Other Paths to Christ (by John Janzen)
or Why It Is Odd That C.S. Lewis Wasn’t Causing a Theological Ruckus Long Before Rob Bell Showed Up
I remember the shocked reactions in a small class of Japanese senior citizens I was teaching when, speaking about the church of my youth, I told them that it is a common belief among evangelical Christians that every one who doesn’t believe in Jesus’ atoning sacrifice at the cross would spend eternity in hell. They could hardly believe that I was being serious. They found it absurd to think that we could believe that every Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu would be tortured eternally for what they saw as essentially being born in the wrong place.
When Rob Bell released the promotional video for Love Wins, the part that caused most of the ruckus was about Gandhi’s salvation. Though he had great respect for Christ, Gandhi was no Christian. Traditional evangelical doctrine forced us to conclude that without proper faith in the saving atonement of Christ, salvation for Gandhi would be unattainable. Bell isn’t so sure that this is the case, and he certainly isn’t the first evangelical hero-leader to have doubts.
C.S. Lewis too would have agreed with my Japanese students about the absurdity of such an idea. Yet, Lewis cannot be simply ignored as a theological outsider who slides into a sort of all-paths-are-valid extreme liberalism. In his writings on the issue, Lewis stakes out a middle ground between conservative and liberal that seems on its face to be evangelically orthodox, but on further examination includes concepts that are in sharp disagreement with traditional views. Undeniably, Lewis saw the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as being central to salvation. Where he diverged, however, was in his very different view of how those outside of the Christian sphere might access the salvation of the cross. Christianity was still the large front door leading to the cross of Christ, but Lewis wondered if there might be some backdoors that would get you in as well.
In God in the Dock (1970), Lewis makes his commitment explicit – both to an exclusive view of salvation through Christ and to the possibility of salvation for non-Christians.
Though all salvation is through Jesus, we need not conclude that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him in this life. . . . we are not pronouncing all other religions to be totally false, but rather saying that in Christ whatever is true in all religions is consummated and perfected. But, on the other hand, I think we must attack wherever we meet it the nonsensical idea that mutually exclusive propositions about God can both be true (102).
It is hard, by basic definitions, to simply categorize Lewis as either inclusivist or exclusivist. In the previous quote we see that Lewis can be considered a sort of exclusivist, but it is exclusivism without any teeth. While maintaining that Christ is the only way to salvation, he grants that there are paths other than the Christian church through which a person can find Christ. The implication is that of a clear distinction between Christianity and Christ. Salvation is through Christ alone, rather than through membership in the Christian church. For Lewis, the light of God had to be something that was extended to all people at all times. The “true myth” of Christ, for Lewis, was the ultimate fulfillment that the good within every religion had always been anticipating. He makes this crystal clear in God in the Dock (1970).
I couldn’t believe that nine-hundred and ninety-nine religions were completely false and the remaining one true. In reality, Christianity is primarily the fulfillment of the Jewish religion, but also the fulfillment of what was vaguely hinted in all the religions at their best. What was vaguely seen in them all comes into focus in Christianity (54).
For Lewis, the Christian church wasn’t a realm filled with the pure light of God while darkness reigned outside its borders. Rather, the ability to know who was “in” or “out” was, from the human perspective, clouded and indeterminable. Lewis seems to suggest that the boundaries of the Church could not simply be defined by including those who profess to be Christians while excluding those who don’t. In Mere Christianity (1952) he explains how it is that the boundary could be so fuzzy.
The world does not consist of 100 per cent Christians and 100 per cent non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand (208).
The fuzzy border between Christian and non-Christian exists for Lewis because only God can read the heart of a person, and only God can discern the point at which a heart has turned away. Lewis goes on after the previous quote to include “people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it” (209). Just as God alone knows the heart of those who turn away, Lewis suggests that God also knows the heart of those outside the visible church who have turned towards him. In this view, a Christian is defined not by a label but by an orientation toward or away from the light of God. As we will see in the following discussion, Lewis contends that this choice for God can be made without ever committing to a faith in the name of Jesus in this lifetime, which is a contradiction of the evangelical understanding of salvation.
Within the Catholic Church there is a teaching called the “Baptism of Desire.” In its basic form it refers to one who dies without being baptized, yet nonetheless had desired that the ritual be performed. In these cases it is said that the desire itself brings about the fruits of baptism as God responds to the good intentions of the dying person. Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner championed a similar notion, called “Anonymous Christianity”. Rahner felt that those outside the church might potentially have, in “basic orientation and fundamental decision, accepted the salvific grace of God, through Christ, although [they] may never have heard of the Christian revelation” (D’Costa 132). This idea draws upon the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium, which says that those who through “no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation” (Paragraph 16).
Lewis, writing as a non-Catholic, non-theologian at roughly the same time as Rahner, was expressing similar ideas. As seen in the previous discussion, Lewis’s conception of salvation in his apologetic works conveys a very similar line of thought. The same understanding is evident throughout his fiction as well. In The Screwtape Letters (1942), Lewis, speaking in the voice of a demon who is doing all he can to oppose God’s plans in the world, reveals that he thinks God rewards sincere intentions, even if they are in service of causes, in this case the war, of which he disapproves.
[War] has certain tendencies inherent in it which are, in themselves, by no means in our favour. We may hope for a good 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 to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self. I know that the Enemy disapproves many of these causes. But that is where He is so unfair. He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophistical ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew (61).
Evidently Lewis felt that any turning from selfish concerns toward an ideal higher and outside of the self was, even if only in a very preliminary way, a move in the direction of God. This is a significant deviation from orthodox evangelical belief. It is an oft-repeated phrase in evangelical churches and Sunday Schools that “it’s no good to be sincere when you are sincerely wrong”. Lewis apparently believed that sometimes “sincerely wrong” had the potential of becoming the first few steps on the path to “sincerely right.”
Two Kinds of Sincerity
This is not to say that sincerity by itself is sufficient for salvation in Lewis’s opinion. Rather, sincerity must be accompanied by an honest longing and search for the absolute truth, as we see in a passage from The Great Divorce (1945). The ghost of an old theologian has come to visit heaven on the bus from hell – only he doesn’t believe his place of residence to be hell, but rather “the grey town with its continual hope of morning” (35). The theologian has come to worship the questions to such a great degree that he no longer has any real belief that there are answers. The questions and discussion about them has become an end in itself. He is deeply offended when his friend, Dick, who is now a heaven-dweller, attempts to inform him that he is an apostate living in hell. “Do you really think people are penalized for their honest opinions?” he asks. Dick responds that these “honest opinions” were not, in fact, honest at all. He corrects the theologian by pointing out “Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful” (37).
Dick goes on to explain that there is a sincerity of opinion that occurs when one has drifted a long way down the road from a foolish or dishonest starting point, but that “errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent” (38). The theologian’s friend seems to imply that though they might have held sincere opinions, they had rejected any belief that there may exist a transcendent Absolute Truth (however clouded or difficult to access It may be), which in effect becomes a rejection of God. Now at the end of the journey, they find they are in heaven, a place where there is “no atmosphere of inquiry”, but rather “the land not of questions but of answers, [where] you shall see the face of God” (40). In this we see that for Lewis, there are two sorts of sincerity – a kind that leads to God and another that leads nowhere. No one who enters into a sincere search for the source of joy that Lewis sometimes referred to as “sehnsucht” would be denied knowledge of that divine Truth. In fact, Lewis goes as far as to say that “All that are in Hell choose it… No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find” (75). What is required, however, is that one take a leap of faith in the hope that there is in fact an ultimate Truth to be found. This was Lewis’s challenge to the 20th century intellectual climate he found himself in, where many had concluded that truth was nothing more than a human construction.
This notion is reinforced in That Hideous Strength (1945), the third book of the Space Trilogy. Here again we see the progression from confused but honest grasping for truth, progressing onward toward truth being fully realized in the ultimate reality of God. Jane, an unbeliever who has joined the side of the “forces of good” who are battling against a demonic incursion, is asked by the Director of the “good guys” for a pledge of obedience to Maleldil, the God figure in the story. She replies, “I know nothing of Maleldil. But I place myself in obedience to you.” The Director responds that though eventually understanding and submission to Maleldil will be necessary, for now, a commitment to him will suffice. For “this is the courtesy of Deep Heaven: that when you mean well, He always takes you to have meant better than you knew. It will not be enough for always. He is very jealous. He will have you for no one but Himself in the end. But for tonight, it is enough” (230). Lewis’s understanding is that God works with what raw materials there are. At the beginning of the journey, perfect comprehension cannot be expected. Eventually, however, the perfection of God becomes the goal that any believer longs for.
In the Chronicles of Narnia, there is one passage that is fast becoming the most famous, or perhaps infamous, example of Lewis’s apparent inclusivism. It occurs near the end of The Last Battle (1956), the concluding book of the series, in which the world of Narnia reaches its apocalyptic end. The battle involves the forces of the lion Aslan, the Christ figure, versus the armies of Tash, the Satan figure of Narnia. After the battle climaxes in the destruction of Narnia, the righteous wake up to find themselves in a new, perfected, heavenly Narnia. Shockingly, one of Tash’s warriors finds himself in the heavenly land as well. His name is Emeth – Hebrew for “truth” – and when he sees the lion standing before him, the lion’s beauty, which “surpasses all that is in the world even as the rose in bloom surpasses the dust of the desert,” overwhelms him (188). Nonetheless, Emeth expects to be executed as an enemy of Narnia. To his surprise, Aslan tells him that his actions in life have been counted as service done to Aslan. When Emeth wonders if this means that Aslan and Tash are the same being, the lion gives a stern response:
Not because [Tash] and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted (189).
No one religion or group, in Lewis’s mind, has an absolute monopoly on Truth, and any honest pilgrim will inevitably be led to its source, even after death, if that is what is required by one’s earthly situation. To Lewis, it is an orientation toward the Good – not membership in a club – that determines true belief. Aslan continues on to tell Emeth that the sort of honest seeking that marked his life could not have been sustained if Tash had truly been the ultimate object. Instead, Aslan reveals that if Emeth’s desire had not been for the true reality, he “wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek” (189).
As we have seen, whether in fiction or apologetic writings, Lewis wasn’t shy about stating clearly his evangelically unorthodox notion of salvation. In one letter written in 1952 he asserts the concept once more, linking it to Christ’s gospel parable in Matthew 25.
I think that every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know Him. For he is (dimly) present in the good side of the inferior teachers they follow. In the parable of the Sheep and Goats those who are saved do not seem to know that they have served Christ. (Collected Letters, vol.3 245)
Lewis clearly believes in what theologians call the “supremacy of Christ”, the notion that there is no other way to God other than through Christ. Salvation for all, in Lewis’s view, is through the saving work done by Christ on the cross. However, Lewis is content with a fuzzy border around the question of “who is saved.” For Lewis, that is a judgment that can only be left in the hands of a just and loving God.
Baker, Robert A. and Landers, John M. A Summary of Christian History. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman and Holman, 2005. Print
D’Costa, Gavin. “Karl Rahner’s Anonymous Christian – A Reappraisal.” Modern Theology 1:2 (1985): p.131-148. Print.
Lewis, Clive Staples. The Collected Letters of C.S Lewis, Volume 3. ed. Walter Hooper. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2007. Print
—. God in the Dock. ed. Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970. Print
—. The Great Divorce. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2001. Print.
—. The Last Battle. New York: Harper Trophy, 2001. Print.
—. Mere Christianity. New York: Harper Collins, 2001. Print.
—. The Screwtape Letters. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001. Print.
—. That Hideous Strength. New York: Scribner, 1996. Print.
Lumen Gentium. Light of the Nations. Vatican II, November 21, 1964.
John Janzen is a Canadian living and working in Nagoya, Japan where he and his family have spent the last 9 years trying to figure out what “foreign mission” might look like in 21st century. His writing, fiction and non-fiction, has appeared in academic journals, literary magazines, and recently in Quakebook, a compilation of responses to the March 11th Japan earthquake. The following article is excerpted from his thesis research, which has been adapted in Heresy in Narnia: Departures From Evangelical Orthodoxy in the Writings of C.S. Lewis. He blogs at www.merechristianarchy.tumblr.com.