Mere Christianity: 8. The Shocking Alternative

Melkite-Christ-the-King” by John Stephen Dwyer / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Chapter 8 is a really excellent one: a long arc building up from a reflection on the permissive will of God to one of the most enduring parts of Mere Christianity in the famous Lewisian trilemma.

Lewis begins with a reminder of where we left off:

Christians, then, believe that an evil power has made himself for the present the Prince of this World. And, of course, that raises problems. Is this state of affairs in accordance with God’s will, or not? If it is, He is a strange God, you will say: and if it is not, how can anything happen contrary to the will of a being with absolute power? (47)

Lewis will offer his own (very good) explanation of this idea of permissive will, but I think that the best conception of it comes to us from Sacred Scripture. The inspired author, in a reflection of the mercy of God, tells us that God could have killed the Egyptians “at a single blast, pursued by justice and winnowed by your mighty spirit” before the exodus, but He had “disposed all things by measure and number and weight” (Wisdom 11:20). The author continues in saying that the Lord has “mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook sins for the sake of repentance,” and He loves “all things that are and loathe[s] nothing that you have made; for you would not fashion what you hate” (Wisdom 11:23–24). Finally, the author asks, “How could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you?” (Wisdom 11:25).

From Wisdom 11 we can glean a couple of ideas about God. For one, He has a specific plan about the order of things: even the grains of sand are precisely disposed by measure and number and weight as part of the Lord’s plan for our salvation. While He could, the Lord does not simply destroy sinners, due to his mercy and his love for all the things that He has made. Nothing exists and nothing can remain unless the Lord wills it, including all those who trespass Him most. There is a peculiar and somewhat troubling ramification of this set of ideas: the devil is part of both the set of the things that God permits to exist and the things He made, and so therefore even the author of sin and humanity’s adversary is part of the divine love. All of this is one part of the reason I think that God did not simply obliterate Satan when he fell: that the devil continues to exist despite the amount of trouble he has caused is an act of mercy on His part. The other reason is that, again as part of the set of things that have been measured out by number and weight, Satan’s existence is part of God’s plan for the universe. What role he plays there I can only speculate on. Perhaps the Lord sees the human struggle to overcome sin and death as a greater good than the evil the fallen angels have unleashed and so permits the demons to operate for that reason.

All this is to say, though, that everything is a component in one sense or another of the will of God. This doesn’t necessarily mean that God willed it directly, (as He did with Let there be light and You shall conceive and bear a Son) but, as Lewis will illustrate, God may will certain things permissively. “Anyone who has been in authority knows a thing can be in accordance with your will in one way and not in another” (47). A mother might say to her children, “I’m not going to go and make you tidy up the schoolroom every night. You’ve got to learn to keep it tidy on your own” (47). If one night she finds “the Teddy bear and the ink and the French Grammar all lying in the grate,” that is against her will in the one sense, but it is “her will which has left the children free to be untidy” (47). In creating things that have free will, it is “probably” God’s will that a similar state of affairs exist “in the universe” (47).

I return frequently to Anselm in these articles, and for good reason. St. Anselm is both a doctor of the Church and (as a Bishop-Saint of Canterbury) a profound influence on the English understanding of the faith. His On the Fall of the Devil contains some reflections on permissive will:

Teacher: I think that you are aware that God can in no way make someone unjust save in the sense of not making him just when he could. Before receiving justice, in fact, no one is unjust and, after having received it, no one becomes unjust unless he willingly abandons justice. Thus just as the good angel is made just because he does not deprive himself of justice when he could, so God makes the bad angel unjust by not giving him justice when he could. (Anselm 221)

God offered Lucifer grace in the same sense that he offered it to Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael. He wished for all the angels to stay with him, but willed that the angels’ fall would be possible (and knew it would happen). The bad angels became bad in refusing God’s justice, which, while not His will, was necessarily a component of it due to his giving the angels (and later men) the ability to choose. Free will is what “makes evil possible,” but it is also the only thing “that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having” (48).

Much of Sacred Scripture’s reflections on the will come from St. Paul, particularly (my favourite) his letter to the Romans. Paul tells us that “ For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if [I] do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand” (Romans 7: 19–21). We are moral actors because we have the ability to choose, but, as Paul shows us, there are forces pulling us in different directions. Lewis proceeds later on in the book with a discourse on the flesh, the devil, and the world, so I won’t dwell on it too long here, but notice what Paul says there: when I want to do right, evil is at hand. Temptation to act contrary to the will of God exists in every decision we make as a consequence of having a free will, but it is the only reason we can do right in the first place.

As previously noted, God has “disposed all things by measure and number and weight”: He “knew what would happen if [we] used [our] freedom in the wrong way,” but “apparently” thought it worth the risk (48). Perhaps we may “feel inclined to disagree with Him,” but there is a “difficulty” there (48). God is the source “from which all your reasoning power comes: you could not be right and He wrong any more than a stream can rise higher than its own source” (48). When you argue with God, you argue with “the very power that makes you capable to argue at all” (48).

We know a lot about the type of person who would try to argue with God. Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov is a good example:

An educated, cultured couple beat down their own daughter with a birch, a little girl of seven — I took detailed notes of this. Her father was glad they had left the switches with butts on them — “that’ll hurt more,” he says — and begins to lay about his own daughter. I know there are people who certainly take a sadistic pleasure in thrashing, enjoying every stroke literally to the point of ecstasy, becoming progressively more frenzied with every stroke (The Karamazov Brothers, 302)

Ivan goes on to detail more stories of the suffering of innocent children:

Those educated parents subjected that poor little five-year-old to every conceivable torture. They beat her, whipped her, kicked her till she was black and blue, all for no reason. Finally, they thought of the ultimate punishment; they shut her up all night in the outside privy, in the cold and frost…Can you understand such a thing: that small child, unable even to comprehend what is being done to her, in the dark and the cold of that foul place, beating her little panting breast with her tiny fists, sobbing, weeping humble tears of bloodstained innocence, praying to “Dear Father God” to protect her — do you understand this obscenity, my friend, my brother, my holy and meek monk, do you understand why such and obscenity should be necessary, and what is the point of it? (Ibid, 303)

Finally, and crucially to this discussion, Ivan concludes:

Why should one understand the damned difference between good and evil if that’s the price to be paid? (Ibid, 303–304)

I don’t have the primary source here, (though the secondary source contains some reflections I’d like to add regardless) but Goethe presents similar themes in Faust:

The play’s main character, a scholar named Heinrich Faust, trades his immortal soul to the devil, Mephistopheles. In return, he receives whatever he desires while still alive on Earth. In Goethe’s play, Mephistopheles is the eternal adversary of Being. He has a central, defining credo:

I am the spirit who negates
And rightly so, for all that comes to be
Deserves to perish, wretchedly.
It would be better nothing would begin!
Thus everything that your terms sin,
destruction, evil represent —
That is my proper element. (Peterson, 148)

Both Mephistopheles and Ivan Karamazov are in argument with God. They disagree that things ought to have been made, for different reasons. Karamazov believes that it is not worth it that we have free will if one innocent child suffers, and Mephistopheles simply believes Creation itself is contemptible. Regardless, they are both in a position that is quite disordered; Jordan Peterson identifies it with the Columbine shooters:

Murderous individuals [have] a problem with reality that [exists] at a religious depth. As one of the members of the Columbine duo wrote:

The human race isn’t worth fighting for, only worth killing. Give the Earth back to the animals. They deserve it infinitely more than we do. Nothing means anything anymore.

People who think such things view Being itself as inequitable and harsh to the point of corruption, and human Being, in particular, as contemptible. They appoint themselves supreme adjudicators of reality and find it wanting… For such individuals, the world of experience is insufficient and evil — so to hell with everything! (Peterson, 147–48)

Indeed, that is the consequence of “cutting off the branch you are sitting on” (48). Arguing with God about whether Creation ought to be, or else ought to be the way that it is, is necessarily diabolical and will inevitably lead to mayhem of the sort identified by Peterson. We lack the proper authority to judge Creation, and so we can only assume that God was right to have made the world the way that He did, or else believe as Mephistopheles does that the whole thing is contemptible and try to blow it up.

Or, in Lewis’ words, “if God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will…then we may take it as worth paying” (48).

Nevertheless, there are many who question Creation. Lewis identifies a class of people who ask “Why did God make a creature of such rotten stuff that it went wrong?” (49). The answer is that “the better stuff a creature is made of — the cleverer and stronger and freer he is — then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong” (49). A cow “cannot be very good or very bad; a dog can be both better and worse; a child better and worse still; an ordinary man, still more so; a man of genius, still more so; a superhuman spirit best — or worst — of all” (49).

I will correct Lewis on a minor theological point here: Mary is above all the superhuman spirits, (she is their Queen actually) and so of the created things she is best of all. But the point he makes here is true at a very deep level. Your favourite tragedy — mine is Macbeth — likely stars a great man who is affected by a deep flaw (the Greeks called this hamartia) that leads to his corruption and his eventual fall. Tragedy is quite simply the ruination of something good, which is precisely why we find it enthralling. Nobody wants to spend 3 hours watching a perfectly ordinary man get ruined.

Take the Scottish play. Macbeth was a great warrior, a loyal servant of the king, and a good man. He was made of great stuff, greater than ordinary men, but he was tempted by ambition and so fell into a murderous tyrant. Or, returning to the last chapter, take the last great modern attempt at tragedy, the Star Wars prequels. Anakin Skywalker was the greatest hero of the Republic, the very model of a Jedi Knight:

Skywalker is the master of audacity; his intensity, boldness, and sheer jaw-dropping luck are the perfect compliment to Kenobi’s deliberate, balanced steadiness. Together, they are a Jedi hammer that has crushed Separatist infestations on scores of worlds (Revenge of the Sith, 5).

He was also the most powerful in the order, and yet he had his own hamartia in his attachment to the things of the world, especially his wife and mother. Anakin only becomes as evil as Vader because of the good stuff he was made out of in the first place, and therein lies the tragedy. And so on with Oedipus, Hector, Othello, Hamlet, and Adam and Eve.

Our first parents’, and indeed Satan’s, hamartia is of importance here though. What exactly was it that caused an archangel and the first humans to fall? Lewis will go more into this later in the book, but the traditional answer is that the greatest hamartia in history was hubris, or excessive pride. The sin was “putting yourself first — wanting to be the centre — wanting to be God, in fact,” and this is what Satan taught the human race in the garden (49).

We return here to Anselm (seriously, I wouldn’t be mad if you skipped my writing and went off to read On the Fall of the Devil yourselves). Per the Magnificent Doctor, Lucifer could have only willed two things: “justice, or what was useful to himself or the fitting. And happiness, to which every creature aspires, is constituted by the fitting” (Anselm, 202). Since the devil could not have sinned by willing justice, he must have willed that which would increase his happiness. The devil “inordinately will[ed] more than he received,” and in so doing “exceeded the limits of justice” (ibid., 202). By willing more than God granted him, he “inordinately willed to be like God” (ibid., 202). Anselm’s student replies that because God is that thing by which nothing greater can be conceived, (Anselm is always one to plug his other works 😛) Satan could not have possibly thought that he could be greater, and he could not have been so “obtuse of mind that he failed to know that nothing other than God can be thought to be like him (ibid., 202). The teacher replies:

Even if he did not will to be wholly equal to God, but something less than God against the will of God, by the very fact he inordinately willed to be like God, because he willed something by his own will, as subject to no one. It is for God alone thus to will something by his own will such that he follows no higher will… Not only did he will to be equal to God in presuming to have his own will, but he even willed to be greater by willing what God did not want him to will, because he put his own will above God’s. (ibid., 202–3)

In other words, Satan’s rebellion was less of a revolution (replacing God is just as foolish as those trying to win arguments against Him) than an attempt to disobey in search of more power for himself. His ‘being like God’ was a self-creation: an inventing of reality and standards to follow by his own authority, rather than God’s. Armed with this, it is easy to look back at human history and see where the lessons he taught our first parents seep in — as a Catholic, I would say every movement away from St. Peter is a case of this, but there are many other instances where we can see this tendency. St. Paul tells us: “Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves” (Romans 13:1–2). We can therefore see the sin of Adam and Eve at work whenever people attempt to overthrow or subvert legitimate authority structures, as in the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions, all with predictably diabolical results.

The fruits of the Fall of Man. “Octobre 1793, supplice de 9 émigrés” Unknown author / Public Domain

The hope in this kind of self-creation — indeed the hope of all revolutionaries — was to “invent some sort of happiness for [ourselves] outside God, apart from God” (49). The reason why it never succeeds is that God “made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else” (50). God designed the human machine to run on a far better fuel than that: “Himself” (50). Indeed, Christ says that “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world,” (John 6:50) and that if we do not eat His flesh and drink His blood, we have no life (John 6:54). God is “the fuel our spirits were designed to burn” and the “food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other” (50).

I’m reminded of the opening to St. Augustine’s great Confessions:

Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you (Augustine, 4).

God truly made us for Himself. He wills that we are joined to Him for eternity in the Beatific vision. We would well to follow Augustine’s advice, and abandon our “vanity of vanities” (Ecclesiastes 1:2) to embrace Him.

However, throughout human history, this is not what happened. We fell, and sinned, and continued to sin. The horrors of Manchuria, Auschwitz, the Gulag, Deutsch-Südwestafrika, the Residential School, the Vendée, Naples, eugenics, abortion, Zaire, and the Atom Bomb continued unabated. And those are just modern examples! Aztec and Carthaginian human sacrifice, Greek pederasty, and so much other barbarity against our fellow man continued unabated. At any given moment in human history, it seems as if half the world has embraced some demonic parody of Christian faith and the other half has merely turned its back on Him, and yet God never gave up on us.

At the beginning of human history, he left us a great gift: human conscience, the “sense of right and wrong” and aboriginal vicar of Christ in the soul, which many throughout history have tried very had to obey (50). Secondly, He “sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all throughout the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again, and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men” (50). Some people did admirably with reason and conscience alone. Pharaoh Akhenaten attempted to get rid of the old Egyptian pantheon and replace it with the worship of a monotheistic creator. Plato wrote of an innocent man who was tortured and impaled because he was too good for the world. Aristotle proved using logic that there was only one god. The Taosists even had a conception of the trinity! Of course, regardless of how much work we put in, humanity could not come to know everything about God from reason alone, and so “He selected one particular people and spent several centuries hammering into their heads the sort of God He was” (50), eventually revealing the prophecy of the shoot of the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 1:11), root of David (Revelation 5:5) who would come to rule the world with an iron rod (Psalm 2:9).

That day came, but not in a way anyone expected.

Among [the] Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let us get this clear. Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world, who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips (51).

And so, it is through this that the evangelical sting in Lewis is revealed. Everyone admires Jesus’ moral teachings and assumes that they genuinely represent right conduct. Even relativists who reject much of them are constantly looking for ways to square the circle, some more successfully than others. Believing that Jesus is a good moral teacher, or a mere prophet (as the Muslims do), is a self-contradictory position, as a good moral teacher and a servant of God would not call Himself God. Indeed, if Jesus were not actually God, and just a man, He would be committing the sin of Satan all over again in saying what he said (which is why the Jews had him arrested for blasphemy and the Romans had him crucified). In light of this information, C.S. Lewis leaves us with this, the point of the spear of conversion in the book:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about Him being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to (52).

And so, dear reader, I leave you the same question as Lewis. Who is Jesus? Is He a fool? A narcissist? A demon? A lie made up by a group of Jews for earthly power? Or is He who He claims He is, He who never lied once in the whole Gospels: the rightful King of the universe, come to rule with an iron rod. Choose wisely; I know I’ve made my choice.

Viva Cristo Rey!

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.