On November 22, 1963, the author of Mere Christianity slipped the surly bonds of this life and entered the next—and hardly anyone noticed. It wasn't because C.S. Lewis lacked influence. He was known throughout the world. Rather, it was merely a matter of timing. U.S. president John F. Kennedy died the same day (along with the famed English writer, Aldous Huxley). Lewis, loved by millions as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia children's books, was also the greatest Christian apologist of the 20th century. His classic defense of the faith, Mere Christianity, was published in 1952.
Amazingly, 55 years after his death, Lewis's clear and profound explanation of Christianity's foundational elements continues to astound and influence readers from all walks of life—well into the 21st century. It shows no signs of letting up. How is it the words of a lay theologian and Oxford don remain as relevant today as they were over 70 years ago when they were first delivered as a series of radio addresses to a war-torn British populace?
How is it that this book, which has sold millions of copies worldwide in this century alone, is quoted by liberal and evangelical Christians across all denominations? And how is it that a book on Christian theology, written by a professor of medieval literature who loved the soaring operas of Wagner, inspires pop/rock and heavy metal bands? The partial answer is this: Mere Christianity is no ordinary book.
WHAT IS MERE CHRISTIANITY?
To understand the book and the meaning behind its title, you must go back to a time many years before it was published. It was said in England during the darkest days of WWII that the most recognized voices on the radio belonged to Winston Churchill and C.S. Lewis. That Lewis held such high status might surprise, but it should not. Here’s why.
IN THE BEGINNING, IT WASN'T A BOOK
Mere Christianity did not enter the public discourse as a book but as a series of BBC radio talks. Lewis had always believed the best service he could provide for his unbelieving neighbors was a defense and explanation of the basic Christian beliefs common to nearly all Christians at all times. He did this in a series of radio talks during the war and then published them in three separate works from 1943 to 1945. Lewis made a few additions to these and in 1952 published Mere Christianity, beloved ever since by Christians the world over.
RIGHT AND WRONG IS THE CLUE TO MEANING
In Mere Christianity, Lewis began his defense of the Christian faith on an argument from morality. He based his case on a moral law, the "rule about right and wrong" commonly known to all human beings. Lewis believed it is generally accepted that stealing violates this moral law. He argued that the moral law is like the laws of nature, in that humans did not contrive it. However, it is unlike natural laws in that it can be broken or ignored, and it is known intuitively rather than through observation.
After introducing the moral law, Lewis argued that thirst reflects the fact that people naturally need water and no other substance can satisfy this need. Lewis pointed out that earthly experience does not satisfy the human craving for "joy," and that only God can fill this desire; that humans cannot know to yearn for something if it does not exist.
LIAR, LUNATIC, OR LORD
After providing reasons for his conversion to theism, Lewis offered rival conceptions to the Christian God. Pantheism, he argued, is incoherent, and atheism too simple. Eventually, he arrived at Jesus Christ and invoked his now-famous trilemma argument. Lewis wanted to dispel the notion that Jesus was a good teacher but nothing more. Jesus, according to Lewis, never gave us that option because he claimed himself to be God. Logic dictates that Christ was either a liar, a lunatic (on the level of a man who claims to be a poached egg), or truly the Lord.
And since the first two options directly contradict the nature of God, the truth must be that Jesus is Lord.
HOW WE BEHAVE
The latter half of the book explores the ethics resulting from Christian belief. Lewis cited the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. After touching on these, he went into the three theological virtues: hope, faith, and charity. Lewis also explained morality as being composed of three layers: relationships between man and man, the motivations and attitudes of the man himself, and contrasting worldviews.
Lewis also covered such topics as social relations and forgiveness, sexual ethics and the tenets of Christian marriage, and the relationship between morality and psychoanalysis. He also wrote about the greatest sin: pride, which he argues to be the root cause of all evil and rebellion.
His most important point was that Christianity mandates one must "love your neighbor as yourself." He points out that all persons unconditionally love themselves. Even if one does not like one's self, one would still love one's self. Christians, he wrote, must also apply this attitude to others, even if they do not like them. Lewis called this one of the great secrets: when one acts as if he loves others, he will eventually come to love them.
MERE CHRISTIANITY CONTROVERSY
It should be no surprise that a book on Christian theology would be tagged with controversy. The Church has debated what is and isn’t orthodoxy from its beginning. The New Testament itself is filled with the grapplings of the early church. Every Church era has its theological disputes and Mere Christianity is not immune from its share of controversies—two in particular that rankle evangelicals who otherwise adore Lewis's work.
HE SAID WHAT ABOUT THE ATONEMENT?
Lewis’s theology of the atonement is confusing. Lewis believed Jesus died on the cross for sin, but he didn’t think it was important to understand the particulars of what Christ accomplished on the cross. Lewis says that Christ was killed for us and His death washed away our sins, but that any theories as to how Christ’s death did all this are secondary.
This lack of careful thinking about the atonement can be troubling. Lewis makes clear he rejects the understanding of the atonement that many if not most evangelicals find essential. He does believe in a substitutionary theory of the atonement, but he rejects penal substitution. He admits that penal substitution is not quite as silly as it once sounded, but he still does not accept it. Instead, he argues that Christ pays a debt (which is true), but not as a punishment for our sakes.
IS BUDDHA IN HEAVEN?
The second problem with Mere Christianity is Lewis’s inclusivism. Evangelicals believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to God. Further, they believe that conscious faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation (assuming we are talking about sentient beings; all Christians allow that infants and the mentally disabled may be in a different category). Lewis, by contrast, believed in what we might roughly call “anonymous Christians.” That is, people may be saved through Christ without putting explicit faith in Christ.
To illustrate, Lewis wrote that: "There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity, and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points."
Evangelicals are uneasy with such a casual claim.
THE CULTURAL IMPACT OF MERE CHRISTIANITY
Regardless of the controversies, there is no denying the broad and unending effect Lewis's book has had throughout the Christian and even English-speaking world. Christianity Today named Mere Christianity the third most influential book among evangelicals since 1945. Chuck Colson came to Christ while in prison by reading this book, and he spent the remainder of his life ministering to inmates. Francis Collins, Jonathan Aitken, Josh Caterer, and the philosopher C.E.M. Joad are just a few others converted to Christianity by their reading of Mere Christianity. The list of admirers is too long to document.
Even hard rockers find Lewis too compelling to ignore. Passages in the book led the metal core band Norma Jean to title a song "No Passenger: No Parasite." And Living Sacrifice named their metal album The Hammering Process after a line in the book.
C.S. Lewis lived an extraordinarily simple life. He rarely traveled. He taught and wrote books. He enjoyed debating with his friends over beers in the local pub. Mere Christianity was perhaps his finest and most influential contribution to the world. It will live on in Christendom in much the way Bunyan's A Pilgrim's Progress has endured. If you haven't yet read it, don't delay. Your life will be changed.