Surprised by Jack, Part 3: Mere Depravity

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In part 2, Williams described how C.S. Lewis understood “myth” and how it could speak truth in ways that history and science fall short. Today, we examine how Lewis understood the doctrine of the Fall.

Surprised by Jack, Part 3: Mere Depravity

In his lengthiest treatment of the Christian doctrine of the Fall—the fifth chapter of his book The Problem of Pain—Lewis makes it quite clear that he takes the Eden story, as he takes the first chapter of Genesis, to be sacred “mythology.” It is worthy of reverence, contemplation, theological reflection, even, in a sense, belief, but is not, in his estimation, strictly historical. Genesis 2-3 narrates deep truths about the human condition but not necessarily historical facts about the first humans:

The story in Genesis is a story (full of the deepest suggestion) about a magic apple of knowledge; but in the developed doctrine [of the Fall] the inherent magic apple has quite dropped out of sight, and the story is simply one of disobedience. I have the deepest respect even for Pagan myths, still more for myths in Holy Scripture. I therefore do not doubt that the version which emphasises the magic apple, and brings together the trees of life and knowledge, contains a deeper and subtler truth than the version which makes the apple simply and solely a pledge of obedience. But I assume that the Holy Spirit would not have allowed the latter to grow up in the Church and win the assent of great doctors unless it also was true and useful so far as it went. It is this version which I am going to discuss, because, though I suspect the primitive version to be far more profound, I know that I, at any rate, cannot penetrate its profundities.1

Whatever its theological profundities, though, Lewis is clear that Genesis 2-3 is probably not a straightforward narrative of historical events. “What exactly happened when Man fell, we do not know,” he later writes. “We have no idea in what particular act, or series of acts, the self-contradictory, impossible wish [to be our own masters] found expression. For all I can see, it might have concerned the literal eating of a fruit, but the question is of no consequence.”2

What, then, is of consequence for Lewis, we might ask? The real story of the Fall, says Lewis, is not the surface narrative about “the magic apple,” but rather what he refers to as “the developed doctrine” of the Fall, namely the doctrine of humankind’s depraved condition:

According to [the doctrine of the Fall], man is now a horror to God and to himself and a creature ill-adapted to the universe not because God made him so but because he has made himself so by the abuse of his free will. To my mind this is the sole function of the doctrine.3

The “sole function of the doctrine” for Lewis is to name the human condition for what it is, namely, shot through with corruption. Or, as Lewis put it in A Preface to “Paradise Lost,” “The Fall is simply and solely Disobedience—doing what you have been told not to do: and it results from Pride—from being too big for your boots, forgetting your place, thinking that you are God.” You might call this the “Mere Depravity” view of the Fall.

Throughout The Problem of Pain Lewis displays a remarkable degree of comfort with evolutionary theory, not least evolutionary accounts of human origins. A corollary of Lewis’s acceptance of evolutionary theory, of course, is that death pre-existed humanity. Lewis grasps this nettle in chapter IX of the book when he writes,

The origin of animal suffering could be traced, by earlier generations, to the Fall of man—the whole world was infected by the uncreated rebellion of Adam. This is now impossible, for we have good reason to believe that animals existed long before men. Carnivorousness, with all that it entails, is older than humanity.5

Here is not the place to go into Lewis’s postulation that Satan was responsible for animal predation. We need only note that he makes this suggestion precisely in order to show how a broadly Darwinian picture of natural history may be compatible with a broadly Christian view of the world. For some, severing the link between the Fall of man and death’s entry into the world, is anathema. But given Lewis’ mere depravity view of the Fall, this evolutionary understanding of natural history creates no real problem for Christian faith.

Moreover, for Lewis the evolutionary picture of the ascent of humankind presents no real objection to the Christian doctrine of the Fall, either:

Many people think that this proposition [that we are fallen creatures] has been proved false by modern science. “We now know,” it is said, “that so far from having fallen out of a primeval state of virtue and happiness, men have slowly risen from brutality and savagery.” There seems to me to be a complete confusion here…. If by saying that man rose from brutality you mean simply that man is physically descended from animals, I have no objection. But it does not follow that the further back you go the more brutal–in the sense of wicked or wretched–you will find man to be.6

Lewis goes on to note that the categories of virtue and vice simply do not apply to the animal kingdom–and therefore not to our pre-human ancestors either–because animals as such are not moral agents. Moreover, Prehistoric man is not to be presumed to be altogether reprobate simply on account of using only rudimentary tools, hunting and gathering, and the like. Primitivity ought not to be confused with sinfulness he argues. Thus, for Lewis, the discoveries of modern paleontology and archaeology can tell us nothing about when or whether our ancestors fell from a state of innocence, and so we are free to accept, as Lewis seems to have, man’s physical descent from animals without giving up the Christian doctrine of the Fall.

While Lewis may not have publically argued for the historicity of Adam and Eve, his private opinions might have been another matter. In his recent essay “Darwin in the Dock,” John G. West has argued that, regardless of what he said in print, Lewis privately “embraced the literal existence of Adam and Eve.”7 West chiefly bases his argument for Lewis’s private belief in a literal Adam and Eve on an anecdote involving one of Lewis’ Oxford colleagues, Helen Gardner, recounted in A.N. Wilson’s C.S. Lewis: A Biography.8 Upon being asked at a dinner party whom he would most like to meet after death, Lewis replied, “Oh, I have no difficulty in deciding…. I want to meet Adam.” Gardner, it is reported, replied by saying that “if there really were, historically, someone whom we could name as ‘the first man’, he would be a Neanderthal ape-like figure, whose conversation she could not conceive of finding interesting.”9 Lewis, we are told, gruffly responded, “I see we have a Darwinian in our midst” and never invited Gardner to dinner again.10

West takes this tense little interaction between Lewis and Gardner to indicate that Lewis’ belief in a literal historical Adam and Eve. However, it should be noted that such a conclusion seems somewhat overhasty in light of what Lewis says in The Problem of Pain, where he articulates a view rather similar to what Gardner said that evening:

I do not doubt that if the Paradisal man could now appear among us, we should regard him as an utter savage, a creature to be exploited or, at best, patronised. Only one or two, and those the holiest among us, would glance a second time at the naked, shaggy-bearded, slow spoken creature: but they, after a few minutes, would fall at his feet.11

Given that Lewis actually believed what he wrote here, the difference between Lewis and Gardner seems not to have been either the question of “whether man is physically descended from animals” (which, as we have seen, Lewis was willing to grant) or the question of whether Paradisal man would be a “naked, shaggy-bearded, slow spoken creature,” a “Neanderthal ape-like figure.” Rather they differed over whether “Paradisal man,” as Lewis puts it, would have been someone, however primitive, to be revered, or whether, as Gardner seemed to believe, a mere brute. Taking Lewis’ written statements at face-value, it would appear that his irritation with Gardner owed less to her acceptance of evolution than it did to her dismissive presumption that our forebears were but dull savages.

Finally, it should be noted that Lewis was not even committed to the most basic element of a belief in a literal Adam and Eve, namely, that it was precisely two humans who fell and from whence our species came. He writes, “We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state. But sooner or later they fell.”12 Lewis’s mere depravity view of the Fall and his belief in the mythical character of the Eden story gave him some latitude on the question of whether the Fall consisted of a historic first human pair going wrong at an easily identifiable moment. For Lewis, it was apparently quite possible that whole tribes of “Paradisal” Prehistoric humans could have gone about their business for generations—hunting, gathering, singing around the campfire, rearing children, painting in caves—before the spiritual and scientifically undetectable catastrophe of “the Fall” occurred. In other words, if Lewis were presented with the recent genomic evidence which suggests that our species arose from an initial population of several thousand rather than only two, it is doubtful that it would have flustered him. It simply makes no difference to Lewis’s argument how or how many humans initially “fell.” All that matters for Lewis is that God made humans (perhaps via evolution, perhaps not) and that we humans have gone quite wrong–so wrong, in fact, that it is beyond our powers to repair ourselves. Mere Christianity, for Lewis, does not logically depend on the historicity of the Adam and Eve story, but on the doctrine of our mere depravity.


References & Credits

1. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 63-64, my italics
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid, my italics
4. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961), 70-71
5. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 119
6. Ibid, 64
7. West, “Darwin in the Dock,” in The Magician’s Twin: C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2012), 121. West’s volume takes a markedly different view of Lewis and Lewis’s legacy regarding debates about Christianity and evolution. I intend to write a thorough critical review of West’s book in the near future.
8. Ibid
9. A.N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis: A Biography, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990), 210
10. Ibid
11. Ibid
12. Ibid.

About the Author

David Williams

David Williams is the campus staff for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's Graduate & Faculty Ministries at NC State University, Meredith College and Campbell Law School in Raleigh, North Carolina. A native of North Carolina, David earned his MAR from Westminster Theological Seminary and his ThM from Duke Divinity School. He has taught students from grade school to college at St. David's School and Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, respectively. In April 2012 David organized the symposium Biblical Faith in an Age of Science: Adam and Eve, Evolution, & Evangelicalism at NC State University, which was cosponsored by InterVarsity and Ratio Christi. As a part of his ministry, David works to encourage healthier and better-informed conversations about the Christian tradition and modern science in both the university and the local church. You can follow him on his blog

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