Is God moral? If so, why is there evil? What are the various theological perspectives on the goodness of God?
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis makes an argument for a moral God and shows how this aligns with Christianity. He also explores two theological perspectives—pantheism and dualism—that contradict this interpretation of God.
Read more for this intriguing discussion of the morality of God.
#1: The Pantheist View
According to Lewis, pantheists argue that God is neutral in the moral struggle between good and evil. Their reasoning is that God created everything—including both good and evil, and a truly moral God wouldn’t have created evil. Therefore, God is either neutral or somehow above moral concerns.
However, Lewis argues that this perspective doesn’t take into account God’s creation of the moral laws, which prefer good over evil. If the laws God created favor good over evil, then it follows that God, too, favors good over evil. Therefore, God cannot be morally neutral, as pantheists believe.
|What Do Pantheists Believe About Moral Authority? |
While Lewis defines “pantheism” as a belief in God’s moral neutrality, those who claim the term sometimes mean something quite different. Self-identified pantheists make a metaphysical claim about the nature of God—namely that God is inseparable from creation. In other words, the universe is God. In Western traditions, this view is often associated with philosophers like Baruch Spinoza and Ralph Waldo Emerson. However, some scholars have retroactively applied the term to Eastern religions such as Buddhism or Taoism that argue for the “wholeness” and “oneness” of creation.
Because pantheism is chiefly concerned with a metaphysical claim about God’s nature, there is a range of pantheistic perspectives on the origins of moral authority. Some proclaim that the universe is inherently good, and therefore God must be good too, whereas “scientific pantheists” have argued that the universe has no inherent value, only the value that humans ascribe to it. This latter perspective would confirm Lewis’s characterization of pantheists as proclaiming a morally neutral God. However, it’s worth noting that—like Lewis—the pantheist philosopher Baruch Spinoza also subscribed to the theory of natural law: He argued that moral laws are part of the natural order, and therefore must also be part of God according to his theology.
#2: The Dualist View
Dualism is the belief that the universe is divided between two divine powers, one good and the other evil. Dualists understand these powers as being in conflict with each other and believe that the purpose of morality is to join sides with the good power. Lewis rejects the dualistic conception of God because it accords good and evil equal status and power.
(Shortform note: Dualism is most commonly associated with the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. While Lewis contrasts Zoroastrianism with Christianity, some scholars believe these religions are not as opposed as Lewis suggests. They assert that Zoroastrianism had a major influence on Christianity, particularly on its ideas about Satan, heaven, and hell. These concepts suggest that absolute good and absolute evil are part of the cosmos—originally Zoroastrian ideas. Furthermore, Christian sects such as the Gnostics, Bogomils, and Cathars allegedly maintained a dualistic theology up through Medieval times.)
Lewis argues that good and evil cannot be equal because only good can be chosen for its own sake: No one pursues evil simply for the sake of pursuing evil. Those who do evil deeds are pursuing something they believe is good but in the wrong way. For example, someone who makes a living providing a service and someone who robs people are both pursuing the same good: a personal income. However, one of them pursues their income in a harmful way.
Lewis contends that even sadists causing harm for no discernible reason are getting pleasure out of it—which is also a good, simply pursued in the wrong way. Since no one pursues evil for the sake of evil, it cannot be equal to good.
|Aristotelian Ethics and Christian Thought|
In arguing that all people strive toward good rather than evil, Lewis is drawing on an Aristotelian understanding of ethics. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes that all beings strive toward happiness by pursuing “virtues” which we believe will lead us toward that goal. He asserts that happiness is therefore the only thing we seek for its own sake and that everything else we seek is simply a means to that end.
Aristotelian philosophy had a major influence on Christian thought. During the Middle Ages, scholars reintroduced Aristotle’s works to Western Europe through Islamic Spain along with commentaries by Muslim theologians like Ibn Sina. A movement in Christian theology called scholasticism sought to integrate Aristotle’s ideas with Christianity.
Thomas Aquinas was the most influential theologian of the scholastic movement. He adopted the Aristotelian notion that, by nature, we strive toward happiness. However, he adapted the idea by arguing that the highest ultimate happiness is only available through God in the next life. Therefore, he believed we all strive toward happiness by seeking God and pursuing a virtuous life.
#3: The Christian View
In Mere Christianity, Lewis argues that objective, non-material morality supports, not just the existence of a creator, but, specifically, a moral God who impels us to be good. This aligns with the Christian understanding of God’s moral nature. Lewis argues that the law of human nature points us to a Christian conception of a moral God who is on the side of good. Lewis makes this case with the following line of reasoning:
- The law of human nature prefers good over evil.
- God created the law of human nature.
- Therefore, God, too, must prefer good over evil.
This leads us to a perception of a moral God, like the vision of God presented in Christian teachings.
|Is God “Virtuous”?|
While Lewis asserts that God is on the side of good, many Christian thinkers have stressed that this doesn’t mean that God is good in the same way that we understand humans to be good. In other words, saying God is good is not the same thing as arguing that God practices human virtues like temperance, modesty, or chastity.
This distinction matters because critics of the Christian conception of God have argued that it is not possible for God to be both “good” and “all-knowing.” If God knows everything, they reason, then God must also know what it is like to commit evil acts, which a good entity can’t possibly know.
However, many Christians would counter that this presupposes an anthropomorphic understanding of God. They argue that these criticisms make the mistake of assuming that the mind of God is identical to the human mind, and therefore God’s goodness must be identical to human goodness. By declaring that God is on the side of good, and possesses a mind or something like it, Lewis recognizes the distinction that God’s goodness is not necessarily interchangeable with human virtue.
Evil Is the Price of 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? Lewis 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 concludes that evil exists because of free will: God calls on us to voluntarily choose good, but many disobey and choose evil.
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- 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