C.S. Lewis on Total Depravity

I picked up a copy of The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis tonight, and found a part that I’d read a few weeks ago, and was surprised by. Specifically, it’s where Lewis says this:

Any consideration of the goodness of God at once threatens us with the following dilemma.
On the one hand, if God is wiser than we His judgment must differ from ours on many things, and not least on good and evil. What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil.
On the other hand, if God’s moral judgment differs 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.’ And 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 – where the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing – may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil-worship.

What has drawn me back to this point is simply how strongly he makes his case. Lewis was generally careful to avoid overstating a point, and he tended to understate his point more often than the converse. In all of his writing, he chooses his words carefully. And more than perhaps any other Christian writer since the Reformation, his public writings have bridged denominational bounds without sacrificing orthodoxy. Yet here, in a book intended for publication, he calls the doctrine of total depravity potential “devil worship.” It seems to me that when an author as irenic and as respected as C. S. Lewis makes such a bold claim, it seems to warrant an answer, or at least, discussion.

That said, there’s not anything which I feel I can add of worth to the discussion. Personally, I find Lewis’ particular formulation of this argument completely compelling.* It’s devoid of argument from emotion – no “how could a loving God do that?” In its stead, he poses the simple thesis that if we are so depraved we can’t know what goodness is, we have no way of saying that God is morally superior to the devil: only that we prefer Him, or that He is more powerful.

Lewis explains further in the chapter (it’s chapter 3, by the way) that the proper solution to this is that the difference between God’s understanding of good and evil and our own is a difference of degree and not of kind. An analogy which helped me was this: a calculator is far better at addition and subtraction than a child working alone. There may even be times when the child fails to understand how the calculator is right and his is wrong. But at base, what the child is doing is simply an imperfect form of what the calculator does perfectly. The calculator, for this child, is a helpful guide, and a ready source of necessary correction. On the other hand, if what the boy called addition the calculator called multiplication, or vice versa, the difference would not be one of the calculator performing a task better than the boy, but of the two performing different tasks, but calling it by the same name. The child would not even be able to say that the calculator was better at addition than he was — only that the calculator was doing something too far beyond his grasp to understand. The first example is a difference of degree, the second is a difference of kind.

As recent technology, like HD and Blu-Ray, has evolved, what we once thought of as “crystal clear TV” has revolutionized. What once looked crisp and white now looks faded and dulled by comparison. That’s how even the greatest of saints will look by the Perfect Goodness of God. But this isn’t because what we think of as good is really evil, but because sin taints. But this notion of tainting is the difference between a red stain on a white shirt, and a red shirt. Again, a difference of degree v. kind.

Perhaps put more succinctly. God, being Perfect, will surpass our understanding of the Good; but if He instead is wholly distinct from our understanding of the Good, then He’s not “Good” within any human meaning of that term. So to say we worship God because He is Good becomes misleading. Rather, we worship God because He says He is good. But from 2 Corinthians 11:14, we know that Satan mimics God’s goodness, even masquerading as an angel of light.

So if both God and the devil say that they’re Good (even Perfect, and worthy of emulating), and we’re too depraved to have any accurate sense of right and wrong, we have no way to evaluate their claims. By what standard then can we say that God is truly perfect Goodness, while the devil is merely aping that goodness in a fatal deception? Lewis concludes that we’re left with merely worshipping God because He is more powerful, and that it could just as well have been the devil had he had held the upper hand.

What’s more, and this goes beyond Lewis’ argument, is if we worship God and obey Him only because we fear His power, and because we think He’s going to triumph, we’re not really moral. We’re simply opportunists. We’re simply siding with the side we suspect is the winning team: there’s nothing morally redeemable about making that choice for that reason.

Anyways, I don’t intend for this to be the last word on the subject, but hopefully, this can spark some dialogue on the issue. I’m interested in what anyone else has to say on the subject.

*I am, perhaps, not Lewis’ target audience for such an argument, as I have no particular inclinations towards total depravity as he has articulated it. I should note as well that within Calvinism, the term “total depravity” has much more flexibility than most people let on. For some, it means exactly what Lewis has identified – this is, I understand, the historical usage; for others, it seems to mean no more than “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), a sentiment with which all Christians would (or should) readily accede.


  1. Let me first start out by asking – Where in the world do you ever get the TIME to continue posting such discourses here?!!! LOL Yours has got to be the most patient and thought-out expository of continuous apologetics I’ve seen on a blog! LOL Unbelievable the amount of writing you post here… you do a great service.

    Now, sort of to your question. I’m not really sure what your question is! I’m no apologist and am usually hesitant to comment here as I can’t compare to your splendid resourcefulness. But… I have read a lot of C S Lewis and I think that the key to absorbing him as a writer is that he does a lot of thinking out loud, despite his apparent care in his words. I liken him a bit to Pascal where much of his writing is more beautiful in its prose than helpful in its true conclusions. I’m most assuredly no match to his intellect but I think it’s safe to say that he tried to provide sure answers to questions of faith that even he was still unsure of. (After all, all of his “Catholic” ways of thinking never led him to the Church, and yes I understand his Ulster loyalty even as Anglicanism began to crumble but it’s no excuse.) His words are beautiful and poetic and soothing even when they are disturbing.

    Proof of God’s goodness begins in our very creation and culminates in our salvation. I don’t understand any other way around that except in the possible case that someone is not questioning the goodness of God but rather in the goodness (or even the existence) of ANY God. That’s a different matter. In which case, I refer as last resort again back to Pascal and his “wager”.

    If none of this makes any sense to the question you ask, I blame it on early morning drowsiness…

  2. I think there are a few assumptions implicit in Lewis’ argument there that are worth pointing out.

    The structure of this argument, as far as I can loosely syllogize, is that (according to Total Depravity), It is impossible to define that which one does not know; it is impossible to judge that which one cannot define; Man neither knows nor does good; therefore, he cannot judge God’s claim to be good.

    Leaving the major premises alone, it is in fact NOT the historic position of the Reformed churches to say that man does not know what is good. In fact, it is largely the opposite. Writings from the Canons of Dordt (where TULIP comes from)to the Institutes recognize that there is a light of nature still alive in man such that he knows what he should do. The point of Total Depravity is that man does not do that thing. To take the list used by Dordt “born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin.” That is, born under original sin, completely incapable of saving themselves, in fact inclined to do the opposite of good, numb to or even ignorant of this predilection, and, further, enslaved to sin as if by addiction.

    An inability to do saving good and an inclination to do quite the opposite do not logically require a lack of knowledge of what good is at all.

    Granted, to make my syllogism, I went with what I believe Lewis was using as his premise for the “consequence” that he draws. He may have gotten the idea that we do not know good from the idea that we are dead in sin or that we cannot save ourselves, but to draw from this a conclusion that man does not even know good is to start with an anthropological assumption that man, knowing both good an evil, would choose good.

    Further, even if all of the above were not true, the conclusion that our idea of good is worthless does not necessitate the conclusion that we cannot see God’s goodness. For one, there is the idea that our idea of what should be judged good about us is often prejudiced by our personal stake in the matter and therefore of little objective value. Further, even societal conceptions can fall woefully short. What value is there in a conclusion that cannibalism (or, more relevant today, abortion) is good? Does that make it so?

    Beyond all of this, Reformed theology does not hold that saved people (ie. those who would be hypothetically worshiping God based on fear alone) remain in this unregenerate state. Instead, salvation entails regeneration and a full recognition of what is good, right, and true along with a love of those things which is born out in behavior. This does not mean that it’s perfect, but the fact would be that even under all of the previous statements about Total Depravity, it simply would not apply in the case of those who are now “devil-worshipers.”

    That all being said, Lewis’ conclusion concerning degree and kind is very good and indeed quite helpful. However, even it has its limits. We are right to say that God’s goodness exceeds our understanding of it (without invalidating its goodness), but it is equally true that our understanding of good and evil is also imperfect. Due to the degree of difference in our understanding, we are happy with a much larger gray area than God permits. While we may not define sin as good (although we certainly can), we essentially round off much sooner than God would. Using your calculator example, we would be like an abacus that only works in whole numbers while God would be a supercomputer capable of calculations to the Nth decimal point. Yeah, they’re doing the same thing, but they may come to different answers. (Leaving aside the fact that multiplication IS in fact a form of addition)

    Have to run to class… hope that helps

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