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The Problem of Pain

C. S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain is a layman’s look at how Christians reconcile the existence of pain with the belief in God’s goodness. How can a good God allow His creatures to suffer?

I have several issues with Lewis’ theology and presuppositions. I’m going to outline these before discussing the parts of the book that I thought were excellent. One of the big things wrong with this book is Lewis’ too-ready acceptance of evolution and all the necessary adjustments it requires in the story of the Fall, etc. Lewis makes up his own projected creation/evolution myth, and traces the Fall from it instead of from the biblical account. Making up creation myths is fine, but not in a nonfiction book. His explanation of the Fall and the resulting sin and suffering is rather convoluted and complicated because it tries to reconcile everything, when really there is no need to reconcile incorrect views with correct ones.

The second problem I have with Lewis’ theology is his strongly Arminian position. I believe in sovereign grace, and our starting points are so different. Because of this, I find that I strongly disagree with several of Lewis’ logical conclusions, and I believe they proceed from faulty premises. One such passage is found in chapter three, where he writes:

The doctrine of Total Depravity — when the consequence is drawn that, since we are totally depraved, our idea of good is worth simply nothing — may thus turn Christianity into a form of devil worship.

If Lewis can be that harsh on an opposing belief, so can I. He oversimplifies Total Depravity and completely misses its point. It is not that human beings have no sense of right and wrong, but that every part of us is tainted to some extent by the Fall. There is no island of goodness and purity in me; sin has touched every part. That does not mean that I am as bad as I could be. It simply means that though I may have a faint inkling of what is right, my view is never fully clear until the Spirit opens my eyes.

Another reviewer has mentioned Lewis’ annihilistic tendencies, and I agree they are problematic in light of Scripture. He doesn’t commit himself completely to the notion that the damned will cease to be, but you can tell he wishes it were so, and would like to find a way to logically prove it.

Now for the good points. Lewis made a casual reference to “officious vicarious indignation” on the part of a friend that can hamper the development of patience and grace in a sufferer. I found that very convicting! I tend to be very protective of the people I love, and when a person I care about is wronged and suffers as a result, my righteous indignation is certainly expressed. How new a thought to me that my indignation could actually be impairing what God is working in that life.

I was also very impressed by his reasoning on the need for the self to be conscious of the other in order to have any kind of awareness of self. Lewis writes that this might at first seem to present a problem to theists; how could God know He had a Self if there was nothing and no one else, no other? But the fact of the Trinity explains how God could be self-aware before He created the universe.

I appreciate his explanation of the logical impossibility of doing two opposite things at the same time. God cannot give us freedom without giving us freedom to experience the consequences of our choices. This is not something that limits God or encroaches on His omnipotence.

I thought the chapter on animal pain was also very good — although I’m sure many animal-rights activists would not agree. I think Lewis is right that we project human-like qualities on to animals that they simply don’t have. Can an animal be aware of (and possess) a selfhood? Lewis argues it cannot, and his arguments are convincing. And how can something that is not aware of itself as a self suffer pain? Pain can take place in that body, certainly, but can it be processed and understood as pain by the animal’s mind? Lewis does take into account the higher animals, like dogs and others, that seem to possess human-like qualities, and even talks about his belief that the animals that are part of our lives here on earth will also, in some sense, be present in heaven.

Another thing that struck me as particularly was Lewis’ discussion of heaven. In Revelation it talks about Christ giving each saint a stone with his own name on it, that no one else knows except himself. Lewis speculates on why such a statement would be made, concluding that we will retain our unique identities in heaven, even though we are perfected and united with Christ in blessedness. And each of us can praise a certain aspect of God better than anyone else; we need that individuality to glorify Him. If we didn’t have it, Lewis argues, the church would be like an orchestra in which every instrument played the same note.

There are some wonderful quotes in this book. I’ll give a few:

A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.

When I think of pain—of anxiety that gnaws like fire and loneliness that spreads out like a desert, and the heartbreaking routine of monotonous misery, or again of dull aches that blacken our whole landscape or sudden nauseating pains that knock a man’s heart out at one blow, of pains that already seem intolerable and then are suddenly increased, of infuriating scorpion-stinging pains that startle into maniacal movement a man who seemed half dead with his previous tortures—it ‘quite o’ercrows my spirit.’ If I knew any way of escape I would crawl through sewers to find it. But what is the good of telling you my feelings? You know them already; they are the same as yours.

There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering if we have ever desired anything else. You may have noticed that the books you love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that makes you love them, though you cannot put it into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should like that… We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and inappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.

Though I don’t agree with several of Lewis’ conclusions because of our different theological presuppositions, on the whole I found this book to be very insightful. I know I will remember many of the points he made, and of course his writing style is superb. The subjects he raises will make you think long after the last page is turned, for pain is universal. This is an excellent read.  )

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