CS Lewis on Facing a Pandemic, or, How to Live Knowing We Will Die
Some of C. S. Lewis's insights on death. And life.
You don’t expect an apologist to write much about dying and death. That’s for the evangelist trying to close the sale. But the great apologist C. S. Lewis wrote surprisingly often about the death that awaits us all.
Lewis wrote so much about death because he believed so strongly in the reality of Heaven and Hell, and wanted his readers to get to the first and not the second. Our final end is the real point of almost all his writing.
The pandemic may make us think about a little more about our inevitable death than we usually do. And therefore about how we should live to be prepared for it. Here’s where Lewis is so helpful. He saw clearly how the end of life tells us how to live.
From This Life to the Next
This is the key to Lewis’s writing on the subject: He believed Heaven to be more real than this world. In it we see the full, complete, perfect reality. There we become who we truly are, the people God created us and redeemed us to be. And in Hell, we become as unreal as a creature God created can be.
Simply put: Following Jesus and living as He tells us to makes us more real, more heavenly. Saying no to Him and doing what we want to makes us less real, and less heavenly. Here’s a brief outline of Lewis’s insights.
Lewis on Moving Towards Heaven
Lewis made his famous “argument from desire” to argue for the reality of Heaven.
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.
For C.S. Lewis’s insights into how to live as Christians even when we may die soon, and unexpectedly, see C.S. Lewis Knows How to Deal With Disaster.
That desire for the real thing to be found in another world sets how we should live in this less real world. Here, sinners that we are, we tend to see the unreal as the real. We must keep looking for the real. That is, even if we don’t know it, looking for Jesus.
I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.
God offers Himself to us in this world. He starts making us perfect now, if we let Him. But it will hurt.
That is why He warned people to “count the cost” before becoming Christians. “Make no mistake,” He says, “if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect — until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.”
As perfectly patient and kind as He is, Jesus keeps pushing us hard, because He wants us to be something good beyond our imagining.
This Helper who will, in the long run, be satisfied with nothing less than absolute perfection, will also be delighted with the first feeble, stumbling effort you make tomorrow to do the simplest duty. As a great Christian writer (George MacDonald) pointed out, every father is pleased at the baby’s first attempt to walk: no father would be satisfied with anything less than a firm, free, manly walk in a grown-up son.
In the same way, he said, “God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy.” … He meant what He said. Those who put themselves in His hands will become perfect, as He is perfect — perfect in love, wisdom, joy, beauty, and immortality. The change will not be completed in this life, for death is an important part of the treatment.
Life gives us choice after choice after choice, and every choice points us in one direction or the other.
Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself.
To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.
Jesus gives us our freedom to reject Him, though he does everything He can to draw us to Himself. Lewis quotes the Scottish writer George Macdonald saying:
Never fear. There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.
But Jesus meant what he promised about losing your life to gain it. We win by giving everything to Him.
Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life.
Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.
The quotes in this article are taken from Mere Christianity (1-4, 7); the sermon “The Weight of Glory” in the book of the same title (5); The Great Divorce (6); The Screwtape Letters (sidebar).
David Mills is a senior editor of The Stream. After teaching writing in a seminary, he has been editor of Touchstone and the executive editor of First Things. He edits the site Hour of Our Death and writes the monthly “Last Things” column for the New Oxford Review.