on July 6, 2003
A quick warning to those who have been pointed to this book but are not Christian: you are not the audience Lewis is speaking to. This book cannot be fully grasped in its original context without some degree of belief or acceptance of Christian doctrine. It is apologetics at its best, but cannot be considered in the "self-help" category like many contemporary titles are.
That said, this must be the finest treatise on the apparent contradiction between the existence of pain and the existence of a supposedly loving God that has been written.
Succint, well-organized, thorough, yet "The Problem of Pain" still reads like it was written by a human being rather than a scholar. Some chapters bring conviction. The chapter on Hell brings fear and dread, and respect for Him who can "destroy both body and soul in Hell". The chapter on Heaven, which Lewis admits is his own philosophical foray, no one else's -- brings hope and reassurance that Heaven is your true calling, your one True Home.
This is not light reading, at least not at first. This may not be a book to recommend to someone at the height of a crisis; Lewis taxes your attention and does not take any short cuts. A "Cliff Notes" version of this book would miss the point. Pain is one of the toughest theological problems a Christian can face, either in their lives or the life of another person they know -- and Lewis does not want you going in armed with half an argument or some "Precious Moments" sentiment.
From a non-Christian POV, I would be surprised if this book made much sense -- so many of the pillars are set on Christian theology, philosophy, and tradition. If you cannot (or will not) accept the possibility of the existence of Heaven, Hell, or God, this book will be just so much incomprehensible babble.
But, as I said, it is not written for that segment of the market. This book is best read by the thinking Christian who has reservations about aspects of Christianity that seem to gloss over, avoid, or ignore the issue of human suffering.
on May 11, 2000
Lewis analyzes the fundamental question, or problem, of pain: how can God be omnipotent and yet allow pain (war, injury, cruelty, etc.)? Lewis's answer has many levels. Foremost, is that nature had to be created with certain unchangeable properties. For example, the same hardness which allows wood to serve as a beam in my house allows it to serve as an instrument of potential injury, as when that beam collapses and hits my head.
The world also had to be created neutral so that humans could interact equally with one another, i.e., those same, unchanging properties of wood allow it to be manipulated similarly by anyone. But, obviously a neutral world contains the potential for good or evil. Wood can be used to build a home, which is good, or to create a weapon, which is evil. But, this is what makes us human. We have free will.
If I choose evil, God could not intervene. For to intervene some times but not others would be unjust and illogical (this is why miracles, if you believe in them, are extraordinarily rare). And to intervene once is to intervene always. Imagine if God intervened each time one person was going to cause another, or himself, pain. If he did, we all would be puppets, not humans.
Another interesting idea in this book is that of Original Sin. According to Lewis, we have not inherited Adam's sin, as is commonly believed, but instead everyday face Adam's identical choice, perhaps thousands of times a day. For Adam's sin was not disobedience in eating the apple, but in choosing himself over God. Adam had the opportunity to see himself either as a creation or an individual self existing apart from God. Thus, according to Lewis, a final reason for pain, is that it is God's wake-up call that we have, in constantly choosing ourselves, chosen the wrong thing.
This is a profound and provocative book.
on December 2, 1999
This book clarified many issues in my life and turned my God from One that was a bit of a stretch to fit into my everyday world, into a God which makes himself evident in every aspect of the earth, evil and pain included. I think this book frankly is a better apology for Christianity than Mere Christianity. Definitely a good introduction to the problem of pain, and the clearest exposition of the free-will defense I have read. C.S. Lewis deals with a concept lofty and philosophical in a manner that grips my attention and bolsters my faith. I recommend this book first above all Lewis' other books on theology.
I'm a blogger. Blogging makes me read. It makes me turn off the television and read. This is very good. What I have been reading lately is C. S. Lewis. Particularly, I've been re-reading The Chronicles of Narnia. After reading through The Magician's Nephew and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, I decided to shift gears and read one of Lewis's theological works before resuming the Chronicles.
All I can say is, "Wow!" The Problem of Pain is not what I expected. I'm not sure what it was that I did expect. Perhaps something more along the line of a good evangelical book - you know, shallow, but with lots of Bible verses. Pain is exactly the opposite. Deep and with very little use of prooftexting. How the Church of the twenty-first century needs more minds like C. S. Lewis! We have been drowning in the fluff of "make-me-feel-good-like-Jabez-bless-me-bless-me" Christian publishing for years. It is very difficult to find a Christian book store that sells theology anymore (perhaps because Christians don't think or read anymore). I bought this copy of Pain from Amazon.
Lewis is surprising because he doesn't go where you anticipate he will. He tackles the issue of pain from a very human angle. He asks the right questions and doesn't always give us the answers we want. Lewis is often held up by evangelical Christianity as a beacon of evangelical thought. I wonder if those evangelicals have even read him lately? Lewis disagrees with the doctrine of total depravity, questions original sin, weaves a parable of the fall which includes evolution, and leaves the door wide open for something other than an ever-burning hell.
The answer to the problem of pain is that we are works in progress, being made lovable by a God who loves us even when we are not yet lovable. Says Lewis, "If the world is indeed a 'vale of soul making' it seems on the whole to be doing its work." The true heart of the book is the two chapters in the middle of it all: "Human Pain," and "Human Pain, Continued." Lewis says, "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."
One of the most intriguing and thought provoking passages I encountered was this: "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." Are we to understand in this passage a bit of Eastern Christian thinking? Is salvation not exclusively individual, but also corporate? Is pain part of the process whereby a corporate humanity is brought to a heavenly perfection in Christ?
Lewis always makes me think and re-think. We need more of that in the Church today. O, that our teachers and preachers would read!
C.S. Lewis was a rare individual. One of the few non-clerics to be recognised as a theologian by the Anglican church, he put forth the case for Christianity in general in ways that many Christians beyond the Anglican world can accept, and a clear description for non-Christians of what Christian faith and practice should be. Indeed, Lewis says in his introduction that this text (or indeed, hardly any other he produced) will help in deciding between Christian denominations. While he describes himself as a 'very ordinary layman' in the Church of England, he looks to the broader picture of Christianity, particularly for those who have little or no background. The discussion of division points rarely wins a convert, Lewis observed, and so he leaves the issues of ecclesiology and high theology differences to 'experts'. Lewis is of course selling himself short in this regard, but it helps to reinforce his point.
Lewis sees pain as an inevitable part of the human experience, given our condition of being estranged from God. He does not pain and suffering as being caused by God. 'The possibility of pain in inherent in the very existence of a world where souls can meet,' Lewis writes. '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.' God has a role in that God is the creator of all things, and set things in motion, but God is not responsible in Lewis' view for the individual or corporate acts of humankind in contradiction of God's will. In this, Lewis does go against the Calvinist strain that goes through Anglican and other theologies.
Lewis highlights part of the problem with pain in that it cannot be easily ignored. '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.' Lewis admits that this is a 'terrible instrument' that God uses to draw people back to God's will, and that it isn't always successful. In addressing the doctrine and idea of Hell, Lewis admits that this too is a terrible idea (in fact, he states it is an 'intolerable' one), but also states that this is not meant to be an intellectually satisfying or comprehensible doctrine, but rather a moral one. Lewis does hasten to state that people often confuse the imagery of Hell for the doctrine of Hell - the ideas of Dante et al. are very pervasive, and our conceptions of what is meant by Hell usually owes more to such sources than the actual Biblical text.
Lewis also shows part of his method of biblical interpretation in different passages in this book. In the chapter on Animal Pain, he discusses the absence of statements in scripture about whether animals share in immortality. '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.'
Lewis explores the issues of divine omnipotence, divine omniscience, and divine goodness as possible contradictions and stumbling blocks to the way we see the world (or the way in which we can see a world with God operating in it, or responsible for it). Lewis comes to no definitive, systematic conclusions that will satisfy everyone. In the case of this particular text, Lewis is writing is a specifically Christian context, and readers from other backgrounds and adherents of other traditions may find less to connect with in this text.
This is a key piece in the overall structure of Lewis' theological construction.
on March 27, 1998
There are better books about the theological problem of pain (the biblical book of JOB, Paul Brand's PAIN: THE GIFT NOBODY WANTS, and Philip Yancey's WHERE IS GOD WHEN IT HURTS?, to name three), but Lewis's book is a good place to start. Lewis himself makes it clear in the introduction that this book only addresses the intellectual problem arising from suffering, and as such does not pretend to give advice about living with pain. Lewis offers this by way of observation, that "when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all." As a catalyst for considering the theological difficulty of resolving the idea of a good God with the pain and suffering in His creation, this book is worth reading.
Is pain God's megaphone?
Lewis ably examines the thorny subjects of pain and suffering in this book. The brief work is at once philosophical, logical, and semi-theological, even though Clive points out in his preface that he is no theologian (We can thank God for that!).
Lewis seeks to answer questions such as "If God is good and all-powerful, why does he allow his creatures to suffer pain?"
No stranger to pain himself, Lewis sheds some valuable light on the subject and on human nature. The book is both a comfort and a discomfort. One wonders how differently Lewis might have approached the subject after the death of his wife, for example.
I found the later chapters, particularly those on Hell, Animal Pain, and Heaven particularly enlightening.
"Pain," writes Lewis in the end, "offers an opportunity for heroism." His words ring true. Those who have suffered, to any degree, will find the book intriguing.
A fine work, I would not recommend that the Lewis neophyte begin with this work, but perhaps "Mere Christianity."
on May 1, 2007
Pain is real, just as sorrow, death, and wickedness. Your becoming a Christian will not encapsulate you away from it. Christ did not promise that in the first place. But there are reasons why pain happens, as much to Christians as non Christians, and we should reach a better understanding of the circumstances in which we live, so that we can apprehend the promises that are envolved through that pain. Everyone is to pick up a cross at childbirth, but whether you follow Christ with it depends only on you.
This book won't be the treat that 'Mere Christianity' was. It's more philosophical; it assumes the reader is a Christian and has some knowledge of Scripture. But nevertheless, everyone can follow his thinking and it will all make sense. About 160 pages, it has chapters of between 10 and 20 pages, and frames the problem in its right context before reaching his conclusion at the end of the book. This is not a make-you-feel-good (dumb) self-help book. It's a make you understand book.
on March 16, 2008
The problem is a real one, and Lewis brings considerable intellectual power to bear. But the result is disappointing. If his role is to "justify the ways of God to man", then in an intellectual sense he has succeeded to the extent of internal consistency. But his chapter on animal pain is chilling; if he had ever seen an animal in pain he could hardly have written so callously. His avowed fear of pain makes him intellectualize it to the vanishing point. This was an intensely human man, in some ways a noble man, but the humanity and nobility are missing and all that is left is the Oxford don. Read this, then read A Grief Observed, when he has to face the loss of his wife. That's the real book. That book gives the whole truth about the problem of pain. As he says in A Grief Observed, the cardplayers are right. if there's no money riding on the game, no one takes it seriously. The problem with The Problem of Pain is that Lewis had no money riding on the game when he wrote it.
on November 25, 1999
Many times through my second reading of the book (first time a decade ago), I felt-"this is what language was made for." Of course, no apologist can posit an argument without counter. However, Lewis shows himself vested with not just "divine" insight, but also with his unique, unmatched grasp of the human condition, primarily as expressed in literature and linguistics. This book echoes many themes from his earlier writings, he reveals himself consistent throughout. His intellectual foundations (he might not call them quite philosophical) are strong. His discussion of the "neutral field" as a requirement for interaction is masterful. Anyone that doubts the validity of his comments on free will won't be convinced of such by any arguments. For the rest of us, Lewis clarifies a conviction consistent with the broadest sweep of churchdom-what he would most certainly call "mere" Christianity. If one sees contradiction between his comments here and his own "A Grief Observed" then rest assured you are sitting at the feet of a human teacher. His writing is intensely personal-his comment "how can I say with sufficient tenderness what here needs to be said" reveals his heart for humanity in the comments that follow. Furthermore, he takes the high ground decades ahead of the animal rights movement in his ideas about animal pain, to which he devotes an entire chapter. He is an able voice to promote real care-stewardship-of animals long before the issue became so trenchant. His final chapter on heaven is best illustrated by reading his adult fiction "Perelandra" where he re-creates Eden, and to stages their triumph over original sin.