Spiritual Sins Are Worse
Lewis ends the chapter “Sexual Morality” with a remarkable assertion: “…a cold self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute” (p. 95). Why does Lewis consider spiritual sins to be worse than sins of the flesh? What is Lewis’s view of the proper role of sexuality, pleasure, and chastity for Christians?
The Cardinal (or Deadly) Sins are frequently separated into cold hearted and warm hearted sins. The warm-hearted sins—that include gluttony and lust—are generally thought of as more physical than spiritual. The cold-hearted sins, by contrast, are more deliberate, more deep-rooted, and more cruel. This thinking underlies Lewis’s view of sins of flesh, including sexual sin.
Lewis saw Dante as one of the greatest Christian writers of all time, and he would agree with Dante’s view of the relative seriousness of various states of sin. Dante places the sin of lust at one of the higher levels of the cone of hell (The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Canto V), and sees lust in its simplest form (i.e. when it not compounded with more serious sins like cruelty and treachery) as a kind of incontinence. He presents it as the least hateful of the deadly sins. The most terrible sins—those punished at the lower levels of Dante’s hell—are those involving maliciousness, cruelty and betrayal.
Lewis’s most powerful depiction of sin is The Great Divorce. It is tale rather than a work of realistic fiction, and it recounts a “dream” the narrator has about hell, heaven, and the nature of choice. The narrator sees a variety of sinners who have died unredeemed journeying from the Grey Town (a representation of hell) to the outskirts of heaven. These “Ghosts” are talked to by Solid People from heaven, and it seems that they are being given the opportunity to repent and to remain in heaven. But most of them cannot even recognize their sinfulness much less repent of it. What the narrator’s dream shows him is a reenactment of choices that had been made long ago—the choice of self and sin that is so deep and so defining that the gracious pleading of the Solid People cannot penetrate the bondage and blindness—at least in the case of most of them.
There is one definite exception. The Ghost whose sin is lust provides the only instance in which sin is represented by an external thing. This man is tormented by a small red lizard clinging tenaciously to his shoulder. A flaming spirit—so bright he can barely be looked at—is trying patiently to help him. This angelic creature asks repeatedly for the man’s permission to kill the lizard. The tortured man is terrified of the pain this will involve, but he finally, in desperation, agrees. The heavenly “Burning One” rips the lizard from the man’s shoulder and destroys it. The man, in agony, thinks he’s “done for”—but he is not. The lizard, though first killed, rises transformed in to a glorious stallion that the redeemed man mounts and rides off on, to the glorious brightness of heaven’s “everlasting morning” (Chapter 11). The stallion is the energy of redeemed sexuality. A sexuality that was initially hellish bondage and relentless torment is transformed into heavenly freedom and powerful momentum.
In The Four Loves Lewis writes at length of the power and vulnerability of sexual love, or Eros, that contains within it the “carnal or animally sexual element” (Chapter V.) But sexual love, Lewis sees, is meant to be far more than physical desire and far more than romantic idealism. He speaks of the spiritual danger that “haunts the act of love,” and especially of the way popular culture has devised a “ludicrous and portentous solemnization of sex.” Yet he explains that sex is serious in four senses:
First, theologically, because this is the body’s share in marriage which, by God’s choice, is the mystical image of the union between God and man. Second, as a . . . natural sacrament, our human participation in . . . the natural forces of life and fertility . . . . Thirdly, on the moral level, in view of the obligations involved and the incalculable momentousness of being a parent and ancestor. Finally, it has (sometimes, not always) great emotional seriousness in the minds of the participants. (Chapter V)
This chapter on Eros in The Four Loves is Lewis’s most complete and profound treatment of sexual love—a drive that is unlike any other in its “strength, sweetness, [and] terror,” and one that becomes a demon unless it is in submission to God (Chapter V). Indeed, as Lewis says in another context, “Eros ceases to be a devil only when it ceases to be a god” (“Christianity and Culture” Section III).
Janice Brown is Professor of English at Grove City College. She is the author of The Seven Deadly Sins in the Works of Dorothy L. Sayers, a book that was a finalist for the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1999.