Reading a book by C. S. Lewis is always an adventure of one kind or another. What a great mind! What a great imagination! I loved reading The Chronicles of Narnia to my children, twice actually, once to my older ones, then again to my younger ones. That fascinating series can be enjoyed both from the standpoint of its intriguing stories and its hidden theological truths.
The Problem of Pain, however, is different. At times I found myself struggling to follow Lewis’ line of thought in this rather philosophical book. C. S. Lewis enjoys thinking deeply. He firmly believes in God as the Creator of the universe and in man as fallen, but the way he portrays them is at times poetic and symbolic, rather than literal, as conservative evangelicals have traditionally interpreted Genesis 1-3. On the other hand, I am sympathetic with the figurative way he interprets certain biblical texts. For example, he writes, “I think, under correction, that the prophet used an eastern hyperbole when he spoke of the lion and the lamb lying down together.”
The basic issue Lewis deals with in The Problem of Pain is: “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.” While he is treating this theme in the book, at times it seemed that Lewis is interacting with everyone from Aristotle to Augustine and from mystics to Marxists.
In the first chapter, Lewis deals with the problem of pain from the standpoint of an atheist like he himself was. He expresses the objections he had to the existence of God because of pain in the world. He tells a story about the vastness, coldness, and insensitivity of the universe and the meaningless of man’s place in the universe. He introduces the notion of the “Numinous” – the uncanny, the dreadful, the awe inspiring.
The author treats the question of why pain is in the world partially by showing what it means to say God is all-powerful in chapter two on “Divine Omnipotence” and by clarifying what it means to say God is good in chapter three on “Divine Goodness.”
Despite some beliefs that evangelicals might debate, as I noted above, the author is very clear on the eternal destiny of those who don’t believe in Christ. He has no doubt about the existence of hell, though he wishes it were not so. He writes, “Some will not be redeemed. 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 specifically our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason.”
I appreciated Lewis’ analysis of the Bible’s description of hell and his answers to people’s objections to its existence. However, his view of hell sometimes comes close to what we would call today “annihilationism.” For example, he writes, “But I notice that our Lord, while stressing the terror of hell with unsparing severity, usually emphasizes the idea not of duration, but of finality.”
Regarding the doctrine of hell he writes, “I said glibly a moment ago that I would pay ‘any price’ to remove this doctrine. I lied. I could not pay one-thousandth part of the price that God has already paid to remove the fact.”
Lewis concludes his answers to those who object to the doctrine of hell in this way: “In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question, ‘What are you asking God to do?’ ‘To wipe out their past sins, and at all costs to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering miraculous help?’ 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.”
The final paragraph in the chapter on hell sounds more like it was written by an evangelist than a professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Oxford University: “In all discussions of hell we should keep steadily before our eyes the possible damnation, not of our enemies nor our friends (since both these disturb the reason) but of ourselves. This chapter is not about your wife or son, nor about Nero or Judas Iscariot; is it about you and me.”
Sense of humor
Lewis’ sense of humor comes across from time to time. I’ll cite just one example from his chapter on “Animal Pain”: “I have been warned not even to raise the question of animal immortality, lest I find myself ‘in the company with all the old maids.’ I have no objection to the company I not think either virginity or old age contemptible, and some of the shrewdest minds I have met inhabited the bodies of old maids. Nor am I greatly moved by jocular inquiries such as ‘Where will you put all the mosquitoes?’ – a question to be answered on its own level by pointing out that, if the worst came to the worst, a heaven for mosquitoes and a hell for men could be conveniently combined.”
Something else about Lewis that I admire is his humility. It comes through a number of times in the book. For example, as he begins to enter into a bit of speculation regarding the “personality” of animals, he writes, “I am going to suggest – though with great readiness to be set right by real theologians – that there may be … .”
C. S. Lewis has a great imagination. He thinks deeply about many things and wanders into speculation quite often, which he himself admits. You will not agree with all his thoughts, but I don’t think he really expects you to. Nevertheless making the effort to follow them will be a rich experience for you.
Do you have an educated non-Christian friend with a literary and/or philosophical bent? If so, The Problem of Pain could be for them. At the very least God can use it as “pre-evangelism” to soften hard soil.
An excerpt from The Problem of Pain:
“In the fallen and redeemed universe we may distinguish (1) the simple good descending from God, (2) the simple evil produced by rebellious creatures, and (3) the exploitation of that evil for His redemptive purpose, which produces (4) the complex good to which accepted suffering and repented sin contribute. Now the fact that God can make complex good out of simple evil does not excuse – though by mercy it may save – those who do simple evil. And this distinction is central. Offenses must come, but woe to those by whom they come; sins do cause grace to abound, but we must not make that an excuse for continuing to sin. The crucifixion is the best, as well as the worst, of all historical events, but the role of Judas remains simply evil. We may apply this first to the problem of people’s suffering. A merciful man aims at his neighbor’s good and so does ‘God’s will’, consciously co-operating with “the simple good.” A cruel man oppresses his neighbor, and so does simple evil. But in doing such evil, he is used by God, without his own knowledge or consent, to produce the complex good – so that the first man serves God as a son, and the second as tool. For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John. … “
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