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Book Review of "The Problem of Pain" by C. S. Lewis

Lewis, Clive Staples. The Problem of Pain. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.

Clive Staples Lewis’s ability to connect with the individual reader, regardless of their station in life, is on full display in his classic work, The Problem of Pain. Lewis began his career at Oxford University prior to finishing his career at Cambridge University. As one of the most prolific and distinguished authors of the past century, his impact on the world has been immense. He has written many other well-known titles such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia.

In The Problem of Pain, Lewis aims to “solve the intellectual problem raised by suffering” (2). He acknowledges his position as “a layman” under the authority of the Church of England, and desires to communicate the challenges of suffering to the common person (2). While he acknowledges his desire but inability to convey “fortitude and patience,” he writes with the hope that his work will convey a “little courage . . . a little human sympathy . . . and the least tincture of the love of God more than all” (2).

The Problem of Pain can be divided into three parts. The first part focuses on God’s omnipotence and his goodness. Lewis begins his work by sharing his own testimony as an atheist coming to understand the “unexpectedness . . . rough, male taste of reality” that Christianity presents (12). He contends that Christianity “creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain” (12). He also suggests that the most significant hurdle to this problem is the belief that an omnipotent God would seem to lack either goodness, power, or both if he was unwilling to make His creatures inexorably happy (13). Yet, he displays the fallacy of this view in arguing that God’s omnipotence goes far beyond common reductionistic view of reducing his love to the mere kindness of a “heavenly grandfather.” Lewis shows how God’s love entails the longing for a much deeper happiness for his creatures, which causes him to labor on their behalf to make them more lovable (28). Pain, when understood in this light, becomes an integral part of this process.

The second part of his work focuses on humanity’s wickedness, fall, and experience of pain. Lewis explains that those who he has come to know as the holiest of men are those who have come to acknowledge the horrors that lie within themselves and their tendencies to abuse God’s gracious gift of their free will for their own pleasures (42-43). Having lost the goodness of God’s original design from the evil that arose from within, Lewis contends that what humanity now calls good must be “primarily remedial or corrective good” (52-53, 56). Pain is what God uses as a “megaphone to rouse a deaf world” that provides sinful men and women their only chance at amendment by removing the veil of their unrepented rebellion (60). Understood in this sense, Lewis illustrates how pain is an amazing grace from God that awakens sinners to the reality of their condition. He helpfully outlines in four points the goodness of God and the redemptive purposes of pain that have resulted from human sin: “(1) the simple good descending from God, (2) the simple evil produced by rebellious creatures, and (3) the exploitation of that evil by God for His redemptive purpose, which produces (4) the complex good to which accepted suffering and repented sin contribute” (71). While pain is obviously painful, the good that pain has led to as it drives one to submit to the will of God is an argument for—rather than against—the omnipotence of God that is both good and powerful.

In part three, Lewis focuses on heaven and hell. He explains that Jesus described hell as a place of punishment, a place of destruction, and a place of exclusion (81). He argues that hell is the expulsion from the fullness of the good life that God intended, and that God gives people what they most want, even when those desires are “utterly centred in itself” and their “passions utterly uncontrolled by the will” (81). Lewis elaborates on a concept he calls the humility of God who, through the provision of His own Son, will accept even those who receive Him because their other option is hell (83). Lewis concludes his work by contending that what every person most innately longs for is heaven, and argues that heaven “summons you away from the self” (98). In summary, those who endure God’s discipline will in the end be far more satisfied both now and in heaven because of the pain rather than in spite of it (97).

Lewis’s ability to communicate challenging material in an understandable way gives his work substantial sticking power. His work shines in explaining the intellectual cause of suffering in two specific ways. First is his unique ability to illustrate complicated concepts in simple terms that enable the reader to get a firm grasp on challenging truth. He describes the necessity of the fixed laws and order that life requires as a game of chess governed by a set of rules that not only allow the game to be played, but to be enjoyed (19). Rather than begrudging the one who has made the laws, people should appreciate the omniscience of God’s good commands so that life can not only be lived, but enjoyed. Lewis illustrates God’s love for people with several different motifs. The first is that of an artist who will not be satisfied until his painting has “a certain character” (25). Second, it is like a man whose love for his dog causes him to use significant resources to train his dog, who in the end will be “more lovable than it was in mere nature” (25). Third, the love of God is like that of a father for a son who, in his superior wisdom, disciplines him into the “sort of human being he, rightly . . . wants him to be” (26). These illustrations provide helpful pictures for the good that God is allowing pain to produce. Lewis also excels in describing heaven as a place that every person most deeply longs for and hell as a place that is void of the humanity that people were designed to enjoy. He describes heaven in the following terms: “All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it—tantalizing glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear” (96). His depictions of this innate understanding that humanity was made for something more resonates deeply.

"Pain insists upon 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" (59)

Second, Lewis’s clarity and poetic use of language is also highly effective and memorable in providing intellectual reasons for the problem of pain. Lewis contends that God will allow pain to occur to rouse people from their sinful state. He writes, “Pain insists upon 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” (59). In light of Lewis’s assertion that “four-fifths of the sufferings of men” is a result of “human avarice or human stupidity,” he points out the “humility of God” in explaining, “It is hardly complimentary to God that we should choose Him as an alternative to hell: yet even this He accepts” (56, 62). The profundity of this notion is moving. Lewis warns, “We want, in fact, not so much a Father in heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence . . . whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’” (23). Therefore, suffering is a problem only when viewed from an anthropocentric as opposed to a theocentric perspective (28).

“It is hardly complimentary to God that we should choose Him as an alternative to hell: yet even this He accepts” (62)

While Lewis does an excellent job overall in articulating the intellectual problem of suffering, there are three statements that he makes that significantly detract from his main purpose. For instance, Lewis challenges the notion of total depravity, “partly on the logical ground that if our depravity were total, we should not know ourselves to be depraved, and partly because experience shows us much goodness in human nature” (41). The concept of total depravity does not mean that every person is as bad as they possibly could be, but that original sin affects the total person. Thus, they are totally depraved. Second, Lewis highlights Jesus’s emphasis on the finality of hell as “the end of the story” rather than the “beginning of a new story” (82). His comment alludes to an annihilationist perspective that veers from the Bible’s indication that hell is a place of eternal torment (Matt 25:46; Luke 16:23; Rev 20:10). Softening the longevity of the agonies of hell undermines the horrific backdrop that has driven many to receive God’s mercy and forgiveness as their only option. Third, Lewis contends, “I certainly think that Christ, in the flesh, was not omniscient” (87). The Council of Chalcedon, in an effort to stamp out the heretical teaching that diminished an aspect of the incarnate of Christ as both God and man, asserted in no uncertain terms that Jesus possessed two natures within one person. Jesus saw Philip under the fig tree, knew people’s thoughts, and knew all things (John 1:48; Mark 2:8; John 16:30). While Jesus’s omniscience as the incarnate Son of God may be difficult to understand, Lewis’s statement crosses the line of orthodox teaching and significantly detracts from his central aim.

Lewis effectively communicates the “intellectual problem raised by suffering” (2). Lewis’s illustrations, captivating language, and ability to communicate heavy concepts in simple terms is inspiring. His work also provides good answers to those who desire to have a better response to the question “Why would a good God allow evil?” This work has been incredibly helpful in evangelist and apologetic conversations. While there is much to commend, I could not in good conscience recommend this work without significant disclaimers. Lewis’s presentation of doctrine that fall on the fringes or even outside of the bounds of orthodoxy are unfortunate, unnerving, and unnecessary. Disappointingly, these unorthodox theories permeate Lewis’s works. Anyone who reads Lewis’s writing needs to proceed with great caution. Despite these devastating critique’s, Lewis does provide a “little courage . . . sympathy . . . and the least tincture of the love of God” in his work, The Problem of Pain (2). He provides good answers to the intellectual problem of pain to a world that is hurting.


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