The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis

Summary: Unconvincing to one who does not already agree with its basic assumptions.

C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain is another attempt at Christian theodicy, the defense of God’s goodness in the face of the world’s evil, written by the well-known pop theologian and author of the Narnia series. To one who already accepts the tenets of Christianity, Lewis’ explanation may well be convincing; however, to those who question its basic premises, it is unlikely to hold up. More than anything, the book seems characterized by a failure of imagination – time and time again, it assumes that the best, or the only, world God could possibly have created was this one, despite Lewis’ belief in God’s omnipotence. As this review will seek to show, if one discards that assumption, new vistas will open on the problem of evil, perspectives which show why Judeo-Christian theodicies are wholly inadequate.

Lewis begins by summarizing the atheist argument from evil, describing all the suffering that exists in the world. He admits the “strength and facility” (p.3) of this argument, but says that its own strength is its problem: “If the universe is 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” (p.3-4).

This argument exemplifies an unfortunate tendency of Lewis’ that pops up elsewhere in the book: he asks a rhetorical question that has more than one answer, but then immediately moves on without considering any answer except the one he obviously wants to reach. For what it is worth, I agree with Lewis that the universe as revealed by experience can never have been the ground for belief in a benevolent creator, but that does not mean the only other option is revelation. There is an obvious alternative: Such belief stems from wishful thinking, where humans unconsciously invent beliefs that give them a sense of control over their surroundings and ease their fear and worry. (This relates to the balance-scale analogy presented in “In Awe of Everything“.) It is undoubtedly an oversimplification to say that this is the sole source of religion, but it is an important one that does not deserve to be omitted.

He does consider a related issue, of why human beings would equate the moral sense with the sense of awe (which he calls the Law and the Numinous, respectively). “Nor can the identification of the two be explained as a wish-fulfilment, for it fulfils no one’s wishes. We desire nothing less than to see that Law whose naked authority is already unsupportable armed with the incalculable claims of the Numinous” (p.12). But why would it not be a natural inference, upon suffering some disaster, to believe that it must have come about because one has displeased the gods somehow? And what about the possibility of some humans equating morality with supernatural awe and dread to better control other humans? Again, these are obvious possibilities that deserve deeper consideration than they are granted here.

The theodicy begins with Lewis stating that answering the problem of evil “depends on showing that the terms ‘good’ and ‘almighty’, and perhaps also the term ‘happy’, are equivocal: for it must be admitted from the outset that if the popular meanings attached to these words are the best, or the only possible, meanings, then the argument is unanswerable” (p.16). This is an astonishing concession, considering that Lewis himself believes that human beings have an innate moral sense that tells them what “good” is (as he states in his moral argument presented in Mere Christianity and the introduction to this very book!). Does this not mean, by his own reasoning, that the problem of evil is “unanswerable” for a Christian?

The first major portion of the argument examines the notion of omnipotence. Lewis argues, first, that multiple conscious minds could not exist except in some physical environment that separates them from each other; otherwise they would have no way of knowing that they were distinct. (“If your thoughts and passions were directly present to me, like my own, without any mark of externality or otherness, how should I distinguish them from mine?” (p.21)) Second, he asserts that for a material world to serve as a meeting ground for humans, it must have a fixed nature of its own, because if any person could change the laws of physics on a whim, others would be unable to act and communicate. Finally, he concludes that “if matter has a fixed nature and obeys constant laws, not all states of matter will be equally agreeable to the wishes of a given soul, nor all equally beneficial for that particular aggregate of matter which he calls his body” (p.23). This makes evil possible, because it makes it possible for human beings to use matter to harm each other. “The permanent nature of wood which enables us to use it as a beam also enables us to use it for hitting our neighbour on the head. The permanent nature of matter in general means that when human beings fight, the victory ordinarily goes to those who have superior weapons, skill, and numbers, even if their cause is unjust” (p.24). Finally, he considers the obvious possibility that God could miraculously thwart harmful uses of matter, but “such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void… fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible. Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself” (p.24-25).

Despite this confident statement, there is an alternative that excludes the possibility of suffering without excluding life or free will. According to Christianity, and to Lewis himself, there is only one fundamental moral choice a person must make in life: “a single naked choice – of loving God more than the self or the self more than God” (p.20). So why not, then, set up the world so that that is the only moral choice we need to make? Lewis leaps from the conclusion (which I do not dispute) that distinctness and freedom of choice require the existence of an external world of matter, to the conclusion that that world must be set up in such a way as to allow people to harm each other. Once a physical world exists, we can recognize ourselves as separate from others, interact with them and communicate with them. Why then add the additional capability for evil people to use that world to unjustly harm the innocent, rather than structuring the world so that people who made bad choices could only harm themselves?

“We can, perhaps conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of this abuse of free will by His [sic] creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon… [but] the very conception of a common, and therefore stable, world, demands that [miracles] should be extremely rare” (p.25). Again, true, but beside the point. Why not set up the world in the first place such that its stable, natural laws, rather than constant miraculous intervention, made it impossible for people to harm each other? This is not, by definition, a task too hard for an omnipotent being. (What might such a world look like? Lewis himself furnishes one possibility in his book The Great Divorce, in which the saved Spirits were imbued with an invulnerable solidity, as compared to the shadowy insubstantiality of the Ghosts.)

Finally, Lewis claims that “With every advance in our thought the unity of the creative act, and the impossibility of tinkering with the creation as though this or that element of it could have been removed, will become more apparent” (p.26). This seems to be the opposite of the truth. Human beings have removed several elements of the creation – polio and smallpox, for example. By his logic this should have been impossible. If we can remove these things from the world, why could not God have created a world without them in the first place?

The next section analyzes the notion of divine goodness. Lewis states that the notion of God’s benevolence cannot be compared to a mere undifferentiated kindness which tolerates all, even evil; that for God to be truly good he must detest evil and by extension those who practice it – which Lewis takes to be everyone – and that his true love for us requires that he put us through suffering to perfect us, which Lewis calls the “intolerable compliment” (p.34). “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…. 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” (p.34).

But this analogy, like many others, flounders on the difference between human and omnipotent artists. An omnipotent artist does not need to “recommence” a picture, nor to rub or scrape it to undo his mistakes; he can create it exactly as he wishes in a single flash. If God could settle for nothing less than perfection, why would he not create us perfect in the first place – rather than create humans imperfect, blame them for that imperfection, and then put them through vast amounts of suffering in an attempt to fix it, an attempt which results in the perfection of a small number of them and the eternal loss of a vastly larger number to Hell? The claim that this criminally incompetent behavior is the plan of salvation adopted by a loving, all-wise god is too absurd to merit belief.

To further explain this, Lewis writes that “Love, in its own nature, demands the perfecting of the beloved” (p.38). The obvious reply is that love demands no such thing; rather, love means viewing the other person (and their faults) realistically, and accepting them for who they are. Only an irrational and abusive selfishness would demand that a loved one be perfect all the time. Anticipating this objection, Lewis adds that such situations imply “a need or passion on the part of the lover, an incompatible need on the part of the beloved, and the lover’s disregard or culpable ignorance of the beloved’s need. None of these conditions is present in the relation of God to man” (p.43). But what about humanity’s need to be free of suffering? Does this not count? This is certainly a need if anything is, and God, according to this theology, disregards it.

Any discussion of evil in Christianity inevitably turns to the topic of the fall from Eden, and that is the subject of the following chapter. Interestingly, Lewis states plainly that he does not regard this story literally: “If by saying that man rose from brutality you mean simply that man is physically descended from animals, I have no objection” (p.67). He does, however, consider it symbolic of something that genuinely happened. The first human beings, he writes, may have existed in some non-sentient, animal-like state for an undefined period before God finally bestowed consciousness on them. In fact, he claims that the first humans were “all consciousness” (p.72), able to voluntarily control processes that are now involuntary, such as hunger, sleep and even aging. At first, these beings were united in perfect communion with God: “In perfect cyclic movement, being, power and joy descended from God to man in the form of gift and returned from man to God in the form of obedient love and ecstatic adoration” (p.74). However, as the result of “someone or something” (p.75) whispering to them, they committed a sin, the only one Lewis says that these people could have committed – the sin of pride, which he takes to be the belief that one owns and controls one’s life, rather than directing it all towards God.

As a result of this, the book continues, the power of perfect self-control which the first humans possessed by God’s authority was lost; their bodies became subject to the laws of nature, leading to suffering, death, and the diminishing of the rational mind in favor of subconscious drives and temptations, “so that though [the soul] could still turn back to God, it could do so only by painful effort, and its inclination was self-ward. Hence pride and ambition, the desire to be lovely in its own eyes and to depress and humiliate all rivals… were now the attitudes that came easiest to it” (p.79). This alteration was transmitted by heredity to all later generations, Lewis concludes, leading to the world as it now exists.

The first thing to be said about this doctrine is this: Since Lewis regards the fall as a specifically individual sin, why did every human being commit it? Should not some of these unspoiled humans have observed the effect of this sin on their peers and taken it as a warning, and if so, should there not be “unfallen” family lines alive today? If humanity was made such that everyone fell prey to this sin, we may well question whether the decision to do so was free at all, or if it was the inexorable result of something God built into our character. A defect in one or a few products may be the result of chance, but an identical defect in every single product suggests a design flaw on the part of the manufacturer.

Also, why would God not have undone the effects of this sin rather than allowing humanity to fall into a state where it would be much harder to return to him? (As “That Fateful Apple” asks, instead of original sin, why not original virtue?) Rather than punishing all human beings for the sins of their ancestors – because this is exactly what Lewis’ theology amounts to, despite his protests that he does not believe in transferrence of guilt – a benevolent deity could have arranged things so that every person, regardless of the state of grace of their parents, would start off in the paradisal state, instead of giving them a handicap and then demanding that they overcome it. Assuming God’s desire is that the maximum number of people be saved, this makes far more sense than Christianity’s irrational alternative.

Lewis offers the defense: “It would, no doubt, have been possible for God to remove by miracle the results of the first sin ever committed by a human being; but this would not have been much good unless He was prepared to remove the results of the second sin, and of the third, and so on forever. If the miracles ceased, then sooner or later we might have reached our present lamentable situation: if they did not, then a world thus continually underpropped and corrected by Divine interference, would have been a world in which nothing important ever depended on human choice…” (p.65). But again, I am not suggesting that God arrange the natural laws to produce a poor outcome and then constantly intervene to prevent that, but rather that God could have arranged the natural laws to produce a better outcome in the first place. That we are told a loving, perfectly wise god passed up this course of action in favor of one that results in a far worse outcome is nonsensical, and one of the major reasons I do not find Christianity credible.

Furthermore, even if God miraculously cured the first sin, what makes Lewis so sure there would have been a second? By his own admission, the first sin was committed in ignorance of the consequences. “Up to that moment the human spirit had been in full control of the human organism. It doubtless expected that it would retain this control when it had ceased to obey God” (p.77). Having been disillusioned by its fall, why then would the human creature wander right back into temptation a second time? This possibility does not seem to have occurred to Lewis, which is another symptom of his unfortunate tendency to not explore alternative possibilities nearly as thoroughly as he should do. As it stands, there is, at the very least, strong reason to question whether a god who acted in such a fashion would really deserve to be called benevolent at all.

Lewis next explores the role of pain in redemption. According to him, it plays two roles, the first of which is to jolt unsaved people out of their complacency: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (p.91). A person experiencing pleasure and happiness sees no reason to repent and turn to God, but pain “plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul” (p.94). Second, the process of true repentance involves undoing the primeval sin, surrendering oneself to God, which is inevitably a painful event for an ego afraid of losing itself: “to surrender a self-will inflamed and swollen with years of usurpation is a kind of death” (p.89).

This would be a plausible theodicy if suffering was evenly distributed, but suffering is not evenly distributed. Many undoubtedly evil people prosper and live lives virtually free of suffering, a phenomenon which even the Bible notes (Psalms 73:3-12, Jeremiah 12:1). Conversely, there are people who suffer horrendously, more than any rational view of God’s purpose can justify, and in a tragic irony, it is predictably the poor and destitute – the very type of people who are “in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God” (p.96) – who usually suffer the most. If God is inflicting pain as a way of convincing people to turn to him, we can safely say that he has lethally poor aim. Furthermore, why should pain and suffering cause people to turn to God when, as Lewis admits, belief in God offers no respite from pain? Especially when combined with the lack of clear evidence for God’s presence, the apparently random distribution of evil strongly indicates God’s nonexistence (or at least his non-benevolence), and for this reason provides a strong impetus for turning away from God, not towards him.

If there is a god who truly wants to convince people not to repose their happiness in material things, there would have been a much better way to go about it than this. Instead of making life without him pleasurable, and then occasionally and randomly jolting some people with horrible suffering to shock them out of complacency, a benevolent god could have structured the world so that only by following him as he intended could people find happiness. As people turned away from him, their happiness would inevitably and naturally diminish, leading them back to repentance without requiring the capricious infliction of pain. In a well-designed world, suffering would be the punishment of evil, not the reward of good.

Lewis goes on to claim that his theodicy explains why the world contains much “joy, pleasure, and merriment” but little or no “settled happiness and security”, because “The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose… our return to God” (p.116). If this is so, it is only because God chooses not to be present in this world!

He also makes the bizarre claim that two (or three or any number) people suffering is no worse a situation, morally speaking, than one person suffering. “There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain” (p.116). This reasoning entails the morally bizarre conclusion that a world where there are six billion people, all in terrible pain, is not less desirable than a world with only one person in that level of pain. Lewis seems to have confused himself here: just because no one person is suffering the combined amount does not mean that there is not more total suffering.

The next section of the book is about Hell. Lewis himself admits at the outset that “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power” (p.119) and that “I too detest it from the bottom of my heart” (p.120). Again, Lewis is the one who believes humans have an innate moral sense or conscience that tells them what is right and wrong, so it is puzzling why he puts great weight on it when it points him to a conclusion he wants to reach, and yet disregards it when it tells against a conclusion he does not want to reach. It would seem that a double standard is being applied here.

He also says that we “are reminded of the tragedies in human life which have come from believing [in Hell]. Of the other tragedies which come from not believing it we are told less” (p.120). What tragedies are these, pray tell? Lewis never expounds on this remark, which is unfortunate, as I would be very interested to know what events he is thinking of. There has been no shortage of atrocities throughout the ages committed by people who believe in eternal damnation – as Thomas Paine said, belief in a cruel god makes a cruel man. But when it comes to atrocities committed by those who believe all people will be saved, I confess to being unable to think of any.

Be that as it may, Lewis’ first argument in defense of damnation is that it would be a miscarriage of justice to let the truly evil and unrepentant go unpunished. “In a sense, it is better for the creature itself, even if it never becomes good, that it should know itself a failure, a mistake. Even mercy can hardly wish to such a man his eternal, contented continuance in such ghastly illusion” (p.123). It is true that it would be wrong to allow evildoers to escape without punishment. But this is a straw man: the major objection most atheists have to Hell turns not on its mere existence, but on its duration. No finite misdeeds, no matter how bad (and Lewis strains to paint the worst examples imaginable) deserve an eternity of punishment. And this is all the more true when the only “misdeed” was failing to believe in Lewis’ God – because despite all he does to paint the residents of Hell as wicked through and through, the fact remains that his own theology dictates that a person who was compassionate, fair-minded, loving and generous throughout their life, but who saw no reason to believe that a long-dead Palestinian itinerant was the only divine son of God and the sole path to salvation, will be condemned and lost forever. This would be a far more terrible failure of justice than letting the guilty remain unaware of the harm their actions have done, and by Lewis’ standards, I am fully justified in believing this, since he writes that “you need have no fear that, as you approach [God], you will be asked simply to reverse your moral standards” (p.30).

Lewis shows he is aware of this when he writes, “Another objection turns on the apparent disproportion between eternal damnation and transitory sin. And if we think of eternity as a mere prolongation of time, it is disproportionate” (p.125). But his defense against this claim is extremely confused at best. He asserts that “many would reject this idea of eternity” and if “we think of time as a line… we probably ought to think of eternity as a plane or even a solid” (p.125). How this helps is not clear, since if we extend the geometrical analogy, a plane consists of an infinite number of infinitely long lines, and a solid consists of an infinite number of planes. This is probably taking an analogy too far, but regardless, his explanation does nothing at all to show how the idea of eternity does not imply infinite duration.

“A simpler form of the same objection consists in saying that death ought not to be final, that there ought to be a second chance. I believe that if a million chances were likely to do good, they would be given. But… [f]inality must come some time, and it does not require a very robust faith to believe that omniscience knows when” (p.126). I do not agree with this. In fact, I would argue it requires a faith that goes far beyond robustness, and well into blindness, to assume that fallible, finite human beings really have the capability to make a choice – after thirteen years, after fifty years, or after a hundred years – that will inexorably constrain their fate for the infinity of years following. No finite being has the capacity to make an infinite choice.

Finally, Lewis considers the argument that no one truly deserving of being in Heaven could stand to be there, knowing of the multitudes that were lost to Hell. Again, his response is not entirely clear, but seems to consist in some way of saying that Hell is not something that goes on continually, but something that somehow ends when a person is consigned to it (though he is careful to distinguish this view from annihilationism, which he does not hold). “Our Lord, while stressing the terror of hell with unsparing severity, usually emphasises the idea not of duration but of finality” (p.129). However, as we have seen, Lewis has not coherently explained in what sense Hell is not of infinite duration, which it must be if one is not an annihilationist. Besides, even assuming that the eternal miseries of the damned were somehow not going on at the same time as the eternal joy of the saved, why should that make a difference? A truly good person would still regret the loss, mourn the missing people and wish it could have been otherwise. Indeed, as Lewis writes in the last chapter, he believes that every soul “is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the Divine substance” (p.152) and that “each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the Divine beauty better than any other creature can” (p.154) and be forever transmitting this unique vision to all the other blessed souls in Paradise. The loss of souls to Hell therefore means that there will be many aspects of God that even the residents of Heaven will remain forever ignorant of, surely a cause for lamentation.

In the closing paragraph of the section, Lewis puts a question to opponents of Hell: “What are you asking God to do?” (p.130). I, as an atheist, obviously cannot answer this question in the sense it is literally posed; I am not asking God to do anything. However, in the more general sense, an omnipotent deity could have created many possible worlds where such a place as Hell would not be necessary. Several of these scenarios and the ways in which they differ from our world have been sketched throughout this essay. Since these manifestly superior worlds do not exist, however, I believe we are more than adequately justified in concluding that the reason for this is that no such benevolent power exists.

In the next, briefer chapter, Lewis considers the origin of animal suffering. He states the problem forthrightly, recognizing that animals are not moral agents that do not deserve punishment for their actions and cannot be perfected by pain. He also admits that there is no firm way to answer this question. However, he does write the following: “From the doctrine that God is good we may confidently deduce that the appearance of reckless Divine cruelty in the animal kingdom is an illusion” (p.133). But why not the other way around – that reckless cruelty in the animal world furnishes convincing evidence that there is no benevolent deity? Lewis appears to be allowing his beliefs to guide the facts, when the correct course of action is the opposite.

The chapter on animal pain is mainly a complex supposition about how animals may be resurrected “through” the resurrection of human beings, which I will not delve into. As far as the more pertinent question of why animals suffer in the first place, Lewis’ suggestion is that Satan caused it somehow: “If there is such a power [as Satan], as I myself believe, it may well have corrupted the animal creation before man appeared… The Satanic corruption of the beasts would therefore be analogous, in one respect, with the Satanic corruption of man” (p.138). This hypothesis opens an entirely new can of worms, none of which are addressed in the text. For one thing, given as the animals’ corruption cannot be explained as the result of free will, why did God not simply stop it? Lewis writes that it “may have been one of man’s functions to restore peace to the animal world” (p.140), but given that an omniscient god knew this would fail (“In fact, of course, God saw the crucifixion in the act of creating the first nebula” (p.80)), there can be no excuse for not taking more effective action. In the end, Lewis seems content to chalk animal pain up to another mystery of faith (he says that Christian revelation was not “intended as a système de la nature answering all questions” (p.141)), but it is obvious this tactic is merely being deployed to paper over logical flaws in his beliefs.

The final chapter is on Heaven. There is little to comment on here, save for one thing. “From before the foundation of the world [God] surrenders begotten Deity back to begetting Deity in obedience. And as the Son glorifies the Father, so also the Father glorifies the Son” (p.157).

This passage highlights something about this book I find disturbing: the constant emphasis on obedience. In C.S. Lewis’ theology, and more generally in Christian theology, the highest moral virtue is to obey one’s betters. (On page 100, he writes that “mere obeying is intrinsically good” – the content of that obedience aside). This speaks poorly of the worldview these believers hold. Obedience is the virtue of children, and throughout history, has always been used by human beings to justify wielding unearned power over others. In a truly perfect world, obedience would be unnecessary, and true equality requiring no obedience or submission would be the norm. Lewis’ view of the afterlife as a rigid hierarchy of eternal obedience is testament to an undeveloped, dogmatic sense of morality.

In sum, Lewis’ theology describes a god who chose to make the path of evil easy and the path of good difficult, and then exacts vengeance upon those who choose the easier way. Indeed, it describes a god who, seemingly at every turn, made choices that were manifestly inferior compared to others he could have made that would have better achieved his own goals. It is a contradiction in terms to call this the handiwork of benevolent omnipotence, and this theodicy can “solve” the problem of evil only by leaving many blatantly begged questions unanswered. Christians who agree with Lewis’ basic worldview may draw comfort from this treatise, but those who do not share his beliefs can easily perceive the problems with it.


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