The Case For Christianity
The Case for Christianity is a series of transcribed radio talks given by C.S. Lewis during WWII, and edited together with additional notes into book form. It is one of three books that ultimately made up his famous apologetic work Mere Christianity.
Reading the book reminded me of some mathematics seminars I used to attend. The speaker would spend great effort in setting up the initial steps of some elaborate proof, only to spend the last 3 minutes of his talk rushing through the rest to get to his conclusion. It is the classic cartoon of a math professor writing “Poof, a miracle occurs here” in the middle of his equation list. Lewis attempts to build the case for Jesus Christ on first principles. The argumentation style is that of a long chain of assumptions and arguments, with one continuously built on the other. The problem with this type of argument is that when any argument or assumption in the chain is shown wrong, or even questioned or doubted, everything else that follows is discredited. If the foundational argument fails, the whole structure collapses and we might as well not read the rest of the book.
Lewis begins his arguments, indeed the first half of the book, with the argument of our moral conscience. He claims that since we have a moral baseline, which seems to be a standard across humanity, that it must have been implanted into us upon creation. Since our moral conscience cannot conceive of the abstract notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ unless they exist, they must then exist outside of our selves. Has our moral base been implanted into us, or are we born with it? It is the classic sociological problem of ‘nature versus nurture’, which I am not well versed in. But even if we are born with a moral conscience, is it truly universal? Is right and correct in one culture equally abhorrent in another? Does this moral base exist in the same sense as a universal multiplication table, as Lewis claims? Is this truly evidence of a transcendent creator who implanted that base into every human? I really don’t know the answer to this, but they are important questions to consider when reading Lewis’s line of reasoning.
The subject of morality without God bores me a little, so any reader who wants to comment on this, please feel free to do so. Lewis spends over half the book establishing this argument, so he needs to move quickly to get from here to the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Lewis then argues the subjectivity of good and bad. By defining these terms with the frame of reference of an observer standing outside of each, Lewis rejects the concept of Pantheism. Lewis uses a frequent tactic by assuming that humanity cannot conceive of an abstract concept if it does not exist. For instance, consider this quote:
“If the 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.”
This type of argument permeates the book. He could have saved a lot of space by simply claiming that if God did not exist, we could not conceive of him, therefore God exists. But are arguments like these valid? If something can be imagined, does that mean it must exist? I am no cognitive scientist, but having attended numerous seminars on abstract mathematics, I tend to doubt it. Topology comes off the top of my head as an abstract concept which has little practical value, little physical construction, but fills countless journal articles. Just because topological objects are abstractions that we represent with symbols does not mean any of it really exists. It doesn’t. What about the concept of God? Modern science has forced God out of the physical world and into some abstract space. The only way to imagine our modern concept of God is through symbols which represent him in some abstract space – and I see no difference between that and mathematics. After all, if Lewis is correct in that we cannot imagine or even perceive of the non-existent, then I think we would all imagine the concept of ‘God’ the same way, which we all know is absurd.
Unlike ‘hot’ or ‘cold’, ‘God’ has different meanings for everyone – different symbols to represent some concept of higher power. If Lewis is correct, then the Hindu is fooling the entire Western world with their claimed belief in Krishna, because since Krishna does not exist to the Christian, he must be inconceivable. No, Krishna, like the God of the Bible is one more abstraction that is represented purely with symbols.
Can we imagine the non-existent through symbols? I really don’t see why not. That is why it was frustrating to read page after page of similar arguments in Lewis’ book.
The ultimate conclusion to this book is the divinity and salvific nature of Jesus Christ. He concludes with the famous ‘Lord, Liar, Lunatic’ argument that is famous amongst Christian apologetic circles. In a nutshell, Lewis considers the claims of Jesus as God, which are mostly found in the Gospel of John. Then he argues that Jesus could not be just a great moral teacher without being God:
“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said wouldn’t be a great moral teacher. He’d either be a lunatic – on the level with the man who says he’s a poached egg – or else he’d 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.”
I first remember reading this argument in Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict about 20 years ago where, if memory serves, he devotes an entire section to the above quote. I was astounded, even as a Christian, that I could refute it about 5 seconds after I read it. There are other options besides the three that Lewis has given. Because in order to accept this thesis, you have to accept that the Gospel of John is recording the whole, accurate, and un-exaggerated words of Jesus claiming to be God lock, stock and barrel. And if you are that far along in your acceptance of Scripture, then you are probably a Christian anyway. In other words, this argument, like many of the apologetic arguments out there, will only work if you already believe. It is a book that is designed, not to persuade the questioning or even seeking unbeliever, but to bolster the faith and soothe the doubts of the committed Christian.
In the end, The Case for Christianity is a long case of circular reasoning, and I was left disappointed. This is too bad, because Lewis is a clever writer, and I really enjoy his fiction. But it frankly amazes me that Lewis is held up in Christian circles as a great intellectual champion of the Faith. He was not as popular when I first read him in the mid-1970s as he is now. I think that perhaps his legend has grown 45 years after his death. But as interesting as he is to read, his apologetic work just does not hold much water for this reader.
(originally published on 27 Aug 2007)