I adore CS Lewis. Sure, I could spend a lot of time going through all the various points that I disagree with Lewis on, but I still regard him as a treasure for both literature and Christianity. Lewis, in both his fiction and nonfiction, had a way of beautifully capturing the essence of critical Christian ideas. I recall the vivid imagery he employed in the redemption of Eustace. I won’t ruin the story. There are many examples that we could discuss. We find one example of Lewis poignantly dealing with redemption, sanctification, and freedom from sexual sin in his fictional reflections on the afterlife; The Great Divorce. Some may have noticed talk about killing lizards and the hashtag #killthelizard. My hope is that this article will explain this infamous lizard. The relevant section is a bit long, so I will only quote a few highlights.
A dark spirit and a fiery spirit encounters our narrator while on his journey. This ghostly and dark spirit is much like our narrator, on a similar journey, but this spirit has a creature firmly clasped onto his shoulder. Enter the lizard.
‘Thanks for all your hospitality. But it’s no good, you see. I told this little chap’ (here he indicated the Lizard) ‘that he’d have to be quiet if he came—which he insisted on doing. Of course his stuff won’t do here: I realise that. But he won’t stop. I shall just have to go home.’
‘Would you like me to make him quiet?’ said the flaming Spirit—an angel, as I now understood.
‘Of course I would,’ said the Ghost.
‘Then I will kill him,’ said the Angel, taking a step forward. ‘Oh—ah—look out! You’re burning me. Keep away,’ said the Ghost, retreating.
‘Don’t you want him killed?’
‘You didn’t say anything about killing him at first. I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.’
‘It’s the only way,’ said the Angel, whose burning burning hands were now very close to the Lizard. ‘Shall I kill it?’
‘Well, that’s a further question. I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point, isn’t it? I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here—well, it’s so damned embarrassing.’
‘May I kill it?’
‘Well, there’s time to discuss that later.’
‘There is no time. May I kill it?’
‘Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance. Please—really—don’t bother. Look! It’s gone to sleep of its own accord. I’m sure it’ll be all right now. Thanks ever so much.’
‘May I kill it?’
‘Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that. I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now. I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.’
‘The gradual process is of no use at all.’
‘Don’t you think so? Well, I’ll think over what you’ve said very carefully. I honestly will. In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well to-day. It would be most silly to do it now. I’d need to be in good health for the operation. Some other day, perhaps.’
‘There is no other day. All days are present now.’
‘Get back! You’re burning me. How can I tell you to kill it? You’d kill me if you did.’
‘It is not so.’
‘Why, you’re hurting me now.’
‘I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.’
After quite a bit of convincing, the angel convinced the spirit to kill the lizard.
‘Damn and blast you! Go on, can’t you? Get it over. Do what you like,’ bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, ‘God help me. God help me.’
Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth. The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken-backed, on the turf.
‘Ow! That’s done for me,’ gasped the Ghost, reeling backwards.
For a moment I could make out nothing distinctly. Then I saw, between me and the nearest bush, unmistakably solid but growing every moment solider, the upper arm and the shoulder of a man. Then, brighter still and stronger, the legs and hands. The neck and golden head materialised while I watched, and if my attention had not wavered I should have seen the actual completing of a man—an immense man, naked, not much smaller than the Angel. What distracted me was the fact that at the same moment something seemed to be happening to the Lizard. At first I thought the operation had failed. So far from dying, the creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew it changed. Its hinder parts grew rounder. The tail, still flickering, became a tail of hair that flickered between huge and glossy buttocks. Suddenly I started back, rubbing my eyes. What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. It was smooth and shining, rippled with swells of flesh and muscle, whinneying and stamping with its hoofs. At each stamp the land shook and the trees dindled.
Some Christians have debated the meaning of this story. However, we do not need to guess at its meaning. Lewis provides the meaning through a character named “The Teacher.”
‘What is a lizard compared with a stallion? Lust is a poor, weak, whimpering, whispering thing compared with that richness and energy of desire which will arise when lust has been killed.’
‘But am I to tell them at home that this man’s sensuality proved less of an obstacle than that poor woman’s love for her son? For that was, at any rate, an excess of love.’
‘Ye’ll tell them no such thing,’ he replied sternly. ‘Excess of love, did ye say? There was no excess, there was defect. She loved her son too little, not too much. If she had loved him more there’d be no difficulty. I do not know how her affair will end. But it may well be that at this moment she’s demanding to have him down with her in Hell. That kind is sometimes perfectly ready to plunge the soul they say they love in endless misery if only they can still in some fashion possess it. No, no. Ye must draw another lesson. Ye must ask, if the risen body even of appetite is as grand a horse as ye saw, what would the risen body of maternal love or friendship be?’
In Lewis’s story, the Lizard represents a sinful twisting of desire. That is part of the beauty of this passage. Desire, even sexual desire, is not demonized. Lewis recognizes that all good things can be twisted. He does not woodenly condemn desire or sexuality, but rather the corrupting and poisoning of desire. Lust, as the Teacher says, is “a poor, weak, whimpering, whispering thing.” And I agree. For Lewis and the ghostly man, to kill the lizard meant killing lust and secret sexual sin. This sin includes pornography, adultery, sexual objectification, fornication, and other sexual sins. This is also not the first time sexual sin is spoken about in The Great Divorce.
Though The Teacher and CS Lewis are not vague about the meaning of killing the lizard, it is still good to apply the same attitude to any secret pet sins that we, like the ghostly spirit, would rather keep around and perhaps attempt to “gradually” kill. As the angel rightly points out, “the gradual process is no good.” Too often we make excuses for seemingly insignificant pet sins. We think these sins will behave themselves and stay quiet. We believe we can handle the sin and keep it around. We think we can minimize the sin, in a sort of delusional denial. Yet sin is fatal to mind, body, and soul. We must kill sin. We must kill the lizard.
However, killing sin is never divorced from the Grace and help of God.
No Image Bearer of God can kill any sin apart from the Holy Spirit. Do not miss this. Though Lewis was not Reformed, this picture of killing sin and sanctification has an eloquent truth to it. The man was an agent in deciding to kill the lizard, yet it was the angel that finally put the sin to death.
God is sovereign in all things, including our sanctification. But God also uses means. We are commanded to repent of sin and to “put to death” the deeds of the body. This commandment is not “works-based salvation” any more than any other commandment to be obedient. God’s Grace saves us, yet we are also not pietists who believe we can gain the Holy Spirit and yet have no duty to exhibit faithfulness and repentance.
To confuse our duty to repent of sin with works-based salvation is to misunderstand soteriology (specifically Reformed soteriology) and what is being said when believers say “kill the lizard” or “kill sin.” Although one mustn’t be a five-point Calvinist (though they should be) to recognize that it is God who gives us power over sin, the idea that we are commanded to kill sin is historical and as Reformed as can be.
I am thankful for this literary picture of sanctification. I am thankful that Lewis focused on sexual sin; a category of sin that is all too common and slyly clings onto the shoulder of so many. To ignore or minimize sexual sins such as the sexual objectification of women, or any other sin, is to commit spiritual suicide. John Owen, the esteemed Reformed Theologian, wrote an entire book on the Mortification of Sin. In it, he wrote, “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.”
In other words, kill the lizard.
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.
So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh- for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.