C.S. Lewis and evolution
Published: 27 April 2007 (GMT+10)
There would be a strong case for the assertion that C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) has been the most celebrated Christian apologist of the second half of the twentieth century. Even into the twenty-first century Lewis’s popularity shows no sign of diminishing. His war-time radio broadcasts, which aired in 1942–1944, were published in book form as Mere Christianity, which has proved enormously influential. His other books have also found themselves onto the bookshelves of many Christians, notably The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape Letters, Miracles, The Four Loves, The Abolition of Man, and Letters to Malcolm, as well as the seven Chronicles of Narnia and his science fiction trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength). Even The Pilgrim’s Regress, which Lewis later came to regret somewhat, is applauded by J. I. Packer as ‘the freshest and liveliest of all his books’, and the one that Packer has reread more often than any other.1 For logic, beauty of expression, command of the English language, honesty, earthy wit, and imagination, few writers can equal Lewis—or come near him.
C.S. Lewis as theologian
Theologically, Lewis described himself as an Anglican who was ‘not especially “high,” nor especially “low,” nor especially anything else.’2 He is often regarded as suspect in his views, especially regarding the doctrines of revelation and the atonement. Certainly, Lewis retained some liberal elements in his thinking. For example, he was open on the possibility of persons of other religions belonging to Christ without knowing it.3 Regarding revelation, he declared in an interview conducted in 1944 that ‘The Old Testament contains fabulous elements.’ He considered that the accounts of Jonah and of Noah were ‘fabulous’, whereas the court history of King David was probably as reliable as the court history of King Louis XIV. ‘Then, in the New Testament the thing really happens.’4 It is the sort of view that rightly needs to be criticized by evangelical believers. Lewis held quite a high view of Scripture, but it remained somewhat vague and elusive in places. Not long before his death, he commented that as Christians ‘we still believe (as I do) that all Holy Scripture is in some sense—though not all parts of it in the same sense—the Word of God.’5
Regarding the atonement, Lewis was equally as vague and disappointing. He declared that what matters is that it works, not how it works: ‘The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter. A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work.’6
Later in life, Lewis appears to have shifted in a direction that was more biblically orthodox. One of his last essays, Fern-seeds and Elephants, is quite a devastating critique of the acceptance of Modernist theology in the Church of England. Lewis’s final sentence is particularly barbed: ‘Missionary to the priests of one’s own church is an embarrassing role; though I have a horrid feeling that if such mission work is not soon undertaken, the future history of the Church of England is likely to be short.’7 Overall, Lewis never regarded himself as a theologian; his strengths lay in his wonderful command of prose and in his clarity of thought.
C.S. Lewis as an atheist
Only in 1929 did Lewis become what he called ‘perhaps the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England’.8 This was a conversion to theism, but it was followed two years later by the acceptance, while being driven to the zoo, that Jesus was the Son of God. Until his conversion, Lewis was a rabid unbeliever, being not simply indifferent to Christianity but decidedly hostile—not unlike Richard Dawkins today. Indeed, Lewis was to refer to this period of his life as ‘the days when I still hated Christianity’.9 He used the traditional argument that the state of the world shows that it is not governed by a good God. In October 1916 he wrote to one who was to be his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves: ‘I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best. All religions, that is, all mythologies, to give them their proper name, are merely man’s own invention, Christ as much as Loki.’10
Lewis was more philosophical than scientific in his outlook, and so he rarely referred to the evolutionary hypothesis in his rejection of Christianity. One of the few references comes in 1925 when Lewis recorded that Mrs Moore’s daughter, Maureen, had asked him about the theory of evolution. Lewis’s response was straightforward: ‘I explained that the Biblical and scientific accounts were alternatives. She asked me which I believed. I said the scientific. She said “I suppose if one believes in it then, one doesn’t believe in God.” I said one could believe in God without believing in all the things said about him in the Old Testament. Here the matter ended.’11
C.S. Lewis’ early attitude to evolution as a Christian
When Lewis became a Christian, he felt no immediate need to renounce any belief in evolution. In the meantime, Bernard Acworth (a retired Royal Navy captain), Douglas Dewar, and Sir Ambrose Fleming launched the Evolution Protest Movement. Acworth came to seek to enlist the pen of Lewis on the side of the anti-evolutionary creationists. Lewis, however, was reluctant to come on board. On 9 December 1944 he wrote to Acworth: ‘I can’t have made my position clear. I am not either attacking or defending Evolution. I believe that Christianity can still be believed, even if Evolution is true. This is where you and I differ. Thinking as I do, I can’t help regarding your advice (that I henceforth include arguments against Evolution in all my Christian apologetics) as a temptation to fight the battle on what is really a false issue: and also on terrain very unsuitable for the only weapon I have.’12
At this time, Lewis was not convinced that it was wise for Christians to declare war on evolution, and in any case he did not possess enough biological knowledge to make any contribution to the cause of creationism. In The Problem of Pain, written in 1940, Lewis showed his willingness to accept virtually any view of evolution provided the biblical doctrine of the Fall was retained.13
C.S. Lewis’s growing questioning of evolution
However, by 1951 that tone was changing, and Lewis wrote to the same Captain Acworth: ‘What inclines me now to think you may be right in regarding [evolution] as the central and radical lie in the whole web of falsehood that now governs our lives is not so much your arguments against it as the fanatical and twisted attitudes of its defenders.’14 Lewis rarely intruded into the area of science as such but he was impressed by Acworth’s arguments, and wrote: ‘The point that the whole economy of nature demands simultaneity of at least a v[ery] great many species is a v[ery] sticky one.’14
For all that, Lewis refused to write a preface for an anti-evolutionary work on the grounds that he was known to be no scientist. He argued that ‘When a man has become a popular Apologist he must watch his step. Everyone is on the look out for things that might discredit him.’14 He was somewhat gleeful that Piltdown Man had been proved to be a hoax in 1953, but warned that Christians had been guilty too of forged decretals and faked miracles. He had no time for the rhapsodies of Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man, which he regarded as ‘evolution run mad’.14
It was sometime in this period when, at a dinner party where the guests included Helen Gardner, the topic was raised as to whom one would like to meet in heaven. One guest suggested Shakespeare while another suggested the apostle Paul, but Lewis said that he would like to meet Adam. He gave as his reasons:
Adam was, from the first, a man in knowledge as well as in stature. He alone of all men ‘had been in Eden, in the garden of God, he had walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire’. He was endowed, says Athanasius, with ‘a vision of God so far-reaching that he could contemplate the eternity of the Divine Essence and the coming operation of His Word’. He was ‘a heavenly being’ according to St. Ambrose, who breathed the aether and was accustomed to converse with God ‘face to face’.
Helen Gardner, a church-goer with a deep interest in the seventeenth century English metaphysical poets, ventured to suggest that Adam, if he existed, would be a Neanderthal ape-like figure whose conversation would hardly be interesting. Apparently, Lewis responded in a gruff voice: ‘I see we have a Darwinian in our midst.’15
In a letter to Dorothy Sayers on 4 March 1954 Lewis penned a satirical poem entitled Evolutionary Hymn. Christians with no sense of mockery have sometime asked whether it was meant to be serious, and to be dated from his unbelieving days. Lewis, however, had a well developed sense of satire, and this effort is particularly biting. Its opening stanza is:
Up the future’s endless stair:
Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us
For stagnation is despair:
Groping, guessing, yet progressing,
Lead us nobody knows where.
Significantly, this attacks the claims of evolution as a philosophy rather than as a science.
As early as Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis had mocked creative evolution as espoused by George Bernard Shaw and Henri Bergson: ‘The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost.’16 Lewis’s interests were more philosophical than scientific, although that should not be interpreted to mean that he espoused a brand of Idealism. Lewis’s views on evolution provide an interesting insight into his questing intellect. Ultimately, they stop short of the full-orbed Christian view, but we can be thankful that he came to see that the evolutionary hypothesis made for bad philosophy, and increasingly came to view its scientific underpinning, in so far as he understood it, as equally as flawed. One wonders what he might have said had his vague acceptance of evolution been shaken earlier. There is a wealth of suggestive possibilities in his 1951 lament: ‘I wish I were younger.’14
C.S. Lewis on materialistic thoughts
‘If the solar system was brought about by an accidental collision, then the appearance of organic life on this planet was also an accident, and the whole evolution of Man was an accident too. If so, then all our present thoughts are mere accidents—the accidental by-product of the movement of atoms. And this holds for the thoughts of the materialists and astronomers as well as for anyone else’s. But if their thoughts—i.e. of materialism and astronomy—are merely accidental by-products, why should we believe them to be true? I see no reason for believing that one accident should be able to give me a correct account of all the other accidents. It’s like expecting that the accidental shape taken by the splash when you upset a milkjug should give you a correct account of how the jug was made and why it was upset.’
C.S. Lewis (1898–1963), The Business of Heaven, Fount Paperbacks, U.K., p. 97, 1984.
- J. I. Packer, ‘Still Surprised by Lewis’ in Christianity Today, vol. 42, 7 September 1998. Return to Text
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Glasgow: Fontana, 1975, p.6. Return to Text
- Ref. 2, p.173. Return to Text
- C.S. Lewis, ‘Answers to Questions on Christianity’, in God in the Dock, ed. by Walter Hooper, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1970, pp.57–58. Return to Text
- C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, London and Glasgow: Collins, 1974, p.22. Return to Text
- Ref. 2, p.54. Return to Text
- C.S. Lewis, ‘Fern-seeds and Elephants’ in Christian Reflections, ed. by Walter Hooper, Glasgow: Collins, 1983. Return to Text
- C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, London and Glasgow: Fontana, 1953, p.182. Return to Text
- C.S. Lewis, ‘On the Reading of Old Books’, in God in the Dock, ed. by Walter Hooper, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1970, p.203. Return to Text
- Cited in J. Ryan Duncan, The Magic Never Ends, Nashville, 2001, p.27. Return to Text
- C.S. Lewis, All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C.S. Lewis, 1922–1927, ed. by Walter Hooper, London: HarperCollins, 1991, p.361. Return to Text
- C.S. Lewis on Creation and Evolution: The Acworth Letters, 1944–1960’, www.asa3.org/aSA/PSCF/1996/PSCF3-96Ferngren.html Gary Ferngren and Ronald L. Numbers have put together a most helpful treatment of Lewis’ views on evolution. Return to Text
- C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, London and Glasgow: Fontana, 1975, especially pp.57–76. Return to Text
- C.S. Lewis on Creation and Evolution: The Acworth Letters, 1944–1960’, www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1996/PSCF3-96Ferngren.html Return to Text
- Cited in A. N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis: A Biography, London; Collins, 1990, p.210. Return to Text
- Ref. 2, p.34. Return to Text