In this short book, C. S. Lewis addresses the problem of evil, or the problem of pain as he terms it. At the outset of the work, Lewis claims to have no real expertise on the issue, but approaches it as a simple layman with ideas born out of painful experience, just as any other person might have. One very important point Lewis makes in his introductory regarding the problem, is that he is not setting out necessarily to solve the problem as if Christianity as a system of thought had any real solution. Rather, Lewis asserts, Christianity “creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving” (21).
In his discussion of the problem of pain, Lewis treats several different issues in order to attempt to bring together a whole perspective on the problem from a Christian point of view. In the second and third chapters, Lewis treats two attributes of God, namely omnipotence and goodness. Lewis’ point on the relationship between God’s omnipotence and the reality of pain in the world is that God could exclude pain from the world He created, but to do so would be to overturn the order of the creation itself by ridding it of the existence of free will. In doing this, Lewis states, “you find that you have excluded life itself” (31). Lewis uses the analogy of a chess game: if you allow your opponent to avoid all the pain of loss in the game, there is no point in playing the game. Regarding divine goodness (divine love), Lewis asserts that the love of God is so committed to man, and so intent on having man be completely His, pain will be involved because He will assert His love upon souls who are searching for happiness apart from Him. Lewis states, “To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God: because He is what He is, His love must in the nature of things, be impeded and repelled by certain stains in our present character, and because He already loves us He must labor to make us lovable” (43).
Lewis next addresses the issue of human wickedness. Modern man has winked at his own wickedness, excused it, ignored it, and chafed at any accusations of it. Sin is horrible to God, and nothing can take away its offense except the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross. Following his treatment of human wickedness, Lewis treats the Fall. He does not give any exposition of Genesis, but simply defines the sin of the Fall as the self turning away from God and thus inward. Lewis writes, “This sin is committed daily by young children and ignorant persons as well as by sophisticated persons, by solitaries no less than by those who live in society; it is the fall in every individual life. . .” (67). Prior to the Fall, the human spirit was in control of the human organism, but after the fall, the organism was controlled by the forces of nature rather than the spirit. This entailed pain, degradation and ultimately death. Thus, man “spoiled himself, and that good, to us in our present state, must therefore mean primarily remedial or corrective good” (78).
What role does pain play in the application of that corrective good? Lewis posits three possibilities: 1) pain reveals to the person that all is not well, 2) pain reveals that self-sufficiency is a lie, and 3) pain strengthens the person to will obedience to God for its own sake. Further, Lewis presents five propositions to account for human suffering: 1) suffering is not good of its own sake, but it produces good, i.e. submission to the will of God, 2) tribulation is necessary for redemption, and tribulation will continue until God has achieved all redemptive purpose, 3) pain reminds us that we are not at home on this earth, but we are pilgrims, 4) the problem of pain is a profound one, but we must not make it more than it really is, 5) sin is a recurring phenomenon, caused by previous sins, and giving birth to future sins which cause pain; but once the error is corrected, the pain is resolved and joy follows.
In concluding the work, Lewis treats the doctrine of hell, not to make it tolerable, but to show its moral necessity. Ultimately, hell must be understood as God leaving the unrepentant alone with their self-sufficiency. Hell’s doors are locked from the inside, implying of course that for the unrepentant to achieve heaven would be worse than the reality of hell. After a brief treatment of animal pain (of which purpose is ultimately unknown to man), Lewis presents his final chapter, “Heaven” in order to complete his treatment of the problem. Heaven should be understood as the fulfillment of a person’s lifelong and unattained goal—God Himself. Heaven is a place prepared for the Christian, thus it is a home tailored to unique persons. Lewis writes, “Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it—made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand” (132).
Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. New York: Touchstone, 1996.