80 years of The Screwtape Letters

On 2 May 1941 the first of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters appeared in print.

Beginning in late spring 1941, the Anglican newspaper The Guardian (not to be confused with today’s paper of the same name) published a series of letters penned by Lewis, which charted the diabolical advice of a senior devil called Screwtape to his nephew, Wormwood.

The complete correspondence, amounting to 31 letters in all, was released as a book the following year. Lewis would later add a final scene to the collection in 1959, which he entitled Screwtape Proposes a Toast.

Devilish weapons

Screwtape’s mission is to train a “junior tempter” in the dark art of devouring a soul. If Wormwood is to deliver his “patient” – a recently converted Christian – from the clutches of “the Enemy”, i.e. God, he must employ a wide array of devilish weapons and ploys.

Wormwood is taught how to distract the new Christian with religious jargon, disappoint him with the ‘ordinariness’ of the church, and preoccupy him with his inner life – keeping him from “the most elementary duties” of faith.

According to the senior devil, fear, flippancy, superficiality and complacency will all assist Wormwood in his cause – to “edge the man away from the Light” and set him safely on his way down the “road to Hell”.

But as the one sided-conversation develops – for Lewis only provides the reader with the letters from Screwtape himself – the senior devil becomes increasingly exasperated with his nephew’s failings in “undermining faith and preventing the formation of virtues”.

He complains bitterly to Wormwood when he hears of the man’s increasing dependence upon “what the other side call ‘grace’” and of his humble resistance to temptation.

Ultimately, Wormwood is “out-manoeuvred”. In death his charge is safely snatched from him.

Screwtape ends his correspondence by scolding Wormwood for letting a soul slip through his fingers, as his intended prey is caught up into heaven: “that world where pain and pleasure take on transfinite values and all our arithmetic is dismayed”.

Lewis’ main concerns are with spiritual conflict and exposing the real, but bounded, power of the devil

Temptation and grace

Conceived and written during the Second World War, Lewis touches upon some of the challenges Christians faced at the time, including the “continual remembrance of death which war enforces” and disagreements between Christians over patriotism and pacifism.

His main concerns, however, are with spiritual conflict and exposing the real, but bounded, power of the devil who, Lewis warns, is armed and ready to lead God’s people astray. He uses temptations – to pride, gluttony, lust, unbelief and selfishness – to exploit the basic human tendency to sin (James 1:14-15). Above all else, Lewis warns, remember “that the devil is a liar”.

the devil is a liar

Alongside these helpful cautions, Lewis also offers encouragement to the embattled Christian. God forgives and restores the repentant sinner. God hears and answers prayer. God blesses faithfulness. God has destined his people – whom He loves – “to eternity”.

In perhaps the work’s clearest reference to the Gospel, Screwtape writes, albeit in mocking tones: “The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact (the Resurrection) and a single theological doctrine (the Redemption) operating on a sense of sin which they already had – and sin, not against some new fancy-dress law produced as a novelty by a ‘great man’, but against the old, platitudinous, universal law which they had been taught by their nurses and mothers”.

Lewis offers encouragement to the embattled Christian

Spiritual warfare

Reflecting on Lewis’ classic work, Christian leader Dr Albert Mohler said: “Certainly the Devil and his demons are not behind every corner of our lives and responsible for every negative spiritual thing that happens. Yet at the same time, the Bible clearly warns us about demonic powers and encourages us to remain diligently opposed to their influence.

“Regrettably, many Christians are blissfully complacent in matters of spiritual warfare.”

Dr Mohler continued: “Christians must recognize that temptations are a real and daily threat to communion with God and life with Christ. The most dangerous thing a Christian can ever do is believe that he is somehow immune to temptation.”

Pointing to Jesus’ prayer of deliverance “lead us not into temptation” (Matthew 6:13), Dr Mohler concluded: “Temptation comes to individuals, churches, and institutions. We know the power of temptation by looking in both history books and the mirror.

The most dangerous thing a Christian can ever do is believe that he is somehow immune to temptation

“If we are honest with ourselves, we are not up to the task. But Jesus teaches us that we have access to deliverance from sin and temptation by the grace and mercy of God, which is why we must repeatedly pray this prayer”.

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