One episode in the Narnia stories has caused no little consternation for evangelical parents as they have read to their children, and that element of the story concerns the salvation of Emeth. On another occasion, I discussed the curious fact of Susan’s absence from the heavenly regions in The Last Battle. A second curious fact has to do with Emeth’s presence there, and with Lewis’s reasons for including him.
As we discuss this, it is important to get one particular distinction out of the way at the outset. In the minds of many evangelical believers, a “broad inclusion” of non-Christians in the heavenly kingdom is indistinguishable from theological liberalism. And with regard to an ecumenical “comparative religions” approach, this instinct is quite correct. “We are all seeking after God, each in our own way” is a central aspect of the theological left, and as such must be rejected by all faithful Christians. The problem with that approach is—as the apostle Paul might put it—that religion of God-seekers is an empty set. No one seeks after God (Rom. 3:11).
If this broad and inclusive approach were true, then Christ died for nothing. With a sorrow deeper than any man has ever experienced, Christ asked His Father to have the cup pass from Him if there were any other way (Matt. 26:39). If the Father could have said something like, “Well, the Rig Veda has some promising developments,” then why did Jesus have to die? Jesus had to die because there was no other way to save us.
The purpose of this essay is take the salvation of Emeth as a starting point for a discussion of “who then can be saved?” with that discussion occurring among conservative believers who accept the authority of Scripture, and the uniqueness and sufficiency of Christ.
While it is quite true that Lewis shows more latitude on this question than the average conservative believer does, that difference of opinion we have with him is not in the same category as the difference we would have with a theological liberal. More is going on with Lewis, as I hope to show. Lewis says this:
“But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangement about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him” (Mere Christianity, p. 64).
There is something to differ with here, surely. But it should be plain that this is not a position that says “we are all saying the same thing really.”
In other words, it is liberalism to say that faithful Muslims, or Buddhists, or Hindus, each following the tenets of their own religion sincerely, can be saved for being good people. This is pernicious and false. It is quite a separate question to ask whether God in His sovereignty can reach down into a filthy religion, like the worship of Tash, and do an extraordinary thing by saving someone from all of that. In such a case, that person is not saved by means of his religion, whatever he conceives it to be, but rather is saved from that religion, by grace through faith.
The Case of Emeth:
I won’t do a great deal of explaining the context of the following citations, assuming as I am that the reader of a piece like this one is also a close reader of things Narnian. I am assuming you know the story, and will only place a few reminders here and there. The Calormenes are running a scam at the Stable, with Shift the ape as their tool. Narnians are being invited by Rishda Tarkaan to go into the Stable to view “Aslan,” and to everyone’s surprise, Emeth volunteers to go in.
“Nay, my Father,” answered Emeth. “Thou hast said that their Aslan and our Tash are all one. And if that is the truth, then Tash himself is in yonder. And how then sayest thou that I have nothing to do with him? For gladly would I die a thousand deaths if I might look once on the face of Tash.” “Thou art a fool and understandest nothing,” said Rishda Tarkaan. “These be high matters.” Emeth’s face grew sterner. “Is it then not true that Tash and Aslan are all one?” he asked. “Has the Ape lied to us?” “Of course they’re all one,” said the Ape. “Swear it, Ape,” said Emeth. “Oh dear!” whimpered Shift, “I wish you’d all stop bothering me. My head does ache. Yes, yes, I swear it.” “Then, my Father,” said Emeth, “I am utterly determined to go in.”
Emeth despises the lies and hypocrisy that he sees as characteristic of the Calormene venture into Narnia. He is a devotee of his god, entirely sold out to Tash, but in a way that places him entirely at odds with the wickedness of that religion, and with the behavior of all his compatriots.
“Emeth came walking forward into the open strip of grass between the bonfire and the stable. His eyes were shining, his face very solemn, his hand was on his sword-hilt, and he carried his head high. Jill felt like crying when she looked at his face. And Jewel whispered in the King’s ear, ‘By the Lion’s Mane, I almost love this young warrior, Calormene though he be. He is worthy of a better god than Tash.’”
The Narnians, watching him approach the Stable, feel an immediate affinity with him. And the thing they see—which Emeth does not yet see—is how he is utterly at odds with his own religion. He is worthy of a better god than that.
After the fighting is all over, and the old world has ended, and the saved are sorting things out in the new Narnia, the party of Narnians comes across Emeth who, when he entered the Stable, had found himself in Aslan’s country.
“The others followed where the Dogs led them and found a young Calormene sitting under a chestnut tree beside a clear stream of water. It was Emeth. He rose at once and bowed gravely. ‘Sir,’ he said to Peter, ‘I know not whether you are my friend or my foe, but I should count it my honor to have you for either. Has not one of the poets said that a noble friend is the best gift and a noble enemy the next best?’ ‘Sir,’ said Peter, ‘I do not know that there need be any war between you and us.’”
When they ask him to tell his story, they find out just how remarkable it was. Emeth had yearned to go to war with Narnia, in honest, open battle, but when the actual plan was revealed, he was distraught.
“And most of all when I found we must wait upon a Monkey, and when it began to be said that Tash and Aslan were one, then the world became dark in my eyes. For always since I was a boy I have served Tash and my great desire was to know more of him, if it might be, to look upon his face. But the name of Aslan was hateful to me.”
After Emeth found himself in the heavenly country, he had an encounter with Aslan. And the astonishing thing is that Aslan welcomed him.
“Then I fell at his feet and thought, Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honor) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him. But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome.”
In the subsequent interaction, they get into the theology of the thing, which is where things get interesting.
“But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false.”
So whatever else Lewis is saying, he is not saying that Aslan and Tash are one, or that all religions teach the same thing, or that we all ascend by different paths up the same mountain.
“Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him.”
This is not the comparative religion, Coexist bumper sticker approach. Tash is a foul god, like Molech in the Old Testament. God saves sinners, and He saves them out of brothels, taverns, casinos, and temples of Tash.
Now half of what Lewis says here is a commonplace among evangelical believers. It is self-evidently true that hypocrites who offer vile behavior to the true God are actually worshiping a false god, and rendering what they are actually offering in another direction entirely. This is preeminently a biblical concept.
On one occasion, Jesus was speaking to pious Jews who had believed in Him (John 8:31), and He wound up saying this:
“Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do” (John 8:44a).
“They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service” (John 16:2).
So it is true that someone who claims to be serving Aslan, but who is doing vile things, is actually serving Tash. That’s the easy one. But can it go the other way? Can someone claim to be serving Tash, like Emeth, and actually be serving Aslan? Something of a reverse hypocrite? Someone in a foul religion being fair, living in a way contrary to what that the religion requires? Emeth had been going in the “wrong” direction, as far as Tash was concerned, since he was a boy. As far as Tash was concerned, Emeth had been a heretic for a long time.
Lewis puts it this way.
“Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? I said, Lord, thou knowest how much I understand.”
So taking all this at face value, this was salvation from the religion of Tash—by extraordinary means—not salvation by means of the religion of Tash. Emeth was not the fulfillment of that religion, he was delivered out of it, just as Aravis was delivered out of it. And incidentally, I should mention in passing that the entire culture of the Calormenes is obviously a stand-in for Islam. This is most explicit at the beginning of chapter 4 of The Horse and His Boy when Lewis describes Tashbaan has having numerous minarets—and a minaret is a tower attached to a mosque.
“But I said also (for the truth constrained me), Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days. Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek. Then he breathed upon me and took away the trembling from my limbs and caused me to stand upon my feet. And after that, he said not much but that we should meet again, and I must go further up and further in. Then he turned him about in a storm and flurry of gold and was gone suddenly.”
Emeth sought for what he did both “long” and “truly,” but this was Aslan’s doing in him, and for him. It was not the doing of Tash. It was Emeth being led, by extraordinary means, away from Tash.
So that leads naturally to the question whether such extraordinary interventions actually occur. Does God ever bypass the ordinary means of preaching the gospel in order to save people from their bondage in pagan religions?
So What Is Paganism?
We have several difficulties to sort out simultaneously. The first one is that Narnia doesn’t really have a new covenant era and an old covenant era. Aslan dies and rises in the midst of Narnian history, but there is nothing corresponding to the Old Testament history of the Jews being supplanted by the New Testament structure of the church. The second difficulty is that Gentiles in the Old Testament were not synonymous with unbelievers in the New. Most of them were unbelievers, but it was possible to be a Gentile and a devout believer.
This matters because in the Old Testament the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles was NOT comparable to the relationship between Christians and non-Christians today.
In the fourth chapter of Acts, the apostles did a great miracle and were challenged on it. By what power or name have you done this (Acts 4:7)? They responded that this man stands before you whole by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth (Acts 4:10). And this led to the great confession . . .
“Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
The necessity of preaching the gospel to every creature today can be seen in this. Nonbelievers are not brought to salvation through the power of an anonymous Christ, working behind the scenes. They are saved through the preaching of the name. And if they want to be saved, they must themselves call upon the name. The priesthood of believers has been expanded to all the nations of men, which is why all men are summoned to believe and be baptized.
“And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).
In short, nonbelievers who want to be saved today have an obligation today to repent and believe, calling upon the name of Jesus. Non-Christians have a moral obligation to become Christians.
In the course of his Mars Hill address, about which more in a little bit, Paul says this:
“And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent” (Acts 17:30).
We see here that the command to repent, given to all men, is not negotiable. The Christian faith is one of world conquest. Everyone must repent, and everyone must believe (Matt. 28:18-20). It is an authoritative summons. But in the same verse, we are also told that the previous ignorance of pagan nations, prior to the coming of Christ, was something that God “winked at.” The word there literally means overlooked. God disregarded it.
So in the Old Testament, Gentiles were under no obligation whatever to become Jews. They could be saved without becoming Jews, and many of them were saved without becoming Jews. The Jews were not the believers of the Old Testament, but were rather the priestly people of the Old Testament. They served in this function for the sake of the Gentiles nations.
Melchizedek was not a Jew, but he was a priest of the Most High God, and the father of all the Jews paid the tithe to him (Gen. 14:18). Jethro, priest of Midian (Ex. 3:1), the father-in-law of Moses, was not a Jew, and yet was a worshiper of the true God. Balaam was an ungodly man, but was apparently a genuine prophet, with the genuine prophetic gift (Num. 22:9). Naaman the Syrian became a worshiper of the true God, and the prophet gave him standing permission to continue to push his master’s wheelchair into the House of Rimmon (2 Kings 5:18). And let us not forget the massive revival in Nineveh that was brought about through the preaching of Jonah (Matt. 12:41).
When Solomon built the Temple, the structure included a way for Gentiles, pagans, to pray to the true and living God—while remaining Gentiles. The language is quite striking.
“Moreover concerning the stranger, which is not of thy people Israel, but is come from a far country for thy great name’s sake, and thy mighty hand, and thy stretched out arm; if they come and pray in this house; Then hear thou from the heavens, even from thy dwelling place, and do according to all that the stranger calleth to thee for; that all people of the earth may know thy name, and fear thee, as doth thy people Israel, and may know that this house which I have built is called by thy name” (2 Chron. 6:32–33).
When Jesus cleanses the Temple, He drives out the merchants and money changers from the Court of the Gentiles. The Gentiles had a court at the Temple, designated for them to worship the true God, and without becoming Jews first. The clean sacrificial animals represented the Jews, and they had filled up the place that had been reserved for the Gentiles. This is why Jesus’ rebuke was a two-edged rebuke. They had filled the Temple with their thievery, and they had excluded the Gentiles by means of it.
“And he taught, saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves” (Mark 11:17).
The Temple in Jerusalem was for all the Gentiles. Were there any Emeths among them? And keep in mind that even though we don’t have an old covenant/new covenant distinction, a great deal of the Narnian context does have a B.C. feel to it. For example, centaurs prophesying is not something that frequently happened in the post-apostolic period.
The apostle Paul calls the Cretan Epimenides a prophet—a “prophet, one of their own” (Tit. 1:12-13). And when he is preaching at Mars Hill, he takes as his starting point the altar to the unknown god. Whose idea was that kind of altar? Well, it turns out that the idea came from this same Epimenides, who had been summoned from Crete centuries before by the leaders of Athens in order to deal with a plague that was afflicting the city at that time. Epimenides dealt with it, in part, by having them establish altars to the unknown god, which they did, stopping the plague. Later Paul starts with one of those altars as his text, and in the course of his preaching, he quotes Epimenides directly.
“For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring” (Acts 17:28).
Live, move and have our being is from Epimenides. The second citation, for we are also his offspring is from a gent named Aratus. The thing that is interesting about that quotation is that it is from a hymn to Zeus. Not Tash, Zeus. And the thing we must understand is that there was the celebrity Zeus, the Zeus of legend, the Zeus who was entirely unaffected by the #MeToo movement, the Zeus who was an embarrassment to thoughtful pagans. And then there was the Zeus as Emeth and Aratus conceived him to be. This does not make their conceptions orthodox—remember that Paul is about to say that God overlooked much ignorance. He did not overlook overt evil, as the destruction of Sodom showed, but He overlooked a great deal.
Just a few more comments in closing. The father of the modern evangelical hesitancy to allow for any true salvation outside of a plain proclamation of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ may well have been Martin Luther. He was a theologian of the cross, and if the cross was not preached to you, well, then, too bad for you. This contrasts sharply with the attitude of Zwingli, who was happy to kick open the gates of Paradise to the likes of Socrates and Hercules.
The ancient phrase captures our question in a nutshell. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus—outside the church there is no salvation. Is that true, and how strict should we be with it? But oddities and quirks can occur to our minds almost right away. What about the guy who is hit by a car on the way to his baptism?
The Westminster Confession, to which I subscribe, has in my view a balanced and nicely nuanced approach to the problem.
“The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.2).
“Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how he pleases: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word” (WCF 10.3).
“The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word, by which also, and by the administration of the sacraments, and prayer, it is increased and strengthened” (WCF 14.1)
Must someone be called by the explicit preaching of the Word, and be baptized and brought into the visible church in order to be saved? Their answer is “usually.” The named exceptions that they point to are elect infants dying in infancy, and other incapacitated individuals (e.g. the severely retarded) who cannot respond to the preaching of the Word in the ordinary way. God’s elective decree can touch them there.
And we also know that in the old covenant, God’s elective decree could touch the elect among the Hittites and Assyrians also. Does this change in the new covenant? I would argue that it does gradually and inexorably change as the gospel makes its progress through the world. The more the gospel spreads, the less possible it is for any kind of ignorance to be overlooked, and such “winking” was rare to begin with.
But if a centurion just like Cornelius were living in the westernmost part of the empire a century later, what would his status be? The question is not easy for us to answer, which is fortunate, because the disposal of all such situations is not in our hands, but rather in God’s.
So then, back to Emeth. If you visualize him as the devout Muslim who refuses to respond to the gospel, and who insists on attending his mosque instead, the scenario in The Last Battle really is problematic. But if you visualize him as someone in the position of Naaman the Syrian, the problem becomes much less acute.