A Review of John Beversluis' book C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion: Revised and Updated

C.S. Lewis has had an enormous impact on the evangelical mind. His books still top the charts in bookstores. But what about the substance of his arguments? Philosopher Dr. John Beversluis wrote the first full-length critical study of C. S. Lewis's apologetic writings, published by William B. Eerdmans, titled C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (1985). For twenty-two years it was the only full-length critical study of C.S. Lewis’s writings.

Beversluis was a former Christian who studied at Calvin College under Harry Jellema who inspired Christian thinkers like Alvin Plantinga (who was already in graduate school), and Nicholas Wolterstoff (who was a senior when he entered). Later he was a student at Indiana University with my former professor James D. Strauss. He became a professor at Butler University.

In this first book, Beversluis took as his point of departure Lewis's challenge where he said: “I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it” (Mere Christianity p. 123). Beversluis thoroughly examined that hypothesis and found the evidence Lewis presents should not lead people to accept Christianity.

According to Beversluis, his first book “elicited a mixed response-indeed, a response of extremes. Some thought I had largely succeeded. I was complimented for writing a ‘landmark’ book that ‘takes up Lewis's challenge to present the evidence for Christianity and ... operates with full rigor’” (p. 9-10). But the critics were “ferocious.” He said, “I had expected criticism. What I had not expected was the kind of criticism…I was christened the "bad boy" of Lewis studies and labeled the "consummate Lewis basher" (p. 10).

In his “Revised and Updated” book published by Prometheus Books, which was prompted by Keith Parsons and Charles Echelbarger, Beversluis claims “this is not just a revised and updated second edition, but a very different book that supercedes the first edition on every point” (p.11). According to him: “Part of my purpose in this book to show, by means of example after example, the extent to which the apparent cogency of his arguments depends on his rhetoric rather than on his logic…Once his arguments are stripped of their powerful rhetorical content, their apparent cogency largely vanishes and their apparent persuasiveness largely evaporates. The reason is clear: it is not the logic, but the rhetoric that is doing most of the work. We will have occasion to see this again and again. In short, my purpose in this book is not just to show that Lewis's arguments are flawed. I also want to account for their apparent plausibility and explain why they have managed to convince so many readers” (pp. 20,22).

Additionally, Beversluis tells us, “My aim in this revised and updated edition is twofold. First, I will revisit and reexamine Lewis's arguments in light of my more recent thoughts about them. Second, I will to reply to my critics and examine their attempts to reformulate and defend his arguments, thereby responding not only to Lewis but to the whole Lewis movement—that cadre of expositors, popular apologists, and philosophers who continue to be inspired by him and his books. I will argue that their objections can be met and that even when Lewis's arguments are formulated more rigorously than he formulated them, they still fail” (p. 11).

C.S. Lewis’ writings contain three arguments for God’s existence, the “Argument from Desire,” the “Moral Argument,” and the “Argument From Reason.” Lewis furthermore argued that the Liar, Lunatic, Lord dilemma/trilemma shows Jesus is God. Lewis also deals with the major skeptical objection known as the Problem of Evil. Beversluis examines all of these arguments and finds them defective, some are even fundamentally flawed. Lastly Beversluis examines Lewis’ crisis of faith when he lost the love of his life, his wife. (He denies he ever said Lewis lost his faith).

I can only briefly articulate what Beversluis says about these arguments here, but his analysis of them is brilliant and devastating to Lewis’ whole case. The Argument From Desire echoes Augustine’s sentiment in his Confessions when addressing God that “You have made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you.” Lewis develops this into an argument for God’s existence which can be formulated in several ways, but the bottom line is that since humans have a desire for joy beyond the natural world, which is what he means by "joy," there must be an object to satisfy that desire in God. Beversluis subjects this argument to criticism on several fronts. How universal is the desire for this "joy"? Is "joy" even a desire? Is Lewis’ description of "joy" a natural desire at all, since desires are biological and instinctive? Do all our desires have fulfillment? What about people who have been satisfied by things other than God, with their careers, spouses and children? In what I consider the most devastating question, he asks if there is any propositional content to the object of Lewis’ argument? Surely if there is an object that corresponds to the desire for "joy" then one who finds this object should be able to describe it from such an experience. Based upon Lewis’ argument she can’t. In fact, Beversluis argues if she cannot do that how does she even know it's an object that corresponds to her desire for "joy" in the first place?

Lewis’ Moral Argument is basically that all people have a notion of right and wrong, and the only explanation for this inner sense of morality must come from a Power behind the moral law known as God. Beversluis claims this argument is based on a few questionable assumptions related to the Euthyphro dilemma, and it depends on the theory of ethical subjectivism from which Lewis only critiques straw man versions rather than the robust versions of Hume and Hobbes. And if that isn’t enough to diminish his case, deductively arguing that there is a Power behind this moral law is committing “the fallacy of affirming the consequent.” (p. 99). 1) If there is a Power behind the moral law then it must make itself known internally within us. 2) We do find this moral law internally within us. .: Therefore, there is a Power behind the moral law. As such this argument is invalid. Of course, there is much more here in Beversluis’ argument.

The Argument From Reason, as best seen in Lewis’ book, Miracles, “is the philosophical backbone of the whole book,” from which “his case for miracles depends.” (p. 145). Lewis champions the idea that if naturalism is true such a theory “impugns the validity of reason and rational inference,” and as such, naturalists contradict themselves if they use reason to argue their case. If you as a naturalist have ever been troubled by such an argument you need to read Beversluis’ response to it, which is the largest chapter in his book, and something I can’t adequately summarize in a few short sentences. Suffice it to say, he approvingly quotes Keith Parsons who said: “surely Lewis cannot mean that if naturalism is true, then there is no such thing as valid reasoning. If he really thought this, he would have to endorse the hypothetical ‘If naturalism is true, then modus ponens is invalid.’ But since the consequent is necessarily false, then the hypothetical is false if we suppose naturalism is true (which is what the antecedent asserts), and Lewis has no argument.” (p. 174).

Lewis’ Liar, Lunatic, Lord Dilemma/Trilemma is one of the most widely used arguments among popular apologists, in variations, where since Jesus claimed he was God, the only other options are that he was either a liar or a lunatic, or both, which Lewis argues isn’t reasonable. Therefore Jesus is God, who he claimed he was. Even William Lane Craig defends it in his book Reasonable Faith. But it is widely heralded as Lewis’ weakest argument as he defended it, and fundamentally flawed. Beversluis subjects Lewis’ defense of it and his defenders to a barrage of rigorous intellectual attacks. There is the problem of knowing what Jesus claimed, which by itself “is sufficient to rebut the Trilemma.” (p. 115). Also it is a false dilemma. Even if Jesus claimed he was God he could simply be mistaken, not a lunatic, for lunatics can be very reasonable in everyday life and still have delusions of grandeur. And it’s quite possible for someone to be a good moral teacher and yet be wrong about whether he was God. Furthermore, the New Testament itself indicates many people around him including his own family thought he was crazy. In the end, Beversluis claims, “we can now dispense of the Lunatic or Fiend Dilemma once and for all….If the dilemma fails, as I have argued, the trilemma goes with it. In the future, let us hear no more about these arguments.” (p. 135). I agree.

In Lewis’ book, The Problem of Pain, he deals head on with the Problem of Evil coming at the heels of WWII. Suffice it to say, as Victor Reppert summarized the argument of his first book, Beversluis: “If the word ‘good’ must mean approximately the same thing when we apply it to God as what it means when we apply it to human beings, then the fact of suffering provides a clear empirical refutation of the existence of a being who is both omnipotent and perfectly good. If on the other hand, we are prepared to give up the idea that ‘good’ in reference to God means anything like what it means when we refer to humans as good, then the problem of evil can be sidestepped, but any hope of a rational defense of the Christian God goes by the boards.”

This is must reading if you think C.S. Lewis was a great apologist, and it's part of the Debunking Christianity Challenge. Beversluis’ arguments are brilliant and devastating to the apologetics of Lewis and company.