Book Review: The Problem of Pain – By C.S. Lewis

cslewis-problem-of-painletter-cC.S. Lewis is one of those authors I can always turn to when in need of a good read. The goal of this book is pretty self-explanatory by the title: to address the problem of pain. More specifically, the goal of this text is to solve the intellectual problem of suffering; this is important, as the book is an endeavor in the philosophical/theological, not primarily the pastoral or the therapeutic.

The book begins with a short apologetic for the Christian system, pointing out how the idea of Christianity (especially in relation to the presence of suffering) is not something that would have ever cropped up naturally; thus: “If the universe is so bad, or even half so bad, how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activity of a wise and good Creator? Men are fools, perhaps; but hardly so foolish as that. The direct inference from black to white, from evil flower to virtuous root, from senseless work to a workman infinitely wise, staggers belief. The spectacle of the universe as revealed by experience can never have been the ground of religion : it must always have been something in spite of which religion, acquired from a different source, was held.”¬†Lewis also makes it a point to note that it is only from within the Christian system that the problem of pain even presents itself, such that “In a sense, [Christianity] 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.”

With this foundation set Lewis goes on to discuss first the nature of divine omnipotence, divine goodness, and then mankind and our relation to God (namely, the fallen-ness of man and his wickedness). This discussion focuses both on the way in which mankind is free and the way in which God may use both good and evil actions in order to further his purposes. Pain, ultimately, serves to draw man closer to God by demonstrating the way in which pain “shatters the illusion that all is well.” In sum, however, Lewis takes the road of explaining pain through appeal to free will; that in order to absolutely avoid the presence of pain or evil God would be required to constantly over-ride the will of man.

The overall explanation is fairly typical of mainstream Christianity, with Lewis’ discussion of simple evils producing complex goods being a little more innovative. The text is concise, and generally a good read with many wonderful quotes, yet it is not without its fair share of faults (as detailed below).

Memorable Quotes:

– “All men alike stand condemned, not by alien codes of ethics, but by their own, and all men therefore are conscious of guilt. [Moral consciousness] is either inexplicable illusion, or else revelation.”-10

– “I do not think I should value much the love of a friend who cared only for my happiness and did not object to my becoming dishonest.”-37

– “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 wall so his cell.”-41

– “To be God – to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response – to be miserable – these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows – the only food that any possible universe can ever grow – then we must starve eternally.”-42

– “God may be more than moral goodness : He is not less. The road to the promised land runs past Sinai. The moral law may exist to be transcended : but there is no transcending it for those who have not first admitted its claims upon them, and then tried with all their strength to meet that claim, and fairly and squarely faced the fact of their failure.”-53

-“No doubt Pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepentant rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of the rebel soul.”-83

– “Prostitutes are in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God: the proud, the avaricious, the self-righteous, are in that danger.”-86

– “For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.”-99

– “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.”-116

Specific Criticisms

C.S. Lewis is a great writer, and a brilliant thinker, yet while his books are always packed with profound insight, due to his status as an amateur in the realms of theology and philosophy, he sometimes says things that are just terrible. His books are full of magnificent highs and dreadful lows; I’ve covered the highs, here are the lows…

Before getting into the major critiques of this book I’ll first offer a few minor ones. These are things like Lewis assuming that to surrendering to God will thereby make things “good and happy”(p78), which stinks of the seeds of the health/wealth ‘gospel’; surrendering to God will very likely increase your turmoil rather than diminish it. Lewis claims that humans can prevail through “painful effort”(p71), and while it is through painful effort, it is not merely through painful effort, but rather the grace of God working to empower man. A final minor critique is where Lewis states – in reference to the doctrine of man being present in Adam’s loins – that “these theories may have done good in their day but they do no good to me, and I am not going to invent others”(p74); while Lewis might not find the doctrine helpful, it will hardly do to just sweep a historic (and important) piece of Christian theology out the door as unhelpful. In fact, the reason that Lewis finds it unhelpful is that he takes the free will defense of evil, while said doctrine is a truth emphasized by the Reformed tradition in accounting for the transference of the fallen nature (or rather, why all men are guilty of one man’s sin; somebody who believes each individual freely causes their own fall naturally sees no need of this).

As for the major critiques, the first is Lewis’ reliance on the science of his day to support his views, such as taking for granted the theory of evolution; thus he states “For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself” (p65). Not only is relying on science a bad way to go about theology, but relying on bad science – such as the theory of evolution – is an especially bad way to go about theology.

Perhaps the most prominent theological/philosophical error made by C.S. Lewis in this book is that he takes the wrong side on the Euthrypo debate (which is solved by monotheism; the dilemma in the argument is only there because of the polytheistic foundation present); that is, he maintains that “God commands certain things because they are right…” and that “God’s will is determined by His wisdom which always perceives, and His goodness which always embraces, the intrinsically good”(p88), even going so far as to say that something could theoretically be good apart from God. This is, in effect, to supplant the god of Plato for that of Christianity; it is to make God subject to an authority outside of, and even more importantly, higher than, himself. For Lewis, God is not the ultimate standard, but instead something above God; this is quite simply a pagan position to hold.

While the most prominent problem might be Lewis’ mistaken view of Euthrypo, the most pressing problem is that – much like Chesterton – the Gospel is generally absent from his books, or else something that you have to infer from a few select lines. There are a few lines where the Gospel peeks through in this book, but only just, yet when addressing the problem of pain – or any point of Christianity – one cannot afford to minimize the Gospel.


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