The Only Question That Really Matters: Lewis’s Final Interview

The final interview C. S. Lewis gave was with Sherwood Wirt of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Wirt spoke with him at Cambridge University in May of 1963, just six months before Lewis died. I was re-reading that interview this morning and found it enlightening as to Lewis’s thoughts during that final stage of his life—although, of course, he didn’t realize he was in the final stage.

At first, Wirt was interested in drawing out Lewis on the type of writing Christians should do. When asked his opinion of the kind of Christian writing being done at that time, Lewis was blunt:

A great deal of what is being published by writers in the religious tradition is a scandal and is actually turning people away from the church. The liberal writers who are continually accommodating and whittling down the truth of the Gospel are responsible.

I cannot understand how a man can appear in print claiming to disbelieve everything that he presupposes when he puts on the surplice. I feel it is a form of prostitution.

Strong words.

As the interview proceeded, Wirt asked Lewis how Christians can help foster an encounter of people with Christ. “You can’t lay down any pattern for God,” Lewis replied, but added that he had learned to be cautious in passing judgment on different approaches to delivering the Gospel. Above all, he urged commitment to the message:

As Christians we are tempted to make unnecessary concessions to those outside the Faith. We give in too much. Now, I don’t mean that we should run the risk of making a nuisance of ourselves by witnessing at improper times, but there comes a time when we must show that we disagree. We must show our Christian colours, if we are to be true to Jesus Christ. We cannot remain silent or concede everything away.

Lewis also decried the increasing use of obscenity in literature in order to create what some called a more “realistic atmosphere.” He viewed that development with dismay, seeing it as “a symptom, a sign of a culture that has lost its faith.” There is a progression, Lewis warned: “Moral collapse follows upon spiritual collapse. I look upon the immediate future with great apprehension.”

Modern culture, he felt, was in the throes of de-Christianization. While he refrained from commenting on the political aspects of this development, he did have “definite views” on what was happening within the church:

I believe there are many accommodating preachers, and too many practitioners in the church who are not believers. Jesus Christ did not say, “Go into all the world and tell the world that it is quite right.” The Gospel is something completely different. In fact, it is directly opposed to the world.

The interview concluded with Wirt asking Lewis what he thought would be occurring “in the next few years of history.” Lewis’s response was quite practical—and Biblically based:

I have no way of knowing. . . . The world might stop in ten minutes; meanwhile, we are to go on doing our duty. The great thing is to be found at one’s post as a child of God, living each day as though it were our last, but planning as though our world might last a hundred years.

He then echoed words he had written in more than one of his earlier writings:

We have, of course, the assurance of the New Testament regarding events to come. I find it difficult to keep from laughing when I find people worrying about future destruction of some kind or other. Didn’t they know they were going to die anyway? Apparently not.

My wife once asked a young woman friend whether she had ever thought of death, and she replied, “By the time I reach that age science will have done something about it!”

Unlimited faith in man’s science is a fantasy. We all will die. The only question that really matters is whether we have remained at our post as a child of God, continuing to do His will until the end comes. Lewis did exactly that in the six months he had left. We need to follow his example.

C. S. Lewis Loses His Joy

On this day, July 13, 1960, C. S. Lewis lost his wife, Joy, to cancer. It was a devastating loss for him; their very short marriage he considered the apex of his life. Here’s how I wrote about it in my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis: His Profound Impact:

“The blow has fallen,” Lewis informed [his friend Chad] Walsh in October 1959. News that Joy’s cancer had returned was a shock. Prior to receiving this bad news, they had planned a May trip to Greece. Neither had ever been there, but for Joy, in particular, seeing Greece was an unfulfilled passion. Now they had to wonder if those plans should be canceled.

She resisted; they went anyway, even knowing that it could drain the last drops of energy from her. Lewis wrote of it to Walsh shortly after they returned, wherein he remarked that though, at first, he doubted she would be able to make the trip, it turned out wonderfully. They had no regrets for making the trip. Lewis considered Joy “divinely supported” the entire time. She had been granted a lifelong desire and was grateful.

Death—the last enemy the Christian faces before being ushered into the presence of God—came to Joy Lewis a few weeks later on 13 July 1960. Lewis wrote of it to many of his correspondents, but the letter to Walsh probably provides the greatest insight into her last moments.

“It was a wonderful marriage,” Lewis confirmed to Walsh. “Even after all hope was gone, even on the last night before her death, there were ‘patins of bright gold.’ Two of the last things she said were ‘You have made me happy’ and ‘I am at peace with God.’”

Shortly after Joy’s death, Lewis began recording his feelings. Out of those daily jottings came an honest little book full of anguish, pain, and questioning of God’s ways, yet ultimately coming to the conclusion that one must put one’s life in His hands and allow Him to bring the healing, both now and in eternity.

A Grief Observed was published in 1961 initially under a pseudonym, N. W. Clerk, which was a pun on an Old English term for “I know not what scholar.” In those eighty-nine pages (more of a booklet than a book), we find Lewis struggling emotionally. Intellectually, he knew the answers to his questions, but he needed to work through the inner conflict that was making him doubt God’s goodness.

Lewis’s faith held. He lived only three more years, and was in bad health most of that time. By the end, he was fully resigned to death, even anticipating it. His understanding of his own faith, and his grasp of the door that opens into the next world, was enhanced by his relationship with an American, Jewish, former atheist, former communist woman who became the love of his life.

Screwtape’s War Lesson

I’ve been teaching a Screwtape Letters class at a local church on Wednesday evenings. It’s one of the highlights of my week. Although I’ve read this wonderful C. S. Lewis book a number of times, this is the first time I’ve attempted to discuss it with a group paragraph by paragraph, and the interaction with members of the class over Lewis’s key points has been illuminating.

Nearly every paragraph offers some pearl of meditation that could conceivably fill up my blog posts every day, but I’ll go with this one today from letter #5 where Screwtape is warning Wormwood not to be too elated that a war is occurring. Wars don’t always lead one away from the Enemy [God]; rather, they can have results inimical to the purposes of Hell.

“Of course a war is entertaining. The immediate fear and suffering of the humans is a legitimate and pleasing refreshment for our myriads of toiling workers,” Screwtape begins. “But what permanent good does it do us unless we make use of it for bringing souls to Our Father Below?”

Therefore, he continues, “Let us . . . think rather how to use, than how to enjoy, this European war. For it has certain tendencies inherent in it which are, in themselves, by no means in our favour.”

How can war not be a delightful thing for the devils in Hell? Men killing other men; constant anxiety and hatred for others. What could possibly be the down side of this for those who want to destroy the souls of men?

We may hope for a good deal of cruelty and unchastity. But, if we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy, while tens of thousands who do not go so far as that will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self.

The underlying truth here is that God uses everything, even very awful circumstances, to get our attention. Those awful circumstances make us think more seriously about our eternal condition.

Consider too what undesirable deaths occur in wartime. Men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy’s party, prepared.

That’s not what Hell wants. Screwtape then instructs Wormwood about the “ideal” situation that Hell desires for each human:

How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition!

Lewis nearly experienced that later. In July 1963, he went into a coma, and when he came out of it, neither the doctors nor the nurses would be honest about his condition. Walter Hooper had to fill him in on how serious it was, for which Lewis thanked him.

Screwtape concluded his commentary on war with this:

How disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless. In wartime not even a human can believe he is going to live forever.

Lewis, in an essay appropriately titled “Learning in War-Time,” observed,

War makes death real to us, and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.

This doesn’t mean we should eagerly anticipate a war, or any terrible circumstance, simply for spiritual gain. Yet we need to constantly be aware, as Lewis notes, of our mortality, and welcome all worldly trials that remind us of it.

Lewis: “Up into the Real World, the Real Waking”

I’ve begun teaching a class in a local church on The Screwtape Letters every Wednesday evening. What a delight it has been thus far. I’ll probably write some about that in future weeks, but for today, I will just refer to one comment made by an attendee. I don’t recall exactly what I said to elicit the comment, but her response was something about how I was still so young.

At age 66, it’s encouraging to hear someone say I’m young. I’ll take that and savor it. It reminds me, though, of letters Lewis wrote to an American woman named Mary Willis Shelburne. He wrote more letters to her than to any American primarily because she bombarded him with letters.

One of Shelburne’s concerns was the approach of old age and death. Lewis’s responses to her fears showcase both his humor and his wisdom. In my book, America Discovers C. S. Lewis, I give this account of how he counseled her. I trust using an excerpt today will be both acceptable and enlightening.

He did his best to help Shelburne face her own demise with the proper Christian spirit and perspective. His letters become peppered with reminders that all humans have to face this ultimate test, but that Christians have a glorious eternity awaiting them.

He joked about imminent death in a 1957 letter thusly: “What on earth is the trouble about there being a rumour of my death? There’s nothing discreditable in dying: I’ve known the most respectable people do it!”

Commenting in another letter on horrible visits to the dentist, he told her to keep in mind they both had to recognize that “as we grow older, we become like old cars—more and more repairs and replacements are necessary. We must just look forward to the fine new machines (latest Resurrection model) which are waiting for us, we hope, in the Divine garage!”

And why not have the same attitude as the apostle Paul? “If we really believe what we say we believe—if we really think that home is elsewhere and that this life is a ‘wandering to find home,’ why should we not look forward to the arrival.”

After Joy’s death and the realization that he would no longer be healthy in his final years, he wrote to Shelburne about the hope of the resurrection of the body. He kept his sense of humor even as he suffered greater physical distress, telling her, with respect to their bodies, “Like old automobiles, aren’t they? Where all sorts of apparently different things keep going wrong, but what they add up to is the plain fact that the machine is wearing out. Well, it was not meant to last forever. Still, I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap.”

In his final year, Lewis’s comments on death appeared more frequently, as he sensed his time was near. In March 1963, he conveyed to Shelburne his lack of concern about moving from this world to the next.

A letter in June remarked on her obvious fear of dying; Lewis’s response was the most direct one yet:

“Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you: like taking off a hair-shirt or getting out of a dungeon. What is there to be afraid of? . . . Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind. . . . Of course, this may not be the end. Then make it a good rehearsal.”

Lewis’s final word to Shelburne on the subject of death came about two weeks before he fell into a brief coma, followed by his resignation from Cambridge and his death four months after that. This final word showcases once again his facility with phrases that are memorable, as he encouraged her one more time:

“I think the best way to cope with the mental debility and total inertia is to submit to it entirely. . . . Pretend you are a dormouse or even a turnip. . . . Think of yourself just as a seed patiently waiting in the earth: waiting to come up a flower in the Gardener’s good time, up into the real world, the real waking. . . . We are here in the land of dreams. But cock-crow is coming. It is nearer now than when I began this letter.”

I’m not expecting an imminent death; most of us aren’t at that point yet. I’m still looking forward to many years of fruitful and productive activity. Yet not one of us can know that for sure. We need to be ready at all times for the final curtain on our earthly existence. Lewis shows us the proper attitude and reminds us that the real world awaits us still. The land of dreams will pass away and we will enter into an eternity that will far exceed our expectations.

Lewis: Dealing with Death

Reading C. S. Lewis’s letters to Americans while researching my book was a daily joy. I’ve always loved research, but this was especially delightful. One of Lewis’s many American correspondents was Mary Willis Shelburne.

Shelburne wrote more letters to Lewis than any other American correspondent; consequently, he wrote more to her than any other, since he felt duty-bound to respond to each letter he received. It is quite clear by the tone of the correspondence that she was an increasingly needy person, both financially and spiritually. Her anxieties seemed to be legion, and Lewis did his best to address them with tact and empathy.

Did he ever tire of her constant flow of letters seeking help? There are indications that she could sometimes wear him down with her incessant demands for answers. Despite the temptation to be frustrated with her, he nevertheless maintained the ministry to which God had called him.

Shelburne feared death, a topic he dealt with more often as both grew older and Lewis began to feel his own mortality. He did his best to help Shelburne face her own demise with the proper Christian spirit and perspective.

He joked about imminent death in a 1957 letter thusly: “What on earth is the trouble about there being a rumour of my death? There’s nothing discreditable in dying: I’ve known the most respectable people do it!”

Commenting in another letter on horrible visits to the dentist, he told her to keep in mind they both had to recognize that “as we grow older, we become like old cars—more and more repairs and replacements are necessary. We must just look forward to the fine new machines (latest Resurrection model) which are waiting for us, we hope, in the Divine garage!”

And why not have the same attitude as the apostle Paul? “If we really believe what we say we believe—if we really think that home is elsewhere and that this life is a ‘wandering to find home,’ why should we not look forward to the arrival.”

He kept his sense of humor even as he suffered greater physical distress, telling her, with respect to their bodies, “Like old automobiles, aren’t they? Where all sorts of apparently different things keep going wrong, but what they add up to is the plain fact that the machine is wearing out. Well, it was not meant to last forever. Still, I have a kindly feeling for the old rattle-trap.”

In his final year, Lewis’s comments on death appeared more frequently, as he sensed his time was near. A letter in June remarked on her obvious fear of dying; Lewis’s response was the most direct one yet:

Can you not see death as the friend and deliverer? It means stripping off that body which is tormenting you: like taking off a hair-shirt or getting out of a dungeon. What is there to be afraid of? . . . Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave it with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind. . . . Of course, this may not be the end. Then make it a good rehearsal. Yours (and like you a tired traveler near the journey’s end).

Shelburne outlived Lewis, but one hopes his constant reminders about how Christians should view death helped her as she later stood on the brink of eternity.

Lewis: The Mere Christian Message

On this Good Friday/Easter weekend, the Christian message of sacrificial death and resurrection may be brought more to the forefront of minds that normally think little of such things. The message is the same at all times, but this weekend sharpens the focus.

To the natural mind, death is finality. There is no comprehension of how it can be of any good. Yet C. S. Lewis, in his book Miracles, shows us how:

On the one hand Death is the triumph of Satan, the punishment of the Fall, and the last enemy. Christ shed tears at the grave of Lazarus and sweated blood in Gethsemane: the Life of Lives that was in Him detested this penal obscenity not less than we do, but more.

On the other hand, only he who loses his life will save it.

We are baptized into the death of Christ, and it is the remedy for the Fall. Death is, in fact, what some modern people call “ambivalent.” It is Satan’s great weapon and also God’s great weapon: it is holy and unholy; our supreme disgrace and our only hope; the thing Christ came to conquer and the means by which He conquered.

Death has led to life, which runs counter to what people normally believe. Lewis notes in Mere Christianity, “The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.”

A fresh start. What a glorious concept. I know, personally, how much I needed a fresh start at one point in my life. My sins were forgiven; God treats them as if they never happened. That truth has led me to a constant state of gratitude for His mercy and has pointed the way forward. Lewis again in Mere Christianity:

Now the Christian belief is that if we somehow share the humility and suffering of Christ we shall also share in His conquest of death and find a new life after we have died and in it become perfect, and perfectly happy, creatures. . . .

In Christ a new kind of man appeared: and the new kind of life which began in Him is to be put into us.

Eternal life really begins in this earthly existence if we humbly receive Christ’s sacrifice as our own; death is merely a transfer of that life into a new and heavenly realm.

That is what Good Friday and Easter/Resurrection Day are all about. Let your gratitude for what God has done show in your life today.

Today Is For Remembering the Sacrifice

Death. We don’t like the word, and for good reason. Death was never supposed to be a fact of life. It was nowhere in God’s original purpose for His creation. It came about through rebellion against His love.

Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus even though He knew He was going to bring him back to life. Why? Because death is unnatural, a disruption of the good God intended.

On Good Friday, Jesus took the first step in reversing the curse brought about by sin, but He had to do it through death—His own.

Anyone who studies the mechanics of crucifixion can’t help but shudder at the horribleness of it.

Yet Jesus voluntarily subjected Himself to that horror. And He did it for me and for you.

Today is for remembering the sacrifice. It’s for grasping the enormity of what He had to do to offer us redemption. It’s for being grateful.

Grateful is really too mild a word for how we should feel. “O, the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” are the words of a solemn hymn. That deep love should awaken in us a deep love in response.

In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.