C. S. Lewis, Platonism, and the Creation

The Last Battle by C. S. LewisOne of the classes I’m taking this quarter as part of my STM program is entitled “The Gospel in C. S. Lewis.”  Far and away, it’s been a wonderful course thus far (any excuse to read C. S. Lewis is good in my book).  However, the last two books we’ve looked at and discussed have … troubled me a bit, especially with regards to Lewis’ use of Platonism and the way he describes “Heaven.”

Let me explain.

Platonism, briefly, is the sort of metaphysics put forward by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato.  There are, for Plato, two realms: the realm of forms and the realm of matter.  The realm of matter is what you and I experience every day; it’s the realm of the material world.  The realm of forms, however, is the true realm of reality.  All things which exist in the realm of matter are mere shadows or imitations of the things in the realm of forms.  The proverbial chair of the material world is just a shadow of the real, ideal chair found in the realm of forms. If you’ve ever read the allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic, you know what I’m talking about.

This way of looking at the world has been rather resilient in Western thought down through the ages.  It shows up a lot in C. S. Lewis – especially when it comes time for him to describe “Heaven.”

Lewis’ description of Heaven – whether it’s in The Last Battle or in his The Great Divorce – is that Heaven is vastly more “real” than the world in which we live.  When the Narnians arrive in that world’s Heaven, they notice that it at once looks like the world they had just left, but it’s more spacious, more colorful, smells sweeter, etc.  In short, it’s more real; it shows the previous world to be a mere shadow of the new.  Likewise, in The Great Divorce, the ghosts of the deceased are so immaterial that they cannot interact with the environment of Heaven until such time as they, too, are made more “real.”  Poetically, it paints a fantastic image of the joys and pleasures of heaven.  Philosophically, it draws heavily from Platonism.

Biblically, though, it’s just not right.

The Bible – contrary to the way most Western Christians read it these days – does not subscribe to Platonism.  Rather, the world of the Bible is centered in creation.  There is no “more real” realm of forms.  God created the material world and said, “It is good.” What’s promised from the get-go is not that believers will be whisked away to some “Heaven.”  Instead, the promise is that the creation – broken as it is by sin – will be restored to its full created goodness. (This is why I have been using quotes around the word Heaven – the eternal destination of those who follow Christ is not Heaven but a renewed creation!)

What Platonism does – what a view like that of C. S. Lewis (poetic though it may be) does – is de-value the creation.  By treating this world as a world of shadows that will be forsaken for a “more real” Heaven, such a view rejects God’s declaration over creation: “It is good.”  Care for creation goes by the wayside – after all, why care for something which will be preempted by a more-real reality?  Lewis’ language elevates the joy of the eschaton, but at the expense of this world, a world made by God.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love C. S. Lewis.  His works are amazing and teach a TON of great stuff about Christianity in an extremely accessible way.  But C. S. Lewis is not infallible.  Nor, for that matter, is Plato.  Something to keep in mind the next time you read one of this man’s brilliant works of literature.

2 thoughts on “C. S. Lewis, Platonism, and the Creation

  1. Huh.

    Recognizing full well that I’m reading my theology into C.S.Lewis’ volumes, I read The Great Divorce (the one I remember the best at the moment) through the eyes of restoration. I think. That somehow my ability to perceive reality is effected by my state – ‘fallen.’ I guess I thought of it (to some degree anyhow) more about restoration.

    I must say, however, that no thought of Plato’s realms drifted through my mind through this work of fiction, but I do see it now that you mention it.

    Hmm. Did you know C.S. Lewis was a chain smoker? 60 or so per day I heard. That’s enough smoke to create yet a third realm. Ha.

    1. I don’t know that I knew that, no. That *would* be enough for a third realm. 😉

      I was talking to Jason today a bit on this post. He said that I overstated my case a bit, and I find I have to agree with him. C. S. Lewis was largely reacting against a MUCH more ephemeral view of Heaven than that which he presents. In that respect, his work is a HUGE step in the right direction – towards a more tangible, material new creation. The material-ness of the way he presents new creation is awesome. I love it. As you note, it does remind one more of restoration.

      I’ll still say he uses too much Plato to do it – and that doing that results in diminishing the creation more than I think even Lewis would want. But there’s something to the argument that the present creation is hopelessly ‘fallen’ and the new creation will be SO much more awesome in comparison.

      Thanks for the comment, George!

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