NOTES on C.S. Lewis: The Problem of Pain

Divine Omnipotence

One person who has addressed the problem of evil in a way convincing to me is C. S. Lewis, author of the popular Narniachildren’s books. One of the things he did was to analyze the concepts “omnipotent” and “impossible.” In ordinary, unreflective usage, people think of an omnipotent Being as being able to do anything, such as create a stone so heavy He cannot lift it. But no less a philosopher than St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Nothing which implies contradiction falls under the omnipotence of God.”

In looking at the concept “impossible,” Lewis distinguished between two kinds of impossibilities: conditional and intrinsic. Something is conditionally impossible if there are conditions that make it impossible. For example, we could say, “It is impossible for you to learn Latin unless you study.” In other words, “If you don’t study, it is impossible for you to learn Latin.” The phrase following “if” gives the condition under which learning Latin is impossible.

On the other hand, some things are intrinsically (or absolutely) impossible. For example, a four-sided triangle is intrinsically impossible because triangles are defined as three-sided figures. Another impossible thing is a square circle. Actually, Lewis would object to my use of the word “things” here. According to Lewis, “It remains true that all thingsare possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities.”

This analysis clears up the confusion about whether God can create a stone that is so heavy that He cannot lift it. This statement leads to a logical paradox and so is nonsense. According to Lewis, God’s “[o]mnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense.”

One of the things that is intrinsically impossible to do is to create a being that has free will and at the same time does not have free will. Since this is a logical contradiction, it is intrinsically impossible. Thus, if God gave Humankind free will (and the traditional Judeo-Christian religions say that God did so), then God must leave us free to choose to do either good or evil. Not to do so would be to take away our free will.

What kind of a world would God create if He wished it to be lived in by creatures having free will? Lewis identifies three characteristics that such a world must have:

1) If Humankind has free will, then the world must be one in which Humankind has the “freedom to choose: and choice implies the existence of things to choose between.” Therefore, we need an environment in which to make choices.

2) To exercise our freedom of choice in an environment, the environment must be stable.

3) To have a human society, once again the environment must be stable.

What does it mean to have a stable environment? It means that nature must follow fixed laws. This allows both for free choice and for the existence of evil. For example, imagine an environment in which someone decided to hurt a person badly, so he picked up a baseball bat and swung it at the person’s head as hard as he could. In a world with fixed natural laws, of course the baseball bat would bust the other person’s head open. If God were to fix the world so that no one could ever hurt another person (and thus take away Humankind’s free will), then the baseball bat might turn to Jello before hitting the other person.

A stable environment is also important for other reasons. For one thing, unless nature follows fixed laws, it would be impossible for science to develop. For another, we communicate with other human beings and become aware of their existence through our use of a common, neutral environment.

What Lewis has shown us are these two things:

1) God cannot do what is intrinsically impossible, such as create a being that has free will and at the same time does not have free will.

2) God, to provide a suitable environment for His free creatures, must create an environment that is stable and follows fixed laws.

Because of these two things, both moral evil (which man is responsible for through using his free will to choose to do evil) and natural evil (which comes about from nature following natural laws, resulting in tornados, earthquakes, volcanoes, etc.) become possible.

Human Pain

Many people don’t believe in God because evil exists. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-280 B.C.E.) put the problem of evil in a dilemma:

P1: If God is omnipotent (all-powerful), then he could prevent evil.

P2: If God is omnibenevolent (all-good), then he would prevent evil.

P3: Evil exists.

C: Therefore, either God is not omnipotent, or God is not omnibenevolent.

If this dilemma cannot be refuted, then it seems the omnipotent, omnibenevolent God of the Judao-Christian religions has to go. After all, I personally cannot doubt the existence of evil after reading books concerning the Holocaust and slavery. Certainly, one visit to a Children’s Hospital should convince anyone that evil exists. The sight of bald-headed children dying of incurable cancer is definitely convincing to me. And we all know that rapes occur every day.

One person who has addressed this dilemma is C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), author of the popular Chronicles of Narniachildren’s books. In his book The Problem of Pain, Lewis wrote a theodicy — theodicies attempt to justify the goodness of God although evil is present in the world.

Lewis points out that there is a “good element in the idea of retribution” by God. When things go well for an evil person, the evil person is enclosed in “illusion” — the illusion that God is not necessary in his or her life. But when evil in the form of pain becomes “unmistakably present” in the evil person’s life, then the evil person is roused and will do one of two things:

1) The evil person can rebel and curse the universe and/or God. This may lead to a deeper repentance later.


2) The evil person can “make some attempt at an adjustment, which, if pursued, will lead him [or her] to religion.”

Either way, something good can come out of pain. (Note: Pain is bad. I am not denying that. Something can be bad, yet something good can come out of it. A woman may be raped, then become a counselor for other raped women. Becoming a rape counselor is good, but the rape itself is bad.)

Of course, Lewis also recognizes that bad things can come out of pain. The person who rebels may never repent. People can be so crushed by grief that they spend the rest of their lives being cynical and bitter.

The Three Operations of Pain

According to Lewis, pain has three operations. The first operation “shatters the illusion that all is well.” Things may seem to be going very well for us, but then pain intrudes itself into our life.

The second operation “shatters the illusion that what we have, whether good or bad in itself, is our own and enough for us.” This operation demonstrates to us that we need God. Whatever else we have — money, fame, success, power, children — is not enough.

This operation can also force us to turn to God. As Lewis writes, “Everyone has noticed how hard it is to turn our thoughts to God when everything is going well with us.” When we are faced with disaster, on the other hand, our thoughts turn naturally to God.

The third operation of pain is more difficult to understand than the first two operations. We are supposed to choose God for Himself only and not for any other reason, yet “to choose involves knowing that you choose.”

When we do things, we may be doing them for God’s sake only, or we may be doing them for another reason entirely. Sometimes we may do something that God wants us to do, yet we are doing it for another reason entirely — it is only a “happy coincidence” that what we are doing is what God wants us to do. For example, I may donate money to charity because I want to deduct that money from my taxes. God wants us to donate money to charity, and I am doing that, but not for the reason God wants me to do it.

According to Lewis, “We cannot … know that we are acting at all, or primarily, for God’s sake, unless the material of the action is contrary to our inclinations, or (in other words) painful, and what we cannot know that we are choosing, we cannot choose. The full acting out of the self’s surrender to God therefore demands pain: this action, to be perfect, must be done from the pure will to obey, in the absence, or in the teeth, of inclination.”

This brings up a problem. Can’t we do God’s will because we enjoy doing God’s will? Immanuel Kant felt that a moral action, to have moral value, had to be done solely out of a sense of duty. If we do a good thing because we enjoy doing it, then, according to Kant, our act does not have moral value. Aristotle opposes Kant in this. Aristotle believed that as a person becomes more virtuous, that person will enjoy more and more doing virtuous things.

Lewis’ Christian solution to this problem is this: “We agree … with Aristotle that what is intrinsically right may well be agreeable, and that the better a man is the more he will like it; but we agree with Kant so far as to say that there is one right act — that of self surrender — which cannot be willed to the height by fallen creatures unless it is unpleasant.”

Self-surrender, however, is a good thing. According to the Christians, “he that loses his soul shall find it.” In other words, by surrendering one’s will to God, one becomes more free.

As Lewis writes, “If pain sometimes shatters the creature’s false self-sufficiency, yet in supreme ‘Trial’ or ‘Sacrifice’ it teaches him the self-sufficiency which really ought to be his — the ‘strength, which, if Heaven gave it, may be called his own’: for then, in the absence of all merely natural motives and supports, he acts in that strength, and that alone, which God confers upon him through his subjected will.”

Christianity emphasizes self surrender — this is what martyrs do, and this is what Jesus did on Calvary. In addition, this is what Christianity says we are to do today.

In saying all of this, Lewis is not denying the reality of pain: “I am not arguing that pain is not painful. Pain hurts. That is what the word means. I am only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine of being made ‘perfect through suffering’ is not incredible. To prove it palatable is beyond my design.”

Two Principles

In estimating the credibility of the old Christian doctrine of being made “perfect through suffering,” Lewis says that two principles ought to be observed: “In the first place we must remember that the actual moment of present pain is only the centre of what may be called the whole tribulational system which extends itself by fear and pity.”

Both fear and pity can lead to good things. Pity can help us to love the unlovely. We become more willing to help the homeless or the handicapped if we pity them. Fear, on the other hand, can lead us to God. This can be one of the effects of fighting in the trenches during wartime.

The second principle is “when we are considering pain itself — the centre of the whole tribulational system — we must be careful to attend to what we know and not to what we imagine.” Novelists often make out pain to be wholly bad, and life to be entirely meaningless because of pain. But is this your experience?

Lewis writes, “I did not find the front-line trenches or the C. C. S. more full than any other place of hatred, selfishness, rebellion, and dishonesty. I have seen great beauty of spirit in some who were great sufferers. I have seen men, for the most part, grow better not worse with advancing years, and I have seen the last illness produce treasures of fortitude and meekness from most unpromising subjects.”

One way to look at the world is as a “vale of soul making.” We are here on this world to learn to become citizens of Heaven, and suffering can help to make us worthy of that honor.

Lewis concludes, “If the world is indeed a ‘vale of soul making’ it seems on the whole to be doing its work.”

Note: The quotations by Lewis that appear in this essay are from his The Problem of Pain (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1940).


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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