Throwback Thursday: A look at “Mere Christianity” aka the armchair theologian has no clothes

For today’s “Throwback Thursday” installment, we’re going to take a look back at this slightly-revised post that was first published on August 26, 2015.

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Few books are as revered by evangelical Christians as “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis. Evangelical pastors across the country quote snippets of “Mere Christianity” to their congregations every Sunday. But Lewis’ wide-is-the-way, bottom-line, mere Christianity is problematic for Bible Christians. This post will undoubtedly upset some readers, but we should allow “Mere Christianity” speak for itself.

Mere Christianity
By C.S. Lewis
Harper Collins, 2001, 256 pp.

1 Star  Only 1-star because of the wide-is-the-way theology

Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963) was a distinguished British author, educator, armchair theologian, and a former atheist. “Mere Christianity” (first published in 1952) was adapted from a series of talks given by Lewis on BBC radio between 1942 and 1944.

Many evangelical pastors and para-church leaders refer to “Mere Christianity” with unqualified high praise. Christianity Today magazine even names it as the “absolute best religious book of the twentieth-century.” Well, after hearing all the hoopla for many years, I finally got around to reading this “classic” and I must say I’m surprised by all the adulation. There’s no doubt Lewis was a talented writer and pleads the case for many of the basic tenets of Christianity in an enjoyable let’s-discuss-religion-over-a-few-pints-at-the-pub manner. But there are more than a few difficulties with Lewis’s lowest-common-denominator theology which should give all conservative evangelicals pause. All quotes below are from the Harper Collins 2001 edition which I borrowed from my local library.

* The author, an Anglo-Catholic, cuts the widest swath possible in his definition of Christianity. He is purposefully inclusive, identifying Christianity as a large hallway which has many doors to various denominational rooms (p. XV). Roman Catholicism, a propagator of salvation via sacramental grace and merit, is presented as a totally valid Christian entity. Chuck Colson cited “Mere Christianity” as the inspiration for his ecumenical Evangelicals and Catholics Together alliance.

* Lewis is deliberately vague about how one actually becomes a Christian. He sets forth 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” (p. 61). While Lewis confesses that a Methodist friend of his would prefer more emphasis be given to belief than to the two “sacraments” as the way to “Christ-life,” the author declines to do so. High-church Anglicans generally believe the Holy Spirit is first received at infant baptism and that Christ is really present in the eucharist. Catholics believe that at their mass the priest brings Christ down from heaven to be sacrificed again and again under the forms of bread and wine as an offering for the sins of the participants. However, God’s Word states that priestly sacrifice for sins ended with Jesus’s once-for-all-time sacrificial death at Calvary and that He is now seated at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 1:3 & 10:12), not on Catholic altars as a broken victim.

* Lewis correctly states that at some point a person on their way to becoming a Christian will realize they cannot merit their way to God, but must accept Christ’s completely free gift of salvation by the grace of God through faith in Him as Savior alone (p. 147). But how Lewis reconciles this with his previous approval of sacramentalism is unclear. Also, Rome unequivocally condemns the belief of unmerited salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ alone (see Council of Trent canons), yet Lewis cites Catholicism as a valid branch of Christianity. So which is it? Is salvation by grace or works? Lewis’ theological dissonance suggests to his readers that there are two gospels.

* Lewis affirms his unscriptural belief in purgatory. Putting words into Christ’s mouth, Lewis writes, “Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect…” (p. 202). Lest anyone believe I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill in regards to this somewhat nebulous reference, Lewis greatly expounded on his belief in purgatory in other writings.

* Lewis is an unabashed Universalist: “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” (p. 209). Chapter and verse, Clive Staples? What about John 14:6? But Lewis is not the only evangelical darling to preach Universalism. In a May 31, 1997 interview with ecumenical minister, Robert H. Schuller, Billy Graham stated, “God’s purpose for this age is to call out a people for His name. And that’s what God is doing today, He’s calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world or the non-believing world. They are members of the Body of Christ because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think that they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in heaven.”

* Lewis outright dismisses the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ, not a minor triviality (p.182), and in other writings he doubts the inerrancy of Scripture. Lewis confessed his sins weekly to Anglican priest, Father Walter Adams, beginning in 1940. After Adams’ death in 1952 Lewis continued the practice of auricular confession with the priests of St. Mary Magdalen Church in Oxford.

C. S. Lewis’s deviation from Biblical orthodoxy on several extremely important issues raises the question of why so many evangelical pastors stumble over each other to sing the praises of “Mere Christianity”? The fact that many Roman Catholics have adopted Lewis as one of their own and are convinced he was on the path to joining their religion says volumes. Lewis’s spiritual inspiration, ardent Catholic apologist, G. K. Chesterton, was certainly no friend of evangelical Protestantism. Is intellectual snob appeal part of what fuels the attraction to the troubling writings of Oxford professor, Lewis? I’m guessing that’s some of the appeal.

My advice is don’t waste one second of your time with this wide-is-the-way “classic.” There are much more doctrinally sound books on the basics of the Christian faith from solid evangelical authors that deserve your attention. I would neither recommend “Mere Christianity” to an unbeliever or to a Christian of many years. I can only surmise that the undiscerning herd enthusiasm for this book among some evangelicals is guided by the same spirit that persuaded Billy Graham to invite Catholic bishops and priests to participate in organizing his later crusades.

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40 thoughts on “Throwback Thursday: A look at “Mere Christianity” aka the armchair theologian has no clothes

    1. What you hypothesize is the philosophy of the world which posits that everyone will attain heaven/nirvana/after-death bliss except for maybe Hitler, Stalin, and serial killers. But that is not the teaching of Jesus Christ who declared “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” and “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

      No one is “good” but God, and salvation is only by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. No, not everything is possible with God. God cannot contradict Himself.

        “If we receive the testimony of men (including the worldly wide-is-the-way philosophies), the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” – 1 John 5:9-12

        If your wide-is-the-way philosophy were true, Jesus would not have had to die on the cross and the apostles would have stayed home and led comfortable lives instead of witnessing unto martyrdom.

        Liked by 5 people

  1. This was a great post, Tom! I appreciate it so much for your truthfulness and boldness. It was refreshing to read your hard-hitting critique of Lewis. He was clearly a false teacher, but somehow, many of us have been duped by him. I see that he was (and still is) a sort of bridge to Rome. Years ago, I was very enthralled by the Narnia series which drew me into the C.S. Lewis “cult,” but by God’s grace, our Lord showed me that I couldn’t trust his writings and ideas. Because of his continuing influence, this discerning critique and warning must be ongoing for each generation. Just a little encouragement to continue your faith contending and warning Christ’s sheep of the dangers all around us. Thank you.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you, Contendia! I appreciate the encouragement in the Lord! Praise Him for His grace and for giving you discernment regarding Lewis’s heterodox writings.

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  2. This is an important throw back, my brother! There’s no doubt in my mind that Lewis had much to do with ecumenical fervency in America. Unstudied, professing believers tell me all the time that there’s really no difference between RC’s and Protestants. I wish that more people would discuss these issues, but I thank our God for you and your stand!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for the encouragement, sister! I’m sure that most evangelicals would consider anyone who commented negatively on “Mere Christianity” to be an extremist oddball, such is the state of evangelicalism today.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Wow there’s so much more theological problems you noted than what I caught when I first read this as a young Christian interested in apologetics. Thank you for this repost of your older post as it is very relevant today with the rise of Classical Apologetics that’s always trying to build common ground with everything which ends up often watering things down.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks! I remember I approached this book with my antenna fully extended because the young pastor of the SBC church we were attending at the time was completely enamored with Lewis, Chesterton, and Roman Catholicism.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, Ravi is absolutely enamored with Lewis, Chesterton, and Muggeridge. I can’t listen to his radio segments because he often tips his hat to those three along with Mother Teresa, St. Francis, etc.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Ravi is spiritually blind in regards to Catholicism, like many of Geisler’s disciples. Ravi was also a very close friend of Malcolm Muggeridge, a British journalist and convert to Catholicism who was initially responsible for turning Mother Teresa into an international celebrity.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I dug into Muggeridge and his connection to Mother Teresa and Ravi after that young pastor I mentioned had the church’s men’s group study one of Muggeridge’s books.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Really appreciate your boldness Tom – so many throw unqualified accolades to CS Lewis. Mere Christianity was given to me as a ‘seeking’ college student – it justified a loose walk of faith.
    Press on brother!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Lisa Beth! Yes, Mere Christianity “should be” problematic for even the evangelicals in the pews, but instead we have evangelical pastors regularly quoting from the book in their sermons.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow Tom, thank you for this post. I didn’t know that CS Lewis was a false teacher as such. I guess I don’t know much about him. Narnia was my first introduction. last Year I read a review on Narnia where the Pastor explained the unbiblical ides contained in the series.
    Keep up the great work Tom, equipping the Saints with truth and knowledge.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Crissy! After hearing all the hype about “Mere Christianity” for years as well as hearing the MANY C.S. Lewis quotes in sermons, I was very disappointed when I read the book for myself. Ecumenical error continues to spread through the church and in the case of “Mere Christianity” and Lewis, it’s pastors who are the worst offenders.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I am going to share this in our presup round up since this presup is about starting with sound theology as our foundation for apologetics and often call out inadequate apologetic methodology because of bad theology.

    Liked by 2 people

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