The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors.”
Martin Luther is quoted as stating, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” I believe that was one of C. S. Lewis’s purposes for writing The Screwtape Letters. In this creative literary work, Lewis has composed a series of letters from a chief demon named Screwtape to his apprentice, his nephew Wormwood, as he offers him guidance and advice.
Of course the entire work is for the most part based on speculation, for we know very little about how Satan and his cohorts operate or what goes on in the spirit world around. We do know, however, based on Scripture, that Satan is real and that spiritual warfare is ongoing and has been since the fall of Man in Garden of Eden (Genesis 3). Unfortunately, the idea of Satan and devils/demons is no longer taken seriously by many unbelievers, but has become more of a mythical or fictitious character, like zombies and vampires (thanks to images like these).
Every Halloween, a plethora of cute, scary, and even sexy devil costumes are marketed for children and adults. (Parents, if you have thought of dressing your child as a devil, please reconsider!)
On the other hand, some Christians tend to be overly pre-occupied with thoughts of satanic activity and even place Satan on an equal footing with God in some ways. This is nothing but the ancient dualistic view of good vs. evil, except of course the Christian knows that God will win in the end. I like Lewis’s explanation regarding this misconception:
The commonest question is whether I really ‘believe in the Devil.’ Now, if by “the Devil” you mean a power opposite to God, and like God, self-existent from all eternity, the answer is certainly No. There is no uncreated being except God. God has no opposite…I believe in angels, and I believe that some of these, by the abuse of their free will, have become enemies of God…Devil is the opposite of angel only as Bad Man is the opposite of Good Man. Satan, the leader or dictator of devils, is the opposite, not of God, but of Michael [the archangel].
First, before looking at Lewis’ work, here are some things we know from the Scriptures about Satan/the Devil:
- He is a murderer and a liar. (John 8:44)
- He is clever, tricky, scheming, and deceitful. (II Cor. 11:13-15)
- He tempted Jesus one-on-one in the desert. (see Matt. 4, Mark 1, and Luke 4)
- He oppresses, afflicts, and tempts people to sin and do evil (ie. Job (ch. 1-2), Judas; Luke 3:16, John 13; Acts 5:2; Acts 10; II Cor. 12:7; Tim. 3:7, 2 Tim. 2:26).
- He looks for opportunities, even in believers, to cause them to sin. But he has no authority to do so without God’s permission and control. (Job; I Chron. 21:1; Luke 22:31; Eph. 4:26-27; I Cor. 7:5; II Cor. 2:10-11; I Peter. 5:8-10; Rev. 2:10).
- He can and does interfere with the spread of the Gospel and the effect of God’s Word/the Gospel in the heart of the unbeliever. (Matt. 13; Luke 8:12; Mark 4:15; I Thess. 2:18)
- He is a created being, like the angels; he is not omniscient, omnipresent or omnipotent, as God is.
- His power and time are limited and finite to carry out his plans.
With these truths in mind, I think Christians sometimes give Satan himself more credit than he deserves. If you feel you are being tempted or oppressed physically or spiritually in some way, and are thinking that Satan himself is causing it, just remember that Satan doesn’t know everything, he can’t be everywhere at once, and he doesn’t have full and free reign to do whatever he wishes, as many of the verses above prove. Since Satan is only a finite being, he requires his minions to carry out his bidding. We also need to keep in mind, that while God himself doesn’t tempt us to sin, He does bring things which we may view as negative into the lives of His children to instruct, correct, strengthen, and purify, and ultimately for His glory. So we need to be careful in assuming that the Devil’s out to get us whenever “bad things” happen in our life, for God is sovereign over everything in our life, and over Satan as well. We also shouldn’t be so quick to blame the Devil whenever we are tempted to sin, because we really have it in us all by ourselves to sin, and don’t really need a whole lot of help from him (James 1:13-15)!
In his Preface, Lewis explains that his idea of what he refers to as “devils” is merely his opinion and that many will take his interpretation as metaphorical and allegorical. Here he gives his purpose for writing The Screwtape Letters, as he states, “It makes little difference which way you read it. For of course its purpose was not to speculate about diabolical life but to throw light from a new angle on the life of men.” He further explains that The Letters are not a product of a deep, academic study of theology, for “there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. ‘My heart’ – I need no other’s – ‘showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.’”
The Screwtape Letters is a partial picture of the spiritual warfare being waged against God and His purposes and people, but only from Satan’s perspective. Because of this, the reader must put his spectacles on backward, so to speak, and constantly keep in mind that “The Enemy” the writer refers to is God, and that which is called good is in reality bad, and vice versa. Lewis warns us, “Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle.” The Letters are a hypothetical and speculative glimpse into the schemes and strategies that Satan may use to 1) keep individuals from becoming Christians, and 2) keep Christians from living holy lives and being effective in Christ’s kingdom. Here are a few of the ideas Lewis suggests regarding Satan’s methods:
- Satan is pleased and takes advantage of the fact that men no longer think of ideas as being true or false, or behavior as right or wrong; rather they identify them as being practical, useful, convenient, contemporary, old-fashioned, open-minded, tolerant, etc. “Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.”
- Satan uses mundane, ordinary matters (like work, marriage or school) to distract men from thinking about the more serious spiritual matters. Isn’t it true that so many people are attentive to their physical health, their college courses, or their career, but are neglectful of the health and growth of their spiritual life? “[Humans] find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes. Keep pressing on him the ordinariness of things.”
- Satan hates when we pray, and when we do he will try to keep our eyes on ourselves rather than on Christ. “Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the actions of their own wills…Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling.”
- Satan has no interest or desire in giving man pleasure, but he will try to turn the good things we enjoy (ie. food, sex, recreation) into an idol or sinful behavior. “Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours…All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.”
- Satan uses minor sins just as effectively as serious ones, often even more so, to keep men from God. “Do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are…the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
- Whereas God wants us to live in the Present with Eternity in mind, Satan wants us preoccupied with either the Past or the Future. “With this in view, we sometimes tempt a human to live in the Past, but…it is far better to make them live in the Future. The Future inflames hope and fear. Also, it is unknown to them, so that in making them think about it we make them think of unrealities…To be sure, the Enemy wants me to think of the Future too…but He does not want men to give the Future their hearts, to place their treasure in it. We do.”
- Satan loves for men to succeed in this world, for it causes them to take their eyes off the kingdom of God and the world to come. “Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him…The truth is that the Enemy, having oddly destined these mere animals to life in His own eternal world, has guarded them pretty effectively from the danger of feeling at home anywhere else.”
Lewis offers many other insights like these throughout the series of letters, many of which I think the reader will find to be true in his own personal experience.
There are a few problems and cautions in The Screwtape Letters that I feel the need to point out. As I observed in Mere Christianity, in my opinion Lewis tends to place too much weight on man’s free will and downplays God’s sovereignty. As one example, consider this passage, in which Screwtape offers counsel to Wormwood regarding his “patient,” who has just become a Christian:
The Enemy has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His “free” lovers and servants—“sons” is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to “do it on their own.” There lies our opportunity.
A couple of things to observe here. First, nowhere in the Bible does it say that it’s God’s plan to make every human being His child, for if that is God’s goal, He is clearly failing. Secondly, the whole idea of God not helping His children to carry out His purposes for them – rubbish. God’s Word tells us, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to do according to His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
At the very beginning of the book, in the second letter, Screwtape writes to Wormwood:
I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian…There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily are still in our favour.
Now, perhaps Satan is that self-deceived and believes that after a person becomes a Christian he still has a chance to get him back, but this is certainly not what Scripture teaches. Sure, people may make verbal or outward professions or signs of becoming a Christian, but people do not visit the “camp” or kingdom of God, temporarily become His sons, and then go back to belonging to the kingdom of darkness. Once a heart is regenerated by the Holy Spirit and an individual is adopted as a child of God, there is no returning. One reason this is true is because regeneration is God’s work, not man’s (John 1:12-13). The Scriptures also teach that God finishes what He starts and that Christ is both the author AND the finisher of our faith (Phil. 1:6; Heb. 12:2).
However, as Lewis himself reminds readers in his Preface, we can’t necessarily take everything Screwtape says at face value, so whether this poor doctrine is coming merely from Screwtape or actually from Lewis is tough to say. Again, keep in mind this work is based primarily on observations and experience in life, and not to be taken as a theological treatise or doctrinal truths found in Scripture.
So let’s take a moment to reflect on how a Christian is equipped to deal with the Devil:
1) Prayer! God’s Word instructs us to pray without ceasing, and we know that God hears and answers prayer. Not only that, but Christ prays for His people! (John 17; Heb. 2:18, 4:15-16) And the Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we pray (Rom. 8:26-27). These amazing truths should drive us eagerly and frequently to prayer.
2) The full armor of God as described in Ephesians 6, and particularly the Word of God (Jesus used scripture to answer the devil’s temptations)
3) God gives grace and strength to His people to resist the devil and provides the way of escape. (II Thess. 3:3; I Cor. 10:13)
4) One key to being able to resist the devil seems to be humble submission to God. Both in I Peter 5 and James 4:7, the imperative to “resist the devil” is prefaced with an exhortation to submit to God and to be humble.
For a more serious and theological study of how Satan works and how the Christian can combat him, consider reading Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices by Thomas Brooks. Another more current book on this topic and reviewed recently by Tim Challies is True Friendship by Vaughan Robert, which challenges believers to ask the question, “If you were the devil, where would you attack yourself?”
With that, I will close with Peter’s exhortation, followed by words of great comfort:
Note: The Screwtape Letters is book I’ve included on my list of fictional works I believe every Christian should read. Is there a book on spiritual warfare that you would recommend?
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world. But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. (I Peter. 5:8-10)
Related Articles and Sites
- The Screwtape Letters – complete text (www.bible-reading.com)
- The Screwtape Letters on Audio (www.screwtape.com)
- The Screwtape Letters on Stage (screwtapeonstage.com)
- Official C. S. Lewis website (www.cslewis.com)
- The Devil You Know (www.newyorker.com)
- One Great Question to Ask a Friend (www.challies.com)
- Screwtape Letter for the Homeschool Mom (www.writeshop.com)
9 thoughts on “A Sneak Peek Behind Enemy Lines: The Screwtape Letters”
I read this book in high school at the urging of my Mom and found it to be very insightful. It helped me see how quickly even a Christian can listen to whispering lies and how dangerous a society who doesn’t believe in the Devil is. I appreciated your point about Satan being the opposite of Michael the Archangel and not God. So often we put him on God’s level.
I think Lewis must have not believed in once saved, always saved. After all, Susan never went back to Narnia.
Thanks for commenting, G&Q. I do know that Lewis was Arminian in his theology and most likely did not hold to the idea of eternal security. My memory on the Chronicles is a bit foggy, but that is an interesting observation about Susan and Narnia; I don’t recall that – do you know which book indicates that? From what I remember, I thought Susan and Peter “got too old” after Prince Caspian to go back.
It was in the Last Battle. Peter, Edmond and Lucy come back, but Susan didn’t. I always disliked that as a child because I felt like he broke his cardinal rule: Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen in Narnia. In fact, I hated the Last Battle as a whole. I might enjoy it more now, but as a child I did not.
Hmm, I had forgotten that; doesn’t seem right. Does the book explain why Susan doesn’t come back? So glad to know this: Once a child of God, always a child of God!
She stopped believing in Narnia. It was very disturbing as a child.
I agree. If salvation depended on my I’d have no hope!