Mere Christianity | Study Guide

C.S. Lewis

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Mere Christianity | Book 4, Chapter 3 : Beyond Personality: Or First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity (Time and Beyond Time) | Summary



Lewis addresses a common metaphysical question: How could it be possible for God to receive and address all the prayers coming at Him from people around the world all at once? The explanation has to do with the nature of time. Lewis posits that our experience of linear time as a succession of moments is merely our version of the time experience. That version, however, is not absolutely true. Lewis says that all moments in all time are always present for God. One can imagine this if one considers an author writing a story. The author's time is different from the time in his narrative. Our time is like a line on a page; God is the page itself.

Prior to his own conversion, Lewis had trouble with the Christian claim that God became man because it suggests Christ entered into the experience of human time. Lewis explains that Christ's life is not a particular point in God's personal history because God is beyond history. History implies the loss of parts of reality—the past and the future—and God does not experience this loss.

Lewis addresses another difficulty—reconciling the idea of a person's free will from moment to moment in time with the claim that God already knows what is going to happen. Lewis explains that because God always sees all of time all at once, a person's life is not segmented into divisions of past, present, and future. Just because God sees our past, present, and future in an undifferentiated way does not contradict the idea that in our own experience of linear time, we make choices from moment to moment.


In this chapter Lewis tackles the enormous metaphysical issues of time and free will. In doing so he generates elegant metaphors that explain as well as connect them. Just as God and his heaven transcend morality because they are undifferentiated goodness, God transcends time, a concept that loses its meaning when there is no differentiation between past, present, and future. Lewis's metaphor of God gazing from above at a giant diagram on which past, present, and future are plotted explains the contradiction of Christ in history. From the human perspective, Christ entered into history. Nonetheless, he remains beyond history as the one gazing from above at the graph. This metaphor also resolves the stubborn problem of reconciling God's absolute foreknowledge and people's free will. Humans exist only inside time and can only see a tiny fraction of the graph, the point in their own trajectory that we call the present. God, existing outside of time, sees the entire graph all at once in the same way our human eyes process an image, not as a series of parts in sequence but as a whole. The innumerable elements present themselves to us all at once. Things get even stranger when we consider that while God is looking at the graph, he also is the graph. It is as if time is a mirror in which God can perceive himself. In fact it is God's gaze at himself that generates not only our experiences of time and free will but all of reality as we know it.

The problem of free will has been debated for millennia. And yet people have not reached any consensus on its existence or on what it would mean if it did exist. Free is a murky term that prompts the question, "Free in what sense?" This problem, which is related to the very structure of being and carries enormous implications about the nature of consciousness and matter, time, and space, is relevant not just to theologians but to philosophers and scientists.

Each discipline approaches the problem in its own way, using its own tools and assumptions. From a scientific perspective events in the universe are "determined" by scientific laws. How, then, can humanity's free will be untangled from this scientific determinism that regulates people just as it regulates every other part of the universe? Lewis approaches the problem via theology. He avoids the problem of scientific determinism by replacing it with theological determinism. It states that God, rather than scientific law, is the determiner of events and conditions.

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