This article is an adapted excerpt from Randy Newman’s book, Mere Evangelism: 10 Insights from C.S. Lewis to Help You Share Your Faith (The Good Book Company, 2021).
C. S. Lewis modeled disagreement in a variety of helpful ways. Sometimes, he declared that particular ideas were wrong. Early in Mere Christianity he anticipated the objection against universal morality: “I know some people say . . . different civilisations and different ages have had quite different moralities.” He simply followed with “But this is not true.” Only after drawing this hard line in the sand did he offer support for his strong claim.
Sometimes, he softened his words when others might have sharpened theirs. This works especially well when countering common misconceptions about the gospel. For example, when Lewis addressed the claim that Christianity is just a bunch of rules to follow, he gently responded, “I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before.”
In some instances, his brilliant reasoning skills allowed him to dismantle arguments before offering the truth. Such was the case when he responded to the claim that Jesus was just a good man but not God: “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 the 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.” He also took on the idea that Jesus never claimed to be God. Some said it was his disciples who invented those statements. Lewis responded, “The theory only saddles you with twelve inexplicable lunatics instead of one.”
Of course, when responding to less-than-sincere objections, he felt no need to mince words:
There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of “Heaven” ridiculous by saying they do not want “to spend eternity playing harps.” The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them.
Does that seem too harsh? It probably is for most of us in most of our situations. But bear in mind the dramatic differences between the contexts we inhabit (usually one-on-one conversations with a friend) and Lewis’s platforms (radio broadcasts, public speeches, or arguments in books). It fits some situations to make sweeping or pointed declarations. Often, though, we should temper the boldness of our rebukes. But even when sitting across the table from a confused friend, our gentle pushbacks need to be both genuinely gentle and genuinely pushbacks.
Reading the Times
C. S. Lewis understood his times well and responded brilliantly. One of his most substantive rebukes—and one that’s particularly relevant today—was his condemnation of chronological snobbery. This view asserts that what we believe today must be true because it’s most recent. It assumes that we’ve evolved intellectually so our beliefs must be better than those of less enlightened people of the past.
Our gentle pushbacks need to be both genuinely gentle and genuinely pushbacks.
Lewis returned to this theme many times, knowing that you sometimes have to undermine assumptions before you offer alternatives. Lewis knew the power of chronological snobbery because he was held captive by it for years. He had dismissed Christianity simply because he saw it as outdated.
Don’t you know people who feel the same way about aspects of our faith today? Whether it’s the Bible’s teaching on hell, or human sexuality, or the importance of the church, many today deem Christian faith outdated. “It’s so archaic,” they might say. “Today, we’re more advanced in our thinking, more scientific, more rational,” they might add. Our pre-evangelistic tactic, at that point, needs to chip away at the chronological snobbery behind their unexamined assumptions.
Push Back on Assumptions
Responding to someone’s unexamined assumptions about Christianity might look like this:
You say you don’t believe in hell because it’s an outdated idea. Is that right? Do you think it’s stupid? I wonder: do you think Jesus was stupid? He spoke more about hell than anyone else in the Bible.
You reject Christianity because, you say, Christians are hypocrites. I’ve heard you say, “At least I’m not a hypocrite” many times. Is that the worst sin—hypocrisy? Aren’t there worse things? And do you think all Christians are hypocrites? Are there more Christian hypocrites than non-Christian hypocrites?
Not all objections to the gospel consist of this level of thought. We live in a time of shallow slogans and clichés. Some people seem to build their lives on jargon like “You just have to believe in yourself” or “You don’t find yourself; you create yourself” or “What’s true for you isn’t necessarily true for me.” Again, we need to push back. Some clichés need to crumble before deep thought can engage.
Some clichés need to crumble before deep thought can engage.
It’s worth brainstorming in advance how you might do that. I sometimes simply say, “Really?” or “Can we discuss that?” or “What does that phrase mean to you?” A few short responses like these can be enough to break through the walls of slogans.
Question the Question
Sometimes we need to question the question before we answer it. This takes some practice, but I’m convinced it’s a skill we can all develop.
For example, if someone asks, “Are you saying atheists don’t go to heaven just because they don’t believe in God?” you might reply, “Why would an atheist want to go to heaven?” They might look confused by your response, but don’t let confusion on their part prompt discouragement on your part. Sometimes people must feel perplexed before they will consider another perspective.
We could follow up with “I don’t understand why those who have lived their whole life apart from God would want to spend eternity with that God.” C. S. Lewis’s insight can shape our perspective: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”
Or if people ask you (often with a fair degree of condemnation) if you’re trying to convert them, you might push back with “It sounds as if you’re trying to convert me.” They’ll feel horrified by this accusation. But they must come to admit they want to convert you to a kind of Christianity that doesn’t try to convert people!
Their efforts to convert you are just as pointed as your efforts to convert them. Of course, you could try a different tactic and shock them with “Of course I’m trying to convert you! What kind of Christian would I be if I didn’t try? Jesus made that his final commandment to his followers—to make disciples of everyone.” If they soften a bit, you might add, “Doesn’t everyone try to tell others about good things they’ve found? ‘You must try this new restaurant’ or ‘You’ve got to go see that movie.’ Wouldn’t we want people to tell us if they’ve found something really great?”