Let’s take on a fun topic, death! No, it’s not “fun”, but it’s important to have answers to it!
“Death is…Satan’s great weapon and also God’s great weapon: it is holy and unholy; our supreme disgrace and our only hope; the thing Christ came to conquer and the means by which He conquered” (1)
The juxtaposition of death as both a blessing and a curse highlights Lewis’s dealing with the topic in Miracles. This can be seen as Lewis’s philosophical dealings with the issue, which stand in stark contrast with his existential dealings as seen in A Grief Observed. In the first he deals with death briefly but from a non-personal detached perspective that is common when dealing with topics from a merely philosophical perspective. In the latter he is a grieving husband for whom death is not a topic but a deeply personal experience. Here the topic of death seems far more negative than positive. Is one perspective more accurate than the other? Is one perspective more realistic than the other? Is it an either / or issue where we must conclude that Lewis was closer to the truth in one and not the other? Or is it an issue where we can conclude that Lewis has been equally effective and accurate in both dealings? I believe both works contribute significantly to the issue of death and I will argue that we must consider both works to be accurate from the perspective they are written.
The consideration of both the blessings and the curse of death is very ingenious. In a world where philosophers and poets alike dwell on the curse of death, Lewis’s philosophical perspective is refreshing. It is also very biblical. His position seems to add new insight to Romans 8:28 including death in the list of “all things.” In God’s infinite wisdom the death that entered the world with the disobedience of Adam and Eve was also a key element in the plan of redemption that would ensue. God, in his omniscience, knew that there would be a second Adam that would also face death, but for a far more blessed purpose. When considered from a merely theological or philosophical perspective, to the Christian death is not the end nor is it necessarily a bad thing. Death had to be both introduced and defeated as part of God’s plan for creating a free being in His image that would spend eternity with Him. Does that perspective make death any easier to deal with? It is precisely in response to this question that we must consider Lewis’s existential treaties on the topic.
In A Grief Observed Lewis’s perspective is far from that of a detached philosopher. He appears as a man from whom a limb has been torn. As Madaleine L’Engle so wisely observes in the forward to the book, “the death of a beloved is an amputation.” (2)
There seems to be no mention whatsoever of the benefits and blessings of death. God’s wonderful plan with death seems to be drowned out with the wailing and laments of a wounded soul. Actually, what we find in the book is a sincere confrontation between Lewis and his faith. His faith in God was challenged as he cries out, “…but go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” (3)
Lewis’s dealing with the death of his wife did not make him question God’s existence, but rather God’s character. As he admits, “The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’” (4) What then are we to do with the apparent contradiction in Lewis’s dealings with death? Are we to believe in the blessings of death as they appear in Miracles or are we to affirm the wretched pain and misery of death in A Grief Observed?
I believe we need to embrace both perspectives as equally valid and non-contradictory. The key is to understand the perspective from which Lewis approaches the topic in both works. As a philosopher dealing with a topic, Lewis is completely accurate and biblical in his presenting the balance between the good and the bad sides of death. However, he does not dwell on the topic long enough to really elaborate on the bad side. Even with regards to the good side of death, he only briefly alludes to it in the rest of the book when describing the atoning work of Christ. There is not a shred of evidence pointing to any existential concepts in his contemplations of death in Miracles. Therefore, when Lewis confronts death on a primarily existential arena, we can expect his exposition to be different (while not contradictory). It is like observing my city from an airplane 35,000’ above sea-level and describing it only to follow with a description of my city as I walk out on my front porch. The descriptions may seem contradictory but they truly are complimentary. Lewis’s step son, Douglas H. Gresham points this out in the introduction to A Grief Observed,
“This book is a man emotionally naked in his own Gethsemane. It tells of the agony and the emptiness of a grief such as few of us have to bear, for the greater the love the greater the grief, and the stronger the faith the more savagely will Satan storm its fortress.” (5)
As dark as these journal entries become at times, Lewis manages to keep his objectivity nearby. Towards the end of the journal entries, Lewis concludes with a balanced view where he admits that God’s work upon us continues even after death and death itself is part of the process. He then concludes wisely that the silence from God can only stem from our own inability to comprehend things from His perspective,
“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’” (6)
We must agree that death is a terrible thing (especially when it hits home) and at the same time it is a wonderful thing.
1 C. S. Lewis, Miracles (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001), 203. 2 C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), XII. 3 Lewis, A Grief Observed, 6. 4 Ibid., 6-7. 5 Ibid., XXVI. 6 Ibid., 69.