The ScrewTape Letters by C. S. Lewis: A Commentary, part 10

Key Themes in The Screwtape Letters, or,
What we learn from Screwtape: part 6

          This is part 10 in a series of blog posts that is dedicated to The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. To see part 1, click here; to see part 2, click here; to see part 3, click here; to see part 4, click here; to see part 5, click here; to see part 6, click here; to see part 7, click here; to see part 8, click here; to see part 9, click here. In part 1 we introduced the Screwtape Letters and provided a brief outline of the book. In parts 2-4 we provided an analysis of the literary sources that inspired the Screwtape Letters. We saw that 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 then looked at a number of other influences, and references to other literature, that can be seen in the ScrewTape Letters. In part 5 we began an exposition of the key themes that are brought up in the Screwtape Letters. Due to the nature of the Letters, it is important to understand that Lewis is not providing an indepth philosophical or theological analysis of each subject, but, rather, is providing what might be called a popular-level analysis.
 In part 5 we looked at some comments that Lewis makes concerning the Natural Sciences, Time and Change (which might be considered a sub-category of natural philosophy, or Metaphysics--depending on how the subject is approached), and Metaphysics. In part 6, we looked at some comments that Lewis makes concerning Theology Proper (the doctrine of God), and Christology. In part 7 we looked at comments that Lewis makes concerning Human Nature, Hamartiology (or the doctrine of sin), and Ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). In part 8 we considered some comments on sanctification, heaven and hell, and some final thoughts concerning demons and angels. Then in part 9 we looked the approach that C. S. Lewis takes to the relationship between divine sovereignty and human free-will. Now, in part 10, we will consider, one of the most interesting subjects in the Screwtape Letters (in my humble opinion), C. S. Lewis's attempt to answer the problem of evil with a soul-making theodicy.

A Soul-making Theodicy

            If we pay close attention as we read this book, we will see Lewis proposing, through the pen of Screwtape, a powerful soul-making theodicy, by which he seeks to explain the existence, in this world, of all kinds of evil.[1] Evil is not the fruit of hazard, but, rather, used by the all-powerful God to bring men to Him, and to make them become like Him. Lewis addresses two types of evil in this work: (1) Devastating evil (both natural and man-made such as wars and natural disasters by which men are brought face to face with their natural mortality), and (2) the evil of the difficult times that all men experience (periods of personal depression, sadness, poverty, and other difficulties which weigh heavily on man, but without forcing him to confront his own mortality).

            Lewis explains, early on, that God allows devastating evil to arrive in our world, first of all, so that men are forced to confront their mortality, and in so doing, turn to God.[2] He later expands on this theme, noting that God allows these disastrous evils to arrive in order to teach men to value true virtues—such as courage. Screwtape says, “We have made men proud of most vices, but not of cowardice. Whenever we have almost succeeded in doing so, the Enemy permits a war or an earthquake or some other calamity, and at once courage becomes so obviously lovely and important even in human eyes that all our work is undone.”[3] Screwtape continues, a little bit later, “If we promoted justice and charity among men, we should be playing directly into the Enemy’s hands; but if we guide them to the opposite behaviour, this sooner or later produces (for He permits it to produce) a war or a revolution, and the undisguisable issue of cowardice or courage awakes thousands of men from moral stupor. This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s motives for creating a dangerous world—a world in which moral issues really come to the point.”[4] So, says Lewis, devastating evil exists in this world, both manmade evil (such as wars), and natural evil (implied by the phrase “a dangerous world”), so that man, confronted with his mortality, will learn to value true virtue, and turn to God.

            There is, however, another type of evil that is seen in this world, and it is the draining, oppressing, subsiding but ever-returning, evil of lived human experience. This evil comes and goes, or it presses on with no sign of an end in sight. Man is not impressed with his mortality, but is oppressed by difficulties that never seem to end, and when they do, after a brief reprieve they return in a different form. Lewis explains why this type of evil exists in the 8th letter. Screwtape begins by noting that humans are changing creatures who live through highs and lows. Indeed, their lives are just a continual sequence of highs and lows. “Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation—the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.”[5] Screwtape hopes to help Wormwood to understand why God created humans this way, and points out that God indeed relies on these difficult periods, “in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else.”[6] This seems obviously absurd. How could such a tactic work?

            Lewis goes on to explain that in order see why God uses this tactic, we must first understand just what God is after. Lewis explains that “the obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His.”[7] God is seeking to make humans into perfect reflections of Himself.

This is why, proposes Lewis through Screwtape, God constantly allows humans to go through these difficult times. “That is where the troughs come in. You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment…Merely to over-ride a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo.”[8]

How does it work? How does these difficult times form man into the image of the son of God? “He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be.”[9] That is, says Lewis, God “wants them to learn to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles.”[10] The difficult times are the divine equivalent of an earthly father taking his hand off of the bicycle, so that his son can learn to ride by himself. Will the boy fall? Perhaps. Will he hurt himself if he falls? Most likely. Will he learn to ride by himself if the father never takes his hand off of the bicycle? No. So the potential pain is necessary for the learning process. This is why God allows us to pass through difficult times—to mould us into the image of His Son. Indeed, returning to an earlier part of the book, Lewis notes that God has taught his followers that perseverance through persecution is a necessary part of their redemption to become sons of God.[11]

Screwtape concludes by noting that, “Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”[12] Evil, then, of all kinds, is not random pain cast upon man by some sadistic deity, but, rather, the loving hand of God who is helping us to learn to walk on our own. God desires grown sons and daughters, not babies.

[1]Note that there are two primary responses to evil. A Defense, by which we show that the presence of evil and the existence of God are not self-contradictory states. A Theodicy, by which we attempt to explain why God allows evil things to happen in this world.

[2]Ibid., 31.

[3]Ibid., 147.

[4]Ibid., 148.

[5]Ibid., 44.

[6]Ibid., 45.

[7]Ibid., 45-46.

[8]Ibid., 46.

[9]Ibid., 47.


[11]Ibid., 32.

[12]Ibid., 47.

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