Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Perfect Penitent

Lewis opens up this chapter restating the 'frightening alternative'. Alliteratively boiled down it goes: liar, lunatic or Lord. Those are your only choices. Either Christ was who he said he was (Lord), he was a con-artist or some sort of demon/spirit (liar), or he was a nutjob who thought he was God (lunatic). We've actually got plenty of the last around nowadays! Lewis leaves off, as sanil pointed out, the fourth possibility which is that Christ never said any of the things that are attributed to him, or maybe just not the ones that claim divinity or hint at it. That those are later insertions/inventions/misunderstandings by his followers that have been passed down to us as faith. Which I'm having a hard time fitting in alliteratively. Liar, lunatic, lord or...innocent of all charges? I don't know. :) 

"Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, how-ever 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." - this is Lewis, of course.

The question Lewis seeks to address here is why. What was the point? The answer that comes to mind for me is to save humanity. Lewis says it's clear he came to teach but that the New Testament and all Christians constantly talk about his death and his coming again. So Lewis believes that it is obvious that to most Christians the point of Christ's coming was his suffering and death.

Lewis was under the impression, before he became a Christian that the first point of belief a Christian had to subscribe to was the theory of what the point of Christ's death was. The theory was that God wanted to punish mankind for leaving him and joining the Dark Side, but Christ volunteered to be punished instead. So God took the bargain and punished Christ in our places. He says that he found this concept silly and immoral, though now that he is a Christian he does not find it as silly and immoral as he used to, but that that is not the point.

"What I came to see later on was that neither this theory nor any other is Christianity. The central Christian 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...Theories about Christ's death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. Christians would not all agree as to how important those theories are."

I'm really not sure what to say about the above. Do you guys have any thoughts? How important is it that we understand how Christ's life and death save us? Is it important, or is it enough that it occurred and that he left us instructions on how to take advantage of it? Or are even those suspect? What are we meant to take away from the life of Christ and what has been recorded about it?

"A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it. We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ's death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself."

Lewis goes on to discuss the idea that Christ died to pay the price for our sins. He questions what the point of punishing an innocent person for the crimes of others could possibly be? Lewis says that it doesn't make any sense if one is thinking about punishment in the 'police-court' sense. It begins to make sense if you look at it from the perspective of paying a fine. That it is commonly accepted practice for one person to pay off anothers' debt (for whatever reason they may choose to do so).

So what's the 'debt' that man had that Christ was paying for (under this theory)? 

"He had tried to set up on his own, to behave as if he belonged to himself. In other words, fallen man is not simply an imper­fect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor—that is the only way out of our `hole'. This process of surrender—this movement full speed astern—is what Chris­tians call repentance."

Repentance, according to Lewis, "means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death. In fact, it needs a good man to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person—and he would not need it."

So that, according to Lewis' understanding of this theory, is why we needed Christ. We're unable to pay back the debt because we're in debt. He says that "this willing submission to humiliation and a kind of death" is not something that God demands before he will take a person back, but that it is a description of what going back to Him is like.

My question/issue is this. Shouldn't going back to God feel good? I get that he's saying we're fallen, we've messed up and separating ourselves from the pride and whatever other sins we're attached to is going to fell bad. We're denying ourselves and telling ourselves that we were wrong for maybe the first time in our lives. But shouldn't it also feel good to do the right thing? You know, I'm just not really behind the whole idea that I have to feel humiliated in order to get back to God. I'm down with feeling humble, with feeling grateful. But humiliated? Or is this just me?

Anyway. So we can only experience repentance if God helps us. If he walks us through it, guides us. However, nothing in God's nature corresponds to what we need to do. Surrender, suffer, submit and die. And wow, that is actually really depressing when you see it like that. It's...very cultish in the bad way. Lewis' point here is not about the creepy factor I'm getting. It's that none of those things are things that have a corresponding nature in God. 

So in order to show us what we need to do, to lead us, God had to take those things and make them a part of his nature. Hence, the Incarnation.
"But supposing God became a man—suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God's nature in one person—then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God. You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man. Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we men share in God's dying, just as our thinking can succeed only because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intelligence: but we cannot share God's dying unless God dies; and He cannot die except by being a man. That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all."

But...but- but- but- this is not a problem with Lewis, but rather with the entire thing. Did Christ die? Yes. And I'm not about to say that it was easier for him than it would be for anyone else because he was God. If it is to be healed and perfected, it must be assumed. So Christ's suffering had to be the same as any other person's suffering. Or that's how I understand it. My 'but' comes in with the fact that while Christ's physical form died, *God* did not die. A God that dies is not eternal. So maybe it is a problem with Lewis' phrasing. Of course, all metaphor ultimately fails when trying to be applied to God because He is too big to be encompassed by human intelligence.


  1. I thought it was Christian teaching that God died. Death is not eternal, even when humans die the soul goes on. And then I know at least some say Christ was separated from God in death. So the issue has to be whether Christ is God or Christ included God but the God part wasn't actually crucified. Crucifixion includes death. Not all of God died, but to a lot of people it is important that God experienced death, even if it was an experience that only lasted an instant. If only a body died, that doesn't mean much and could as easily have been achieved by God just leaving the body. Which is fine, if the death isn't at all the point and the suffering is important. That's what I was taught, now I'm really curious about your understanding of it. Can you try to explain that and maybe I can figure out what I'm missing?

    I dislike the statement that the New Testament focuses on Christ's death. Some of it does. Paul certainly does. But the Gospels include a lot of teaching, and it seems like a bit of a waste if the thing that matters most is the death. If that were the case, the four Gospels (or at the very least, one of them) would look a lot more like Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. I would think there has to be something redemptive in his teachings and his life, or else he might as well have simply come to earth in the form of a man and hung himself up on a cross, without the need for a whole life. And yeah, the argument can be made that he had to do all that to be human and to live a perfect life. But it didn't have to be recorded in such detail. It's not like much he said was brand new, you can find the same messages in other teachers of the time from both the Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures. And yet, it was important enough to spend most of the Gospels recording those teachings. Clearly, they matter at least as much as his death.

    I know people who consider themselves Christians and don't consider the death salvific at all. Now, I don't know if other Christians would say that makes them no longer Christian, I'm fairly confident Lewis would think it did. But I still think it's worth mention.

    I love Lewis' statement that you have to accept it first to understand it. I don't know if it's true, but then if it is, then by definition I wouldn't realize it. :D Which sort of invalidates anything I could say about this topic, but I keep trying anyway. I mean, I lived it for 23 years, it's hard to just put it down and forget everything I was taught.

    I think the more classical atonement parts of the NT agree with Lewis that it doesn't matter if you understand the theology of it. Learning came later, any random person who heard Paul or another missionary speak and wanted to be saved could come forward and be baptized. The fact that Paul's still trying to spell out the doctrine of atonement in his letters means they hadn't nailed it down yet and the people he's writing to hadn't gotten baptized after some sort of membership class where everything was taught perfectly. What I think the Bible record does seem to show being required is that baptism be specifically related to Jesus' death and resurrection, because they made someone who had only had John's baptism get baptized again.

  2. It does. I think I'm just having a moment. Like...congnitive dissonance? God had to come down here and experience death in order to show us the way to repentance? The whole surrender, suffer, submit, and die thing, only done perfectly. And I don't like that litany, so I'm having issues with the whole thing in the way it was phrased. But yes, the Christian concept as I understand it is that God experienced death through the Son (Incarnated as Jesus Christ) in the full human sense of the term. Otherwise death could not have been redeemed.

    I'm not sure that the suffering and the death were the point at all. I think it was the teaching before hand and the resurrection afterward that were the points. After all, humans are pretty good at suffering and dying without any instructions. :)

    I think Lewis agrees with you. He presents this as the most common belief, but it is not his. He doesn't (or hasn't yet) gone into detail about his perspective, but I get the impression that it's more focused on Christ's life and teachings and not the death part.

    The recording of his life would be for us, so that we can emulate him and see the goal? Have the benefit of teachings that we weren't there in person to receive?

    I actually agree with Lewis that understanding the theology is not the thing that saves you. You can understand and quote the complicated theology of any aspect all you like and if you don't have the faith it doesn't mean anything. And you can have a simple, true faith with no interest or understanding of intricate matters of theology and be saved. Baptism, faith and the sacraments are what saves, what enable a person to live a holy life.

  3. Ok, I just realized why I got confused. This post is you trying to describe Lewis trying to describe mainstream Christianity. :D I read too fast and missed who was saying what. Oops.

    That makes sense. And yeah, I would say that is why the teachings and such are recorded.

  4. This was very very interesting. I am glad you are sticking with this book although I'm guessing that it's the one you've already spend a month reading! :) Well, I'm enjoying the Lewis Lessons through your eyes.

    Bart Ehrman offers LEGEND for that other L you are looking for. :)

    I have other stuff I might say about this post later when I have time to think.

    Now I'm curious if humiliation and humble are just related words, but the former just seems so much worse due to how we think of it.

  5. Actually the book I spent a month reading was a fiction one by Stephen King. Admittedly it's 700 pages long and I only read it a few minutes here and there every day, but still.

    Ah! Good old Ehrman. King of the alliteration!

    It's all about the sense that we have for the words I think. Humiliation to me speaks of failure and degredation and being shamed. Having your face shoved into the dirt. Humble is more gentle because it has ways it can be used that aren't associated with losing.

  6. Yes, that's my point about the words. but I was curious if MAYBE they had similar roots and when Lewis wrote "humiliation" was understood in the way you think of humble now. I may be totally off base, but it was a thought that crossed my mind. There are many words today that don't have quite the same meaning as they did a few decades ago as you are aware.

    Humiliation makes me think of something someone else does to me whereas I can humble myself. Maybe the power shift from someone to myself doing is the key...doesn't seem quite so demoralizing.

    Oh, a Stephen King book! I see. :)

  7. I accepted that Jesus put things right with God for me, without ever understanding how. It all remained fuzzy and I didn't feel it had really made any difference, so I was quite anxious about the whole thing. I now see it as a bad thing, that I took these fuzzy concepts on trust, took someone else's word for it, didn't check it all through for myself. I think what he suggests in this way is potentially harmful.

  8. Susanne,

    Oooh. Well, 'humble' is the adjectival form of 'humility' which bears more than a passing connection to 'humiliation' at least on the surface. According to the dictionary they have different origin words, but they are very, very close so it's likely they have the same root word back in the Latin somewhere. *Is not a linguist, so this is just a guess*.

    Perhaps it is just a matter of semantics, but the usage of the word 'humiliation' hasn't changed that much since Lewis' time so I have problems with giving him that out.

  9. Sarah,

    I think Lewis is looking at it more from the angle of having all the theories as to the minute mechanics of how Christ's death and resurrection saves and knowing that we cannot ever know for certain which of those theories is the 'correct' one. Given that (from what I've read of his biography) Lewis was raised Christian, rejected it to become an atheist and then chose to become a Christian again I don't think he'd advocate taking someone's word for it. It's the mechanics I think he's aiming at. Which may or may not be helpful since if you can't get behind an explanation of some sort for how it works then can you have a sustainable faith?

  10. When I converted to Islam it was almost exclusively because I no longer believed that Jesus was the son of God (and because I saw something good/true in Muhammed (PBUH)'s teachings).

    So I definitely thing that's a viable option, Jesus as a teacher, who never claimed to be the son of God - or God, but neither a lunatic or a liar.

  11. Becky,

    It's a possibility, but it's not one that Lewis accepts as such. He believed that the Bible was true. And from that standpoint, the position that Christ was a great teacher or prophet but not who He said He was is unacceptable.

  12. Well, if you have to accept the premise that the Bible is true there's only really ONE possible interpretation - Jesus as the Son of God. ;) Neither of the other interpretations assume that (all of) the Bible is true.

  13. Maybe I should have said 'a correct record' rather than 'true'. Certainly, if the Bible is true then the only option is that Christ is God. But if it is merely a correct record of what the Apostles saw and heard then the possibilities of liar or lunatic are still on the table.

  14. Sanil, some would say the most painful suffering of Christ was not the physical torment at all, but the spiritual separation from God that you spoke of... There are two deaths: a physical death and a spiritual death. Souls are eternal - spiritual death is defined by separation from God. If you believe the Bible, then Christ was triumphant over both, and only through His resurrection (His works alone) can we have hope. (1 Corinthians 15)


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