Was C.S. Lewis a Universalist?

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Dr. Louis Markos is Robert H. Ray Professor of English at Houston Baptist University and an expert in the works and the life of C.S. Lewis. He has written and recorded numerous works, including two lecture series with The Teaching Company.

Dr. Markos is one of our keynote speakers at the Apologetics Canada Conference in Abbotsford and Vancouver. If you are a C.S. Lewis fan, this is not an opportunity to be missed! Register today!

Below is a response by Dr. Markos to a question he often receives about C.S. Lewis.


Was C.S. Lewis a Universalist?

Near the end of The Last Battle, a noble Calormen soldier named Emeth dies and comes before Aslan, the Christ of Narnia. Although Emeth hails from a distant land that worships a false god named Tash (rather than the true Aslan), and although Emeth has served Tash all his life, when he meets Aslan, he is welcomed by the Great Lion and invited into heaven.

Portrait of huge beautiful male African lion against black background

Of all the passages in the voluminous writings of C. S. Lewis, none has caused more controversy and confusion than this suggestion by the orthodox Christian Lewis that salvation can be attained outside of Christ. Indeed, when I speak about Lewis, the most common question that I am asked is whether or not the episode with Emeth reveals Lewis to be a Universalist in disguise: that is, someone who believes that all who practice their religion faithfully—whether they be Christians or Jews, Muslims or Hindus—will be saved.

It does not. Had Emeth come before Aslan and requested directions to the Tash part of heaven, and had Aslan obliged, then Lewis would be a Universalist. But that is not what happens in the episode. Quite to the contrary, when Emeth stands before Aslan, he realizes and accepts that Tash is false and Aslan true, and that the deep spiritual desire he has followed all his life has found its fulfillment in Aslan. He proves this by falling to his knees in worship.

Like the Magi of the Christmas story, he recognizes that Aslan (not Tash) is the end of his journey. In response, Aslan assures him: “‘unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.’”

Now, it must be admitted that though this is not universalism, it does border on a concept that the vast majority of believers would reject (rightly) as unbiblical: post-mortem (“after death”) salvation. Orthodox Christian teaching states that all decisions for or against Christ must be made before we die. Once we pass to the other side, all bets are off. Though many Protestants think that the Catholic belief in purgatory allows for a second chance at salvation, it does not. In Catholicism, those who reach purgatory are already saved; they just need to be sanctified.

cs-lewis-recording

So is Lewis an advocate of post-mortem salvation? This time I must be a bit more nuanced with my answer. Yes, Emeth is technically dead when he accepts Aslan’s offer of salvation, but that does not mean he is being given a “second chance.”

As Lewis explains in a number of his works, God lives in eternity, not in time. Too often, people think that eternity means time going on forever, when what it really means is that time itself does not exist. The closest we come to a perception of eternity, Lewis writes, is our experience of the present moment. For the present is the point where time touches eternity.

The moment Emeth dies is an eternal moment—and that eternal moment contains all the other moments of his life. He accepts Aslan (Christ) in that eternal moment, because all of the other moments have been building up to that acceptance. And once he does, all the other moments become reoriented around that moment of decision. That is why, in The Great Divorce, Lewis says heaven and hell work backwards. For those who accept Christ in that eternal moment, it will seem, not that they have just entered heaven, but that they have always been there.

– Louis Markos –

Comments 7

  1. I was more than surprised, as an Orthodox Christian, to be told that the Church teaches that all decisions for Christ must absolutely be made in this life. I am reliably informed that there is a distinction made between the Particular Judgment at Death and the Final Judgment, when all things are sealed. Not only is there anecdotal evidence of the monk who prayed his rather unpleasant Elder out of Hell (I believe in Markides), but it is my understanding that the Harrowing of Hell occurs outside of time, and thus it may at least be a pious hope that Our Lord still preaches to the “spirits that are in prison.” So in this case, I am afraid I prefer this “pious hope,” not necessarily for Universalism, since as Lewis put it “all who are in Hell choose it.” He also went on to ask if all will be saved with their will or without it. I am not arguing for Universalism, but I will say I think there are more Emeths than you allow.

  2. if the moment is after death, it is not a moment in time toucing eternity, but eternity itself. So to say that one chooses Hell is gibberish, because no one would chose Hell standing face to face with Jesus after death. An unbeliever does not choose Hell, he simply does not choose Christianity. For a Christian of course, this is the same as choosing eternal damnation but, Lewis does not speak on his own behalf, as a Christian, but on the behalf the damned as if they were Christians. Very, very arrogant.

  3. Oh the ongoing pride of those who firmly believe they have God locked up in doctrines and the box called the Bible! Faith is substance and evidence and guess what, it varies for everyone. To foist centuries old creeds and interpretations wielded by a collective of earthly minded empire builders epitomizes theological chutzpah: believe or else. And for centuries that “or else” included torture and anathemas, wars and hypocrisy on a global scale.

    Surely God is better than all this. And one day we will know as we are known. At least, we hope so.

  4. What are your thoughts on Sahdu Sundar Singh? It seems Lewis alluded to him in his book “That Hideous Strength” and Lewis’ book “The Great Divorce” seems like a fictional version of Sundar Singh’s book “The Visions of Sadhu Sundar Singh” I ask because based on biographies of Sundar, and Lewis’ thoughts on him I took him to be an inspirational man of God, but after reading his book on his visions, and learning of his respect for Swedenborg and questionable doctrine it left me questioning C.S. Lewis… So I would love your thoughts on this, Thanks.

  5. “when Emeth stands before Aslan, he realizes and accepts that Tash is false and Aslan true, and that the deep spiritual desire he has followed all his life has found its fulfillment in Aslan. He proves this by falling to his knees in worship.”

    But Aslan says “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me…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.”

    This is a problem.

    I love Lewis as a writer, and am a longtime fan of the Narnia books, but I can’t understand why people are so reluctant to admit that Lewis made a serious error here. We should never idealise a man – or a children’s novel – to the extent that it clouds out spiritual discernment.

  6. I would rephrase “God lives in eternity, not in time” unless there is a direct Lewisian quote. IMO CSL would have argued that living in eternity meant eternity was other than what God is – in On Ethics he argued against postulating a Good which God subscribed to. Perhaps “God is eternal, not temporal”, or “God is eternal, and time is within him”?
    I would also argue that Emeth (Truth) already welcomed the true Emperor, so had ultimate salvation, premortem, even as the Ape rejected the true Emperor, so had ultimate shadow, premortem. John Sanders No Other Name has a good take on Lewis. My own Israel’s Gone Global is Wider Hope, differentiating the concepts of Ultimate Eternal Life and Now Eternal Life (Jhn.17:3), in short, that not all lack the stake on the plate while they wait, lack pie in the sky when they die: welcome of God is wider than welcome of God in Christ. With Emeth, truth went home.
    The closest CSL came to postmortem evangelism was perhaps The Great Divorce, though was he intending to argue for it or simply using that idea to hang other ideas on?

  7. Pingback: (CMCSL-7): C.S. Lewis was a Universalist | Essential C.S. Lewis

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