Fact Check

Did C.S. Lewis Write This ′Old Devil's Letter to the Young'?

What does a 1942 book have to tell us about a 21st century pandemic? Nothing.

Published Feb 16, 2021

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A passage about souls being led to Hell by their fear of disease was taken from a work by C.S. Lewis.

C.S. Lewis was a British writer and educator best known for The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of seven fantasy novels published in the 1950s (the first of which was 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe') and set in the magical land of Narnia, home to mythical beasts and talking animals.

In mid-2020, however, Lewis, who died in 1963, was attributed as the author of a piece titled "Old Devil's Letter to the Young" or "The Devil's Letters to His Nephew," a work said to have been published in 1942, but seemingly quite prescient in anticipating both the COVID-19 pandemic that began several decades later and the resistance to social distancing measures enacted to slow its spread:

Spookily, C. S. Lewis wrote this nearly 70 years ago but could have been written today:

One young devil asked the old man: "How did you manage to bring so many souls to hell?"

The old devil answered: "I instilled fear in them!"

Answers the youngster: "Great job! And what were they afraid of? Wars? Hunger?"

Answers the man: "No, they were afraid of the disease!"

For this youngster: "Does this mean they didn't get sick? Are they not dead? There was no rescue for them?"

The old man answered: "But no ... they got sick, died, and the rescue was there."

The young devil, surprised, answered: "Then I don't understand?"

The old man answered: "You know they believed the only thing they have to keep at any cost is their lives. They stopped hugging, greeting each other. They've moved away from each other. They gave up all social contacts and everything that was human! Later they ran out of money, lost their jobs, but that was their choice because they were afraid for their lives, that's why they quit their jobs without even having bread.

"They believed blindly everything they heard and read in the papers. They gave up their freedoms, they didn't leave their own homes literally anywhere. They stopped visiting family and friends. The world turned into such a concentration camp, without forcing them into captivity. They accepted everything! Just to live at least one more miserable day ... And so living, they died every day! And that's how it was very easy for me to take their miserable souls to hell ..."

The format and putative dating of the passage quoted above suggest "The Screwtape Letters," a 1942 novel that is Lewis' most popular book outside of the Narnia series and comprises a series of letters from a demon (Screwtape) to his nephew (Wormwood):

Screwtape, a demon in the top ranks of Satan’s army, is sending letters to his nephew, Wormwood, who is trying to ensure a man’s soul is sent to Hell. Through this premise and Screwtape’s letters, Lewis tackles most of the common Christian paradoxes and dilemmas. He also proposes how demons might try to undermine Christians and their relationships with God by placing himself in the role of a demon attempting to do so.

However, the passage in question about souls being led to Hell by their fear of disease does not appear in "The Screwtape Letters," nor in or any other writing or work authored by Lewis. Like another statement falsely attributed to Lewis in 2020, this item is a 21st century fabrication that attempted to put contemporaneous commentary about the COVID-19 pandemic into the mouth of a respected writer from the previous century.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994 as a creative outgrowth of his wide-ranging interests in a variety of subjects (particularly folklo ... read more