Review and Quotes from The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis

In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis addresses the age-old question of how there can be suffering while God is all-powerful and still good. I would not say that he answers the question in the best way, nor that I agree with some of his basic assumptions. But nevertheless, as he’s thinking about the subject in the book, he gives some fantastic insights and thoughts. As a result, this book is totally worth reading. And as is typical of Lewis, as you read, I found myself thinking things I’ve never thought before and seeing reality from new angles.

Practically, I thought that four out of the ten chapters were outstanding, two others had some decent insights, and the remaining four weren’t that great. The four astounding chapters were the introduction, the chapter called “Divine Goodness,” the chapter entitled “Human Wickedness,” and the final chapter about “Heaven.”

In this review, I will talk about each of those chapters and then I will give an overall review of why he answers the question of suffering well in some ways and not so well in others.

The Introduction and Why Religion Must Be True

In the introduction, Lewis starts by showing why religion has always been a reality for humanity. He cleverly shows that it isn’t that religion is a brute thing—as some moderns want us to believe. Rather, he says that there have always been three strands running through existence that lead people to religion, and which make religion (and the existence of a god more plausible). Then he argues that in Christianity, there is a fourth strand that makes it even more reasonable. He starts with this in the introduction to show that the answer to the problem of suffering is not that God does not exist. Reason, experience, and history show us that he does, and Christianity is by far the truest option.

The first strand is what Lewis calls the numinous. Other words he uses are ‘dread,’ ‘awe,’ or the ‘uncanny.’ He talks about how people aren’t just scared of danger. It is more complicated than that. He talks about if you heard there was a tiger in the other room, you’d be afraid because of danger. But if you were told that there was a ghost, you’d be afraid because it is a ghost. It would produce awe; it would be disturbing. And he says this numinous experience goes way back.

Moreover, he says that we can’t just say that because it goes way back that we can dismiss it. He writes, “Most attempts to explain the Numinous presuppose the thing to be explained—as when anthropologists derive it from fear of the dead, without explaining why dead men (assuredly the least dangerous kind of men) should have attached this peculiar feeling. Against all such attempts we must insist that dread and awe are in a different dimension from fear” (9). Concerning the numinous then, he concludes that we can believe two things about it: 1) that it is a mere twist of the human mind; or 2) that “it is a direct experience of the really supernatural” (10).

The second strand that proves religion to be real is morality. He distinguishes between the “I want” or “I shall be well advised” from the “I ought” (10). And again, he says that people try to explain this away saying that is has always been this way. But that doesn’t answer the issue. Instead, “Morality, like numinous awe, is a jump; in it, man goes beyond anything that can be ‘given’ in the facts of experience” (11). He shows “all men alike stand condemned, not be alien code of ethics, by by their own, and all men therefore are conscious of guilt” (11).

The third strand of religion throughout time is that they connect the Numinous with this sense of Morality. In this way, “the Numinous Power to which they feel awe is made the guardian of the morality to which they feel obligation” (12). And for a third time, he rightly shows that although this seems ‘natural’ because it has always been common, it is not obvious or natural to have either the Numinous or Morality, nor this connection per se.

These are the three strands which show that religion is not just something for brutes, but instead arises because of these unexplainable things we all experience.

The fourth strand then is distinctly Christian. And that is a historical event. “There was a man born among these Jews who claimed to be, or to be the son of, or to be ‘one with’, the Something which is at once the awful haunter of nature and the giver of the moral law. The claim is so shocking…that only two views of this man are possible. Either he was a raving lunatic of an usually abominable type, or else He was, and is, precisely what He said” (13).

As a result of these four strands, concerning the problem of pain, Lewis in the introduction concludes,

“Christianity is not the conclusion of a philosophical debate on the origins of the universe: it s 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 fact 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 of good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving” (14).

The Divine Goodness and Pain

(Concerning Lewis’ idea of “divine goodness,” I have written a post about the chapter here. I will copy much of it here in this section)

Another chapter I really enjoyed from the book is a chapter in which Lewis details God’s ‘divine goodness,’ as he calls it. The chapter does not consist of ethereal thoughts about how God can be good, but instead focuses in on his love for his own, and how he lovingly views them as works of art. As typical of Lewis, his thoughts are profound and provoking, and therefore worth slowly reading. He writes,

“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. Here again we come up against what I have called the ‘intolerable compliment.’ Over a sketch made idly to amuse a child, an artist may not take much trouble: he may be content to let it go even thought it is not exactly as he meant it to be. But over the great picture of his life—the work which he loves, though in a different fashion, as intensely as a man loves a woman or a mother a child—he will take endless trouble—and would, doubtless, thereby give endless trouble to the picture if it were sentient. 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 asking 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 less” (34-35).

Lewis is arguing that God’s commitment to leaving us not as we are is a sign of his love and commitment to us. When we are asking to be left alone, “we are wishing not for more love, but less.”

He continues later in the chapter,

“The Church is the Lord’s bride whom He so loves that in her no spot or wrinkle is endurable. For the truth which this analogy serves to emphasize is that Love, in its own nature demands the perfecting of the beloved; that that the mere ‘kindness’ which tolerates anything except suffering in its object is, in that respect, at the opposite pole from Love. When we fall in love with a woman, do we cease to care whether she is clean or dirty, fair or foul? Do we not rather then first begin to care...Love may, indeed, love the beloved when he beauty is lost: but not because it is lost. Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them: but Love cannot cease to will their removal” (38-39).

With this true definition of love set in place (a love which loves even beauty isn’t there, and yet which by definition must desire the betterment of the other), Lewis defines this aspect of God’s love for his people:

“When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has ‘disinterested’, because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: you have one” (39).

He continues later as a way of summary,

“We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest ‘well pleased’. To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God: because He is what He is, His love must, in the nature of things, be impeded and repelled by certain stains in our present character, and because He already love us He must labour to make us lovable” (40-41).

Then he concludes,

“We are bidden to ‘put on Christ’, to become like God. That is, whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want. Once more we are embarrassed by the intolerable compliment, by too much love, not too little...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 the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe can ever grow—then we must starve eternally” (47).

This is what he means by God’s goodness towards us. He will not leave us as we are, but will use whatever means—especially pain—to lovingly mold us. And so, Lewis is right: God’s love—as it is true and deep love—is not content to leave us as we are. He loves us as we are, but love never wants to leave the person as they are. He desires our holiness, for our happiness and his honor. And as Lewis concludes in the last two sentences above, there is no other way to happiness. There are three options in the world: 1) to be God himself (which we cannot be), 2) to be like God, or 3) to be miserable. God, in his love, therefore seeks to make us more like him. This is his ‘intolerable compliment.’ This is his love.

Human Wickedness Is Truly Great

Lewis also has some good insight on the wickedness of humanity. He includes this chapter, after the chapter about God’s goodness in molding us, to answer the question, “Why do we men need so much alteration?” (48).

He talks about how “when the apostles preached, they could assume even in their Pagan hearers a real consciousness of deserving the Divine Anger…But all this has changed. Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis—in itself very bad news—before it can win a hearing for the cure” (48).

He continues to talk about how we have overdone it by trying to overcome that good sense of shame. He says, “We have laboured to overcome that sense of shrinking, that desire to conceal…In trying to extirpate shame we have broken down one of the ramparts of the human spirit, madly exulting in the work as the Trojans exulted when they broke their walls and pulled the Hose into Troy” (50). He then shows that “a recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity…And when men attempt to be Christians without this preliminary consciousness of sin, the result is almost bound to be certain resentment against God as to one always inexplicably angry” (50-51).

One of my favorite lines is when he writes, “When we merely say that we are bad, the ‘wrath’ of God seems a barbarous doctrine; as soon as we perceive our badness, it appears inevitable, a mere corollary from God’s goodness” (52).

Then he gets specific about our sin. He insightfully points out, “We imply, and often believe, that habitual vices are exceptional single acts, and make the opposite mistake about our virtues—like the bad tennis player who calls his normal form his ‘bad days’ and mistakes his rare successes for his normal” (53). This is hysterical, and sadly true.

He also talks about how we tend to think that time will cancel sin. In one of the best gospel moments in the book, he writes, “We have a strange illusion that mere time cancels sin. I have heard others, and I have heard myself, recounting cruelties and falsehoods committed in boyhood as if they were no concern of the present speaker’s, and even with laughter. But mere time does nothing either to the fact or to the guilt of sin. The guilt is washed out not by time but by repentance and the blood of Christ: if we have repented these early sins we should remember the price of our forgiveness and be humble” (54-55).

And he addresses the argument that everyone is bad, and so it isn’t that big of a deal. In wonderfully Lewis style, in addressing this he uses some great analogies. He explains,

“It is natural to feel that if all men are as bad as the Christians say, then badness must be very excusable. If all the boys plough in the examination, surely the papers must have been too hard? And so the masters at the school feel till they learn that there are other schools where ninety per cent of the boys passed on the same papers. Then they begin to suspect that the fault did not lie with the examiners. Again, many of us have had the experience of living in some local pocket of human society—some particular school, college, regiment or profession where the tone was bad. And inside that pocket certain actions were regarded as merely normal…But when we emerged from that bad society we made the horrible discovery that in the outer world our ‘normal’ was the kind of thing that no decent person ever dreamed of doing…It is wise to face the possibility that the whole human race (being a small thing in the universe) is, in fact, just a local pocket of evil—an isolated bad school or regiment inside which minimum decenecy passes for heroic virtue and utter corruption for pardonable imperfection” (55-56).

Lewis then also argues that we aren’t any better than those before us. Rather, we just have different obvious sins. He states, “From considering how the cruelty of our ancestors looks to us, you may get some inkling how our softness, worldliness, and timidity [and I would add, lust] would have looked to them, and hence how both must look to God” (58).

As a result of this all, Lewis makes a good argument for true human wickedness, which is why man needs such forming by God through pain. He finishes the chapter writing, “When the saints say that they—even they—are vile, they are recording truth with scientific accuracy” (62).

Heaven and the Uniqueness of Each Soul Prepared for It

Lewis from here goes on to discuss how man is now fallen, how God uses pain, and the reality of hell in God’s universe. He has some interesting things to say in those chapters, but he really hits gold in his last chapter of the book about heaven. Here he opens up the doors of wonder.

He begins by addressing how many people think Christians are escapists for looking so forward to heaven. In response, he says that this future blessedness and perfection is either real or not real. If not, Christianity is false. But if it is, then it is not escapist at all. Rather, “a man’s love for a woman is not mercenary because he wants to marry her, nor his love for poetry mercenary because he wants to read it, not his love of exercise less disinterested because he wants to run and lap and walk. Love, by definition, seeks to enjoy its object” (149).

Then it gets wonderful as he talks about the uniqueness of heaven for each person. I will let him speak for himself:

“I am considering not how, but why He makes each soul unique. If He had no use for all these differences, I do not see why He should have created more souls than one. Be sure tha the ins and outs of your individuality are no mystery to Him; and one day they will no longer be a mystery to you. The mould in which a key is made would be a strange thing, if you had never seen a key: and the key itself a strange thing if you had never seen a lock. Your soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite countours of the Divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions. For it is not humanity in the abstract that is to be saved, but you—you, the individual reader, John Stubbs or Janet Smith. Blessed and fortunate creature, your eyes shall behold Him and not another’s. All that you are, sins apart, is destined, if you will let God have His good way, to utter satisfaction…You place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it—made for it stich by stich as a glove is made for a hand” (151-152).

Wonderful and beautiful, isn’t it? He continues,

“Why else were individuals created, but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently?...If all experienced God in the same way and returned to Him an identical worship, the song of the Church triumphant would have no symphony, it would be like an orchestra in which all the instruments played the same note…Heaven is a city, and a Body, because the blessed remain eternally different: a society, because each has something to tell all the others—fresh and ever fresh news of the ‘My God’ whom each find in Him whom all praise as ‘Our God’. For doubtless the continually successful, yet never complete, attempt by each soul to communicate its unique vision to all others (and that by means whereof earthly art and philosophy are but clumsy imitations) is also among the ends for which the individual was created” (154-155).

He summarizes using the terms union vs. sameness. He writes, “God created: He caused things to be other than Himself that, being distinct, they might learn to love Him, and achieve union instead of mere sameness” (156).

This then is Lewis’ view of heaven, especially in response to the problem of suffering. God is molding each one of us for a specific mold, which, for those redeemed, will be uniquely found in Christ in heaven forever.

A Summary of It All

Much more could and should be said about this work. Lewis has profound insights, and so I would encourage anyone to slowly read the book.

However, as for why I do not think his answer to the problem of suffering is the best is that he unbiblically introduces this idea of ‘free will’ a couple times. This idea is nowhere to be found in the Bible, but has been added because of the ease of human reasoning. This is unfortunate in Lewis’ work because in the times when he talks about ‘free will,’ it isn’t necessary. All that is necessary is moral responsibility, not this idea of free will. God does not need to be defended with this idea of free will. Rather, biblically man is 100% a moral creature with true moral responsibility. God’s sovereignty doesn’t need to be taken away. And because moral responsibility is true, God still can use pain to mold him.

So, to then introduce the idea of ‘free will’ is unneeded for his argument. Rather, a more biblical view is that God is totally sovereign (and hasn’t given any of that away in ‘free will’) and man is totally responsible. So why then is there suffering? He uses it individually and he has grand purposes for all of creation (namely, his glory, especially in exalting the grace of Christ). More could be said, but I need not expand here. Instead, I encourage anyone to read Jonathan Edwards’ book The Freedom of the Will to see how free will is not biblical nor reasonable, and how suffering fits in God’s plan biblically.

Besides this, essentially Lewis was just saying that God uses pain to mold us for the better. And this is biblical and encouraging.

The glory of the book, however, comes in this instances of wonder from Lewis’ mind. For this reason, the book is totally worth reading in depth.