Over the centuries, especially since the Enlightenment, it’s become fashionable to debunk or disprove Christianity—or, more recently (“recent” could mean anytime over the last century and more), simply to tailor and remodel various elements of the Bible, Extreme Makeover-style, to make it more suitable to what we like. To be fair, a lot of this has been prompted, or fueled, by even longer centuries of ridiculous, just-so-story assumptions about Scripture that have been hammered home as infallible truth, coupled with arrogant self-righteousness taking its stand under the banner of Christ: We’re right, so you’d better do as we say. With those menu choices, served up with that attitude, who’d want to eat at that establishment?!
But thankfully, in more recent years, a lot of people, groups, and churches have been working hard to dismantle and move away from the awful attitude of self-righteousness / judgmentalism / hypocrisy / arrogance that has driven hordes of people away from anything to do with Christianity, or with religion in general. Fewer voices, however, have stood out to respond to the debunk / makeover approach—that is, not without tending to fall prey to the arrogance that has been such a stench in religion. One such voice, though, was the evenhanded approach of CS Lewis, the Oxford scholar who reluctantly turned from atheism (which he had previously been intellectually convinced of) to Christianity (which his considerable, and even more notably, honest, intellect eventually also convinced him of). The way he jokingly describes his conversion is that he was “dragged kicking and screaming into the kingdom of God”, because he didn’t want it to be true: intellectual honesty simply forced him to accept it.
So in this just-past-Easter season, when it’s great to go, “Yay! Easter eggs, candy and chocolate bunnies!” or, alternately, “Jesus was wonderful! The best ethical teaching and example ever! We should be transformed by that, as if in new life! Please don’t give me that ‘resurrection’ nonsense, though,” I’ll just let him speak for himself on some of those matters. (There are a lot of other “alternate” ideas these days about Christianity, many taking the form of very inventive—and heartily tiresome, because they’re the result of such an appalling travesty of “scholarship”—suggestions that the New Testament documents as we have them aren’t reliable historical records, or even don’t accurately represent the actual teachings of the earliest Christians, even though in both cases the opposite has abundantly been proven to be true; and others take the form of equally ludicrous ideas that the “point” of Christianity is something to do with us, with our identity or psychology or some other aspect of the human makeup—which neatly takes the focus off that unsettling person Jesus, and puts it on us. Yet if you were to suggest that this is actually a subtle form of putting people in the central place of God, you’d get the most piously affronted objections!)
The following is Lewis’ essay, “What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?” (1950, available in a collection of his essays, God In the Dock , first published as a longer edition in the U.K. as Undeceptions: Essays on Theology and Ethics):
“What are we to make of Jesus Christ?” This is a question which has, in a sense, a frantically comic side. For the real question is not what are we to make of Christ, but what is He to make of us? The picture of a fly sitting deciding what it is going to make of an elephant has comic elements about it. But perhaps the questioner meant what are we to make of Him in the sense of “How are we to solve the historical problem set us by the recorded sayings and acts of this Man?” This problem is to reconcile two things. On the one hand you have got the almost generally admitted depth and sanity of His moral teaching, which is not very seriously questioned, even by those who are opposed to Christianity. In fact, I find when I am arguing with very anti-God people that they rather make a point of saying, “I am entirely in favour of the moral teaching of Christianity”—and there seems to be a general agreement that in the teaching of this Man and of His immediate followers, moral truth is exhibited at its purest and best. It is not sloppy idealism, it is full of wisdom and shrewdness. The whole thing is realistic, fresh to the highest degree, the product of a sane mind. That is one phenomenon.
The other phenomenon is the quite appalling nature of this Man’s theological remarks. You all know what I mean, and I want rather to stress the point that the appalling claim which this Man seems to be making is not merely made at one moment of His career. There is, of course, the one moment which led to His execution. The moment at which the High Priest said to Him, “Who are you?” “I am the Anointed, the Son of the uncreated God, and you shall see Me appearing at the end of all history as the judge of the Universe.” But that claim, in fact, does not rest on this one dramatic moment. When you look into His conversation you will find this sort of claim running through the whole thing. For instance, He went about saying to people, “I forgive your sins”. Now it is quite natural for a man to forgive something you do to him. Thus if somebody cheats me out of five pounds it is quite possible and reasonable for me to say, “Well, I forgive him, we will say no more about it.” What on earth would you say if somebody had done you out of five pounds and I said, “That is all right, I forgive him”? Then there is a curious thing which seems to slip out almost by accident. On one occasion this Man is sitting looking down on Jerusalem from the hill above it and suddenly in comes an extraordinary remark— “I keep on sending you prophets and wise men.” Nobody comments on it. And yet, quite suddenly, almost incidentally, He is claiming to be the power that all through the centuries is sending wise men and leaders into the world. Here is another curious remark: in almost every religion there are unpleasant observances like fasting. This Man suddenly remarks one day, “No one need fast while I am here.” Who is this Man who remarks that His mere presence suspends all normal rules? Who is the person who can suddenly tell the School they can have a half-holiday?
On the one side clear, definite moral teaching. On the other, claims which, if not true, are those of a megalomaniac, compared with whom Hitler was the most sane and humble of men. There is no half-way house and there is no parallel in other religions. If you had gone to Buddha and asked him: “Are you the son of Brahma?” he would have said, “My son, you are still in the vale of illusion.” If you had gone to Socrates and asked, “Are you Zeus?” he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammed and asked, “Are you Allah?” he would first have rent his clothes and then cut your head off. If you had asked Confucius, “Are you Heaven?” I think he would have probably replied, “Remarks which are not in accordance with nature are in bad taste.” The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man. If you think you are a poached egg, when you are not looking for a piece of toast to suit you you may be sane, but if you think you are God, there is no chance for you. We may note in passing that He was never regarded as a mere moral teacher. He did not produce that effect on any of the people who actually met him. He produced mainly three effects—Hatred—Terror—Adoration. There was no trace of people expressing mild approval.
What are we to do about reconciling the two contradictory phenomena? One attempt consists in saying that the Man did not really say these things, but that His followers exaggerated the story, and so the legend grew up that He had said them. This is difficult because His followers were all Jews; that is, they belonged to that Nation which of all others was most convinced that there was only one God—that there could not possibly be another. It is very odd that this horrible invention about a religious leader should grow up among the one people in the whole earth least likely to make such a mistake. On the contrary we get the impression that none of His immediate followers or even of the New Testament writers embraced the doctrine at all easily. Now, as a literary historian, I am perfectly convinced that whatever else the Gospels are they are not legends. I have read a great deal of legend and I am quite clear that they are not the same sort of thing. They are not artistic enough to be legends. From an imaginative point of view they are clumsy, they don’t work up to things properly. Most of the life of Jesus is totally unknown to us, as is the life of anyone else who lived at that time, and no people building up a legend would allow that to be so. Apart from bits of the Platonic dialogues, there are no conversations that I know of in ancient literature like the Fourth Gospel. There is nothing, even in modern literature, until about a hundred years ago when the realistic novel came into existence. In the story of the woman taken in adultery we are told Christ bent down and scribbled in the dust with His finger. Nothing comes of this. No one has ever based any doctrine on it. And the art of inventing little irrelevant details to make an imaginary scene more convincing is a purely modern art. Surely the only explanation of this passage is that the thing really happened? The author put it in simply because he had seen it.
Then we come to the strangest story of all, the story of the Resurrection. It is very necessary to get the story clear. I heard a man say, “The importance of the Resurrection is that it gives evidence of survival, evidence that the human personality survives death.” On that view what happened to Christ would be what had always happened to all men, the difference being that in Christ’s case we were privileged to see it happening. This is certainly not what the earliest Christian writers thought. Something perfectly new in the history of the Universe had happened. Christ had defeated death. The door which had always been locked had for the very first time been forced open. This is something quite distinct from mere ghost-survival. I don’t mean that they disbelieved in ghost-survival. On the contrary, they believed in it so firmly that, on more than one occasion, Christ had had to assure them that He was not a ghost. The point is that while believing in survival they yet regarded the Resurrection as something totally different and new. The Resurrection narratives are not a picture of survival after death; they record how a totally new mode of being has arisen in the universe. Something new had appeared in the universe: as new as the first coming of organic life. This Man, after death, does not get divided into “ghost” and “corpse”. A new mode of being has arisen. That is the story. What are we going to make of it?
“What are we to make of Christ?” There is no question of what we can make of Him, it is entirely a question of what He intends to make of us. You must accept or reject the story.
I’ll close with one other observation about something Lewis said there. I’ve heard it objected, at various times, that “I can’t accept Lewis’ ‘truth vs lunacy’ contention; it’s shallow and simplistic, just two-dimensional.” That’s an example of the intellectual dishonesty that is the opposite of Lewis’ approach, however: and in this case, it’s easy to see why. Try making that same objection in court, phrased as “I can’t accept the other side’s contention of ‘facts vs lies’; that’s shallow and two-dimensional.” If you did that, you’d get either laughed out of court, or more likely threatened with contempt. Of course the resurrection (and other things about Jesus, namely his deity as Lewis talked about here) comes down to facts vs lies: that’s the only thing that any events, recorded as if they actually happened, can ever come down to. Lots of other implications about their meaning for others can be drawn from there, of course; but the events themselves—provided one is going to stay consistent in that irritating characteristic, intellectual honesty—can be talked about only from two perspectives: either they happened or they didn’t.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some chocolate bunnies to finish devouring. The chocolate is as tasty as good ethical teaching is! But neither one is what Easter is about, of course. Easter is a lot more wonderful than either of those, more beautiful and “unlikely” even than intricately designed Ukrainian Easter eggs. I hope you will actually find that far tastier.