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C.S. Lewis is a household name in most Christian circles, and his influence in evangelicalism is undeniable. Between his fantasy fiction writings, most notable The Chronicles of Narnia, and his more theological fiction and non-fiction, such as Mere Christianity, Screwtape Letters, and the Great Divorce, Lewis finds a very broad audience. In many churches, Mere Christianity will frequently be recommended to non-believers or new Christians as an introduction to the faith. The clarity and wit with which Lewis writes surely explains much of the appeal.

However, at least among the more conservative and reformed evangelicals, this phenomenon is actually quite interesting considering a number of Lewis’s theological positions. While this is a bit of simplification, and not taking into account changes that may have occurred between later Lewis and earlier Lewis (and most readers don’t make such a distinction), consider if a public figure in evangelicalism published works that:

  • Called into question the inerrancy of scripture
  • Spoke affirmingly of biological macro-evolution
  • Advocated an inclusivist understanding of salvation among those who have not heard and/or accepted the gospel
  • Was ambiguous on the atonement
  • Believed it was possible for a Christian to lose their salvation and ultimately be lost
  • Taught a form of justification that is more consistent with Roman Catholicism than historic Protestantism (e.g. Justification via transformation rather than a forensic justification by faith)
  • Held to a form of purgatory, or after death purification process between death and glory I can imagine that in many similar cases, such an figure would be considered out of bounds and their books not recommended except for the purposes of analysis and critique. Certainly, this is true even of Lewis for many, with some going so far as to even question whether he should even be counted as a Christian (which view seriously conflates doctrinal correctness with personal faith). However, by and large (in my experience), Lewis is not received with the same caution and/or derision as other notable figures - N.T. Wright, Rob Bell, John Walton, for recent examples.

What explains this discrepancy? Here are 6 considerations:

  1. Apologetic Effectiveness: Lewis’s apologetic works, such as Mere Christianity, offer a robust defense of the Christian faith that resonates deeply with evangelical beliefs. His ability to articulate complex theological concepts in accessible language has made his works valuable tools for evangelism and apologetics, emphasizing common Christian doctrines over denominational differences. Lewis has been a teacher and example for multiple generations of evangelical apologists.

  2. Literary Merit and Influence: Lewis’s literary contributions, particularly the Chronicles of Narnia, have deeply influenced both children and adults, weaving Christian allegorical themes into compelling narratives. This broad literary appeal often supersedes theological discrepancies, with many evangelicals viewing Lewis’s works as a gateway to deeper spiritual reflection and understanding.

  3. Historical and Cultural Context: The period during which Lewis wrote (mid-20th century) was marked by a cultural milieu that was more accepting of nuanced theological positions. Lewis’s academic standing and intellectual approach to Christianity provided a bridge between conservative evangelicalism and broader cultural and intellectual movements of the time, making his ideas more palatable even when they diverged from evangelical mainstream.

  4. Selective Emphasis: Many evangelicals engage with Lewis’s work selectively, focusing on areas of agreement such as the lordship of Christ, the reality of sin, and the need for salvation, while overlooking or minimizing areas of disagreement. This selective engagement allows Lewis’s broader contributions to Christian thought to be appreciated without necessitating full doctrinal alignment.

  5. Legacy and Icon Status: Over time, Lewis has attained an almost legendary status among Christians of many denominations, including conservative evangelicals. This status is partly due to the widespread use of his quotes in sermons, books, and social media, often devoid of the broader context of his more controversial views. The legacy of Lewis as a defender of the faith often overshadows the specifics of his theological positions.

  6. Ecumenical Appeal: Lewis’s emphasis on “mere Christianity” — the core beliefs common to Christians across denominations — has endeared him to a wide audience, including conservative evangelicals. This approach promotes unity based on shared beliefs rather than division over doctrinal differences, appealing to evangelicals who prioritize core Christian tenets.

Some reading for further reflection: