Is this Christianity?

Call me a spoilsport, a curmudgeon, or perhaps just confused, but I’ve always felt uneasy about the theology contained in this quote:

If we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object. . . . If a transtemporal, transfinite good is our real destiny, then any other good on which our desire fixes must be in some degree fallacious, must bear at best only a symbolical relation to what will truly satisfy.

You might recognize it as being from ‘The Weight of Glory‘ by CS Lewis (brought to my attention by an extended quote on Justin Taylor’s blog today). The whole passage is worth reading for the writing alone. It’s a beautiful piece of work—suggestive, evocative, touching, convincing.

I just can’t help wondering whether it is more representative of neoplatonism than Christianity. The idea that our true home is a non-creational heaven, that we were made to return there, that the desire for that ideal world is lodged within us, almost as a memory of what we have fallen from, that this yearning draws us towards our true divine home, that the physical things of this world are a fallacious shadow, distracting us from that quest—I can read all this in Plato (and Plotinus) but in the Bible … not so much.

In the Bible, we were made to inhabit this creation, and then in the redemptive plans of God the new creation, but neither of these are an escape from the physical. The Bible doesn’t speak of an inner sublimated desire for the divine, but of people running away from God, dead in their trespasses and sins, awaiting the regenerative work of God’s life-giving Spirit. In the Bible, the good things of this creation are not echoes or reflections of a greater good beyond themselves but simply God’s very good gifts to us, to be received with thanksgiving. The gifts and pleasures of the created world are not a poor substitute or proxy for the enjoyment of God, nor a shadow in which we see the shape of God, nor only to be enjoyed insofar as we enjoy God in them. They are good realities that gladden our hearts, as we receive them with thanksgiving from the hand of the Creator.

So in its eschatology, its doctrine of humanity and sin, and (in particular) its doctrine of creation, Lewis’s theology (as represented in, say, ‘The Weight of Glory’ and ‘The Great Divorce’) just doesn’t seem a good biblical fit to me.

Now I know how much of a hero Lewis is for modern evangelicals. And given what a brilliant, subtle and prolific writer he was, I may have misunderstood him. (I will turn on comments for this one so that others can have their say!) But there’s definitely a PhD for someone to do here: “An examination of the influence of Cambridge Platonism on the Christian thought of CS Lewis, along with an exploration of neoplatonic streams of thought within late 20th century evangelicalism.”

Any takers?

18 thoughts on “Is this Christianity?

  1. Tony, you old spoilsport codger (curmudgeon is taken I think). You’re right, we should think carefully about what Lewis says. Piper’s biographical talk for his pastor’s conference was an interesting exploration of this a year or two ago, noting his appreciation, as you do, despite Lewis’ divergence from what seems to be a biblical evangelical theology at points, some important.

    I’ve certainly heard the concerns about platonism in Lewis before.

    But here when you wrote,

    In the Bible, the good things of this creation are not echoes or reflections of a greater good beyond themselves but simply God’s very good gifts to us, to be received with thanksgiving.

    …I immediately thought, “But what about marriage and Ephesians 5 and Matthew 22?”

    Could it not be both/and, rather than either/or at least in some cases in regards to creational gifts being for enjoyment now and reflections beyond?

  2. Thanks Sandy.

    What I’m getting at is the suspicion towards created goods; that their significance only lies in what they point to or reflect; that they “bear at best only a symbolical relation to what will truly satisfy”. I also don’t think that ‘desire’ is the underlying category that explains our relationship with creation and with God.

    But as you rightly point out, this is not to say that the good things of creation tell us nothing about God — you could also have mentioned Rom 1 or Ps 19, in which the creation tells us things about the creator. Eph 5 is an interesting one. I suspect we over-read vv 31-32 sometimes, but that is a discussion for another time.

  3. Also should say: I meant to reference ‘The Pilgrim’s Regress’ rather than ‘The Great Divorce’ (which I can’t remember much of) as representative of Lewis’s exploration of these ideas.

  4. Hi Tony,

    Not that I want to try and exegete Lewis, but perhaps he is pointing out (in a way that Lewis only can)what the Teacher says in Ecclesiastes 3?

    [9] What gain has the worker from his toil? [10] I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.[11] He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
    (Ecclesiastes 3:9-10; Ecclesiastes 3:11 ESV)

  5. Thanks for the comment Josh.

    Although no, Eccles 3:11 doesn’t say that God has put an awareness of or desire for heaven into our hearts — although it is commonly read that way.

    The word we translate ‘eternity’ is ‘olam’ — and it basically means a really long or unending period of time, either in the past or into the future. It doesn’t mean ‘eternity’ in the sense of ‘heaven’ or the next world (in the way we sometimes use the word ‘eternity’ to mean the world that exists outside time).

    And in context, that wouldn’t really fit the author’s flow of thought anyway. He is saying that God has lodged in our hearts an awareness of the long age of the world — how it stretches from the ancient past to the distant future — and we can see that within that history there is an appropriateness to things at different times (a time for this, a time for that). So we can sense some meaning in the flow of history and of our lives, and yet we cannot figure it out, because we cannot know what God has done ‘from beginning to end’. We are prevented from seeing the whole picture, and so we are frustrated, and left with chasing after the wind.

    Or something like that.

    But the passage says nothing about a desire or yearning for heaven, or even an awareness of heaven or eternity that drives us.

  6. Interesting use of ‘olam’. I thought it could convey a sense that life continues beyond this present existence. However my Hebrew is ‘tohu’ & ‘bohu’. :)

  7. How about Hebrews 11:8-16?
    In particular, Hebrews 11:16 “Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one.”

    • Hi Wei

      I think Heb 11 actually highlights the difference between a biblical eschatology and a neoplatonic one. In Heb 11 (and the Bible in general) faith is driven by God’s initiative in making a promise in history that is fulfilled in Christ; it is a looking forward. In a more platonic mode, our innate desire to return to our real heavenly home causes us to look up to the heavenly reality of which this earthly world is a poor shadow; it’s a looking up.

      One is linear and historical; the other is more vertical and a-historical.

      Hard to explain all this well in a short space! But thanks for the comment.


      PS. Don’t forget to use your full name (one of our commenting rules).

  8. Tony, a key to the thinking of CS Lewis is found in the last of his Narnia stories, where the character Digory (the professor) asks why Plato is not taught in the schools anymore. This last book characterises the new world in almost purely platonic terms; each world resembles the one before it, but as one goes up higher and in more to enter the new world this world is more ‘real’ than the old, and the new world beckons us to enter it, for it is the world we’ve always dreamed of.
    It’s fascinating that Lewis’ character here acknowledges Plato explicitly; in my view it’s the hermeneutical key to understanding the Narnia tales.
    I’ve never understood why evangelicals hold up Lewis; his view of the atonement as presented in the Narnia tales is found wanting, he seems to embrace a version of Rahner’s anon. Christianity in the same series, and his reliance on Platonic thought is problematic.

  9. Some other authors say:

    “He loves you too little, who loves anything together with you, which he loves not for your sake.”

    “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you … God is … my portion forever”

    You may have already answered this sort of question in response to Sandy and Wei.

    Is Lewis way out, or do can we safely use his insipiration with our correction of a real physical future?

    • Hi Malcolm

      I know your question is short, but it actually raises a whole bunch of things I haven’t got time to address adequately — so my apologies for the inadequacy of what follows:

      1. The first quote is Augustine, who might not be the best person to quote in this connection — given that neoplatonism was a significant background context for his theology.

      2. Your second quote from Ps 73:25 is a favourite of mine (and of Ray Galea’s: see his excellent book that bounces off this verse — ‘God is enough’). But without doing all the exegesis here, can I just say that what the Psalmist is saying is a long way from Lewis’s theology of desire.

      3. We all find it easy to fall into the lazy habit of wanting to divide the world into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, so that we can quickly dismiss people and not have to think about what they’re saying. This is not my intention with my post about Lewis — not at all. He is a brilliant writer who can stimulate us and teach us plenty. Some of the underlying platonic architecture of this theology is tempered and shaped by his profoundly Christian convictions as well.

      4. So even if Lewis is wrong or imbalanced at certain points (and he is), that doesn’t render him banned from our bookstalls and polite conversation!

      5. Having said that, I would still be pastorally cautious about which Lewis books I would recommend to which people — being responsible for teaching and caring for others means considering what they would find encouraging and helpful (or confusing and misleading), given their maturity/stage of Christian growth.

      6. The larger and more important point, of which my brief post is just an opening sketch, is not about whether Lewis is legitimate or a ‘good egg’, but whether his theological vision (re God, desire, heaven, creation etc.) is misshapen at key points. And this is important because he is a massively influential and much-followed thinker in popular evangelicalism, and not always for the best.

      Anyway, thanks again for the question Malcolm!


  10. I’d agree with you here, but also the sentiment of Lewis; it seems that his error (as elsewhere) is thinking a little too subjectively and abstractly about heaven (as he does about hell). If we were to substitute a more correct eschatology in, I think his key point (that we don’t fully realise what that which we are longing for is actually like, but we will when we get there) holds true. As in, we can’t imagine what an existence with God, without sin, in glory, forever, with no pain (and so on) will feel like.

  11. His view of the problem of evil is also problematic: there is a helpful critique of his writings on this in Henri Blocher’s Evil And the Cross.

  12. Tony, I’m wondering what specific theological dangers you see as flowing from this neoplatonic twist in Lewis’s thought? I ask because I’m with Alex: except for a vertical, alinear orientation rather than a horizontal, historical one, I think the gist of Lewis here is very similar to Piper’s big idea: that our greatest need, desire, and joy – if only we knew it – is God himself.

    And I don’t see in Lewis the idea of escaping from the material to enter a (superior) purely spiritual existence – quite the opposite, in fact! His idea of heaven is clearly material, and it will be an enjoyment of the new creation as God’s material gift. (In fact, he speculates that heaven will be even more “solid” than the current order, as it were. And acknowledges that he’s really just imagining…. in The Great Divorce, I think.) I simply don’t think Lewis’s heaven is a non-creational, ideal (in the Platonic sense) one, whatever his debt to or admiration for Plato.

    I also don’t see in Lewis your ideas of “returning” to where we originally came from, nor a “memory” of where we have fallen from. They don’t come out in the quote – are they there explicitly elsewhere in Pilgrim’s Regress or The Weight of Glory?

    And to back up Wei: I think you’ve brushed off Heb 11 frighteningly quickly! The whole chapter says that, from Abel on, the faithful have always longed for and placed their hope in “a better land – heavenly one”, as opposed to this world/land. And given the author’s keenness to pick up earthly-copy-and-heavenly-reality, this is not at all dissimilar to Lewis.

    Isn’t Lewis simply exhorting us to store up treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy etc.?

    I have to say, the modern SYDNEY evangelical warnings against Lewis concern me somewhat. I totally agree with (many of) the problems in Lewis – the atonement, inclusive salvation, etc. But I gained so much from reading him as a young Christian – especially on anthropology, I think. I was at a good, solid teaching church, and so when I thought about atonement in Narnia, for example, or someone pointed the errors out to me, I could immediately say, “Yes, of course, you’re right.” But that didn’t diminish at all what I gained from him.

    • (In case anyone gets the wrong idea, my putting “SYDNEY” in capitals was in no way pejorative or dismissive. I’m one of ’em, and very happily! It was simply in response to Tony’s bit about “how much of a hero Lewis is for modern evangelicals” – I was adding an adjective.)

    • Hi Stephen

      Sorry for the delay in replying. I was off at the Ministry Intensive yesterday with Phillip Jensen, Richard Coekin and Christopher Ash. It was excellent stuff — don’t know if you were there, but worth grabbing the talks if you weren’t.

      Now to your comment/question. As I tried to say in response to Malcolm, I don’t want to make this a matter of whether Lewis is ‘in’ or ‘out’ — he says lots of helpful things, and like you I was greatly helped by him at various times early in my Christian life.

      But my concern is that there is something mis-shapen about the underlying structure of his theology, which will show itself in various areas. Theology is all inter-connected. If you have a false or out-of-balance view in one area it usually shows itself somewhere else as well, and will have implications for how you cast all sorts of other things. Sometimes it will be a matter of balance or priority.

      So if one’s eschatology is more ‘vertical’ and ‘alinear’ (as you describe it), and presupposes an inner desire that needs to be re-directed so as to drive us ‘back’ or ‘up’, then that will affect the emphasis of the gospel we preach (what we are calling upon people to understand and do), and it will yield a different vision of Christian experience (more focused on the satisfaction of the innate desire). If your eschatology is more horizontal/historical, then you will preach a gospel more focused on God’s promise about the future (judgement and salvation), and the primary Christian experience will be one of repentance and faith in light of God’s promise about that future.

      Is there an ‘up’ in our eschatology? Well yes of course there is. Our life is hidden now in the heavenly reality (which is why we can store treasure there), but that reality will be manifested in time and history in a new creation — which I think is also what is being expressed in Heb 11. I don’t think it’s copy-and-ideal-form!

      There are lots of issues here, and blog posts and comment threads are an inadequate way of discussing them — hence my only half light-hearted request that someone take up these up and research them in detail. Reading the quote that sparked my post simply made me realise again that the unease I have felt about Lewis’s theology is not simply a matter of a few loose ends that he was quirky about, but a deeper structure (influenced by platonism) that is in tension with his genuine Christian convictions, and that emerges at different points.

      Thanks for the interaction Stephen.

      Warm regards


  13. I was once thrown off of a church site for pointing out the problems with what was said to be a Lewis quote,and I paraphrase to the best of my recollect: “the reason we don’t have more resurrections is because we don’t experience enough deaths”. Another example of nonconcrete categories, subjectivity, etc. A study of resurrection in scripture only refers to a concrete, objective, bodily type. I believe I said it sounded like a page from German Pietism/Liberalism or something nasty like that. I did have some chastening words for the local Presbytery which has been sliding into the abyss (the saying had been quoted at Presbytery meeting by a big wig minister with the apparent blessing of all ministers present. Religious words untethered from scripture impress me not, nor do they particularly make me feel morbidly introspective since they don’t carry the weight of the real Law. Also, they are usually not followed with an offer of the objective work of Christ on our behalf which makes me actually resent them! Blessings, Ya’ll

  14. Yes, how often do we speak of “heaven” as the alternative to “hell”? But is that really Biblical..? Should it be something more like “new creation”..?

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