On Christian Paradoxes

Lewis captures a crucial Christian paradox:

Believers know full well how many paradoxes there are in the Christian faith. We know that in order to live, we must first die (to self). We know that the good news of the gospel can only be embraced after we have heard the bad news. We know that the first will be last, and the last first.

We know that true freedom comes by being slaves to Christ. We know that there is strength in weakness. We know that it is more blessed to give than to receive. We know that there is no glory without the cross. We know that we can only receive when we relinquish everything.

The list goes on and on. Many have spoken about this and written about this. One person who often reflected on the paradoxes of Christianity is C. S. Lewis. Many of his writings could be drawn from here. Let me make use of just one.

In the late 1940s he penned a short piece for some medical missionaries. It is simply titled, “Some Thoughts”. This essay is found in God in the Dock, pp. 147-150. Let me offer it here in its entirety:

Image of God in the Dock
God in the Dock by Lewis, C. S. (Author) Amazon logo

At first sight nothing seems more obvious than that religious persons should care for the sick; no Christian building, except perhaps a church, is more self-explanatory than a Christian hospital. Yet on further consideration the thing is really connected with the undying paradox, the blessedly two-edged character, of Christianity. And if any of us were now encountering Christianity for the first time he would be vividly aware of this paradox.


Let us suppose that such a person began by observing those Christian activities which are, in a sense, directed towards this present world. He would find that this religion had, as a matter of historical fact, been the agent which preserved such secular civilization as survived the fall of the Roman Empire; that to it Europe owes the salvation, in those perilous ages, of civilized agriculture, architecture, laws and literacy itself. He would find that this same religion has always been healing the sick and caring for the poor; that it has, more than any other, blessed marriage; and that arts and philosophy tend to flourish in its neighbourhood. In a word, it is always either doing, or at least repenting with shame for not having done, all the things which secular humanitarianism enjoins. If our inquirer stopped at this point he would have no difficulty in classifying Christianity— giving it its place on a map of the ‘great religions.’ Obviously (he would say), this is one of the world-affirming religions like Confucianism or the agricultural religions of the great Mesopotamian city states.


But how if our inquirer began (as he well might) with quite a different series of Christian phenomena? He might notice that the central image in all Christian art was that of a Man slowly dying by torture; that the instrument of His torture was the worldwide symbol of the faith; that martyrdom was almost a specifically Christian action; that our calendar was as full of fasts as of feasts; that we meditated constantly on the mortality not only of ourselves but of the whole universe; that we were bidden to entrust all our treasure to another world; and that even a certain disdain for the whole natural order (contemptus mundi) had sometimes been reckoned a Christian virtue. And here, once again, if he knew no more, the inquirer would find Christianity quite easy to classify; but this time he would classify it as one of the world-denying religions. It would be pigeonholed along with Buddhism.


Either conclusion would be justified if a man had only the one or the other half of the evidence before him. It is when he puts both halves together and sees that Christianity cuts right across the classification he was attempting to make—it is then that he first knows what he is up against, and I think he will be bewildered.


Probably most of those who read this page have been Christians all their lives. If so, they may find it hard to sympathize with the bewilderment I refer to. To Christians the explanation of this two-edged character in their Faith seems obvious. They live in a graded or hierarchical universe where there is a place for everything and everything should be kept in its right place. The Supernatural is higher than the Natural, but each has its place; just as a man is higher than a dog, but a dog has its place. It is, therefore, to us not at all surprising that healing for the sick and provision for the poor should be less important than (when they are, as sometimes happens, alternative to) the salvation of souls; and yet very important. Because God created the Natural—invented it out of His love and artistry—it demands our reverence; because it is only a creature and not He, it is, from another point of view, of little account. And still more, because Nature, and especially human nature, is fallen it must be corrected and the evil within it must be mortified. But its essence is good; correction is something quite different from Manichaean repudiation or Stoic superiority. Hence, in all true Christian asceticism, that respect for the thing rejected which, I think, we never find in pagan asceticism. Marriage is good, though not for me; wine is good, though I must not drink it; feasts are good, though today we fast.


This attitude will, I think, be found to depend logically on the doctrines of the Creation and the Fall. Some hazy adumbrations of a doctrine of the Fall can be found in Paganism; but it is quite astonishing how rarely outside Christianity we find—I am not sure that we ever find—a real doctrine of Creation. In Polytheism the gods are usually the product of a universe already in existence—Keats’s Hyperion, in spirit, if not in detail, is true enough as a picture of pagan theogony. In Pantheism the universe is never something that God made. It is an emanation, something that oozes out of Him, or an appearance, something He looks like to us but really is not, or even an attack of incurable schizophrenia from which He is unaccountably suffering. Polytheism is always, in the long run, nature-worship; pantheism always, in the long run, hostility to Nature. None of these beliefs really leaves you free both to enjoy your breakfast and to mortify your inordinate appetites— much less to mortify appetites recognized as innocent at present lest they should become inordinate.


And none of them leaves anyone free to do what is being done in the Lourdes Hospital every day: to fight against death as earnestly, skilfully, and calmly as if you were a secular humanitarian while knowing all the time that death is, both for better and worse, something that the secular humanitarian has never dreamed of. The world, knowing how all our real investments are beyond the grave, might expect us to be less concerned than other people who go in for what is called Higher Thought and tell us that ‘death doesn’t matter’; but we ‘are not high minded,’ and we follow one who stood and wept at the grave of Lazarus—not surely, because He was grieved that Mary and Martha wept, and sorrowed for their lack of faith (though some thus interpret) but because death, the punishment of sin, is even more horrible in His eyes than in ours. The nature which He had created as God, the nature which He had assumed as Man, lay there before Him in its ignominy; a foul smell, food for worms. Though He was to revive it a moment later, He wept at the shame; if I may here quote a writer of my own communion, ‘I am not so much afraid of death as ashamed of it.’ And that brings us again to the paradox. Of all men, we hope most of death; yet nothing will reconcile us to—well, its unnaturalness. We know that we were not made for it; we know how it crept into our destiny as an intruder; and we know Who has defeated it. Because our Lord is risen we know that on one level it is an enemy already disarmed; but because we know that the natural level also is God’s creation we cannot cease to fight against the death which mars it, as against all those other blemishes upon it, against pain and poverty, barbarism and ignorance. Because we love something else more than this world we love even this world better than those who know no other.

What more can I add to this, other than to say that if you have not yet become well-acquainted with C. S. Lewis, you really should remedy that shortcoming now!

[1478 words]

2 Replies to “On Christian Paradoxes”

  1. Yes, the comment that stands out from the page for me is ” Of all men, we hope most of death; yet nothing will reconcile us to—well, its unnaturalness. We know that we were not made for it; we know how it crept into our destiny as an intruder…”
    The fact we try to counter disease and prolong life through the doctors and “rage against the night” ( Dylan Thomas), shows that man does accept death and disease, no matter how much he professes to be a pacifist or Darwinian fatalist.

    I see a connection also with your article below about government and anarchy [1] There are those Christians who say we should not become embroiled in politics less we become tainted but should simply keep our eyes on Jesus and wait for the rapture.

    [1] https://billmuehlenberg.com/2024/02/02/god-government-and-anarchy/

    David Skinner UK

  2. There’s another paradox atop this article, with the photo of Lewis having a drag on a fag — I typed that in perfect innocence, I assure you…!

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