Summary: An exploration of the nature of sin and temptation in C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.
C. S. Lewis #4
“The Screwtape Letters”
C. S. Lewis’ book The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe begins with the premise that a wonderful world called Narnia has fallen under the spell of an evil witch who has usurped the role of Narnia’s rightful Ruler and set herself up as Queen. Like his friend J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis took evil seriously, having seen so much of it in the bitter wars that ravaged Europe. It led Lewis to conclude in Mere Christianity that we are living in “enemy occupied territory.” His awareness of the existence and power of evil and his willingness to take scripture’s portrait of an evil one seriously led to the creation of one of his most popular works, The Screwtape Letters. Satan for millennia has known how we think; in The Screwtape Letters Lewis gives us a glimpse into how he thinks.
We know from a letter written to his brother Warnie the actual moment and circumstances when the book was first conceived. Friday evening, July 19, 1940, Jack and his friend, physician and fellow Inkling Dr. “Humphrey” Havard were listening to a radio speech by Adolph Hitler. Lewis wrote, “I don’t know if I’m weaker than other people, but it is a positive revelation to me how while the speech lasts it is impossible not to waiver just a little… Statements which I know to be untrue all but convince me, at any rate for the moment, if only the man says them unflinchingly.” That Sunday morning in church (“one could wish these things came more seasonably”) he came up with the idea for a book he felt would be “both useful and entertaining” called From One Devil to Another. It would contain letters from an older devil to a younger one that would explore the psychology of temptation “from the other point of view.” The book was finished by the end of the year, but originally appeared as a series of weekly installments from May to November 1941 in a church publication called The Guardian.
The key to reading and understanding the book is this: Everything is backwards. Not everyone understood that. One pastor cancelled his subscription to the Guardian writing because much of the advice given in the letters seemed not only erroneous but positively diabolical. That is, of course, the point. When Screwtape uses the words “Our Father” he is talking about Satan. When he rails against or puzzles over the strategies of “the Enemy” he is talking about God. That may be why Lewis wrote, “Though I have never written anything more easily, I never wrote with less enjoyment… The work into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst, and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded. It almost smothered me before I was done. It would have smothered my readers if I had prolonged it.” (1) So remember, it’s all backwards. Once you get that, the book becomes an amazing and often an amusing study of how evil works in human life.
Humor is an intentional part of it, not because Lewis takes sin or Satan lightly. But, quoting Martin Luther, Lewis reminds us, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” Likewise Thomas More, “The devil… the proud spirit… cannot endure to be mocked.” Lewis, incidentally, dedicates the book to his friend in Christ, J. R. R. Tolkien.
There are four key truths that underlie the entire book. First, Satan really exists. This fact is assumed throughout scripture and is reinforced by the words and deeds of Jesus. 1 John 3.8 say, “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.” In his original preface to Screwtape Lewis says, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician [that is, people interested in the occult] with the same delight.” (2)
A second truth that Lewis assumes in Screwtape and throughout his work is that Satan is God’s enemy but not God’s equal, another biblical truth. In a subsequent preface, Lewis writes, “The commonest question [I am asked about Screwtape] is whether I really ‘believe in the Devil.’ Now, if by ‘the Devil’ you mean a power opposite to God and, like God, self-existent from all eternity, the answer is certainly No. There is no uncreated being except God. God has no opposite. No being could attain ‘perfect badness’ opposite to the perfect goodness of God; for when you have taken away every kind of good thing (intelligence, will, memory, energy, and existence itself) there would be none of him left. The proper question is whether I believe in devils. I do. I believe in angels, and I believe some of these, by the abuse of their free will, have become enemies to God and, as a corollary, to us. These we may call devil… Satan, the leader or dictator of devils, is the opposite, not of God, but of Michael.” (3)