Summary: C. S. Lewis’ offers his insight on the problem of evil: "How can a wise, loving, and all-powerful God allow his creatures to suffer?"
The Life & Legacy of C. S. Lewis #6
“The Problem of Pain”
I’ve always been intrigued by the opening lines of books. (There is Charles Dickens’ “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” Rick Warren begins The Purpose-Friven Life with “It’s not about you.” M. Scott Peck swets out on The Road Less Traveled with “Life is difficult.”) Lewis launches The Problem of Pain with these memorable words: “Not many years ago when I was an atheist…”
One of the reasons C. S. Lewis was so uniquely qualified to write about the Christian faith was the fact that he had, as a young man, totally rejected it. He had regarded Christianity as “one mythology of many” and in an early poem had dismissed the idea of “a just God that cares for earthly pain” as nothing more than a “dream”. (1) So when publisher Ashley Sampson asked him to contribute a volume on the problem of pain to his Christian Challenge series, Lewis was able to bring to the book not only the faith he’d come to embrace, but the questions that had once troubled him so deeply.
There are hints that Lewis was a bit reluctant to write The Problem of Pain or, at least, that he approached the task modestly. “The only purpose of the book is to solve the intellectual problem raised by suffering,” he writes in the preface. “For the far higher task of teaching fortitude and patience I was never fool enough to suppose myself qualified…” Reluctant to publish the book under his own name, he characterized it as “the work of a layman and an amateur.” In fact, it is a brilliant book, typical Lewis, deep and clear as a mountain lake, completely original and yet faithful to biblical and church tradition. I would love to have been at one of the meetings of the Inklings when Tolkien read from The Hobbit while Lewis shared The Problem of Pain, when both were works in progress.
In his introduction Lewis describes the pessimistic worldview he embraced when he was an atheist. “Creatures cause pain by being born, and live by inflicting pain, and in pain they mostly die… History is largely a record of crime, war, disease, and terror… The race is doomed…” You get the picture. (He sounds more like Woody Allen than C. S. Lewis!) But, he notes, “I never noticed that the very strength of the pessimists’ case at once poses a problem. 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?” (2) He goes on to describe the origin of religion, which has three strands, to which the Christian faith adds a fourth.
First, there is our “experience of the Numinous” (a kind of holy awe or fear). Second, there is an acknowledgement of a universal standard of morality which we all fail to practice. (In The Abolition of Man Lewis refers to this as the Tao and gives extensive examples of its universal nature in the appendix. He likewise begins Mere Christianity with a memorable discussion of this universal standard we all acknowledge but fail to practice.) Third, there is a combining of those two (we believe in a God who is both holy and good and the combination seems natural enough to us but, Lewis reminds us, there are non-moral religions and non-religious moralities). The fourth element is an historical event, the birth of Jesus Christ who claimed to be one with the God who is both good and holy, and either he was a lunatic or he was and is what he said. Interestingly, Lewis says that belief in a good and holy God “in a sense… creates, rather than solves the problem of pain…” (3)
In the chapter Divine Omnipotence Lewis states the problem: “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God 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.’ This is the problem of pain, in its simplest form." (4) So what gives? Lewis helps us see what omnipotence really means, particularly in light of the fact that the omnipotent God we believe in and worship used His omnipotence to create us with free will. God’s Omnipotence, Lewis writes, “means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to His power. If you choose to say ’God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it’, you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ’God can’. …It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God." (5)