Since we’ve been debating in the comments to this post just what Lewis was trying to accomplish with his trilemma argument, I thought it might be worth walking through the relevant passages in Mere Christianity step-by-step.
It’s worth recalling that for all the attention it’s received, the argument only takes up somewhere in the neighborhood of five paragraphs. So we should be able to lay it out relatively succinctly.
The argument (or most of it, anyway) appears in book II, chapter 3 of MC, which is titled “The Shocking Alternative.” Earlier in the chapter Lewis has been discussing the Christian view that the world is occupied territory–that, in Lewis’s words, “an evil power has made himself for the present the Prince of this World” (p. 52).* Lewis then considers (1) how this state of affairs can be in accordance with God’s will and (2) what, if anything, God had done about it.
With regard to the first point, Lewis invokes human free will as the explanation for why God’s good creation was able to come under the sway of the devil. Human beings have collectively tried to “set up on their own as if they had created themselves–be their own masters–invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God” (p. 54).
This can never succeed, Lewis says, because we were made to be in communion with God–”He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on” (p. 54). Because of how we’re made, pursuing happiness apart from God is bound to fail.
So what, in the Christian view, has God done to remedy this sorry situation? Apart from sending Jesus (which we’ll get to in a minute), Lewis said that God has given us conscience, so we can tell that we’ve gotten off the right track; sent us “good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men”; and selected the people of Israel to teach them, and the rest of the world, what kind of God, God is (see pp. 54-5).
Only now after all this set up does Lewis turn to Jesus:
Then comes the real shock. Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let us get this clear. Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world Who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips. (p. 55)
Lewis’s claim here seems pretty straightforward: Jesus appeared among the Jews acting like and effectively claiming to be God in the flesh. Now Lewis does not try to establish this point: he seems to be taking, at least for his purposes here, the gospel accounts of what Jesus said and did at face value. Lewis was certainly aware of modern, skeptical biblical scholarship (though he didn’t have a very high opinion of much of it); but for his purposes here he seems to be ignoring the possibility that the gospels don’t accurately record Jesus’s words.
In the following paragraph, Lewis considers the implications of Jesus claiming the authority to forgive sins in particular. He argues that no human being can forgive wrongs done to someone other than himself:
We can all understand how a man forgives offences against himself. . . . But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. (p. 55)
This seems to be largely an amplification of the point in the previous paragraph: Jesus, at least as he is portrayed in the gospels, claimed, by both word and deed, to act with the authority of God. As Lewis puts is, “[i]n the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history” (p. 55).
In the short paragraph that follows Lewis observes that readers of the gospels–even those hostile to the claims of Christianity–don’t come away with the impression that Jesus is a silly and conceited person. “Christ says that He is ‘humble and meek’ and we believe Him” (p. 55-6).
Only in the final paragraph of the chapter do we get the trilemma argument properly speaking:
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–on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg–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 feed and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (p. 56)
Given what has gone before, I think we can set out Lewis’s argument so far like this.
1. Jesus, through his words and actions, effectively claimed to be God.**
2. Jesus was either (just) a man, or he was God.
3. If he was just a man, then he was either insane or evil.
Therefore, Jesus was either an insane man, an evil man, or God incarnate.
The argument doesn’t exactly end in this chapter, but continues in the following chapter, “The Perfect Penitent”:
We are faced, then, with a frightening alternative. This man we are talking about either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God. God has landed on this enemy-occupied world in human form. (p. 57)
Lewis doesn’t offer further explanation of why it’s obvious that Jesus was neither evil nor insane, though we can imagine that many of his readers (then and since) would be inclined to agree. So, if they take his earlier conclusion as established, then they would probably readily assent to Jesus’ divinity.
After going through this, I think part of the disagreement in the previous comment thread may have been due to different understandings of the scope of the trilemma argument. If we restrict it to just the final paragraph in chapter 3, then its intent does seem limited to the relatively narrow point that, whatever else Jesus was, he wasn’t (just) a great moral teacher. But if you read that as part of a broader argument encompassing the entire back half of the chapter and the first paragraph in the following one, then I think Lewis’s goals are more ambitious. That is, he’s trying to convince the reader that Jesus really was who he claimed to be (or who the gospels claimed he was): God incarnate.
If that’s right, then I stand by my claim that the broader argument has some serious weaknesses–or at least some major undefended premises. But I do think the narrower argument has merit in rebutting a popular image of Jesus as a “great moral teacher.”
*Page references are from the 1996 Touchstone edition published by Simon & Schuster.
**This originally said “claimed to be God,” but as Brandon pointed out, Lewis doesn’t say that Jesus explicitly claimed to be God. Thanks to him for the correction.
One line of argument he made popular went like this. Jesus said that he was God. Jesus was neither a deceiver nor deceived. Therefore Jesus was indeed God. Mocking the idea that Christ was simply a great moral teacher, Lewis wrote that a man that said the sort of things Jesus said “would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell”. Yet even most conservative biblical scholars today think it unlikely that Jesus in his lifetime made any explicit claim to divinity, so that the argument fails to get started.
Lewis’s trilemma argument does indeed have a serious weakness, and Kenny gropes towards it: Lewis’s argument depends on the assumption that the Gospels faithfully record Jesus’s words, but if you doubt the reliability of the Gospel accounts, then you can easily believe that Jesus was a “great moral teacher” who had certain words put in his mouth by later disciples. This is the assumption that underlies most skeptical redactions of the Gospels, from the Jefferson Bible to the work of the Jesus Seminar. But the great majority of biblical scholars today, as throughout the history of the Church, do indeed believe that the Gospels faithfully record Jesus’s teachings, which puts the trilemma into play.
While I agree with Jacobs that many (if far from all) biblical scholars hold that the gospels (or at least the synoptic gospels) faithfully record the spirit (if not the letter) of Jesus’ teachings, Lewis’s argument still faces some serious obstacles. The biggest problem, in my view, is that Lewis and those who follow him tend to read a full-blown doctrine of the Incarnation back into the gospel texts, and sometimes put questionable interpretations on ambiguous passages. Many of the proof-texts sometimes used to show that Jesus claimed to be divine are susceptible of much less exalted readings.
That said, I do think many contemporary scholars would accept that the historical Jesus claimed a special or unique role for himself in God’s unfolding plan. Many statements of Jesus in the gospels, while falling short of straightforward claims to divinity, do express the sense that one’s response to Jesus is determinative for one’s standing in God’s kingdom. This makes some on the liberal end of the spectrum uncomfortable, in part, I suspect, because it conflicts with the portrait of Jesus as a benevolent sage preaching a message of inclusive tolerance. (See the final chapter of Michael McClymond’s Familiar Stranger for a good discussion of this issue.) So if Jesus viewed himself as the agent of God’s inbreaking reign, even if he didn’t claim to be divine in Nicea-compliant terms, a modified version of Lewis’s trilemma argument could perhaps get off the ground.
With my unerring penchant for striking while the iron is stone cold, I read Rob Bell’s Love Wins over the weekend. I liked it–Bell has a knack for getting theological concepts across in friendly conversational prose without dumbing them down. He homes in on the heart of the Christian gospel–God’s abundant, overflowing love–and conveys it in a way that, I suspect, non-Christians might find quite appealing. It is, in short, “good news.”
But what struck me most was the orthodoxy of Bell’s views. Given all the hubbub surrounding the book, I was expecting something a little more envelope-pushing. But Bell, notably, does not deny the existence of hell, doesn’t say that everyone will be saved, and doesn’t deny the unique, salvific importance of Jesus.
I’d call Bell’s view “hopeful universalism.” He thinks that God leaves us free to reject God’s love but hopes that ultimately the persistence of that love will reconcile everyone. His understanding of heaven and hell and the cosmic scope of redemption is drawn from such radical theological sources as C.S. Lewis and N.T. Wright. His understanding of the work of Christ seems fully orthodox, even though he (rightly, in my view) sees different theories of Atonement as mutually complementary metaphors for that work.
As I suspected, in fact, the controversy over Bell’s book says a lot more about the self-appointed heresy-hunters and boundary-enforcers in contemporary evangelicalism than it does about him. There is a vocal minority that wants to define a simplistic version of Reformed evangelicalism as constitutive of the gospel–complete with insisting on “conscious eternal torment” for unbelievers and the monstrous doctrine of double predestination. And they have, unfortunately, had some success. But the Christian tradition is far wider than that. And while I don’t agree with everything he says, Bell’s book fits comfortably within the mainstream of that tradition.
“I quite agree with what you say about buying books, and love the planning and scheming beforehand, and if they come by post, finding the neat little parcel waiting for you on the hall table and rushing upstairs to open it in the privacy of your own room… (to Arthur Greeves, Mar. 7, 1916)
“I have come to think that if I had the mind, I have not the brain and nerves for a life of pure philosophy. A continued search among the abstract roots of things, a perpetual questioning of all that plain men take for granted, a chewing the cud for fifty years over inevitable ignorance and a constant frontier watch on the little tidy lighted conventional world of science and daily life–is this the best life for temperaments such as ours? Is it the way of health or even of sanity?” (to his father, Aug. 14, 1925)
“What I couldn’t see was how the life and death of Someone Else (whoever he was) two thousand years ago could help us here and now–except in so far as his example helped us. And the example business, tho’ true and important, is not Christianity: right in the centre of Christianity, in the Gospels and St Paul, you keep on getting something quite different and very mysterious expressed in those phrases I have so often ridiculed (‘propitiation’ — ‘sacrifice’ — ‘the blood of the Lamb’)–expressions wh. I cd only interpret in senses that seemed to me either silly or shocking.” (to Arthur Greeves, Oct. 18, 1931)
“I have played with the idea that Christianity was never intended for Asia–even that Buddha is the form in which Christ appears to the Eastern mind. But I don’t think this will really work.” (to his brother, Apr. 8, 1932)
“My own secret is–let rude ears be absent–that to tell you the truth, brother, I don’t like genius. I like enourmously some things that only genius can do: such as Paradise Lost and the Divine Comedy. But it is the results I like. What I don’t care twopence about is the sense (apparently dear to so many) of being in the hands of “a great man”–you know: his dazzling personality, his lightening energy, the strange force of his mind–and all that.” (to his brother, June 14, 1932)
“The Tableland [in The Pilgrim's Regress] represents all high and dry states of mind, of which High Anglicanism then seemed to me to be one–most of the representatives of it whom I had then met being v. harsh people who called themselves scholastics and appeared to be inspired more by hatred of their fathers’ religion than anything else. I wd modify that view now: but I’m still not what you’d call high. To me the real distinction is not between high and low but between religion with real supernaturalism & salvationism on one hand and all watered-down and modernist versions on the other.” (to Sister Penelope, C.S.M.V., Nov. 8, 1939)
“Fascism and Communism, like all other evils, are potent because of the good they contain or imitate.” (to Dom Bede Griffiths, O.S.B., Jan. 17, 1940)
“The best Dickens always seems to be the one I have read last! But in a cool hour I put Bleak House top for its sheer prodigality of invention.” (to Dom Bede Griffiths, O.S.B., Nov. 5, 1954)
“One often wonders how different the content of our faith will look when we see it in the total context. Might it be as if one were living on an infinite earth? Further knowledge wd leave our map of, say, the Atlantic quite correct, but if it turned out to be the estuary of a great river–and the continent thro’ wh. that river flowed turned out to be itself an island–off the shores of a still greater continent–and so on! You see what I mean? Not one jot of Revelation will be proved false: but so many new truths might be added.” (to Dom Bede Griffiths, Feb. 8, 1956)
“Birth control I won’t give a view on: I’m certainly not prepared to say that it is always wrong.” (to “Mrs. Ashton,” Mar. 13, 1956)
“That the over-all operation of Scripture is to convey God’s Word to the reader (he also needs his inspiration) who reads it in the right spirit, I fully believe. That it also gives true answers to all the questions (often religiously irrelevant) which he might ask, I don’t.” (to Clyde Kilby, May 7, 1959)
“No one ever influenced Tolkien–you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch.” (to Charles Moorman, May 15, 1959)
“We must have a talk–I wish you’d write an essay on it–about Punishment. The modern view, by excluding the retributive element and concentrating solely on deterrence and cure, is hideously immoral. It is vile tyranny to submit a man to compulsory “cure” or sacrifice him to the deterrence of others, unless he deserves it.” (to T.S. Eliot, May 25, 1962)
In 1932, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to his good friend Owen Barfield on the topic of Jesus’ fear of death, particularly as presented in the Garden of Gethsemane scenes in the gospels. Barfield was apparently troubled by the idea that the Son of God should’ve experienced such terror in the face of death when many lesser men had apparently overcome their fear of death.
In response, Lewis distinguishes three classes of people with respect to the fear of death: the “very bad” who fear death because it represents the defeat of their “false freedom” of egoistic self-determination; the “virtuous,” who are only able to overcome their fear of death with the aid of some other sentiment that depends on a “defect” of some kind (such as pride or weariness); and, finally the “Perfect.”
Lewis suggest that Jesus–as the Perfect One–in some ways more closely resembles the first class than the second. This is because for him, death also represents a defeat of freedom, but it is “Real Freedom”:
What is it to an ordinary man to die, if once he can set his teeth to bear the merely animal fear? To give in–he has been doing that nine times out of ten all his life. To see the lower in him conquer the higher, his animal body turning into lower animals and these finally into the mineral–he has been letting this happen since he was born. To relinquish control–easy for him as slipping on a well worn shoe. But in Gethsemane it is essential Freedom that is asked to be bound, unwearied control to throw up the sponge, Life itself to die. Ordinary men have not been so much in love with life as is usually supposed: small as their share of it is they have found it too much to bear without reducing a large portion of it as nearly to non-life as they can: we have drugs, sleep, irresponsibility, amusement, are more than half in love with easeful death–if only we could be sure it wouldn’t hurt! Only He who really lived a human life (and I presume that only one did) can fully taste the horror of death. (Letters of C.S. Lewis, W.H. Lewis, ed., p. 305)
Note that Lewis is saying that Jesus’ experienced the fear of death more intensely because he “really lived a human life.” Lewis disdains the idea (which he attributes to Barfield) that Christ suffered simply “from the mere fact of being in the body” as “mythological in the bad sense.” Jesus feared death more because he loved life more.
I came across this letter of C.S. Lewis’s on the blog Undeception:
Dear Mr. Beversluis,
Yes. On my view one must apply something of the same sort of explanation to, say, the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua. I see the grave danger we run by doing so; but the dangers of believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshiping Him, is still greater danger. The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two. Indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.
To this some will reply ‘ah, but we are fallen and don’t recognize good when we see it.’ But God Himself does not say that we are as fallen as all that. He constantly, in Scripture, appeals to our conscience: ‘Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?’ — ‘What fault hath my people found in me?’ And so on. Socrates’ answer to Euthyphro is used in Christian form by Hooker. Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.) The opposite view (Ockham’s, Paley’s) leads to an absurdity. If ‘good’ means ‘what God wills’ then to say ‘God is good’ can mean only ‘God wills what he wills.’ Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.
But of course having said all this, we must apply it with fear and trembling. Some things which seem to us bad may be good. But we must not consult our consciences by trying to feel a thing good when it seems to us totally evil. We can only pray that if there is an invisible goodness hidden in such things, God, in His own good time will enable us to see it. If we need to. For perhaps sometimes God’s answer might be ‘What is that to thee?’ The passage may not be ‘addressed to our (your or my) condition’ at all.
I think we are v. much in agreement, aren’t we?
Yours sincerely, C. S. Lewis
I’ve noted before that while Lewis was very much a man of traditional and conservative disposition and views, he would be out of step with a lot of what passes for “conservative” Christianity today. A significant strain of contemporary evangelicalism–particularly Calvinist-influenced, has embraced precisely the doctrine of inerrancy and ethical voluntarism that Lewis is criticizing here.
Closer to home, however, a lot of mainline theology has absorbed the “postmodern” critique of reason, which denies that we can transcend our particular social and cultural situation enough to apprehend any “universal” truths. Lewis, though he recognizes our penchant for partiality and self-deception, would also disagree with this, at least in its extreme form. God has endowed us with the capacity to apprehend the Good and the True. It’s true that in our fallen state, we only apprehend it in a partial and fragmentary way, but we are capable of genuine knowledge. It’s also worth noting that “postmodern” anti-rationnalism doesn’t necessarily have more progressive implications than conservative biblicism. In fact, it may lead to a very similar form of authoritarianism: if “truth” is defined by my tribe, my social group, my church, my political fellow-travelers, etc., how is criticism of the group possible?
My personal view is that there is merit in the various critiques of “Enlightenment reason,” but at the same time, Christians should be wary of embracing a thorough-going anti-rationalism.
Today I came across this article (via Crystal) arguing that American Christians should abandon the Republican and Democratic parties and form a “Christian party” that embraces something like Phillip Blond‘s “Red Tory” or “Big Society” program:
British theologian and political philosopher Phillip Blond correctly notes that, “the current political consensus” in the United States is “left-liberal in culture and right-liberal in economics. And this is precisely the wrong place to be.” It’s also the fundamental reason why Christians cannot be at home in either political party – the Christian vision of the social and economic order is almost exactly the opposite of the current consensus.
The author, Michael Stafford, a lawyer and Catholic, argues that we need an American version of a European-style Christian democratic party to put this vision into action:
What would the views of a hypothetical presidential candidate from an American Christian Democratic Party look like? I think they would closely track Marcia Pally’s description of the ideal candidate new evangelicals are longing for, a candidate neither of the current major political parties are capable of producing – “someone who will help the poor, protect the planet and dramatically reduce the need for abortion, someone who will help both secular and faith-based organizations to do this work.”
I’d be the last to deny that both our major political parties have significant flaws. But even if it was possible to overcome the institutional barriers to third party success in the U.S. (ballot access, campaign finance, and our first-past-the-post election system), I don’t think that a “Christian” political party is particularly desirable.
Lucky for me, I don’t have to spell out the reasons why in any great detail, because this was ably done by C.S. Lewis over 70 years ago in an essay called “Meditation on the Third Commandment.”* Lewis points out that a Christian party “must either confine itself to stating what ends are desirable and what means are lawful or else it must go further and select from among the lawful means those which it deems possible and efficacious and give to these its practical support.” However, all political parties generally agree on ends: happiness, security, freedom, etc. Where they disagree is about what means are most effective in attaining these ends. But Christians, as Christians, have no special expertise or insight into what means will be most effective.
Lewis goes on to argue that, if all Christians formed a party, they would inevitably disagree over the means to attaining their ends. Lewis imagines three “types” of Christians who might make up such a party: an authoritarian, a democrat, and a revolutionary radical. All agree about the ends, but disagree radically about the preferable means. So what happens?
The three types represented by these three Christians presumably come together to form a Christian Party. Either a deadlock ensues (and there the history of the Christian Party ends) or else one of the three succeeds in floating a party and driving the other two, with their followers, out of its ranks. The new party — being probably a minority of the Christians who are themselves a minority of the citizens — will be too small to be effective. In practice. it will have to attach itself to the un-Christian party nearest to it in beliefs about means — to the Fascists if Philarchus has won, to the Conservatives if Stativus, to the Communists if Sparticus. It remains to ask how the resulting situation will differ from that in which Christians find themselves today.
The chief danger here (and this is presumably what the title of the essay means to refer to) is that a Christian party would be tempted to give its political views a kind of divine sanction:
By the mere act of calling itself the Christian Party it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal. It will be exposed, in an aggravated degree, to that temptation which the Devil spares none of us at any time — the temptation of claiming for our favourite opinions that kind and degree of certainty and authority which really belongs only to our Faith. The danger of mistaking our merely natural, though perhaps legitimate, enthusiasms for holy zeal, is always great.
All this comes from pretending that God has spoken when He has not spoken. He will not settle the two brothers’ inheritance: `Who made Me a judge or a divider over you?’ By the natural light He has shown us what means are lawful: to find out which one is efficacious He has given us brains. The rest He has left to us.
What Lewis suggests is precisely the course of action that Mr. Stafford is arguing against: Lewis says that instead of forming their own party, Christians should act as “leaven” in the existing political parties. He suggests that Christians might establish an interdenominational “Christian Voters Society” that would “draw up a list of assurances about ends and means which which every member was expected to exact from any political party as the price of his support.” I take it that what Lewis has in mind here is a determination of what ends and means are “lawful” (i.e., morally permissible or obligatory) rather than what means are effective in bringing about desired ends.
In a fallen world where our knowledge is inevitably limited and our motives are clouded by self-interest, faithful Christians, like everyone else, are going to disagree on political issues. As Lewis argues, to try and paper over this disagreement with the formation of a Christian party will either result in political failure or religious betrayal.
*Found in the collection God in the Dock; a slightly truncated version can be found here.
There’s a discussion over at Jesus Creed on a new book called Erasing Hell, which is, I take it, a response to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. I haven’t read either book, but the argument of Erasing Hell, as sketched by the author at Jesus Creed, calls for some comment. From the post:
A central claim of [Erasing Hell authors] Chan and Sprinkle—which creates their foundation (and breathing room) for embracing the traditional view of hell as eternal conscious torment—is the idea that whatever God chooses to do is, by definition, “right”. At the outset, the writers in defining the purpose of their book say,
“This book is actually much more than a book on hell. It’s a book about embracing a God who isn’t always easy to understand, and whose ways are far beyond us; a God whose thoughts are much higher than our thoughts; a God who, as the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of all things, has the right to do, as the psalmist says, ‘whatever He pleases’ (Ps. 115:3). God has the right to do WHATEVER he pleases. If I’ve learned one thing from studying hell, it’s this last line. And whether or not you end up agreeing with everything I say about hell, you must agree with Psalm 115:3″ (p.17, emphasis theirs).
Though the word “right” (which adds a moral element) does not appear in Psalm 115, this is a foundational idea at work in Erasing Hell. The writers fall back on this argument and use the language of God having the “right” to do whatever he wishes throughout the text, and from this argument they establish that, because God is supremely powerful and all-knowing, God has the moral authority to create a state of eternal conscious torment if he so desires.
As noted in the post, this looks like a rather extreme example of the divine command theory of ethics. This view holds that right and wrong are dependent on the will of God. If God decides to torture people for eternity, then this is, by definition, the right thing to do. There are no “external” criteria by which we could judge such an action.
I think it’s safe to say that this isn’t the view of mainstream Christian theology. The issue actually pre-dates Christianity and goes back to the famed dilemma proposed in Plato’s Euthyphro: “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” The problem is that embracing the first horn of the dilemma seems to set up a standard of right and wrong which is independent of the divine, while the other makes right and wrong a matter of seemingly arbitrary choice. Christian theology has, I think wisely, tried to sidestep the dilemma by proposing that the nature of good flows from (or is identical with) the divine nature, thus making good neither independent of God nor simply a result of a choice that could’ve just as easily been otherwise.
C.S. Lewis summarizes the traditional view in his essay “The Poison of Subjectivism” (found in the collection Christian Reflections):
God neither obeys nor creates the moral law. The good is uncreated; it never could have been otherwise; it has in it no shadow of contingency; it lies, as Plato said, on the other side of existence. It is the Rita of the Hindus by which the gods themselves are divine, the Tao of the Chinese from which all realities proceed. But we, favoured beyond the wisest pagans, know what lies beyond existence, what admits no contingency, what lends divinity to all else, what is the ground of all existence, is not simply a law but also a begetting love, a love begotten, and the love which, being these two, is also imminent in all those who are caught up to share the unity of their self-caused life. God is not merely good, but goodness; goodness is not merely divine, but God.
Consequently, Christians can say that God is the supreme reality, but also that God is good. This isn’t to deny that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. Our apprehension of the good is always fragmentary and tainted by self-interest. But we do genuinely apprehend it. Just as there is a minority report in Christendom that holds that right is just whatever God happens to will, so there is a sub-tradition that holds that human reason is so damaged by the Fall that we are unable to perceive goodness. But again, the mainstream tradition has wisely steered a middle course, holding that human reason is capable of attaining to a genuine knowledge of good and evil. “Natural law” theory in its many variations is one expression of this basic conviction.
This by itself doesn’t show that hell can’t exist. But it does call into question the strategy of defending the idea of hell by appealing to a God who is, in effect, beyond good and evil.
…it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel to suppose that, though violence is prohibited in this age, it will be perfectly acceptable in the age to come. The German writer Friedrich Nietzsche called this resentissement, the desire for delayed revenge, the belief that we might have to suffer persecution now, but God will take revenge in the end. The true Christian perception is that the cross of Christ is God’s last word on violence. The divine love will never turn into divine hatred. It will go as far as possible to bring people to divine life, and it will always seek the welfare of every sentient being. And that is the last word.
–Keith Ward, Re-thinking Christianity, pp. 41-42
Interestingly, Ward doesn’t think this rules out the idea of hell, at least in a qualified sense. He says that God cannot force people to embrace the path of love against their will. “[I]t is possible for rational creatures to exclude themselves from love, and therefore from the divine life” (p. 42). As a result, people might find themselves, after death, in a hell of their own making where they experience the consequences of the choices they have made. Nevertheless, he believes that the divine love remains insistent in trying to draw people into repentance, and that such repentance is possible even in hell. “A God of unlimited love would go to any lengths to persuade them to return to the path of eternal life, and to help them on that path” (p. 42).
This sounds similar to the view of hell sketched by C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce–people are in hell because they won’t choose to let go of their sins, their hatreds, the resentments. But they could. Purgatory and hell are not two separate realms (as in Dante); the difference is whether one chooses to leave. Lewis also imaginatively depicts God’s grace trying to draw people back. In his telling this takes the form of redeemed humans–usually people that the damned knew in the earthly life–entreating them to come “higher up and further in.”
Where I’m not sure Ward and Lewis would agree is whether there is, at some point, a moment of decision after which one’s eternal destiny is fixed. Both deny that such a moment occurs before death–in both Lewis and Ward post-mortem repentance is a possibility. But Lewis seems more inclined to think that there is a moment when one decides decisively for or against God. (His book is called The Great Divorce, after all.) Ward, on the other hand, seems more optimistic that the divine love will never give up on the unrepentant and that universal salvation is something to be hoped for.
I’ve been reading and thinking about the Atonement (i.e., the work of Christ in reconciling us to God) again lately, so I thought I’d jot something down on how I see things. The view I’m now inclined toward is that “Abelardian” and “Anselmian” theories of atonement are complementary rather the mutually exclusive. An Abelardian view emphasizes the revelation of God’s love for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the power of this outpouring of love to move our hearts to repentance. By contrast, the Anselmian view emphasizes Jesus’ role as offering on behalf of us all the perfect human response of love God the Father. This is a response that we, mired in sin and brokenness, are unable to make. By being joined with Christ in faith and baptism, we participate in his act of self-offering. (The Anselmian view needs to be carefully distinguished from the penal substitutionary view.)
In short, the Atonement is bidirectional: there is a movement from the side of God toward humanity, in revealing and pouring out the divine love and forgiveness. And there is a movement from humanity toward God, in the self-offering of Jesus, which makes it possible for us to share, by adoption, in his filial relationship with the Father. The kicker is that both aspects of this divine-human reconciliation are products of God’s grace.
Facile categorizations and contrasts, happily, find no place in O’Collins’s catholic vision. Thus, for example, both Anselm and Abelard receive an appreciative hearing. “Anselm,” O’Collins writes, “laid fresh stress on the humanity and human freedom of Christ, who spontaneously acts as our representative and in no way is to be construed as a penal substitute who passively endured sufferings to appease the anger of a ‘vindictive’ God.” Abelard’s insistence upon love as the key to redemption “shows how salvation is not primarily a ‘process,’ and even less a ‘formula,’ but a person, or rather three persons acting with boundless love.” Both Anselm’s sense of the depth of sin’s dysfunction and Abelard’s sensitivity to the height of redeeming Love provide irreplaceable elements of a comprehensive approach to salvation.
Scottish Reformed theologian James B. Torrance (younger brother of the more famous T.F. Torrance) helps clarify this bidirectional aspect of the work of Christ in his book Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace. Torrance emphasizes the “God-humanward and human-Godward relationship (movement), both freely given to us in Jesus Christ”:
Grace does not only mean that in the coming of Jesus Christ, God gives himself in holy love to humanity. It also means the coming of God as man–to present us in himself through the eternal Spirit to the Father. (p. 53)
Torrance notes that to forgive sin implies judgment. This is because if there’s no guilt, then there’s no need for forgiveness. Forgiveness is “logically prior” to repentance. It is the forgiveness itself that clearly reveals the guilt in the one being forgiven. And this is what elicits repentance. Torrance contrasts “legal repentance,” where repentance is understood as a precondition for forgiveness, with “evangelical repentance,” which occurs as a result of being forgiven. When we truly repent, we submit to the verdict of being guilty–we acknowledge that we need forgiveness. Thus repentance is one part of the total act of reconciliation or atonement (at-one-ment).
However, because of our brokenness, we can’t repent as we should, if we understand repentance as a “real change of mind, an act of penitence…(metanoia), conversion, reconciliation” (p. 55). This is why God, in his grace, provides a means of making repentance:
God in Christ has spoken to us his word of forgiveness, his word of love which is at the same time the word of judgment and condemnation, the word of the cross. But implicit in our receiving of the word of grace and forgiveness, the word of the Father’s love, there must be on our part, a humble submission to the verdict of guilty. It was for our sins that Christ died. That lies at the heart of the Reformation understanding of grace–of “evangelical repentance.” But who can make that perfect response of love, that perfect act of penitence, that perfect submission to the verdict of guilty? What we cannot do, God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ stands in for us in our humanity, in our name, on our behalf, to make that perfect submission to the Father. That is the wonder of God’s grace! God not only speaks the word of forgiveness to us. He also provides for us one, in Jesus Christ, who makes the perfect response of vicarious penitence. So God accepts us, not because of our repentance–we have no worthy penitence to offer–but in the person of one who has already said amen for us, in death, to the divine condemnation of our sin–in atonement. (pp. 55-6)
Jesus’ entire life–his ministry, his passion, and his death on the cross–is this perfect response of love. This dovetails with seeing the Incarnation as creating a “new Adam,” or as “recapitulating” human existence without succumbing to the temptations and snares of the Evil One. In Jesus, God gets the human project back on track. As Anselm argued, the true “dishonor” that sin causes is that it threatens to derail God’s plans for his creation. Because God won’t allow that to happen, the Son becomes incarnate in human flesh to restore God’s intentions to bring creation to fulfillment.
As C.S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, repentance is the whole process of surrendering our selves, of offering them back to God. This is not some legal requirement; it’s just what constitutes turning back to God. And this is what God in Christ does–blazes the trail back to the Father as it were. “He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God” (“The Perfect Penitent,” Mere Christianity, p. 58). This entire movement, from God to humanity and back, is the manifestation in history of the very triune life of God, into which we are drawn by God’s grace.