December 26, 2005


The one thing Jesus is not (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, reprinted in The Spectator, December 17th, 2005)

God sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean those queer 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. He also selected one particular 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. Those people were the Jews, and the Old Testament gives an account of the hammering process.

Then comes the real shock. Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who 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. Now let us get this clear. Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world Who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.

One part of the claim tends to slip past us unnoticed because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to. I mean the claim to forgive sins: any sins. Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offences against himself. You tread on my toe and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. 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. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history.

Yet (and this is the strange, significant thing) even His enemies, when they read the Gospels, do not usually get the impression of silliness and conceit. Still less do unprejudiced readers. Christ says that He is ‘humble and meek’ and we believe Him; not noticing that, if He were merely a man, humility and meekness are the very last characteristics we could attribute to some of His sayings.

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. 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.

Posted by Peter Burnet at December 26, 2005 12:05 PM

This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history.

Which side of the argument do the odds favor: that a man who claims to be God is God, or is silly and conceited?

This is the Liar, Lunatic or Lord argument, it is very unconvincing. People claim untruths all the time without being liars or lunatics - just think of the alien abductees who have been certified by psychologists to be neither insane or lying.

The last part about us not being able to claim him as a moral teacher is likewise nonsense. His teachings are what they are, they can stand on their own without reference to the veracity of his claims to divinity. Lewis' claims sound very convincing to the already convinced, but are hardly persuasive to the doubter.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 26, 2005 3:55 PM

Bottom line: when you read the Bible literally all you have is an evil god.

Posted by: bplus at December 26, 2005 4:50 PM


So, let's get this straight. Your kids come to you and tell you they have forsworn all to follow a barefoot, non-too-cheery mendicant who wanders through the desert preaching he has a pipeline to the Divine and maybe much more and, by the way, says we should love one another. Your response is to tell them to forget the transcendent stuff and get a good job, but that he sounds promising as an ethical mentor?

Posted by: Peter B at December 26, 2005 5:56 PM

Re: Lunatics.

It is profoundly unwise to dismiss them as C. S. Lewis has done here. All mystics have been at least momentarily schizophrenic. The only people who have glimpsed the Divine and lived to tell about it are schizophrenics and those who have had near-death experiences. Both quite literally see the light. The rest of us are too constrained by our sense of self. Jesus, Don Quixote, Crazy Horse, Randall Patrick McMurphy ...all variations on that theme.

Posted by: ghostcat at December 26, 2005 7:07 PM

If they wanted to follow him, I'd try to dissuade them as I would for any other cult. Following him around would probably get you killed. But with the distance of 2000 years, if you ask me if it is ok to cherry-pick from his ethical teachings, I'd say yes.

Not that I find it to be all wise. The part about turning the other cheek is ok, if you want to raise your kids to be wimps and doormats. He was a pacifist. It amazes me how you war-mongering Christians convince yourselves that Jesus would be in favor of this or that war. You take the one instance of him overturning the moneylenders tables and promote him to Commander in Chief of all Christian wars. He wouldn't have had any of it. The peace-nik pacifist types like Jimmy Carter and the Pope are much more in line with Jesus than GWB is.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 27, 2005 1:46 AM

That's why the New Testament has been largely ignored in the War on Terror; as a matter of fact, I would really like to see someone make the case that Jesus would approve of the foreign and domestic policies of American corporatism that have ruled our country since it was first stolen from the Native Americans.

Posted by: Grog at December 27, 2005 2:10 AM

The power systems of the United States push it subjects into accepting the role of Jesus; to work tirelessly and accept whatever punishment may fall in an unjust world in return for forgiveness for exacting injustices onto others. A vicious cycle.
Of course, I interpret the character of Jesus much differently.

Posted by: Grog at December 27, 2005 2:13 AM

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'Im ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I dont accept His claim to be God.'

While I fully understand the need for such an "all or nothing" approach to belief in God (something, by the way, that Judaism, as I understand it at least, does not share, and may even actually discourage), does such an approach not therefore mean that if one doesn't accept the divinity of Jesus, then that person should not deign to claim that he learns anything from Jesus?

E.g., it seems that Lewis is saying, rather contemptuously, if politely: "Accept Jesus, do; but if you don't, don't bother me with any ludicrous, patronizing or condescending claims that you can actually learn from him."

If so, it seems, to me, to be a rather odd rhetorical flourish---or belief, for that matter. (And I would add, unwise and unchartible--- perhaps even unchristian?)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at December 27, 2005 5:12 AM

I've never understood the appeal of C.S. Lewis:

"he forgave you for treading on other mens toes and stealing other mens money?"

What a stupid statement... our sins are against God, not against other men. It is fully within our capacity to seek forgiveness from other men. And they can forgive or not. Big Deal.

The Lion, Witch, Wardrobe book... if taken as a literal allegory would seem to suggest that Jesus died to save Judas. Now, I've never read it that way, but I would not blink an eye to find out that C.S. Lewis intended it as such.

The simple fact is that Jesus came to fulfill the law, not to abolish it. The law provides for sacrifice, but does not fully provide for "an eye for an eye". (In other words, Jesus gave His life willingly for ours, unlike a sacrificed animal). Jesus proved His ability to avoid death with His well-documented miracles. This means He gave His life up, willingly. And His life would cover any sin.

But salvation still requires faith, and that is a gift of God. He only gives it to those who are predestined... who are chosen of God. The choice is not ours.

Posted by: Randall Voth at December 27, 2005 6:39 AM


Hopefully I can give this one a go with a little humility.

Lewis wrote this at a time when Anglican bishops were challenging this and that "literal" belief about Christ's nature and story. Christianity has always been prone to this kind of questionning because the story is so fantastic as to try credulity while at the same time occurring pretty much in "real" time, historically speaking. It's much harder to interpret it all as allegorical or a partly-true, semi-historical myth the way one might with, say, the stories of Abraham and Moses. Hence so many schisms, sects within Protestantism and the emphasis on authority for the Catholics.

Anyway, from the thirties to the fifties, trendy Anglican vicars were challenging belief in this or that (the Virgin birth, the miracles and eventually the Resurrection), all the while insisting that He had an important ethical message that alone could support faith and the Church. In practice, it usually meant trying to show (a la Robert) that if Christ were alive today, he'd be canvassing for the dear old Labour party. Well, we all know the current state of the Anglican Church.

My challenge to Robert was not based upon an assertion that I've cornered Truth, and certainly not on asserting a moral superiority, but on logic and comprehension. I can understand a Jew who says he is agnostic (or even an unbeliever) but who, out of an incohate sense that self-denial is desirable, adopts and promotes Jewish ethics, because that code of law or ethics is so concrete and detailed. But the whole concept of "Chistian ethics" divorced from Christian belief is much more nebulous unless, like Randall, you include much Old Testament law, which many, many Christians, and especially liberal Christians, don't. The fact is that Christ did not really leave a stand-alone comprehensive code of ethics--He left a hodge-podge of inspiring, but none-too-well defined situational ambiguities (which He surely intended to be received with reference to applicable Jewish law) and some general enjoinders about love. It is very, very easy to slip into simply adopting the self as moral arbiter while avoiding confronting the implications of so doing by telling oneself one is following Christ's ethical teachings, because, standing alone, they are so malleable.

This is the dilemma much of mainstream Protestantism finds itself in--they really have no insight or guidance whatsoever to give about actual moral temptations and choices. Every challenge is met by joining hands and talking about love and then getting on the to real business of world poverty and global change. My most memorable example was a few days after 9/11 when my wife and eye stumbled on a local Anglican picnic organized hurriedly so people could be together in light of the events. The priest was welcoming, but very confused and just mouthed pop-psychology banalities about "letting it be" and "healing". Imagine--a Christian priest totally flummoxed morally by someone driving an airplane into a skyscraper. no doubt he thought that, if Christ were alive, He would head straight for the United Nations.

Anyway, granted Lewis is playing theological hardball here, but he was challenging the liberal pabulum the Church was cooking. His basic point that the story is so fantastic that there isn't much room for cherry-picking the nice and easy feel-good parts strikes me as very compelling.

Posted by: Peter B at December 27, 2005 8:03 AM

And, I should add, more than a little disconcerting.

Posted by: Peter B at December 27, 2005 8:09 AM

And if He is, what difference does that make?

Posted by: David Cohen at December 27, 2005 9:20 AM

Granted, it is easier to cherry pick if one, like myself, does not accept his divinity. Yet I don't see that it is any easier for traditional Christians to reconcile their beliefs to Jesus' life and works as it is for the trendy Anglicans.

As I mentioned, Jesus was a total pacifist, nothing that he said or did would support a Christian nationalism, or a Christian theory of a good war. Those who say likewise are the real cherry pickers, promoting one incident where he overturned some tables into a docrine in support of violence in defense of oneself and one's nation. This in contrast to every other word he preached. Jesus would not run to the UN, he would sit in the street and urge passerbys to devote themselves to God's kingdom to come. There would be no taking up of arms. He wouldn't defend Israel against the Romans, what makes anyone think he would defend America against the terrorists?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at December 27, 2005 9:45 AM

Robert - Nonsense. Jesus not only overturned the moneychangers' tables, he was notorious for resisting the payment of taxes to the Romans, was responsible for the killing of dozens of Roman swine, and advocated his disciples carrying (and, in certain contexts, using) swords. This "total pacifist" idea is sheer fantasy.

Jesus preached a spirit of love. Even when we kill, it should be in a spirit of love. He never rejected killing or the use of force, he merely demanded that it be done in accord with God's commandments and with a loving heart. This is not pacifism.

To not lead a small people into war against a great and brutal empire -- that's merely prudence, not pacifism. Just war theory forbids imprudent wars.

Posted by: pj at December 27, 2005 1:50 PM

Ah well. Looks like I waded into an intramural disputation. Should know better than to stick my nose into business not my own.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at December 27, 2005 5:19 PM

bplus, We were created for God's pleasure, not our own. Read your bible and you may discover how "evil" (or should I say, uncompromising), God truly is.

Just because you don't like the concept of predestination and the gift of faith, doesn't mean it isn't the core foundation of salvation.

What kind of God is dictated by His own creation's choices?

Posted by: Randall Voth at December 27, 2005 9:12 PM