XFiles Weekend: The power of Evil

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, book II chapter 2, “The Invasion”)

C. S. Lewis continues his patricidal/fratricidal assault on classic dualism this week, and this time he’s got a really good argument. Not flawless, mind you, but clever and even a little surprising, at least for me. As before, his reasoning suffers significantly from his failure to consider any non-superstitious alternatives, but he proposes, or at least popularizes, a view of evil that many modern evangelicals still promote today, and so it’s worth taking a look at in the light of the real-world evidence.

One of the problems with popular Christianity is that Evil, as personified by the devil and his demons, tends to be more of a cartoon villain than a realistic opponent. By that I mean that Satan is envisioned as being someone who exults in evil for its own sake, wantonly sowing destruction and corruption for no better reason than to do as much evil as possible. Evil, described in such terms, is easy to communicate and popularize, but childishly one-dimensional and unrealistic.

Lewis, to his credit, recognizes this as a problem, and tries to take advantage of it.

If Dualism is true, then the bad Power must be a being who likes badness for its own sake. But in reality we have no experience of anyone liking badness just because it is bad. The nearest we can get to it is in cruelty. But in real life people are cruel for one of two reasons—either because they…have a sexual perversion which makes cruelty a cause of sensual pleasure to them, or else for the sake of something they are going to get out of it—money, or power, or safety.  But pleasure, money, power, and safety are all, as far as they go, good things.

Notice how Lewis gets things right here. He takes the superstitious notion (that evil is due to a supernatural Person), and measures the plausibility of that claim by comparing it to what we actually experience in reality. Bravo, Prof. Lewis! But look where he goes with it.

[W]ickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way. You can be good for the mere sake of goodness: you cannot be bad for the mere sake of badness… In other words, badness cannot succeed even in being bad in the same way in which goodness is good. Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled… you can explain the perverted from the normal, and cannot explain the normal from the perverted. It follows that this Bad Power, who is supposed to be on an equal footing with the Good Power, and to love badness in the same way as the Good Power loves goodness, is a mere bogy. In order to be bad he must have good things to want and then to pursue in the wrong way: he must have impulses which were originally good in order to be able to pervert them. But if he is bad he cannot supply himself either with good things to desire or with good impulses to pervert. He must be getting both from the Good Power.

Hence Lewis’ conclusion that Evil is not independent; it can only exist as a kind of moral parasite attached to a Good host. And many today echo that same claim (especially as it applies specifically to atheists).

I’ve got to admit, that’s actually a pretty clever refutation of dualism. Not flawless, like I said before, but very clever and even persuasive. It sounds so reasonable. A devil who loved being bad would be inconsistent, because love is good and hate is bad. The devil ought to hate being bad, because by definition he prefers bad actions (hating) to good ones (loving). But if he hates being bad, that’s good! Yikes!

This works as a refutation, not because dualism is less reasonable than monotheism (as we shall see shortly), but because dualism, like monotheism, is a superstition, an attempt to understand evil by imagining a supernatural Person behind it all. And that’s not what “evil” really is. The facts don’t fit the story because the story is not an accurate description of the facts.

Lewis tries to make Christianity sound like a superior alternative to dualism, but in doing so he creates new and even worse problems for himself. That’s partly because he’s not proceeding from a very sound foundation. For example, he’s assuming his conclusion that all things were originally good and remain good by default unless and until they are corrupted by the evil one. But would it not be more correct to say that most things (such as pleasure, money, power and safety) are morally neutral, and only become good or evil according to how they are used?

It’s just a slight change in viewpoint, yet it is crucial to Lewis’ argument, because once you admit the possibility of morally neutral things, it becomes possible that either Power could have created them for its own purposes, only to have them subsequently suborned by the other Power. At that point Lewis’ argument falls apart: the Evil Power no longer needs to depend, parasitically, on the Good Power for things He can put to evil purposes. We’re back to a pair of alleged deities, at least potentially equal in power.

He also assumes that the good things must have come first, and then the Evil One perverted them. That’s not necessarily a given. Let’s imagine, for example, a Klingon theologian, for whom Satan is the true and mighty God, and Jehovah the perverted parasite, whose goal is to take the strength and power of the True God and weaken it, burdening it with arbitrary constraints like mercy and comfort. By this sort of theology, it might very well be Lewis’ “evil” things which came first, and which were then turned into something contrary to the will of the True God. Could our Klingon theologian make the same argument as Lewis, only with the 2 gods reversed? Indeed he could, and it wouldn’t be all that difficult, given a harsher and less comfortable definition of “good.”

The bigger problem for Lewis, though, is that he proposes a kind of unequal dualism in which the Good Power and the Bad Power do both exist, but one is much stronger than the other. Think about it. Lewis is proposing that God must have come first, and then Satan came along and corrupted what God had done, because you can make a good thing into a perversion, but you can’t make a perversion into a good thing. In other words, the Evil Power has the ability to transform good things into evil, but the Good Power has no ability to turn evil things into good ones. Evil thus has more power than Good! Yikes again!

That’s not at all what Lewis wants to say, of course, but he’s committed to it regardless. Otherwise, if it were possible for God to take Satan’s evil creations, and turn them into good things, then Lewis’ whole argument falls apart yet again. He argues that “you can explain the perverted from the normal and cannot explain the normal from the perverted,” but how does he know which version is the “normal” one and which the perversion?

If God had the power to “pervert” Satan’s “normal” design for evil things, and turn them into good things, then it’s just as possible that evil is “normal” and that “good” exists only as the result of a parasitic God “perverting” Satan’s original creation. Lewis would be right back in the same problem he had last week: without a reality-based standard of right and wrong, there’s no non-tautological way to define which side is really the right one, and hence no way to prove which Power is the host, and which the parasite.

There are bigger and deeper issues here that Lewis does not even allude to. For example, Lewis claims that the Evil Power cannot provide himself with either good things to desire or good impulses to pervert, and therefore “must be getting both from the Good Power.” What’s more, Lewis proposes that, “To be bad, he must exist and have intelligence and will,” all of which, according to Lewis, are given to him by the Good Power. Yes, that’s right: it’s the “Good” Power that is secretly empowering and enabling the Evil one!

That’s a pretty corrupt “Good” Power, wouldn’t you say? Lewis wants to make a distinction between Zoroastrian-style dualism and Christian-style dualism, but the only way he can do that effectively is to make the Good Power ultimately responsible for the existence and activities of the Evil power. Doing so brings him a bit closer to the truth, but it’s a truth that contradicts the Christian premise of a God Who is purely good. Good and evil come from Alethea, from Reality itself, and not from any superstitiously invented supernatural powers. No matter how you distance Him from His Zoroastrian ancestry, the Christian God is still just a myth.

Lewis also has problems distinguishing between evil as a cause and evil as an effect. It’s all very well to speak of evil as being some good thing that was pursued “by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much.” That doesn’t really account for the existence of evil, though, because if you were a perfect angel, created by God to be perfectly good, then why would you ever want to pervert good things in the first place? Lewis tries to belittle Satan as a mere corrupter of good things, but who corrupted Satan? To say he corrupted himself is to assume that he must have been evil first, so that he would want to corrupt himself. But if he was already evil, then the original question is still unanswered.

Nor does it help to introduce the idea that Satan was somehow flawed, and the flaw led to his downfall. To make that one work, Lewis must argue that flaws are somehow good, and/or that it is good for God to create flawed angels. Remember, evil is not really evil, it’s just something good pursued in the wrong way. That’s Lewis’ definition anyway, and it doesn’t really apply to flaws, so flaws must be good (or God must be evil).

But then, assuming Lewis’ definition of evil were correct, how would we explain the doctrine of eternal judgment? If you’re an omnipotent God, and you see one of your angels pursuing good things in an incorrect manner, what’s the point of becoming angry and creating a lake of fire? Just show them how to do it the right way, and then they can continue to pursue the good things. If You’ve created flawed angels, just correct the flaw. There’s no need to go all violent and everlasting on them.

Thus, Lewis invents an explanation of evil that works, for the nonce, as a refutation of classical dualism, but in the process he leaves God without a good reason for allowing evil to exist all. Not, of course, that God ever had a good reason. The superstitious account of Good and Evil never has gotten around that one sore point.

Reality provides us with both good things and bad things, and the better we understand the real world and the real source of good and evil, the better we’ll be able to maximize the good and minimize the bad. Christianity is of no help, and is indeed a rather malignant distraction, in the search for that better understanding, as Lewis demonstrates by wasting his cleverness trying to make one superstitious myth sound better than another.

 
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Posted in Unapologetics, XFiles. 12 Comments »

12 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: The power of Evil”

  1. pboyfloyd Says:

    God: Satan, I am your FATHER!

    Satan: NOOOOOOOOOO!

  2. exrelayman Says:

    Christians are giving their attention to the wrong Lewis. I recommend Jerry Lewis!

  3. Nick Says:

    Do you have a definition of goodness that you are using? Also, do you understand how Lewis and others today see goodness in relation to being?

  4. Sarah Says:

    Are wabbits scwewy because they’re evil or did the Evil One make Elmer say they’re scwewy to divert our attention from his ever present compulsion to scwew wabbits?

  5. Deacon Duncan Says:

    @Nick:

    What I have is not so much a definition of goodness as an objective approach to discerning goodness. One of the major flaws I see in Lewis’ reasoning is a tendency to assume that “goodness” is defined by a list somewhere, and that’s not really realistic or workable, as I’ve discussed extensively in my discussion of the “Book 1″ portion of Mere Christianity.

    As to your second question, I have a feeling you’re leading up to something by the reference to “goodness in relation to being,” but I’m not sure what exactly you have in mind. I do have a few decades of experience as an evangelical, Bible-believing conservative Christian, so I am fairly comfortable with my understanding of how Christians see “goodness.” No doubt you could find a point or two to quibble over, but I daresay you could do the same with any number of believers as well, so I’m not worried about falling outside the mainstream. If you think I’ve missed anything important, feel free to share.

  6. Nick Says:

    DD: What I have is not so much a definition of goodness as an objective approach to discerning goodness. One of the major flaws I see in Lewis’ reasoning is a tendency to assume that “goodness” is defined by a list somewhere, and that’s not really realistic or workable, as I’ve discussed extensively in my discussion of the “Book 1? portion of Mere Christianity.

    Reply: So let me get this straight. You don’t have a definition of goodness, but yet you’re basing your argument on what goodness is. C.S. Lewis was a Thomist. Do you know how Thomism describes goodness? Do you know how Aristotle did? Do you know how that relates to the central doctrine of Thomistic thought, the doctrine of being?

    If you do not believe goodness can be described (A more accurate word than defined) then there’s no point in you going on about it and the privation of it, evil.

    DD: As to your second question, I have a feeling you’re leading up to something by the reference to “goodness in relation to being,” but I’m not sure what exactly you have in mind.

    Reply: Correct. If you are not sure what I have in mind, then it’s time to learn. If you do not know this concept, then it’s really difficult to take the account seriously. Of course, if you want to learn an accurate description, I’m ready to give it.

    DD: I do have a few decades of experience as an evangelical, Bible-believing conservative Christian, so I am fairly comfortable with my understanding of how Christians see “goodness.”

    Reply: No you’re not. I’m not talking about how Christians see goodness. It’s irrelevant to me. Goodness is what it is regardless of if Christians see it and goodness had an ontology before Christianity came along. I’m talking about what it is and I don’t need the Bible for that or the revelation of God at all.

    DD: No doubt you could find a point or two to quibble over, but I daresay you could do the same with any number of believers as well, so I’m not worried about falling outside the mainstream.

    Reply: You bet I could because sadly, most Christians don’t even know this due to the dumbing down of the church that leads to the apostasy you’ve just described yourself as fulfilling. You didn’t know about goodness then and you still don’t now.

    DD: If you think I’ve missed anything important, feel free to share.

    Reply: Just the big picture and an education on what you’re talking about. You don’t have a working idea of what goodness is and you aren’t interacting with the metaphysics that C.S. Lewis held to, which would be a good Thomistic metaphysics.

  7. Arthur Says:

    Does Lewis cover Thomistic metaphysics in Mere Christianity?

  8. Nick Says:

    No. Lewis doesn’t. That’s not his point. His point in that one was to write a book to give a basic argument for Christianity. To cover Thomistic metaphysics would require a book of its own entirely. However, that is the place that Lewis works from. If DD wants to go after Lewis’s argument, he really needs to brush up A LOT! Lewis has said that to lose all he learned from Plato and Aristotle would be like losing a limb. I agree. Thus, to unpack the arguments best, you need to have at least a basic understanding of those two thinkers.

    If you don’t have an ontology of goodness in mind, and even if you don’t believe in such a thing you should realize that Lewis does and you must accept his for the sake of argument to answer him.

  9. Arthur Says:

    I don’t know… it sounds like you and Deacon agree that, in Mere Christianity, Lewis argues from a set of principles which he declines to reveal to the reader. But why would he do that if he can’t be understood without those principles? Especially if his point was “to give a basic argument for Christianity”?

  10. Nick Says:

    Why? Because he’s not giving a philosophy lesson. He’s stating that most of us recognize something as good and he gives a brief lesson how, but he does not go all the way. Consider if you’re teaching a class on how to use the internet. Are you going to explain all the interworkings of how computers connect and all the technology involved, or are you going to tell people how to connect to the net?

    Remember also that Lewis is writing for a popular audience and not an academic one so he writes at that level.

    But if you wish to debunk him, you should be able to argue from an academic level.

  11. » Answers for Nick Evangelical Realism Says:

    [...] I mentioned before, I’m not shutting down this blog completely, and we have a new guest in the comments, with some interesting questions. Since Nick asks such good questions, I’m promoting them to [...]

  12. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Hi Nick, sorry for the delay, work had me pretty busy the last couple days. I’ve responded to your questions here so that our discussion wouldn’t get buried in the comments. Feel free to continue at the new post.

    Thanks.