Tim Challies Christian Blog and Commentary

Reading Classics - Mere Christianity (III)

Today we arrive at our third week of reading through Mere Christianity. The first week we read the Introductory bits while last week we read the first book, “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe.” This week we read the second book, “What Christians Believe.”


In Mere Christianity Lewis attempts only to teach only the very foundations of the faith. Hence his look at “what Christians believe” touches only on the most basic but foundational beliefs. In this section we see, I think, Lewis at his best and his worst; we see his amazing brilliance at times but also see where some of his beliefs seem borderline unbiblical.

Lewis begins this book by looking to rival conceptions of God and does a fantastic job of showing the intellectual dishonesty of atheism. When he was an atheist, he says, “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.” Atheism turns out to be too simple, too dishonest. “If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.”

In the second chapter, “The Invasion,” he deals with the entrance of evil into the world. He says here that one of the reasons he believe Christianity is that it is a religion you could not have guessed. There is an “otherness” about Christianity; this proves that it could not be the invention of men. As he introduces evil he says “wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way. … Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled.” This is a theme that we see in The Chronicles of Narnia as well. Badness and goodness are not equal forces; badness is simply goodness gone wrong.

In “The Shocking Alternative” he discusses free will and man’s response to God. He says “free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.” Though I understand why people hold to this (it is, after all, a very common belief), I am not convinced that we can easily prove it from Scripture. I am not convinced that God gave us free will because the alternative would be robotic, automated worship. This may be the case, but I don’t think Scripture tells us as much. Lewis also treads on dangerous ground by introducing “risk” in connection to free will, saying that God “thought it was worth the risk” to give people free will. The niwhole idea of risk seems to contradict God’s omniscience and omnipotence. It may be that Lewis sees risk as mere anthropomorphism. If so, I can see some validity in such a statement. However, I do think we are on potentially dangerous ground here. Much of the rest of this chapter is fantastic. Lewis says, for example, that “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” He begins to introduce Jesus, asking the reader to deal properly with Jesus’ claims and not allowing the reader to see Jesus as merely a good or kind man. He concludes with his well-known “liar, lunatic or Lord” grid.

“The Perfect Penitent” deals with the atonement. Here we see a vague outline of Lewis’ thoughts on the atonement; and what we see is not necessarily orthodox (think: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). He warns, rightly I think, that theories of the atonement are not themselves the thing you are asked to accept. But this must not let us off as we attempt to understand it and to understand it rightly. While Lewis has the basics right (“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.”) from what I can see, he gets the details wrong.

He concludes this book with “The Practical Conclusion.” Here he admits just how strange this whole thing is—how strange the Christian claims are. He draws an analogy to sex saying, “He [God] did not consult us when He invented sex: He has not consulted us either when He invented this.” As odd as the Christian claims may be, we are not asked by God to do anything less than accept them and to trust in him. This final chapter is a call for the reader to simply believe and obey. Unfortunately, while Lewis affirms “that no man can be saved expect through Christ” he leaves a door wide open, saying “we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.”

As I said, in these few pages we have seen Lewis at his brilliant best. But we have also seen how some of his beliefs were simply not biblical. I suspect we will see more of this as we continue through the book.

Next Week

Next Thursday is Christmas. The Thursday after that is New Years Day. These are about the lowest-traffic days of the year for the Internet and I know not too many of us will be thinking about C.S. Lewis. So why don’t we reconvene on January 8. We’ll read the first six chapters of Book III. That’s about 35 or 40 pages in three weeks; shouldn’t be too hard!