Shine As the Sun: C.S. Lewis and the Doctrine of Deification

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It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses.

—from “The Weight of Glory”

When he was president of the Oxford Socratic Club during the 1940s and 50s, C.S. Lewis featured weekly discussions on “repellent doctrines.” By these, he meant traditional Christian teachings that seemed puzzling or implausible—teachings on suffering, miracles, hierarchy, and the like. Lewis thought these doctrines conveyed truths that modern people most needed to know but were least likely to recognize: “We must never avert our eyes from those elements in [our religion] which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know.”1 For many Christians today, deification would be such a doctrine. Deification (also known as theosis or divinization) sees salvation not merely as divine pardon but rather as a process of spiritual transformation that culminates in mystical union with God. As Lewis understood it, human beings could one day enter into the very beauty and energy of God and become “true and everlasting and really divine persons.”2 In his book Mere Christianity, which can be seen as a manifesto on the subject, Lewis argues that the whole purpose of Christianity is to turn people into what he variously calls “new men,” “little Christs,” “Sons of God”—and “gods and goddesses.”

Lewis knew such language might give many of us a shock, but he insisted that this is “precisely what Christianity is about.”3 Although largely forgotten by Christians today, deification is at the heart of Lewis’ vision of reality. From his sermons to his apologetic essays, from his space fiction to his children’s stories, one can hardly find a corner of his literary universe that is not illumined by the idea. Although scholars in recent years have begun to explore “the overlooked Lewis”—including his affinities with Christian mysticism and the details of his spiritual formation in the Church of England—little attention has been given to the importance of deification in Lewis’s thought, or to its place within the larger constellation of his beliefs including joy, myth, temptation, and sacramental life.4 To understand it not only promises to bring us closer to the mind of C.S. Lewis, but to offer fresh perspective on the pursuit of happiness and the possibilities of the faith.

A Forgotten Strand
It is not surprising that some modern Christians might find this idea baffling or even heretical; but neither is it surprising that Lewis did not since his mind was “shaped by the whole scope of intellectual history and Christian thought…liberated from the narrow confines of the religious views of the day.”5 Lewis encountered the idea of deification everywhere from St. Athanasius to George MacDonald, and he knew the doctrine was held from earliest times by many church fathers (like Athanasius) who helped establish the canon of the New Testament and the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation.6 These fathers taught that Adam and Eve were created in the image and likeness of God, but after the fall they were estranged from their creator and subject to pain, sorrow, and death. Deification, then, is the restoration of the divine likeness that humanity lost along with its beauty, purity, and incorruption. In holding to deification, not only was Lewis in harmony with Eastern Orthodoxy, where the doctrine remains a distinguishing mark, but with many voices in the West like St. Augustine and St. Bernard of Clairvaux—and a forgotten strand of Anglican tradition including Lancelot Andrewes, Richard Hooker, Charles Wesley, and Ann Griffiths.7 If Lewis has been called a “thoroughly Western man,” it is equally true that he articulated ideas like deification in terms that are “profoundly in harmony with the patristic and Orthodox standpoint.”8

Lewis, of course, was not a systematic theologian, nor did he construct a tidy formula of deification. Rather than use the term explicitly, he conveyed the idea in scriptural terms of being “in Christ,” becoming “new creatures,” or sharing in the “glory of God,” as well as with literary images like the celestial light, the face, the dance, the fountain, the marriage, the winged horse, and the statue-come-to-life. Significantly, rather than Lewis the scholar or Lewis the rationalist, it was Lewis the poet, Lewis the Romantic, Lewis the lover of myth, and Lewis the imaginative writer who was most sensitive to this idea’s power. In this, too, he showed himself kindred to the mystical tradition of the Christian East, where theology is more experiential than systematic, more poetic than propositional. As one contemporary Anglican author has noted, “The language of transforming love is used most effectively by poets rather than theologians…[and] in the East poets and theologians are sometimes the same people.”9

Despite his poetic bent, Lewis didn’t follow the path of Emerson or others who blurred dogmatic boundaries by confusing God and creation or by teaching that human beings are naturally divine. Only God is transcendent, uncreated, and divine by nature. Therefore deification does not mean the “actualization” or “realization” of one’s latent divinity, a belief that is less Christian than monistic or pantheistic. Nor does deification mean that human beings eventually will evolve into something essentially equal to God (as suggested by the bumper sticker that proclaimed, “I am a Goddess: Worship Me”). Lewis was always clear on the difference between creature and Creator—an irreducible ontological distinction. Deified human beings forever remain human while at the same time sharing in divine grace or energy, just like blazing iron in the fire shares the properties of flame but doesn’t cease to be iron. Human beings will not melt into an impersonal God like a salt statue tossed into the ocean, or become new and independent divine beings in a type of polytheistic evolution. For this reason, Lewis cannot be categorized with Neoplatonists, Hindus, Mormons, or even certain Christian mystics who seemed to lose sight of the essential distinction between God and humankind.

A World “Big With God”
If deification requires an understanding of God’s transcendence, it equally depends upon God’s immanence: the complementary truth that creation, although distinct from God, is full of divine energy and wisdom. Lewis thought that both God’s infinite distance and God’s closest proximity must be kept in mind. He portrays the latter in the enchanted vision of Narnia, where trees dance, rivers teem with nymphs, birds carry messages, and stars are glittering people with long hair like burning silver. These stories suggest that Lewis perceived not just the abstract idea that God is omnipresent, but the concrete fact that God can be present in particular objects—or as he put it, that “all is holy and ‘big with God’…and every bush (could we but perceive it) a Burning Bush.”10 The most precious moments in life to Lewis were “when he was aware of the spiritual quality of material things, of the infusion of the supernatural into the workaday world.”11 The Anglican author A.M. Allchin has suggested that because this understanding of God’s immanence has been neglected in modern theology, deification has fallen into the background.12 Others have lamented a “false supernaturalism” that today has driven a wedge between the human and the divine by seeing grace as extrinsic to nature, thereby making the idea of human union with God implausible.13 But not so in Lewis.

In Mere Christianity, he speaks of humans making direct contact with the uncreated spiritual life of God, which he calls Zoe (in contrast to the created and natural life, Bios). This divine life is the means by which believers share in the transforming power of Christ; it is a communicable energy that can be spread into the depths of a human person by what he calls “good infection.” Instead of seeing divine grace as something external like paint that is applied to the surface of a person, Lewis sees it like a dye or stain that soaks right through.14 Implicit in Lewis’ writings is the notion of God’s essence and energies, a theological distinction in the Christian East that preserves both the transcendence and immanence of God. An image of such divine energies is found in Out of the Silent Planet, when the character Ransom, aboard a spaceship, experiences the sweet “unwounding brightness” of ethereal light that pours into his body from the heavens. Evelyn Underhill, the British author of a classic study on mysticism, once wrote a letter to Lewis in which she praised this novel and commented on the cosmic rays: “Perhaps the rays Ransom felt came more directly from the heart of God and so had a vivifying effect on those fit to receive them.”15 Underhill held a similar view of divine energies, writing elsewhere that “grace, for [St.] Paul, was no theological abstraction, but an actual inflowing energy, which makes possible man’s transition from the natural to the spiritual state.”16

With his stress on the interpenetration of the natural by the supernatural, and with his belief in human deification, perhaps it is not surprising that Lewis was featured in a chapter of a 1964 anthology called The Protestant Mystics. But in fact Lewis did not consider himself a mystic. Given the esoteric implications of the word mysticism and its relatively recent origin (coined by scholars in the late seventeenth century), a better word for Lewis’ theology is mystical. Nicholas Lossky, in his book about Lancelot Andrewes, the seventeenth-century Bishop of Winchester, could have been describing C.S. Lewis when he wrote:

The ultimate objective of the spiritual life being union with God, it could be said that the theology of Lancelot Andrewes is a mystical theology, on condition that one makes a little more precise the meaning of the term. It is not a matter, indeed, of any exceptional experience, reserved for a few, in some way outside the traditional ways of theology. It is on the contrary a matter of the interiorisation of the revealed Christian mystery, to which Andrewes calls all the baptized…. For Andrewes…this is only possible in faithfulness to what has been revealed, that is to say, within the scriptural and patristic tradition, thus, within the catholicity of the Church.17

Great Fountain of Energy
To see salvation as Lewis did—as transformation by divine energy leading to deification, and not merely justification or redemption in which Jesus “paid the price” for sinners in order to satisfy God’s justice or wrath—could be a helpful shift in perspective for some modern Christians. So argues Professor Robert Rakestraw, a scholar in the Baptist tradition who, in an Evangelical theological journal, defended the doctrine of deification for its solid scriptural foundation and its rich patristic heritage. “Rather than seeing our progressive sanctification as something done for us by God from outside…we may take a kind of quantum leap forward by understanding sanctification as the very life and energy of God in us.”18 As such, the Christian life promises to become more than merely an external moral imitation of Christ. A genuine life in Christ may become a real possibility. C.S. Lewis certainly would agree, explaining that the Christian life is something more than mental or moral; it is not just thinking about Christ or copying Christ, but means that “Christ is actually operating through [us].”19

But exactly how does Christ operate through us? And how does one acquire the “Christ-life” within? In Mere Christianity, Lewis asserts that three main ways to achieve this are baptism, belief, and Holy Communion. Although Lewis said he was puzzled that such things should convey spiritual life, he noted that “we have to take reality as it comes to us”; and he adds, “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 a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry.”20

Lewis thought that because men and women were created as physical beings, God uses material things (water, bread, wine) to infuse them with divine grace. In Christianity—which is “almost the only one of the great religions which thoroughly approves of the body”—the body as well as the soul participate in the spiritual life, and one day the rapture of the saved soul will “flow over” into the glorified body.21 Although we may not be able to conceive exactly what we will be in the next life, Lewis insists that “we may be sure that we shall be more, not less, than we were on earth.”22 In other words, deification will not come to destroy the human body but fulfill and resurrect it. Thus in Christianity, the body is not to be dismissed as an inferior prison-house of the soul as it might be in Plato or in streams of gnostic thought—including contemporary American varieties of gnosticism.23 In Lewis’ view, it is not God but the devil who despises matter and resents the mingling of spiritual things with “dirt and slime.”24

Big Medicine
A critic of the fast-food industry recently began a lecture about nutrition and public health with the provocative statement: “Food is the most important subject.”25 He was not necessarily intending to make a metaphysical statement, but he did. Christians, too, have traditionally seen food as essential to their story—in both good and bad ways. From the food that led to death in Eden, to the food of immortality in the Eucharist (John 6:48-57), eating is a crucial reality. For Lewis, Holy Communion was not only a symbol of union with God, but a genuine and concrete way to receive the good infection of divine grace; it has been called “the highest form of union with God here below, since it is physical and spiritual communion with Christ the God-man.”26 Like many of Lewis’ Christian beliefs, however, this one was an acquired taste. We are told by his biographer George Sayer that when Lewis first returned to the church in the early 1930s following his conversion, he took a rather limited view of Holy Communion, receiving it only on great holidays. But by the early 1940s—about the same time he began meeting his spiritual director regularly for confession and counsel—Lewis began to perceive the sacrament differently and to receive it weekly, finally developing a great reverence for the mystery of the Eucharist.27 In Letters to Malcolm, which was published the year of his death, Lewis spoke of Holy Communion as an experience where “the veil between the worlds” gets thin: “Here a hand from the hidden country touches not only my soul but my body…. Here is big medicine and strong magic…[and] I should define magic in this sense as ‘objective efficacy which cannot be further analyzed.’”28 Although Lewis believed that Christ’s body and blood were present in the bread and wine, he did not accept the precise medieval formula of transubstantiation (perhaps like Lancelot Andrewes he thought it verged on monophysitism), and he was reluctant to explain the eucharistic mystery. To seek to capture it with one’s mind, he said, “is like taking a red coal out of the fire to examine it: it becomes a dead coal.”29

In light of that analogy, it is instructive to remember the passage in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where the children meet a venerable Old Man living near the world’s end, a retired star named Ramandu. Every morning, Ramandu is brought a fire-berry from the valleys in the sun by a bird. The fire-berries—little coals which are too bright to look at—will take away a little of the Old Man’s age until he becomes young as a newborn child and rises again at the earth’s eastern rim to join the great dance. This episode is a case study in “making all things new,” and in it we find echoes not only of Elijah’s miraculous sustenance by the ravens who carried him bread and meat during his sojourn in the desert (I Kings 17), but also of the vision of Isaiah who saw the Lord of Hosts on a throne in the temple attended by Seraphim singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Isaiah 6), one of whom took a live coal from the altar with tongs and brought it to the prophet’s lips and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips, and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven.”

In our day, Lewis’ stress on the importance of the sacrament of Holy Communion might seem out of place in many of the fastest-growing Christian communities.30 But Lewis was adamant that eternal life must be spread not only by purely mental acts like belief, but also by bodily acts like baptism and Holy Communion. He insisted that Christianity “is not merely the spreading of an idea…[because] God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”31

The Weight of Glory
The 1941 sermon “The Weight of Glory,” preached to one of the largest modern crowds ever to assemble at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, is an important statement of Lewis’ doctrine of deification. In the sermon, Lewis equates salvation with the Biblical term glory, a word commonly used in patristic writings on deification.32 Lewis thought glory carried twin connotations of luminosity and fame that together describe the goal of human life—the first suggests a transformation of human persons by divine grace into radiant new creatures, the second a personal encounter with God in which approbation and recognition were the blessed hallmarks. One of Lewis’ favorite ways to describe this glorious acceptance by God was through the image of the dance, which hints at the order, love, and festivity of heaven. Lewis once said that one of the most important differences between Christianity and all other religions is that the Trinitarian God is not a static thing (not even a single person) but “a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life.… Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.”33 Far from irreverent, this analogy calls to mind early theologians who described the dynamic exchange of love in God as perichoresis (meaning a dance or indwelling, from which we get our word choreography). As John Meyendorff has explained, “deification or theosis of the Greek fathers is an acceptance of human persons within a divine life, which already is itself a fellowship of love between three co-eternal Persons, welcoming humanity within their mutuality.”34 Such divine welcome is what Lewis has in mind when he says, “Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”35

In this sermon Lewis makes clear how deification is connected to his cherished theory of Joy or Sehnsucht (a.k.a. longing or desire), an idea which “flashes like summer lightning through all of Lewis’s work.”36 Its importance for Lewis can hardly be overstated. “In a sense,” he wrote in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, “the central story of my life is about nothing else.”37 The theory holds that human beings are conscious of a desire that no natural happiness will satisfy. Joy, then, is the fleeting and sweetly painful experience of longing for divine or numinous beauty. From his youth, Lewis had many experiences of such spiritual longings that kept him seeking something more, like “some vague picnicker’s hankering for a ‘better’ place.”38 Deification is the capstone to his theory of Joy insofar as it explains the means by which the “old ache” of longing finally will be satisfied on that day when we are “to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to become part of it.”39 Our choice in life, Lewis says, is either “to be like God”—by sharing the divine life—or to be miserable: “If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows…then we must starve eternally.”40 Adds Lewis, “There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made.”41 Here the connection between deification and temptation becomes apparent, because human beings are drawn inevitably to lesser substitutes for happiness, immortality, or pleasure. These can become tiresome parodies of true joy, blurring our vision of more profound and otherworldly consolations: “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us…. We are far too easily pleased.”42

“The Weight of Glory” also reveals how deification is bound up with myth, because human participation in God is something “the poets and the mythologies know all about.”43 Although Lewis’ love of myth is probably most often remembered in terms of how he thought the pagan myths prefigured the dying and resurrecting Christ (e.g., Balder, Adonis, Bacchus), it is equally true that Lewis saw in myths a type of our glory and destiny as well. If Jesus Christ was the “myth that became fact,” then we, too, are myths who may one day become fact. In the “lovely falsehoods” told in stories and poems, humans get married to gods or west winds blow right into human souls. These may be false as history, but they may be quite near the truth as prophecy insofar as one day humans may pass beyond nature into the source of beauty and power that nature suggests.

Path to Perfected Humility
Several further points bear mention. First, in Lewis’ thought, deification is not a solo trip to individual bliss, but rather a corporate undertaking in Christ in which “everything that is joined to the immortal head will share His immortality.” This theme is developed masterfully by Lewis in his essay “Membership,” in which he insists that the Christian is called not to individualism nor collectivism but to membership in the mystical body.44 Neither are special feelings or emotions to be sought in the spiritual life: “It is the actual presence, not the sensation of the presence, of the Holy Ghost which begets Christ in us. The sense of the presence is a super-added gift for which we give thanks when it comes, and that’s about it.”45

Second, deification hinges upon choice and action: in short, upon human free will. Human freedom was a bedrock belief of Lewis, fundamental to the idea of what it meant to be created in the image of God, and essential to the possibility of genuine love. This is suggested in The Magician’s Nephew at the creation of Narnia when Aslan says, “Creatures, I give you yourselves.”46 Lewis thought that humans beings had been given this same gift: “The goal towards which [God] is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, can prevent Him from taking you to that goal…. He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine.”47 This goal requires that we act to love others and to keep the commandments of Christ in what Lewis calls a “good kind of pretending” or “dressing up as Christ.”48

A third point is that acquiring the life of Christ is a “process [that] will be long and in parts very painful.”49 Part of this pain comes from the necessity of self-renunciation. No one who puts his own happiness or deification in front of Christ Himself will find the path to bliss and immortality. “There must be a real giving up of the self…. Christ will indeed give you a real personality: but you must not go to Him for the sake of that.”50 It’s worth noting that Lewis saw prayer—a central spiritual discipline in the ascent toward God—as an arena for giving up of self. Only the glorified person, he says, will finally be able to pray with total delight. For now, prayer takes work and it is a duty, sometimes even an irksome and frustrating and “terribly time-wasting” one, fraught by internal and external distractions and demanding the submission of our will to God’s.51 Significantly, only when Lewis added the discipline of fasting to his habit of prayer did he find relief from obsessive sins.52 This underscored both the value of self-renunciation and the connection between the physical and the spiritual.

A final and related point is that participation in God brings not only a restoration of the knowledge of God that was lost in the Fall, but also an increase in self-knowledge—and hence it leads to ever-increasing humility and repentance. The closer one draws to the light of God, and the more perfect one becomes, the more clearly one’s sins and imperfections are illumined. This is because we are, Lewis says, “creatures whose character must be, in some respects, a horror to God, as it is, when we really see it, a horror to ourselves…and I notice that the holier a man is, the more fully he is aware of that fact.”53 Lewis distinguished between a beneficial godly sorrow leading to repentance and a self-pitying worldly sorrow leading to despair and death. He also disassociates himself from the Calvinist notion of total depravity. Still, he insisted that the moment of really seeing oneself, in its naked truth, was of inestimable importance in the spiritual life. Such were the shattering revelations of King David (“Thou art the man!”) and St. Peter (“a cock crowed”) and so many others in biblical literature and beyond—including Lewis’ Queen Orual, who, in the moving climax of Till We Have Faces, at last recognizes her life’s facades and jealousies in a moment of clarity and ecstasy.

In these terms, no one can dismiss deification as wishful thinking, escapism, pride, or self-adoration. In fact, Lewis believed that glorified human beings remained conscious of their sin and that “perfected humility” called for continual repentance. In The Problem of Pain, Lewis explains that “It may be that salvation consists not in the canceling of these eternal moments [of sin] but in the perfected humility that bears the shame forever, rejoicing in the occasion which it furnished to God’s compassion … Perhaps in that eternal moment St. Peter—he will forgive me if I’m wrong—forever denies his Master.”54 Given this, it is not surprising that Lewis came to see the practice of confessing one’s sins as an essential method in moving toward holiness—although it took him nearly a decade as a Christian to arrive at the point of seeking out a person to whom he could confess. This man was Fr. Walter Adams, an Anglican priest and monk who was 71 years old when Lewis first went to him in Oct. 1940 at the age of 42. Lewis called him his “confessor and…Father in Christ” and he met with him weekly for twelve years until Fr. Walter’s death in 1952.55 Shortly before his first appointment with this humble priest, Lewis wrote to his friend, the Anglican nun Sr. Penelope, “I am going to my first confession next week, wh[ich] will seem odd to you, but I wasn’t brought up with that sort of thing. It’s an odd experience. The decision to do so was one of the hardest I have ever made: but now I am committed.” Shortly afterward, a relieved Lewis wrote that he successfully had passed “through the wall of fire” and found himself alive and well. While Lewis valued the counsel and advice he received from his spiritual father, he thought the most crucial thing was that “the confessor is the representative of our Lord and declares His forgiveness” while holding one accountable for repentance.56

Concluding Thoughts
Such, then, is Lewis’ vision of deification. If it remains puzzling to some, it may be positively attractive to others in an age when many have left Christian churches looking for deeper enchantment. Lewis, more than merely the intellectual Oxford don he is sometimes taken to be, may prove to be a good (if unexpected) guide for such seekers given his poetic eye for divine beauty and his mystical awareness of the infusion of the supernatural into the everyday world. His recipe for spiritual life is predicated upon our hunger for an unattainable ecstasy that hovers just beyond reach—yet he urges us to bank down this secret fire with the unlikely fuel of dogma and ethics in order to make it truly blaze.57 Today, when Christian life can be conceived and lived in increasingly abstract and private terms, and when many see religious institutions as impediments to spiritual growth, Lewis suggests a solution to the popular stalemate between religion and spirituality. Indeed, these two can be happily married in the mystical theology at the heart of ancient Christianity which, in its fullness, provides the means to deification and perfect communion with God. Says one contemporary monk: “It is only because the churches do not know about or make use of these means that our young people are searching elsewhere.”58

The doctrine has further implications as well. Some see in deification grounds for greater understanding between Christians of the East and West.59 Others see it as the answer to genuine human yearnings that have run aground on the shoals of cyberspace, genetic engineering, and psychotropic drugs. In other words, amidst the endless search for technical means to personal fulfillment, the doctrine of deification reminds us of what people are made of, and what they are made to become. It both validates and redirects our perennial pursuit of happiness and perfection—an aspiration as old as Eden and as new as the cover story of the May/June 2005 issue of the Utne Reader, which asked, “Will our quest for perfection destroy us—or set us free?”60 Lewis would appreciate the implications of this question, because he knew that our deep longing for transcendence could lead us upward to the genuine freedom of deification in Christ, just as it could lead us down into the mire of frustration and decay lurking along so many ersatz paths to happiness. Lewis reminds us that our desire for joy is in accord with the fundamental pattern of reality, and that its pursuit is indeed blessed by God—provided it is transposed into the key of another world. Only beyond the shadowlands of this life will our deepest longings be fulfilled; only in the eternal dawn will we meet Glory face-to-face on that day when “we are to shine as the sun.”61 In the meantime, those who aspire to the ineffable heights of perfected humility are given this advice in the final line of Lewis’ last sermon: “Our morning prayer should be that in the Imitation: Da hodie perfecte incipere—grant me to make an unflawed beginning today, for I have done nothing yet.”62

This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.


1“The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Touchstone, 1975), p. 31. On the Socratic Club, see George Sayer’s Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis (Crossway Books, 1988), pp. 283-285.

2“Membership,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Touchstone, 1975), p. 130.

3Mere Christianity (Touchstone, 1996), p. 140. One Protestant scholar observes that deification is “practically unknown to the majority of Christians (and even many theologians) in the West” (see Robert W. Rakestraw, “Becoming Like God: An Evangelical Doctrine of Theosis,” in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40/2 (June 1997), p. 257.) An Orthodox scholar acknowledges that while deification is the religious ideal of Eastern Orthodoxy and the ultimate goal of human existence, the doctrine sometimes has been neglected in modern parish life while rationalistic or moralistic conceptions of Christianity have been stressed at the expense of sacramental and mystical dimensions. See Georgios Mantzaridis, in The Deification of Man: St. Gregory Palamas and the Orthodox Tradition, (St. Vladimir’s, 1984) p. 12, p. 129.

4See David C. Downing, Into the Region of Awe: Mysticism in C.S. Lewis, (InterVarsity, 2005), and Lyle W. Dorsett, Seeking the Secret Place: The Spiritual Formation of C.S. Lewis, (Brazos Press, 2004). The phrase “the forgotten Lewis” is used in Downing’s book (p. 11). Lewis’s doctrine of deification is affirmed by Kallistos Ware in “God of the Fathers: C.S. Lewis and Eastern Christianity,” in The Pilgrim’s Guide: C.S. Lewis and the Art of Witness, (Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 67. See also W.E. Knickerbocker, “C.S. Lewis and the Doctrine of Theosis,” which contrasts Lewis’s “Christian Myth” to the “Myth of Developmentalism” and seeks to show that Lewis’s myth offers a more satisfactory answer to human yearnings. <>
5Charles Colson, “The Prophecy of C.S. Lewis,” Nov. 29, 2004.

6St. Athanasius, in On the Incarnation, (St. Vladimir’s, 1996) offers one of the most-quoted phrases in patristic literature: “God assumed humanity that we might become God” (ch. 54). Lewis knew this book and had read it (in the Greek) before writing an introduction to a new translation published in 1944 by his friend and longtime penpal, the Anglican nun Sister Penelope. Lewis also would have encountered the idea of deification in the writings of his mentor George MacDonald, who “felt deeply the great possibility for mankind to grow into complete godlikeness, so that men shall be one with God” (qtd. in Downing, Into the Region of Awe, p. 40). It is significant that St. Athanasius’s famous quote comes in the book that it does, because deification has been described as the “flip side” of Incarnation, a doctrine which carries clues to the mystery of human union with the divine. The fathers in Chalcedon in 451 rebuffed the monophysite position holding that Christ had only a single nature (a divine nature), and instead proclaimed that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully God in two natures yet in such a way that He is still one person. His human and divine natures were united “without confusion, change, division, or separation.” This unique arrangement, the hypostatic union, becomes the pattern by which all human participation in God is understood: it is the model for union in which human nature is never swallowed up or erased by divinity, and in which the human will is submitted to the divine will. In the theology of Lancelot Andrewes, the hypostatic union also is a model for describing the union of Christ with the elements of bread and wine in the eucharistic mystery (N. Lossky, Lancelot Andrewes, p. 342).

7About deification in the Church of England, see A.M. Allchin, Participation in God: A Forgotten Strand in Anglican Tradition, (Morehouse Barlow, 1988). See also T.D. Barnes, “Augustine’s Conception of Deification,” in the Journal of Theological Studies 37/2, October 1986, pp. 370-386, and, for a Protestant perspective that observes parallels between Christological dogma, deification, and quantum theory, see F.W. Norris, in “Deification: Consensual and Cogent,” in the Scottish Journal of Theology 49/4 (1996).

8Ware, “God of the Fathers,” p. 55.

9Kenneth Leech, Experiencing God: Theology as Spirituality (Harper and Row, 1985). The author was referring here in particular to St. Symeon the New Theologian in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

10Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, (Harcourt, 1963), p. 75.

11Sayer, Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis, p. 327. For a whimsical illustration of this point, see the story of the “pog” on p. 335. On the notion of immanence, Lewis was influenced by George MacDonald, whose Phantastes struck a deep chord with Lewis as a teenager during a period of intellectual skepticism. Speaking of MacDonald, Lewis once observed, “The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, the magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live” (qtd. in Downing, Into the Region of Awe, p. 39).

12Allchin, Participation in God: A Forgotten Strand in Anglican Tradition, p. 8.

13Leech, in Experiencing God, p. 261, observes that in patristic understanding, “human nature is already deiform, that is, the divine and the human nature do not belong to wholly distinct realms.” Human nature in its original form is “open to God, open to the possibility of transformation, and so, in the joy of spiritual union, humanity is fulfilling its own natural direction.”

14Mere Christianity, p. 170, 183.

15The Letters of Evelyn Underhill, ed. by Charles Williams, (Longmans, Green and Co., 1943), p. 269. In another letter, Underhill praised Lewis’s depiction in The Problem of Pain of human beings in Paradise: “It is this capacity for giving imaginative body to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity that seems to me one of the most remarkable things about your work” (p. 301).

16Qtd. in Downing, Into the Region of Awe, p. 58.

17Nicholas Lossky, Lancelot Andrewes The Preacher (1555-1626): The Origins of the Mystical Theology of the Church of England, trans. by Andrew Louth, (Clarendon, 1991), pp. 335-336. Similar is the sentiment expressed by Kallistos Ware: “If someone asks ‘How can I become god?’ the answer is very simple: go to church, receive the sacraments regularly, pray to God ‘in spirit and truth,’ read the Gospels, follow the commandments” (The Orthodox Church, New Ed., (Penguin, 1997), p. 236).

18Rakestraw, in “Becoming Like God: An Evangelical Doctrine of Theosis,” p. 268-269, notes that two foundational texts for deification are Gen. 1:26 and II Pet. 1:4, but he also cites many others including II Cor. 3:17-18: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” Rakestraw notes that when the twentieth-century Protestant thinker Karl Barth examined the text from II Peter so often quoted by deification writers (“you might become partakers of the divine nature”), Barth claimed that it spoke of nothing more than “the practical fellowship of Christians with God and on this basis the conformity of their acts with the divine nature.”

19Mere Christianity, p. 65.

20Ibid., p. 153.

21Ibid., p. 92, and “The Weight of Glory,” p. 38.

22“Transposition,” p. 86. From the example of Jesus, we might surmise that the resurrected body will be different enough to walk through walls and to be at times unrecognizable, but similar enough to eat broiled fish and to converse with friends.

23Harold Bloom, in The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (Simon & Schuster, 1992), argues that the American religion is gnosticism and that, perhaps unwittingly, many American Christians are closer to the ancient gnostics than to early Christians. Although the term is broad, generally gnosticism suggests a religious outlook that tends to see ignorance as the fundamental human problem rather than sin and hence stresses the acquisition of special knowledge; it tends to downplay the role of community and holds that there is no higher authority than the private individual; it tends to see external or objective expressions of religion—like conventional church affiliation, creeds, dogmas, etc.—as unnecessary or as a genuine impediment to true spirituality; it tends to be dualistic in stressing the purity of spiritual things and the inherent badness of matter; it tends to stress fate over human choice and free will; and it often holds that human beings have a spark of divinity within themselves independent of the body and soul. Bloom argues that this “American Religion” is the result of revising traditional religion into a faith that better fits the national temperament, aspirations, and anxieties. Significantly, C.S. Lewis can be seen as anti-gnostic on every count.

24The Screwtape Letters, pp. 158, 17. Related to changing conceptions of the worth of the human body is Stephen Prothero’s Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America, (Univ. of Calif., 2001). Today nearly 30 percent of U.S. deaths are followed by cremation, up from 1 percent in the year 1920 and 4 percent in 1963. Prothero sees the trend stemming from factors including the privatization of religious belief coupled with a shift from one set of religious beliefs and metaphors (mostly Christian) to an alternative mix (Asian, New Age, ecological, etc.) placing less stress on the integrity of the body.

25In a lecture in May 2005 in Portland, Ore., Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, (Perennial, 2001), also observed that Americans have a “twisted, twisted” relationship with food.

26N. Lossky, Lancelot Andrewes, p. 341. Similarly, the patristic scholar Basil Krivocheine asserts, “Above all, deification is effected by partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ.” Archbishop Basil Krivocheine, In the Light of Christ: St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), (St. Vladimir’s, 1986), p. 389.

27Dorsett, Seeking the Secret Place, p. 83.

28Letters to Malcolm, p. 103.

29Ibid., p.105.

30For example, Kimon H. Sargeant, in Seeker Churches: Promoting Traditional Religion in a Nontraditional Way, (Rutgers, 2000), notes that in the burgeoning “seeker church” movement in the United States connected with the Willow Creek Association, fewer than one in ten assemblies offers communion every week, while most celebrate communion monthly or quarterly. In terms of semantics, it’s interesting to observe that although the seeker church movement may not share Lewis’s sacramental model stressing objective efficacy and good infection, it makes use of a similar metaphor with a series of events entitled “Contagious Church Conferences” in the UK and USA to help “raise excitement” and suggest effective ways to “communicate” the faith. <>
31Mere Christianity, p. 65. Some contemporary Protestant writers who endorse the idea of deification have not seen the sacramental life as essential in the way that Lewis did. For example, one who defends deification nonetheless argues that a “weakness” of traditional deification doctrine is “a heavy emphasis upon the sacraments as the primary means of theosis” (Rakestraw, p. 267).

32For example, St. Maximus the Confessor has defined deification as the work of divine grace by which human nature is so transformed that it “shines forth with a supernatural light and is transported above its own limits by a superabundance of glory” (qtd. in Leech, Experiencing God, p. 258). The title of the sermon “The Weight of Glory” is an allusion to II Cor. 4:17-18. According to The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, Ryken ed., (InterVarsity, 1998), pp. 373-374, the term “glory” (which appears 50 times in the Psalms and 170 in the New Testament) is sometimes taken as an abstraction referring to God’s greatness, but it also functions as a concrete term for the tangible presence of God in the tabernacle, the temple, and atop Mt. Sinai in the cloud and fire. That God’s glory is in some sense communicable to physical beings is suggested by the face of Moses, whose skin shone after he met with God (Exodus 34:29), or by St. Paul’s handkerchiefs and aprons, which healed the sick and drove away demons (Acts 19:12). Significantly, the Hebrew term for glory translated as the Greek doxa in the Septuagint is kbd, a word that also means gravity or heaviness.

33Mere Christianity, p. 152. The fact that Lewis calls up the dance imagery so often at the ends of his works (e.g., The Problem of Pain, Perelandra) further accents its teleological significance.

34John Meyendorff, in “Theosis in the Eastern Christian Tradition,” in Christian Spirituality III (Crossroad, 1989), p. 475.

35“The Weight of Glory,” p. 37.

36Thomas Howard, C.S. Lewis: A Man of Letters: A Reading of His Fiction, (Ignatius, 1987), p. 220.

37Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, (Harcourt, 1955), p. 17. The theory is also central to Lewis’s autobiographical account The Pilgrim’s Regress. Both works explore the temptations met in the search for the source of Joy.

38Out of the Silent Planet, p. 49.

39“The Weight of Glory,” p. 37.

40The Problem of Pain, (HarperCollins, 2001), p. 47.

41Mere Christianity, p. 153.

42“The Weight of Glory,” p. 26.

43Ibid., p. 37.

44“Membership,” in The Weight of Glory, p. 130. This paper was presented in 1945 to the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius, a group that was co-founded by Lewis’s friend Nicholas Zernov and which sought to bring Eastern and Western Christians closer together.

45See Letters to an American Lady, (Eerdmans, 1971), pp. 38-39.

46The Magician’s Nephew, p. 140.

47Mere Christianity, p. 174, 176 [italics mine]. See also chapter 13 in The Great Divorce, where Lewis calls freedom a “deeper truth” than universalism and predestination. Closely related to this was Lewis’s doctrine of synergy, following the model of St. Paul who said that we are to be fellow-workers (synergoi) with God (I Cor. 3:9). This synergy between divine grace and human will has been described memorably by a monk of the Eastern Church as “the cooperation of two unequal, but equally necessary forces” (qtd. in Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 222). Lewis once described this paradox as follows: “I don’t mean that I can therefore, as they say, ‘sit back.’ What God does for us, He does in us. The process of doing it will appear to me (and not falsely) to be the daily or hourly repeated exercises of my own will” (“A Slip of the Tongue,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, p. 142).

48Mere Christianity, p. 163. The link between deification and keeping God’s commandments is made by the patristic scholar Archbishop Basil Krivocheine, who once defined deification as “the state of man’s total transformation, effected by the Holy Spirit, when man observes the commandments of God, acquires the evangelical virtues and shares in the sufferings of Christ.” See Archbishop Basil Krivocheine, In the Light of Christ: St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), (St. Vladimir’s, 1986), p. 389. In the Philokalia, St. Mark the Ascetic says, “The Lord is hidden in His own commandments, and He is to be found there in the measure that He is sought.” See The Philokalia, Vol. 1 (Faber and Faber, 1979), p. 123. Regarding the commandment to love one’s neighbor, Lewis once wrote that “every human being, still more every Christian, has an absolute claim on me for any service I can render them without neglecting other duties” (qtd. in Dorsett, Seeking the Secret Place, p. 116). With this stress on human freedom, Lewis aligns himself with the so-called “physical view” of deification advanced by St. Athanasius and other church fathers in which all of human nature is understood to have been deified in Christ, although human persons must choose to participate in God to realize this perfection. (See George Mantzaridis, The Deification of Man, pp. 29ff.) In other words, deification has both objective and subjective dimensions. Lewis suggests this when he writes, “Humanity has been ‘saved’ in principle. We individuals have to appropriate that salvation” (Mere Christianity, p. 157). This point is sometimes expressed by the notion of both the image and likeness of God: Jesus Christ achieved the objective dimension of our salvation by bestowing upon human nature His own glory and immortality, restoring this image of God in our nature. However, as St. Diodochos of Photiki points out in the Philokalia, there remains a further subjective dimension to salvation, in which as persons we become transformed into the likeness of God: “His likeness is granted only to those who through great love have brought their own freedom in subjection to God” (“On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination,” Philokalia, pp. 253).


50Ibid., p. 191.

51See Lewis’s discussion in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, ch. xxi, etc. Lewis regularly prayed from the Book of Psalms (likely praying through all 150 Psalms each month) and from the Book of Common Prayer because he thought written or “ready-made prayers” handed down by the church kept him in touch with sound doctrine and kept him from sliding so easily into what he called the phantom of “my religion.” On his prayer life, also see Dorsett, Seeking the Secret Place, chs. 2 and 3.

52See Dorsett, Seeking the Secret Place, p. 102, and Sayer, Jack, p. 417.

53The Problem of Pain, p. 62.

54Ibid., p. 55.

55Dorsett, Seeking the Secret Place, pp. 86-88.


57The Problem of Pain, p. 153.

58Hieromonk Damascene, “The Sunrise of the East: From Eastern Religions to Eastern Orthodoxy,” The Orthodox Word (No. 190, 1996), p. 210.

59A.N. Williams, The Ground of Union: Deification in Aquinas and Palamas, (Oxford, 1999).

60Alyssa Ford, “Humanity: The Remix: Is Building a Better Human the Key to Utopia—or the World’s Most Dangerous Idea?” in Utne Reader, May/June 2005, pp. 51-56. In our day, biotechnology’s promise of ageless bodies and buoyant moods is tempting precisely because it seems to offer the perfection and happiness for which we yearn. See Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, The President’s Council on Bioethics, Oct. 2003 <>. Further, some have suggested achieving immortality through the uploading of human consciousness onto the World Wide Web to create the first “postbiological” or “transhuman” generation. Nick Bostrum, who teaches philosophy at Oxford and directs the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute, has said that “uploading the synaptic matrix of one’s brain would make backup copies of the self permanently available for downloading and thus offer the means of achieving perpetual existence” (qtd. in Brenda E. Brasher, Give Me That Online Religion, (Rutgers, 2004), p. 63). Lewis would perhaps see in this merely another example of what he called the “sweet poison of the false infinite” founded on the fear of true immortality (see Perelandra, p. 81).

61“The Weight of Glory,” p. 37.

62“A Slip of the Tongue,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, p. 142.