Screwtape uses this letter to answer a question Wormwood has asked recently: if, as Screwtape has insisted, all beings are by nature in competition with each other, then how can God be said to love humanity, as Screwtape has also insisted? Screwtape begs Wormwood not to show his letters to anyone else, since he could face charges of heresy even for suggesting that beings are not by nature in competition. Screwtape also apologizes for his “jocular” references to Slubgob, and again asks Wormwood to keep his letters private.
We open on an unusual note: instead of offering sage advice to Wormwood, as he usually does, Screwtape now seems desperate and subservient, terrified that he could be punished for “heresy.” It’s clear that Screwtape has erred from devilish doctrine in suggesting that God loves humans. This points to what Lewis sees as a fundamental contradiction in the devils’ position: they can’t accept the existence of disinterested love (what God feels for humans, and wants humans to feel for him and each other) without undermining their whole worldview of eat-or-be-eaten. By suggesting that devils can be persecuted for heresy, Lewis cleverly takes a traditional attack on Christianity—that it’s repressive to all other ideologies—and pins it on the opposition.
Screwtape revises his opinion of God. God does not really love humans, he now insists. It would be impossible for God to love humans, since God is a being, and thus in competition with all other beings of the universe. Therefore, God’s love must be a pretext for some other desire. This would explain why God causes so much trouble for humanity.
Screwtape backpedals with little success. He’s already explained, very concisely, that God wants to help his creations—to now say that God has ulterior motives or wants to hurt humans is unconvincing. God is a mystery to Screwtape, since devils are incapable of feeling love.
Screwtape explains that it was the ambiguity in God’s reasons for creating mankind that first led “Our Father,” Satan, to rebel against God. God gave a “cock and bull” explanation about “disinterested love.” Because Satan refused to accept this explanation, he was banished from Heaven. In general, devils do not understand exactly what God means by “love” for humanity. There have been thousands of theories about what God’s true intentions for humanity might be, but none of these theories have ever been confirmed.
Devils have struggled to understand God’s definition of love since the beginning of time. While readers are supposed to laugh at their confusion—it’s should be obvious to us that God loves everyone, plain and simple—we’re also supposed to identify with devils, at least a little. Just as Screwtape can’t understand God’s plan in all its complexity, so humans can never grasp the extent of God’s wisdom, and must accept that his plans for humanity are often incomprehensible.
Screwtape notes that Wormwood has complained that Screwtape has not explained whether love is a desirable state for a human or not. Screwtape explains that there is no right answer to this question—the only thing that matters is whether or not a human is moving toward Satan or away from him. He adds that it would be “quite a good thing” to make the patient decide that love is either good or bad.
It’s a little more difficult than usual to interpret Lewis’s true meaning in this passage, because Screwtape is still backpedaling and disguising his true beliefs—in this sense, we’re three times removed from what Lewis himself believes. One way of resolving this problem is to remember Lewis’s fondness for the doctrine of the mean. Thus, romantic love is neither inherently good nor bad—it’s somewhere in the middle.
The patient might decide that love is bad, Screwtape suggests. If this is the case, then he will live a lonely, ascetic lifestyle. If, on the other hand, the patient decides that love is inherently good, then he will overflow with passion for other women, and hopefully, will ruin his life with a murder or a suicide. Better yet, the patient could be induced to marry someone. While marriage is God’s invention, it can be useful for devils. There are certain brides who would corrupt the patient and make him hate Christianity. Screwtape concludes his letter by reminding Wormwood that love is neither inherently good nor bad for devils—love is simply a state, like health, peace, or illness, that both God and Satan try to exploit.
Lewis shows how either the unconditional rejection or acceptance of love in one’s life can be harmful. There are plenty of people one could fall in love with who could do harm to a person’s soul, but by the same logic, rejecting love altogether leads one to misery. Moderation in love is Lewis’s implicit alternative to a life lived with too extreme or too little love. And yet this conclusion may reflect Screwtape’s backtracking, not Lewis’s sincere opinion. Lewis probably believes that humans should love God unconditionally and love other human beings in moderation.