose to write in most frequently, by its very nature, contains room for interpretation by the reader. In powerful works, like those of Lewis, that margin of subjectivity is sufficient to allow orthodox, heterodox, and even unorthodox readers to embrace what they wish to in the writing and ignore the remainder.

    Lewis was a brilliant writer with the rare gift for a turn of phrase that was poetic yet illuminating. His deceptively simple style touches the reader; in my opinion that is the source of his general popularity. However, although he respected language and used words very carefully, his interest was in the poetic, in the beauty of saying simply the profound, rather than in the rigid, unequivocal categorizing of ideas that is necessary to contrast the orthodox with that which is nearly-so. While he sought clarity of thought, he seems comfortable with the existence of the paradoxical (may even have been attracted to such things).

    Did Lewis hold to all the historical foundational tenets of Christian orthodoxy? I don’t think so, and I believe that comes through in his writings. Yet, do I think he understood his need for a Savior, and turned to Christ as his only hope? I do; I find Lewis fitting quite well in the ranks of the unexpected-by-some heaven-bound Dr. Rod Rosenbladt describes in his brilliant address “The Gospel for Those Broken By the Church.”

    Certainly, more care needs to be taken when reading him than when reading most works touching on theology. At the same time, I find gems within his works, particularly in his understanding of how depravity affects every part of how people think, feel, and act. My understanding of temptation would be poorer had I not read The Screwtape Letters, for example. In the end, I believe there is enough meat in Lewis’s works to reward the work of spitting out the bones, provided one chews carefully.

    1. Dear Jason,

      As you will read above I have posted a comment about my views on C S Lewis. I hope you don’t mind if I give just one quote by Peter Kreeft that convinces me that Christians should also stay well away from him. In his book ‘Ecumenical Jihad’ he wrote the following on page 164 ‘The power that will reunite the Church and win the world is Eucharistic Adoration’. This man believes that worshipping a piece of bread as God is the power that will ‘Christianise’ the world – his faith is in idolatry of the worst kind and God’s Word tells His people to ‘flee idolatry’. Hope this is helpful.

      1. Hello Cecil,

        Thank you for the note regarding Dr. Peter Kreeft. Knowing Jason, the description of Dr. Kreeft as having an ‘extremely mystical theological bent’ was not an endorsement but a big red ‘WARNING’ stamp 🙂

    2. Hello Jason, welcome back 🙂

      Thank you for your thoughtful and elegantly crafted comments. Thank you too for the reminder of Dr. Rosenbladt’s excellent ‘The Gospel for Those Broken By the Church’ – I’ll post a link to that as a separate article.

    3. Dear Jason,

      Grace and peace in Christ Jesus!

      In an economy of words you have written one of the most concise overviews of C.S. Lewis I have ever read:) Daniel is correct in stating your comment was “thoughtful and elegantly crafted”. I also agree with you 97%. Yes, discerning believers could read Lewis and have the spiritual maturity to “spit out the bones”, but what about the children?

      Honestly if Lewis were famous for just being a “brillant writer” or “literery genius”, that would be fine by me because he was an exraordinary writer. Or, perhaps thought of as a sage of human wisdom and philosophy that is also true. The problem is somehow he was accepted into orthodox (protestant) Christianity as an apologist for the faith. Given his views on pratically every primary doctrine being in error this is a serious departure from Sola Scriptura and all reformed theology.

      My primary concern is for children who are being spoon fed a large diet of Lewis’s wildly imaginative myths. Lewis was very much like Joseph Campbell in many regards. Lewis knew how to convey harder to accept thoughts by coating them with honey and making them very palatable to captivate the readers mind. Lewis understood like Campbell the “Power of the Myth”.

      Now, if we could issue red warning labels that read “potential dangerous to your spiritual health” I would at least feel like the watchmen had done their due diligence to warn the sheep, but as it stands no one is sounding a trumpet.

      My hearts desire is to keep the pure and sound doctrine of our Savior as written in the Bible. “For a time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.” 2 Timothy 4:3&4

      Perphaps you have some remedies for my dilemmas. It just really breaks my heart that we would choose a mere man’s musings over our precious Lord’s Word.

      In humble gratitude for any wisdom you can impart on this subject, charisse

      ps. If you are a friend of Daniel I know you have some wisdom to spare:)

      pss. Would love to know your thoughts on the new book “Altar To An Unknown Love, Rob Bell, C.S. Lewis, and the Legacy of the art and thought of man” by Michael John Beasley

      1. Charisse, I’ve purchased Beasley’s book for my Kindle, and I’ll take a look as soon as I can. Right now I’ve got two James White books and a Sproul in the queue, but I may rearrange them. I admit I’m intrigued by the book’s concept, though the plausible connection between Bell and Lewis isn’t a new observation.

        1. Dear Jason,

          Thanks for going to the effort. The book does have a different angle on the problematic stances espoused by Lewis. Very much looking forward to your take!

          Blessings, charisse

    1. Good morning Cecil, and a happy new year.

      Thank you for the link – I think we have now clearly established that Lewis’ doctrine is faulty at very many points! I’m not sure though that David Cloud doesn’t somewhat lessen the force of his piece by referencing things such as Lewis’ smoking and visits to pubs to ‘drink beer with friends’, especially under the heading of ‘Damnable Heresies’. If such things are to be the measure of orthodoxy, we shall have have to throw out the likes of Spurgeon along with Lewis, not to mention a great many of our other friends. Far better to use Lewis’ real faults as the occasion to teach correct doctrine, I think.

      For what it’s worth, I am reading Mere Christianity (I am only on book II, so I have really only just begun). I have a friend for whom this book was instrumental in his conversion, so I am hoping it might perhaps help me better to understand him. I am finding Lewis thought provoking, as I suspected I would, though I keep tripping over what seem to me to be logical, as well doctrinal, problems. Already, I am half minded to write a piece on why God permitted the Fall, with the first sentence, ‘C.S. Lewis was wrong about free will.’ 🙂

      Peace and grace.

      1. Hi Daniel,

        Thank you for your response and it will be interesting to hear your final ‘verdict’ on Mere Christianity – the Lord can and does use various ‘unorthodox’ means to draw people savingly to Himself – in my own case it was through the ‘prophetic’ writings of a dispensational premillennialist.

        I agree with you on the smoking and beer comments – not right to list them under ‘damnable heresies’ – they would sit more comfortably in thoughts on ‘sanctification’.

        Best wishes in Christ

  5. Dear Daniel,

    Being curious, I was wondering if C.S. Lewis ever, in his prolific writing, clearly articulated a Biblical presentation of the Gospel? I posed this question on the Credo House link in this post, but there hasn’t been any response.

    Blessings, charisse

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