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Problem Of Pain (C.S. Lewis)

This essay comprises the gist of The Problem of Pain by C.S.Lewis. This apologetic classic ought to be read alongside Lewis’ later work, A Grief Observed [1]. The first book was written from his head, the second from his heart (after his wife died). Make sure you see the film/video about C S Lewis and Joy Davidman – Shadowlands. The Problem of Pain has some brilliant insights. This paper will provide a good basis for an adult group discussion.


‘If God were good, he would wish to make his creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty he would be able to do as he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.’

These creatures cause pain be being born, live by inflicting pain, and in pain they mostly die. Why?

And however did human beings attribute the universe to the activity of a wise and good Creator? All of the great religions were first preached, and long practised, in a world without chloroform! Christianity, in a sense, creates the ‘problem of pain’ by postulating that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.


The Bible asserts that ‘with God all things are possible’. This must tacitly exclude, of course, the intrinsically impossible – you may attribute miracles to God, but not nonsense. In God’s universe there are physical and moral laws, which may operate beneficially for some but not for others: water which is ‘beautifully hot’ to a Japanese adult in a Sento bath will burn a small child. Morally, because wrong actions result where free wills operate, the possibility of suffering is inevitable. God does not violate the aggressive person’s will to strike the innocent.


When Christians say that ‘God is Love’, what do they mean? Is he a senile benevolence who wishes you to be happy in your own way? A disinterested cosmic magistrate? Or a mere ‘heavenly host’ who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests? No, no and no. 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 his love is a ‘consuming fire’ he must labour to make us truly lovable, and when we are such as he can love without impediment, only then shall we in fact be truly happy. Nor is God’s love selfishly possessive, like that of an immature parent. He who lacks nothing chooses to need us, but only because we need to be needed. His commands to worship and obey him marshall us towards our most utter ‘good’ if only we knew it. Thus there are only three real alternatives: to be God; to be like God and to share his goodness in creaturely response; and to be miserable.


Because some psychoanalysts have explained away the old Christian sense of sin, God easily seems to us to be impossibly demanding, or else inexplicably angry. To our resentful consciousness the ‘wrath’ of God seems a barbarous doctrine. Occasionally we might admit our guilt, or perhaps blame ‘the system’, or hope that time will heal our past misdemeanours. But the fact and guilt of sin are not erased by time, but by contrite repentance and the blood of Christ. God’s road to the Promised Land runs first past Sinai, and then Calvary. We are creatures whose basic character is a horror to God, as it is, when we really see it, a horror to ourselves.

We humans have deliberately abused our free-will, one of God’s best gifts to us. And we are not getting any better – not even the animals treat other creatures as badly as humans sometimes treat other humans. From the moment a creature becomes aware of God as God, and of itself as self, there is the danger of self-idolatry, pride. But God has the antidote: he saw the crucufixion of his Son in the act of creating the first nebulae. God himself assumes the suffering nature which evil produces, and offers forgiveness, and life in Christ.


Probably four-fifths of all human suffering derives from our misusing nature, or hurting other people. We, not God, have produced racks, whips, prisons, guns and bombs. It is by human avarice and stupidity that we suffer all of our ‘social’ evils.

Because we are rebels against God who must lay down our arms, our other pains may indeed constitute God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world to surrender. There is a universal feeling that bad people ought to suffer: without a concept of ‘retribution’ punishment is rendered unjust (what can be more immoral than to inflict suffering on me for the sake of deterring others if I do not deserve it?). But until the evil person finds evil unmistakably present in his or her existence, in the form of pain, we are enclosed in illusion. Pain, as God’s megaphone, gives us the only opportunity we may have for amendment. It plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul. All of us are aware that it is very hard to turn our thoughts to God when things are going well. To ‘have all we want’ is a terrible saying when ‘all’ does not include God. We regard him as we do a heart-lung machine – there for emergencies, but we hope we’ll never have to use it.

So God troubles our selfishness, which stands between us and the recognition of our need. God’s divine humility stoops to conquer, even if we choose him merely as an alternative to hell. Yet even this he accepts!

Although pain is never palatable, we humans are in some senses made ‘perfect through suffering’. I see in Johnson and Cowper, for example, traits which might scarcely have been tolerable if they had been happier. Suffering is not a ‘good’ in itself, and we certainly want no Tamberlaines proclaiming themselves the ‘scourge of God’. Very occasionally humans may be entitled to hurt their fellows (eg, parents, magistrates or surgeons)

but only where the necessity is urgent, the attainable good obvious, and when the one inflicting the pain has proper authority to do so. Only a Satan transgresses beyond these. (Luke 13:16)

A Christian cannot believe, either, that merely reforming our economic, political or hygienic systems will eventually eliminate pain and create a heaven on earth. God does indeed provide us with some transient joy, pleasure, and even ecstasy here, but never with permanent security, otherwise we might ‘mistake our pleasant inns for home’.


What about the ‘pain of guiltless hurt which doth pierce the sky’? Do the beasts, and plants, ‘feel’? Certainly both may react to injury but so does the anaesthetised human body; reaction therefore does not prove sentience. Perhaps – we cannot be sure – we have committed the fallacy of reading into other areas of life a ‘suffering self’ for which there may be no real evidence.


The doctrine of hell, although barbarous to many, has the full support of Scripture, especially of our Lord’s own words; and has always been held by Christendom. And it has the support of Reason: if a game is played it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in voluntary self-surrender to God, it also has the right to voluntarily refuse.

I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved’. But my reason retorts, ‘Without their will, or with it’? In fact, God has paid the price, and herein lies the real problem: so much mercy, yet still there is hell.

God can’t condone evil, forgiving the wilfully unrepentant. Lost souls have their wish – to live wholly in the Self, and to make the best of what they find there. And what they finds there is hell. Should God increase our chances to repent? I believe that if a million opportunities were likely to do good, they would be given. But finality has to come some time. Our Lord uses three symbols to describe hell – everlasting punishment (Matthew 25:46), destruction (Matthew 10:28), and privation, exclusion, banishment (Matthew 22:13). The image of fire illustrates both torment and destruction (not annihilation – the destruction of one thing issues in the emergence of something else, in both worlds). It may be feasible that hell is hell not from its own point of view, but from that of heaven. And it is also possible that the eternal fixity of the lost soul need not imply endless duration. Our Lord emphasises rather the finality of hell. Does the ultimate loss of a soul mean the defeat of Omnipotence? In a sense, yes. The damned are successful rebels to the end, enslaved within the horrible freedom they have demanded. The doors of hell are locked on the inside.

In the long run, objectors to the doctrine of hell must answer this question: What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins, and at all costs to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty, and offering every miraculous help? But he has done so – in the life and death of his Son. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, that is what he does. Hell, it must be remembered, is not only inhabited by Neros or Judas Iscariots or Hitlers. They were merely the principal actors in this rebellious drama.


‘I consider,’ said Paul, ‘that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us’ (Romans 8:18). God’s heaven is not a bribe: it offers nothing a mercenary soul can desire. The great summons to heaven is that away from self. This is the ultimate law – the seed dies to live, the bread must be cast upon the waters, if you lose your soul you’ll save it. Perhaps self-conquest will never end; eternal life may mean an eternal dying. It is in this sense that, as there may be pleasures in hell (God shield us from them), there may be something not at all unlike pains in heaven (God grant us soon to taste them).



[1] Important note in Alister McGrath’s 2012 book Mere Apologetics: C S Lewis in The Problem of Pain speaks of ‘suffering as God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world…” Many feel that this approach is a little simplistic and inadequate when confronted with the brutal, harsh reality of suffering… His famous work A Grief Observed is a powerful critique of his own earlier approach (173). 



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