C. S. Lewis Said It: God’s “Goodness” Cannot Be Wholly Other

C. S. Lewis Said It: God’s “Goodness” Cannot Be Wholly Other

For years now I have been insisting that the main reason I am not a Calvinist (or any kind of divine determinist) is that, taken to its “good and necessary consequences,” Calvinism makes God morally monstrous. I fully realize and understand that many Calvinists do not see this and disagree. Of course they do. In my opinion, most simply close their eyes to the fact that if God creates some people, created in his image and likeness, for hell or even merely “passes over some” when he could save them (because election is unconditional and grace irresistible), then God is not good in any meaningful sense. If God does this, then “God is good” means nothing other than “God is God”—a tautology. “Good” tells us nothing about God in addition to “he is God.”

When I push this “button” on Calvinism to a Calvinist he or she usually retreats into voluntarism—the idea promoted by Duns Scotus and Ulrich Zwingli (among others) that God is above all law, meaning our intuitions about “the good” do not apply to God at all, and whatever God does is good simply because God does it. (Luther took this position in response to Erasmus but I don’t claim this was his consistent position throughout his life.) I don’t think Calvinism is inherently voluntaristic, but voluntarism suddenly appears when the challenge to explain God’s goodness in light of the decree of reprobation appears. (And, just to head off objections, it does not good to claim that one can believe only in a decree of election and not reprobation unless one is some kind of universalist. The claim that God “decrees election of some” but not “reprobation of others” is an appeal to a distinction without a difference.)

C. S. Lewis, who many Calvinist now claim as one of them (!), was most stringent in his criticisms of special pleading about God’s goodness. He used strong language, possibly stronger than any I have ever used, about the idea of God’s goodness “above” or “different from” our best ideas of “good.” This from The Problem of Pain:


If God’s moral judgements differ from ours so that our “black” may be His “white”, we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say “God is good”, while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say “God is we know not what”. An utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying Him. If He is not (in our sense) “good” we shall obey, if at all, only through fear—and should be equally ready to obey an omnipotent Fiend. The doctrine of Total Depravity—when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of God is worth simply nothing—may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship.


I fear that many Calvinists have simply never faced up to this problem. Or, if they have, and continue to believe that God is good even though he decrees that some significant portion of humanity will go to hell (whether in an infralapsarian or supralapsarian way), they apparently define God’s “Godness” as sheer power to the detriment of goodness or love.

I ask the Calvinist “Why do you worship God?” The typical informed answer is “Because God is glorious.” “But what does ‘glorious’ mean?” I ask. Usually they either seem never to have considered that question or they respond “powerful” (or the same in other words). “But what makes power worshipful?” I ask again. Some will then revert to something like “God is the summum bonum and esse—the ultimate good and reality.” Then I ask “And how is he different from the devil other than he has more power and being?” The only answer is goodness. But what does “goodness” mean? Then it pops out: “Whatever God does is good just because God does it.” No help. Lewis’s objection is the only response.

My frequent, almost constant, experience has been that, under such questioning, most Calvinists eventually wither and either simply appeal to “mystery” or “paradox” (admitting they don’t know what “good” means other than “what God does”) or give up and adjust their Calvinism to the point of disappearance (as in so-called “evangelical Calvinism”). Or, in many cases, they ponder and then, after a time, admit they can no longer embrace Calvinism. The few that steadfastly remain classical, high Calvinists (i.e., “TULIP” Calvinists) usually admit that they really embrace divine voluntarism—that God has no eternal, governing, moral character but does whatever he chooses to do and that whatever he choose to do is good just because he does it. What they rarely, if ever, admit (but must admit if they are to believe coherently) is that, in that case, “God is good” is only a tautology and therefore meaningless.

I come back to my most basic question of all—to classical, high (i.e., “TULIP” Calvinists): How do you distinguish God from the devil except with degrees of power? And what if it turned out that God is the devil in disguise? Would you still worship him? I would not; I hope you would not. But therein lies the secret to why I have said that IF it were revealed to me in a way I could not doubt that God is as high, classical (i.e., “TULIP” Calvinism) claims I would not worship him. (I lose no sleep over this, by the way.) Because, in that case, there would really be no reason to worship God instead of the devil. In fact, as John Wesley famously said, in that case God would be worse than the devil because at least the devil is sincere!

Fortunately for Calvinists, few, very few, embrace Calvinism’s good and necessary consequences. They are mired in contradictions—“felicitous inconsistencies”—so that I can say they do not worship the devil. They are simply confused about God (thank God!).

Note: To those tempted to attempt to “turn the tables” and accuse me of being vulnerable to the same criticisms (of my Arminianism), this is not the place for it. The only basis for such criticism would be a misunderstanding of Arminianism (as I have explained here many times before). Divine foreknowledge is no more causative than human foreknowledge. In Arminianism God does not know the reprobate because he created them to be reprobate; he knows them to be reprobate only because they freely choose to be reprobate. His knowledge corresponds to their free choices; it does not render them certain. And their reprobation is no part of a divine plan according to which God creates such that he antecedently wills their reprobation. That is my answer, so don’t waste time crafting such a “tu quoque” response here. Besides, as any logician knows, “tu quoque” is a logical fallacy when used in defense of a position.

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