C.S. Lewis”: God’s Sovereignty vs Human Free-Will

One of the most perplexing theological dilemmas for me is the tension created between God’s sovereignty and human free-will. And on some level, it seems that most of our theological debates at least hint at this ever present tension. For me as a pastor, it is the underlying question in nearly every pastoral care issue. When faced with human crisis, God’s sovereignty is called into question. While Lewis may not offer us a solution to this dilemma created by the proposition of God’s sovereignty vs. human free-will, he does offer us some interesting points to ponder.

In Lewis’ conversion story, he would seem to suggest that his experience of conversion was anything but a free choice. He says that he was converted "kicking and screaming" (Surprised 229). From the human perspective, with all of the logical deductions that led Lewis to accept Christianity, it might seem like he made a “choice”. But when he uses language that makes it sound like he was simply overcome by a more powerful force, it leads me to wonder just how much of a “choice” he actually had. He said, “All over the board my pieces were in the most disadvantageous positions. . . . [Then] my Adversary began to make His final moves” (Surprised 216). In the conversion process, the only intelligent option for Lewis was to submit. He could argue or run, but the reality was that he was, as he described, in checkmate. It is interesting here for me to imagine two people actually playing chess. When a person is in checkmate, there are no more moves left. The only option is to reach out and topple your own king. I guess you could upset the entire board, and just refuse to play, but if Lewis, with a mind like his, did that, would he still be C.S. Lewis? I don’t think so. It was his only logical choice. So is that really a choice?

Lewis in no uncertain terms affirms his belief in human free-will. But is that free-will limited to moral choices only and not extended to that choice of choices, the choice to accept or reject God? He said in Mere Christianity that…

“God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go either wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong; I cannot. If a thing is free to be good it is also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata-of creatures that worked like machines-would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is that happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other…And for that they must be free” (Mere, 47-48).

Much of the preceding quote seems to deal with moral choices, or the choice between good and bad, but the phrase “voluntarily united to Him” in the last sentence leads me to believe that Lewis did in fact extend human free-will to the process of salvation. And so, I think that Lewis would agree that any salvation worth having would be only salvation freely chosen, and for that, humans “must be free.” Just when I think I have Lewis figured out, I come across a statement like this from Mere Christianity: “Every faculty you have, your power of thinking or of moving your limbs from moment to moment, is given you by God” (Mere, 143). So, if this is true, then why couldn’t God give the gift of belief to every human being? If all of our being is a gift from God, it would seem that a loving God would want each of God’s creatures to experience the ultimate joy – being joined eternally with God. But that would then render the ultimate joy “not worth having” because it had not been chosen freely. Maybe it is just a question that cannot be answered by our limited human understanding. Lewis said that, “In God you come up against something which is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself” (Mere, 124). In Lewis’ works, I see revealed this tension that we as Christians live within, that is God’s sovereignty vs. human free-will.

Maybe the question is being framed in the wrong way. Maybe it is not God’s sovereignty vs. human free-will, but God’s sovereignty and human free-will. Maybe in some way that only God can comprehend, it is a both/and condition and not either/or. To us as humans this may seem impossible. Lewis may have even referred to this as “nonsense”, but I am beginning to think that there is no other alternative. Lewis said that [God’s] “omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense” (Problem, 18). While I agree with Lewis’ basic premise, I think it is important to remember that what seems to us like “nonsense”, may be nothing other than the unfathomable depths of God which are beyond human comprehension. The Trinity on one hand seems like “nonsense” – one God, three persons; three equals one; one equals three; unity in diversity. It makes no sense yet we affirm it as one of the basic tenets of the Christian faith. To say that any being, even God, is above or outside time seems, from the human perspective, to be utter “nonsense”, but we accept it as a valid theory within the realm of orthodoxy.

Would Lewis see it the way I do, or would he place himself more firmly in one camp or the other?. Maybe this question has more to do with God’s underlying purpose in creating humans. Lewis, I think, sees God as intimately involved in the maintenance of creation. It becomes obvious then that an understanding of God’s sovereignty vs. human free-will is incomplete without an understanding of God’s creative intention. God is much more than a creator of all, but also the everlasting preserver and sustainer of all. Many Christians assert that in/among God’s creation there is nothing that happens by chance, fortune, or fate. You commonly hear people, even people who fully affirm the free-will of humanity, say something like, “all things happen for a reason”, appealing to God’s sovereignty as a way to explain the way things happen or the way things are. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, said…

“I am going to submit that not even Omnipotence could create a society of free souls without at the same time creating a relatively independent and ‘inexorable’ nature… The freedom of a creature must mean freedom to choose: and choice implies the existence of things to choose between” (Problem, 19-20).

People seem to recognize that there are instruments/creatures of God that act according to their nature, good or bad, but only as God empowers them to do so. But if this nature is truly independent, then it woul
d only seem logical that we would have to admit that maybe there are things that do not happen for a reason. If we see God as active in God’s creation and not merely directing or influencing outcomes by establishing universal laws that govern it, does that involvement override the free-will of God’s creatures?

Even after reading Lewis, I am no closer to answers to these questions, and honestly, the questions actually become much more difficult to answer. It is an age-old dilema that Lewis seems to struggle with as much as I do. So maybe in the end, it is all just a bunch of “nonsense”.