Screwtape’s Agony Is Our Reward

My students finished reading C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters this week. The final letter includes one of the most profound insights Lewis has ever offered as to what happens when a Christian dies. Even though it is described through the eyes of a demon (or perhaps because it is described in that way), one can get a glimpse of the glory that awaits those who have found the narrow path and remained faithful.

Wormwood’s “patient” has died in a bombing raid during WWII. Screwtape is beside himself that his subordinate has allowed a soul to slip through his fingers. After all, the death of a Christian is not a victory for Hell. “How well I know,” Screwtape angrily instructs his mentee, “what happened at the instant when they snatched him from you!”

There was a sudden clearing of his eyes (was there not?) as he saw you for the first time, and recognized the part you had had in him and knew that you had it no longer.

Just think (and let it be the beginning of your agony) what he felt at that moment; as if a scab had fallen from an old sore, as if he were emerging from a hideous, shell-like tetter [skin disease], as if he shuffled off for good and all a defiled, wet, clinging garment.

Clarity will come to us as we leave this vale of tears and fears, this shadowland, and see real reality (redundant, I know, but maybe the best way to put it) for the first time. Wormwood’s patient got off far too easily, gripes Screwtape.

No gradual misgivings, no doctor’s sentence, no nursing home, no operating theatre, no false hopes of life; sheer, instantaneous liberation.

One moment it seemed to be all our world; the scream of bombs, the fall of houses, the stink and taste of high explosive on the lips and in the lungs, the feet burning with weariness, the heart cold with horrors, the brain reeling, the legs aching; next moment all this was gone, gone like a bad dream, never again to be of any account.

Defeated, out-manoeuvred fool! Did you mark how naturally—as if he’d been born for it—the earth-bound vermin entered the new life?

Screwtape ends that particular harangue with this: “How all his doubts became, in the twinkling of an eye, ridiculous?” What a truth that is. While we go through our temporary existence in this realm, we are assailed at times by doubts. When we pass into the heavenly realm, how quickly those doubts will be erased. It really will seem ridiculous to us that we could have ever entertained them.

But that’s not all. The patient’s first greeters are the angels who have been at his side all along. “You reeled back dizzy and blinded, more hurt by them than he had ever been by bombs.” What a turnaround. “He had no faintest conception till that very hour of how they would look, and even doubted their existence.” Do we doubt also? The book of Hebrews calls them ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation. Are we aware of their help?

But when he saw them he knew that he had always known them and realized what part each one of them had played at many an hour in his life when he had supposed himself alone, so that now he could say to them, one by one, not “Who are you?” but “So it was you all the time.”

We are never alone.

But that wasn’t the culmination of the new revelation.

“He saw not only Them,” Screwtape writes in anger and fury, but “he saw Him. This animal, this thing begotten in a bed, could look on Him. What is blinding, suffocating fire to you, is now cool light to him, is clarity itself, and wears the form of a Man.”

We finally will see Him as He is. We finally will understand fully as we are fully known. We finally will be home.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe in Me as well. In My Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I am going away to prepare a place for you?

John 14:1-2

Rejoice in that truth. Screwtape’s agony is our reward: an eternity in the presence of the One who loved us and gave Himself for us.