C.S. Lewis, the Moral Argument for God, and the Gospel

In the conclusion of his famous Critique of Practical Reason, Kant famously said, “two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence… the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” Years later, C.S. Lewis picks up this Kantian insight and formulates an argument for God based on the reality of a Moral Law.Lewis thinks that the evidence from the Moral Law to God is better than the evidence from the reality of the universe since “you find out more about God from the Moral Law than from the universe in general just as you find out more about a man by listening to his conversation than by looking at a house he has built.”[1] So, let’s look at the argument, found in the first five chapters of Mere Christianity, and summarized as follows:

1. There is a universal Moral Law.

2. If there is a universal Moral Law, there is a Moral Law-giver.

3. If there is a Moral Law-giver, it must be something beyond the universe.

4. Therefore, there is something beyond the universe.

In support of premise (1), Lewis argues that we all have within us the sense of right behavior and character. There is a sense of “oughtness” that presses upon us. He says, “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.”[2] Lewis calls this law of right behavior the Moral Law. We live in a moral universe—in addition to the physical facts (“this chair is brown”, “Gold is atomic number 79”), there are moral facts (“lying is wrong”, “bravery is a virtue”). We find in the universe “a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us.”[3] But if there is an objective Moral Law, and none of us made it, there must be something else that produced the Moral Law, a Moral Law-giver, hence premise (2).[4]

Still, the “Moral Law-giver” could just be something within the universe—maybe moral facts just supervene on physical facts, such as facts about society or facts about (purely material) human nature. If so, then the Moral Law-giver (“society” or “natural selection”) would not be something beyond the physical universe, hence the theological conclusion (4) could be avoided. So, what is Lewis’ argument in support of premise (3)?

Here, I find Lewis uncharacteristically opaque. Here is how Lewis argues, as far as I can tell (in Chapter 4 of Mere Christianity, “What Lies Behind The Law”): The Moral Law-giver is either part of the universe or something beyond. If it is part of the universe, we would be able to observe moral facts, and the reality or power behind moral facts, via scientific inquiry. We cannot learn of the Moral Law or the law-giver from scientific inquiry, hence the Moral Law-giver is “beyond” or “behind” the universe.

I say, why not argue instead as follows: If materialism is true, there are only physical facts. But there are not just physical facts, there are moral facts as well. Religion best explains the reality of moral facts (and not materialism), hence there is something beyond the universe. And this something is more like ‘mind’ than an impersonal (say) Platonic abstract object (the Form “goodness” or “beauty”). Hence, premise (3).

Lewis is careful to point out that the above argument is “not yet within a hundred miles of the God of Christian theology.”[5] All he has established is that there is something which is directing the universe, something that presses upon us a Moral Law.

But, if we live in a moral universe and there is something beyond the universe that is the source of morality—then, as Lewis says, we have reason to be uneasy. For the Moral Law is “hard as nails. It tells you to do the straight thing and it does not seem to care how painful, or dangerous, or difficult it is to do.”[6] And to make matters worse, “we know that if there does exist an absolute goodness in must hate most of what we do. This is the terrible fix we are in.”[7]

The reality of a power behind the moral law, a power that presses upon us and hates most of what we do is at once awe-inspiring and tragic. It is awe-inspiring to think that there is an absolute goodness, a power beyond the universe that presses itself within the universe. But, it is equally tragic for man—for we fall woefully short of the Moral Law everyday.

But this is the beginning of the gospel story. We must begin with man’s tragedy—that we are eight parts chicken, slob, devil—before we can understand the divine comedy of God becoming man, and the fairy story ending: that man can be forgiven for his sins and enjoy life, satisfaction, peace, and meaning with God. This is the gospel—tragedy, comedy, fairy story—and Lewis pointed out that one cannot understand the gospel until we understand this very terrifying fact—there is a Moral Law and we fall woefully short.

As Lewis states, “the Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort. But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in…dismay….if you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end: if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth—only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.”[8]







[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2001 edition), 29.

[2] Ibid.,  8.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] I do not consider here the possibility that moral facts are just brute. If Platonic atheism is true, perhaps they are, but I think Platonic atheism false, and have briefly addressed why in my post “Atheism and the unscratchable itch.”

[5] Ibid., 25.

[6] Ibid., 30.

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] Ibid., 32.

14 Responses to C.S. Lewis, the Moral Argument for God, and the Gospel

  1. Ed McIsaac says:

    Why is it that those who choose to delineate their morality outside of the bounds defined by Judeo/Christian ethics find it intolerable that this same loving God, who gave us His just laws, would send His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to redeem us from our transgression of these laws?

    • paul.gould@facultycommons.org says:

      Hello Ed–I agree–I think God’s pursuing love of us is amazing. God is the source of morality and we are rightly condemned. Yet, in his love and mercy, he provides a substitute in our place–this truly is good news! Blessings to you! warmly, Paul

  2. .
    If there is no God, (Moral Law)
    everything is permitted

  3. gary says:

    The views of modern society regarding religion, and specifically Christianity, are in a state of great flux. Beliefs that were once sacrosanct are now being called into question. Is the day soon coming when the majority of people in society will view “the Holy Bible” as immoral and evil?

    Imagine if your grade schooler brings home a few books from the school library with these titles:

    1. Giving the Death Sentence to People who eat Forbidden Fruit

    2. Drowning Millions of Children for the Crimes of their Parents

    3. How to Murder First Born Children in their Beds

    4. The Genocidal Annihilation of Evil Foreign Peoples is Justifiable

    You would be horrified that your local school would allow such books in a library for children, wouldn’t you? But yet fundamentalist Christians would love to have the Holy Bible in the same library and would not bat an eye at the bloody, barbaric violence and twisted justifications for that violence and immoral behavior contained therein.

    “Oh but that was in another Era of time. It is a mystery why it was necessary for God to do these shocking acts, but we must simply accept by faith that God had good, moral reasons for his actions in the Old Testament.”

    Ok…so we will sweep all that barbaric behavior under the rug because Jesus has changed everything. All that bloody violence is no longer necessary because Jesus has ushered in the Era of Grace. We now are to love our neighbor as ourselves…not slaughter him in righteous anger.

    But there is one little problem: Slavery.

    I don’t see how putting shackles around the neck, ankles, and wrists of your neighbor and calling him your property is in any way, shape, or form “loving your neighbor as yourself”. And I also don’t see why a loving, just, Jesus would not have condemned this evil institution, which he did not, nor why the Apostle Paul would condone it, which he very much did.

    Any book that condones slavery is evil and should not be in any school library…nor on your child’s nightstand.


    • paul.gould@facultycommons.org says:

      Hello Gary,

      Thanks for your reply to this post. I think that you are right that there are a number of issues that the Christian must address against the charge made by Sam Harris and others that the God of the OT is a moral monster of some kind. I recommend as a good place to start, the two books I recommend in this post. In order for us to properly assess these problem passages, it is good to understand what is going on in their historical context. I’ve found the books by Copan and Lamb to be a good place to start. For what it is worth, the argument made by Lewis in Mere Christianity is supported by your claim that things like Slavery are wrong (I agree). For if there is objective morality, we are left with the conclusion that there must be a moral law-giver as the most reasonable explanation for moral facts.

      • Jonathan says:

        To Gary,

        It is important not to judge stories of facts only on the surface or one dimensionally. You have to go deep into the text and facts. The very reason you have a sense of why those things are wrong actually come from the same book. And, for one thing, Adam brought death, not God. God just brought forth the standard of it for disobedience. Because of rules. Without it which the Universe itself could not function. But, He also provided a Way for Life By Jesus! Also, the killing of certain women and children was only a brief moment in history and for justifiable purposes only God knew. Like the children growing up to be bad. But, any other time, God said spare women and children. Or the men who repents and wants to join them, Israel at the time. Also, the term Slavery as many negative aspects to the word because of its use throughout time. But, there is probably a better word in english like a servant or butler that could have been used in the english. And, it in no way condoned slavery in how it is throughout recent history! Not even close. The only time it condoned maybe hitting them is when they did something really wrong. Which was the same punishment for everybody else in Israel, not just Butlers and Servants. And, those Servants were ONLY to be servants for the reasons thereof like if they had to pay off debt or they needed shelter! Not for no other reasons. And they were to be treated with Dignity and Respect as Human Beings! Unlike the “Slavery” that is throughout recent history and history outside of Israel. So the correct term in a nutshell was a worker in scriptural context.

        • Jonathan says:

          And, also, no where does it say they drowned children in the bible. So again. The Bible and even most things written, you have to go deeper than the text before making such interpretations. thank you. God Bless!

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  8. Augey Blitzer says:

    Boiler up

  9. gary says:

    Consider this insight, Paul, from a former Christian missionary to Africa:

    In Western society we have two primary competing claims for the origin and basis of Morality: naturalist evolution and scriptural theism. …Each individual must weigh for herself which alternative holds the most merit.

    On the one hand, naturalism holds that in a world where survival is contingent on both competition and social cooperation, there is bound to be a conflict between self-serving impulses (evil, from a societal standpoint) and group-serving impulses (good, from a societal standpoint).

    On the other hand, Christian theism holds that an omniscient god creates a perfect human couple (knowing they will be tempted to sin by a talking serpent), then wipes out nearly the whole of the human race in the time of Noah (knowing in advance they would all turn evil), then, with his foreknowledge, ultimately consigns the majority of the human race to an endless torment in hell (while asking us to turn the other cheek against our own enemies), requiring the murder of his own son to redeem the minority of humanity that recognizes and accepts this Grand Plan.

    —Kenneth W. Daniels, former evangelical Christian missionary in his book, “Why I Believed”

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