Review: Beversluis

For our summer re-runs series, here is my review of the most serious challenge to C.S. Lewis’s apologetic, first published here in 2012.

Note:  This review was originally published in Mythlore: The Journal of the Mythopoeic Society105/106, Spring/Summer 2009): 168-70.

C. S. LEWIS AND THE SEARCH FOR RATIONAL RELIGION.  Revised and Updated.  John Beversluis.  Amherst, N. Y.:  Prometheus Books, 2007. 363 pp.  $20.00, pbk.  ISBN 978-1-59102-3.


What Beversluis misses:

Surely one of the most controversial books in the history of Lewis studies was the first edition of John Beversluis’s C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion, originally published by Eerdmans in 1985.  Billing itself as the only book-length critical study of Lewis’s rational apologetic for Christian faith, it concluded that none of his arguments succeeded.  Reviewing the first edition in Mythlore 43 (Autumn 1985), Nancy-Lou Patterson called it “as waspish a work” as it had ever been her “disagreeable task to review,” concluding that the faith, “including its reasoned elements” would survive the book (42).  Patterson was right: the first edition sometimes gave the impression that Beversluis thought accusing Lewis of a fallacy was equivalent to demonstrating that he had committed it.  Few readers who had appreciated Lewis’s apologetic works were convinced by Beversluis’s arguments.

Some people not convinced by Beversluis.

Some people not convinced by Beversluis.

Now we have a new revised, updated, and expanded edition.  It has already caused much exultation on atheist websites and much dismissive eye-rolling among Lewis fans.  Neither reaction is justified.

Beversluis has responded to his critics, continued his own thinking, and rewritten each section to the point that this version is almost a completely new book.  In the process, he has strengthened his presentation considerably.  While in the end I still find it mostly unconvincing, it does keep its promise to provide the strongest sustained critique of Lewis’s apologetic on the market.  As such it performs a valuable service.  Those who wish to continue using updated versions of Lewis’s arguments for Christian theism will have to get past Beversluis in order to do so with credibility, and their arguments will be stronger for the exercise.

C. S. Lewis’s Desk–photo by the author


Beversluis sets out to take seriously Lewis’s statement in Mere Christianity that he does not ask anyone to accept Christianity “if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it.”  Beversluis approves of Lewis for demanding evidence and wants to know if he has succeeded in showing that the best reasoning supports Christian faith.  Beversluis concludes that Lewis’s own best reasoning fails to do so.  While he examines several of Lewis’s arguments—the argument from desire, the moral argument for theism, the “trilemma” argument for the deity of Christ, the argument from reason for the self-refuting character of naturalism, Lewis’s theodicy, etc.—in great detail, his objections can be summarized in two points.  First, the “apparent cogency of [Lewis’s] arguments depends on his rhetoric rather than on his logic” (20).  Lewis was such a good writer that people are carried away by his words and do not notice the fallacies being committed under their cover.  Second, Lewis’s arguments are fallacious, and his besetting fallacy is the False Dilemma.  Lewis will say that there are only two (or three) choices, refute one, and thus seem to leave Christian theism standing in sole possession of the field; but in reality, there are other alternatives he has not considered, and the one he is rejecting is a straw man.

It should be immediately obvious to Beversluis’s readers that his first criticism of Lewis is valid only if, and only to the extent that, the second is upheld.  It is hardly a fault to write well unless that writing can be shown to be in the service of error.  The details of the second criticism will likely be debated in the journals for some time.  The question will be whether the additional alternatives Beversluis tries to posit do not in fact ultimately reduce to the set of choices that Lewis’s more incisive analysis had set before us in the first place.  In most cases, I believe that they do.

Why Beversluis misses the point so often and so badly?

Why Beversluis misses the point so often and so badly?

For example, Beversluis argues that Lewis’s refutation of moral subjectivism is vitiated by the fact that he treats it as a single genus, when actually “there are more sophisticated and nuanced versions that . . . cannot be disposed of so easily” (83).  The example we are offered is Hume’s theory of morals as based on human feeling, which Beversluis claims is not susceptible to Lewis’s “loose-cannon generalizations” (87).  Well, I think it is.  In fact, I think it can be doubted whether Hume’s view is properly a theory of ethics at all, as it has absolutely no answer to Lewis’s charge that subjectivist ethics is unable to account for the word “ought.”  When the philosophical jargon is stripped away from the allegedly “more nuanced” views, it is not clear at all to me that Beversluis has made his charge of False Dilemma stick rather than just muddying the water.  The other forms of subjectivism remain species of the genus.

C. S. Lewis

In the discussion of the Trilemma (“Lord/Liar/Lunatic”—not Lewis’s words, by the way), the alleged missed alternatives include the possibility that Jesus did not actually say or mean the statements on which the argument is based, and that a person could be mistaken about being God and still be a great moral teacher.  In the first case, Beversluis himself commits the fallacies of dicto simpliciter and ad verecundiam, telling us that “All mainstream New Testament scholars agree that the synoptic Gospels are fragmentary, episodic, internally inconsistent, and written by people who were not eyewitnesses” (123).  All?  That generalization has never been true, and it is less true now than it has ever been.  (See Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Eerdmans, 2006, as just one counter-example.)   Even if the “experts” were in fact unanimous, it would not make them right.  And surely one can be mistaken about a great many things, including one’s own identity, and still be a good moral teacher.  But we are asked now to believe that a person could wrongly think he is the Creator of the Universe, the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal Being who thundered from Sinai now incarnate in human flesh, and still retain any credibility on anything else he might say!  Beversluis argues that Jesus’ moral statements would still be true even if he were a lunatic; but this misses the point completely.  Lewis assumes the validity of the teaching; it is the credibility of the Teacher that is on trial.  To say the least, I do not find Beversluis’s “alternatives” to Lewis’s allegedly prematurely limited choices terribly impressive.

A Better Book about Lewis?

What my best reasoning tells me at the end of the day is that people who want to escape the conclusions of Christian theism can always find a loophole that will satisfy them.  John Beversluis is particularly good at doing so.  It does not follow that theism is false or that Lewis’s arguments for it are bad.  Whether you agree with me or with Beversluis about Lewis’s arguments, one thing is certain: the discussion is sure to continue.  I for one look forward to that.

Donald T. Williams

 Check out Dr. Williams’ new Lantern Hollow Press books at Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Reflections on Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012), and Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed. (Lantern Hollow, 2012).  Each is $15.00 + shipping. 



About gandalf30598

Theologian, philosopher, poet, and critic; minister of the Gospel who makes his living by teaching medieval and renaissance literature; dual citizen of Narnia and Middle Earth.

Posted on July 28, 2014, in Best of LHP, C. S. Lewis, Christianity, Donald Williams, Philosophy, Theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Many thanks for pointing us to your interesting and well-written review.

    Re. the following passage: “In the discussion of the Trilemma (“Lord/Liar/Lunatic”—not Lewis’s words, by the way), the alleged missed alternatives include the possibility that Jesus did not actually say or mean the statements on which the argument is based, and that a person could be mistaken about being God and still be a great moral teacher. In the first case, Beversluis himself commits the fallacies of dicto simpliciter and ad verecundiam, telling us that “All mainstream New Testament scholars agree that the synoptic Gospels are fragmentary, episodic, internally inconsistent, and written by people who were not eyewitnesses” (123).”

    The objection that the Trilemma does not “include the possibility that Jesus did not actually say or mean the statements on which the argument is based” seems perfectly sound to me regardless of the state of expert opinion about the Gospels. Beversluis may err in claiming that expert opinion is settled and unanimous on the question (I have not read him, and am no expert in New Testament studies), but clearly it is, and has always been, a _logical possibility_ that the character of Jesus as portrayed by the Gospels might be, in part or whole, fictional. As a _logical_ problem with the Trilemma, the objection must be allowed.

    As a factual matter, we have no independent verification of the contents of the Gospels. For all we can _prove_, the utterances they contain may be distorted, hopelessly partial, or entirely fictional. Yet the Trilemma only comes into such force as it may have if the accuracy and representativeness of the Gospel utterances is first assumed. One must already have a certain view of the textual nature of the Gospels (one unlikely to be held by anyone other than a convinced Christian, and not by all of those) for the Trilemma to get its logical wheels on the ground at all.

    As a Christian with my own idiosyncratic response to such things, I must say that I was impressed by the Trilemma when I was 12 or so but am not any longer. It seeks to bolster a mysterious article of faith (Christ’s divinity) with a debatable psychological claim about the sorts of things “lunatics” might or might not say. Personally, I think that the incarnational fish is far too large, and not even of the right nature, to be caught with such a hook.



    • It is a “logical possibility” that Jesus was a actually a space alien–but nobody would criticize Lewis for not including that option, because it is not a serious option. The pertinent question is whether Lewis left out any realistic possibilities for which there is any good evidence. The discussion of whether or not the Gospels are basically reliable historical sources is too big for the review or for this discussion. But I would argue that if you look into it with an open mind, the fictional Jesus option has to be rejected. Yes, logically there are other options–but none that the evidence will actually support.

      If you’re interested in Lewis’s case for trusting the Gospels’ portrait of Jesus, see his essay “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” reprinted in CHRISTIAN REFLECTIONS, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), pp. 152-66. For more on the Trilemma itself, se my article “Lacking, Ludicrous, or Logical? The Validity of Lewis’s ‘Trilemma,'” MIDWESTERN JOURNAL OF THEOLOGY 11:1 (Spring 2012), pp. 91-102.

      • Thanks for your prompt and substantial response. I’m familiar with the Lewis essay you mention and it makes excellent points about question-begging and guess-chaining.

        The logical possibility I’ve raised — one which any unbeliever would surely be within their intellectual rights to raise, and which we should therefore anticipate — is not primarily that Jesus might be an entirely fictional person, but that the details of the Gospels’ portrait_of Jesus, in particular the utterances that are key to the Trilemma, might be fictional or non-representative or otherwise not what they appear. This is not an absurdly farfetched possibility comparable to “Jesus was a space alien”: we have no experience of space aliens but plenty of experience with inaccurate histories.

        Nor is this a matter of fine-spun textual criticism such as Lewis calls so memorably into question in “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism.” It’s a matter of looking at the Gospels as one would any other ancient texts, as a non-Christian — the intended audience of the Trilemma, presumably — must be expected to do. And if the Gospels are looked at in that way, one indeed finds no objective proof, or anything close to it, that their fine details of conversation, utterance, etc. are accurate. By ordinary evidential standards, the details might be accurate or they might not.

        So a non-Christian might be convinced on objective historical grounds that Jesus very likely existed. But such a person might still, I think, reasonably be agnostic about whether Jesus’ exact utterances in the Gospels are accurate and representative. Such doubt must therefore have its place in any discussion of the Trilemma. In sum, how can one build an argument on Christ’s words without being able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that we have Christ’s words? Especially an argument for a doctrine so cosmos-upending as the Incarnation?

        And we have, so far as I know, no objective arguments for the reliability of the Gospels strong enough to oblige an unbeliever, in cold fair reason, to take all the quoted utterances of Jesus as ipsissima verba. Yet without such assurance, the Trilemma has little force — even if one grants its embedded claims about human psychology.

        Many thanks for this stimulating exchange,


    • There are criteria which historians and lawyers use to evaluate the testimony of witnesses to determine their reliability–neutral criteria which do not presuppose a prior commitment to inspiration. For example, you want your witnesses to be in basic but not perfect agreement. If they contradict each other you obviously have a problem, but if their agreement is too perfect you suspect collusion. So you want there to be discrepancies but not contradictions. (E.g., 1 angel at the tomb vs. 2–a discrepancy but not a contradiction, which it would be if you had “2” versus “only 1.”) You give stronger credence to witnesses whose testimony is not terribly self complimentary. People normally skew a story to make themselves look better, not worse. The disciples present themselves as clueless cowards prior to Pentecost. You want witnesses who do not hesitate to present data that is not convenient. E.g., the first witnesses of the resurrection being women, who were not considered reliable witnesses in 1st century Jewish culture. Nobody would make the story up that way–your only reason for saying it would be that is how it happened.) You want their testimony to be consistent with what is known about the time and place from other sources that do not purport to be eyewitnesses. (E.g., Luke’s remarkable accuracy concerning Roman politics at the time.) Etc., etc., etc.

      The Gospels pass all these tests with flying colors. By every criterion historians have to evaluate the reliability of witnesses, the Gospels have to be taken seriously as reliable historical sources. Now, as you point out, a non-Christian has many reasons to be skeptical about some of the claims in them. His anti-supernatural bias may prevent him from looking at the evidence fairly. But the evidence itself is all on the side of the portrait of Jesus being basically accurate. It is just misleading to imply that there is no neutral evidence to be considered. I would say that the burden of proof is on anyone who wants to say that the early Christians made up Jesus’ divinity later and that it was not part of the original data. It is theoretically possible, but the evidence says otherwise.

      How strong is this evidence? There have in fact been unbelievers convinced by it. Frank Morrison was an atheist lawyer who set out to write a book refuting the resurrection. He planned to subject the Gospel writers to the kind of cross examination he would use in an actual courtroom to ferret out the truth, assuming their testimony would fall apart. In the process the very opposite happened; he became a Christian an wrote the classic defense of the historicity of the resurrection, WHO MOVED THE STONE? Most don’t look at the evidence as honestly as he did–but it has happened.

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