A few months ago, in the midst of the "Is Rob Bell a Universalist" debate, I wrote a few posts on the subject. One post in particular included some definitions of exclusivism, inclusivism, and universalism. I defined inclusivism as the belief that salvation comes through Jesus, but that individuals do not necessarily need to exercise explicit faith in Christ's name for salvation. In other words, a sincerely seeking Muslim or Buddhist could be saved, according to inclusivism, because they could believe in Jesus without knowing it. In response to that post, Jordan posted a question in the comments section:
Does Inclusivism directly contradict the teachings of Scripture? At first, I would think so. But your statement that C.S. Lewis was an Inclusivist begs me to investigate. It’s been a while since I read “The Last Battle”, but I loved “Mere Christianity” and hold his writings in very high regard. Is there other evidence that he was an Inclusivist in his writings? And if so, what implications would this have on what we, as Bible-believing followers of Christ, take from his writing?
Jordan is asking three related questions. First, was C.S. Lewis really an inclusivist? Second, is inclusivism really inconsistent with the teachings of Scripture? And third, if it is, how should we approach C.S. Lewis and his writings? I'm going to divide my answers into at least two posts, if not three.
These are all great questions, but tough ones.
Was C.S. Lewis really an inclusivist?
My assessment of C.S. Lewis's position on this issue comes primarily from the end of The Last Battle, which is the final book in The Chronicles of Narnia. Although a work of fiction, it is clear throughout the entire series that Lewis intends the books partly as tools for theological instruction. At any rate, one of the book's main characters, Emeth, is a follower of the false god Tash (who bears a strong resemblance to the Muslim Allah). The Christ figure of the books, the lion Aslan, allows Emeth to enter heaven based upon the fact that Emeth had been unknowingly serving Aslan his entire life, even though he thought he had been serving Tash. (Confused yet? It really helps to actually read the book). Emeth's integrity and character and righteousness were proof that he had really been serving Aslan, since the true followers of Tash are evil and immoral. Lewis argues that nobody could do the good things that Emeth had done unless he was truly following Aslan. Emeth, then, was what we might call an "unconscious believer" -- he believed in Aslan without knowing it.
There are hints of Lewis' inclusivism in Mere Christianity, although it's most explicit in The Last Battle. Quite simply, it seems that he held to the idea that Jesus is the only way to salvation, but that explicit faith in the name of Christ was not necessary for a person to be saved. In a letter written in 1952, Lewis wrote the following (from Collected Letters, Vol. III, p. 245):
I think that every prayer which is sincerely made even to a false god, or to a very imperfectly conceived true God, is accepted by the true God and that Christ saves many who do not think they know him. For He is (dimly) present in the good side of the inferior teachers they follow. In the parable of the Sheep and Goats those who are saved do not seem to know that they have served Christ.
There are other examples sprinkled throughout his writings, but hopefully these are sufficient to make the case that Lewis did indeed affirm the concept of inclusivism.
So how does this belief stack up to the Scripture? And if Lewis's view is contrary to our understanding of the Bible, how should we respond to him and his writings? I'll answer those questions in my next post or two.