Mere Christianity 6: The Shocking Alternative

We are still in the section entitled “What Christians Believe”.  Lewis has made his argument for the existence of Someone or Something outside of the universe, and is now in the process of establishing basic Christian beliefs about this Someone or Something.  To this point we have established that there are opposing forces of good and evil in the universe, but they are not equal by any stretch of the imagination.  It turns out that the evil power has borrowed all of what it has and needs for existence itself from the good power.  Thus the nature of the universal conflict is that of a civil war, with the evil power in rebellion against the good power, who turns out to be God Himself.

We looked at the concept of free will–why a good God allows evil to happen in His universe.  The answer is that in order for good to be truly good, it must be freely chosen.  God does not interfere openly in the universe because He wants to give as many as are willing the greatest and longest possible opportunity to choose Him freely.  God will intervene openly in the universe to set right everything that is wrong, but when He does so it’s all over and there will be no more opportunity to choose Him freely.

In the meantime, however, God has not just sat back and done nothing.  First of all He has left us with conscience–that deep-seated sense inside of us that some things are right and others are just wrong.  Many people have tried to live by this, with varying degrees of success, but no one has ever obeyed it perfectly.  Second, He has sent the human race what Lewis calls “good dreams”–that is, those myths and stories that keep cropping up in the pagan religions of the world about a God coming to earth and dying and coming back to life and by His death men are able to have new life.  Third, He picked one relatively obscure people group living in a relatively obscure part of the world, and spent several centuries hammering into their heads the kind of God He is–that He is a good God, that there is only one of Him, and that He cares intensely about right conduct.  These people would be the Jews, and the Old Testament gives an exquisitely detailed account of this hammering process.

And then something strange happened.  All of a sudden, among the people that God has chosen, there turns up one person who claims to be the Son of God and goes around talking as if he were God Himself.  He says he can forgive sins.  He says that he has always existed.  And he says he is coming back at the end of time to judge the universe and everything in it.  Now, given what the Jews believed about God–namely that there was only one of Him and that He lived outside the universe and was vastly different from anything in it, it is completely remarkable for a man to say the sort of things that this man said.  It is especially remarkable that this person claimed to be able to forgive sins; unless this person were God Himself this claim would be completely and totally preposterous.  And yet we find him speaking and behaving as if he were the chief party concerned whenever anyone sins.  Yet in the things that have been written about this person we find no trace of silliness or conceit; he says he is humble and meek and somehow we believe him.  If this person were merely a man humility and meekness are the last qualities that we would attribute to him, and if he claimed to be humble or meek we would blow him off completely.

In case you haven’t already guessed, this person would be Jesus Christ.

At this point Lewis introduces what has been developed by Josh McDowell and other evangelical apologists into the famous “trilemma” that we all know and love:  Lord, liar, or lunatic.

I am trying 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.

Now keep in mind that Lewis originally wrote this in England in 1943 and 1945.  At that time it is quite likely that the greatest apologetic opposition that Christianity faced was from lukewarm believers who accepted Jesus as a great moral teacher and nothing more.  But if this book were written today, the “trilemma” of Lord, liar, or lunatic would not be enough.  There would have to be a fourth “l”:  legend.  There is an increasing number of people out there who believe Jesus is simply a figure of legend whose true character is distorted by the historical evidence about him which has survived to this day.  We see this in The Da Vinci Code and in the vast plethora of Discovery Channel specials about who and what the real Jesus was–this rising tide of belief in the world at large that the Jesus we all know and love as the Son of God and the Savior of the world is simply the product of powerful political/religious councils and conspiracies that tampered with the original source material in order to solidify their own claims to power.

Lewis did not speak to this view of Jesus as merely a figure of legend because he didn’t have to–the book was written sixty years ago and the world has changed a lot since then.  But any of us who wish to use Lewis’ apologetic for Jesus will have to understand that the world has changed a lot since Lewis’ day, that the primary pushback to Christianity no longer comes from those who view Jesus as a great moral teacher and nothing more but instead from those who view Jesus as a figure of legend whom we don’t really know because the historical information we have about him is not to be trusted, and must be prepared to account for this.