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What C.S. Lewis and Lee Strobel Don’t Want to you to See

In his book The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel plays out a pantomime of skeptical inquiry, asking what he thinks to be “the hard questions” about the supposed divinity of the character Jesus Christ, smiling and nodding at Christian theologians’ pat answers, and asking you to smile and nod along with him on the path to Christian conversion. It’s just theater, though. Strobel is a Christian pastor asking other Christians what makes Christianity so great. He never in the book allows skeptics an independent voice, a choice that is strategically smart if intellectually bereft because Strobel’s logic just can’t stand scrutiny.

Strobel finishes his book with a sales pitch:

In the end, however, remember that some options just aren’t viable. The accumulated evidence has already closed them off. Observed C. S. Lewis, the brilliant and once skeptical Cambridge University professor who was eventually won over by evidence for Jesus,

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic… or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at
His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

When a salesman tells you “that some options just aren’t viable,” you’d be well advised to look into those options, because those tend to be the options that have thwarted his sales in the past. It’s a funny thing, but I don’t remember ever thinking “that some options just aren’t viable” in the first place.

Why isn’t it possible for someone to be a great moral teacher and also to have failings? Mohandas Gandhi reinvented resistance with non-violent satyagraha, having much to teach the rest of the world. He also slept naked with little naked girls, had them massage him and give him enemas, rejected his own nonviolent philosophy at times and let his wife die rather than be injected with British penicillin. Martin Luther King, Jr. had some great things to say about the unity of the human condition. He also refused to let women into leadership positions and regularly violated his marriage vows.

Do these personal failings mean that the moral teachings of Gandhi and King are useless and that there is nothing to learn from them? Only if people fall into only two categories, either absolutely perfect or tainted and abysmal. This was the dichotomous way in which C.S. Lewis thought about Jesus. Do you notice the ellipses in Lee Strobel’s quote of Lewis? Strobel cut out the part in which Lewis says that either Jesus is a great moral teacher or he was “on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg.” That’s absurd, extremist, inflexible, and just plain inaccurate when it comes to understanding people. People are not dichotomies. We’re complexities, filled with yearnings and strivings and ideals and compromises and more than occasionally some insanities.

Can a man who once cursed a fig tree have something useful and instructive to say about the human condition? Sure. You don’t have to be perfect to have perfectly good ideas. C.S. Lewis, and Lee Strobel following him, insist you ignore this middle ground. They need you to believe that the only choices for the Jesus Christ character are for him to be either utterly worthless or infinitely divine. Only then does the divinity of Jesus make sense.

36 comments to What C.S. Lewis and Lee Strobel Don’t Want to you to See

  • JD

    I’ve not read the book yet. Did you find a logical argument in the book for the case of Christ?

  • Jim

    There are a number of disjointed, illogical appeals, but not a logical argument. This is a book that might appeal to people who have already converted, but it should not appeal to the intended audience: people who are religious skeptics and who value logic.

    • JD

      Thanks Jim, It doesn’t sound like recommended reading but I may see if I can find it from the library to listen to. I have an unfortuantely long commute.

    • Jacob

      You can go much deeper than this. This is a popular book for average people. I am sure you knew this wasnt for you before you started. The appeals are great but as you point out, it is not acedimic in nature, it is popular. If you want deeper try books like “Reasonable Faith” by William Craig Lane or “The Coherence of Theism” by Richard Swinburne. Dont read a popular book for the masses expecting an acedemic book. Grab something with depth and bite. Grab something that top athiests are busy working against. Thats where ground breaking stuff is at. Antony Flew was dead wrong in God and Philosphy, but he kicked off an amazing series of books that have grown the depth and acedemic nature of the argument to great new levels. There is amazing acedemic work out there now from both sides.

      • Jim

        This book has pretensions to academic status, with many interviews of academics.

        The book was presented to me as a compelling work of logic that converted an atheist engineer.

        And no matter whether a book is “popular” or for “average” people, if it is inconsistent and illogical then its content should not be taken seriously. The alternative is to say that it’s OK to try to convert “average” people to your religion on the basis of nonsense.

    • Alex

      I don’t understand why Lewis’ argument is invalid. Jesus emphasized on a great number of accounts that he believed he was divine. I don’t know about you, but i find it hard to trust somebody who lies about their very own identity. If I were to walk around teaching some good moral truths but claimed to be God, I don’t imagine people would accept me. I would, in fact, venture to guess people would call me crazy and tell me I belonged in a psych ward.

      • t ball

        And yet, even though you might be considered crazy, it wouldn’t automatically mean that everything you said/taught was worthless or without merit.

  • deep thinker

    I too had difficult accepting some of his arguments. Thank you for committing to reading this.

  • HareTrinity

    I thought that C S Lewis only went particularly religious after the death of his wife? Shows what I know.

    • L.S.

      Lewis converted long before the death of his wife. In fact, his memoir A Grief Observed (which details his wife’s passing and the following grief he experienced) is largely an expression of doubt, not faith….

  • deep thinker

    Jim,

    Any more recent updates? I’ve recently completed a long and difficult assignment for a client that develops semicoductor processes that has kept me away from other pursuits. Best regards and Merry Christmas :)

    • Best to you, too.

      To be honest, I didn’t really think there was much else to engage with by Strobel, deep thinker. But if there was a passage in the book that you found particularly compelling, perhaps you could share that with me and I’d be happy to share my reaction with you.

  • deep thinker

    Ok, after the holidays when being a working, cooking, traveling, cleaning, shopping, wrapping, decorating, washing, worshipping, singing, loving, caring mommy gives me some more time I will point out some arguments that made difference to me.

  • L.S.

    I think this Lewis quote is being misread. When Lewis said…”a man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said” would be “on the level of a man who says he is a poached egg” he was referring to Jesus’s claims to divinity. The interpretation that is offered here (that Jesus could be both moral and flawed) has no relation whatsoever to what Lewis is talking about in this passage of Mere Christianity.

    Jesus claimed:

    * to have always existed
    * to command angels
    * to forgive all sins of everyone (something only God could do)
    * to be the Son of Man (a name for the Messiah taken from the Book of Daniel)
    * to sit at the right hand of the Father, etc.,etc.,etc.

    Lewis’s point is that a mere man who claims to command angels is generally labelled a lunatic. This Lewis passage is about Jesus’ claims to divinity, not Jesus’ moral teachings. Many people of many religions (and many athiests) agree with the moral teachings of Jesus: (don’t harbor hatred or anger toward others, feed the poor, protect the helpless, etc). The question Lewis is asking here is not whether you agree with Jesus’ moral teachings, but whether or not you accept Jesus’ claims to be divine.

    • Jim

      No, actually CS Lewis’ stated conclusion was about the supposed impossibility of a being claiming absurd things and also being a teacher of sound moral precepts.

      • L.S.

        So you can take Jesus seriously in one respect (moral teachings) but not the other (as God)? The “absurd claims” don’t undermine Jesus’ credibility in your mind?

        • Jim

          I can, because when I evaluate a moral argument I don’t do so on the basis of the speaker’s authority status. I at least try to evaluate moral teachings on the basis of their content. Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi are flawed personal figures who had interesting moral precepts to share, for example.

      • L.S.

        By the way, I agree with your statement that “People are not dichotomies. We’re complexities, filled with yearnings and strivings and ideals and compromises and more than occasionally some insanities.” But, you have to remember that when Lewis and Strobel write about Jesus in this way, they are not (in their minds) writing about a “person.” I’m sure they would also agree with your statement that people are not dichotomies. However, to a believer, Jesus is a unique case.

        • Jim

          But that’s the whole point.

          CS Lewis is trying to take on the position of secular people who DO believe Jesus was a person. He’s telling them that if Jesus was just a person, then he frankly was a nutter whose moral teachings are therefore not to be trusted.

          If people are complex and have some crazy aspects to them and some cogent aspects to them, then we should not be surprised if Jesus was not divine but just a person to find that in addition to his moral teachings he had some, erm, “interesting” claims to make. We’re all of us a little bit crazy.

          If, on the other hand, you have to agree with Lewis that Jesus is divine in order to engage with his argument, then it’s not a very good argument to make to nonChristians.

  • L.S.

    I appreciate your article and opening this discourse.

  • Jim

    Thanks for the conversation!

  • Rev

    Ugh. Strobel is a hack. I’d make like Jake and tell you to check out the work of a more “serious” apologist like William Lane Craig, but in truth Craig is just as much of a hack, though a far more polished one. Craig is a masterful debater- his powers of rhetoric allow him to trounce most of the nontheists I’ve seen him debate. Craig does a great job at presentation while also affecting a biting academic arrogance, with frequent appeals to authority and consensus. Like Strobel, it’s powerful stuff for the already faithful, but entirely unconvincing for the rest of us.

    Indeed, it was Strobel and Craig who led me away from Christianity- I don’t know what it was, but during an apologetics kick it finally dawned on me: is this all we have? It’s embarrassing. I went searching for more, and have not found anything substantial. Indeed, there isn’t even good evidence that a historic Jesus of Nazareth ever existed! There wasn’t even a Nazareth I think it’s likely he did, but so little evidence that isn’t Christian mythology has made it through the ages that it’s impossible to tell. Their evidence amounts to the Bible, Christian mythology and tradition, Tacitus, and Josephus. The last two are thrown out by serious scholars because of the evidence of forgery/tempering during the Christian era as well as the fact that Tacitus and Josephus both wrote as if Hercules was a real, historical character responsible for the usual mix of feats and miracles we attribute to him. If we are willing to hang our faith on such testaments, we have serious problems…

    • Rev,

      Do you have a citation for Craig? I’ve been unable to find his stuff in libraries.

    • drolsitsirhc

      They did not lead you away. You left because you never believed in the first place. You’ve never experienced the transforming power of God in your life; you’ve never had a relationship with God; you’ve never known God. If you had, two apologists would not have the capabilities to lead you from the truth because you don’t like their approaches or what they are saying. For example, you might disagree with your mom, but you will never say that she doesn’t exist – because you know without a shadow of a doubt that she indeed does exist. Likewise, if you truly believed (and knew for a fact) that Jesus existed and did as He claimed, NOTHING would make you deny Him…because you know He is real. So, ultimately, the issue is not with Criag or Strobel; it’s with your own heart – you simply never believed in the first place. Truth is, if you’re looking for an excuse, you will find one, and any excuse to disbelieve will do. You’ve found yours.

      • t ball

        You are confusing knowledge and faith. If you truly believe Jesus exists and was God, that’s fine. You can believe that, but you cannot know it. You can know your mom exists, but you can only believe that she is divine if you choose to do so.

  • drolsitsirhc

    You are suggesting that Ghandi and Dr. King suggested that they were perfect and holy people. They did not. So, if they share great ideas with the world, but have flaws and failures in areas of their lives, no one will condemn them as liars. They are simply flawed humans with great ideas. However, Jesus claimed to be perfect, holy, the only way, and a miracle worker, amongst other things. If Jesus was a “good, moral teacher,” but not the other things He said He was (perfect/holy), that makes Him a liar. Perfection and holiness negate lying. So, he should be heavily scrutinized for being a liar and making such grandiose claims…claims the other two men did not make. In other words, it is impossible for Jesus to be a “good, moral teacher” if He was a liar because lying is neither good nor moral. So, yes, with Jesus, (due to Who He is and the extreme nature of His claims), a dichotomy indeed exists.

    • No, I’m not suggesting that at all. You’re confused on that point.

      You’re also confused on the point in the Bible in which Jesus is declared to be “perfect.” There’s nowhere in the Bible in which Jesus declares that — not that Jesus (or, for that matter, Matthew Mark Luke or John) wrote anything in the New Testament, because they didn’t. Your point about Jesus’ perfection, and C.S. Lewis’ point too, is all added on business later.

    • Furthermore, your assertion that “it is impossible for Jesus to be a ‘good, moral teacher’ if He was a liar because lying is neither good nor moral” is incredibly out of whack when it comes to judging people. We absolutely can judge people on the basis of the totality of what they do despite flaws. We do it all the time.

      Is a public school teacher a good public school teacher if he works 60-hour weeks, buys his own books for the classroom when the school budget runs out, develops new ways of teaching, volunteers for after school activities, year after year after year — but once a year or so yells at kids who are talking in class? You bet he is, even though yelling at a class is not a perfect teacher’s behavior. He’s not a perfect teacher — but he’s a good one.

      Is a parent a good parent if he takes care of a child lovingly for years but on just one day hurts his kid’s feelings about her height because he’s careless about the words he chooses? Yes, even though by your analogy he can’t be because “good parents don’t hurt their children’s feelings.” He’s not a *perfect* parent. He’s a very good one. People who are very good at what they do still get to make mistakes — you’re just uncomfortable with that idea, like C.S. Lewis is, because you’ve ALREADY accepted the idea that Jesus is both divine and not just good but perfect.

      Jesus is not a perfect moral teacher. He’s got clear flaws in his morality, overturning others’ work tables rather than asking them nicely to leave first, a clear contradiction of that turning the other cheek bit, for example. Cursing a fig tree is another kind of high-handed and abusive behavior. A perfect moral teacher? No. A good one? Sure.

      C.S. Lewis didn’t use the word “perfect” moral teacher, even though that’s what he really has to refer to implicitly in order to defend the idea of Jesus Christ’s divinity, because when one mentions “perfection”, any flaw of Jesus will trip up his argument and the falseness of the statement that imperfect people can be great moral teachers becomes obvious. I want to thank you for introducing the word “perfect” into the conversation, as you’ve really helped move this discussion along.

  • Bill

    As a believer (like Fermat, I must simply claim here that this margin is too narrow to contain my definition of that term) I am always amused by theologians who feel compelled to prove the logical coherence and – worse – the logical necessity of their belief. The operative word in logic is ‘if’: “If X, then Y” (or, alternatively but equivalently, ‘given’, as in “Given X, then Y”). By conscious design, logic is silent (and impotent) regarding X itself, just as the laws of physics are silent (and impotent) regarding the instant immediately preceding the Big Bang, and for the same reasons: logic and physics (but I repeat myself) both work brilliantly within the domain of causality, but they cannot and do not extend beyond that domain (if indeed there is a “beyond that domain”).

    To paraphrase Vonnegut: mud sat up. Mud looked around. Mud thought “holy shit, what’s this all about? Mud has subsequently made tremendous strides in understanding how mud works (“Given mud, then Y”), while simultaneously taking innumerable wrong turns in attempting to persuade itself of the existence and character of some sort of eternal, omnipotent, and loving Supermud, and of the necessity of destroying other mud puddles with a different view of the matter, via either logic or violence (or both). The mud doth protest too much, methinks.

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