Fifty years ago, three great men died within a few hours of each other: C. S. Lewis, John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley. In 1982, philosophy professor Peter Kreeft imagined the three of them in conversation after their deaths.
Positioning Lewis as a proponent of ancient Western theism, Kennedy as a modern Western humanist, and Huxley as an ancient Eastern pantheist, Kreeft wrote a conversational book entitled Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis & Aldous Huxley.
For years I’d heard about this book. This fall, I decided to read it. I was not disappointed.
The Question of Jesus’ Identity
The book begins with Lewis dialoguing with Kennedy about Jesus Christ as the central focus of history. Their conversation revolves around the identity of Jesus as described in the Scriptures versus the reinterpretation of Jesus’ life and legacy as taught by modern theologians.
Common objections to traditional Christianity are raised by Kennedy. At one point, he admits to Lewis:
“I’m not as bothered by the possibility of being in hell as I am by your belief in hell. I find the first quite remote, but the second quite present and threatening.”
Meanwhile, Lewis cheerfully dismantles the modern view that Jesus was a good man, but not God.
“Your so-called new Christianity is nothing but the old Arian heresy in new dress.”
Fans of Lewis will enjoy watching his distaste for “chronological snobbery” take a dialogical form in his conversation with Kennedy:
Kennedy: It’s . . . so . . . so outdated. So unenlightened. So medieval. So primitive.
Lewis: Jack, do you tell time with an argument?
Lewis: I said, do you tell time with an argument?
Kennedy: What in the world do you mean by that?
Lewis: When you want to know what time it is, what do you look at? An argument or a clock?
Kennedy: A clock, of course.
Lewis: And what do you use an argument for, if not to tell time?
Kennedy: Why, to prove something, of course. Or to try to.
Lewis: Something false or something true?
Kennedy: Something true.
Lewis: So you tell time by the clock and truth by an argument.
Kennedy: Among other means, yes.
Lewis: Not vice versa?
Kennedy: No. Telling the truth with the clock
Lewis: But you were trying to tell truth by the clock a minute ago.
Kennedy: Truth by the clock?
Lewis: When I want to disprove an idea, I try to prove that it is False. Your argument against my idea that your belief was a heresy was simply that my idea was old. Outdated, I believe you said. Medieval and primitive were two more of your terms. Those are all clock words, or calendar words. (Calendars are only big, long clocks, after all.)
The Best Way to Read the Bible
Midway through the book, Huxley becomes more involved, and he makes a case for an Eastern interpretation of Jesus’ significance. Lewis and Huxley have a robust conversation, and the tension rises because Kreeft’s Huxley comes across much more prepared than Kennedy.
Against Huxley’s Eastern interpretation, Lewis uses his literary background to make the case for the Church’s understanding of Scripture:
Lewis: First of all, a literary critic should ask of a story first of all what the whole story is about, and interpret particular events in the context of the whole story. And the story in the Bible is about God’s search for man … Man’s search for God vs. God’s search for man
Huxley: You mean man’s search for God.
Lewis: No. From the biblical point of view, speaking about man’s search for God is like speaking about the mouse’s search for the cat.
Huxley: You wrote that somewhere.
Lewis: Yes. I’m allowed to plagiarize myself. The point is that the God of the Bible invades man’s world of time rather than man mystically invading God’s eternity. Man searches for God in God’s home, eternity, but God searches for man in man’s home, time. And that’s the God of the Bible, the Hound of Heaven, the divine lover, the Father looking for his prodigal son, the shepherd for his lost sheep. God takes the initiative. God always takes the initiative, from the act of creation on. The supreme example is the incarnation, the supreme example of taking history and time and the created world seriously. Instead of the passive Eastern God receiving man’s search, man’s spiritual efforts, Jesus is himself the active Western God barging into man’s world physically.
Later, Lewis makes a case for Christ’s uniqueness and why we must ultimately reject any attempt to lump Jesus in with other religious leaders:
Lewis: Love fits the egalitarian religion of the modern world much better than faith does, if you mean faith in the God of biblical revelation, not just faith in a vague force of your own imagination, or faith in faith. Nearly everyone admits the claims of love, at least in principle if not in practice; but only believers admit the claims of faith.
Huxley: True. Now how does this apply to Jesus?
Lewis: Nearly everyone agrees with Jesus’ ethical teachings, because they’re very similar to those of Buddha and Lao-Tzu and the others …
Huxley: So you admit that he’s one of the gurus!
Lewis: As far as his ethics is concerned, yes. But his claim to divinity is unique, and offensive. So if you can only classify Jesus with other ethical teachers and forget the claim to divinity, you’re home free with humanism. You can classify Christ with the gurus and Christianity with world religions. You thus remove the odium of distinctiveness, the taint of elitism, the scandal of being right where others are wrong. You satisfy the demands of your god Egalitarianism.
Between Heaven and Hell may be marketed as a conversation between Lewis, Kennedy, and Huxley, but this is clearly Lewis’ show. Kreeft does a terrific job of giving voice to Lewis’ thought, and it’s Lewis’ view that ends up most persuasive. If you want to read an engaging book that shows the collision of three worldviews, you can hardly find a better one than this.