The Theodicy of C.S. Lewis
The presence of evil in the world is one of the primary issues that appear to contradict Christianity’s belief in a perfect, all-powerful God. As a result, C.S. Lewis attempts to develop an argument in Mere Christianity to defend the goodness and omnipotence of God against the corruption of the world. Lewis argues that God allows free will, and thus the possibility for evil, out of a desire to create the best world possible. Additionally, Lewis asserts that this justification of evil as a necessary consequence of free will defends the perfection of God with regard to both human cruelty and other forms of evil such as natural disasters.
Lewis asserts that a world with free will would be a better creation than a world without it, and that as a result God had to permit autonomous will for humans. Lewis first appeals to the readers’ personal experiences by drawing an analogy between God and a mother who tells her children that they should clean up after themselves. The mother wants her children to learn self-sufficiency so that they can become the best possible versions of themselves. However, when she inspects the room that night, she finds that the children have not cleaned and that the room is still a mess. In allowing the children the opportunity to learn those self-governing skills, she also ran the risk that the cleaning would never be done and that the children would learn nothing.
Lewis goes on to argue that God desires what is best for humans, and thus He operates in a similar fashion to the mother. Lewis states that “It is probably the same in the universe. God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right.”  Lewis believes that God allows humans the choice to follow His will or to turn away from it because that ability to choose is the only way for humans to achieve the highest possible happiness. Lewis asserts that “free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.” He goes on to state that “a world of automata – of creatures that worked like machines – would hardly be worth creating”. With these two quotations Lewis argues that there is a distinction between love freely given and love that is compelled. Essentially, since voluntary love is the only type of love “worth having” Lewis implies that forced love is not love at all. As a result, even though free will enables humans to choose evil rather than God, Lewis believes that the potential benefits of one human’s voluntary love outweigh the possible benefits of required obedience from all humans. Therefore, God allows humans the choice to be “united with Him” or to choose evil, because only that choice can create the best possible world.
However, one might object that this worldview raises significant issues with the benevolence of God, as it implies that free choice enables many individuals to choose against God, and thus not reach eternal salvation. Lewis would first respond with his earlier argument that a freely chosen love is the only true love. If God had forced complete obedience it would not give humans the opportunity to achieve the greatest possible existence through love. Therefore, God is justified in allowing humans the freedom to choose against salvation, because the value of some humans voluntarily loving God outweighs the benefits of requiring total conformity to His will, even if some humans elect to not follow Him. In order to prove this point more fully, Lewis would likely appeal again to the reader’s personal experiences: would the reader prefer friends who voluntarily loved him, or would he rather have “friends” that he had to force “love” from? Naturally, the reader would desire authentic friends rather than a contrived imitation of affection, and thus there is greater benefit from voluntary love.
Additionally, Lewis would argue that this division in the quality of love is only a partial justification for free will, since humans are unable to fully understand the eternal plan which God has in store for us. As temporal beings, we cannot comprehend all of the divine reasons for allowing free will and the possibility of evil, because God plans on an eternal scale for all of Creation. Therefore, the reader cannot fully assess the justice of enabling some to choose against salvation, because the reader cannot possibly conceptualize all of God’s reasons. It is realistic to expect such an argument from Lewis, as he uses a similar justification for the existence of miracles in the world. The reader can thus gain a glimpse into the underlying logic of God’s decision to give humans free will, but should know that since humans cannot conceptualize God’s eternal plan, there are likely further reasons to justify the apparent contradiction of God’s desire for humans to join Him and the human ability to choose against that salvation.
A further objection to this worldview might argue that Dualism can better explain the presence of evil than belief in freedom of the will can. Dualism asserts that there are two independent Good and Bad Powers in the universe, with the former enjoying love and mercy and the latter preferring hatred and cruelty. These two Powers eternally fight against each other, and thus evil comes to exist in the universe through the Bad Power’s efforts. Lewis argues, “If Dualism is true, then the Bad Power must be a being who likes badness for its own sake.” Essentially, Lewis believes that if the Bad Power is truly independent from the Good, it must desire evil things simply because they are evil. He then disproves this conception of badness with the Augustinian notion that God created the world ex nihilo, or “from nothing.” As a result, evil is simply a perversion of the good, and “badness consists in pursuing [good] by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much.” Therefore, it is impossible to be bad purely for the sake of badness, because all bad actions are done in a misguided attempt to obtain good things. Lewis demonstrates this point by stating, “No one ever did a cruel action simply because cruelty is wrong – only because cruelty was pleasant or useful to him.” Since “pleasant” and “useful” are good things, the Bad Power’s goals are reliant on the Good Power. Therefore, Dualism cannot be true because the Bad Power cannot independently cause evil in the world. Lewis thus proves that an autonomous, perfect God is the only feasible explanation for the existence of cruelty in the world.
Even if one accepts that free will and God are the only available justification of evil, one could still argue that God is flawed for empowering humans to become so cruel when they choose against Him. Lewis would again respond with Augustine’s argument that evil is simply a privation of the good. Lewis argues that if God creates a capacity for good, there will necessarily be a corresponding ability for evil: “The better stuff a creature is made of-the cleverer and stronger and freer it is-then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong.” Lewis essentially argues that in order to create a large upper limit on human capacity for good, God also had to allow for an equally small limit on the human capacity for evil. An example to clarify this point is Mahatma Gandhi and Adolf Hitler. They were each equipped with an incredible ability to motivate, influence, and organize others for their respective causes. However, Gandhi elected to use his skills to promote peace and societal change, while Hitler embraced a mission of hatred and genocide. Thus, while both had the opportunity to achieve greatness in service to God, Hitler chose instead to use his skills to pursue a perversion of the good.
This example illustrates Lewis’s point that God must equip all humans with a strong skillset to enable great achievements, but that humans can choose whether to use these abilities to accomplish good or evil. One could argue that this free choice will result in approximately half the population choosing against God, and that He thus does not truly desire for all humans to join with Him through love. Lewis would respond that his worldview is not simply a zero-sum game with equal numbers embracing good and others choosing evil. He believes that “God designed the human machine to run on Himself,” just like a car runs on gas, and that when man attempts to find other sources of satisfaction, it only results in poverty and depression. Humans are thus built with an incentive to seek God. As a result, while He necessarily must create the possibility for great evil in order to allow for the greatest possible good, he also “tips the scales” in favor of good by creating humans with a desire to be united with Him. Therefore, the human capacity for wickedness – which comes as a consequence of the ability to attain greatness – cannot be used to question God’s perfection and desire for the good because He limits the possibility of evil by dis-incentivizing it.
This explanation of injustice in the world serves very well to reconcile the existence of a perfect God with evils committed between humans, but one could object that it fails with regard to other types of evil. Lewis argues that any cruelty inflicted by humans upon other humans is simply a privation of the good, and thus a necessary consequence of God’s intent to create the best world possible. However, Lewis’s rational defense of God weakens when one considers the evil of natural disasters such as illness, famine, tornadoes and others. There does not appear to be an immediate relationship between these calamities and the free will to choose greatness or the corresponding evil. Lewis would respond that the Devil causes these catastrophes for the purposes of thwarting the human quest for goodness. Furthermore, Lewis believes the Devil freely fell because he deliberately chose to challenge God out of pride, and thus the existence of the Devil is a consequence of God’s decision to allow free will. This response offers an explanation for natural disasters within the framework of Lewis’s original argument that free will necessitates the possibility of wickedness. While it is clear that the Devil came about as a result of this potential for evil, this account may leave readers unsatisfied since it is difficult to see exactly how the Devil would cause storms or illnesses in the world. However, Lewis would likely borrow from his argument in Miracles that it is possible for purely spiritual beings such as the Devil to introduce new physical events into nature, such as hurricanes. Lewis thus asserts that the Devil causes the evil of natural disasters as a form of opposition to God, and as a result Lewis’s justification of cruelty in the world accounts for both human and natural evil.
Lewis’s defense of God’s goodness in the presence of evil rests heavily upon the belief that love given out of free will is more valuable than love given out of forced obedience. Although this view is compatible with most individuals’ personal experiences, if one believed that there was no distinction between the love gained by the two, Lewis’s account loses much of its validity. However, provided that one accepts this presupposition, Lewis convincingly argues that humans must have free will in order to achieve greatness through love, and that this opportunity to choose good is necessarily accompanied by the presence of evil. While this Augustinian notion of evil as a privation of good explains cruelty in human relationships very well, it is not as successful in justifying God’s perfection in the face of natural disasters. However, Lewis’ argument from Miracles that spiritual beings can interfere with the physical world is sufficient to counter this argument, and Lewis thus develops a comprehensive justification of God’s perfection and omnipotence.
1 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: HarperCollins, 1952), 47.
2 Ibid, 47.
3 Ibid, 47-48.
4 Ibid, 48.
5 C.S. Lewis, Miracles, (385-389)
6 Lewis, Christianity, 43.
7 Ibid, 44.
8 Ibid, 45.
9 Ibid, 48.
10 Ibid, 49.
Brian Klein ’16 is an economics major from Wells, MN.Tags: Adolf Hitler, Augustine, evil, free will, justice, love, Mahatma Gandhi, obedience, suffering, theodicy