C. S. Lewis: Free Will Solves the Paradox of Evil

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Mere Christianity" by C. S. Lewis. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why does evil exist? Why would an all-powerful, all-loving God allow evil and suffering?

For millennia, people have struggled with this paradox. According to C. S. Lewis, free will is to blame. He lays out his argument in his classic book Mere Christianity.

Keep reading to understand how free will solves the problem of evil and suffering.

C. S. Lewis on Free Will

If God is the highest power and favors good over evil, this raises a difficult question: Why does evil exist at all? If God has power over creation, then why not simply use that power to eliminate evil? According to C. S. Lewis, free will is the solution to this quandary. He argues that evil doesn’t pose a paradox for Christianity because goodness can exist only because of free will, and evil is the price we must pay for free will. 

Lewis argues that good and evil can exist only when someone with a rational mind has the ability to choose between right and wrong. Recall that moral laws advise us on how we ought to behave. Therefore, they are only relevant when it is possible for us to behave differently from how we ought to. For example, if a hurricane destroys your house, this doesn’t make it evil, because the hurricane didn’t choose to cause harm. On the other hand, if a person decides to burn down your house, this is evil because they could have chosen not to.

Therefore, Lewis concludes, evil exists because of free will: God calls on us to voluntarily choose good, but many disobey and choose evil.

(Shortform note: While most people today agree that only agents capable of making moral decisions can be considered moral or immoral, ancient cultures harbored some very different ideas about the nature of good and evil. Early religions often attributed all types of natural evil—including both bad decisions and bad events like droughts, plagues, or famines—to sources of absolute cosmic evil, like powerful demons or evil gods. While modern ethicists may dismiss the idea of a cosmic and absolute evil, this concept still frequently reappears in popular entertainment franchises like “Star Wars” or “The Lord of the Rings.”)

Other Solutions to the Paradox of Evil

Lewis’s arguments on free will belong to the tradition of theodicy (literally “defense of God”), a practice of explaining how evil can exist in a world created by a God who is infinitely good. However, Christian thinkers have proposed a wide range of solutions to this question. Here, we’ll review a few of the major alternatives. 

Evil is a test from God. In the book of Job, God inflicts suffering on Job to test his commitment. Here, the question is not whether God’s actions are right, but whether Job can remain committed to God in spite of his suffering. In this view, God has the right to test humans’ faith.

Evil exists for our moral development. The Greek theologians Irenaeus and Origen argued that Earth is like a hospital or a school for the soul. Evil exists so that we can learn from it as we become greater moral beings ourselves.

Evil is simply the absence of good. St. Augustine argued that good is a positive quality created by God and that evil is simply the absence of good—much in the way that physicists consider coldness the absence of heat rather than a positive property of “coldness.”
C. S. Lewis: Free Will Solves the Paradox of Evil

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of C. S. Lewis's "Mere Christianity" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Mere Christianity summary:

  • A look at the objective nature of morality
  • What it means to surrender yourself to God's moral law
  • What Christ means to Christian practice and how to follow his example

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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