Chapter 4 of the second book of Mere Christianity is called “The Perfect Penitent.” Here is my review of this chapter:
C.S. Lewis dedicated this chapter to looking at the crucifixion. He begins by stating that “The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.” He then goes on to explain that different Christians hold to different theories about how the crucifixion works. He argues that “what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work.” So far I have no arguments. I’ve never heard a Christian argue against the crucifixion and resurrection, or their roles in freeing humans from sin. His point in this discussion is this: “Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. Christians would not all agree as to how important those theories are.” This is usually how theories work, after all, theories are explanations as to how things work. However, given the lack of evidence and the many different ideas about how it worked, there is no theory, there are many hypotheses. Being that hypotheses can be mere flights of fancy, the whole resurrection story isn’t worth much. Also, if Christianity can be said to be the belief that Jesus was God (which not all Christians believe) and he died in order to forgive human sin, as Lewis claims in the first quote, and all other beliefs are secondary and differ from tradition to tradition, then this should be a much shorter book. Lewis claims to be writing a book about all Christianity, but, if that were true, how can he say anything more than what the central belief is? Going any further than the central belief, in this case, would ensure that he applies beliefs to all Christians that are only held by some.
Lewis then goes on to make another very bad analogy to science. He claims that “What they do when they want to explain the atom, or something of that sort, is to give you a description out of which you can make a mental picture. But then they warn you that this picture is not what the scientists actually believe. What the scientists believe is a mathematical formula.” This is not even remotely true. Yes, the diagrams that we see are simplifications. They have to be. But these diagrams aren’t pictures of a mathematical reality, they are diagrams that show what the mathematical formula describes. Scientists don’t believe that a mathematical formula is our reality, they believe in a physical phenomenon that can be best explained by a mathematical formula. But there is in fact a physical phenomenon happening.
Lewis then goes back into talking about Jesus. He says that “A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.” But this is not a satisfying answer as to why I should simply believe the story. I don’t care how it happened, I care about the evidence that it happened. Once I have the evidence to make belief reasonable, then I will worry about how it happened.
He actually asks a good question at one point: “If God was prepared to let us off, why on earth did He not do so? And what possible point could there be in punishing an innocent person instead?” The resurrection story seems to be a needlessly complex way to achieve something that could have been achieved without the show. It is also a very immoral show: Jesus wasn’t responsible for the sins of those around him, and forgiving the sins of others by torturing an innocent third party is not the sign of love and forgiveness. It’s the sign of sadism. Then again, we do apparently carry the sign of a fourth party, so really all humans are carrying the sin of Adam and Eve, and Jesus died so that we wouldn’t have to carry that sin anymore, so Jesus really died for Adam and Eve and none of us, Jesus included, should have ever had any connection to that sin. So really the sadism thing can be seen right from Adam and Eve. But Lewis offers a terrible explanation for this story: “if you think of a debt, there is plenty of point in a person who has some assets paying it on behalf of someone who has not.” So God paid a debt to himself that was owed to him using his own “money” to pay himself back? How does that make sense? Think of it this way: I lend you $20 when you’re short on cash, and you promise to pay me back next week. However, when next week rolls around you realize that you only made enough to pay your bills and buy groceries. You tell me this and I say “that’s fine. I’ll just give you another $20 and you can give it back to me, then you’ll have paid your debt and we’ll be even.” This is what Lewis is saying happened. But if I did that, wouldn’t you think I was nuts? Wouldn’t you ask me why I didn’t just forgive your dept since my method wouldn’t actually be achieving anything? This is no better of an explanation than the punishment version.
Lewis goes on to say “Now what was the sort of ‘hole’ man had got himself into? He had tried to set up on his own, to behave as if he belonged to himself. In other words, fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” How does setting up on ones own make one a rebel? Isn’t that exactly what we’re raised to do? Are we rebelling against our parents because we move out of their house? Being self-reliant is not a bad thing. And the idea that it is a bad thing is scary because there is only one other alternative possible: slavery. Is it better to be a slave to God than it is to be a free person?
Lewis then goes on to assume that we are only capable of any action because God: “We love and reason because God loves and reasons and holds our hand while we do it.” Again, where is the evidence for this? You cannot just make assumptions and expect them to be accepted. If you’re going to make a claim, you must offer a reason to believe the claim. I have no reason to believe that my ability to love and reason come from outside of myself, and science gives me every reason to believe that it comes from inside of myself. He then says “But unfortunately we now need God’s help in order to do something which God, in His own nature, never does at all-to surrender, to suffer, to submit, to die. Nothing in God’s nature corresponds to this process at all.” This is kind of presumptuous, isn’t it? How does Lewis know that God is incapable of these things? Is his god not all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good? He’s said before that God is perfect. He makes that claim again when he says “But supposing God became a man-suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God’s nature in one person- then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God.” If God is perfect, why did he actually need to die? Why couldn’t he know what it was like without the experience in order to guide people?
Finally, Lewis offers another straw-atheist: “I have heard some people complain that if Jesus was God as well as man, then His suffering and death lose all value in their eyes, ‘because it must have been so easy for Him.'” Is this really the most common argument that Lewis came across? Why not attack a stronger argument against his case? How easy the resurrection was for God is a moot point because we still have no reason to believe that it actually happened. Not to mention that if God exists, and is all powerful, then everything should be easy for him.