He Came Down from Heaven
Charles Williams

Charles Williams

These pages: He Came Down from Heaven

first part (here)

second part



the Inklings

index pages:

He Came Down from Heaven

Copyright © 1938 by Michael Williams

Chapter I

Heaven and the Bible

It is not, of course, possible to deny that heaven—in the sense of salvation, bliss, or the presence of God—can exist in space; that would be to deny the Incarnation. But heaven, as such, only exists because of the nature of God, and to his existence alone all bliss is related. In a Jewish tradition God was called “the Place” because all places were referred to him, but not he to any place. With this in mind it might be well that private meditation should sometimes vary the original clause by “Our Father in whom is heaven”. The change is for discipline of the mind, for though it is incapable of the apparent superficiality yet it is also incapable of the greater profundity of the original. That depth prevents another error as easy as the first and perhaps more dangerous. It is comparatively easy to train the mind to remember that the nature of God is not primarily spatial; it is not quite so easy to remember that it is not primarily paternal—that is, that he does not exist primarily for us.



The fulfilment of the will in heaven may grammatically relate to us as well as to angels. The events for which we sincerely implore that fulfilment upon earth are already perfectly concluded by it in heaven. Their conclusions have to be known by us on earth, but they already exist as events in heaven. Heaven, that is to say, possesses timelessness; it has the quality of eternity, of (in the definition which Boethius passed on to Aquinas) “the perfect and simultaneous possession of everlasting life.” In that simultaneity the passion of the prayer is already granted; all that is left for us to do is to discover in the process of time the conclusion that we have implored in time. [...] This is the consummation of act in belief—in “faith”.



The whole Canon signifies a particular thing—the original nature of man, the entrance of contradiction into his nature, and the manner of his restoration. If this theme is ignored the Bible as a whole cannot be understood as literature. By a deprivation of the central idea, and of the personification of that idea, the Bible does not cease to be metaphysics and become literature; it ceases to be anything at all but little bits of literature rather oddly collated. But without that deprivation it is literature related to the greatest of human themes—the nature of man and his destiny. Its doctrine may be wrong, but without its doctrine it is, as a book, nothing. It deals no longer with mankind, as is pretended, only with a number of men. To alter it so may be a moral virtue, but it certainly is not good literary criticism.
As a fact words such as “faith”, “pardon”, or “glory” are taken with meanings borrowed from the commonplace of everyday; comparatively few readers set to work to find out what the Bible means by them. The word “love” has suffered even more heavily. The famous saying “God is love”, it is generally assumed, means that God is like our immediate emotional indulgence, and not that our meaning of love ought to have something of the “otherness” and terror of God.



Chapter II

The Myth of the Alteration in Knowledge
The popularity of the legend has perhaps been assisted by the excuse it has seemed to offer for mankind, by the pseudo-answer it has appeared to offer to the difficulty of the philosophical imagination concerning a revolt in the good against the good, and by its provision of a figure or figures against whom men can, on the highest principles, launch their capacities of indignant hate and romantic fear. The devil, even if he is a fact, has been an indulgence; he has, on occasion, been encouraged to reintroduce into Christian emotions the dualism which the Christian intellect has denied, and we have relieved our own sense of moral submission by contemplating, even disapprovingly, something which was neither moral nor submissive. [...] While he exists there is always something to which we can be superior.


The Devil

The Adam had been created and were existing in a state of knowledge of good and nothing but good. They knew that there was some kind of alternative, and they knew that the rejection of the alternative was part of their relation to the Omnipotence that created them. That relation was part of the good they enjoyed. But they knew also that the knowledge in the Omnipotence was greater than their own; they understood that in some way it knew “evil”.

It was, in future ages, declared by Aquinas that it was of the nature of God to know all possibilities, and to determine which possibility should become fact. [...] It is therefore part of that knowledge that he should understand good in its deprivation, the identity of heaven in its opposite identity of hell, but without “approbation”, without calling it into being at all.

It was not so possible for man, and the myth is the tale of that impossibility. [...] Man desired to know schism in the universe. It was a knowledge reserved to God; man had been warned that he could not bear it—“in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die”. A serpentine subtlety overwhelmed that statement with a grander promise—“Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil”. Unfortunately to be as gods meant, for the Adam, to die, for to know evil, for them, was to know it not by pure intelligence but by experience. It was, precisely, to experience the opposite of good, that is the deprivation of the good, the slow destruction of the good, and of themselves with the good.


The Garden of Eden

Original Sin

They knew good; they wished to know good and evil. Since there was not—since there never has been and never will be—anything else than the good to know, they knew good as antagonism. All difference consists in the mode of knowledge. They had what they wanted. That they did not like it when they got it does not alter the fact that they certainly got it.
It is a recurrent effort, since it is a recurrent temptation: if this or that could be done, surely the great tower would arise, and we should walk in heaven among gods—as when the orthodox of any creed think that all will be well when their creed is universal. Yet the recurrent opposite is no more true, for unless something is done, nothing happens. Unless devotion is given to a thing which must prove false in the end, the thing that is true in the end cannot enter. But the distinction between necessary belief and unnecessary credulity is as necessary as belief; it is the heightening and purifying of belief. There is nothing that matters of which it is not sometimes desirable to feel: “this does not matter.” “This also is Thou; neither is this Thou.” But it may be admitted also that this is part of the technique of belief in our present state; not even Isaiah or Aquinas have pursued to its revelation the mystery of self-scepticism in the divine. The nearest, perhaps, we can get to that is in the incredulous joy of great romantic moments—in love or poetry or what else: “this cannot possibly be, and it is.” Usually the way must be made ready for heaven, and then it will come by some other; the sacrifice must be made ready, and the fire will strike on another altar. So much Cain saw, and could not guess that the very purpose of his offering was to make his brother’s acceptable.
Israel is to be exclusive and inclusive at once, like all modes of redemption, particular and universal. Their inclusive-exclusive statement is retained in the repetitions of the covenants, and it is permitted to become indeed a covenant. [...] Besides the exchange of responsibility, the pietas between man and man, there is to be a particular mode of adoration, ritual and deliberately ritual. It is the exclusive sign which is to be inclusive in its effects. The uncircumcized child is to be cut off from the people, yet all the earth is again to know beatitude.
Prayer, like everything else, was meant for a means of joy; but, in our knowledge of the good as evil, we have to recover it so, and it is not an easy thing. Prayer is thought of as a means to an end, but the end itself is sometimes only the means to the means, as with all love.



In the night of death, when all the hopes and heirs of Egypt lie motionless, the victims of impiety are redeemed. The dispossessed and the rejected are in movement through the whole land. Renounce the myth and the vision remains. There is flung out for us the image of the great host, bribed and adorned with the jewels of their taskmasters, marching out under the prophet and the priest and the woman; marching under the fire and the cloud of the terrible covenanted God. [...] It is the law of exchange that advances, of the keeping of one life by another, of the oath that cannot be controlled by man; it is the knowledge of good as good breaking out of the knowledge of good as evil.
Chapter III

The Mystery of Pardon and the Paradox of Vanity
No pot—so far—has asked questions of the potter in a voice the potter can understand; when it does, it will be time enough to compare pots to men. The criticism is not aimed at St. Paul who dropped the phrase in the midst of a great spiritual wrestle, not as a moral instruction. But it has been used too often by the pious to encourage them to say, in love or in laziness, “Our little minds were never meant . . .” Fortunately there is the book of Job to make it clear that our little minds were meant. A great curiosity ought to exist concerning divine things. Man was intended to argue with God.

Romans 9:14-24

The three friends who have been defending orthodoxy and assuring Job of his sinfulness have their reward. “Ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right as my servant Job hath.” Job is to sacrifice and intercede for them, “lest I deal with you after your folly.” The pretence that we must not ask God what he thinks he is doing (and is therefore doing) is swept away. The Lord demands that his people shall demand an explanation from him. Whether they understand it or like it when they get it is another matter, but demand it they must and shall. Humility has never consisted in not asking questions; it does not make men less themselves or less intelligent, but more intelligent and more themselves.



The prophets are sent out from the visible mathematics of the glory to proclaim the moral mathematics of the glory. Morality is either the mathematics of power or it is nothing. Their business is to recover mankind—but first the inclusive-exclusive Israel—to an effort to know only the good. This, in effect, means recognition of the covenant, and obedience to the law. Those who refuse are described in language which precisely carries on the definition of the contradiction involved in the original Fall. “Woe unto them that call evil good and good evil . . . that are wise in their own eyes and prudent in their own sight.” [...] They can prolong the Fall by their will. They can introduce their own prudence and wisdom into the nature of the good. It is something deeper than impiety or immorality, though it involves them. It is the preference of their own wisdom; it is sin.

Sin has many forms, but the work of all is the same—the preference of an immediately satisfying experience of things to the believed pattern of the universe; one may even say, the pattern of the glory. It has, in the prophets as everywhere, two chief modes of existence: impiety against man and impiety against God—the refusal of others and the insistence on the self.






It is perhaps natural to the prophets that they should show very little consciousness of the fact that conversion, repentance, and a new life are not the easiest things. [...] Surely the thing is clear enough: do this, and all will be well, your sin shall be pardoned. They allow for the fact that people want to sin, but they find it difficult to believe that people do not also want to be intelligent, and since, on their hypothesis, there is no doubt what intelligence involves, they become angry when Israel remains obdurate.

Heaven is to be the place and the state of the setting aside of the sin that has been committed. But forgetfulness implies a temporal state; there can be no eternal oblivion of an act of which there is eternal awareness, and the very nature of eternity is awareness of all; “the perfect and simultaneous possession of everlasting life.”

The prophets are too much concerned with their demand for penitence and their message of pardon to have time for metaphysics. They allow this anthropomorphism—more serious, because more philosophical—to pass. [...] Heaven to them is not so much of eternity as it is of the specious present—the present in which there is time to do things about the past and future, to reason, to repent, to redeem. Yet the reader who, by his detachment or his frowardness, can escape the hammer of their command, the chisel of their entreaty, is left with the problem still in his mind: how can the High and Holy One forget? how can he refuse to know what has been? how can the eternity of heaven exclude from itself the knowledge of man’s knowing good in schism, and of good as evil? how can the Lord forgive?




These then are the main points of the restored life, as far as the prophets know it. The new knowledge is to lose from it the recollection of past sin; it will be remembered neither in heaven nor on earth; the kingdom of the Lord is free from it. The new knowledge again is to be instinctive and natural, a lovely habit, a practice of joy; it will not need instructors and officiants, because all will officiate and instruct; it is to be in the flesh of man and in his heart. It is to expand, by means of Israel, beyond Israel, till it is universal in its effects; a chosen thing is to be its source; and all families of the earth are to be exalted to the same redemption. Last, at least in that single passage, it is to be brought about by some kind of substitution.

There is a state of being which discovers, humanly speaking, the monotonous result of man’s original choice. It might almost be said that Ecclesiastes represents a state of mind for which the prophets, with their minds set on righteousness, have not allowed. It is, in some sense, a classical expression of utter boredom, though the boredom is set to such high counterpoint that its very expression is exciting. No one who can enjoy Ecclesiastes can be as bored as Ecclesiastes.
This is the conclusion of the knowledge of good and evil. Life, in that first great myth of origin, was given as good, and man thought it would be fine and godlike to enjoy it also as evil. This is the result—life is no good and death is no good, and the most fortunate are those who have not been. For man’s nature is such that he must prefer to live in hope of death than not to live or hope at all. The single joy of existence is to know that existence will stop; by so much, and by so much only, existence is better than non-existence.
Chapter IV

The Precursor and the Incarnation of the Kingdom
The pietas of the early and mythical wanderers has become a supernational civilization. The documents of the New Testament are themselves composed in or directed to localities in that inter-related whole, and before it is well understood what the Church is, it is at least clear that it is universal. At the same time, history and contemporaneity again go together, the obverse and the reverse of the coins of the kingdom of heaven. Its missionaries declared a unity, as they do to-day, a unity no more divided by two thousand years than by two seconds. We certainly have to separate them in thought, because of the needs of the mind, as we have sometimes to divide form and content in poetry. But as the poetry is in fact one and indivisible, so is the fact; so even is the doctrine. The thing as it happens on the earth and in the world, the thing as it happens on the earth and in the soul, are two stresses on one fact; say, on one Word.

The denial of the self has come, as is natural, to mean in general the making of the self thoroughly uncomfortable. That (though it may be all that is possible) leaves the self still strongly existing. But the phrase is more intellectual than moral, or rather it is only moral because it is intellectual; it is a denial of the consciousness of the existence of the self at all. What had been the self is to become a single individual, neither less nor more than others; as it were, one of the living creatures that run about and compose the web of the glory. “Do unto others as you would they should do unto you.” The contemplation demanded is not personal, of the self and of others—even in order that the self may be unselfish—but abstract and impartial. The life of the self is to be lost that the individual soul may be found, in the pattern of the words of the Son of Man. The kingdom is immediately at hand—“Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power”; again the words are historic and contemporary at once.



What, apart from the expectation of the Redeemer, was the gospel of the Precursor? It was something like complete equality and temporal justice, regarded as the duty of those who expect the kingdom. What has happened to that duty in the gospel of the Kingdom?

The new gospel does not care much about it. All John’s doctrine is less than the least in the Kingdom. It cannot be bothered with telling people not to defraud and not to be violent and to share their superfluities. It tosses all that sort of thing on one side.

Half a hundred brief comments, flung out to the mob of men’s hearts, make it impossible for a child of the kingdom, for a Christian, to talk of justice or injustice so far as he personally is concerned; they make it impossible for him to complain of the unfairness of anything. They do not, presumably, stop him noticing what has happened, but it can never be a matter of protest. Judgment and measurement are always discouraged.



text checked (see note) Aug 2005

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Background graphic copyright © 2005 by Hal Keen