Review: C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters


“After reading a new book, never allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
“All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”
(C.S. Lewis)

C.S. Lewis and The Christian Imagination

In his lecture given to mark the centenary of the birth of C.S. Lewis, J.I. Packer remarked,

I owe C.S. Lewis a lot … my introduction to him was something of a false start: in 1939 I read Out of the Silent Planet because as a boy I liked space-travel stories … By 1943 The Screwtape Letters … along with three little books that later became Mere Christianity, had led me to something approaching orthodoxy, and soon after I was born again in 1944 The Pilgrim’s Regress cleared my head regarding the intellectual milieu of which I was a part.[1]

The Screwtape Letters
C.S. Lewis
The Screwtape Letters
C.S. Lewis

Outside of the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity, are perhaps his most well-known and widely read works. Since their publication in the 1940s, these books have ‘cleared the heads of many,’ with their creative presentation of fundamental Christians truth and razor sharp critiques of modern (secular humanist) ideology. Like no other before or since, Lewis was able to ignite the world of the imagination out of a love for Christ, and a profound knowledge of human nature.

Lewis was a veteran of the trenches and already a leading light at Oxford when he was converted to Christianity from atheism in 1929.[2] Later becoming Professor of Mediaeval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge, he emerged as one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. Lewis understood in his own life the debilitating effects of sinful human-pride, which has turned from God and is bent in on itself. In all his writing, Lewis carefully—yet with brutal honesty—described the universal fallen human propensity both to be deceived and to deceive.

Better the Devil You Know

Nowhere is Lewis’ wisdom regarding our ongoing struggle with sin, the world and the devil more clearly on display, than in The Screwtape Letters. Taking the form of 31 letters— purportedly written by a senior devil (Screwtape) to his apprentice (Wormwood)—The Screwtape Letters offers a tempter’s guide in deceiving and manipulating human ‘patients’. Their aim, of course, is to steal a believer from ‘the Enemy,’ (i.e. God) and secure him as food for ‘their Father below.’

Lewis’ account of an ongoing exchange between two devils is written in a mocking tone. As Luther once encouraged believers to do, Screwtape is in part aimed at ridiculing the devil in his foolish delusions.[3] However, Lewis is deadly serious about the lies of the devil and their ability to obscure the truth revealed in Christ and the Scriptures. Screwtape reminds Wormwood that their work has a fundamentally negative aim: to ‘fuddle,’ and not to teach (Letter 1). He encourages his protegé to do his best to turn human minds away from God to focus on ourselves—during both challenging and mundane times. For example:

You can weaken his prayers by diverting his attention from the Enemy himself (God) to his own states of mind about the Enemy … in all activities favorable to the Enemy bend his mind back on itself. Let an insult or a woman’s body so fix his attention outward that he does not reflect ‘I am now entering into the state called Anger—or the state called Lust.’ Contrariwise let the reflection ‘My feelings are now growing more devout, or more charitable’ so fix his attention inward that he no longer looks beyond himself to see our Enemy or his own neighbors. (Letter 6)

Summarizing the essence of Lewis’ world-view Packer wrote,

This world is enemy-occupied territory, where Screwtapian ingenuity is constantly being employed to block and dissolve historic Christianity a formative force in people’s lives, to turn everybody’s cultural environment into a corrupting influence, to fill human minds with anti-Christian ideas and attitudes, and to lead people away from reason in the old moral sense (that is, thoughtful, responsible, prudent living). Satan battles God by systematically corrupting and destroying humans; our own story of universal personal temptation and the downward slide to hell is thus one facet of a larger conflict.[4]

For Lewis, fallen human nature displays a kind of ‘in-bred anti-God inclination’—by its nature, it suppresses the truth about God and eagerly embraces falsehood (cf. Romans 1:18-23; 3:10-18). But Lewis was no fearful dualist! The devil is not only deceiving but deceived; blind to the truth that through Christ and his death and resurrection, sin and death and hell are once and for all defeated. This does not stop the devil from lashing out against God’s people like a rabid dog chained to a post (e.g. Revelation 12:12 cf. Job 1:6-7; 2:3; 1Peter 5:8-9). As we await Christ’s certain return, we find ourselves in a spiritual battle; a battle that Lewis saw himself directly engaged in through all his writing and teaching. Packer writes,

[Lewis would say] ‘We are in a personal and a cosmic Holy War: stay at your post; stand steady, and don’t be discouraged, for truth, fact, and Christ the living Lord himself are on your side (cf. Ephesians 6:10-20).[5]

The Inexplicable Love of God for Fallen, Foolish and Frail Human Beings

The truth that is most irksome to the senior devil Screwtape, is what he sees as the inexplicable love of God for his human creatures. That ‘the Enemy’ (God) should bother to take such care in forming human creatures is bad enough, but that he should actually lower himself to become one of them in order to save them is beyond all devilish decency!

Remember always, the Enemy really likes the little vermin, and sets an absurd value on the distinctness of every one of them. (Letter 13)

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 a miniature scale, will be qualitatively like his own, not because he has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to his. (Letter 8)

We want cattle who can finally become food; he 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. (Letter 8)

Lewis vividly illustrates the biblical truth that while the devil’s intention is to flatter human pride; subtly employing half-truths and twisting and distorting our understanding of God’s biblical revelation (cf. Genesis 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11), God actually loves us and treats us as his dearly beloved children. The faith of each one of God’s people is precious in his sight. As he tests, disciplines and proves the faith of his people, our loving Heavenly Father is at work for our best good (e.g. 1Peter 1:3-9; 4:12-19; Romans 8:12-21, 28-39; Hebrews 12:1-13etc). Screwtape to Wormwood:

The Enemy (God) relies on the troughs even more than the peaks, some of his special favorites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else … It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that the human is growing into the sort of creature he wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please him best … Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks around upon a universe from which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys. (Letter 8)

In Time for Eternity—Living for God through War and Pandemic

C.S. Lewis wrote Screwtape during the ‘abnormal’ times of World War II. Rather provocatively he writes in the Preface, ‘The history of the European War, except in so far as it happens to impinge upon the spiritual conditions of one human being, was obviously of no interest to Screwtape.’

Screwtape later instructs Wormwood:

Of course a war is entertaining. The immediate fear and suffering of the humans is a legitimate and pleasing refreshment for our myriads of toiling workers … We may hope for a great deal of cruelty and unchastity. But, if we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy … while tens of thousands who do not go so far as that will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves … How disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless. In wartime not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever. (Letter, 5)

Like his friend Tolkien, Lewis was a WWI veteran, and not naïve to the devastation that war brings at both a personal and a national level.[6] Many of his closest friends did not survive the ‘Great War’ and a large part of that generation were missing from the University where they both returned to teach. But Lewis was convinced from the Scriptures that there was a greater, ongoing war going on in the ‘heavenly places’ and in the hearts of men and women; not least in the apparent mundanity of ‘just getting on with one’s life.’ In this sense, as he noted elsewhere, while in one sense war made life ‘abnormal,’ in a very real way there is no such thing as normal life.[7]

Lewis was a WWI veteran, and not naïve to the devastation that war brings. But he was convinced from the Scriptures that there was a greater, ongoing war going on in the ‘heavenly places’ and in the hearts of men and women

This is one point at which Lewis’ writing at that time provides a contemporary challenge to us now in the ‘abnormal’ times of the COVID 19 pandemic where our lives seem so uncertain and so out of our control. As Scripture reminds us, no matter how strong and in control we feel at any given moment; both as individuals and as a society, we are fools to think that we can ever master time or the future. Our times are in God’s hands, and we must learn to number our days (c.f. Psalm 90). Of course Screwtape advises Wormwood to obscure this fact:

The Enemy would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (that is, with him) or with the Present—either meditating upon their eternal union with, or separation from, himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure. (Letter 15)

Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present … to live in the Past or [especially] the Future; that which is unknown to them, so that in making them think of it we make them think of unrealities … In a word, the Future is the thing least like eternity … Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead. (Letter 15)

Christians live in the light of one clear horizon: the return of the risen Christ to judge the living and the dead; to vindicate his people and usher in the new creation (e.g. 1Thessalonians 1:9-10). Our certain destiny in Christ gives us the shape of our lives lived now in daily dependence upon God. We are not promised secret knowledge to help us form air-tight trouble-free 5 or 10 year plans. Our times are in God’s hands and we live by faith, not by sight. Lewis’ devil recognises the true peace that God gives to his people and works hard to undermine it:

… we want a man hag-ridden by the Future—haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth—ready to break the Enemy’s commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other—dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, not kind, not happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future, every real gift which is offered them in the Present.

In the light of judgment day, the godless ambition to become ‘future proof’ through wealth, work, reputational security; or the dream of the perfect relationship or the ultimate adventure is a fool’s errand—and a devilish lie.

Hearken Not to a Liar but to Truth Itself

Jesus tells us that he is the truth and he promises that the truth will set us free; ultimately from sin, death and condemnation (John 6:63; 8:34-38; 14:6-7). The Good Shepherd knows his sheep and his sheep know him: they hear his voice and follow him (John 10:3-6, 14-15):

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10)

Lewis was a faithful servant of Christ, and his writings have helped generation after generation to critically engage with the world around them; to take every thought captive for Christ, and revel in God’s goodness to us in his Son.

Despite their best efforts, in the end ‘Screwtape’ and ‘Wormwood’ fail to drag their human patient away from the God who loves, preserves and protects him. At the moment of the death of the Christian in this book, Screwtape must reluctantly concede defeat:

Did you mark how naturally—as if he’d been born for it—the earth-born vermin entered the new life? How all his doubts became, in the twinkling of an eye, ridiculous? I know what the creature was saying to itself: Yes. Of course! It always was like this … You die and die and then you are beyond death. How could I ever have doubted it?’’ … he saw not only Them; he saw him. This animal, this thing begotten in a bed, could look on Him. What is blinding, suffocating fire to you, is now cool light to him, is clarity itself, and wears the form of a Man. (Letter 31)

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. 1John 3:2-3.

[1] J.I. Packer, ‘Living Truth for a Dying World: the message of C.S. Lewis, from ed. A. McGrath, The J.I. Packer Collection (Leicester: IVP, 1999), pp. 269-284.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, (London: Fontana, 1969 (1955), 182-183. ‘In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England … Who can duly adore that love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance to escape?…The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and his compulsion is our liberation.’

[3] Lewis quotes Luther on the frontice page: ‘The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.’

[4] Packer, op.cit., p.274

[5] Packer, op.cit., pp. 282, 283.

[6] Lewis dedicated his book to J.R.R. Tolkien.

[7] C.S. Lewis, ‘Learning in Wartime,’ (1939) from, Transposition & other Addresses (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1949), p. 46. ‘The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice [and in the shadow of judgment day] … We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life.’ Life has never been normal.’