Near the end of The Last Battle, a noble Calormene soldier named Emeth dies and comes before Aslan, the Christ of Narnia. Although Emeth hails from a distant land that worships a false god named Tash (rather than the true Aslan), and although Emeth has served Tash all his life, when he meets Aslan, he is welcomed by the Great Lion and invited into heaven.
Of all the passages in the voluminous writings of C. S. Lewis, none has caused more controversy and confusion than this suggestion by the orthodox Christian Lewis that salvation can be attained outside of Christ. Indeed, when I speak about Lewis, the most common question that I am asked is whether or not the episode with Emeth reveals Lewis to be a Universalist in disguise: that is, someone who believes that all who practice their religion faithfully—whether they be Christians or Jews, Muslims or Hindus—will be saved.
It does not. Had Emeth come before Aslan and requested directions to the Tash part of heaven, and had Aslan obliged, then Lewis would be a Universalist. But that is not what happens in the episode. Quite to the contrary, when Emeth stands before Aslan, he realizes and accepts that Tash is false and Aslan true, and that the deep spiritual desire he has followed all his life has found its fulfillment in Aslan. He proves this by falling to his knees in worship.
Like the Magi of the Christmas story, he recognizes that Aslan (not Tash) is the end of his journey. In response, Aslan assures him: “‘unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.’”
Now, it must be admitted that though this is not universalism, it does border on a concept that the vast majority of believers would reject (rightly) as unbiblical: post-mortem (“after death”) salvation. Orthodox Christian teaching states that all decisions for or against Christ must be made before we die. Once we pass to the other side, all bets are off. Though many Protestants think that the Catholic belief in purgatory allows for a second chance at salvation, it does not. In Catholicism, those who reach purgatory are already saved; they just need to be sanctified.
So is Lewis an advocate of post-mortem salvation? This time I must be a bit more nuanced with my answer. Yes, Emeth is technically dead when he accepts Aslan’s offer of salvation, but that does not mean he is being given a “second chance.”
As Lewis explains in a number of his works, God lives in eternity, not in time. Too often, people think that eternity means time going on forever, when what it really means is that time itself does not exist. The closest we come to a perception of eternity, Lewis writes, is our experience of the present moment. For the present is the point where time touches eternity.
The moment Emeth dies is an eternal moment—and that eternal moment contains all the other moments of his life. He accepts Aslan (Christ) in that eternal moment, because all of the other moments have been building up to that acceptance. And once he does, all the other moments become reoriented around that moment of decision. That is why, in The Great Divorce, Lewis says heaven and hell work backwards. For those who accept Christ in that eternal moment, it will seem, not that they have just entered heaven, but that they have always been there.