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C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design, Part 7

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May 16, 2011 Tags: Design
C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design, Part 7

Today's entry was written by Michael L. Peterson. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

This blog series, adapted from this article in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, is a comprehensive study of the views of Christian author and apologist C. S. Lewis on the theory of evolution and the argument from intelligent design. Today Peterson concludes with a meditation on how Lewis incorporates evolution into his thoroughly Trinitarian worldview.

Lewis’s Trinitarian Vision

Both Classical Christian Theology and Evolution suggest a dynamic, self-actualizing aspect to reality. Lewis is insightful about this congruence and incorporates it into his articulation of the Christian vision. In doing this, he is clearly a Christian Theistic Evolutionist, or an Evolutionary Christian Theist. So, what does Lewis say God is up to in this evolutionary universe? In answering this question, Lewis is at his best.

Book Four of Mere Christianity is entitled “Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity.” In this section, Lewis summarizes the ancient vision of the church: that the heart of reality is a Self-Living, Self-Giving Life which created everything else and seeks relationship with it. The Triune God is inherently personal and interpersonal, meaning that his created universe is deeply relational, a context for finite persons to enter loving relations with God and others. The Triune God is the original Person and the fulfillment of our own creaturely personhood. Evolutionary science investigates Bios, as Lewis calls it, or the very important but finite biological life we possess. However, Lewis explains that God offers us Zoe: the higher kind of life, the life of unspeakable and unending joy and beatitude radiating from God’s own life. Bios is not opposed to Zoe, not contradictory to it. Bios is not evil or the root of sin. It is simply the physical life with which human rational nature is intimately and essentially identified. But Bios is invited to be taken up into Zoe—to be completed, transformed, and given ultimate significance by Zoe. This is amazing! Our destiny is beyond the physical, not by diminution or rejection of the physical but by its inclusion in a higher dimension of reality, the very Life of God.1

Lewis paints a word picture of the Higher Life in a compelling discussion of the Trinity and the essential love relations among the Divine Persons:

God is not a static thing—not even a person— but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance … The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way round) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made. Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them. They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone. They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very centre of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry. Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever? Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die? ("Mere Christianity", pp. 175-176)

The Great Dance is a major theme in Lewis’s writings: that the relational reality God has created is about giving and receiving, about cooperation with God as our True Center; but we have gotten out of step and need to find our way again in the Dance. In Perelandra (Book Two of the Space Trilogy), Lewis spends several pages developing this theme.3 But it is not novel; it is a creative restatement of a profound idea stemming from the ancient church. St. Gregory of Nazianzus (Great Patriarch of Constantinople in the fourth-century Eastern Church) characterized God’s inner life as “the Great Dance.” This was Gregory’s way of portraying the idea of “mutual indwelling” (perichoresis) in Jesus’s comments in chapters 14–17 of the Gospel of John (about the mutual indwelling of the Father and the Son, the Son and believers, and so forth). This is a deeply relational universe, a perichoretic universe. And although we have broken relations at all levels, God’s faithful redemptive activity is at work to heal, uplift, and restore us. Our transformation is the goal.

The last lines of Mere Christianity incorporate Evolution into the Christian vision while rejecting human engineering based on a misuse of evolutionary ideas. Let us meditate on these lines and allow them to serve as a fitting benediction to this study:

Perhaps a modern man can understand the Christian idea [of transformation] best if he takes it in connection with Evolution. Everyone now knows … that man has evolved from lower types of life. Consequently, people often wonder, “What is the next step?” “When is the thing beyond man going to appear?” … [Some suppose a] “Superman” [will appear] with extra legs or arms … [P]opular guesses at the Next Step [envision] men developing great brains and getting greater mastery over nature … [But] I cannot help but think that the Next Step will be really new … I should expect the next stage not to be a stage in Evolution [as science studies it] at all. And I should not be surprised if, when the thing happened, very few people noticed that it was happening.

[T]he Christian view is precisely that the Next Step has already appeared. And it is really new. It is not a change from brainy men into brainier men: it is a change that goes off in a totally different direction—a change from being creatures of God to being sons of God. The first instance appeared in Palestine two thousand years ago. In a sense, the change is not “Evolution” at all, because it is not something arising out of the natural process of events but something coming into nature from outside. But that is what I should expect. We arrived at our idea of “Evolution” from studying the past. If there are real novelties in store then of course our idea, based on the past, will not really cover them …

At the earlier stages living organisms … had … no choice or very little choice about taking the new step … But the next step … of being turned from creatures into sons is voluntary … I have called Christ the “first instance” of the new man. But of course He is something much more than that … He is … the new man [who takes Bios up into Zoe] …

At the beginning I said there were Personalities in God. I will go further now. There are no real personalities anywhere else. Until you have given up your self to Him you will not have a real self … But there must be a real giving up of the self. You must throw it away “blindly” so to speak … Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in. ("Mere Christianity", pp. 218-227)


1. Lewis writes: “The whole purpose for which we exist is to be thus taken into the life of God.” See Mere Christianity, 161. Note that all of Book 4 should be read carefully to understand Lewis’s Trinitarian vision of the amazing meaning of human destiny.

2. Lewis, Perelandra, chapter 17. Note that the Great Dance is envisaged as the mutual love exchange among Maleldil and his creatures. This is a relational reality—which has been graciously populated with created personal beings— in which “all is gift” and “the best fruits are plucked for each by some hand that is not his own” (p. 180). Although Maleldil’s joy is not dependent on created things, all was made so that Maleldil’s loving purposes might be realized: “Where Maleldil is, there is the centre. He is in every place … Each thing was made for Him. He is the centre. Because we are with Him, each of us is at the centre … He has immeasurable use for each thing that is made, that His love and splendour may flow forth …” (pp. 185–6).

Michael L. Peterson is professor of philosophy at Asbury University. He is also managing editor of Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers. His books include Reason and Religious Belief (Oxford); God and Evil (Westview); With All Your Mind: A Christian Philosophy of Education (Notre Dame); and Evil and the Christian God (Baker). He has produced multiple edited volumes and journal articles.

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Roger A. Sawtelle - #61296

May 16th 2011

Thank you for a new understanding of Lewis’ relational understanding of life and theology. 

A serious problem with evolution as understood by Darwinists is it is not relational, while ecology is.  I expect C. S. Lewis would have loved ecology, so it is too bad he is no longer with us.

Bilbo - #61356

May 17th 2011

I’m afraid that Peterson is guilty of taking Lewis out of context here.  As Peterson has it, Lewis said:

“Perhaps a modern man can understand the Christian idea [of
transformation] best if he takes it in connection with Evolution.
Everyone now knows … that man has evolved from lower types of life.”

What Lewis actually wrote: 

“Perhaps a modern man can understand the Christian idea best if he takes it in connection with Evolution. Everyone now knows about Evolution (though, of course, some educated people disbelieve it): everyone has been told that man has evolved from lower types of life.”

Notice that Lewis does NOT say that everyone knows that man has evolved from lower types.  He says that everyone has been TOLD that man has evolved from lower types.  He even adds in parentheses that some educated people disbelieve it, leaving open the door for reasonable disbelief in evolution.

So why does Lewis then offer a theology based on evolution?  In order to counter the alternative view of evolution current in his day:  that evolution would eventually result in a new kind of human being that would be “a good deal nastier”:

” Consequently, people often wonder “What is the next step? When is the thing beyond man going to appear?” Imaginative writers try sometimes to picture this next step—the “Superman” as they call him; but they usually only succeed in picturing someone a good deal nastier than man as we know him and then try to make up for that by sticking on extra legs or arms. But supposing the next step was to be something even more different from the earlier steps than they ever dreamed of? And is it not very likely it would be?”

And the Lewis proceeds to offer the Christian alternative.  So Lewis makes possible an acceptable theistic evolutionary account, just in case evolution is true, not because Lewis knew it was true.  As I have already pointed out countless times, Lewis never painted himself into a corner where science was concerned, since for him science was always a very tentative thing.   Too bad Peterson either never realizes this about Lewis, or having realized it, ignores it.

Bilbo - #61357

May 17th 2011

By the way, by Peterson’s taking Lewis purposely out of context, he has disqualified his paper as a real attempt at scholarly understanding, and made it plain that he is only interested in creating propaganda.  Once again Biologos has failed to fact check its own authors or guest authors. 

bjnelson - #61360

May 17th 2011

@Bilbo (#2) - (Is there no way to make your point without “casting aspersion?” on those with whom you disagree?? there’s such a thing as spirited, respectful dialogue and then there is diatribe…the former is much more effective than the latter.)

Jon Garvey - #61369

May 18th 2011

Nevertheless, in a series which has pitted Lewis’s views so strongly against the (in his own time) non-existent ID concept, the clear change of meaning by partial quotation is, at least, misleading.

Bearing in mind C S Lewis’s contempt for those scholars who had managed to misinterpret his opinions by reading things into his writings on issues he actually dealt with, I feel he would have been  bemused by a seven part series trying to ascertain his views on a field that arose half a century after his death.

I have to say my own reading of Lewis over the last half century doesn’t suggest to me a convinced evolutionist. Neither, of course, does it suggest an early proponent of ID, or a Tea Party candidate, or an internet blogger.

Bilbo - #61402

May 18th 2011

Hi bjnelson,

I really don’t know any other way of interpreting Peterson’s selective quotation of Lewis.  It completely changes the meaning from someone who was willing to work with the current scientific view of evolution, even though he thought it worth mentioning that some educated people disagree with it, to someone who was, as Peterson puts it, “clearly a Christian Theistic Evolutionist.” 

Bilbo - #61403

May 18th 2011

Jon:  “I have to say my own reading of Lewis over the last half century doesn’t
suggest to me a convinced evolutionist. Neither, of course, does it
suggest an early proponent of ID, or a Tea Party candidate, or an
internet blogger.”

Hear, hear.

Eddie - #72917

September 18th 2012

If anyone is interested in reading some detailed responses to the argument made by Dr. Peterson in this series, and more generally in Lewis’s thoughts on evolution, science, and technology, the following new book may be of interest:


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