Mere Christianity, Book Two - What Christians Believe
Now is high time for Scripture to take its rightful place in the argument, or so I thought. Disappointingly, now is the time when it becomes evident that Lewis was simply more comfortable in the handling of philosophy and human reason than Scripture. This is not to say that his arguments are altogether unscriptural. It is to say that it is not his strongest suit (and to be fair, he does not pretend it to be the case), nor does he seemed the least concerned about it. As a Reformed believer for whom Scripture dictates (at least hopefully) all my doctrine and beliefs, I found this reading, exasperating and at times excruciating. There were statements that were brilliant gems followed by shockingly unscriptural ones, one even plummeted right up to the edge and stopped suddenly short just on the brink of universalism. I’m beginning to see why much of my exposure to Lewis over the years has been essentially in the form of sound-bites. His doctrine is as muddled as that of modern American evangelicalism in general and yet he still had the uncanny ability to produce a few real gems.
Let me state, by way of warning, summarization is not my strong suit. My summaries tend to end up longer than the source text. And with that disclaimer, and because there’s so much to address in this section, I think I’d best take this chapter step by step. And so as not to put words into Lewis’ mouth, I’ve chosen mainly to comment from direct quotes. (Any emphasis in bold is my own.)
1. The Rival Conceptions of God
Lewis starts off well, beginning with the rather surprising point that Christians are able to think more liberally than atheists: “If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake….But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic – there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong: but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.”
He then proceeds to divide and then sub-divide humanity into various belief camps. The first division is between the theists and the atheists – those who believe in some form of God or gods, and those who don’t. The next division is among those who do believe in some god or other. These are divided “according to the sort of God they believe in.” There are those who believe in the god/gods of Pantheism. These have the idea that this god is “beyond good and evil” and “animates the universe as you animate your body: that the universe almost is God, so that if it did not exist He would not exist either, and anything you find in the universe is a part of God.” The other view is “that God is quite definitely ‘good’ or ‘righteous,’ a God who takes sides, who loves love and hates hatred, who wants us to behave in one way and not in another….They also “think God invented and made the universe- like a man making a picture or composing a tune.”
He shortly goes on to make an assertion regarding Christianity that is both startling and ambiguous: “For Christianity is a fighting religion. It thinks God made the world…as a man makes up a story. But it also thinks that a great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made and that God insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again.” That statement can be taken so many ways that it seems at once both incendiary and meaningless. But it does, of course raise “a very big question. If a good God made the world why has it gone wrong?”
This was apparently Lewis’ biggest personal objection to belief in God, and in that he is certainly not alone. The outcry against the evil in this world of ours continues unabated to this day. But here again the argument from Moral law intervenes in Lewis’ thoughts: “ My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?” A compelling argument indeed.
He concludes that atheism is too simple. And that leads us to the next section.
2. The Invasion
He begins with another view that he considers “too simple”, calling it “Christianity-and-water, the view which simply says there is a good God in Heaven and everything is all right – leaving out all the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil, and the redemption.” I’ve come across plenty of people in our land of plenty who hold to this view – none of them in the midst of tragedy.
He goes on to explain that “It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real things are not simple. They look simple, but they are not.” And beyond that, “Besides being complicated, reality, in my experience, is usually odd. It is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect….Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed.” Well, true as that is, I might just say the same thing about Mormonism. But to be fair, I think that his point here is not that Christianity is absurd, but that it makes a kind of sense that one would not have expected, and that one should not expect simple answers to life’s most complex problems. So much for Occam's razor.
“What is the problem? A universe that contains much that is obviously bad and apparently meaningless, but containing creatures like ourselves who know that it is bad and meaningless. There are only two views that face all the facts. One is the Christian view that this is a good world that has gone wrong, but still retains the memory of what it ought to have been. The other is the view called Dualism. Dualism means the belief that there are two equal and independent powers at the back of everything, one of them good and the other bad, and that this universe is the battlefield in which they fight out an endless war. I personally think that next to Christianity Dualism is the manliest and most sensible creed on the market.” I tend to agree. I’ve come across plenty of professing Christians over the years (generally in more Pentecostal crowds) whose theology does come perilously close to Dualism, particularly in the power they attribute to the devil.
From here Lewis goes on to make a splendidly compelling argument, from reason, against Dualism. He first questions how it is that we determine which of these two eternal spirits is good, and which is evil. “Each presumably thinks it is good and the other bad.” Where is the objective good by which we can judge either of these spirits’ goodness or badness? “But the moment you say that, you are putting into the universe a third thing in addition to the two Powers; some law or standard or rule of good which one of the powers conforms to and the other fails to conform…then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up than either of them, and He will be the real God.”
From there he digresses to a secondary argument against Dualism. It is an argument about “badness” that I have reservations about. He says, “If Dualism is true, then the bad Power must be a being who likes badness for its own sake. But in reality we have no experience of anyone liking badness just because it is bad.” My knee-jerk response to this argument was that is was hogwash. But bearing him out, he came close to convincing me. “I do not mean that, of course, that the people who do this are not desperately wicked. I do mean that wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way. You can be good for the mere sake of goodness; you cannot be bad for the mere sake of badness…no one ever did a cruel action simply because cruelty is wrong – only because cruelty was pleasant or useful to him….Goodness is, so to speak, itself; badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.” And then I find myself swinging back again to disagree. Am I to believe that the wicked people are really just seeking good? It is difficult to grasp that badness is made up of goodness. It seems to me that when good becomes bad, it is no longer good. I tend to think rather of badness as a negation of goodness, or even hating goodness. (Though I can see his point that it derives its original substance, if you will, from goodness.) I can remember times in my younger days when I was just plain cruel. It was often the very “badness” of what I was doing that made it so sweet to me. I would often do what I was told, but in a bad way, when it would have been just as easy to do it in a right way, just to be rebellions. I doubt if I’m alone in this. Why else would companies advertise their chocolates as “sinfully sweet” if the idea of sin didn’t give them an edge in the marketplace. Why else do we have that expression about forbidden pleasures being the sweetest. There are things that are in and of themselves good that people prefer to do in a bad way simply because doing it in that “bad” way increases their enjoyment. It seems to me that the wicked hate what is good, because goodness comes from God, and they hate God Those who hate God also hate what comes from Him. So, for me this argument, though I understand it, is not entirely unconvincing.
From here Lewis enters into a discussion of the very nature of evil itself, always a provocative subject. It is one of life’s greatest mysteries that in a world created good, beings that God made good could go bad. And it is from the Scriptural truth of a good beginning that Lewis apparently derives his doctrine of evil. Scripture itself doesn’t give us much by way of explanation in this regard, so I suppose Lewis’ view is acceptable as far as speculations go. He explains that evil’s existence is parasitic, that good must exist first before there can be a perversion of it, that evil cannot exist apart from a source of good. “That is why Dualism, in a strict sense, will not work.”
3. The Shocking Alternative
I think it’s clear that up until this point I’ve given Lewis the benefit of every doubt, and that I have the greatest respect for him and his incredible abilities. I’ve tried to make concessions for his time and place – his unique station in life – whenever I’ve had concerns or disagreements, in particular as regards the ongoing absence of the use of Scripture thus far. I’ve allowed his more ambiguous statements to say what I hoped they were saying rather than the contrary possibility. But at this point an elephant has entered into the room. I’m not going to pretend it’s not there. Here is where Lewis and I begin to part theological paths. This is the chapter that guaranteed I will never pass this work on to an unbeliever, or a novice in the faith. Though I will continue to enjoy much of his work, I will not recommend him as an apologist.*
Here is where Lewis asks that age old question: “Is this state of affairs in accordance with God’s will or not? If it is, He is a strange God, you will say: and if it is not, how can anything happen contrary to the will of a being with absolute power?” He answers, not from Scripture, but from philosophy. The reason the situation is what it is, he posits, is to leave room for “free-will”. He says, “You make a thing voluntary and then half the people do not do it. That is not what you willed, but your will has made it possible.” And then he expands this statement of human experience to explain the state of the universe: “It is probably the same in the universe.” To be fair, he did say “probably”, but he never speaks again as if there was any doubt.
I have many objections to this free-will doctrine, but first I will present a condensed version of Lewis’ argument in his words. “God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good, it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why then did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, it also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having? A world of automata – of creatures that worked like machines – would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they must be free.”
First, I can imagine a being who is free but has no possibility of going wrong. His name is God. I can also imagine, because Scripture tells me to, being who are free but can not sin, namely the glorified saints in heaven. It does not follow that love cannot be true or rapturous unless it possible not to love. Real love does not cease to be voluntary simply because there is no alternative. An alternative can test the genuine character of the love, but it does not create it. My love for my husband does not become genuine and voluntary the day another man presents himself to me.
Secondly, Lewis states that free will is “the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.” If this were true it would not mean that the love between God the Father and God the Son is not a love worth having. God cannot help but love His Son. Is His that love not worth having? God cannot sin. Is His will not free? Did Adam’s love for God grow after the prohibition? Was Adam a machine before God gave him a choice? No, Adam became a living spirit the moment God breathed life into him. So, the first man, newly formed in the image of God, was innocent and unmarred, but was not himself God. His goodness was a derived goodness. His ability to love was a derived ability. He was not the source of it, nor could he sustain it apart from God. The thing that made man unique of all creation was not his ability to choose, his "free will", but his capacity to know, understand, and love - in particular - to know, understand, and love the almighty God. (The will is merely the motivational function of the heart's understanding,knowledge, and love.)
God made man a being capable of knowing Him and appreciating His character, his diverse and perfect moral attributes. I once heard a man say that what makes the love of his wife more special than the love of his dog is that his wife has a choice whether to love him or not. His dog can't help but love him. (This was his argument for the necessity of free will.) Well, if that were really true, all he would have is his wife's decision and the unsettling knowledge that she could very well change her mind. No, what makes the love of a wife special to a man (assuming it really is more special to him than that of his dog) is not the fact that she could choose not to love him; rather, it is that she can know him in a way his dog cannot. She can relate to him as one like himself. She can love him for who he is, not just what he is. She is complex like him, able to see into his heart, so to speak, and appreciate to some degree what goes on there. Her love for him is rich and full of understanding. It is certainly no mistake that the Scripture speaks of marital love as “knowing”.
So, Lewis has set up a false dichotomy with a world of machines vs. a real world, with the only difference between the two being the ability to disobey. The way he sees it, a world full of living, breathing things capable of only good, and incapable of wrong choices is a machine world, not real. The way I see it, that world very nearly describes heaven.
This next statement about took my breath away: “Of course God knew what would happen if they used the freedom the wrong way; apparently He thought it worth the risk.” God, who knows the end from the beginning, can not, because of His very nature, take risks! I’m going to give Lewis the benefit of the doubt here, since I’m quite certain, if cornered, he would not turn out to be an open theist.
It is Lewis’ take that “God thinks this state of war in the universe” is a “price worth paying for free will – that is, for making a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings.” I will stop here for a brief moment and deal with the rationality of the argument, as it has no Scriptural basis. It seems to me that he’s contradicting his previous argument on the nature of evil and making real good dependent upon the ability to do evil. He’s implying that the essence of true goodness is the innate ability to do evil, making real goodness is dependent upon the capacity for evil. I will also add, at the end of this topic that I’ve found no such emphasis in Scripture on the value God places upon man’s free will.
Then Lewis seems to come back to earth for a bit, acknowledging that no human can adequately answer the question of how the “Dark Power” went wrong, (though I suspect that it’s not altogether different than how man, himself did, only with the absence of a tempter.) Lewis’ attempt at understanding is insightful: “The moment you have a self at all, there is a possibility of putting yourself first – wanting to be the centre – wanting to be God, in fact. That was the sin of Satan, and that was the sin he taught the human race.” And from this sin stem all the rest in history, as man tries futilely to find his life and happiness independently, apart from God. And this, says Lewis, is “the key to history”.
God, he says, did three things as a result of the fall: First, He left us our conscience. Second, He gave mankind redemption myths – “good dreams…queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions”. And Thirdly, He selected the Jews and “spent several centuries hammering into their heads the sort of God He was…”.
And “then comes the real shock. Among the Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He were God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time.” Lewis’ discussion here of the shocking nature of the forgiveness of sins is first rate. “I mean the claim to forgive sins: any sins. Now unless the speaker if God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offences against himself… But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other man’s toes and stealing other men’s money?…Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offenses. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken…” Yes, and Amen! This is a fantastic argument for the deity of Christ.
And then comes Lewis’ classic and priceless argument: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.”
4. The Perfect Penitent
Left with only one viable option, that Jesus Christ is who He claimed to be, Lewis moves on to discuss the purpose of His death and resurrection which Christians are “constantly talking about”. He discussed briefly that there are various “theories” as to the “point of this dying”, and disappointingly dismisses their importance. He sums up the main point this way: “The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start….We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity.” And with that kernel I certainly agree.
He makes passing reference to the notion of the penal nature of the substitution of Christ – “the one about our being let off because Christ had volunteered to bear a punishment instead of us.” He seems not to recommend us to take ‘paying the penalty’ “in the sense of being punished” (I’m not clear as to why he has a problem with that aspect of redemption, since if the penalty for my sin is death, which Scripture clearly tells me, I certainly hope someone would bear my punishment on my behalf – and Isaiah certainly does tell me that He was bruised for my transgressions.) Lewis prefers instead, to think of it merely in the sense of a debt: “there is plenty of point in a person who has some assets paying it on behalf of someone who has not…when one person has got himself into a hole, the trouble of getting him out usually falls on a kind friend.”
From here Lewis discusses man’s condition as a rebel against God and his need for repentance. He makes a profound statement, “Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person – and he would not need it…the same badness which makes us need it, makes us unable to do it.” These are very true words, paradoxically stated, about the condition of man. I would add, however that the inability of man is a moral one. It is an inability of the will. Man cannot repent, because man does not want to. His evil desires prevent him.
But perhaps it is because he omits the willful/moral nature of man’s inability, that he is able from this excellent statement to go on to expound a rather synergistic view of salvation. Lewis seems to assume that folks, on their own, really want to submit to God, but can’t, and therefore just need a little help. But again his wording was a bit ambiguous, so it could be that I’m misunderstanding him on this point.
His brief explanation of the incarnation is lovely: “But supposing God became man – suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God’s nature in one person – then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God. You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man. Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we man share in God’s dying…but we cannot share God’s dying unless God dies; and He cannot die except by being a man. That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all.”
5. The Practical Conclusion
As a result of Christ’s work, “In Christ a new kind of man appeared: and the new kind of life which began in Him is to be put into us.” This is a beautiful statement, but what follows is nothing short of disturbing. “There are three things that spread the Christ life to us: baptism, belief, and that mysterious action which different Christians call by different names – Holy Communion, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper. At least, those are the three ordinary methods….Anyone who professes to teach you Christian doctrine will, in fact, tell you to use all three…” There is so much that is ambiguous and objectionable in that statement that I barely know where to begin. So, I will only state the key omission – the Scripture. The absence of the mention that such a thing as the written word of God even exists – this far into the book, and at this point in the discussion is profoundly disappointing. Where will this “belief” come from is not from hearing the word of God?
And the rest of the chapter continued to disappoint. I’ll try to be brief as we near the end and provide some of the most questionable quotes as examples .
“Do not think I am setting up baptism and belief and the Holy Communion as things that will do instead of our own attempts to copy Christ.” (This is an ambiguous statement which could mean that it’s not enough to call Him your Savior, if you don’t obey His word; or it could mean that salvation is based upon a combination of faith plus works.)
“..a Christian can lose the Christ-life which has been put into him, and he has to make efforts to keep it. But even the best Christian that ever lived is not acting on his own steam – he is only nourishing or protecting a life he could never have acquired by his own efforts.” (Another ambiguous statement, seeming to imply at once that salvation can be lost, and that it can’t .)
This one’s not questionable. It’s one of those lovely little nuggets in the middle of the muddle: “He [the Christian] does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.”
And here is the most questionable bit of the whole chapter: “Here is another thing that used to puzzle me. Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements 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 though Him.” And here I will state that Lewis is first, evading the point and secondly just plain wrong. (See. John 14:6, Acts 4: 12, and Eph. 2: 11-12). Since he’s now hinted at the possibility that faith in Christ may not be necessary for all, he seems to sense the inevitable, and spends the rest of the section in a struggle to convince his listeners that they should not let that prevent them from becoming a Christian.
Lewis has an amazing ability to draw respect, even from those who disagree. That is a gift I would surely like to have! In spite of how difficult this reading has been, I look forward to the next. We will be reading Book Three – Christian Behavior - next, after a break for the holidays. I suspect it will be smoother sailing now. Christmas blessings and Happy New Year to the rest of you readers.
* I chose to come and re-visit this book seven years after this writing. Let me just say that I am astonished by my pomposity in this post. This was written during my early Calvinist years (aka "cage-stage"). Though my arguments with Lewis's reasoning still seem reasonable all these years later - I really only barely give a flying hoot about whatever those doctrinal differences might be. I just the other day handed a copy of Mere Christianity to a friend whose daughter is struggling with the claims of Christianity. I am, these many years later, much closer to agreeing with Lewis than disagreeing, and am well-acquainted with the damage that the unfettered Calvinistic doctrines of the will and sovereignty of God can do.