STUDENT POST: The Screwtape Letters

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series featuring outstanding excerpts from student papers at the BibleMesh Institute, which offers affordable online training for local churches, schools, and ministries. The author’s name has been withheld for privacy and security purposes.

C. S. Lewis needs no introduction. But The Screwtape Letters may. Far from being unknown, it is nonetheless eclipsed in popularity by Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia. This work was originally published in 1942, around the same time period as Mere Christianity, and is considered a Christian apologetic novel. It is a fictional series of letters between a senior demon named Screwtape and his nephew cum protégé, Wormwood, regarding the latter’s mission to win the unnamed “patient” for their Father Below. It is fascinating to read a genius mind like Lewis and doubly so in seeing things from the devil’s perspective for a change, and triply so considering it was written in the 1940s and yet still feels so incredibly relevant to us today. A sequel of sorts to this work was published in 1959 titled Screwtape Proposes A Toast, in which Lewis took on illnesses of the “macro” scale, such as democracy and the educational system of that day, rather than a specific “patient.”

The Screwtape Letters is landmark achievement and deserves to be on every believer’s reading list, for we know the devil will not let us go and so every believer should be prepared. Peter already tells us that no believer is spared from the roaring lion (1 Pet 5:8), and Paul reminds us we all face flaming darts from the evil one (Eph 6:16). Things are often far from what they seem. Things may be as innocent and peaceful as lunch but may eternally end us up as lunch in the afterlife. Or we could be in love in this world but eternally unloved in the afterlife. But in terms of The Screwtape Letters being a spiritual warfare “go to” resource book, there are some things worth discussing:

1. It is a fiction work.

Because it belongs to the genre of fiction, it is only fair not to expect it to be a theological treatise. But since it deals with topics that Scripture talks about, readers should nevertheless put their biblical filters on. For instance, nowhere in Scripture does it say that humans who die become food for demons in the afterlife. But perhaps this part represents the kind of torture that unbelievers have to endure like that of the rich man in Luke 16. It is also questionable that God’s love for us “the hairless bipeds” is such a top secret to be kept from junior devils. After all, it is a safe bet that they all know John 3:16. The point is, readers must be biblically literate in order to know which part is pure fiction and which has some biblical truth in it, in order to benefit from this work and avoid the unhelpful extremes Lewis stated in his preface.

2. It has very few references to Scripture.

We certainly do not expect Screwtape to quote Scripture often, but there is a sprinkling of Bible references. For instance, the reference to Paul’s teaching on food in Letter 16 is almost certainly a reference to 1 Cor 8. But surprisingly there isn’t any mention of the devil being like a roaring lion or throwing flaming darts at believers. Granted, perhaps this is already represented in general by how relentlessly Screwtape and Wormwood try to secure the patient and prevent him from moving closer to God in various arenas of life. Nevertheless, there are no references to any Old Testament figures or New Testament apostles other than Paul and Apollos. Doesn’t Screwtape read the Bible? I’m sure he does. But why then does he not address the armor that Ephesians 6 says every believer has? Has he never seen a Christian wearing the armor of God? In centuries of Christianity? And how about James’s instruction to “resist the devil”? Has this never happened in the patient’s life, not even once?

3. It says very little about Satan’s accusatory function.

To be sure, Scripture presents Satan as being extremely resourceful with a wide variety of tricks and strategies, but interestingly when the word “satan” (translated as “to oppose as adversary” or “accuse”) is applied to celestial beings it is not just a name but also a description of function. In Numbers 22 it was the angel of the Lord who stood blocking Balaam’s donkey as “his adversary.” In Job 1-2 it was Satan questioning God’s decisions and accusing Job. In Zechariah 3 it was Satan accusing Joshua the high priest. John Walton notes, “In English, when we refer to someone by means of a proper name, we do not use a definite article (e.g., ‘Sarah,’ not ‘the Sarah’). In this practice Hebrew behaves identically. Therefore we must conclude that the individual in Job 1–2 and Zechariah 3:1-2 should be identified as “the accuser” (description of function) rather than as “Satan” (proper name).”[1] And it cannot be any more explicit than in Revelation 12:10 where “the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.” The point is, that these references clearly represent a significant emphasis on the Satan-ic (i.e., accusatory) function of the devil. Yet this facet of his work is curiously missing from Screwtape’s strategies.

4. It says nothing about Satan’s direct/frontal attack such as demonic possession.

Scripture gives us plenty of examples of the devil and his armies doing more harm than just messing with our minds. Our Lord sent out the seventy-two to announce the coming of the Kingdom in Luke 10, and the only thing they came back reporting was that the demons were subject to them. One wonders if this lack of mention in any of Screwtape’s letters betrays Lewis’s unfamiliarity with Christianity outside Great Britain, like in the mission fields?

These critiques may perhaps be considered as falling beyond the intended purpose of The Screwtape Letters. It is, after all, a work of fiction. But Satan is not. Therefore, it would be to Lewis’s honor that we read it with a critical mind. To find ourselves going back to the Bible to see whether it is really so, I believe, would bring joy to Lewis. But we shall do that with a humble heart, knowing that we need this not just for amusement, but for survival.

[1] J. H. Walton, “Satan” in Dictionary of The Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry and Writings (ed. Tremper Longman III and Peter Enns; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), Olive Tree edition, under “Lexical Profile”.