Mere Christianity | Book II, Chapter 3

C.S. Lewis | Mere Christianity
Book II | What Christians Believe
Chapter 3 | “The Shocking Alternative”

Question: What is the Christian belief that C.S. Lewis ended the last chapter with?

Answer. “An evil power has made himself for the present the Prince of this World.”

Q. What are the problems that are raised by this belief and how does Lewis resolve them?

A. Is this the way God wants things? Why does God allow this? How is it possible that anything can be “contrary to the will of a being with absolute power”?

(Note: I find it so refreshing that Lewis identifies these problems and asks these questions. These are the problems many of us have thought about and the questions many of us have asked. The good news is there are thoughtful ways to resolve the problems and good answers to the questions as we learn presently.)

Lewis goes on to talk about how “anyone who has been in authority knows how a thing can be in accordance with your will in one way and not in another.” Mom says she won’t clean the kids’ room every night—they need to do it for themselves. And then she finds a mess one night. Lewis points out, “That is against her will. She would prefer the children to be tidy. But on the other hand, it is her will which has left the children free to be untidy.”

This is the problem in any human enterprise. As Lewis says it, “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.”

Q. How does this relate to the universe?

A. “God created things which had free will.” This means we can do the right thing or the wrong thing. Maybe some “can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong.” But Lewis cannot. Creatures with free will are “free to be good” and also “free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible.”

Q. How does Lewis answer the question of why God gave his creatures free will?

A. While free will “makes evil possible,” it “is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.” God didn’t want to create robots. He intended “His higher creatures” to be happy and they were designed to find their happiness in “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.”

Q. What did God know could go wrong and how does Lewis explain why he did it?

A. His creatures could make bad choices with their freedom, but “apparently He thought it worth the risk.” Maybe we don’t agree with God’s decision, but Lewis points out “there is a difficulty about disagreeing with God. He is the source from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source. When you are arguing against Him you are arguing against the very power that makes you able to argue at all: it is like cutting off the branch you are sitting on.” God thought this world at war was “a price worth paying for free will.”

Q. What is the implication of free will?

A. Free will is the difference between a toy world, where a puppet master “pulls the strings” of his creatures and “a live world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen.”

Q. What question becomes silly once we’ve understood free will?

A. It’s the question, “Why did God make a creature of such rotten stuff that it went wrong?” The better something is—smart, strong, and free—“then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong.” Lewis walks us up the hierarchy. “A cow cannot be very good or very bad; a dog can be both better and worse; a child better and worse still; an ordinary man, still more so; a man of genius, still more so; a superhuman spirit best—or worst—of all.”

Q. What went wrong with the Dark Power?

A. Lewis says humans “cannot give an answer with any certainty,” but based on how humans can go wrong, Lewis offers, “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.” The temptation to Adam and Eve

“was the idea that they could ‘be like god’— could set up on their own as if they had created themselves—be their own masters—invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”

Q. Why can’t we be happy without putting God first?

A. It’s built into our design. In the same way cars require gasoline and can’t run on anything else (Note: Obviously, the analogy breaks down a little bit all these years later with hybrid and electric vehicles),

“God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”

The best institutions, civilizations, companies can be excellent, but then, inevitably, “some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top and it all slides back into misery and ruin.” Working to get humans to find their happiness apart from God is the plan of Satan.

Q. Did God do anything to counteract this?

A. Four things. One, he gave us a concience, which gives us “the sense of right and wrong.” People have tried to obey their conscience, though “none of them ever quite succeeded.”

Second (and this is mysterious language), “He sent the human race what I call good dreams: . . . stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men.”

Third, he chose the Jewish people and “spent several centuries hammering into their heads the sort of God He was —that there was only one of Him and that He cared about right conduct.”

Fourth, “the real shock,” is that from the Jewish people a man appears who says some astounding things: He “goes about talking as if He was 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.”

Q. What is so shocking about this?

A. If this person emerged out of pantheism, “anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it.”

But the fact that this person was Jewish, meant he could not be talking about “that kind of God.” For Jewish people, God “meant the Being outside the world Who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else.” So, what this person said was “quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.”

Q. What is the claim that “tends to slip past us unnoticed because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to”?

A. It’s “the claim to forgive sins: any sins.” Unless it’s God speaking, “this is really so preposterous as to be comic.” We can forgive a person when someone commits an offense against us. If Bob bumps into Henry and asks for his forgiveness, Henry can forgive Bob. But what if John, who hadn’t been bumped into, shows up and tells Bob he forgives him? Lewis uses some strong language to describe this: “Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct.”

But then Lewis immediately tells us, “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 offences. “

How do we make sense of this? Lewis answers, “This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin.” Anyone else saying it “would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history.”

Q. What is “the really foolish thing that people often say” about Jesus that Lewis is trying to prevent?

A. “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.”

Lewis’ point is that when people read the gospels, they don’t get an impression of Jesus “of silliness and conceit.” Even enemies of Jesus don’t say this. We believe Jesus when he says that He is “humble and meek.” But many of the things Jesus says don’t sound humble and meek. They sound like someone who is not “merely a man.”

Q. What choice are we left with?

A. Lewis gives one of his most quoted paragraphs here:

“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. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”






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