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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. HarperCollins: New York, 2001.

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 JudeoChristian 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

"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 selfcontrol 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 selfwill 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

"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 systme 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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C.S. Lewis: The Problem of Pain

The existence of suffering in a world created by a good and
almighty Godthe problem of painis a fundamental
theological dilemma, and perhaps the
most serious objection to the
Christian religion.
Known to his readers as a philosopher,
a Christian apologist, a science fiction
writer, an author of children's stories
and a literary critic, C. S. Lewis has
also been introduced to the general
public as a romantic sufferer.
In Shadowlands, movie audiences
around the world watch a refined,
upper-middle aged Oxford fellow
C.S. Lewis
theorize on pain, fall in late love with a
witty, slightly annoying American
divorcee with two children, and go
through the agony of grief after her death. Whatever it takes
to speculate on pain, it takes a lot more, it seems, to live it.
And it takes C. S. Lewis to write competently on both.
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1898, of an Irish
mother and a Welsh father, Clive Staples Lewis served as a
Fellow and Tutor at Magdalen College, Oxford for more than

thirty years. Yet, the Oxford establishment was slow to catch

up with the fame of the author of "that Christian stuff", and,
in 1954, Lewis accepted a Chair of Medieval and Renaissance
Literature at Cambridge, where he worked until his death on
22nd November 1963.
Young Clive Staples was gifted with a lucid mind, a fact not
fully manifest until his adult years. Still, at the age of four he
properly discerned that people had names and declared he
would rather be called 'Jack'. As Jack grew older, not
unnaturally, he began to lose his never-robust Christian
faith, a process set in motion by an early death of his
mother and completed under the influence of his tutor, W. T.
Kirkpatrick, a brilliant and compelling atheist logician. All
through his twenties Lewis remained an informed and
committed atheist. Then, at the age of 31, as he explains in
his autobiography, he converted to Christianity: "In the
Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was
God, and knelt and prayed; that night a most dejected and
reluctant convert in all England."1 The conversion experience
helped him understand not only religious indifference but
also obstinacy in disbelief. "Who can duly adore that Love
which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought
in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in
every direction for a chance to escape?" 2

Inspired by the faith, armed with Kirkpatrick's logic and his

own natural lucidity, Lewis went public with his Christianity,
producing a series of masterpieces in Christian apologetics,
remarkable in that normal people can understand them. The
Problem of Pain, The Abolition of Man, Miracles, Mere
Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce
written in the "spare time" between his Oxford tutorials
fully engage modernity and, for that reason, strike a cord
with all those who share modernist assumptions (that is,
with almost everybody). Through these works Lewis came to

be known as a formidable defender of Christianity, capable

of grasping with impressive clarity the meaning of modern
times, that "failed promise of the Enlightenment".
The Problem of Pain, the first of a series of popular works on
Christian doctrine, was written in 1940, twenty years before
his beloved wife, Joy Davidman, died of cancer in the third
year of their short-lived marriage. In the book Lewis
considers the problem of suffering from a purely theoretical
standpoint. Years later, struck with a daunting grief of a
mourning husband he will write another classic on pain, a
masterpiece of introspection: A Grief Observed. It takes
courage to live through suffering; and it takes honesty to
observe it. C. S. Lewis had both.

The existence of suffering in a world created by a good and

almighty God "the problem of pain" is a fundamental
theological dilemma and perhaps the most serious objection
to the Christian religion. The issue is serious enough already
in Theism. Christianity aggravates the problem by insisting
on Love as the essence of God; then, unexpectedly, it makes
a half turn and points to the Mystery of suffering to Jesus,
"the tears of God."3 Lewis does not propose to penetrate the
mystery. He is content enough with approaching pain as
mere problem that demands a solution; he formulates it and
goes about solving it. "If God were good, He would make His
creatures perfectly happy, and if He 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."4 With a characteristic conciseness and clarity Lewis
sets the stage for the entire book in the first paragraph of
Chapter 2. "The possibility of solving [the problem] 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,

meaning, then the argument is unanswerable". In the

remaining nine chapters, Lewis will develop this basic
statement through an in-depth reflection on divine
omnipotence, divine goodness, human condition, human and
animal pain, and last, but not least, hell and heaven.
The main argument of The Problem of Pain is preceded by a
presentation of an atheist objection to the existence of God
based on the observable futility of the universe. The book
starts on a personal note: "Not many years ago when I was
an atheist ". There follows a compelling picture of a
universe filled with futility and chance, darkness and cold,
misery and suffering; a spectacle of civilizations passing
away, of human race scientifically condemned to a final
doom and of a universe bound to die. Thus, "either there is
no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to
good and evil, or else an evil spirit". On the other hand, "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? [] The spectacle of the universe as
revealed by experience can never have been ground for
religion: it must always have been something in spite of
which religion, acquired from a different source, was held".
But, where should we look for the sources?
The "experience of the Numinous", a special kind of fear
which excites awe, exemplified by, but not limited to, fear of
the dead, yet going beyond mere dread or danger, is the
first source; the other is the moral experience; and both
"cannot be the result of inference from the visible universe"
for nothing in the visible universe suggests them. Likewise,
the identification of the Numinous with the Moral, "when the
Numinous Power to which [men] feel awe is made the
guardian of the morality to which they feel obligation" a
choice made by the Jews must be viewed as utterly
"unnatural" and very much unlike mere wish fulfillment, for
"we desire nothing less than to see that Law whose naked
authority is already insupportable armed with the

incalculable claims of the Numinous". In Christianity, a

historical component is added: an extraordinary man
walking about in Palestine, claiming to be "one with" the
Numinous and the Moral. Lewis develops a theme from
Chesterton5, the stupefying argument for the divinity of
Jesus. "Either He was a raving lunatic of an unusually
abominable type, or else He was, and is, precisely what He
said". Many regard Jesus as a holy man, a wise teacher: a
thoroughly good man. Yet, this is precisely what cannot be
held about him: sooner a lunatic or a deceiver than a mere
good man or else God himself. Aut Deus, aut homo
After this accelerated tour from atheism to Christianity,
Lewis is ready for his main argument. He starts with God
Almighty. What is the meaning of God's Omnipotence? Can
he do whatever he pleases? Yes, except the intrinsically
impossible. You may attribute miracles to him but not
nonsense: "Nonsense remains nonsense even if we talk it
about God." Probing further into Divine Omnipotence, Lewis
builds up a universe of his own: a universe in which
free souls, or perhaps, as we might say today, persons, can
communicate. In the process, he discovers that "not even
Omnipotence could create a society of free souls without at
the same time creating a relatively independent and
'inexorable' Nature"; that a fixed nature of matter implies a
possibility, though not a necessity, of evil and suffering, for
"not all states of matter will be equally agreeable to the
wishes of a given soul"; that souls, if they are free, may
take advantage of the fixed laws of nature to hurt one
another; that a "corrective" intervention by God in the laws
of nature, which would remove the possibility or the effect
of such abuse, while clearly imaginable, would eventually
lead to a wholly meaningless universe, in which nothing
important depended on man's choices. "Try to exclude the
possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the
existence of free-wills involve, and you will find that you
have excluded life itself". Thus, the universe as we know it

might as well be a product of a wise and omnipotent

Creator; it remains to be shown "how, perceiving a suffering
world, and being assured, on quite different grounds, that
God is good, we are to conceive that goodness and that
suffering without a contradiction". An exploration of God's
goodness might provide an answer.

God's idea of goodness is almost certainly unlike ours; yet,

God's moral judgment must differ from ours "not
as white from black but as a perfect circle from a child's first
attempt to draw a wheel" or we could mean nothing by
calling him good. Thus, where God means Love, we only
mean Kindness, "the desire to see others than self happy;
not happy in this way or in that, but just happy". We want
"not so much a Father but a grandfather in heaven", a God
"who said of anything we happened to like doing, 'What does
it matter so long as they are contented?'" (Let us note in
passing how much this confusion between Love and
Kindness is akin to our modern thinking: it sheds light on
many present controversies, from assisted suicide to
abortion to contraception.) But Love is not mere Kindness.
"Kindness cares not whether its object becomes good or
bad, provided only that it escapes suffering", while Love
"would rather see [the loved ones] suffer much than be
happy in contemptible and estranging modes".
The goodness of God means that we are true objects of his
love, not of his disinterested concern for our welfare. This
aspect of God's love for man is greatly illuminated by the
use of parallels from the Scripture. The reader is
overwhelmed with the seducing beauty and grandeur of
Lewis's imagery, as he develops the four scriptural analogies
to explain the relation between the Creator and his creature:
love of an artist for his artifact, love of a man for a beast, a
father's love for a son, and a man's love for a woman. Every
time an analogy is explored we stand in awe before the love

so intense and deep; and we wonder "why any creatures,

not to say creatures such as we, should have a value so
prodigious in their Creator's eyes"; and we wish God loved
us less. "You asked for a loving God: you have one. [] The
consuming fire 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". We
may wish for less love; but then we would dream an
impossible dream. God is our only good. He gives "what he
has, not what he has not; the happiness that there is, not
the happiness that is not. If we will not learn to eat the only
food that the universe grows the only food that any
possible universe ever can grow then we must starve
The awareness of a distinction between Love and Kindness
and the recognition of what it means to be the object of
God's love make it easier to comprehend why Love is not
incompatible with suffering. Because God loves us he will not
rest until he sees us wholly lovable. From that perspective,
the suffering of a creature in need of alteration is a mere
corollary to God's goodness. Yet, the problem is that the
perception of man's sinful condition, and hence of a real
need for alteration a thing obvious even to ancient pagans
has largely disappeared from the modern horizon,
rendering the Christian call to repentance and conversion
unintelligible. To talk to the modern man, Lewis insists,
"Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis in itself a
very bad news before it can win the hearing for the cure."
He considers two modern developments that contributed to
the rise of a belief in the original innocence: the reduction of
all virtues to kindness ("nothing except kindness is really
good"), and the effect of psychoanalysis on the public mind
("shame is dangerous and must be done away with").
"Kindness, he says, is a quality fatally easy to attribute to
ourselves on quite inadequate grounds", for we can feel
comfortably benevolent towards fellow men, as long as their

good does not conflict with ours. He then considers in some

detail the symptoms of man's wretchedness and brings us,
step by step, to an inescapable conclusion: "We are, at
present, creatures whose character must be, in some
respects, a horror to God, as it is, when we really see it, a
horror to ourselves." And at once we perceive a

How could a bad creature have come from the hands of a

good Creator? The Christian answer is that it did not: man,
and the rest of creation, was initially good, but through the
abuse of freedom, man made himself an abominable, wicked
creature he now is. This doctrine, which finds no support in
science only in the Scripture, in the human heart and in
newspapers is particularly foreign to the modern mind,
which operates within a progressivist and materialistic
paradigm. Lewis is aware of his reader's disposition; from
the outset, he insists that "science has nothing to say for or
against the doctrine of the Fall". Focusing his analysis on the
meaning of the terms 'savage' and 'brute', he shows that the
popular notion of a 'savage' needs correction: "The
prehistoric men who made the worst pottery might have
made the best poetry and we should never know it". Also, he
shows, there is no reason why mere "brutality" (in the sense
of "animality") of our remote ancestors should imply their
moral wickedness. Thus, it is conceivable that the paradisal
man possessed goodness along with his natural 'savagery'
and 'brutality'. He just may have been created good. He may
have walked in God's will. And he may have chosen to walk
out of it.
Scientific controversy out of the way, Lewis now gives his
account of Creation and Fall; and an unsuspecting reader,
who doubtless does not read St. Augustine, may be taken
off-guard. For a modern mind desires nothing less than to
see the "old Christian stuff", presumed dead for two hundred

years, brought back to life; much less to comprehend that

this is the very "stuff" that makes the whole Christian
doctrine hang together. "The world is a dance in which good,
descending from God, is disturbed by evil arising from the
creatures, and the resulting conflict is resolved by God's own
assumption of the suffering nature which evil produces. The
doctrine of the Fall asserts that the evil which thus makes
the fuel or raw material of the second and more complex
kind of good is not God's contribution but man's". Now, in
our time, the story ofParadise Lost, overly attacked from the
outside and gradually diluted from the inside, has reached a
peculiar status in the popular mind: because it is no longer
meant literally, many imagine it is hardly meant at all. And
no wonder; for the powerful biblical narrative that once
fertilized the imagination and thus appealed to the entire
man, not only to his intellect no longer operates on that
level: an abstract truth may feed a theologian; a man in the
street will starve. Ever aware of modern sensibilities, Lewis
reclothes the abstraction; he gives the imagination the food
it has been craving for; he restores drama, greatness and
amazement;7and, horror of horrors, he makes it all seem so
dangerously plausible. The entire book may be worth
reading if only to discover that the good old original sin is
alive and well: "We are not merely imperfect creatures that
need improvement: we are rebels that need lay down their

At this point in the argument, pain, no longer incompatible

with God's Goodness and Omnipotence, becomes to be seen
as God's way of accommodating the freedom of a rebel
creature. We have seen that in a stable and meaningful
universe a possibility of pain is inherent; and in a universe of
creatures, inclined, by virtue of their fallen nature, to move
away from God, evil becomes, so to speak, endemic. Yet,
God is in charge; he supervises the circulation of good and
evil; and He does it in a way that satisfies his Goodness,

that is, with total respect for man's freedom. Let Lewis
speak. "In the fallen and partially redeemed universe we
may distinguish (1) the simple good descending from God,
(2) the simple evil produced by rebellious creatures, and (3)
the exploitation of that evil by God for His redemptive
purpose, which produces (4) the complex good to which
accepted suffering and repented sin contribute. [] A
merciful man aims at his neighbour's good as so does 'God's'
will, consciously co-operating with 'the simple good'. A cruel
man oppresses his neighbour and so does simple evil. But in
doing such evil he is used by God, without his knowledge or
consent, to produce the complex good so that the first
man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool. 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". For Lewis, this divine design is a "tribulation
system", and he explains how pain operates within it.
The proper good of a creature is to surrender to its Creator.
However, the human spirit, hardened through "millennia of
usurpation", will not "even begin to try to surrender self-will
as long as all seems to be well with it." Thus, the function of
pain, on the lowest level, is to shatter the illusion that "all is
well", to plant "the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel
soul". "We may rest contentedly in our sins and in our
stupidities", but "pain insists on being attended to"; and, if
Lewis was writing today he might add: "it cannot be
On a higher level, pain shatters yet another illusion: that we
are self-sufficient; that all we have is our own doing. This is
perhaps where pain, when it afflicts "honest and decent
people", seems most cruel and undeserved. But Lewis calls it
a sign of "divine humility": it is "a poor thing to come to
[God] as a last resort, to offer up 'our own' when it is no
longer worth keeping. [] If God were a Kantian, who would
not have us till we came to Him from the purest and best
motives, who could be saved?" On the highest level, pain,

through trials and sacrifices, teaches true self-sufficiency: to

rely on God, to act out of heavenly strength, out of a purely
supernatural motive. When man acts in this way he becomes
a co-creator with God: "Human will becomes truly creative
and truly our own when it is wholly God's, and this is one of
the many senses in which he that loses his soul shall find it."
Thus, the ordinary function of pain within the tribulation
system is to make a creature's submission to the will of God
easier. Lest it should seem a justification of pain, Lewis
clarifies: "Pain hurts. That is what the word means. I am
only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine of being
made perfect through suffering is not incredible. To prove it
palatable is beyond my design." Alas, pain may also lead to
a refusal of God and to a final, unrepented rebellion. Lewis
does not shrink from considering this dreadful possibility.
Conscious of modern disgust with the idea of eternal
damnation, he examines common objections to the Christian
doctrine of hell and shows that it is both logical and moral.

A Christian reflection on pain must end with a vision of

heaven, the true end and home of humanity. Citing St. Paul,
Lewis contrasts the "suffering of the present time" with the
glory of heaven; but he insists that heaven is not a bribe, for
it "offers nothing that a mercenary soul could desire. It is
safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only
the pure in heart want to"(!). Lewis makes us desire heaven;
he even claims that, in our heart of hearts, we have never
desired anything else. "God will look to every soul like its
first love because He is its first love". And every soul is
unique: "Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you
alone, because you were made for it." In heaven, unique
souls reflect for one another some aspect of Divinity, which
each was made to contemplate. The pattern of self-giving is
the essence of heaven, as it is, the very core of reality: "For
in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm [] of all

being. [] From the highest to the lowest, self exists to be

abdicated and, by that abdication, becomes the more truly
self. [] This is not a heavenly law which we can escape by
remaining earthly, nor an earthly law which we can escape
by being saved. What is outside the system of self-giving is
not earth, nor nature, nor 'ordinary life', but simply and
solely hell".
In The Problem of Pain, published in 1940, Lewis offered the
reader this overly humble confession: "You would like to
know how I behave when I am experiencing pain, not
writing books about it. You need not guess for I will tell you;
I am a great coward." In a letter to his brother Warnie,
written while working on the book, he claimed: "If you are
writing a book about pain and then you get some actual pain
[] it does not either, as the cynic would expect, blow the
doctrine to bits, nor, as a Christian would hope, turn into
practice, but remains quite unconnected and irrelevant, just
as any other bit of actual life does when you are reading or
writing."8 Neither the confession nor the claim stood the test
of time. In 1961, Lewis wrote about pain again, this time
about his own. In A Grief Observed he satisfied, albeit
inadvertently, the alleged curiosity of his readers. But he did
not come across as a coward; nor did his firm grasp of "a
theory of suffering" prove altogether irrelevant. True, his
faith in God was challenged; he uttered blasphemies; he
doubted God's existence; worst of all, he went through the
very objections to God's goodness which he had refuted
in The Problem of Pain: they all seemed valid to a disabled
mind, under the sway of unbearable pain. But then, reason
returned: "Why do I make room in my mind for such filth
and nonsense? Do I hope that if feeling disguises itself as
thought I shall feel less?"9
When feeling disguises itself as thought, all nonsense is
possible. Nowhere is it truer than in the problem of pain.
Yet, from the Christian perspective, anything that can
reasonably be said about suffering is only a preamble to the

Mystery of the Cross. Lewis's solution to "the problem of

pain" prepares the intellect for a dive into the Mystery.

1. C. S. Lewis: Surprised by Joy.
2. Ibid.
3. For a Christian analysis of suffering as mystery, see
Peter Kreeft: Making Sense out of Suffering.
4. Unreferenced quotations are from C. S. Lewis: The
Problem of Pain.
5. G. K. Chesterton: The Everlasting Man.
6. For a systematic development of Lewis's argument see
Peter Kreeft: Between Heaven and Hell. The souls of C.
S. Lewis, J. F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley, who all died
on the same day of November 22nd 1963, argue about
Jesus' divinity while awaiting judgment.
7. For a dramatization of the narrative of the Fall and an
insight into the psyche of the unfallen creature see C.
S. Lewis's novel Perelandra.
8. Walter Hooper: C. S. Lewis, A Companion and Guide.
9. C. S. Lewis: A Grief Observed.

Bacz, Jacek. C.S. Lewis: The Problem of Pain. The Newman
Rambler (Spring 1999): 23-28.
Reprinted with permission of The Newman Rambler.

The Newman Rambler is published semi-annually by the

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Payable to: Newman Centre, at 3484 Peel Street, Montreal,
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Jacek Bacz has a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and works
as a consultant. He is interested in C.S. Lewis and Christian
Copyright 1999 The Newman Rambler