My Apologies

Can Trees be “Good” or “Evil”? | Mere Christianity Ep. 5

August 02, 2023 Stephen Cramm Episode 5
Can Trees be “Good” or “Evil”? | Mere Christianity Ep. 5
My Apologies
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My Apologies
Can Trees be “Good” or “Evil”? | Mere Christianity Ep. 5
Aug 02, 2023 Episode 5
Stephen Cramm

We all know that a human can be good or evil but what about a tree or a rock? I might say that you have a 'good' car, but does that mean the same thing as saying you're a 'good' man? 

Today we'll find out all this and more in this episode of our Mere Christianity series!


To support and join our community sign up on Locals:

Connect with us on Twitter:

Richard Phillips on Original Sin: 

Sam Storms on Common Grace: 

Letter of Clement Online: 

Support the Show.

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

We all know that a human can be good or evil but what about a tree or a rock? I might say that you have a 'good' car, but does that mean the same thing as saying you're a 'good' man? 

Today we'll find out all this and more in this episode of our Mere Christianity series!


To support and join our community sign up on Locals:

Connect with us on Twitter:

Richard Phillips on Original Sin: 

Sam Storms on Common Grace: 

Letter of Clement Online: 

Support the Show.


My name is Stephen and welcome to My Apologies! 

An apology doesn’t just mean saying that you’re sorry; an apology can also mean giving a reason for something you believe.  For example, if I ask you: “Why do you believe that In-n-Out is the best fast food restaurant?” I’m asking for an apology. On this channel we will examine various apologies for living a life of faith and virtue! And if I say something that offends you… my apologies. 

Intro to the Topic:

Today we’re answering the question: “Can a tree be good or evil?” and along with it the question, “what does it mean to be “good” in general?”  First we’ll look at goodness in inanimate objects like trees and rocks and motorcycles, and we’ll compare them with living things things like dogs or mice or humans.  Second we’ll talk about what the bible means when it says, “No one is Good” what does that mean? And finally we’ll answer the question, “why should we be good?”

We’ve got a lot of ground to cover today so let’s get started!

Point 1: A Good Inanimate Object

In Mere Christianity Book 1 chapter 3, Lewis starts talking about stones and trees.  It may seem random at first, but he’s using them as examples to draw a distinction between saying a tree is good and saying a human is good.  

He writes, “If you take a thing like a stone or a tree, it is what it is and there seems no sense in saying it ought to have been otherwise. Of course you may say a stone is ‘the wrong shape’ if you want to use it for a rockery, or that a tree is a bad tree because it does not give you as much shade as you expected.  But all you mean is that the stone or the tree does not happen to be convenient for some purpose of your own.  You are not, except as a joke, blaming them for that.”

If you call a stone good or bad, you are referring to its usefulness or lack of usefulness.  You aren’t saying that the stone is morally bad, or bad in some ultimate sense - and why is that? Because it has only been shaped by nature and nature’s laws.  It had no choice in the matter!  Given the circumstances, it could not have been otherwise.  Therefore, really by bad you mean: not useful, or inconvenient.  

It’s almost like when you are walking through your home at night and you catch just your pinky toe on the coffee table - is there any worse pain in the world?? If you’re anything like me, you’ll grasp hold of your foot (as if that does anything), jump up and down, and say something like, “Stupid table” or perhaps some other choice words.  What you don’t mean is that the table is stupid & that it should have known better than to get in your way.  What you mean is that the coffee table existing exactly where you put it is now an inconvenience to you.  

To give an example of a good object rather than a bad one: I used to camp a lot when I was a kid.  My family valued camping and when I got a little older I was in the Boy Scouts of America, so I had a lot of experience in the great outdoors.  When I was tromping through the woods with friends, I would regularly be searching for what I would call a ‘good’ stick.  What I didn’t mean was a stick that had made good life decisions, or a stick that was going to be kind to me in some way.  What I meant was a stick that looked and felt approximately like a sword because that’s the game we were playing! If we were going to run around the woods and pretend we were great medieval warriors, I needed a sword to swing at the imaginary villain or to use to slay the dragon - I was looking for a stick that was useful to me.

Lewis explains, “What we, from our point of view, call a ‘bad’ tree is obeying the laws of its nature [the laws that shaped it] just as much as a ‘good’ one.”  In other words, whether or not you decide that a stick is “good” or “bad” is simply a matter of taste - the tree you are looking at has perfectly obeyed the laws of nature that applied to it.  If it has ample shade to rest under, that was the result of laws of nature making it grow big and strong.  If it is a scrawny little thing like you might find in a desert, that too is the result of it perfectly obeying the laws of nature.  A tree cannot disobey these laws and be bad in that sense - it can only be good or bad based on how useful you find it to be.

Point 2:  People being Good or Bad

Lewis continues by saying, “When you say that falling stones always obey the law of gravitation, is not this much the same as saying that the law only means ‘what stones always do’? You do not really think that when a stone is let go, it suddenly remembers that iit is under orders to fall to the ground.  You only mean that, in fact, it does fall.  The laws of nature, as applied to stones or trees, may only mean ‘what Nature does’”

In other words, what Lewis is observing is that when we see a stone fall to the ground we may call this the Law of Gravity but that law is just a description of what always happens.  The Law of Gravity means that objects will always fall toward the earth.  It is not a Law in the sense that it defines what a rock should do like traffic laws for example.  Traffic laws define who should turn red and how fast you can go, but they can be disobeyed.  The Law of Gravity isn’t like that - It doesn’t describe what a rock should do, it describes what a rock will do.  We’re not in some sort of cartoon Wile E Coyote world where rocks just hover in midair long enough for the road runner to pass safely underneath before it decides to fall.  The Laws of Nature that apply to inanimate objects must be obeyed - trees have no choice in the matter.

“But,” Lewis says, “if you turn to the Law of Human Nature, it is a different matter.  That law certainly doesn’t mean ‘what human beings, in fact, do;’ for as I said before, many of them do not obey this law at all, and none of them obey it completely.” And then he says, “in other words, when you are dealing with humans, something else comes in above and beyond the actual facts.  You have the facts (how men do behave) and you also have something else (how they ought to behave).”  

For inanimate objects - the laws of nature acting upon them is simply a way to describe what they do.  But for human beings, there is a difference between how they do behave and how they should behave.

So Lewis says we might be tempted to think that human goodness might just be like tree goodness - simply a manner of personal convenience.  But then he describes several situations where this is not the case - specifically the example of being tripped up helped me understand.  You would blame a person for trying to trip you even if he doesn’t succeed.  But you wouldn’t blame a person who tripped you on accident because they didn’t mean to.  The person here who actually hurt you, is not the one you get mad at!  If goodness in humans was just a manner of convenience, this wouldn’t be the case.

So from this we learn that are two distinct ways in which the word “Good” that can be used

  1. Good - we could say really just means useful (this applies to inanimate objects)
  2. Good - we could say means morally upright (this applies to people, and perhaps to a degree you could also apply this to other living beings)

The reason I say this is a bit of a side note, but one that is related and that I find incredibly interesting! Lewis has a section in Book 2 Chapter 3 where he is talking about free will and the reason that evil exists (there’s a little sneak peek into future topics)  But anyway, as part of this discussion he says, “ The better stuff - continue to the end of the paragraph”

Isn’t that cool? I don’t know if you agree or not, but I found this to be a fascinating observation!  Take for example, a slug - this sort of being has such a low capacity, made of such low quality stuff as Lewis might say, that it is hardly more capable of being morally good than a pebble.  But now consider a dog - you could have a good dog or you could have a bad dog - and by that you don’t just mean that the animal is convenient or not, but that there is the actual capacity for goodness or cruelty within the animal.  You have dogs that grow in friendships with their owners and even save them from peril at their own risk.  But on the other end you have dogs that can be quite cruel - harming or mutilating others.  Then humans, of course, have a great capacity for both good and evil as can be seen across the span of history.  Finally he takes it a step even further to superhuman spirits like angels - or Satan for that matter - who have an even greater capacity for good or evil than we do perhaps.  

Point 3:  There is no one good

But if you’re a Christian you may have alarm bells ringing in your mind at this point - you may ask, “What about those bible verses that seem to say humans can’t be good?”  Well, let’s look at them - first we have Romans 3:10-12 which says “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”” and then we have Mark 10:18 in which Jesus says, “No one is good—except God alone.”  These seem pretty stark and explicit that no one can do good!

What these verses point to is a doctrine which is called “Original Sin.”  Reading from a gospel coalition article by Richard Phillips on the topic:  “Original Sin is a term that defines the nature of mankind’s sinful condition because of Adam’s fall. It teaches that all people are corrupted by Adam’s sin through natural generation, by which—together with Adam’s imputed condemnation—we all enter the world guilty before God. Original Sin shows that we sin because we are sinners, entering this world with a corrupt nature and without hope apart from the saving grace of God in the gospel.”  

Essentially we enter the world as broken creatures.  My first son is about to be born, any day now actually.  My wife and I are getting everything ready and trying to mentally prep for a frantic drive to the hospital.  And when he comes, I recognize that he is not a perfect little angel - and I’m not just talking about how babies scream and cry and poop.  I mean from infancy our hearts are NOT inclined to love God - we want our own way.  This has been the case for every human born from Adam - which is to say every human.  We enter the world with a corrupt nature and without hope apart from the saving grace of God.  This is what these verses point to - “there is no one who does good” and “no one is good but God.”

We are not Good like God is good because he is goodness itself.  God isn’t good as a description - it’s not just that we see how God acts and we call him good for that reason - he is good in his essence - like the same way you might say I am human, it’s not just the way I act or a character trait I have, it’s who I am - essential to my very being.  This has been a tough concept for me to wrap my brain around so I’ve got an analogy for us to chew on a bit:

And I’m warning you - this is going to be silly - SILLY WARNING - some people may not appreciate this for a variety of reasons, but here we go:  are you a Swiftie? Do you know any major Swifties?  If you don’t know, a Swifty is a person who is a major fan of the famous singer Taylor Swift.  They tend to know the lyrics to all of her songs, they follow her on social media, and they know all kind of creepy trivia about her - more than any human being should know about another human that they don’t actually know (think about that).  You can tell how big of a Swiftie someone is by how much they know about Taylor Swift and how much Taylor has impacted their life.  Their Swiftieness is derived from Taylor Swift.  Taylor Swift is the essence of Swiftieness - no one else can be her as much as they may want to.  But you can learn about her and emulate her - and thus be Swiftie.

I told you it was going to be silly - but when I say that Taylor Swift is the essence of Swiftieness because it literally is who she is, that’s like what we mean when we say that God is good.  All goodness flows from him and is derived from him.  I’m sure you can break this analogy down in a ton of ways, but hopefully that’s fun and helpful at the same time.  

If I have committed heresy with that example, either toward the God of the Bible or the secular diety of pop herself, well I started a Locals page and I’ll put the link in the description so you can sign up and rebuke me there - please do actually.

So back to the point, if we all have this original sin, can anyone be good then? The answer, of course, is yes.  We all know from our own personal experience that people can do good things.  This is due to what some theologians call “common grace.” A great explanation of this comes from Sam Storms (who has the perfect name for a weatherman incidentally) but is instead the pastor of Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City.  He explains “Common grace, as an expression of the goodness of God, is every favor, falling short of salvation, which this undeserving and sin-cursed world enjoys at the hand of God; this includes the delay of wrath, the mitigation of our sin-natures, natural events that lead to prosperity, and all gifts that human use and enjoy naturally.”  

This common grace includes all the gifts God gives to us excluding salvation - all the little joys in life, the beauty of nature, and the Moral Law by which we are able to discern to some extent that which is good and that which is evil.

In the book of Romans chapter 2 Paul says: “When Gentiles [ meaning non believers ] who don’t have the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts.”  

This is a reference to the Moral Law that we’ve been talking about in the past few episodes.  Paul, the apostle, is admitting that even non-believers can follow the moral law because it is written on their hearts - given to them by Common Grace.  Not that they can merit salvation by their moral actions, nor can they follow it perfectly of course, no one can, but they can do moral actions because the Moral Law is observable within all of us - written on our hearts as Paul says.  So cool!

Point 4:  Why should we be good?

But if you remember from our introduction, we have one more question to cover today,  “Why should we be good?”  If you’re a Christian, you hopefully know that the bible says we can be forgiven for our sins, but at the same time we should stop sinning.  Well, if we can be forgiven, why should we be good? What’s the point?

Well, there are two answers to this that come from the very earliest years of the church.  One answer is from Paul’s letter to the Romans - the other answer is from a church leader from the first century in Rome named Clement - he would have been leading the church not too long after Peter and Paul died.

First let’s look at Scripture - the book of Romans Chapter 6 In it, Paul says “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!”  Paul is asking, since we are saved by the grace of God apart from our own merit, why would we try to act good? The more we sin, the more God’s grace covers it right? He continues:  “We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

His answer to why we should act morally is simply that we are new people now!  In the baptism we have as believers we are buried with Chrisit - the old sinful stain we inherited from Adam is dead in baptism and we are made new!  If we’re a new kind of human we should act like it!  Now, this is a good answer, obviously it’s got to be good, it’s in the Bible, and it’s one which I would suggest you actually meditate on more after you finish listening to this podcast.  But I recently found this second answer from Clement that actually gave me a lot of joy when I read it, so I wanted to share that with you:

Clement was, as I said, the bishop of Rome from 88 AD to 99 AD.  He wrote this letter to the church at Corinth because Paul’s two letters wasn’t enough and they needed some more rebuking.  For real.. Anyway, in the 33rd Chapter, Clement writes something that is very similar to what Paul writes in Romans, but he takes it a slightly different direction.  He writes, “What shall we do, then, brothers? Shall we become slothful in well-doing, and cease from the practice of love? God forbid that any such course should be followed by us! But rather let us hasten with all energy and readiness of mind to perform every good work.”  This is basically the same question that Paul asked! Why should we carry on doing good works?  I’ll warn you that this is a bit of a long quote, but stick with me here and I promise that it’s worth it.

He answers the question, “For the Creator and Lord of all Himself rejoices in His works. For by His infinitely great power He established the heavens, and by His incomprehensible wisdom He adorned them. He also divided the earth from the water which surrounds it, and fixed it upon the immoveable foundation of His own will. The animals also which are upon it He commanded by His own word into existence. So likewise, when He had formed the sea, and the living creatures which are in it, He enclosed them [within their proper bounds] by His own power. Above all, with His holy and undefiled hands He formed man, the most excellent [of His creatures], and truly great through the understanding given him -- the express likeness of His own image. For thus says God: "Let us make man in Our image, and after Our likeness. So God made man; male and female He created them." Having thus finished all these things, He approved them, and blessed them, and said, "Increase and multiply." We see, then, how all righteous men have been adorned with good works, and how the Lord Himself, adorning Himself with His works, rejoiced. Having therefore such an example, let us without delay agree to His will, and let us work the work of righteousness with our whole strength.”

Clement explains in beautiful detail how God rejoices in His own works.  He paints the mental image of God as a master craftsman, forming all of creation into a glorious stage and then finally creating humanity to bless and display His image and likeness.  This is why we should do our own good works - because we have so great an example to follow!  Why should we pursue goodness and right action - because we want to be like our father.  We want, as little children, to be like our dad.

Man that really hits me.  I've been reflecting on this a lot lately.  Maybe it’s because I’m about to become a Dad that this hits different for me right now, but I’m planning on continuing to spend time meditating on this.  I want to encourage you to join in with me! Open up Romans 6 or look at Clement chapter 33 (link in the show notes). Read over these passages and let what they say sink in.

I mentioned it earlier in this episode, that I’ve started a Locals page which is basically an online community. It is totally free to join, but you can also elect to support this podcast if you’d like to.  I’ll be there so if you decide to meditate on these passages during your time with the Lord, or if you find them impactful yourself I’d love to hear from you.

Closing Statements:

To wrap up today, let’s look back at what we talked about.  We’ve looked at trees, we’ve looked at humans, and we’ve looked at those verses that say ‘no one is good.” Finally we examined a few reasons why we should be good as Christians saved by Grace.

If you enjoyed this episode and you haven’t subscribed yet, please consider doing so! Share this episode with a friend and leave a five star review - I know it’s just a couple of clicks for you but it makes a huge difference for us by helping us get the word out.

Until next time, my name is Stephen Cramm, and this is My Apologies.

The Good Tree
Are People Any Different?
How Evil Can a Cow Be?
"No One Does Good" - is this true?
Common Grace
Why SHOULD We Be Good?
St. Paul's Response
St. Clement's Response
Encouragement to Meditate