a river with a bridge and houses along it

What C. S. Lewis gets right and wrong in “The Weight of Glory”

My wife and I were talking about what things in our childhood prepared us to embrace our Christian faith as adults. We both agreed that C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia played a big role in “baptizing our imaginations.”

I was baptized when I was 14. It was a genuine profession of faith, even if (like St. Anselm) my faith still had much knowledge after which to seek. My “Anselm” moment came in college, over the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. That summer I was taking a summer course in Spanish and happened to find a copy of Lewis’s The Case for Christianity in the college co-op. I read it one afternoon, and, upon putting it down said to myself, “Now I know what I already believe.”

As I discovered later, the publisher had reissued the first two chapters of Lewis’s larger work, Mere Christianity as The Case for Christianity. These first two chapters (“Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe” and “What Christians Believe”) were transcripts of his famous radio addresses on the BBC to the British public to bolster morale during World War II.

The Case became my go-to. The Case was so convincing to me that I was sure anyone else who read it would be equally convinced. I even convinced the rector of my church to buy me a case of The Case so that I could give away copies. My M.O. was to strike up a conversation, give my mark a copy, and then have lunch with him after he’d read it. I am not lying when I say that several professions of faith and baptisms resulted. It was a heady time. I thought evangelism was always this easy.

But I also noticed something. The Case didn’t work on everyone. Many, perhaps most, were unconvinced. Over the years I’ve repeated my college efforts, but never with the same results. I even scoured Amazon and eBay to find second-hand copies, since it’s now out of print. Often, it’s been handed back to me with nothing more than a, “Huh. Interesting.”

Huh. Interesting? Here was the book that explained my faith perfectly to me, in “clear and compelling reasoning from the master apologist.” How could it not convert everyone?

Here’s what I discovered. Lewis only convinces those who already believe. If you’re already a believer, then Lewis is your guy. If you’re already a believer and do not know that you’re a believer, Lewis is especially your guy. Like a magician, he will reveal you to yourself. But if you don’t believe, Lewis will never convince you. That’s because he makes assumptions about fallen man and his ability to hear the gospel that are not true and that are not warranted by Scripture.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in his celebrated essay, “The Weight of Glory.” Preached originally as a sermon in June of 1942 at Oxford University, its subject is perfect for Ascension Day.

Glory, or more technically, glorification, is a much-neglected part of the Ordo Salutis, the order of salvation. We rightly focus on election, calling, faith, regeneration, repentance, justification, and sanctification, but our final state is left somewhat vague. It is good then that Lewis devoted such a thoughtful essay to glory.

But he makes a critical mistake, one that shows up in The Case for Christianity as well, and one that I think robs his apologetic of the power to reach unbelievers. In short, he assumes a common ground between believer and unbeliever that isn’t there. He then attempts to reason from it, towards conversion, but because it isn’t there, his speech is equivocal, and his arguments do not land. In other words, his target audience isn’t hearing him. It can’t hear him.

But before we tackle the reason why, I need to say that Lewis gets many things right in this essay, so much so that it’s worth listing them and noting what they tell us about glory.

What Lewis gets right

1. Negative substitution diminishes virtue.

At the beginning of his essay, Lewis compares contemporary signals of virtue to those of Christian yesteryear. “If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness.”((C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 25.)) In the past, the great Christians of old would have replied, love. As Lewis puts it, “A negative term has been substituted for a positive.”((Lewis, Weight of Glory, 25.))

Negative substitution is rampant today. For instance, we are compelled now to be antiracist, which is a negative substitution for the old exhortation to be in love and charity with our neighbors.

Lewis tell us that glory is a positive substitution for sin.

2. Christians should be motivated by reward.

Lewis rightly asserts that Christians should be motivated by heavenly reward. To be sure, Christians are told to take up their crosses and obediently follow Christ, but in “nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.”((Ibid., 26.))

“If there lurks,” Lewis writes, “in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.”((Ibid.)) “It would seem,” he continues, “that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak.”((Ibid.))

Lewis exhorts us to want glory for ourselves, and to want it very much.

3. Reward is the consummation of desire.

For the man who loves, marriage to his sweetheart is the reward and consummation of his desire. The gigolo marries a woman for her money. Here, Lewis distinguishes between proper and improper rewards. A general who fights battles for pay or to win a peerage is a mercenary, but a general who fights to win wars for his country achieves his desire in victory. “The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.”((Ibid., 27.))

For the believing Christian, glory is not tacked onto obedience, it is obedience in its final state.

4. Nostalgia is cheating.

Lewis was, I suspect, prone to nostalgia, to wandering the old paths that lead to old villages and old pubs. Having followed that course one too many times is when, I suspect, he finally found the old village church as well.

“But all this is a cheat,” he writes with perfect accuracy, “it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.”((Ibid., 30.)) There are no old paths, no old villages, and no old churches. There never were. “If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering.”((Ibid.))

And St. Paul tells us: “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”((2 Corinthians 2:9.))

We do not, in fact, know what our glory will be like. Or, as St. John puts it, “it doth not yet appear what we shall be.”((1 John 3:2.)) But we do know that it is something to be revealed, not remembered.

5. We are enchanted by a spell that needs to be broken.

Lewis says that the twin spells of “Progress” and “Creative Evolution” need to be broken. “You and I,” Lewis writes, “have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years… almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.”((Lewis, Weight of Glory, 31.))

In other words, we will not evolve into our glory.

6. The senility of the sun.

Many good Christians are in a panic over what is being called AI, artificial intelligence.((Paul Kingsnorth, “The Universal” (The Abbey of Misrule, April 13, 2023), https://paulkingsnorth.substack.com/p/the-universal.)) Their fears are not unfounded, yet Lewis would set their fears at rest: “…as if we could believe that any social or biological development on this planet will delay the senility of the sun or reverse the second law of thermodynamics.”((Lewis, Weight of Glory, 32.))

Lewis reminds us that after the universe dies, glory will remain.

7. Scriptural imagery has authority.

Here Lewis reveals himself as the reluctant convert, and still not quite the biblical Christian: “The natural appeal of this authoritative imagery is to me, at first, very small. At first sight it chills, rather than awakes, my desire. And that is just what I ought to expect.”((Ibid., 33.))

His reluctance is on display in this sentence. It’s also telling that he cannot bring himself to say that Scripture itself has authority, preferring to remain in his comfort zone of imagery and the imaginary.

But he is as right as he will be in this whole essay when he writes in the next sentence, “If Christianity could tell me no more of the far-off land than my own temperament led me to surmise already, then Christianity would be no higher than myself. If it has more to give me, I must expect it to be less immediately attractive than ‘my own stuff.’”((Ibid., 33-34.))

At first, glory does not seem appealing.

8. The puzzling and the repellent conceal what we need to know.

Lewis knows his “own stuff” won’t pass muster. Neither will your stuff or my stuff. That’s because they begin with us, and being subjective, they necessarily end with us. Entirely self-contained, we are unintelligible to each other.

Lewis excels at supplying the needed objectivity to make things coherent. In The Case for Christianity, he argues: “But the most remarkable thing is this. Whenever you find a man who says he doesn’t believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he’ll be complaining ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson.”((C. S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity (New York: Collier Books, 1989), 5.))

However, Lewis knows that the real objective deposit of faith is not in getting your fellow man to agree on something you can both understand, like fairness. The real objective deposit of faith is to be found in the things you’re likely not to agree on, like the Holiness Code in Leviticus 18.

Lewis writes, “If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it 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.”((Lewis, Weight of Glory, 34.))

Glory is hidden in the law.

What Lewis gets wrong

Now comes the difficult part, articulating what I think Lewis gets wrong and why.

1. He gets wrong that we are “made for heaven.”

Lewis writes touchingly of an “inconsolable secret in each one of you — the secret that hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence.”((Ibid., 29-30.)) Lewis describes this inconsolable secret as our longing for a “far off country,”((Ibid., 29, 31, 33.)) a “shy, persistent, inner voice” (that is crushed by modern education).((Ibid., 31.))

Lewis attributes this secret longing to something inherent in us, something good — or, least, the desire for something good — that has somehow survived our expulsion from Paradise and our subsequent corruption. This something is felt as a kind of downward pressure, a heaviness, the weight after which he titles his essay, a glory which should be ours. Lewis writes, “Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will already be in us.”((Ibid., 29.))

The problem is that this desire is lacking in many, if not most people. The problem is not, as Lewis continues, that our heavenly desire is “not yet attached to the true object,”((Ibid.)) but that the wicked have no such desire at all. The wicked are not made for heaven, for “there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie.”((Revelation 21:27.))

Again and again, Scripture stresses the separation between the righteous and the unrighteous, the just and the wicked.((See 1 Cor. 6:9-10, 2 Cor. 6:17, James 4:4, John 8:44, Matt. 13:30, Matt. 13:49-50, Matt. 25:41, Matt. 3:12, Prov. 13:20, Rev. 2:2, Rev. 20:10, Rev. 21:27, Rev. 21:8, Rev. 22:14-15.)) The problem is not that the unrighteous desire the good but in the wrong way, but that they hate the good and love evil. The Psalmist says, “The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.”((Psalm 58:3.)) St. Paul writes, “what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?”((2 Corinthians 6:14.))

Darkness is not light shining in the wrong place or on the wrong thing, it is not light at all. It is the utter absence of light. Evil is not misdirected goodness, it is the utter lack of good, not good at all, and good for nothing.((See Matthew 5:13.)) This is the present state of our world. St. John says, “the whole world lieth in wickedness.”((1 John 5:19.))

This is one reason why Lewis’s apologetic does not work on many people. He appeals to faculties unbelievers simply do not possess. Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”((John 3:3.))

If you’re convinced by Lewis, you’re already born again.

2. Lewis robs himself of the assurance of his salvation.

Lewis writes, “we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? ‘Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread.’”((Lewis, Weight of Glory, 32.))

What Lewis does here is start with a born-again believer’s desire for God and then quenches it. Stunningly, he goes on to argue:

“A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will.((Ibid., 32-33, emphasis added.))

Lewis seems to be saying that his longing for God is not proof that he will one day enjoy Him.

By contrast, David is confident that,

“Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks : so longeth my soul after thee, O God.

My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God : when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?”((Psalm 42:1-2 (Coverdale).))

The question for a born-again believer, like David, is not if he will enjoy heaven, but when.

3. Lewis conflates ethical and ontological glory.

It seems to me that Lewis conflates the glory of one day being a perfect likeness of God with the glory of God’s uncreated Being, a glory that belongs to God alone and that the creature can never possess or know, except by way of analogy. That analogy is the moral and ethical perfection of the creature, as revealed in the law. This was true in Paradise, it is true now, and it will be true for eternity. Instead, Lewis writes of a desire to be “united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”((Lewis, Weight of Glory, 42.))

In perhaps the most memorable turn of phrase in the whole essay, Lewis writes,

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.”((Ibid., 45.))

This is theosis, or the deification of believers. (The corollary is, necessarily, the demonization of the damned, which Lewis alludes to immediately above.) In other words, for Lewis, glorification is the process of becoming more and more real, a deeper and deeper participation in reality itself, or, to personalize it (as I think Lewis would), in the Real One Himself.

I wish Lewis had reflected more on Romans 1, especially verses 22 and 23: “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.”((Romans 1:22-23.))

Lewis avoids outright idolatry by writing, “you must not think that I am putting forward any heathen fancy of being absorbed into Nature. Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her.”((Lewis, Weight of Glory, 42-43.)) I am glad he says this of Nature herself but what he writes next betrays in him a hope that he will nevertheless be absorbed into Nature’s God: “We are summoned to pass in through Nature, beyond her, into that splendour which she fitfully reflects.”((Ibid., 44.))

Lewis has exchanged the glory of the creature for that of the Creator, of created, analogous being for the uncreated I AM. This is not a glory that he (nor we) can ever have.

Further reflections

Had Lewis reflected more on Romans 1, he would have understood that it is not the longing for a far-off country called heaven that is innate in every man. Rather, it is the knowledge of God’s law which is innate in every man, even in unbelievers. Furthermore, he would have understood that this knowledge of God is something that every man, woman, and child works actively to repress, to their own condemnation, unless they are arrested by God’s grace from doing so.

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;

Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.

For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”((Romans 1:18-21.))

The pain of nostalgia, romanticism, or of adolescence is not the misdirected (yet somehow still pure) longing for God. It is the sting of God’s curse. Its strength comes from sin.((1 Corinthians. 15:56.)) The only remedy is Christ’s blood.

I have to admit that Lewis’s reasoning worked well for me for many years. The refrain of “Farther up and Further in!” in The Last Battle is the rallying cry of Lewis’s apologetic. According to his method, we are born at one end, the far end, on the spectrum of Being, and those of us who are called (and heed the call) realize our potential the further up this chain we go. Lewis is here to help you ascend.

But such reasoning is not biblical and is reminiscent of the creative evolution Lewis rejects. St. Peter tells us that we have an “inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven.”((1 Peter 1:4.)) The inheritance is ready, kept for us safe and sound. It is an inheritance fit for a creature, not the Creator. It too is created. It is the new heaven and the new earth.((There will, no doubt, be much to do in the New Creation: “Yet even in that future age we will still be creatures and therefore temporal. God alone is eternal.” See: Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2 (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Pub. Association, 2004), 436.)) I think this is where the logic of Ascension Day can anchor us a bit, especially if we’re prone to flights of fancy.

Hebrews tells us that this man, Jesus, “after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God.”((Hebrews 10:12.)) In other words, He has reached His place of rest. There is no further to go. And “by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.”((Hebrews 10:14.))

That perfection has to do with God’s approval, His affirmation, even His praise of His likeness in us. Here, Lewis again gets it right:

“To please God… to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness… to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.”((Lewis, Weight of Glory, 39.))

Unfortunately, he leaves the divine happiness up to us. For Lewis, it is our choice, determined by the genuineness our desire for God, that will lead us to glory. He writes, “The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.”((Ibid., 41.))

But surely Lewis knew (or knows by now) that it is Christ who stands at the door and knocks, not us. Jesus says:

“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.”((Revelation 3:20-21.))

There it is again, the idea of rest, of sitting with Christ on His throne and not of endless getting farther up and going further in. We really will arrive.

And so too, I’ve arrived at the end of this sermon. But I need to ask and answer one last question: why should Lewis, and many others, find theosis (or deification) so attractive? It is, after all, a mainstay of the Eastern Church. Some say it is taught by Rome, others even by Calvin.((Michael Horton, “When We Become Beautiful,” Modern Reformation, March 1, 2023, https://modernreformation.org/resource-library/articles/when-we-become-beautiful/.)) Why the desire to be partakers of uncreated Being when God has so graciously restored His likeness in us who believe?

I suspect the answer is as mundane as it is sinful. It is the desire to be as gods, knowing good and evil.((Genesis 3:5.)) To be autonomous. To become a law unto ourselves.

That is a glory too weighty for me to bear. I am glad God will never let me.

Preached on May 18, 2023, Ascension Day, at St. Peter’s Lithgow, Millbrook, New York.


  • Jake Dell

    The Rev. Jake Dell is the Priest-in-Charge of St. Peter’s Lithgow in Millbrook, New York. He is a member of the board of the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion-USA.