by David C. Downing
“God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.” That concise statement by the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 5:19a) has kept theologians busy for nearly two thousand years, trying to understand what exactly is being affirmed in the Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the Atonement.
C. S. Lewis never lost his sense of wonder about either one of these central Christian teachings. Referring to the Incarnation as “The Grand Miracle,” Lewis said he could not conceive how “eternal self-existent Spirit” could be combined with “a natural human organism” so as to make one person. He added, though, that every human embodies the same enigma to a lesser degree, an immortal spirit inhabiting a mortal body (Miracles, chap. 14).
Lewis was equally amazed by the doctrine of the Atonement, saying only that “the central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.” He adds that one not need adopt any one theory of the Atonement, or to understand it fully, in order to benefit from the work of the cross. In the same way, a starving person can be saved by a timely meal, without knowing anything at all about the principles of nutrition (Mere Christianity, bk. 2, chap. 4.)
When trying to explain the deepest mysteries of Christian faith, Lewis often found it helpful to use analogies and metaphors instead of theological formulations. He invited his readers to use their imaginations to try and comprehend elusive doctrines that may well have baffled their intellects. Many of Lewis’s most memorable word-pictures appear in passages where he is trying to help readers grasp the significance of the crucial, but mystical, doctrines of the Incarnation and the Atonement.
The very idea that that an infinite, eternal God could descend into frail human flesh was an idea that astonished Lewis and one he often meditated upon. He remarked in Mere Christianity that this was even more a miracle than if a human should descend into the form of a slug (bk. 4, chap 4.) The cycle of descent and re-ascent, God become human in order that humans might become the children of God, was one that Lewis returned to often in his imagination. In one of his most extended comparisons, Lewis compares Christ to a pearl-diver, a passage so elaborate that it borders on allegory:
"One may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanishing rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the deathlike region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to colour and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks the surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing he went down to recover. He and it are both coloured now that they have come up into the light: down below, where it lay colorless in the dark, he lost his color too" (Miracles, chap. 14).
In a similar vein, Lewis visualizes the Incarnate Infinite as a strong man called upon to lift a great burden. First he must stoop down very low, almost disappearing under the load, until at last he finds his grip and rises up again, straightening his back and balancing the whole weight upon his shoulders in order to carry it (Miracles, chap. 14).
Lewis offered equally evocative metaphors in his discussions of the Atonement. In one passage, he visualizes Christ, the God-Man, as a rescuer with one foot firmly planted on the riverbank, the other foot in the rushing water. It is this very stance that allows him to save the drowning, to snatch them out of the rapid current while remaining firmly anchored himself (Mere Christianity, bk. 2, chap. 4). In a more mystical vein, Lewis describes God as an infinite ocean of light, able to absorb all shadows: “The pure light walks the earth; the darkness, received into the heart of the Deity, is there swallowed up. Where, except in uncreated light, can the darkness be drowned?” (Letters to Malcolm, chap. 8).
Lewis also liked to describe key Christian doctrines as incomprehensibles which make everything else comprehensible. In one of his most famous analogies, Lewis said that “We believe that the sun is in the sky at midday in summer not because we can clearly see the sun (in fact, we cannot) but because we can see everything else” (Miracles, chap. 14). Lewis also compared the Incarnation to the missing chapter of a novel that gives meaning to the whole rest of the story. None of the other episodes quite make sense, or fit together into a whole, until this pivotal missing chapter has been added to the narrative (Miracles, chap. 14).
Finally, Lewis resorts to metaphors in trying to explain how God’s descent and his reconciling work have forever changed the human condition. Lewis says that we are like human statues in a sculpture’s studio waiting for that breath that will turn us into living beings. We have already been given physical life, bios, which is always subject to eventual decay and death. But God came down from heaven to bring Zoe, the spiritual life that abides forever (Mere Christianity, bk. 4, chap.1).
In an analogy that would have certainly hit close to home with Lewis’s original audience during World War Two, he compares spiritual warfare to the battle that was then raging all over the globe. Lewis explained that we are like residents of enemy-occupied territory. Our rightful ruler has landed once, and founded a secret society to help prepare for his eventual landing in force. One day the time will come for a full-scale invasion in which the tyrant will be overthrown.
To those skeptics who wonder if that day will ever come, Lewis speculated the great invasion is being postponed to give more people a chance to choose the right side before it is too late. No one would be too impressed with someone who decided to join the freedom fighters on the day the Allies liberated Paris. And the time for choosing sides will be over when Christ returns a second time. For that day will be the end of the world as we know it (Mere Christianity, bk 2, chap. 5).
Many articles and books have been written about the theological richness of Lewis’s imaginative writings, especially the Ransom trilogy and the Narnia Chronicles. But one can’t help being impressed by the opposite side of the coin, the way in which Lewis’s theological works are so thoroughly infused with the glow of his spiritual imagination.
David C. Downing is the R. W. Schlosser Professor of English at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous articles and reviews on C. S. Lewis, as well as four books: Planets in Peril (University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), a critical study of the Ransom trilogy; The Most Reluctant Convert (InterVarsity, 2002), an examination of Lewis’s journey to faith; Into the Wardrobe (Jossey-Bass, 2005), an in-depth overview of the Narnia Chronicles; Into the Region of Awe (InterVarsity, 2005), a study of how Lewis’s wide reading in Christian mysticism enhanced his own faith and enriched his imaginative writings.
Downing serves as a consulting editor on Lewis for Christian Scholars Review, Christianity and Literature, and Seven: An Anglo-American Literary Review. His most recent book is A South Divided: Portraits of Dissent in the Confederacy (Cumberland Press, 2007). His college website may be found at http://users.etown.edu/d/downindc/)