God in the Dock: The Apologetics of C. S. Lewis
by Roger Nicole
In modern English the words apology and apologize indicate regret because some statement or action was offensive and wrong. This is not the case for “apologetics” in theology, for that discipline is intended to manifest “a point of view is right.” It is intended for those who differ in order to win them over, or for those who agree in order to confirm them in the truth for which the apologist testifies.
It is in this sense that C.S. Lewis is recognized as an “apologist,” for a number of his works are intended to manifest the adequacy of the Christian outlook over against a “naturalist” position, which asserts that the universe is simply a great material mass functioning in terms of its own mechanism or laws without any possible intervention from the outside and specifically without a creative or governing power of a mind. C.S. Lewis was very well prepared for this task because until late in his twenties he was a devotee of atheism without any reference to Jesus Christ and was twenty-nine years old before being converted and embracing a Christian world-and-life view. Thus, he was more knowledgeable than many Christian apologists who know the views that they dispute only from the outside. He also experienced personally the gravity of the problems that the atheist has to face and the way in which such problems may force a person of integrity to look beyond atheism for a suitable philosophical and religious outlook. C.S. Lewis wrote about his own experience in 1933 in an autobiographical volume entitled The Pilgrim’s Regress, in the manner of John Bunyan, and again in Surprised by Joy (1955).
His first contribution to apologetics was entitled The Problem of Pain, published in October 1940 as part of The Christian Challenge Series (it was reprinted ten times by 1943). He dealt there forthrightly with the question: “If God is almighty and supremely loving, why does He permit pain in this universe?” He showed how pain is inevitable for real persons wherever sin exists. Who could imagine what a frightful world it should be if sin could grow without restraint? C.S. Lewis proceeds in his analysis in an orderly and lucid manner, dealing with this difficult subject in a way that a lay person can readily understand. From time to time, he has striking comments that remain unforgettable, like the following: “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word “darkness” on the walls of his cell” (p. 41). From 1941–44, he delivered a series of thirty-three broadcast talks whose titles describe well their contents:
1941: Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe (5 talks)
1942: What Christians Believe (5 talks)
1943: Christian Behaviors (12 talks)
1944: Beyond Personality; or, First Steps in the Doctrine of the Trinity (11 talks)
First published separately in three volumes, these lectures were gathered together under the title Mere Christianity and often republished. The term mere in this title means “pure,” as it did in old English. The emphasis is to deal with major views largely common to all denominations in Christendom.
In 1943, The Screwtape Letters appeared, and this is probably C.S. Lewis’ most popular writing. Here we have a course by correspondence in which a master demon, Screwtape, instructs Wormwood, a novice in the art of tempting human beings and preventing on their part a true allegiance to God and the Gospel. This gives an opportunity to look on the Christian claims from below, so to speak, not with some artificial adornments provided by self-deceitfulness or charity in considering others, but with a kind of cynical realism that penetrates into the actual motives that people ordinarily attempt to hide. C.S. Lewis can cast a critical evaluation of many moves and motives that are flourishing under the umbrella of genuine Christianity. With sharp discernment and superb control of language, gained perhaps in his scholarly studies in early English literature, his wit and discernment surface on every page as some
of the following quotations evidence:
“We have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is [God’s] invention, not ours. He made the pleasure: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one” (p. 41).
“A moderate religion is as good for us as no religion at all — and more amusing” (p. 43).
“It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one” (p. 56).
“A good many Christian political writers think that Christianity began going wrong and departing from the doctrine of its Founder, at a very early stage. Now, this idea must be used by us to encourage again the conception of a historical Jesus to be found by clearing away later ‘accretions and perversions’ and then be contrasted with the whole Christian tradition. In the last generation we promoted the construction of such a ‘historical Jesus’ on liberal and ‘humanitarian’ lines; we are now putting forward a new ‘historical Jesus’ on Marxian, catastrophic, and revolutionary lines. The advantage of these constructions, which we intend to change every thirty years or so, are manifest. In the first place they all tend to direct man’s devotion to something which does not exist, for each ‘historical Jesus’ is unhistorical” (p. 106).
If these few quotations arouse your appetite, get the book and you will find much more than this sample.
The volume entitled Miracles: A Preliminary Study appeared in 1947, very shortly after Dr. E.W. Barnes, Bishop of Birmingham, published The Rise of Christianity, in which he denied the factuality of all miracles recorded in the New Testament, including those concerning the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. The word preliminary in the title should not be mistaken for elementary, for it is a rather technical vindication of supernaturalism versus naturalism defined as a view that nothing exists except nature, that is, the gigantic interlocking of all particles of matter existing from times immemorial. Nature cannot explain the origin of rational thought, and even less provide a basis for morality and conscience.
We are led, therefore, to recognize a powerful and purposive reality beyond the material world, who is the creator and sustainer of all that exists. With this in view, it is not strange that there would be occasions in which interaction between this power and His world might occur where the laws that govern matter might not function as they ordinarily do.
C.S. Lewis then devotes an essential chapter to the “Grand Miracle” of the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity. Then he discusses miracles of the old creation with “the Divine Man focusing for us what the God of Nature has already done on a larger scale” (p. 169). The miracles of the new creation are those in which a “reversal” is manifest, principally the resurrection, which is fundamental for the whole of Christianity.
A brief epilogue and two appendices conclude the book. Throughout we can appreciate the great qualities of C.S. Lewis, his earnestness, his meticulous care not to leave any gaps in his reasoning, his thorough commitment to Holy Scripture, and his marvelous style. Dealing with objections to the virgin birth of Christ, he says that some opponents of it “think they see in this miracle a slur upon sexual intercourse (though they might just as well see in the feeding of the five thousand an insult to bakers)” (p. 115).
That parenthesis is worth the price of the book!