Mere Christianity | Study Guide

C.S. Lewis

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Mere Christianity | Book 2, Chapter 3 : What Christians Believe (The Shocking Alternative) | Summary



Lewis begins his discussion of free will by proclaiming "an evil power has made himself for the present the Prince of this World." Free will is in fact the reason evil can exist. God made his creatures able to choose their own actions, independent of his will. We can understand this by considering how a mother hopes her children will choose to do what is right on their own. There is nothing meaningful about the actions of "automata" who act without choice. However, it is meaningful and valuable when a being with free will chooses what is good.

Free will also makes happiness possible. By our choice to unite our will with God's, we receive "an ecstasy of love and delight" that makes the love we know on Earth seem like a shabby imitation. But Satan, the fallen angel, has convinced people that they can achieve happiness on their own, without God. This is not possible, because God created "the human machine to run on Himself," much like the engine of a car can only run on gasoline. Our attempts to realize our happiness separate from God are the source of "nearly all that we call human history." We choose to unite with God by following the Law of Human Nature. Being imperfect creatures, we cannot keep the Law perfectly. We need help.

God wants us to unite with him but knows we cannot do it on our own. Therefore he gave humankind the mythological narratives, "scattered all through the heathen religions," about a god who brings about this unity through his death and resurrection. While God gave all people these same "good dreams" about this god, he selected one group of people, the Jews, as those among whom this god would become real. The history of God's interaction with the Jews is recounted in the Old Testament of the Bible. In these books God makes very clear to the Jews what kind of God he is and what he expects of them.

At a certain point in history, Jesus appears among the Jews and begins "talking as if He was God." Lewis argues we must take his claims of divinity at face value. We cannot get away with reducing Jesus to "a great moral teacher." Jesus was a Jew, not a pantheist, and so his words must be considered in the context of Judaism. A Jewish moral teacher would not refer to himself as divine by way of metaphor or allegory. Therefore, if Jesus was not what he claimed to be, he was "either ... a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else ... the Devil of Hell."


The chapter's title, The Shocking Alternative, is a reference to the argument Lewis offers for the divinity of Christ. Just as Satan has been rejected as improbable and ridiculous by some modern Christians, there are also those who praise Jesus for his teachings while denying his divinity. This interpretation of Christianity rejects all supernatural elements by relegating them to the position of metaphor and conceives of Christianity in terms of the moral teachings of Jesus. In the modern world, superstition has been replaced by science, and what was once mysterious can now be explained in terms of particles and equations. Consequently, many people find it difficult to reconcile the wilder claims of Christianity with their understanding of the world around them. While some reject religion wholesale, others attempt to salvage its relevance by recasting it as a system of morality and mythological narrative. In this type of Christianity, Jesus is esteemed because he teaches and embodies good morals. His supernatural statements are not seriously investigated.

Lewis attempts to use historical and cultural information to argue that Jesus's claims must be taken at face value. It is useful to be aware of Lewis's unstated assumptions. First he assumes the accounts of Jesus's life in the New Testament are an accurate and undistorted reflection of historical truth. Lewis doesn't question the New Testament. He accepts its authority, and Jesus's authority, as a starting point for belief. However, the absolute accuracy or historicity of the Gospels is by no means a settled question among scholars, who investigate it using historical, archaeological, and social evidence.

Putting questions of historical accuracy aside, one must consider the structure of Lewis's argument. The argument, known as the "trilemma," is not original to Lewis. The same basic argument has appeared in Christian apologetic works for centuries. The crux of the argument is its insistence on there being only three possible ways to explain the claims of Jesus. He was either a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord God—end of story. If one considers there might be other ways of viewing Jesus beyond these three, the argument falls apart. In fact this argument is an example of a logical fallacy, or error, known as the fallacy of either/or. When an argument contains this fallacy, we cannot be sure it produces a true conclusion, even if every premise involved is true. The argument is structurally flawed, and so its truth cannot be understood through logic.

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