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C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity is a classic. It is a winsome, thoughtful, well-written defense of the Christian faith. Some of its better known sections–like the famous liar, lunatic, Lord, trilemma–have become part of the way evangelicals think and speak. No doubt God has used Lewis and Mere Christianity to awaken affections for Christ, engage the mind for Christ, and remove obstacles for the Spirit to draw people to Christ. I’m thankful for all this. More than that, I’ve benefited from every Lewis book I’ve read.

But C.S. Lewis was not an evangelical. Mere Christianity shows why.

Let me highlight two significant problems.

Atonement, But How?

The first caution to raise concerns Lewis’ view of the atonement. 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.

Now before I became a Christian I was under the impression that the first thing Christians had to believe was one particular theory as to what the point of this dying was. According to that theory God wanted to punish men for having deserted and joined the Great Rebel, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead, and so God let us off. Now I admit that even this theory does not seem quite so immoral and silly as it used to; but that is not the point I want to make. What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor an other is Christianity. The central belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start. Theories as to how it did this are another matter: A good many different theories have been held as to how it works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work. (57-58 [pagination varies by edition)

Later Lewis says that “Christ was killed for us” and “His death has washed out our sins” but “any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary” (59). This impatience of careful thinking about the atonement is bad enough, but then Lewis goes on to make clear that he rejects the understanding of the atonement evangelicals (and the Bible I would say) find most central and most glorious.

The one most people have heard is the one I mentioned before–the one about our being let off because Christ had volunteered to bear a punishment instead of us. Now on the face of it that is a very silly theory. If God was prepared to let us off, why on earth did He not do so? And what possible point could there be in punishing an innocent person? None at all that I can see, if you are thinking of punishment in the police-court sense. On the the other hand, if you think of a debt, there is plenty of point in a person who has some assets paying it on behalf of someone who has not. (59)

Pay careful attention to what Lewis says in that paragraph. 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.

Lewis’ theology of the atonement is confusing (see for example this helpful Touchstone article), but I would argue his view is more like Christus victor or ransom to Satan than penal substitution. Aslan’s death, you may recall, was a sacrifice to the Witch and was explained rather ambiguously as “deeper magic.” This is not the place to defend the critical importance of penal substitution. My point is simply that Lewis does not teach it in Mere Christianity, and in fact undermines it.

An Early Inclusivist

The second problem with Mere Christianity is Lewis’ 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.

There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. 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. (178)

No matter how much we may like Lewis, this is simply a profound misunderstanding of the Spirit's mission (and a rejection of John 14:6). The work of the Holy Spirit is to bring glory to Christ by taking what is his-his teaching, the truth about his death and resurrection-and making it known. The Spirit does not work indiscriminately without the revelation of Christ in view. Arguably, the Holy Spirit's most important work is to glorify Christ, and he does not do this apart from shining the spotlight on Christ for the elect to see and savor. Again, we see the inclusivist Lewis at the end on Narnia where Emeth, a worshiper of Tash, is accepted by Aslan for following him all along without knowing it.

All that to say, yes, I have some cautions when it comes to Mere Christianity. Good book. But some serious deficiencies.

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149 thoughts on “Cautions for Mere Christianity”

  1. Michael says:

    Maybe you wouldn’t mind explaining to us what you believe the narrow gate is. I’m interested in your interpretation.

    Son Followers Blog

  2. Theodre A. Jones says:

    Don’t mind at all.
    “It is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13
    What all these books don’t explain to you is that a change has been made to the law as an act of righteousness after Jesus’ crucifixion. Therefore it is only by the faith of obeying this law that has been added that one has any hope of being declared righteous by God.

  3. Michael says:

    That’s fairly non-specific. What law has been added, where did it come from, where are you getting your information? If from scripture, what chapter and verse? I’m sure you understand I can’t just take your word for it.

    Son Followers Blog

  4. Theodre A. Jones says:

    “For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.” See Rom. 5:20

  5. Michael says:

    You actually misquoted the verse. That verse says “God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful grace became more abundant.” Nothing about the law changing here.

    Did you mean another verse? What translation of the Bible are you using?

    Son Followers Blog

  6. Michael says:

    Oh, I found it. The verse you quoted is Hebrews 7:12. I still don’t understand where you’re going with this. You’re still being incredibly vague. If you want to discuss further, hop over to my blog at the link below and leave a comment. I’m certainly very interested in understanding your perspective. For the sake of those here who might not be as interested in the discussion, I’m done commenting on this post. Peace.

    Son Followers Blog: Being Accepted

  7. Chris says:

    i’m very glad to hear you’re finally finished, michael. let’s hope theodore is too, for the two of you, through all of your dialogue, solved nothing and accomplished even less other than to clog our email inboxes.

  8. Theodre A. Jones says:

    I did not misquote. Your mistake is the false assumption that the crucifixion of Jesus is a direct benefit. In place of, died in my place, paid the penalty for my sins, etc. are false. No person has been allowed any direct benefit by the sin of any man’s murder caused by bloodshed. The crucifixion of Jesus is only beneficial when it is understood as an accountable sin by each man after the fact.

  9. Michael says:

    Well… look at this mess of comments… I guess Christianity is not a simple thing after all. I better go to seminary, dig my head into some theology, and make sure I’m really a christian, eh?

  10. Corey says:

    Well of course we should be critical when we read Lewis. We should be critical of EVERYTHING we read!

  11. L Wade says:

    What about C.S. Lewis wrote on page 163 of Mere Christianity
    The command be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible)that we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words.

    Now I don’t know what Bible he was reading? (If Any) I have to agree with Todd Friel on this one, there are heresy’s in C S Lewis Mere Christianity.

  12. L Wade says:

    In Mere Christianity, Lewis claims that the Christ-life is spread to men through baptism, belief, and the Lord’s Supper. This is a false gospel of faith plus works. He says, “There are three things that spread the Christ-life to us: baptism, belief, and that mysterious action which different Christians call by different names–Holy Communion, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper. … I am not saying anything about which of these things is the most essential. My Methodist friend would like me to say more about belief and less (in proportion) about the other two. But I am not going into that” (Mere Christianity, p. 61). [Note that he includes the Catholic Mass in his list of the various names by which holy communion are known, failing to acknowledge to his readers that the Mass is an entirely different thing than the simple Lord’s Supper of the New Testament.]

    C.S. Lewis was an Anglican. He did not believe in the Doctrine of Justification or the inerrancy of scripture. As for his Inclusive view on salvation this just sums up what the Apostate Catholic/Anglican and Emergent church believes.

  13. JonX says:

    I think Lew is right. The Fathers knew nothing of penal substitution.

  14. heidi says:

    If Christians would get rid of their t.v.’s, stop listening to compromising Christian music, stop chasing the fads of the world, get a bible version that isn’t perverted and read it, then when false teachings and teachers come we will have discernment. He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness.

  15. Theodore A. Jones says:

    The crucifixion of Jesus Christ was murder. No sin can be a direct benefit. However the soteriological conjecture of substitutionary atonement insists that the sin of murder is a direct benefit.
    The writings of C.S. Lewis are not the scriptures and neither did C. S. Lewis ever comprehend what God by the murder of his son has perfected for salvation.

  16. Craig says:

    I thought Lewis was rather clear in his preface about his purposes in writing his book, to present “mere” Christianity and his limitations in articulating more precise theologies.

    “I am a very ordinary layman of the Church of England, not especially “high,” nor especially “low,” nor especially anything else. But in this book I am not trying to convert anyone to my own position. Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times. I had more than one reason for thinking this. In the first place, the questions which divide Christians from one another often involve points of high Theology or even of ecclesiastical history which ought never to be treated except by real experts. I should have been out of my depth in such waters: more in need of help myself than able to help others.

    One of the things Christians are disagreed about is the importance of their disagreements. When two Christians
    of different denominations start arguing, it is usually not long before one asks whether such-and-such a point “really matters” and the other replies: “Matter? Why, it’s absolutely essential.”

    ….The danger clearly was that I should put forward as common Christianity anything that was peculiar to the Church of England or (worse still) to myself. I tried to guard against this by sending the original script of what is now Book II to four clergymen (Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic)
    and asking for their criticism. The Methodist thought I had not said enough about Faith, and the Roman Catholic thought I had gone rather too far about the comparative unimportance of theories in explanation of the Atonement.

    What I really appreciate about Lewis’s framework and purpose for writing that affirms the big community of true Christianity yet encourages the need for all followers to connect in deeper fellowship and theology, is near the end of his preface:

    “I hope no reader will suppose that “mere” Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions—as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.”

    I am so grateful that God has used Lewis to invite so many people into the grand hall.

  17. Theodore A. Jones says:

    “a hall out of which doors? open into several rooms”! and I thought He says that there are very very few that ever find THE door. The broad way of selecting which ever religious door you might prefer according to Him is a very very hot idea.
    “For it is not those who, just, hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who OBEY the law who will be declared righteous.” Rom. 2:13 BTW Paul is not referencing the Sinai code of law either. The Way of escape that has been perfected by the murder of Jesus Christ is an added law that you do not want to even think of offending.

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  19. Chris says:

    I am very uncomfortable with CSLewis and more uncomfortable with ‘preachers and teachers’ of God’s Word who hold Lewis up as a solid Christian. It is VERY questionable, so err on the side of caution and STOP quoting him from the pulpit and in your books and blogs. See Mr. DeYoung, why do you waffle on calling out Mr. Lewis for what he really is? Take a solid stand and be true to the Word of God.

  20. I appreciate your writing your thoughts on C. S. Lewis and Mere Christianity. I came across this late, sorry, I wanted to just say, I was taught that he was an apologist and not an evangelist. So you are correct in saying he was not an evangelist. However for apologetic’s sake he is worth reading. It would help us also to recall the historical setting in which he spoke and then wrote his work. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater as some would have us do with C. S. Lewis’ works. We live in some similar times with terrorism and perhaps his words are as useful today as they were during the dark hours of WWII. Thanks,

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  23. cindy says:

    MS is a wonderful book to give to anyone who is struggling with their faith or lack thereof in something or someone larger than themselves. It makes it simple and easily digestible. Actually, the arguments on this site are too funny for words. Some christians actually believe they are better than others…how sad. Somehow some people believe that there are some of us fallen creatures who are going to get a larger crown than the rest of us. I pray God heals your crazy thoughts. In any event, it is the role of all believers to share the Word of God, rightly divided to those who are lost. That was the command given us by the Lord Jesus Christ (God in the Flesh) and that’s exactly what we should do. Stop the silly arguments, they produce nothing good. It’s just the same old, same old human nature experience.

  24. M. A. Harris says:

    You write: “The work of the Holy Spirit is to bring glory to Christ….” This sounds like you believe the Holy Spirit is inferior to Christ, which would be anti-Trinitarian. Is that truly the case with you? If one can be saved only by knowing Christ then how could any of the prophets of the OT be saved since they never knew Christ but only the Holy Spirit or the Father? But if God is indeed THREE PERSONS yet ONE–the most BASIC Christian theology–then indeed there is more mystery to salvation than simple New Testament knowledge.

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  27. Kendra says:

    I think it could be like any book, even if a Christian wrote the book, that it was written by a “man” and unlike scripture does not have the same authority or holy spirit of the written “word”. So it may have helped bring many to Christ like Chuck Colson who read it before he was truly saved, but it will have it’s human errors like other books even if written by a Christian with the best of intentions. It’s good though how God can work through our inadequacies. Interesting and sharp analysis on Mere Christianity, definitely worth sharing.

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  29. John Harutunian says:

    Many Evangelicals have inserted a wedge between their understanding of the substitutionary atonement and their understanding of the Trinity. If this is done, one may well arrive at the idea of God being angry with mankind, but being appeased by the sacrifice of an innocent third party. But: if one keeps in mind that the three Persons of the Trinity are one not only in substance, but also in will and purpose, one will be preserved from this distorted teaching.
    And I would guess that what Lewis was reacting against was this distortion.

  30. John Harutunian says:

    A more succinct version of the above: In the death of Jesus Christ, the Judge of all the earth took upon Himself His own punishment. Questionable forensic procedure, to be sure. But might not this be part of “the foolishness of the Gospel?”

  31. John Harutunian says:

    An alternative formulation : In the death of Jesus Christ, the Judge of all the earth took upon Himself His own punishment. Questionable forensic procedure, to be sure. But might not this be part of “the foolishness of the Gospel?”

  32. Wendy FC says:

    CS Lewis is being true to what Scripture actually declares concerning the Atonement, it is KDY who has gone beyond scripture. Those who hold to Penal Substitution (as in an angry God who cannot let sin go unpunished, and demands justice) is simply not borne out in Scripture. Check your OT on what Atonement actually was. God, being slow to anger and abounding in mercy, actually allows the slightest of actions to divert his wrath (like holding up a mere burning censer!). Huh? And Atonement was needed after childbirth; it was needed for inanimate objects – it was not about “satisfying” God’s wrath! And again: when sins were transferred onto a Goat it was set free! Scripture affirms that Jesus swallowed up death, He defeated the principalities and powers. Yes it was substitutionary (in some degree) a ransom (to some degree), and it achieved at-one-ment, but it was more than that too. AND.. Jesus prayed to HIS FATHER on the Cross. Just because he quoted from Psalm 22 it is assumed he was cut off from His Father… but READ THE REST OF THE PSALM! The whole psalm is about Christ’s passion… and guess what? God did NOT hide his face from him! Penal Subsitution is a new THEORY peculiar to Protestantism – it was unheard of for 1500 years and both the Orthodox and Catholic Church reject it. CS Lewis was separating out FACT from THEORY. Christendom would do well to do the same.

  33. Kerri Boutin says:

    Thank you so much. This was extremely helpful.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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