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C.S. Lewis, God and the Problem of Evil

C.S. Lewis, author of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, was a tireless academic defender of Christianity. Antony Flew examines his views on free will and evil.

It was in 1940 that C.S. Lewis published The Problem of Pain, his first major defence of Christianity. This was followed in 1942 by The Screwtape Letters, in 1943 by The Abolition of Man, in 1947 by Miracles and in 1952 by Mere Christianity. These five, along with nineteen other works by the same author, were all still available in paperback when I acquired my present copy of The Problem of Pain in 1998. Lewis, who died in 1963, certainly was during his lifetime and apparently at least within the Englishspeaking world still remains the most widely read and the most influential of Christian apologists.

In 1940 many of us who had been raised as Christians became atheists because it appeared to us that claims that the Universe was created by a Being both loving and omnipotent were flat incompatible with what we saw happening in the world around us. The Problem of Pain attempted to refute this refutation by developing what has since become known as the Free Will Defence.

The introduction here of the term ‘free will’ was unfortunate. For Lewis was actually appealing to the fact that we human beings are members of a kind of creatures who can (and therefore cannot but) make choices between the possible alternative courses of action which are open to us; some of which choices are made of our own free will and some of which are made under various forms of constraint. What, therefore, he and other apologists ought to have said is not that God gave human beings free will, but that God made us members of a kind of creatures who can (and therefore cannot but) make choices, some of which may be free and some of which may be more or less strictly constrained.

Lewis’ next move is to stress that in every behavioural choice there must necessarily be at least one possible alternative to the kind of conduct actually chosen. Hence it is contradictory to suggest that God might have made people able to choose without thereby opening up the possibility of their choosing disfavoured alternatives. And, as Lewis quotes St Thomas Aquinas saying, “Nothing which implies contradiction falls under the omnipotence of God” (Summa Theologica, I a, xxv, 4). Therefore God had to either make us with the ability to sin, or not make us at all.

Lewis makes a lot of this as a way of maintaining that much of what is wrong with the Universe results from human misdeeds, and that these are not God’s fault. But Lewis almost but not quite fails to remember that the God(s) of both Christianity and Islam are alleged to be not only the creative initiating cause(s) of the existence of the Universe but also the sustaining cause(s) of the existence and behaviour of everything that is in it. The relation of God the Father to his earthly children in Christianity is thus altogether different from the relations between human fathers and their grown up children. God the Father is all the time in total control of all the behaviour of all his human children. Human fathers, as many of us have occasion ruefully to protest, are not.

That God is thus always and entirely in control of all his creatures is clearly and most categorically stated in Chapter 67 of Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles:

Just as God not only gave being to things when they first began, but is also – as the conserving cause of being – the cause of their being as long as they last … so He also not only gave things their operative powers when they were first created, but is always the cause of these in things. Hence, if this divine influence stopped every operation would stop. Every operation, therefore, of anything is traced back to Him as its cause.

This is spelt out more fully in Chapters 88 and 89:

God alone can move the will in the fashion of an agent, without doing violence to it … Some people … not understanding how God can cause a movement of our will, have tried to explain … authoritative texts wrongly; that is, they would say that God ‘works in us, to wish and to accomplish’ means that He causes in us the power of willing, but not in such a way that He makes us will this or that … These people are, of course, opposed quite plainly by authoritative texts of Holy Writ. For it says in Isaiah (xxxvi, 2) ‘Lord, you have worked all your work in us’. Hence we receive from God not only the power of willing but its employment also.

It is noteworthy that Aquinas here chose to cite this short sentence from Isaiah rather than the longer passage from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans which in similar contexts was favoured by Luther and other great Reformers. In that passage, after referring to the reasons why God established the Pharaoh who refused to let His people go, St Paul continues:

Therefore hath He mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will He hardeneth. Thou wilt say unto me, Why doth He yet find fault? For who hath resisted His will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why has thou made me thus? … What if God, willing to show His wrath, and to make His power known, endured with much long suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He hath afore prepared unto glory, even us, whom He had called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles (ix, 18-24).

Since Luther wrote a treatise de Servo Arbitrio [On the Enslaved Will] whereas Augustine – one of the Four Great Doctors of the (Roman) Church – wrote de Libero Arbitrio [On Free Will] it has often been falsely assumed that their teachings were as contrary as the titles of these books. But the truth is that in this area any differences between Aquinas and Augustine on the one hand, and Luther and Calvin on the other are differences of style, temperament, emphasis,presentation or attitude rather than of substantial theological belief. Luther certainly did not deny either the reality or the implications of choice:

Now by ‘necessity’ I do not mean ‘ compulsorily’ … a man without the Spirit of God does not do evil against his will, under pressure, as though he were taken by the scruff of his neck and dragged into it, like a thief or footpad being dragged off against his will to do punishment; but he does it spontaneously and voluntarily.
(Martin Luther, ‘The Bondage of the Will’)

So far there has in this article been no explicit reference to Hell as the place of punishment by eternal torture. Although Augustine and Aquinas, Calvin and Luther were all agreed that the majority of human beings are predestined by God to such eternal torture, their reactions to this teaching were different. Almost immediately after the passage quoted immediately above Luther went on to say:

The highest degree of faith is to believe He is just, though of His own will he makes us … proper subjects for damnation, and seems (in the words of Erasmus) “to delight in the torments of poor wretches and to be a fitter object for hate than for love.” If I could by any means understand how this same God … can yet be merciful and just, there would be no need for faith.

Later, Luther addresses himself to the question: “Why then does He not alter those evil wills which He moves?”

Understandably, if unsatisfactorily, Erasmus receives no answer here:

It is not for us to inquire into these mysteries, but to adore them. If flesh and blood take offence here and grumble, well, let them grumble; they will achieve nothing; grumbling will not change God! And however many of the ungodly stumble and depart, the elect will remain.

But the Reformer, unlike the Angelic Doctor, was not so completely the complacent apparatchik as to proceed to a cool summary of the reasons why – very properly – “the blessed in glory will have no pity for the damned.” The relevant passage in the Summa Theologica (III Supp. [xciv] 1-3) reads:

In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God, first they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned … the Divine justice and their own deliverance will be the direct cause of the joy of the blessed, while the pains of the damned will cause it indirectly … the blessed in glory will have no pity for the damned.

As used to be said in my time in the unhallowed ranks of the Royal Air Force, “F… you Jack, I’m fireproof!”

The Problem of Pain does have a chapter entitled ‘Hell’. The best which Lewis was able to do here with the objection that there is an apparent disproportion between eternal damnation and ephemeral sin was to suggest that although “we think of time as a line” we probably ought “to think of eternity as a plane or even as a solid.” My best guess as to what this is supposed to mean and how it is supposed to help is that it is intended to suggest that ‘eternity’ means something other than eternity. But since Lewis has just been claiming that the Scriptures require Christians to believe in Hell as eternal torment that scarcely assists him to escape his apologetic entanglement. So let us now turn, for lucid intellectual refreshment, to Chapter 46 of Leviathan. There we can find the Hobbist way of justifying the ways of God to man:

When God afflicted Job, he did object no sin unto him, but justified his afflicting of him by telling him of his power … ‘Hast thou’, said God, ‘an arm like mine? … Where wert thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ … Power irresistible justifies all actions, really and properly, in whomsoever it be found; less power does not …

Earlier, in Chapter 31 of the same work, Hobbes had maintained that “in the attributes we give to God, we are not to consider the signification of philosophical truth; but the signification of pious intention, to do Him the greatest honour we are able.” This saying has very apt applications for the attribution of either justice and loving benevolence or compassion and mercifulness to Omnipotent creators of creatures predestined to do or to eschew deeds which they are to be tortured for ever for having done or failed to do. In the same chapter, although Hobbes is ready always to insist that “the power of God alone without other helps is sufficient justification for any action he doth”, he is nevertheless disquieted:

It seemeth hard to say that God who is the father of mercies, that doth in heaven and earth all that he will, that hath the hearts of men in his disposing, that worketh in men both to do and to will; and without whose free gift a man hath neither inclination to good nor repentance of evil, should punish men’s transgressions without any end of time; and with all the extremity of torture that man can imagine, and more.

So Hobbes sets himself to consider the relevant Biblical texts, observes the oddity that “everlasting death” is there not ordinarily taken as the opposite of “everlasting life” but “interpreted as everlasting life in torments”, and concludes finally that though the Scriptures insist that Hell is eternal they also suggest that the miseries of each human victim end at last in “the second death.”

I will end by pointing out the similarity of this conclusion to that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses; adding, for the benefit of those inclined to despise or discourteously to dismiss their missionary efforts, that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have an outstanding record of courage and persistence under persecution. This is despite the fact that the Jehovah’s Witnesses as such lack the consolation that their persecutors will be tortured through all eternity. In National Socialist Germany, for instance, “No other sect displayed anything like the same determination in face of the full force of Gestapo terrorism.”

© Professor Antony Flew 2000

Antony Flew is a notorious atheist. He is also Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading.

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