The Screwtape Letters

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Freedom, Will, and Sin Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Proving Christianity True by Exploring Evil Theme Icon
Religion and Reason Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
Freedom, Will, and Sin Theme Icon
Fashion, Progress, and Change Theme Icon
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Freedom, Will, and Sin Theme Icon

Early on in The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape explains the challenges that human beings face in their lives. God has created humans to be deeply flawed—they have imperfect knowledge of the world and of themselves, they are foolish and irrational, and they often disrespect God. Humanity’s imperfection, Screwtape maintains, is a consequence of its freedom.

In Christian theology, humans are unique insofar as they have free will. While free will is a notoriously difficult concept to define (even Lewis doesn’t try to do so in The Screwtape Letters), one useful “test” of free will was proposed by the important Christian thinker Saint Augustine: if a being commits a wrongful act, the act can only be considered a “sin” if the being, placed under identical circumstances, could have behaved any other way. If the being was incapable of doing anything else, then it follows that the being was not truly “free,” and thus had no choice but to disrespect God.

Because humans have free will, they are constantly vacillating between good and evil, or between God and Satan. Screwtape and Wormwood cannot “force” the patient to do anything, because forcing the patient to behave a certain way would mean that he has not acted freely, and therefore not really sinned. Both God and Satan can only “encourage” the patient to behave a certain way—whether the patient will embrace good or evil is ultimately up to him. While humans’ free will makes them weak and prone to temptation, Screwtape grudgingly admits that free will is also a major problem for devils. Because humans face constant temptation, God respects and rewards them for resisting it throughout their lives. In this way, humans can only redeem themselves and go to Heaven because they are free—if humans had no choice but to be good, there would be nothing impressive about their actions or voluntary about their love.

In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis implicitly asks an important question about free will: if humans, being free, are constantly being encouraged to do good and evil by God and Satan, respectively—in other words, if they’re constantly moving between virtue and sin—then how is it possible for humans to make any real progress toward Heaven? Won’t good behavior always be canceled out by sinful behavior?

While Lewis acknowledges that it’s impossible for any human being to behave with perfect virtue, he thinks it’s extremely important that human beings try to behave this way. This is why the human will is of the utmost importance to Lewis. Screwtape points out that a human’s will is the “closest thing” to his being, followed by his intellect. Screwtape explains that a devil must tempt a human to will evil—in other words, to commit evil actions. By the same logic, God wants human beings to behave morally—in other words, to be able to point to their moral actions, not just their moral thoughts. By translating will into action, humans can “train” themselves to behave morally in the future, ensuring that their behavior is much closer to perfect good than perfect evil.

Ultimately, Lewis concludes that freedom is humanity’s greatest weakness, but also its greatest strength. While freedom may allow humans to sin, and thus go to Hell, it also allows them to overcome their sins, train themselves to commit moral actions, and go to Heaven.

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Freedom, Will, and Sin Quotes in The Screwtape Letters

Below you will find the important quotes in The Screwtape Letters related to the theme of Freedom, Will, and Sin.
Preface Quotes

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.

Related Characters: C.S. Lewis (speaker)
Page Number: IX
Explanation and Analysis:

In the preface to his book, C.S. Lewis makes an interesting point about devils, and about evil in general. Lewis argues that humans make a mistake when they deny the existence of devils (and evil more broadly)--it's easier for devils to manipulate human beings when human beings don't know what's manipulating them. But on the other hands, it's almost as bad when humans are too interested in devils. Their interest suggests a general attraction to evil, and this attraction itself is, of course, evil.

Lewis's observations are interesting because they establish a reason for the format of his book. Lewis wants to write about devils, but he doesn't want to convey too much shock or awe in association with them. In other words, Lewis writes about devils in a light, comic tone, portraying his characters as petty, obnoxious, and frequently clumsy. In such a way, Lewis avoids falling into the trap he details in the quotation—nobody could read Screwtape and walk away feeling an "excessive and healthy interest" in evil—Lewis shows evil to be second-rate in every way.


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Letter II Quotes

He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His "free" lovers and servants—"sons" is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to "do it on their own". And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember, there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , God
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Screwtape discusses God's "plan." Although he phrases his analysis negatively, it's clear from the reader's perspective that Lewis himself thinks of God positively—the more a devil is supposed to hate something, the more we the readers are supposed to like it.

Screwtape chooses to focus on the principle of free will here. Humans are born in a state of uncertainty: they have the option to embrace God or embrace evil. On one hand, devils have a great advantage over humans: because of their state of limbo, humans can easily be drawn toward the path of evil. But on the other hand, the fact that humans have free will means that when they do choose to embrace God, God is more pleased with the achievement, and offers greater love as a reward.

Letter V Quotes

But that is where He is so unfair. He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophistical ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew. Consider too what undesirable deaths occur in wartime. Men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy's party, prepared. How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition!

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , God
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Lewis offers his own interpretation of Christianity (one that's by no means shared by all Christians). As Lewis sees it, God rewards human beings who sacrifice their lives for a cause they believe to be noble and good, even if God himself considers the cause immoral. In this way, humans who die in battle with good intentions may go to Heaven, no matter which side they're fighting for.

The passage further suggests that most hospitals, in spite of their reputation for kindness and mercy, endanger the souls of human beings by depriving them of the religious care they desperately need, and by lying to them about their true condition. Paradoxically, it's better (in terms of the state of one's soul) for a human being to die in the army than in a modern hospital—at least the army provides chaplains and priests to listen to soldiers' final confessions before they die.

Letter VIII Quotes

He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures, whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , God , Satan
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Screwtape paints a picture of the universe as God wants it, and as the Devil wants it. Screwtape describes God's world as loathsome and insufferable (although in rather poetic language), though from the reader's perspective it's perfectly clear that God's world is the desirable one, and the Devil's world the loathsome one. As Screwtape says, God gives human beings free will so that they can be "separate" and yet "united" with God: a human who is born in a state of uncertainty and yet chooses to worship God has fulfilled God's plan for him.

In the passage, Lewis cleverly refutes some of the most common objections to the Christian worldview. It's been suggested that Christianity is unimaginative and tyrannical, since it demands that all humans join together in slavish worship of God. Yet Lewis argues that the opposite is true: the Devil wants to pull all human beings to Hell (and, Lewis suggests, eat them), while God wants humans to worship him, but he doesn't want to dominate his own creations. Rather, he gives human beings the gift of free will, so that they'll always be separate and "free" from his control. In choosing God, they actually become more free and more personally fulfilled.

Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , God
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

As the quotation makes clear, God offers the handsomest rewards to the human beings who continue to obey him even when all comforting emotion and faith has disappeared. (The quote is also a reference to Jesus's words on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?") God brings humans into the world in a state of doubt because he wants humans to choose to worship him, using their powers of free will. An angel who's been created for the purpose of serving God simply isn't as impressive as a human who chooses to do the same—the former has an easy choice, while the latter has a difficult one. This quote in particular emphasizes the ideal of will—it's easy to obey God when one is filled with feelings of faith, love, and satisfaction, but when it seems that God has abandoned the Christian, then it's only his will and conviction that can keep him faithful.

In a broader sense, then, Screwtape, Wormwood, and the other devils are really a crucial part of God's plan for humanity. If the most admired and loved human being is one who continues to obey God even despite doubt and temptation, then Screwtape is crucial to humanity's progress toward Heaven. By making humans doubt God, Screwtape only "sweetens" God's victory when humans eventually see the truth about Christianity.

Letter XII Quotes

Obviously you are making excellent progress. My only fear is lest in attempting to hurry the patient you awaken him to a sense of his real position. For you and I, who see that position as it really is, must never forget how totally different it ought to appear to him. We know that we have introduced a change of direction in his course which is already carrying him out of his orbit around the Enemy; but he must be made to imagine that all the choices which have effected this change of course are trivial and revocable. He must not be allowed to suspect that he is now, however slowly, heading right away from the sun on a line which will carry him into the cold and dark of utmost space.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , The patient
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Screwtape insists that Wormwood mustn't be too hasty in drawing the patient toward the path of evil. If the patient moves toward evil too quickly, he'll realize he's becoming evil, "wise up," and return to Christianity. In short, the more quickly successful Wormwood is the less successful he'll be in the long-run.

The passage establishes that the deck is stacked against Screwtape and the other devils. Humans have a natural instinct to embrace good and righteousness, and God wants them to turn to him—it's this instinct that would prevent the patient from joining with evil too rapidly.

The image of the patient traveling through space is also a potent one, and a reflection of the idea that Heaven and Hell aren't necessarily places, but are states of closeness to God. Heaven is blissful and beautiful because it involves being near to God, while Hell is torture because it means being alone in the "cold and dark of utmost space."

Letter XIV Quotes

Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes, but that is not the point. The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , The patient
Page Number: 70-71
Explanation and Analysis:

Along with defending Christianity, Lewis also uses The Screwtape Letters to voice many of his opinions about the problems with society and its view of religion. One of these issues is the idea of humility—many people think that being humble means being self-deprecating, even when to do so is untruthful. But as Screwtape explains, God never said he wanted human beings to deny their own talents—and yet it's often assumed that this is precisely what "good Christians" are expected to do. In reality, God tells humans to celebrate themselves, and yet accept that they are not the "owners" of their own talents. Nobody "makes" their own intelligence, strength, or good health—only God can give such gifts to his own creations. As always, Lewis stresses that humility—true humility, not the typical caricature of humility—is the obvious truth: nobody could argue that Albert Einstein was in any way responsible for his own genius, but also no one would argue that Einstein should have pretended he was stupid. Therefore, it's the devils' job to confuse humans, preventing them from seeing the obvious truth.

Letter XV Quotes

Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead. Do not think lust an exception. When the present pleasure arrives, the sin (which alone interests us) is already over. The pleasure is just the part of the process which we regret and would exclude if we could do so without losing the sin; it is the part contributed by the Enemy, and therefore experienced in a Present. The sin, which is our contribution, looked forward.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , God
Page Number: 76-77
Explanation and Analysis:

Through the character of Screwtape, Lewis argues that sin is almost always rooted in thoughts of the future. Humans have a natural instinct to do the right thing—don't hurt other people, don't steal, etc. The only way for humans to justify their sins to themselves is to think ahead to the future. (For example, one could rationalize stealing from a store on the grounds that the "payoff" for the theft outweighs the guilt one feels in the moment.) Evil, then, is both rational and irrational: humans sin because they can convince themselves that somewhere down the line, their evil will be balanced out with good. Yet in sinning, humans are ignoring the most basic and logical thought process imaginable: the notion that one shouldn't do things that make one feel bad.

Letter XXVIII Quotes

The truth is that the Enemy, having oddly destined these mere animals to life in His own eternal world, has guarded them pretty effectively from the danger of feeling at home anywhere else. That is why we must often wish long life to our patients; seventy years is not a day too much for the difficult task of unravelling their souls from Heaven and building up a firm attachment to the earth. While they are young we find them always shooting off at a tangent.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , The patient
Page Number: 155-156
Explanation and Analysis:

Screwtape makes the argument that older, more confident people are easier to corrupt than younger, more innocent people. At a young age, human beings feel a natural desire to be close to God in Heaven—in other words, they have an easier time grasping the basic moral truths of the world, and they feel a sense of discomfort on Earth, a longing for something more. As humans grow up, however, they become more and more attached to their lives on the Earth, and thus more narrow-minded and worldly.

Lewis steers his readers toward the strange idea that life isn't all that good for human beings. The longer humans spend on the Earth, the easier it becomes for devils to corrupt them to Satan's point of view. The goal of one's life on Earth is to increase one's love for God by living a happy, moral life. Most of the usual benefits of having a long life—making money, becoming famous, etc.—are just distractions from the salvation of the soul, the only thing that ultimately matters to a human being.

Letter XXIX Quotes

There is here a cruel dilemma before us. If we promoted justice and charity among men, we should be playing directly into the Enemy's hands; but if we guide them to the opposite behaviour, this sooner or later produces (for He permits it to produce) a war or a revolution, and the undisguisable issue of cowardice or courage awakes thousands of men from moral stupor.

This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy's motives for creating a dangerous world—a world in which moral issues really come to the point.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , God
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

Through the character of Screwtape, Lewis answers one of the most basic criticisms of Christianity—"If God is perfect, why is the world a dangerous place?" Screwtape begins by giving a reason why it's so difficult for devils to successfully corrupt human beings. On one hand, devils sometimes try to promote chaos and violence among human beings, hoping that an atmosphere of fear and death will promote greater evil. The problem is that in such a time, a larger proportion of humans will demonstrate their bravery and loyalty by recognizing the wicked state of affairs and revolting against it, thereby undermining the original purpose of the devils' plans. No matter what course of action devils take, then, humans will tend to behave morally and go to Heaven.

Screwtape is perceptive enough to realize that God created the world to be a dangerous place precisely so that human beings could prove their loyalty to him. God offers the greatest rewards to the humans who continue to believe in him, in spite of danger—therefore, a flawed, chaotic world is a good one, since it gives humans opportunities to prove their faith.

Letter XXXI Quotes

If only we could find out what He is really up to! Alas, alas, that knowledge, in itself so hateful and mawkish a thing, should yet be necessary for Power! Sometimes I am almost in despair. All that sustains me is the conviction that our Realism, our rejection (in the face of all temptations) of all silly nonsense and claptrap, must win in the end.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , God
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

At various points in the book, Screwtape has shown faint signs of believing in Christianity: for example, he can't reconcile the notion that God loves humanity with the notion that love is loathsome or impossible. Screwtape is a perfectly logical creature, meaning that he should be able to see that Christianity is the only logical doctrine. The reason why Screwtape can never be a Christian, however, is that he's incapable of understanding love. As he sees it, the universe is all about competition: one person's victory is always another person's defeat.

In this quotation, Screwtape seems to long for some understanding of God—suggesting, perhaps, that even Devils aspire to go to Heaven. But of course, Screwtape can never really embrace God, because he clings to his belief that Realism--the belief that the world is a competition, with winners and losers--is the truth.

Interestingly, Lewis never really tries to disprove Screwtape's Realism. One could say that Realism is a premise of Screwtape's argument, used to prove other points, but impossible to prove or disprove in and of itself. By the same token, it's impossible to prove that love exists—and yet if you believe in the premise of love (as almost all human beings do, Lewis hopes), then Christianity follows as the logical next step.