Book Review: The Problem of Pain

Problem of PainIn The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis sets out truths and speculations about why a wise, loving, kind, and omnipotent God would allow so much evil, suffering and pain in the world. It’s a question that troubles believers and unbelievers alike and one which was a major hindrance to Lewis’s own conversion.

Chapter 1, “Introductory,” traces three threads through human philosophy and development that lead to religion: an awe or dread of unseen beings, which Lewis calls the Numinous; a sense of some kind of morality; and the connection between the Numinous and morality. The Numinous is either “a mere twist in the human mind…or else it is a direct experience of the really supernatural, to which the name Revelation might properly be given” (p. 10). In Christianity there is one more thread: the historical event of the death and resurrection of Christ. Either Christ was “a raving lunatic of an unusually abominable type, or else He was, and is, precisely what He said. There is no middle way” (p. 13).

To ask whether the universe as we see it looks more like the work of a wise and good Creator or the work of chance, indifference, or malevolence, is to omit from the outset all the relevant factors in the religious problem. Christianity is not the conclusion of a philosophical debate on the origins of the universe: it is a catastrophic historical event following on the long spiritual preparation of humanity which I have described. It is not a system into which we have to fit the awkward fact of pain: it is itself one of the awkward facts which have to be fitted into any system we make. In a sense, it creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving (p. 14).

Mankind tends to think that “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both” (p. 16). Lewis spends the next couple of chapters talking about God’s omnipotence and goodness. Some pain is inherent in nature: fire warms when used rightly but burns when one gets too close to it. Some pain arises when individual beings assert their own wills which then clash with each other. God in His omnipotence could have made it impossible for people to sin against each other, but He made man with a free will and the ability to choose his actions.

You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to His power. If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it’, you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’. It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God (p. 18).

But “if the universe must, from the outset, admit the possibility of suffering, then” wouldn’t “absolute goodness…have left the universe uncreated”? Lewis “warn[s] the reader that I shall not attempt to prove that to create was better than not to create: I am aware of no human scales in which such a portentous question can be weighed” (p. 27). But he goes on to offer some thoughts about “how, perceiving a suffering world, and being assured, on quite different grounds, that God is good, we are to conceive that goodness and that suffering without contradiction” (p. 27).

What we mean by goodness is not always what true goodness actually is:

By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness – the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven – a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’. Not many people, I admit, would formulate a theology in precisely those terms: but a conception not very different lurks at the back of many minds. I do not claim to be an exception: I should very much like to live in a universe which was governed on such lines. But since it is abundantly clear that I don’t, and since I have reason to believe, nevertheless, that God is Love, I conclude that my conception of love needs correction (pp. 31-32).

Even humans don’t want friends and loved ones to continue in a course that makes them happy but is hurtful or destructive to themselves and others, so we can understand that Divine love, so much above ours, will need to correct, halt, or discipline individuals and attempt to bring them to repentance, which will involve some degree of pain.

“We are, not metaphorically but in very truth, a Divine work of art, something that God is making, and therefore something with which He will not be satisfied until it has a certain character.” As an artist erases and reworks a drawing until it becomes as perfect as possible, “One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumbnail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less” (pp. 34-35).

Similarly, when a man has a dog, “man interferes with the dog and makes it more lovable than it was in mere nature. In it’s state of nature it has a smell, and habit’s, which frustrate man’s love: he washes it, house-trains it, teaches it not to steal, and is so enabled to love it completely. To the puppy the whole proceeding would seem, if it were a theologian, to cast grave doubts on the ‘goodness’ of man: but the full-grown and full-trained dog, larger, healthier, and longer-lived than the wild dog, and admitted, as it were by Grace, to a whole world of affections, loyalties, interests, and comforts entirely beyond it’s animal destiny, would have no such doubts” (p. 36). Man cares for animals he loves: he “does not house-train the earwig or give baths to centipedes. We may wish, indeed, that we were of so little account to God that He left us alone to follow our natural impulses – that He would give over trying to train us into something so unlike our natural selves: but once again, we are asking not for more love, but for less” (p. 36).

The parent-child analogy is a closer one to spiritual truth than man and art or man and dog, but no loving father says, “I love my son but don’t care how great a blackguard he is provided he has a good time” (p. 37).

When we want to be something other than the thing God wants us to be, we must be wanting what, in fact, will not make us happy. Those Divine demands which sound to our natural ears most like those of a despot and least like those of a lover, in fact marshal us where we should want to go if we knew what we wanted. He demands our worship, our obedience, our prostration. Do we suppose that they can do Him any good, or fear, like the chorus in Milton, that human irreverence can bring about ‘His glory’s diminution’? A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell. But God wills our good, and our good is to love Him (with that responsive love proper to creatures) and to love Him we must know Him: and if we know Him, we shall in fact fall on our faces (p. 46).

Lewis then goes on to explain why mankind needs such alteration in the first place. He asserts this is necessary because in his time there was not so much a sense of sin as people would have had in the times when the Bible was written, against which the gospel appeared as very good news indeed. He gives various reasons for that to show that “Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis – in itself very bad news – before it can win a hearing for the cure” (p. 48) and then goes on to show how pervasive and deceptive sin is in our hearts.

It’s when he discusses how man became sinful in the first place in his chapter on the fall of man that I have my first serious problems. He regards the first few books of the Bible (at least, maybe more of it) as mythic. He believes in the evolutionary view of man’s development and as such believes that the “first man” could not have sinned as Adam did because he would not have had the intelligence, self-awareness, or conscience to, since he was what we commonly think of as a prehistoric cave man. At some point in man’s continued evolution, mankind as whole sinned against God by somehow preferring its own way rather than His, of somehow rejecting His reign, and thus the rest of human race was born in sin. He rejects the idea that we are responsible or accountable for or being punished for Adam’s sin. He has problems coming to terms with the statement that “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Now, I don’t believe that believing in evolution disqualifies a man from salvation or heaven, but I think taking a great deal of the Bible as mythic is not only wrong, but creates new problems. It makes more sense to me that since Adam sinned and was corrupted, every ancestor of his was also corrupted, and thus we are all born sinners, than to try to imagine that the sin of a group of people somehow plunged the entire human race ever after into sin. I think it is quite dangerous to take plain statements of Scripture as mythic and symbolic. I have X marks (which I sometimes put next to statements I disagree with in a book) and question marks all through this chapter and can’t take the time or space here to delineate them all. I do understand that Lewis was speaking from the intellectual viewpoint of his day. He’s not afraid to contradict prevailing viewpoints with Scriptural truth where he see it clearly, but I assume he must not have heard a convincing argument in regard to creation and a literal interpretation of Genesis. He comes out at the right place in the end: “that man, as a species, spoiled himself, and that good, to us in our present state, must therefore mean primarily a remedial or corrective good” (p. 85), but the way he gets there is convoluted.

The next two chapters on human pain are the best, in my opinion. Lewis proposes that about four-fifths of the pain in the world arises from our own sinfulness, our bent as people created with choice and free will to use that will to sin against others.

“We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved: we are, as Newman said, rebels who must lay down our arms” (p. 88).

But there are other kinds of pain that do not come directly from other people’s sins against us.

The first answer, then, to the question why our cure should be painful, is that to render back the will which we have so long claimed for our own, is in itself, wherever and however it is done, a grievous pain… to surrender a self-will inflamed and swollen with years of usurpation is a kind of death (p. 89).

Hence the necessity to die daily: however often we think we have broken the rebellious self we shall still find it alive. That this process cannot be without pain is sufficiently witnessed by the very history of the word ‘Mortification’ (p. 89).

The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it (p. 90).

If the first and lowest operation of pain shatters the illusion that all is well, the second shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us. Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us. We ‘have all we want’ is a terrible saying when ‘all’ does not include God. We find God an interruption. As St Augustine says somewhere, ‘God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full – there’s nowhere for Him to put it.’ Or as a friend of mine said, ‘We regard God as an airman regards his parachute; it’s there for emergencies but he hopes he’ll never have to use it.’ Now God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him. Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for. While what we call ‘our own life’ remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him. What then can God do in our interests but make ‘our own life’ less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible source of false happiness? It is just here, where God’s providence seems at first to be most cruel, that the Divine humility, the stooping down of the Highest, most deserves praise (p. 94).

God, who made these deserving people, may really be right when He thinks that their modest prosperity and the happiness of their children are not enough to make them blessed: that all this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched. And therefore He troubles them, warning them in advance of an insufficiency that one day they will have to discover. The life to themselves and their families stands between them and the recognition of their need; He makes that life less sweet to them. I call this a Divine humility because it is a poor thing to strike our colours to God when the ship is going down under us; a poor thing to come to Him as a last resort, to offer up ‘our own’ when it is no longer worth keeping. If God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him, and come to Him because there is ‘nothing better’ now to be had. The same humility is shown by all those Divine appeals to our fears which trouble high-minded readers of Scripture. It is hardly complimentary to God that we should choose Him as an alternative to Hell: yet even this He accepts. The creature’s illusion of self-sufficiency must, for the creature’s sake, be shattered; and by trouble or fear of trouble on earth, by crude fear of the eternal flames, God shatters it ‘unmindful of His glory’s diminution’ (pp 95-96).

Sometimes pain also serves as a reminder that this world is not all there is and isn’t meant to satisfy: when something painful happens – illness, bad news, etc. – “At first I am overwhelmed, and all my little happinesses look like broken toys. Then, slowly and reluctantly, bit by bit, I try to bring myself into the frame of mind that I should be in at all times. I remind myself that all these toys were never intended to possess my heart, that my true good is in another world and my only real treasure is Christ” (pp. 106-107). “Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home” (p. 116).

And though he doesn’t mention Romans 5:3-5 (“And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us”), he does discuss the principle that suffering develops these things in us.

Lewis said near the beginning that he was writing merely to explain the problem of pain, not to necessarily tell how to deal with it. Yet he does say, “If pain sometimes shatters the creature’s false self-sufficiency, yet in supreme ‘Trial’ or ‘Sacrifice’ it teaches him the self-sufficiency which really ought to be his – the ‘strength, which, if Heaven gave it, may be called his own’: for then, in the absence of all merely natural motives and supports, he acts in that strength, and that alone, which God confers upon him through his subjected will. Human will becomes truly creative and truly our own when it is wholly God’s, and this is one of the many senses in which he that loses his soul shall find it.”

He discusses the moral objection to hell in another chapter and makes several good points. I’ll just share this one:

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does (p. 130).

Lewis has a chapter on animal pain, which he confesses is primarily speculation since the Bible says nothing about what animals feel and they can’t tell us. But here is another place where his evolutionary thought comes in and contradicts clear Biblical truth. He says earlier generations felt that suffering of animals and all creation came about as a result of Adam’s fall. We get that from a few places, among them that Genesis 3:17-19, where God said told Adam: “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” So apparently before this time there were no thorns and thistles and it wasn’t hard work to get something to eat. Then in the millennial kingdom, when Christ rules the earth, it is prophesied in Isaiah 11 that in that time:

The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.

And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

So we assume from this that the harmful behaviors which shall no longer be were a part of the original fall and not part of animal’s original creation, since they are set right here. But Lewis says this “is now impossible, for we have good reason to believe that animals existed long before man. Carnivorousness, with all that it entails, is older than humanity (p. 137). I have an X by that statement as well as a few others in this chapter.

Even more alarming to me is his thought that “it might be argued that when He emptied Himself of His glory He also humbled Himself to share, as man, the current superstitions of His time. And I certainly think that Christ, in the flesh, was not omniscient – if only because a human brain could not, presumably, be the vehicle of omniscient consciousness, and to say that Our Lord’s thinking was not really conditioned by the size and shape of His brain might be to deny the real incarnation and become a Docetist. Thus, if Our Lord had committed Himself to any scientific or historical statement which we knew to be untrue, this would not disturb my faith in His deity” (p. 137). It would disturb mine, and I don’t believe for a moment that Christ believed “superstitions of His time”! There were multiple incidences of His displaying omniscience even while in human form. I just discussed this recently in a chapter from J. I. Packer’s book Knowing God in this post.

Lewis closes with a short chapter on pain which is mostly speculative but does include the theme present in The Last Battle in the Narnia series, that it’s the place we’ve been longing for our whole lives.

If you’ve read this far, you deserve a pat on the back. I am sorry this is so long, but when I write about a book, I want to convey not only a glimpse of what it is about to those reading, but I want to record the salient points as well as my own thoughts and impressions to remind myself of in the future.

I was a bit frustrated that Lewis didn’t go into more of the Biblical reasons for suffering, but then I reminded myself that it wasn’t his purpose to write such a treatise: he was merely wanting to address the problem of pain from a philosophical viewpoint couched mostly in Scripture. I remember reading somewhere which I can’t trace now that someone who read this book then approached Lewis about making the talks which eventually became Mere Christianity.

There are a lot of really good nuggets in this book. But there are enough questionable things that this would not be my first choice to recommend to someone on this topic. That would be When God Weeps by Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Estes. But I would still recommend this with caution about some of the problem areas.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

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9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Problem of Pain

  1. This was really interesting; I really need to read some more CS Lewis soon. We must think similarly, as often a thought would occur to me, only to have you raise the same issue in the next sentence 🙂 I found it interesting and a little disturbing reading about some of the beliefs Lewis had that seem contrary to scripture; then again, he’s only human and this is his perspective. Still, I always appreciate a thoughtful, “deep” look at issues. That seems to be mainly lacking today.

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  5. I really loved this book. I didn’t really have the problems with it that you had; I think Lewis understood the line between doctrine and speculation.

    It seems central to the way God operates to accept human limitations in order to make Himself comprehensible to humans, both in the Incarnation and in the process of inspiration. He would not embrace or affirm falsehoods. But it makes sense to me that he would have had to fight against deception in the same way we do when “in the flesh.” Whatever forms that battle took, he won.

    I admit that the phrase about God being mistakenly perceived as a nice old man who likes to see young people enjoying themselves crossed my mind during the Pope’s recent visit.

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