I’ve seen evil.
There are things I have witnessed over the course of my life and during my travels here and in other countries that even decades later, still produce a sick feeling in my stomach just to remember them.
Yet I have also seen beauty and goodness. So what is going on here? How can there be both good and evil in the same world?
I have noticed that when things are wonderful, we tend not to think about evil at all, but the opposite is not true … and this might tell us something. It is sort of like being outdoors on a bitterly cold winter day …. all one can think of is getting inside somewhere warm. But when the temperature is just perfect, the idea of “coldness” does not usually enter our minds. This suggests that we compare events to a standard of perfect beauty and goodness—not a standard of evil. C.S. Lewis wrote:
Human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, [...] they do not, in fact, behave in that way.1
So what is that standard?
Just as it would be absurd to complain about a high crime rate if, in fact, there were no laws in existence, so it seems odd to complain about evil in the world if, in fact, there is no standard of beauty and goodness to violate. During the earlier part of his life, C.S Lewis was an atheist whose chief reason for not believing in God was the injustice he saw in this world. He eventually realized, however, there was a problem with his reasoning. He wrote:
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? … I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist … I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense.2
Does society just make up the rules?
To account for this unwritten standard of goodness, some posit that morality is an evolutionary outcome, where societies evolve an unwritten social contract whereby we can get along together. But that still does not solve the problem … we feel that some societies are more right and just than others. We must, therefore, be aware of a higher standard of beauty and goodness against which we can evaluate the moral codes and social contracts of all human societies and see which come closer in a meaningful way.
The implications of “better”
C.S. Lewis puts it well:
The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other … You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others.3
Ultimately, the idea that some moral systems are better than others entails that there must exist a flawless, perfect standard of beauty and goodness against which all other standards of goodness, justice, and beauty must be measured. The alternative is that we can no longer evaluate the moral views of civilizations, societies, and individuals and say, on any objective grounds, that one set of preferences is “better” than another, at least in any real sense.
Perhaps we can summarize things this way...
It seems, then, that if we are to take concepts such as evil and goodness seriously, there has to be an ultimate standard that is very real, a standard that is beautiful and perfect beyond anything we could ever imagine, such that we could compare even our highest ideals with it to see how close to perfection they come. But this points to the kind of God who is described as the one from whom “every good thing given and every perfect gift” comes … the “Father of lights with whom there is no shifting shadow.”4
Of course, this raises a lot of questions, not the least of which is why a perfectly good God who is the origin of “every good thing given” would permit evil, suffering, and injustice in this world. We shall examine this question in additional articles.
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book One, Ch. 1.
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book Two, Ch. 1.
- C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book One, Ch. 2.
- James 1:17.