Mere Christianity | Book II, Chapter 1

C.S. Lewis | Mere Christianity
Book II | What Christians Believe
Chapter 1 | “The Rival Conceptions of God”

Question: In a book about what Christians believe, what does Lewis say “Christians do not need to believe?”

Answer: You don’t need to believe that all religions are completely wrong.

Q: How will the atheist’s view be different than a Christian’s view?

A. An atheist will need to reject “all the religions of the whole world” as “simply one huge mistake.” The Christian is “free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth.”

Q. How did Lewis’ journey from atheism to Christianity affect his thinking about other religions.

A. As an atheist, he had to come to the conclusion that all religions were wrong. But as a Christian he “was able to take a more liberal view”—liberal, here, not meaning politics, but about the ability the think in a more open way. Lewis uses a math analogy here: With a math problem, “there is only one right answer . . . and all other answers are wrong: but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.”

Q. How does Lewis divide humanity in terms of their thoughts about God?

A. The majority view is that there is “some kind of God or gods” and the minority (or “materialist”) view is that there is not. Christianity, then, is part of this majority view which “lines up with ancient Greeks and Romans, modern savages, Stoics, Platonists, Hindus, Mohammedans, etc.”

Q. How does Lewis divide the people who believe in God?

A. This is a question of what kind of God they believe in. There are two ideas on this and the first is that God is “beyond good and evil.” As Lewis explains it,

“We humans call one thing good and another thing bad. But according to some people that is merely our human point of view. These people would say that the wiser you become the less you would want to call anything good or bad, and the more dearly you would see that everything is good in one way and bad in another, and that nothing could have been different.”

So, for example, we say cancer is bad because it kills people and doctors are good because they kill cancer, but with this view, “you might just as well call a successful surgeon bad because he kills a cancer.” Everything comes down to your “point of view.” You just need to step far enough back to see this. This view is called Pantheism and is held by Hindus.

The second “and opposite idea” about God is the one held by Jews, Mohammedans, and Christians who believe He “is quite definitely ‘good’ or ‘righteous.’” This is “a God who takes sides, who loves love and hates hatred, who wants us to behave in one way and not in another.”

Q. What is the other “big difference” in the idea of God between these two groups of people who believe in God?

A. The Pantheists “believe that God . . . animates the universe as you animate your body: that the universe almost is God.”

In contrast, Lewis says, “The Christian idea is quite different. They think God invented and made the universe—like a man making a picture or composing a tune.”  But Lewis stresses the point that “A painter is not a picture, and he does not die if his picture is destroyed.” There is a separation between the Creator and the creation.

Q. What is the problem that comes up as these differences play out?

A. When you are “confronted with a cancer or a slum the Pantheist can say, ‘If you could only see it from the divine point of view, you would realize that this also is God.’” In other words, you need to ease up on your distinctions between good and bad. The way things are is the way things are and they are all part of God.

The Christian says that “if you think some things really bad, and God really good, then you cannot talk like that. You must believe that God is separate from the world and that some of the things we see in it are contrary to His will.”

Q. How does Lewis describe the Pantheistic view?

A. To say the least, he disagrees strongly with it and calls it “damned nonsense.” After a listener complained that this was “frivolous swearing,” Lewis included a note to say, “I mean exactly what I say—nonsense that is damned is under God’s curse, and will (apart from God’s grace) lead those who believe it to eternal death.” Lewis continues,

“For Christianity is a fighting religion. It thinks God made the world—that space and time, heat and cold, and all the colors and tastes, and all the animals and vegetables, are things that God ‘made up out of His head’ 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.”

Q. What is the question that gets raised and how did Lewis address it when he was an atheist?

A. The question is What’s wrong with the world? If a good God is behind all of this, why did things turn out this way? As an atheist, Lewis refused to pay attention to Christian arguments because he thought it was “much simpler and easier to say that the world was not made by any intelligent power.”

Q. What happened for Lewis?

A. He found himself running into a problem. His “argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust.” But then he had to ask himself how he had come to “this idea of just and unjust.” To use Lewis’ analogy, you can’t talk about crooked lines unless you have “some idea of a straight line.” If the world is bad and without meaning, what does it mean that Lewis, “who was supposed to be part of the show,” found himself “in such violent reaction against it?” When we fall in water, we feel wet, but fish don’t. Why was he trying to find meaning?

Lewis could have said that justice “was nothing but a private idea of my own.” The problem there was that his “argument against God collapsed too— for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies.”

In short, while he was “trying to prove that God did not exist,” he created a contradiction for himself. On the one he wanted to say this was a senseless world, but at the same time he wanted to say that his idea of injustice was something that did make sense.

Q. So then, what was Lewis’ final argument against atheism?

A. Lewis says “atheism turns out to be too simple. 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 without meaning.”

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There are those who say life is meaningless or that we need to create our own meaning in life. Christianity reminds us that meaning is found in the relationship of the created to the Creator. Psalm 100:3 reminds us,

“Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.”






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