Saturday, 10 December 2011

A review on C S Lewis, The problem of pain

C S Lewis is one of the most loved and respected names in Christian Literature in the last century. J.I Packer a heavyweight theologian writes of Lewis’s influence in his article titled, ‘The Literary bloke’ that among today’s Christians, the name of the Anglican Clive Staple Lewis of Ulster of Oxford and of Cambridge is a household word… Countless copies of his Mere Christianity and Screwtape Letters have resourced the past half-century's evangelism and nurture; countless copies of A Grief Observed have helped bereaved believers, and countless copies of the Narnia stories have enriched half a century's children. Conservative Christians everywhere - centrists and mainliners, as I would call them - see Lewis as one of God's best gifts to our era of anxiety, disbelieve, and moral and spiritual drift.[1]

C S Lewis became a Christian in 1929 after spending many years as an atheist. His conversion was simple and profound as He writes in his autobiography, "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."[2] Lewis is quick to note that this ‘conversion’ was simply to theism, not full-blown Christianity which would come later. His full-blown conversion to Christianity came one afternoon as he was setting off to the zoo and as he reached his destination he believed that Jesus is the Son of God.

Lewis produced a series of masterpieces in Christian Apologetics such as The Problem of Pain, The Abolition of Man, Miracles, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Great Divorce. Through these works, Lewis came to be known as a formidable defender of the Christian faith.

The Problem of Pain

In this brief book, The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis offers a brilliant defence of Christian theism despite the pain in the world. The Problem of Pain is another attempt at Christian theodicy, the defence of God’s goodness in the face of the world’s evils. Lewis’s arguments are similar to many theodicies in that it contains ideas of previous and present Christian thinkers. Lewis’s main argument is that man’s suffering is a result of free will not an original creation of God thus not marring God’s goodness or character. Lewis observes the notion that "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."[3] Lewis believed that this is the problem of pain in its simplest form. Lewis with great clarity tells his readers how this problem can be solved when he writes: "The possibility of answering it 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". But the argument is not unanswerable as Lewis in the following nine chapters develop this statement through a detailed reflection on Divine Omnipotence, Divine Goodness, Human wickedness, The Fall of Man, Human pain, Hell, Animal Pain and Heaven.

In Chapter 1 the introduction, Lewis begins on a personal note, “Not many years ago when I was an atheist if anyone had asked me, "Why do you not believe in God?" my reply would have run something like this: "Look at the universe we live in…”. Lewis describes a meaningless universe that has no purpose because all the scientific evidence points to an ever-expanding universe which began by mere chance and consequently will end in doom. Earth, for millions of years, was empty and will empty all life from its atmosphere and all stories will come to nothing. As an atheist, he could not believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, and confesses that “all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit."

Lewis noticed that the very strength and facility of the pessimists' case at once poses us 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?” A skeptic may simply reply that it was the result of wishful thinking but Lewis affirms that this attribute or spectacle of the universe is something religion acquired from a different source. The source is to be found with the three elements found in all developed religions and in Christianity one more. The three elements found in all religions are: The experience of the Numinous (A sense of awe), the Sense of Morality, and the Numinous as the Guardian of Morality. 

Christianity contains a fourth element: A Redeemer who reconciles fallen mankind to the Righteous God. Lewis sums up this argument with the concrete view that we could not have invented the story of Christ ourselves, therefore, we have a good God and this very fact creates the problem of pain, rather than solving it because if God is not good then the problem of pain would never arise.

After establishing the fact that the reason why we have the problem of pain is because we have a good God, Lewis begins with God Almighty. What is the meaning of God’s omnipotence? Lewis describes God’s omnipotence to mean that God does not have the power to do anything but God does have the power to do anything that is consistent with his nature. “God has the power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. We may attribute miracles to him, but not nonsense.” Lewis then submits the idea that not even omnipotence could create a society of free souls without at the same time creating a relatively independent and “inexorable” nature. The universe Lewis establishes is a world where free souls can communicate and have the freedom to choose. These souls being free, may take advantage of fixed laws of nature to hurt one another and if we “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”. Humans, therefore, possess a free will and as a consequence pain is unavoidable unless Man constantly chooses that which is the best for him, namely, God. Lewis also speaks of the freedom of God writing that “The freedom of God consists in the fact that no cause other than Himself produces His acts and no external obstacle impedes them - that His own goodness is the root from which they all grow and His own omnipotence the air in which they all flower.” Lewis ends the chapter with the view that the universe is the creation of a wise and omnipotent God but how can we be assured that God is good and not see a contradiction on how God could be good and let pain exist in His world.

Lewis’s big idea in his 3rd chapter Divine goodness is that God’s definition of goodness must include human pain. The dilemma is this: “If God is wiser than we His judgment 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. On the other hand, if God’s moral judgment differs from ours so that our black may be His white, we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say, ‘God is Good,’ while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say, ‘God is we know not what.” Lewis proposes an escape from this dilemma by suggesting that since God is our moral compass there must then be a degree of agreement between both parties. Lewis uses this analogy to explain how we can come to an agreement: “when the man of inferior moral standards enters the society of those who are better and wiser than he and gradually learns to accept their standards.” The inferior party, in this case, is Man who needs to enter the society of God and as man begins to learn of God’s moral standard God will only ask men to reverse theirs. God’s moral judgement thus differs from ours “not as white from black but as a perfect circle from a child’s first attempt to draw a wheel.” Lewis asserts that “when Man speaks of the goodness of God they mean almost exclusively His lovingness. Thus when Christians say that God is love we interpret it to only mean kindness - the desire to see others than the self-happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, "What does it matter so long as they are contented?" We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven - a senile benevolence who, as they say, "liked to see young people enjoying themselves". Lewis discards this view of love and says that God’s love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness. Lewis describes the nature of this love and that we are the object of His serious love. We have a loving God who desires the best for us “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.” Thus God may use suffering to prune his creatures until they are lovable because this is the aim of his love. Pain and divine goodness viewed from this perspective only affirms the goodness of God’s character and pain is corollary to God’s goodness. Pain is thus necessary for the alteration of Man’s character because men need such alteration. Lewis covers this necessity in chapter 4 Human wickedness.

Men have abused their free-will to become very bad, therefore a God of love must hate sin and be full of wrath against it. Men long ago, in the time of the apostles had a real consciousness of deserving the divine anger thus the gospel was preached as a remedy. But today argues Lewis, all this has changed, and “Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis - in itself very bad news - before it can win a hearing for the cure. For generations, human goodness has been preached to us, and thus when we merely say that we are bad, the wrath of God seems a barbarous doctrine; as soon as we perceive our badness, it appears inevitable, a mere corollary from God’s goodness.” Thus the problem is with man and not with God. Lewis then devotes some time in undoing false beliefs and shattering the idea that Man is good and not wicked. Lewis points out the fact that moral beliefs contain basic consistencies regardless of background; each belief agrees that man has problem and needs fixing. God is morally perfect and we are not, He is Holy and we are not, therefore, Lewis in this chapter has been trying to make the reader believe that “we actually 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 because we are a horror to ourselves and abominable to God, God’s love seeks to change that through the gospel, namely, through the death of God’s Son which was an event that could not be accomplished except through pain.[4]

Lewis explains the reason why this state of affair came about which he rightly understood to be the Christian doctrine of the fall of man. According to that doctrine, writes Lewis, “man is now a horror to God and to himself and a creature ill-adapted to the universe not because God made him so but because he has made himself so by the abuse of his free will.” Lewis then discusses two theories on the origin of evil: Monism and Dualism. Both these views tarnishes the goodness of God’s character but the Christian doctrine of the fall of man asserts that “God is good; that He made all things good and for the sake of their goodness; that one of the good things He made, namely, the free will of rational creatures, by its very nature included the possibility of evil; and that creatures, availing themselves of this possibility, have become evil.” Man was created to serve and love God, sin is a rejection of this which is our most basic function and it results in human wickedness and creates a world where man is hurtful towards one another. God allows this because men have free-will and were he to step in at every turn we would not really have free choices. One could argue that the choices are still free but at every turn, God is choosing out of his own sovereign goodness to immediately correct the bad choices.

Lewis spends the next two chapters dealing with human pain. The big idea in his first dealing with human pain is that the value of pain shatters our illusion. Pain shatters the illusion that all is well “We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities; and anyone who has watched gluttons shoveling 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 on being attended to. 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.”

Pain shatters the illusion that we have all we need: “Let me implore the reader to try to believe, if only for a moment, that God, who made these deserving people, may really be right when he thinks that their modest prosperity and the happiness of their children are not enough to make them blessed: that all this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched.”

Pain shatters the illusion of human divinity: “the movement ‘full speed astern’ by which we retrace our long journey from paradise, the untying of the old, hard knot, must be when the creature, with no desire to aid it, stripped naked to the bare willing of obedience, embraces what is contrary to its nature, and does that for which only one motive is possible.”

Pain is thus meant to be a guide, a teacher of true self-sufficiency that is to make us rely solely on God and to help us submit to the divine will. A scriptural support for Lewis’s views is perhaps Hebrews 12:10-11, ‘For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.’

Lewis 2nd dealing with Human Pain deals with six propositions regarding pain which Lewis saw as necessary to complete our account of human suffering which do not arise out of one another and must therefore be given in an arbitrary order. The six propositions are (the list will only be listed and nothing more will be said about them):1. There is a paradox tribulation in Christian suffering. 2. Tribulation is necessary in redemption. 3. The Christian doctrine of self-surrender and obedience is purely theological and not political. 4. The Christian doctrine of suffering explains the world we live in. 5. We must never overestimate pain.
6. Of all evils, pain only is sterilized or disinfected evil.

Lewis sums up this chapter lingering on his last proposition that pain when done is done, contrary to un-repented sin which is a fountain of continual and fresh errors. Lewis also understood that pain may not yield the desired effect which will lead to eternal damnation and therefore devotes the next chapter on hell. Lewis expresses his own disgust with the notion of hell but He defends it showing that it is both logical and moral. Lewis writes -“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.” 

Lewis devotes chapter nine to animal pain and Lewis confesses himself that the Christian explanation of human pain cannot be extended to animal pain and about the end of animals, which we just don’t know. Perhaps Lewis could have devoted a chapter to whether angels felt pain or perhaps the angels who feels pain are the fallen ones.

Lewis ends His book on the vision of heaven which is the true end and home of humanity. Lewis’s big idea in this chapter is that heaven is the solution to the problem of pain. Christians should not be afraid to speak of heaven although it may be ridiculed as a ‘pie in the sky’, or that heaven is a bribe. We should desire it and in fact the desire for heaven is the secret signature of each soul. Your soul Lewis writes has a “curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions.”


*missing from this review is my own personal views whether I agree or disagree with Lewis

[1] The Literary Bloke (1998) J I Packer

[2] C.S. Lewis: Surprised by Joy

[3] All quotation without refrence are from the problem of pain. I read the book on a PDF without page numbers.

[4] My personal inferenc
e from what Lewis may mean

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