Book Review: The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

I picked up this copy at a thriftstore. I love old vintage covers!

I picked up this copy at a thriftstore. I love old vintage covers!

The Screwtape Letters is a fictional work by C. S. Lewis written in 1942 (my copy of the book also contained Screwtape Proposes a Toast 1961).  The book is composed of 31 letters from a “professional devil” named Screwtape to his nephew, a “junior temptor,” named Wormwood.  The nature of the letters focus on how Wormwood can better tempt his human “patient” to sin.

As with Mere Christianity, I found this book simply “ok.”  I think that perhaps the passage of time and culture – from when Lewis originally wrote The Screwtape Letters – to now is part of what leaves me unimpressed.  For instance, watching a movie in 2010 that was considered very important when in came out in the 1960’s, will leave some people scratching their heads as to why it was considered such a great movie.  The idea behind The Screwtape Letters is pretty original for its time, but I still just don’t understand what all the fuss is about.

A Complaint

One complaint that I have with this book is that I think Lewis’ conception of salvation is slightly off.  The Bible is clear that Christians, if they are truly redeemed, will keep repenting of sin and living for Christ during this life.  In other words, I believe that the Bible teaches the doctrine of “perseverance of the saints” – all true saints persevere in saving faith until the end.  If my understanding of The Screwtape Letters is correct, Lewis seems to think that those who are truly Christians can be tempted to sin and become unregenerate.  In other words, Lewis implies that a person can lose salvation.  Listen to this quote from one demon to another in The Screwtape Letters, “hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us” (11).  It could be argued that this quote was from the demon’s point of view and not Lewis’ directly.  In that case, Lewis would be arguing that demons (not Lewis himself) assume that they can pull sons of God back out of son-ship.  This could be Lewis’ meaning, but I doubt it.  The other option is that Lewis is arguing that only God – not demons or anyone else – truly knows who “the redeemed” are, so demons are working on taking salvation from saints, not realizing that it is truly a lost cause.  Whichever option is true, Lewis’ lack of clarification leads me to believe that he thinks true believers can in fact become unbelievers.

Quotes I Enjoy

(remember that all of these are written from the point of view of one demon to another)

“But whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it-to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him” (22).

(This quote is said in reference to encouraging humans to worship only the god that they have conceived of in their heads (the composite object), rather than the true God revealed in Scripture.)

“I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalize and mythologize their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy” (33).

(Isn’t this exactly what has happened amongst some adherents to the “New Atheism?”  A belief in an impersonal force (Buddhism) is acceptable and compatible with science, while a belief in a personal God is shunned as absolutely ludicrous.)

“But 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, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light an out into the Nothing” (56).

“When He (God) talks of their losing their selves, He means only abandoning the clamor of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever” (59).

“thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools” (64).

“He (God) therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself and to that point of time which they call the Present” (68).

“Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighborhood looking for the church that “suits” him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches” (72).

“the search for a “suitable” church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil” (73).


I could keep going with the quotes because Lewis is the king of quotable content, but I won’t.  The Screwtape Letters is to be commended for its originality and creativity (especially for the period when it was written), but for me it fails to stand up to the hype.  My plan is to keep reading widely from Lewis because so many have found him inspiring, but so far I’ve found many, many books far more inspiring and useful than either Mere Christianity or The Screwtape Letters.

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2 Responses to “Book Review: The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis”

  1. Casey June 15, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

    To be fair, in his preface Lewis reminds us, “Readers are advised to remember that the devil is a liar. Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle.”

    Additionally, Satan is well aware that believers in Christ will not spend eternity in hell, but he is perfectly happy to make “hell on earth” for them.

    I thought this was an incredible book. Easy to follow and convicting.

  2. Ben June 16, 2012 at 12:25 pm #

    Casey, it appears you are the more careful reader than I am.

    I’ve loved a lot of the Lewis I’ve read since this book, and I need to revisit this one sometime and see if it strikes me better than it did on the first go-round.

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