I have written a lot about the ideas in this book, but very little about the story itself. That’s because this is an idea-centric book, but there is still a plot, and shame on me for neglecting it. What’s at stake is the soul of the Patient; whether he ends up in heaven or hell. I have been focusing on the ideas about right and wrong behavior, rather than religion, but in some ways that is a skewed analysis of the book, because ultimately Screwtape and Wormwood’s goal is not to make The Patient a bad person, but an unbeliever. In other words, even if The Patient becomes a fairly decent person, if he leaves the church he will presumably still descend to hell, and Screwtape will have won.
This is a story problem for people who think often about the fairness of the whole concept of hell, because it raises the question of whether we should really be rooting for heaven. What kind of loving God is really fine with eternal punishment like that? Ultimately we have to hope The Patient avoids hell, as that is clearly not a pleasant end, but there’s still an open question of whether the God he is worshiping is really worth following. Chapter Eight is where Screwtape attempts to explain something of heaven’s perspective, for Wormwood’s benefit. (Important linguistic question; does this, in fact, make him an angel’s advocate? I think it has to.) While Screwtape is an unreliable narrator, under these circumstances it seems he is motivated to be, at the very least, truthful to his understanding of the topic. His information may be flawed, but he is a high ranking tempter, and therefore something of an expert. Here on Earth, the best debaters make themselves as familiar as possible with the arguments and viewpoints of their opponents, so it’s safe to assume that Screwtape’s information is at least moderately reliable.
So what is the excuse of the God of this book’s universe? Free will, of course. “He really does want to fill the universe with 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… You must have often wondered why the Enemy does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree he chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of his scheme forbids him to use.” He goes on about this for a while, with very pretty words, but he’s ultimately just repeating the same point again and again; God does not reveal himself in some unambiguous way because apparently, if he did, he would override our free will. It’s an argument I’ve heard before, and it sounds nice and noble. Except for the part where people go to hell for no crime worse than being skeptical of the existence of a being who refuses to produce evidence of his existence. That part is pretty terrible.
Then there’s the question of how proof, or strong evidence, would override free will. I can think of two possible interpretations of what Screwtape is saying. Number one, he’s talking about an intense revelation that would have a Lovecraftian effect on our minds. Our little minds would break, and we would end up speaking devout gibberish in a mental hospital. All right, I’m really okay with that not happening. Doesn’t that still leave the option of leaving behind a lot of indirect evidence to help persuade skeptically minded people like me? It really wouldn’t be as hard as a lot of believers make it out to be. Remember, I was raised Christian, and I was reluctant to let go of my beliefs for most of my life. Losing my faith was downright painful. If the Bible had contained, instead of a highly folkloric tale about seven days of creation, a description of the origins of the universe that would conform with later scientific observations, that would have helped enormously. Fix the science and history in the Bible and throw out the more batshit rules, and I might still be a Christian. So might many atheists in the world of Screwtape Letters. So why let us live in a world where facts about the natural world make unbelief even a plausible viewpoint? Interpretation number two; good, convincing evidence would override free will, because it convinces us instead of giving us a chance to exercise our faith. This makes even less sense, and I include it only because I’ve heard something along those lines argued in real life; i.e. God put fossils in the ground to test our faith. You could as easily argue that the lack of good evidence was overrides free will, because it makes intellectually honest belief impossible for many people. Free will is screwed either way, so you might as well go with the humane version.
So as a reader I’m still left with the question; how is a God who would let the universe operate this way really a better alternative for The Patient than Screwtape? Why should I, the reader, care that The Patient ends up in heaven if it’s run by someone who operates the universe like this?
And that, to me, is the biggest failing of this book. It’s not that it sometimes talks about prayer and church and things I don’t really relate to. That’s not really an objective issue with the book, just an example of how it fails to overlap with my personal current interests. The biggest failing of this book is that it’s based on a particular religious view that raises some troubling questions about the God at the center of it. Screwtape’s line about making “loathsome little replicas” is supposed to be read contrarily. He thinks it’s a disgusting idea, but we are meant to think it sounds admirable and glorious. But if God is someone who would allow the eternal suffering of millions just so the remainder will be transmuted copies of himself, what does that suggest about him? To me, it says he’s a callous narcissist. So are we supposed to turn into callous narcissists ourselves? Or are we supposed to turn into entities much like him, except instead of being narcissistic about ourselves, we are enamored of him to the exact degree that he wants us to be, and callous about the fate of those who have failed his little test?
Screwtape may have a point. Loathsome indeed.