A Review of C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain

C. S. Lewis The Problem of Pain: How Human Suffering Raises Almost Intolerable Intellectual Problems. (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2001)

dfvfdAlongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Billy Graham, C.S. Lewis is arguably one of the most well-known and beloved Christians of the twentieth century. His works are read by both the inquiring adult seeking to learn more about the truths of the Christian faith and the young lad who daydreams about the battles on the fields of Narnia. The writer, professor and apologist gained notoriety amongst the British through his wartime radio broadcasts where he discussed the rationality and veracity of what he labeled “mere” Christianity. Though his writings are very accessible and readable to the common man, C.S. Lewis was an Oxford fellow and tutor in English literature and the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University. His more popular works are the children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Problem of Pain. In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis seeks to discuss the age-old problem of human suffering and pain in light of Christianity’s assertion that a good, sovereign God exists and rules the universe. Recognizing the deep complexities of such a theological and existential malady, Lewis admits he did not “live up to my own principles” in discussing the issue. As a self-described “layman and amateur”, he did seek however to solve the intellectual problems raised by suffering.

The author opens his first chapter with a description of the natural order which includes the mass proliferation of pain, suffering and death. History is largely a “record of crime, war, disease and terror.” Lewis wonders how anyone originally attributed goodness and moral purity to a benevolent Creator in the first place. How did religion include the attribute of God’s goodness within its framework of beliefs? Answering the question, the apologist proposes that religion from its very beginning has included certain elements (with Christianity proposing one more). First, all humans experience a divine feeling of dread or awe towards something described as the Numinous. There’s an uncanny expression of trepidation toward something that we do not quite understand within our world. Second, Lewis argues that there’s a standard of morality we all know exists but fail to live up to. We have a moral experience that includes our failure to faithfully and consistently adhere to. Third, this moral failure is a blight on the obligation we all expressly feel toward the Numinous. Last, the historical coming of Christ and the radiant, ethical teaching concerning his life and ministry have some bearing on the discussion of suffering and pain.

Good vs. EvilChapter two discusses various elements associated with omnipotence. Lewis affirms omnipotence but denies the attribute includes affirming the illogical. God cannot do anything against his nature and also cannot perform acts that are considered pseudo-tasks. Omnipotence essentially means being about to do all that is logically possible. Within the realm of what is logically possible, God desired to create free creatures endowed with a will able to make genuine choices. He also created a world with an “order of nature” within it. A piece of wood is hard so it can support pressures and things built upon it. Its very nature includes firmness. Within Lewis’ scheme, a world where God suspends the laws of nature to prevent an abuse of free will is not a world he desires (or is able?) to create. Someone is not free if their choices are taken away to prevent harm from being done.

Chapter three discusses divine goodness. Whatever goodness means, it must at least include what we know to be good and not be some unknown quality God possesses. Our standards have to be complementary and knowable for any moral “oughtness” to exist. Furthermore, God’s goodness and kindness include such things as discipline and suffering. After discussing the various ways God’s love is described within Scripture, the writer notes that “the problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a god who lives, is only insoluble so long as we attach trivial meaning to the word ‘love,’ and look on things as if man were the center of them.” Love requires being opposed to what diminishes the object of the affection. God cannot reconcile himself to us while we remain unlovely. He closes the chapter with answering an objection concerning the nature of love.

The next chapter concerns the nature of human wickedness. God is responsible for the fact of free will but he is not responsible for the abusive acts of free will. Humanity with their sinful desires is the culprit for much of the evil within the world. The problems society faces are twofold: 1) we have lopsided ethical beliefs concerning the nature of kindness and goodness and 2) the effect of psychoanalysis on society has left us without a standard to blush over when it is broken. Lewis goes on to offer some rejoinders to various false ideas within society: we are not in comparison better than others, corporate guilt includes and never precludes individual guilt, time does not cancel sin, there’s no safety in numbers, we cannot compare our culture to others from the past, we cannot diminish all virtues down to kindness, sideswiping the problem with objections that Christianity is not excessively moralistic will not do, and blaming our fallenness on God also will not suffice.

cv vChapter five essentially is an evolutionary description of the fall of man. God intended man to live within his good world as image bearers but they became prideful and “spoiled” themselves. As a result, the author writes “good to us in our present state, must therefore mean primarily remedial or corrective good. Chapter six discusses the value human pain has within God’s fallen world. Pain shatters our illusions that all is well, opens our eyes to the folly of self-sufficiency, unveils our creatureliness and shows us that we should rely on the help and sufficiency of heaven. Lewis’ goal is to show that the Christian doctrine of “being made perfect through suffering” is not wholly incredible. He affirms that suffering can produce good things within a person while also being against suffering because of its harmfulness to others. Chapter seven advances Lewis’ argument concerning human pain by offering six propositions: 1) there are paradoxical statements concerning suffering within Scripture, 2) suffering is included within redemption, 3) what the author has articulated concerning surrender and obedience is a theological statement, 4) the Christian doctrine explains the world we live in, 5) we must guard ourselves against unfortunate formulations of the “unimaginable sum of human suffering” because no one has ever experienced it and 6) pain is sterilized evil that God uses.

The philosopher defends the doctrine of Hell in chapter 8. To those who say God’s retributive judgment is unjust, he responds that God is not unjust in refusing forgiveness to those who refuse to remain what they are. He goes on to wrap the retributive aspect of the doctrine of Hell with the creature’s ultimate liberty. Hell is an attestation to creaturely desire to be away from God. God honors our freedom. Responding to the objection that there’s a huge gap between a sin in time and an eternity of punishment, he argues that sin spoils the whole and our view of time is deficient. Furthermore, say someone was given a million chances; it is possible that he would refuse the offer a million times. He affirms that the symbols of Hell are grotesque for a reason. They are meant to point to realities that are far worse. Some also object to the incompatibility of the knowledge of someone in heaven knowing someone in hell is being punished to which Lewis responds that the dominant viewpoint concerning hell is not its duration but its finality. It is the end of the line. Lastly, Lewis responds that Hell is not a defeat to omnipotence but a testament to human freedom for the locks to the doors of Hell are locked from the inside out.

Girl Crying with TearIn the chapter on animal pain, Lewis rightly rejects any moralizing concerning the pain animals endure. Suffering within the animal world is of no moral importance for their existence concerns mere utility. The writer answers the question of “what do animals suffer?” with agnosticism. Animals lack consciousness and cognition in such a way that they are not “there” to experience and realize the fact of their pain. There is no “self” within them to suffer. The origin of animal suffering can be traced to the fall of man and also possibly to evil forces or entities already at work within the world before man arrived. Ultimately, questions relating to justice concern humanity and embodied souls. Animals may have pain but can never experience suffering or reflection upon that pain.

The last chapter is about heaven and how human suffering appears in light of the Christian doctrine. Heaven is the ultimate answer to the problem of pain. Heaven is neither a bribe for goodness nor some great pie in the sky reality. Heaven is the creature’s desire for love, fellowship, joy, beauty and union fulfilled for all eternity with the Creator. All sufferings and pain will make sense in light of eternity. What we find there is made uniquely to satisfy our deepest longings and affections. Unending ecstasy and wholeness in the presence of the One we were once alienated from.

The Problem of Pain has quite a lot of value for the laymen sitting in the pew. The book articulates a very plausible theodicy utilizing the idea of free will. This likely is the most dominant theodicy offered by normal Christians asked to answer questions relating to the problem of evil. The popularity of the view is likely because it seems to get God “off the hook” by placing the blame squarely on human agents. Why is the world the way it is? Well, the abuse of freedom is the best answer we can offer. Lewis’ work is valuable because of its readability and simplicity. Lewis does not take the reader down into lengthy theological and philosophical diatribes and deliberations but sticks to a simple articulation of his view. Many times one will read a book and end up confused for various pages because an author seems to argue for some obscure, arcane matter that remains unhelpful for the present discussion. It is usually in hindsight or other avenues of study that you discover his or her reasons for spending so much time on such a small issue. Lewis’ book will never be able to be described in that fashion. From cover to cover, it is a fresh and straightforward argument that causes the reader to reflect on the nature of choice, will and love. The book is an excellent introduction for someone desiring rigorous thought concerning the nature of evil and suffering.

vedfdfSome strengths of the work are its clarity, comprehensiveness relating to many of the issues addressed and Lewis’ rhetorical ability. The work often presents the problems pain causes for faith and people of faith with striking clarity. An example of this clarity is found in chapter two. Lewis’ statement that “the permanent nature of wood which enables us to use it as a beam also enables us to use it for hitting our neighbor on the head” seems so grounded in common sense that to deny it would be outlandish. He goes elsewhere to discuss the nature of love from a parent to a child. Anyone reading who is a parent would readily agree that discipline and some forms of punishment are absolutely necessary and helpful for the holistic well-being of your children now and in the end. His ability to appeal to the reader’s common moral and sense experience with such clarity is a strength. The writer’s comprehensiveness in discussing the free will theodicy is also to be praised. Lewis does not just assert a free will theodicy and leave the argument within the chapter. He offers a historical account of what it could have looked like for Adam and Eve to abuse their freedom. He utilizes the idea throughout the text bringing the reader time and time again back to this central idea. Even hell testifies ultimately to the value and worth of such a reality as free agency. A chapter on the role of animal suffering alongside the others is profitable for discussions with people who are more ecologically concerned than others. One final strength is the writer’s rhetorical ability. There is not a boring or unhelpful chapter within the book. Each one offers at least a line that will be helpful in future apologetic endeavors.

The book however is not without its flaws. Various weaknesses I perceive are the book’s lack of discussion relating to the exact nature of free will, the ignorance concerning other helpful responses to the problem of suffering, the scriptural paucity of the work and the general “dryness” the book possesses at many levels. From my reading, I get the impression that Lewis assumes human freedom to be the decisive reason for the way things currently are. Freedom for the author is the libertarian type which allows a high level of self-determination and soul-making to be left to the creature. But, what if freedom is compatible with God controlling all things within his created world? Libertarianism is not the only game in town because compatibilism presents itself as a viable option also (especially in light of Scripture’s testimony to God’s control and express rule over all things).[1] The good apologist also did not interact with other noteworthy responses to the problems caused by suffering and pain. An appeal to the “greater good argument” might have strengthened the writer’s case for readers who either reject his notion of freedom or find that it is not helpful for resolving such important issues. For example, the free will defense would not be sufficient for Dostoevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov who cries that “It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist…”

Although this weakness might stem from the fact that his audience is those who have not come to faith in Christ, his work is very lacking when it comes to direct scriptural claims. Heaven, hell and the value of suffering for redemptive and character-building purposes are present themes within the text. Why not however include more? Why not include a chapter on the role of suffering and evil as it relates to the cross? Why not include a chapter on God’s future judgment and the role of his desire to put the world to rights? At times, Lewis even seems to hold “unbiblical” viewpoints concerning the scriptural ideas he mentions. Two examples are his statements concerning total depravity and hell as privation. Contrary to what Lewis espouses (opening of chapter two), total depravity does not mean we cannot know what is good or that we are as bad as we possibly could be. The doctrine merely asserts we are infected at every part with sin. Also, the statements concerning hell being mainly quarantine-like where God gives the sinner what he ultimately wants (which is to be left alone) do not do justice to the biblical portrait of the doctrine. Hell seems to include retributive punishment that is conscious and ongoing for all eternity.

dfhbvbFinally, Lewis appears to present the issues as mainly intellectual problems. But in my experience, the problem of pain and suffering is more than an intellectual pursuit for the philosophers and great thinkers of our time. In my extra reading relating to the book, I was encouraged to find that I was not the only one to think this concerning Lewis’ work on this subject. In the book The Passionate Intellect, Alister McGrath admits to finding the book to be “rationally illuminating yet existentially deficient.” He notes that “…it failed to penetrate to the real issues underlying human suffering, appearing to suggest that the problem of pain could be sorted out by a good dose of rational reflection on the problem.”[2] Though I will utilize the book in my evangelistic conversations with unbelievers, I do find that more is needed to adequately answer the questions people have. The answer that “God gives free will and people abuse it” will feel meaningless to the grieving mother who lost her child to a drunk driver. I have confidence that other answers are out there.

Despite the noted and listed weaknesses, I would still recommend the book as a nice introduction to the free will theodicy. The writer’s sharp, succinct style and his clarity articulating his specific view are aspects of the book to be praised. Lewis remains one of the most important Christian thinkers of our time because of his ability to take the Christian faith and make it intellectual palpable to skeptics and believers alike.


[1]Randy C. Alcorn, If God is Goo-: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil. (Colorado Springs, CO.: Multnomah Books, 2009), 238-249.

[2] Alister McGrath, The Passionate Intellect: Christian Faith and the Discipleship of the Mind. (Downers Grove, IL.: IVP Books, 2010), 65.

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