A synopsis of C.S. Lewis' "The problem of pain" (1940)

The problem of pain is a more difficult read than some of Lewis's books, and I decided to write a synopsis for my own purposes. I give it here in case it is useful to someone else. But it is Inevitably a personal summary, and no real substitute for reading the book. There are a good many passages of what is effectively poetry, and one cannot summarise poetry. I emphasise that this is a synopsis, attempting to summarise what Lewis says, and not a review. I do not always agree with what I summarise.


Ch. 1: introductory

Lewis begins with an argument he had used when he was an atheist: that the Earth is such an insignificant place and people are so cruel to each other that one cannot believe in a good God. Either there is no God or there is an indifferent God. One question he had never asked as an atheist, however, was how human beings came to believe in a God or gods in the first place. His answer is that human beings have always had a sense of the numinous, of which they were and are in awe. People have also always had some sense of morality, of what one 'ought' or 'ought not' to do. At a certain point in history human beings came to identify the source of morality with the numinous, i.e. to believe in God as the monotheistic world religions do. Finally a man was born among the Jews who claimed to be the son of the Jewish God. This is a claim so shocking that there are only two possible responses. Either Jesus was stark raving mad, or he was who he claimed to be. If you accept the second claim, then you accept that in some incomprehensible way Jesus through his death has changed our relationship with God in a way that is in our favour.

In a sense it is Christianity that creates the problem of pain. It is not an intellectual problem to an atheist position.

Ch. 2: Divine omnipotence

This is a really difficult chapter!

Omnipotence is the power to do anything and everything. But everything means 'everything that is intrinsically possible'. It excludes the intrinsically impossible. For example, if I say, 'I wish God had made human beings with free will but at the same time had withheld free will from them', the wish is intrinsically impossible, and therefore meaningless. 

Similarly, Lewis suspects that the creation of human beings with free will without a nature governed by inexorable laws is also intrinsically impossible. First, a human being without an environment would have no choices to make. Second, a minimum condition of self-consciousness (which is a precondition of freedom, if not the same thing as freedom) is that the self-conscious creature apprehends itself in contrast to an 'other', whether that 'other' is God or another creature. Because communication with God is direct, consciousness to consciousness, human beings are often uncertain that it is God who is speaking, or they fail to recognise that he has spoken. But I recognise other human beings because they exist in a physical environment, and we use that environment to communicate with each other. If the material world were not fixed and predictable, we would not be able to act or to communicate. The fixed nature of matter means that it is not equally agreeable to every human being. One person strides downhill, another struggles uphill. Nature also provides the means for sin. A piece of wood may serve a useful purpose, or as a stick to strike another. God could have created a world in which a stick used as a weapon became as soft as grass, but such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which therefore freedom of the will would be void. Taking this a step further, our brain cells would refuse to think evil thoughts when we tried to frame them. But we do not live in such a world. We live in a rule-governed world in which sin and suffering are possible because we have free will in relation to that world.

One might argue that in these circumstances it would have been better if God had not created the universe at all, at least not one in which there was free will. But this is tantamount to saying, 'It would be better for me if I did not exist', but if I did not exist how could I profit from not existing?

Ch. 3: Divine goodness

Lewis starts with a dilemma. As God is wiser than we are, might it not be that his view of good is totally different from ours? That our black is his white and vice versa? But if this were true we would have no moral grounds for obeying him, and would obey out of fear and perhaps be obeying the devil. Happily this is utterly improbable. When someone encounters people with a higher standard of moral behaviour than his own, he usually recognises the goodness of that behaviour (Luke 12:57), and this recognition is accompanied by a sense of shame and guilt. We also behave like this in relation to God. Lewis writes that the divine goodness differs from ours not as white from black but as a perfect circle from a child's first attempt to draw a wheel.

Christians often emphasise that God is totally loving, but sometimes interpret this as meaning that God simply wants us to enjoy ourselves. This would be kindness, but not love. Kindness cares whether its object escapes suffering, but not whether it is good or bad. Lewis discusses the image of the potter and the clay (Jeremiah 18), pointing out that the potter is not satisfied until his pot has reached a certain standard. Then he moves to a man and his dog, and remarks that the man only bothers to house-train the dog because of its relationship with him. But a nobler analogy is that of father and son, which in biblical terms was a relationship between authoritative love and obedient love. Finally comes the analogy of the husband and the bride (Jer 2:2, Eze 16:6-15, Eph 5:27). When a man loves a woman, does he stop caring whether she is clean or dirty, fair or foul? The Love that made the universe is not simply kind, but is the consuming fire of love, 'persistent as the artist's love for his work and despotic as a man's love for a dog, provident as a father's love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes.' (Jer 31:20, Hos 11:8, Matt 23:37) (p39) We are made primarily so that God can love us (1 John 4:10). To ask that God should be content with us as we are is to ask God to stop being God. And he showed how far he was willing to go when he became a man and lived the life of supreme self-sacrifice that lead to Calvary. The only response to this is awe and worship.

Ch. 4: Human wickedness

Lewis' starting point in this chapter is that people today, Christians included, have lost all sense of deserving divine anger, whereas people in the time of Jesus and Paul were aware of the need for salvation. In other words, Christianity has to offer the diagnosis, whereas in the past it only had to offer the cure. 

Lewis thinks this has two principal causes. One is a superficial and lopsided ethic which emphasises 'kindness' or mercy, and does not consider any other virtue to be good, and thinks that only cruelty is bad. The other is the effect of psychoanalysis on popular culture. What previous cultures considered to be matters of shame are now regarded as natural tendencies that are repressed unnecessarily. That is, the essential condition for understanding what Christ is talking about has been removed. Thus the occasions when we feel real guilt about things which an absolutely good God must regard with unappeasable distaste have become rare. The wrath of God is only unacceptable doctrine once we recognise our own sinfulness. 

Lewis adds that our sense of sin is reduced because we look at people's external behaviour, and measure ourselves against it. There has also been a reawakening of social conscience, which of itself is good, but which distracts attention away from individual conscience. Further, we have an illusion that time cancels sin: the sins of the distant past no longer count. But this is an illusion because God is eternal and doesn't see our lives in terms of a timeline. Perhaps the lost are those who want to avoid exposing their unerasable past. We also have a tendency to think that we are no worse than others, so we can't be so bad after all. But the standards of our culture are not God's standards. We lose sight of our own corruption, because only rarely do we meet someone with a higher standard. 

Finally, however, Lewis says that he does not believe in the doctrine of Total Depravity. If we were totally depraved, we would be unable to perceive our own depravity.

Ch.5: The fall of man

The doctrine of the Fall says that man is now a horror to God and to himself because he has made himself so by the abuse of his free will.

Lewis mentions a position in popular science which says that man is now less savage and less brutal than he was in prehistory. He points out that this entails a category error. Man is technologically more advanced today than he was millennia ago, but this does not mean that he is morally more advanced.

Man's primary sin was against God. The issue is whether God or self is the centre of our lives. We may start each day by dedicating it to God, but we soon roll down the slippery slope that falls away from him. Lewis sees the Genesis story of  the Fall as a myth which describes man's first act of self-will. Exactly what that was is irrelevant. It arose simply out of the fact that God had created man with a self of his own, and man decided that he wanted to control that self, rather than live in self-surrender to God. Unfallen man was, after all, not subject to the temptations to which fallen man is subject. The only possible temptation had to arise out of the self's very existence.

Lewis infers that the will of unfallen man was, as God's delegate, in full control of the body, but lost that authority when it ceased to be God's delegate. The body then became subject to biochemical laws and thus to pain, senility, death and physical temptation. Thus the human spirit, once the master of the bodily house, became a mere lodger, even a prisoner. It had become its own idol and could turn back to God only through painful effort.

Lewis comments that his is a shallow attempt to treat the subject of the Fall. However, if physicists tell us that in trying to make mental pictures of quantum physics we move further away from reality rather than nearer to it, then it is scarcely surprising that we cannot properly picture the highest spiritual reality.

Ch.6: Human pain

Pain is inherent in a world of separate and fallen souls, but there is also suffering that is not caused by human beings. 

At this point Lewis qualifies his use of the word 'pain'. He distinguishes between physical pain, which may range from an unobjectionable ache to acute discomfort, and and any experience, physical or mental, which the sufferer dislikes. Pain in the first sense, above a certain level of intensity, is also pain in the second sense. But pain in the second sense includes much more than pain in the first, and it is in this second more general sense that Lewis says he will henceforth use the word.

'Now the proper good of a creature is to surrender itself to its creator...' (p88). This process is painful, but ironically the pain makes the process easier. I am not sure that I understand the whole of Lewis' argument at this point, but one aspect is that pain may compel someone to see the evil within themselves. A second aspect is that when everything is going well we do not actually call upon God, and sometimes it takes suffering to cause a person to surrender themselves to God. A third aspect relates to the fact that unfallen man always chose to do God's will because this was his greatest pleasure. Fallen man may happen to do God's will because the particular act is something he enjoys, but this is coincidence. Generally his inclinations are contrary to God's will, and doing God's will is painful. Lewis remarks that he is enjoying writing this book so much that he can no longer be sure that it is God's will (!). The act of self-surrender to God is thus painful, but simultaneously good because it cancels the Fall itself. The greatest act of self-surrender in history was Jesus' crucifixion, simultaneously the most painful act in history and the best.

The idea that goodness is painful is evidently printed on the human soul, as it is found in other belief systems too. The peculiarity of Christianity is not that it  teaches this doctrine, but in a sense renders it more tolerable because the terrible task has already been done for us. Christianity demands only that we set right the misdirection of our nature. It does not see that nature as intrinsically bad.

But Lewis assumes that his attempts to justify pain in certain circumstances will provoke the reader's resentment, and so he emphasises that he dislikes pain, and is only trying to show that there is meaning in the Christian doctrine of being made 'perfect through suffering' (Hebrews 2:10).

Ch.7: Human pain, continued

This chapter consists of six separate propositions, which Lewis tells us are unrelated to each other.

1. There is a paradox about pain in Christianity. We are told that the poor (who suffer) are blessed, yet we are enjoined to give to them in order to reduce their suffering. So does this mean that pain is good, and therefore to be pursued? Or that we should do what we can to alleviate pain? Lewis says, no, pain is not good. The only things that are good about it are, first, that it may cause the sufferer to submit to God's will and, second, it may invoke compassion and mercy in others. Causing pain is evil, even if God is able to bring good out of it. The crucifixion was the worst of all events from one perspective and the best from another, but either way the role of Judas remains evil. Ultimately, whether our acts are good or evil, we unavoidably carry out God's purpose.

2. If suffering is a necessary part of redemption, then it will continue as long as there is a world in need of redemption. The idea that social reform can create a world entirely without suffering is misguided.

3. We owe obedience to our creator. This has no political implications.

4. The Christian doctrine of suffering does not exclude times of fun, joy and pleasure. But if we had a life without pain, we would rest our hearts in this world and not turn to God.

5. There is no point in talking about 'the sum of human suffering', as no one suffers it. I only suffer my own individual pain.

6. One error may lead to another. Sin breeds sin. Both require undoing. But pain does not multiply itself, and it requires no undoing other than to remove its cause. If I err, and you believe me, you also err. if I sin, you can condone it, sharing my guilt, or you can condemn it, endangering your own charity and humility. But suffering does not call forth suffering. The natural response to suffering is a good one: pity.

Ch.8: Hell

Lewis says there is no Christian doctrine he would rather erase than the doctrine of Hell. Yet, he says, since self-surrender entails the human will, some will resist and will not be redeemed. Some therefore will be consigned to final ruin. This is a problem because we thus have a God who consigns some of his creatures to ruin alongside the fact that the same God became a human being and underwent terrible torture in order to prevent this ruin. At first sight, this seems contradictory. But Lewis paints a picture of a man who spends his life exploiting others and laughing at their weakness, and asks if this man can mercifully be allowed to spend eternity unaware of his own evil.

For Lewis the problem is that a merciful God cannot at the same time be a vengeful God. But Jesus speaks of men choosing to walk in darkness rather than light (John 3:19), and says that he came to save the world, not to judge it: people bring judgement upon themselves by not heeding his word (John 12:48). 'We are therefore at liberty ... to think of this bad man's perdition not as a sentence imposed on him but as the mere fact of being what it is.' (p124).

Jesus speaks of hell under three labels: punishment (Matthew 25:46), destruction (Matthew 10:28), and privation or exclusion. The last appears as banishment into the outside darkness in the parable of the man without a wedding garment and the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. In these images Lewis reads the possibility that, while to enter heaven is to become more human than one ever succeeded in being of earth, to enter hell is to be banished from humanity itself, to be no longer human as one has lost one's will to 'enjoy' the freedom from relationship with God and the self-enslavement that one practised in life. Whether such am eternity has duration as we understand it is another matter.

Those who object to the doctrine of hell need to ask the question, 'What are you asking God to do to the resisters?' To wipe out their sins? But he has already offered this possibility on Calvary. To forgive them? But forgiveness works only if it is received. To leave them alone? This is exactly what he does.

Ch.9: Animal pain

Since animals are incapable of either sin or virtue, they can neither deserve pain nor be improved by it, yet they suffer it. Getting one’s head around this is hard, as God gives us almost no revelation about animals. There are three questions to be asked.

First, what do animals suffer? We need to distinguish between sentience and consciousness. If an animal is sentient, it may experience, say, a sequence of three pains, but only a conscious being will know after the event that it has had three painful experiences and that they are perhaps linked. That is, only a conscious being has a self. Lewis infers that the lowest animals are not sentient, but he infers that at the high end of the scale are animals that have some degree of consciousness that gives rise to rudimentary individuality.

Second, how did disease and pain enter the animal world? Because in Lewis' view animals predated man, he infers that pain among animals may be attributed not to the fall of man but to the fall of Satan (which also resulted from a wrong exercise of the will). The intrinsic evil of the animal world lies in the fact that some animals live by destroying each other. Lewis speculates that this evil was introduced by Satan. Jesus, after all, attributes at least some human disease to Satan (Luke 13:16). Lewis comments that he prefers this myth-like explanation to a more abstract one, and thinks the reality maybe closer to the myth than we usually assume. One may speculate, he adds, that man, had he not fallen, might have restored peace to the animal world, just as he enables cats and dogs to live together in the same house.

Third, how can animal pain be reconciled with the justice of God? Lewis responds that if an animal has no self, then pain and mortality are not issues. However, he has said that some animals may have a rudimentary self. Those that should provide food for thought are domestic animals whose condition is closer to that of the unfallen the world. However, he takes it is any selfhood that an animal has is due to its relationship with a man. A dog knows its master, but does not know itself. Thus Lewis thinks that animal immortality is improbable.

Ch.10: Heaven

This chapter does not lend itself to summary, as it quickly moves from reasoning to poetry.

Scripture contrasts the sufferings of birth with the joys of heaven (e.g. Romans 8:18), so a book about suffering cannot ignore heaven. Lewis holds that every human being has an indescribable desire, never fully present in our experience, for something better, something for which we have been made but which we do not experience in our earthly lives. He suggests that we each experience this desire differently, as we have been made differently, each to 'forever know and praise some one aspect of the Divine beauty better than any other creature can' (p154) in eternal self-surrender that fulfils the self-surrender of this life.



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