The ScrewTape Letters by C. S. Lewis: A Commentary, part 2

Literary sources for The Screwtape Letters

           This is part 2 in a series of blog posts that is dedicated to The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. To see part 1, click here. In part 1 we introduce the Screwtape Letters and provide a brief outline of the book. We turn now to the literary sources that inspired the Screwtape Letters. The two most obvious literary sources for The Screwtape Letters are (1) the biblical teachings on angels, demons, and sin, and (2) John Milton’s Paradise Lost. We will note, first of all, how these two primary sources have inspired Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, and we will then go on to point out some of the other sources that are referred to (and sometimes quoted) in the Screwtape Letters. We will begin looking at the literary sources that inspired the Screwtape Letters, in this blog post, with a consideration of how C. S. Lewis uses the Biblical data concerning angels and demons.

Lewis’s dependence on the Bible

            There is much that could be said here, about Lewis’s dependence on the Bible, but here I will focus on his descriptions of the fallen angels, and of Satan. In the final section, of this short article, we will draw out some other doctrines that Lewis discusses in the Screwtape Letters. Before we look at Lewis’s portrayal of the fallen angels, consider what the Bible has to say about angels and demons.

Angels and Demons in the Bible

            The Bible does not have a whole lot to say about angels and demons, and much of what Christianity has historically taught about angels and demons is based upon what little can be gleaned (either by inference or from explicit claims) from the pages of scripture and from speculations based upon our best understanding of the world in which we find ourselves. So what does the Bible teach about angels and demons? The Bible consistently portrays Angels as possessing super-human powers (Ps.103:20; 2 Pet.2:11), as wise (Eze.28:12), as perfect in beauty (Eze.28:12; Dan.10:6), as perfect in action (Eze.28:15), and as capable of taking human form (Dan.10:5, etc.). Furthermore, they are described as the absolutely faithful, never failing, ministers and servants of God who deliver messages from God to man (Dan.8:15-16; 9:21-23; 10:11; Lk.1:19, 26; 2:9-14; Jude 9), praise Jesus (Heb.1:6), stand in the presence of God (Eze.1:26; 28:14; Lk.1:19), proclaim the glory of God (Is.6:2-3, 6-7; Lk.2:9, 13-14), praise God (Job 38:7; Ps.148:2; 103:20-21), create music (Eze. 28:13), minister to God (Ps.104:4), do God’s will (Gen.3:24; Ps.103:20-21; Eze.1:20; Dan.8:16; 9:21), engage in spiritual warfare against fallen angels/demons (Dan.10:13, 20; Jude 9; Rev.12:7-8), strengthen and serve man (Dan.10:18; Heb.1:14), and protect man (Dan.12:1). Angelic beings are also described as greater than man (Heb. 2:7). The Bible also seems to imply that there are ranks of angels with some being greater than others.[1]

            Now, Satan is portrayed, in the Bible, as a fallen Angel—that is, a spiritual being created by God who could be described as in the preceding paragraph, but who sought his own glory instead of God’s. Satan is described as, having been an anointed cherub, the greatest of God’s created beings. However, the Bible teaches that when sin was conceived in his heart, he fell from heaven, and that he will eventually be condemned to hell for eternity. The scriptures give him many names which reveal his character, his former position, and his powers and capabilities. Some of the names of Satan are; Lucifer, Son of the Morning, a cherub, a great red dragon, the old serpent, the devil, the angel of the bottomless pit, Abaddon, Apollyon, the prince of this world, a star, the adversary, a roaring lion, the accuser of the brethren. Note that the Bible does not portray Satan as an allegory of sinfulness or as a metaphor for Evil. Rather, Satan is a personal spiritual being created by God who pursued his own glory rather than the glory of God and who will, for this, be sent to a real and eternal Hell.[2] The Bible also teaches that a certain number of angels fell with Satan, and that these fallen angels, called demons under the leadership of Satan, oppress the children of God, possess those who are have not placed their faith in Jesus Christ, and generally work to hinder the work of Jesus Christ on this earth by attempting to remove glory from God. They will most likely hinder the work of Jesus-Christ by mimicking the workings of Christ through miracles, prophecies, healings, tongues, etc. These demons will be condemned to hell with Satan for eternity, and some rest in the bottomless pit, chained in darkness, awaiting that time when they will be released onto the earth during the great tribulation.[3] Much of what we have brought out here is also to be found dramatically portrayed in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

            The Bible also teaches that Satan is constantly seeking to draw humans away from the triune God, and that he does everything in his power to keep men from fulfilling God’s will for their lives. The Apostle Peter says to Christians, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”[4] Paul notes, frequently, that Satan is looking for opportunities to draw humans away from God. He notes in Ephesians, for example, that we need to be careful with our anger, giving “no opportunity to the devil.”[5] Later, in the same letter, Paul teaches that Satan schemes against humans, and attacks them, with the purpose of making them fall away from God and from holiness.[6] Paul also tells the church at Corinth that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.”[7] That is, Satan will even preach the gospel if that is what it takes to draw humans away from the Gospel of Jesus-Christ. One last point to note is that Jesus tells us that Satan is a liar and a murderer, “He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”[8]

            These biblical teachings provide the foundation for C. S. Lewis’s portrayal of the nature and character of both Screwtape and Wormwood, as well as the ways in which they seek to keep the young man away from God. Consider the following elements that Lewis brings out in the Screwtape Letters.

Diabolical Plotting

Consider, first of all, how the entire book is filled with devilish scheming about how to wage spiritual war on humans—specifically the young man who is the subject of Wormwood’s devilish work. This is Lewis’s portrayal of the scheming and plotting of Satan who wages war on mankind (as we saw in Ephesians 6).

Turning Good into Evil: Satan as the Angel of Light

Satan is portrayed, in the Bible, as turning himself into an Angel of light, and Lewis refers to this, in the 23rd letter, when he has Screwtape say, “No doubt you have often practised transforming yourself into an angel of light as a parade-ground exercise.”[9] This notion of turning into an angel of light suggests that Satan presents himself as something that is good, but which, in reality is nothing but a corruption of that Good. He presents himself as a preacher of the gospel, but preaches a false gospel. One should note, secondly, how Screwtape suggests using things that are good with the purpose of drawing the young man away from God (which conforms wonderfully to the notion that Satan presents himself as an angel of light):

            The Local Church can be used: “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself.”[10] Screwtape goes on to note that the demon can bring the young man to church, but make him concentrate on the distractions that make church-going unpleasant or undesirable.[11] “Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.”[12]

            Prayer can be turned more into an attempt to create feelings of holiness, and to concentrate on themselves rather than on God, “turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by action of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing…Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are will or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment.[13]

            Apparent virtues, and even Real virtues, can be used to draw humans away from God. Note Screwtape’s comments on Humility, “All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, ‘By jove! I’m being humble’, and almost immediately pride—pride at his own humility—will appear.”[14] Even love can be used, if the subject can be brought to false believe about what truly qualifies as Love.[15]

            Real pleasures are corrupted: “I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures…All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.”[16] One might also note Screwtapes criticism of Wormwood who, unfortunately, let the subject experience “real pleasures”, “you allowed him two real positive Pleasures. Were you so ignorant as not to see the danger of this? The characteristic of Pains and Pleasures is that they are unmistakably real, and therefore, as far as they go, give the man who feels them a touchstone of reality.”[17] Screwtape later says, “He [God] has filled His world full of pleasures…Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us.”[18]

            The apparent piousness of claiming God as one’s own, as in the phrase “My God…”. “We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun…we have taught men to say ‘My God’ in a sense not really different from ‘My boots’, meaning ‘The God on whom I have a claim for my distinguished services and whom I exploit from the pulpit—the God I have done a corner in’.”[19]

            Even the external practices of the Christian life (i.e.- church attendance, bible reading, prayer, the Lord’s supper, etc.) can be used to draw the young man away from Christ, “As long as he retains externally the habits of a Christian he can still be made to think of himself as one who has adopted a few new friends and amusements but whose spiritual state is much the same as it was six weeks ago. And while he thinks that, we do not have to content with the explicit resentence of a definite, fully recognized, sin, but only with his vague, though uneasy, feeling that he hasn’t been doing very well lately.”[20] Many more examples could be given, but we will let the reader discover them for themselves.

Satan the Devourer

            Note, thirdly, how Lewis integrates the teaching, from 1 Peter, that Satan is seeking people to devour: (a) Screwtape explains the ultimate goal of the fallen angels, and specifically Satan, in contrast to the goal of God, “To us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense.”[21] On the following page Screwtape goes into greater detail, “We want cattle who can finally become food; He [God] wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.”[22] (b) Screwtape later states that “To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return—that is what really gladdens our Father’s heart.”[23] (c) “In the long run either Our Father or the Enemy will say ‘Mine’ of each thing that exists, and specially of each man. They will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belong…Our Father hopes in the end to say ‘Mine’ of all things on the more realistic and dynamic ground of conquest.”[24] (d) “Bring us back food, or be food yourself.”[25] (e) In the last chapter we also find some allusions to the demonic desire to devour others. For example, in the first paragraph Screwtape looks forward to devouring even Wormwood, or at least a part of him. Screwtape then says that when Hell learned that Wormwood’s subject was taken to heaven, “The howl of sharpened famine for that loss re-echoes at this moment through all the levels of the Kingdom of Noise down to the very Throne itself.”[26] Even Screwtape’s signature brings out this element, “Your increasingly and ravenously affection uncle Screwtape.”[27]

Satan the Self-worshipper
            We even see the notion that Satan seeks his own glory when Screwtape says, “Transformation proceeds from within and is a glorious manifestation of that Life Force which Our Father would worship if he worshiped anything but himself.”[28]

Go to Part 3.

[1]For example: Hosts of Angels (Ps.148:2; Lk.2:13); Cherubim (Gen.3:24; Ps.104:4(Heb.1:7); Eze.1:4-24; 10:1-22; 11:22; 28:14, 16); Archangel (Michael - Dan.10:13; 12:1; Jude 9); Gabriel (Dan.8:15-16; 9:21-23; Lk.1:11, 13, 19, 26) ; Seraphim (Is.6:2-3, 6-7); Angels (Gen.28:12; Ps.103:20-21; 104:4; Jn.1:51; Heb.1:6-7, 13-14).

[2]Cf. Gen.3:1-4; Job 1:7; Ps.109:6; Is.14:12-15; Eze.28:12; Zech.3:1-2; Lk.10:18; Jn.12:31; 1 Pet.5:8; Jude 9; Rev.9:1; 9:11; 12:4, 9; 20:2.

[3]Cf. Job 4:18; 2 Pet.2:4; Jude 6; Rev.9:11; 12:3-4.

[4]1 Pet. 5:8.

[5]Eph. 4:27.

[6]Eph. 6:11-13.

[7]2 Cor. 11:14.

[8]Jn. 8:44.

[9]Lewis, TSL, 116.

[10]Ibid., 15.

[11]Ibid., 15-16.

[12]Ibid., 16.

[13]Ibid., 26.

[14]Ibid., 71.

[15]Ibid., 98-99.

[16]Ibid., 49.

[17]Ibid., 67.

[18]Ibid., 112.

[19]Ibid., 109.

[20]Ibid., 61-62.

[21]Ibid., 45.

[22]Ibid., 46.

[23]Ibid., 49-50.

[24]Ibid., 109-110.

[25]Ibid., 151.

[26]Ibid., 156.

[27]Ibid., 160.

[28]Ibid., 115.

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