A review and summary of The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.)
The Problem of Pain in a nutshell: If you have a proper understanding of God and a proper understanding of humanity, pain is less problematic.
The slightly longer version:
The classic “problem of evil” is usually stated:
“‘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.’” (16)Lewis answers by showing that those who say this do not know what “almighty,” “good,” or “perfectly happy” really mean.
He starts by demonstrating that “almighty” does not mean that God can do anything we imagine; certain things are logical impossibilities. “You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense” (18). Just as square circles are a nonsense, saying “God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it” (18) is nonsense. “Meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’” (18). Lewis says a world with free will necessarily includes the possibility of evil.
Lewis then explains divine goodness: God’s love means He wants what is best for us; what’s best for us is God. We were made by Him and for Him, and we will only be really happy when we are in harmony with Him. God does not want us to be happy in any terrestrial sense of the term if it will prevent us from being happy in the heavenly sense. Because He wants us to be happy in the heavenly sense, He will seek to improve on us:
“When Christianity says that God loves man, it mean that God loves man: not that He has some ‘disinterested’ … concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of terrible aspect,’ is present: … the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes.” (39)
After examining God, Lewis turns to humans and explains that we fell from our state and now exist in a constant state of rebellion. We do not, according to Lewis, understand just how wicked we are. Once we do, God’s severity no longer seems severe. “…Man, as a species, spoiled himself, and … good…must therefore mean primarily remedial or corrective good.” (85)
Once we understand just how wicked we are, we can examine natural evil – i.e., evil not caused by human agency, aka pain. Because we are fallen, “good” consists of learning to deny ourselves. “We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved: we are… rebels who must lay down our arms” (88). Pain assists us in that task in three ways:
1) Pain tells us everything is not right with our lives. “…Pain is not only immediately recognizable evil, but evil impossible to ignore…. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pain; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (90-1).
2) Pain tells us what we have is not enough. “Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us…. 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” (94). (This section contains one of the most remarkable passages I have read in a long, long time. I was amazed that, in a passage dealing with why God allows us to suffer, Lewis had me feeling sorry for God. His writing on the “divine humility” is truly masterful.)
3) Pain is necessary to learn self-surrender.
“If the thing we like doing is…the thing God wants us to do, yet that is not our reason for doing it; it remains a mere happy coincidence. We cannot therefore know that we are acting…for God’s sake, unless the material of the action is contrary to our inclinations, or…painful….The full acting out of the self’s surrender to God therefore demands pain…” (97-8)
Other thoughts on pain: Lewis follows this with a series of propositions related to the topic of human pain. One is particularly notable for what it implies: “If tribulation is a necessary element in redemption, we must anticipate that it will never cease till God sees the world to be either redeemed or no further redeemable” (114). This may answer why “wicked” people seem to have such easy lives – they may not be worth the trouble to afflict as they are completely unredeemable whereas the basically decent (but just as lost) person might be roused out of his complacency to realize his fallen state.
Lewis on hell
After explaining, essentially, that pain is to keep us from going to hell, Lewis examines the state of those who are not redeemed by their pain. Hell is not an idea that Lewis likes, and he shows that God does not like it either – this is demonstrated by the cross and the lengths He continues to go to in an attempt to woo us to Himself. But hell is, Lewis says, both moral and necessary for those who persist in their rebellion.
Lewis sees hell as, in some ways, simply giving the condemned what they said they wanted their whole lives – to live their way without God. To those who think people should be given a second chance, Lewis says:
“I believe that if a million chances were likely to do good, they would be given. But a master often knows…that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again. Finality must come some time, and it does not require a very robust faith to believe that omniscience knows when.” (126)
In the end, says Lewis, hell is an inescapable by-product of free will – i.e., some are simply going to refuse God if given the choice. It is another act of divine humility that God allows His creatures to refuse Him.
Lewis on animal pain
After addressing human pain and hell, Lewis briefly addresses animal pain. His argument is basically that we’re not really sure what God will do about animal pain, but we know that the responsibility for it lies with Satan and us. To those who are seriously disturbed by animal pain, Lewis explains that, lacking consciousness, animals cannot suffer the way humans can suffer. At any rate, he is convinced that God will make everything right in the end.
Lewis on heaven
Lewis wraps up his work by considering heaven (used, I think, as shorthand for “the afterlife” including both heaven and the new earth) – the ultimate prize and the core of Christian thought on pain. The Bible insists that what we suffer here is nothing compared to what we will be given in the next life (c.f., Rom 8:18, 2Cor 4:17-18). Lewis says that in this life we all desire something unnamable; we know that we’re missing something though we may not be able to say exactly what.
That thing we’re missing is that part of God we have been made to especially love. Lewis says that we are all made to want different things about God. “Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it…” (152). Once we receive this prize, we will realize that it was worth everything we went through to get there.
This book is typical Lewis – well written, well though-out, and (relatively) easy to follow. Except the last chapter. I found it a bit harder to see Lewis’ point here than in the other chapters, but a little time and reflection cleared things up. There are elements of Lewis’ argument that may not sit well with reformed folks. The chapter on the fall will probably not agree with inerrantists; fortunately he says the chapter is not essential to his argument and can be skipped – the reader can probably get away with just reading the last paragraph of the chapter.
Overall, I think Lewis gives an excellent explanation of why we experience pain. I especially appreciate his treatment of natural evil which so many authors try to side step. He takes it head-on and says that pain is necessarily unpleasant but it is what we need to make us into what we ought to (and in our better moments want to) be.
The only problem I see with this book at the moment is that, after reading his explanation of how pain brings us to God, I was left wondering about the Christians (those who have, allegedly, surrendered their will to God) who suffer. This is certainly not an insurmountable problem, in fact it might be easier to answer than anything he actually addresses in the book, but his silence on the issue means the reader can come away with questions that will need to be answered by another book. So while this is an excellent book, it will not be the only one a person would need to read.