Exploring A Question: C.S. Lewis’ “The Problem of Pain”

Though we associate C.S. Lewis most strongly with the field of Christian apologetics, his first publishing ventures were almost purely literary: poetry, novels, and a book on medieval allegory. It was not until 1940, when he had been a Christian for almost a decade, that Lewis published his first book of theology. And like a daredevil, he threw himself headlong into one of the most difficult and challenging issues in the arena. For such a complicated topic, the book has a surprisingly humble agenda: simply lay out some basic traditional doctrine and find out how it answers our question — if God is loving and God is omnipotent, then why do people suffer?

It’s a question that many have asked, and Lewis was neither the first nor the last to write his answer in a book. Whether his is better than anyone else’s, whether his argument is strong enough to blow anyone else out of the water, is something I can’t tell you. But it isn’t entirely the point, either. Lewis displays an incredible amount of humility in these pages, freely conceding over and over again that while he may be able to come up with powerful theological abstract statements, he does not always live up to his own ideals. He does not entirely understand suffering, but he also believes that it is not his project to perfectly understand; like Job, the most famous of sufferers, he is operating from a limited human perspective and can barely grasp the wisdom of God.

Still, the book is Lewis’ attempt to grasp what he can. Even while he makes sound logical arguments, the tone is less argumentative than one would expect from a book labelled as apologetics. He sounds more like a philosopher working out a puzzle than an orator making a heroic stand. The first piece of the puzzle he lays out fairly early: that it is Christian belief itself which creates the problem of pain. Suffering is easily explained if you believe that God is non-existent or not loving or not all-powerful. Christianity rejects all those beliefs and insists He is there, He loves, and He is omnipotent. This makes human suffering problematic…and off Lewis goes from there. His journey of exploration takes him through both the Divine condition and the human condition, all the while sticking to his agenda: laying out the basics of what Christians believe and seeing what implications they have for our understanding of evil.

What is sure to stick with me about the book, however, is not the carefully laid out argument. It is (as anyone who read my last review of a Lewis book will understand) one of those imaginative leaps that Lewis was so fond of and so gifted at taking. Here it comes in Chapter 5, “The Fall of Man”, where he names the narrative of Genesis as mythical and proceeds to give his own account of how humans became sinful and what sin is: the turning away from God and towards ourselves. He not only accepts biological evolution as a method of God’s creating humans, he doesn’t see the need for humans to have eaten a fruit. This illuminating and refreshing picture of origins so dominated my own imagination that it’s already working its way into my creative writing endeavours.

The Problem of Pain most likely will not make you a Christian, at least not by itself. And to you it may not seem an adequate enough answer to the age-old question. But it is worth reading to hear the cadence of this intellectual voice threading its way through the question’s many difficulties. It will be even more interesting, I’m sure, to eventually read A Grief Observed and see Lewis making the unpleasant transition from the theory of suffering to its lived experience.

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