Oct 14, 2021
Why did C. S. Lewis describe bad teaching methods—out of a grammar text, no less—as “the abolition of man?” Wasn’t he being a tad dramatic? Not if you understand Lewis’ biblically-and-theologically-informed view of what it means to be human, and how evil dehumanizes us. Let me explain.
Scripture speaks of the penalty for sins in various ways. Sometimes, it describes it as “outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Other times it pictures a pit of burning sulfur, or a lake of fire, suggesting fathomless pain, anguish, and disintegration. Paul speaks of the penalty of evil as God “giving over” those who suppress knowledge of Him and worship the creation, instead. Such people receive in themselves “the due penalty” of their wickedness. But from Genesis to Revelation, the dominant word used to describe God’s judgment on sin is death.
Death isn’t hard to define. On a physical level, we know it. It’s cessation of life and decay—a reduction of order or dissolution of being. An animal that dies returns, with the help of bacteria, scavengers, and entropy, to its constituent elements. So do we. But beyond the physical, much the same may be true. The Bible speaks of a spiritual death, and right from the beginning treats it as the chief problem of mankind.
Adam and Eve, though threatened with death for disobedience, didn’t go into cardiac arrest the moment they stole the fruit. A literal translation of the Hebrew curse is instructive: “Dying ye shall die.” Theologians through the centuries have read this as a suggestion that though our first parents’ bodies would certainly die in due course, they suffered or began to suffer an even more serious, internal death the moment they declared their independence from God.
The New Testament picks up the theme of spiritual death. In Ephesians 2, Paul describes fallen man as “dead in trespasses and sins” even while we’re still breathing. In Revelation, John calls eternal damnation “the second death.” And the New Jerusalem is heavenly precisely because it is a place where “death is no more.”
Most importantly, Scripture tells us that the wages of sin (death, both physical and spiritual) were dealt with for Christians in the death of Christ. In Romans 6, 1 Corinthians 15, and the second chapters of Galatians, Colossians, 2 Timothy, and Hebrews, we read that those united with Christ died with Him. And Christian writers in the centuries afterward got the message.
In “On The Incarnation,” Athanasius writes: “…thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under the penalty of corruption of death He gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father—doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone…”
What does all of this have to do with The Abolition of Man and evil? Well, as Andrew Lazo and I discussed this week on Upstream, Lewis argued that educating a child out of his belief in value judgments was the first step in a process that, if followed to its conclusion, would abolish the child’s humanity and lead him to damnation.
Lewis depicts the end of that process in at least two places in his fiction. One is in “The Great Divorce,” where damned souls occasionally take a tour bus to the outskirts of Heaven. There, the redeemed meet them and plead with these lost sinners to repent and accept God’s help.
The thing the main character—himself one of the damned—first notices is that Heaven is an unbearably solid place. The light is too bright, the colors too strong, and the surroundings too real for the ghostly, near-transparent souls who ride the bus up from Hell and Purgatory. Even the grass hurts their feet, and lifting a fallen leaf takes all their strength. And when the condemned are offered a chance at Heaven, nearly all of them refuse. The part of them that could accept or even understand that offer has long since withered away and faded from reality. They are barely human, anymore.
Lewis’ second depiction of man’s abolition is more chilling. In the second of his “Space Trilogy,” the main character confronts an interplanetary traveler possessed by the Devil. This “Un-Man” is nothing like what the hero expects a soul totally dominated by evil to be. Rather than smooth Mephistopheles or Milton’s tragic Satan, or even a corrupt politician, Elwin Ransom meets a cross between an imbecile, a monkey, and a very nasty child.
“Up till that moment,” writes Lewis, “whenever he had thought of Hell, he had pictured the lost souls as being still human; now, as the frightful abyss which parts ghosthood from manhood yawned before him, pity was almost swallowed up in horror—in the unconquerable revulsion of the life within him from positive and self-consuming Death. If the remains of Weston were, at such moments, speaking through the lips of the Un-man, then Weston was not now a man at all. The forces which had begun, perhaps years ago, to eat away his humanity had now completed
their work. The intoxicated will which had been slowly poisoning the intelligence and the affections had now at last poisoned itself and the whole psychic organism had fallen to pieces. Only a ghost was left—an everlasting unrest, a crumbling, a ruin, an odour of decay.”
Lewis wasn’t the first to describe evil this way, or recognize its corrosive effects on image-bearers. Augustine wrote in His “Confessions” that “God alone is truly real. Everything else is neither wholly real nor wholly unreal,” and that if we do not remain in Him, neither will we remain in ourselves.
This was the basis of his understanding of evil. In his “Enchiridion,” Augustine denies that evil has any substance or existence of its own, “for if it were a substance, it would be good.” Instead, he teaches that evil is a “privation of good,” comparing it with wounds in the body, and noting how when wounds are healed, they cease to exist.
“Evils, therefore, have their source in the good, and unless they are parasitic on something good, they are not anything at all.” But this also means that “corruption cannot consume the good without consuming the thing itself.”
And here we grasp a little more firmly why Lewis writes with such moral urgency in “The Abolition of Man.” In this short book, he confronts a way of teaching value judgments that undermines students’ ability to comprehend the true, the good, and the beautiful. This attack on objective morality and meaning, launched by fashionable and educated minds in his day, was the beginning of a process that would turn men and women into “trousered apes,” enslaved to their passions (or worse, to devils), and unable to know right from wrong or even to care.
His warning may be more meaningful today than it was eighty years ago, bombarded as we are by efforts to redefine or undefine human nature. As we re-read “Abolition,” we should share his alarm about the trajectory of culture, science, politics, and education, and let it motivate us to fight the decay. But as Lewis himself reminds us, evil has no being, and no strength it does not steal from goodness, and as long as men with chests stand guard, Un-man can never have the last word.