The Problem of Evil — Solved!

I gave my little mini-talk / discussion starter this morning at MidMoot. Here it is:

C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams “Solve” the Problem of Evil

What is the Problem of Evil, or the Problem of Pain? C. S. Lewis wrote: “If God were good, He would wish make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both” (The Problem of Pain 26). We may break this down into three logical propositions, thus:
There are a variety of ways of expressing this dilemma, but this is a simple one. It lines up three “facts”—propositions, observations, or claims—and shows that they contradict one another. This is a logical and experiential problem.
Theologians, philosophers, and ordinary people have tried to “solve” this problem in many ways; most of their attempted solutions have explained away one of the three premises, usually by redefining it, so that no logical problem exists. Here are some ridiculously brief examples:

· Many people, of course, have simply written off the first proposition, claiming that God is a sadist in the sky, torturing people for fun. For instance, Descartes put forward the thought-experiment of the “evil demon” in his first Meditation, writing: “I will suppose… that some malignant demon, who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful, has employed all his artifice to deceive me.”

· The vast majority of thinkers within the Christian tradition have redefined the second proposition, “God is all powerful,” by claiming that God voluntarily limited His own power and control by giving humans free will. For instance, in Paradise Lost, God’s Milton grants to His angelic and human creatures an ontologically actual measure of independence, and gave them the ability to choose to disobey. From this ability came the choices of Lucifer and then of Adam and Eve, resulting in “all our woe, with loss of Eden.”
· Boethius had a brilliant solution, which I will leave to Corey to explain, but it boils down to redefining and explaining away proposition #2, “God is all powerful,” by means of a creative understanding of termporality.

· Augustine famously got rid of the third proposition, “evil exists.” He wrote: “all things which suffer corruption are deprived of something good in them. Supposing them to be deprived of all good, they will cease to exist altogether…. Therefore, so long as they exist, they are good. Therefore, all things that are, are good….” (Confessions VII.13). “Bad denotes merely privation of good” (City of God, XI.21,22; qtd. in Preface to Paradise Lost 66). “What we call bad things are good things perverted” (Preface to PL 66).
Julian of Norwich laid some of the groundwork for the common understanding that evil will not exist forever, but “all shall be well, All shall be well; and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Now, what about The Inklings? C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, were devout Christian writers who were deeply well read in these classics works and others, intimately acquainted with the problem and its “solutions” throughout history. How did they “solve” this problem?
In all of those ways. Let me give you six quick examples, one from Lewis and one from Williams under each of the three propositions, and then perhaps Corey can give us a bit about how Tolkien responded (I suggest that Tolkien was a good Augustinian who mostly messed with #3).

Lewis: Perelandra –meeting an eldil: “I felt sure that the creature was what we call ‘good,’ but I wasn’t sure whether I liked ‘goodness’ so much as I had supposed” (Perelandra 19). “Beyond all doubt, His idea of ‘goodness’ differs from ours…not as white from black but as a perfect circle from a child’s first attempt to draw a wheel” (PoP 39).
Williams: In a paper called “Charles Williams as heretic?” Richard Sturch asks, “does he make God the author of evil?” War in Heaven: the Archdeacon quotes (or misquotes) Amos 3:6: “Shall there be evil in the City and I the Lord have not done it?” (War in Heaven 180), suggesting that God has not only created the villain, but wills every evil deed that the villain performs. “our meaning of love ought to have something of the ‘otherness’ and terror of God” (He Came Down from Heaven 11). “Our Impossibility is grounded within God’s own Impossibility” (Dunning 188).

Lewis: The Problem of Pain proceeds on the premise that God had to allow creatures independent existence in order for them to exist as individuals with an identity:”man is now a horror to God and to himself and a creature ill-adapted to the universe not because God made him so but because he has made himself so by the abuse of his free will” (PoP 69). This implies a voluntary limiting of God’s omnipotence.
Williams: The Forgiveness of Sins and the poem “The Vision of the Empire” and elsewhere explore the nature of the Fall, and all depend upon the moment when the Adam “chose”: “they had their will; they saw; they were torn in the terror” (Taliessin Through Logres, “The Vision of the Empire,” l 128). Free will, human will, is set against God’s, thus limiting God’s control over His creation.
Interestingly, both of them deny the absolute ontology of free will when their writing pushes them to look at it squarely:
Lewis: After Ransom makes a terrible decision, he sees that “Predestination and freedom were apparently identical. He could no longer see any meaning in the man arguments he had heard on this subject” (Perelandra 149).
Williams: “He made…the delight of a perfect response to his initiative a part of the working of the web. We could not otherwise become at once perfect servitude and perfect freedom” (The Forgiveness of Sins 18).

Lewis: “evil is a parasite, not an original thing” (Mere Christianity chapter 2) and “A sound theory of value demands . . . that good should be original and evil a mere perversion… that good should be able to exist on its own while evil requires the good on which it is parasitic in order to continue its parasitic existence” (God in the Dock, “Evil and God”).
Williams: The idea of “correspondence,” a form of monism (“What is below is like that which is above, and what is above is similar to that which is below to accomplish the wonders of the one thing” and “As all things were produced by the mediation of one being, so all things were produced from this one by adaption”) runs through CW’s early work, making all things, good and evil, part of God. In other words, all things are one. He liked to use the phrase “Holy luck,” meaning that “all luck is good” or “everything will work out for good.” Evil is a schism, a division in the unity of all things, and in his later works he strove to show the divisions being healed back into “a promulgation of sacred union.”


About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."
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One Response to The Problem of Evil — Solved!

  1. Pingback: Heresy for Easter: “The Rite of the Passion” (1929) | The Oddest Inkling

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