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The Problem of Pain – C. S. Lewis

April 8, 2015

TPOPI share the dislike which many of my generation have for C.S. Lewis yet occasionally read him for what can be-gleaned that might be useful as apologetics, whilst aware that a competent philosopher could run rings around his arguments.

To believe in God is irrational, given the amount of pain there is and the fact that it is not getting any better; advances in medical science are matched by advances in disease and in man’s capacity to destroy the world. Yet humans can sense awe and the fact that they protest against evil suggests that it is not the whole truth, that there is good against which it can be measured. Pain is only a problem, theologically, if one believes in a good god. Modern science accepts the irrational and that what is rational is so because of our attempts to find a pattern we can understand. God chooses to limit himself to allow us to have free will; this does not compromise his impassibility since he chooses to do it – supremely in Jesus. Four-fifths of this world’s evils are the fault of humans – if we could not choose to do evil, how could we be free and human? (So far so good – and it allows a sinless Christ to be yet human – he had the choice but chose not to sin and was thus the most fully human to live because he surrendered himself to the will of the Father and thereby lives fully in tune with human nature as it was meant to be.)

A world in which wood turned into something as soft as grass if used to hit me and yet retained its hardness when I wanted to build a cabinet would be inconsistent – the advantages of creation have built-in disadvantages if we misuse materials. This is part of the choice-procedure.

Our reasoning is bent because of the fall so we cannot fully appreciate the justice of God and more likely to blame him for what is/our own fault. A man punishing his child because he is worth the effort, because he loves him and wants him to grow up betted so with God when he punishes – not by arbitrary acts but by a universe programmed by cause and effect. (I can see that we create our own hell by living selfishly yet this Elizabethan world-view seems out of touch with modern thought, not that the spirit of the age is necessarily right but surely apologetics should show some knowledge of modern thought, which Lewis doesn’t apart from a few brief observations which he refutes without any reasons other than those which tie in with his medieval world view.)

When we are less than human, we are unhappy; our pain serves to remind us that there is something unhealthy about us, as does physical pain. With this I agree. Hence the Augustinian thing about our being unhappy until we find God.

Sin has a corporate aspect but this should not lead us to belittle our individual guilt – how true.

The chess player’s freedom to play a good game with experience depends upon their being rules which are fixed – a good analogy.

Sin is still sin, even when we can’t help it because we are caught up in it by structural evil (original sin redefined). A badly-behaved child is spoiled by his parents but we still desire his learning of manners.

God did not plan the Fall for a greater good. (Lewis here discounts considerable amounts of the writings of the early fathers who used the greater good idea to both keep God’s omnipotence and man’s status.)

Pain helps us to remember our dependence upon God. It is hard to remember God when all is well (really? I would argue that it is harder when in pain.)

Lewis goes on about the pattern of nature, dying to rise e.g. seeds, as showing the truth of ‘without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness’ (I don’t accept that; the idea is repugnant and senseless to people not steeped in biblical imagery in such a depth that they cannot see it afresh but are conditioned by early bible stories to see it as logical.)

As for suffering producing character, I haven’t seen enough of it to disprove him, but I suspect that it causes an equal amount of bitterness in many people.

Hell is argued for on the grounds that universalism denies man’s right to choose if he is compelled to love God in the end. I do not see why. If the fully human is in tune with God’s will and God wills all to be saved, can’t he programme events so that free will will ultimately be exercised in the love of God? Not that free will is lost thereby but that God allows an infinite time (a purgatory for all?) for this process to take place and in which he allows men the freedom to reject him continually and yet still sets up new routes around the continual rebellions.

Condoning and forgiving aren’t the same: forgiveness depends on man acknowledging his need of it? I don’t think that’s right – it is easy, indeed enjoyable, to for­give someone who apologises profusely because it makes me feel superior. Where forgiveness is hard is where I know the person is hardened or ignorant and will continue but I love them just the same – if that is condoning so be it – but it is not complacency which makes me want to forgive, it is the belief that not to forgive is to harden them yet further and the make them more defensive whereas to love than unconditionally draws a loving response from them eventually because they are accepted as they are not to remain as they are but to respond.

Lewis knows some theology; he accepts the limited knowledge of Jesus for example, as part of what it means to be incarnate, but he is really an evangelical trying to argue the case for God whose love and justice are weighed in the balance and whose son pays the price for sin etc. This is a form of Christianity which moves many because its justice is clear, its ideas are readily understood but whose morality is that of a child of twelve who believes in absolute fairness and who, unlike St. Paul, cannot accept that ‘while we were yet sinners’, God went ‘outside the

law’ – it is not about meeting the demands of a law, it is about accepting people as they are in order to draw from them the desire to become what they are made to be and in so doing find themselves.

If I want an acceptable book on theodicy, I turn to Rabbi Krushner’s ‘When bad things happen to good people;’ in which he suggests that evil and pain are part of the teething problems of a world in evolution in which God has not finished and by which he has made mistakes in the course of his giving freedom to us.


“If any real theologian reads these pages he will very easily see that they are the work of a layman and an amateur.”

“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.”

“We can…conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of this abuse of free will…at every moment…But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void.”

“The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word “love”, and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre, God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake”.

“Why do you not believe in God? ………The race is doomed (hardly) the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit. …..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?……At all times, then, an inference from the course of events in this world to the goodness and wisdom of the Creator would have been equally preposterous; and it was never made…….. never made at the beginnings of a religion. After belief in God has been accepted, `theodicies’ explaining, or explaining away, the miseries of life, will naturally appear often enough.”

“Either it is a mere twist in the human mind, corresponding to nothing objective and serving no biological function, yet showing no tendency to disappear from the mind at its fullest development in poet, philosopher, or saint: or else it is a direct experience of the really supernatural, to which the name Revelation might properly be given.”

“There is no middle way….Christianity is not the conclusion of a philosophical debate on the origins of the universe.”

“If God is Love, He is, by definition, something more than mere kindness…….lord of terrible aspect”, a consuming fire. “The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word `love’, and look on things as if man were the centre of them…God has no needs…God’s love, far from being caused by goodness in the object, causes all goodness which the object has, loving it first into existence and then into real, though derivative, lovability……If He requires us, the requirement is of His own choosing……humility that passes understanding……it is because we need to be needed…….for our sakes…to experience the love of God…is to experience it as surrender…….When we want to be something other than the thing God wants us to be, we must be wanting what, in fact, will not make us happy.” When we follow the demands of worshipful obedience, do we honestly suppose that it can do Him any good?

“A God who did not regard this with unappeasable distaste would not be a good being. We cannot even wish for such a God—-it is like wishing that every nose in the universe were abolished, that smell of hay or roses or the sea should never again delight any creature, because our own breath happens to stink.”

“The dangers of apparent self-sufficiency explain why Our Lord regards the vices of the feckless and dissipated so much more leniently than the vices that lead to worldly success. Prostitutes are in no danger of finding their present life so satisfactory that they cannot turn to God: the proud, the avaricious, the self-righteous, are in that danger.”

By the Lord’s love we suffer; this strengthens, and it also keeps us on the straight and narrow. If we are to look for easiness, then we are to look for less love. It is for our sake.

“The full acting out of the self’s surrender to God therefore demands pain: this action, to be perfect, must be done from the pure will to obey, in the absence, or in the teeth, of inclination. How impossible it is to enact the surrender of the self by doing what we like,………..”

“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.”

“The causes of this distribution I do not know; but from our present point of view it ought to be clear that the real problem is not why some humble, pious, believing people suffer, but why some do NOT (emphasis Lewis’, in italics). Our Lord Himself, it will be remembered, explained the salvation of those who are fortunate in this world only by referring to the unsearchable omnipotence of God.”

“If the world is indeed a ‘vale of soul making’ it seems on the whole to be doing its work.”

“Now error and sin both have this property, that the deeper they are the less their victim suspects their existence; they are masked evil…We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities…but pain insists upon being attended to.” God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: Pain is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

God’s will is determined by his wisdom which always perceives, and His goodness which always embraces, the intrinsically good.”

“The Divine “goodness” differs from ours, but it is not sheerly different; it differs from ours not as white from black, but as a perfect circle from a child’s first attempt to draw a wheel. But when the child has learned to draw, it will know that the circle it then makes is what it was trying to make from the very beginning.”

“On the one hand, if God is wiser than we His judgement must differ from ours on many things, and not least on good and evil. What seems to us good may therefore not be good in His eyes, and what seems to us evil may not be evil.”

“the real problem is not why some humble, pious, believing people suffer, but why some do not.”

“I have seen great beauty of spirit in some who were great sufferers. I have seen men, for the most part, grow better not worse with advancing years, and I have seen the last illness produce treasures of fortitude and meekness from most unpromising subjects.”

“What are you asking God to do? Wipe out their sins? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.”

“I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside”

‘The possibility of pain in inherent in the very existence of a world where souls can meet’

‘When souls become wicked they will certainly use this possibility to hurt one another; and this, perhaps, accounts for four-fifths of the sufferings of men.’

We can rest contentedly in our sins and our stupidities; and anyone who has watched gluttons shovelling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating, will admit that we can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to.

“the possibility of pain is inherent in the very existence of a world where souls can meet. When souls become wicked they will certainly use this possibility to hurt one another; and this, perhaps, accounts for four-fifths of the sufferings of men. It is men, not God, who have produced racks, whips, prisons, slavery, guns, bayonets, and bombs; it is by human avarice or human stupidity, not by the churlishness of nature, that we have poverty and overwork. But there remains, nonetheless, much suffering which cannot be traced to ourselves. Even if all suffering were man-made, we should like to know the reason for the enormous permission to torture their fellows which God gives to the worst of men.”

“It has sometimes been asked whether God commands certain things because they are right, or whether certain things are right because God commands them… I emphatically embrace the first alternative. The second might lead to the abominable conclusion… that charity is good only because God arbitrarily commanded it—that He might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another and that hatred would then have been right… But … we must add that one of the things intrinsically good is that rational creatures should freely surrender themselves to their Creator in obedience.”

“I am a great coward… If I knew any way of escape I would crawl through sewers to find it… I am not arguing that pain is not painful. Pain hurts… 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.”

“There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words; it 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……I am not going to try to prove the doctrine tolerable. Let us make no mistake; it is NOT tolerable. But I think the doctrine can be shown to be moral by a critique of the objections ordinarily made, or felt, against it.”

“What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is ‘remains’… It is… impossible to imagine what the consciousness of such a creature—already a loose congeries of mutually antagonistic sins rather than a sinner—would be like…….I notice that Our Lord, while stressing the terror of hell with unsparing severity, usually emphasizes the idea, not of duration but of FINALITY. Consignment to the destroying fire is usually treated as the end of the story—not the beginning of a new story. That the lost soul is eternally fixed in its diabolical attitude we cannot doubt: but whether this eternal fixity implies endless duration—or duration at all—we cannot say.”

“As for the fact of sin, is it probable that anything cancels it? All times are eternally present to God. Is it not at least possible that along some one line of His multi-dimensional eternity He sees you forever in the nursery pulling the wings off a fly, forever toadying, lying, lusting as a schoolboy, forever in that moment of cowardice or insolence as a subaltern? It may be that salvation consists not in the cancelling of these eternal moments but in the perfected humanity that bears the shame forever, rejoicing in the occasion which it furnished to God’s compassion and glad that it should be common knowledge to the universe. Perhaps in that eternal moment St Peter – he will forgive me if I am wrong – forever denies his Master. If so, it would indeed be true that the joys of Heaven are for most of us, in our present condition, ‘an acquired taste’ – and certain ways of life may render the taste impossible of acquisition. Perhaps the lost are those who dare not go to such a public place. Of course I do not know that this is true; but I think the possibility is worth keeping in mind.”

“You asked for a lov­ing God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the “lord of ter­ri­ble aspect,” is present: not a senile benev­o­lence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a con­sci­en­tious mag­is­trate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the com­fort of his guests, but the con­sum­ing fire Him­self, the Love 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.”

‘The complete silence of Scripture and Christian tradition on animal immortality is a more serious objection; but it would be fatal only if Christian revelation showed any signs of being intended as a “system de la nature” answering all questions. But it is nothing of the sort.’

“So far as we know beasts are incapable either of sin or virtue: therefore they can neither deserve pain nor be improved by it. At the same time we must never allow
the problem of animal suffering to become the centre of the problem of pain; not because it is unimportant – whatever furnishes plausible grounds for questioning the goodness of God is very important indeed – but because it is outside the range of our
knowledge. God has given us data which enable us, in some degree, to understand our own suffering: He has given us no such data about beasts.”

“And in this way it seems to me possible that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters. And the difficulty about personal identity in a creature barely personal disappears when the creature is thus kept in its proper context. If you ask, concerning an animal thus raised as a member of the whole Body of the homestead, where its personal identity resides, I answer `Where its identity always did reside even in the earthly life — in its relation to the Body and, specially, to the master who is the head of that Body.’ In other words, the man will know his dog: the dog will know its master and, in knowing him, will be itself. To ask that it should, in any other way, know itself, is probably to ask for what has no meaning. Animals aren’t like that, and don’t want to be.”

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From → Doctrine, Philosophy

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