Response to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain”

Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:

Part 1:  Chapter 1 – Introductory

Chapter 2 – Divine Omnipotence

Chapter 3 – Divine Goodness


Response to Chapter 1: Introductory

I agree with Lewis’s basic argument that the problem of pain emerges historically, and not philosophically. Suffering is a historical fact, and yet belief in a good all-powerful God is also a historical fact. The problem of pain, as an intellectual problem, simply emerges as the problem of how to understand the co-existence of these two historical realities intellectually.

My main query with respect to Lewis’s argument in his first chapter is that there are many intellectual reasons for holding to the truth of Jesus’ claims, whereas there seems to be more than a little liberal British Bultmannian School Neo-Kantian existentialism in Lewis’s appeals to the supposedly undergirding roles of universal experiences of the numinous and of the moral impulse. Whilst the Bible affirms the experiential, existential, moral, or practical side of revelation and of human existence, the Bible also affirms the cognitive, propositional, conceptual side of revelation and of human life – as part of a broader formative overall revelation in which Christ’s Spirit uses biblical texts relationally to form or build individual Christians and the corporate Church.

That is, Lewis seems to make the veracity of biblical content and formative function too dependent upon the universality of mystical and moral experience. In fact, though, revelatory content and formative function should be held together with, and should constitute criteria of authenticity in relation to, revelatory experience.

One of the big problems in the church today is an experience-centredness that refuses to allow itself to be tested against biblical criteria with content, and against the formative results or fruitfulness of a right relational engagement with the Scriptures – an engagement that is everywhere marginalised in such churches. But Jesus says, “by their fruit you shall know them”, John commands us to “test the spirits” and Paul, following Jesus, makes it quite clear that whilst “love sums up the law and the prophets”, transformation unto love or right-relating comes through a biblical “transformation of the mind”. As Jesus prays, “sanctify them by the truth – your word is truth”.


Revelation has always had a cognitive, conceptual, intellectual, propositional aspect that should not be down-played relative to the succour of mysticism. Whilst relationship with God transcends the linguistic, it always involves the linguistic. As very young infants, our mothers fed us in very intimate ways. But as we grew older, our mothers had to move on to more advanced forms of mothering – ways of training us that involved language, including cognitive language, as quickly as possible (to stop us running riot).

Mid-twentieth century liberalism, and earlier forms of charismatic religion, both fall into experience-centredness on the grounds of the influence of existentialist thinking. Whilst the liberals tend to focus on experience of the transcendent, infinite, qualitatively different and unknowable God – a kind of via negativa grounded in a conflation of biblical divine infinity with the simple infinity of the Kantian sublime – the charismatics tend to focus on experience of the immanent Father God who succours us like a parent succouring infants, not realising that the Father wants us to mature and uses biblical language to mature us. Reflecting these differences in experiential emphasis, then as one moves from older-style liberal environments to charismatic environments, one tends to move from high arches, candles, and symbols to low ceilings, strip-lighting, and flags.

But to make my point: Christianity is so intellectually compelling that it has never been equalled. As religious experience grew historically, so did revelation and its cognitive aspects. It was the interpretative and formative supremacy of biblical revelation that enabled human pain and suffering to be accurately understood. Only a historical ignorance of such revelation led to the historical emergence of the intellectual aspects of the problem of pain.          I think that Lewis does indeed respect biblical content, but I’m not convinced that he relates the formative function of biblical language and content to the historical interpretation of the problem of pain.


Response to Chapter 2. Divine Omnipotence

I agree with Lewis’s argument that a good all-powerful God would likely create the best possible world. I also agree that at some stage (qualifying Lewis’s thesis here) such a world necessarily includes the possibility of low-level pain, of sin, and therefore of high-level pain. Thus, I agree with Lewis’s basic thesis that belief in a good all-powerful God is not threatened by the sufferings that we see in our own lives, all around us in the world, and historically.

I would, however, raise a preliminary caution over Lewis’s notion of “freewill”. To my understanding, Lewis seems to hypostatise human freewill to too basic or foundational a level. That is, Lewis seems at times to make God hostage to human freewill.

Admittedly, Lewis rightly argues in Chapter 7 that God’s omniscience and sovereignty are so exalted that God can easily turn our rebellions into the service of his good purposes. God is like a master chess-player who easily capitalises on the hostile moves made by much more junior players.

But, to my mind, (a), God is even greater than this. And, (b), I believe that human freewill is much more constrained and limited than Lewis seems to suggest. To my mind, God is so great, that the Fall of humanity was infinitely predicted by him (which Lewis would agree with), but is also infinitely contained by him too, which Lewis’s broader argument seems to be more ambiguous about.

To provide an illustration, then Japanese fighting fish are pretty vicious creatures, and have to be kept apart to be prevented from killing each other (a bit like us at times). But, as fish they are still constrained to fish-tanks that the fish-owner can move around at will. More than that, the owner can at any moment reach into the tanks and overrule the will of any or all of the fish in the tanks. Furthermore, the fish-owner can buy and sell the fish at will, decide to feed or not to feed the fish at will, and pretty much do anything he likes to the fish. At no point is the fish-owner’s “scope of sovereignty” affected by the freedoms enjoyed by the fish. And yet the fish do still enjoy limited freedoms as they swim around within their tanks.

Another example is a parent’s relationship to their toddler in a play-pen. At any moment, the parent can stop the toddler performing a particular manoeuvre with the play-bricks in the pen. At any other moment, the parent can refrain from stopping the toddler from performing that same manoeuvre. At any time, the parent can lift the toddler out of the pen, whether for the purposes of bath-time, bed-time, a trip out to the play-ground, or to the nursery, and so on. And yet, within certain parameters – parameters that keep changing – the toddler has what in mathematics are called degrees of freedom. At no point is the sovereignty of the parent under any threat whatsoever, and is in no way constrained. The toddler’s freewill, however, is constrained, contained, and predicted and yet – very often if not always – seemingly completely liberated, from the perspective of the toddler.

So then, parental freedom is not “one kind of thing”, not like a “solid shape”, in practice, but varies according to the relational particularities of love. Similarly, the toddler’s freedom is not a “fixed solid shape”, but changes in shape and extent according to the particularities of relating that are going on at any particular time.

In the same way, the notion of “divine freedom versus human freedom” can be misleading if seen to be like a thermometer in which “two lengths” (the “mercury versus the empty part of the thermometer tube”) “battle it out” as though one can only advance at the expense of the other – as though if our freedom “increases”, God’s freedom must somehow “decrease”. In reality, these two freedoms are not two simple “substances” pushing against one another, but two relational dynamics that are in fact both maximised together in heavenly relating – though divine freedom is never actually maximised since it is never threatened or reduced. Even if God restrains himself, this is his free choice, so his relational self-constraint is not a constraint of freedom. Self-constraint only limits the “freedom” of sin; self-constraint never limits the freedom of love, but is part of the freedom of love.

That is, biblically, freedom is either freedom as love, or “freedom” as self-negation that leads to slavery. Love is a “freeing” mode of being. In right-relating to others, we become ourselves, coming into our own identities as beings who are actualised when we are God-centred and others-centred. Lewis does indeed argue this in Chapter 10 and elsewhere.

But it is not clear that Lewis adequately stresses that freedom, when used to choose to sin, not only leads to enslavement (Lewis realises this), but also leads to a place in which God’s sovereignty – which is never even remotely threatened – has an even easier task of pre-empting and predicting our actions. Divine sovereignty even more easily contains our actions when we are in the prisons of repetitive sin than when we are relating rightly in freedom. It was less often sin and faithlessness that surprised Jesus, and more often righteousness and faith that surprised him. Even we can predict and pre-empt the actions of people who are trapped in sin – how much more can God predict and pre-empt their actions? Lewis seems to think that our sin presents divine sovereignty with a greater problem – a greater human “freedom” that simplistically must supposedly “limit” divine sovereign freedom – than does our righteousness, but this is not so.

That is, Lewis correctly emphasises God’s infinite foreknowledge when it comes to human sin and the suffering that results. But Lewis also seems to come close to arguing that God’s freedoms are limited by our abuse of freedom, as though God were potentially helpless in the face of our sin – as though God’s very ability to determine all outcomes was threatened by our sin. I do not believe this to be true.

That is, in heaven, there will be a maximised human freedom, the true “best possible world”, and yet there will be no possibility of sin. This is why I put a qualifier into what I said above about how the “best possible world” would at some stage involve the possibilities of pain and sin. We need to add a qualifier to what Lewis says at this point because we must assert: (a) that heaven is better even than Eden; (b) that whilst Eden allowed for the possibilities of pain and sin, heaven does not; and (c) that, therefore, against Lewis, the absolute “best possible world” does not, on account of human freedom, necessarily involve the possibility of pain and sin; therefore, (d), we must say that Eden, being not “the best possible world”, was only on the way to, or potentially transformable into, “the best possible world”. Therefore, the possibilities of pain and sin are necessarily part of a process unto “the best possible world”, but not necessarily part of “the best possible world” itself.

But how could this be, since the possibility of sin is grounded in human freewill, and human freedom is maximised in heaven? Well, here, we have to argue: (a) heavenly freewill – creative loving – is diametrically opposite to the kind of “freedom” we associated with sin above – the self-enslaving prison of freedom-as-negation; and, (b), divine sovereignty’s containment of freedom-as-negation will become maximally operative in heaven such that self-enslaving freedom-as-negation will become impossible, without in any way limiting, but rather in fact maximising, freedom as love.

Thus, by thinking in substance categories rather than in relational categories, Lewis de-relationalises and over-simplifies notions of divine sovereign freedom and of the two senses in which the notion of “freedom” applies to humans. He then conflates the latter two notions into one, and turns the result into a substance that somehow pushes against divine sovereignty and freedom. But this is not the case.

I also note that Lewis seems to ground the possibility of sin in human social interaction in the neutral realm of “nature”. “Nature”, however, is not simply a neutral realm, but is only partially neutral, being already populated by angelic and demonic forces that are intimately involved in the human realm, and in human decision-making.

Overall, though, Lewis is entirely correct to argue that belief in an all-powerful God is not even remotely threatened by the state of the world as it is.


Response to Chapter 3. Divine Goodness

I more closely align with Lewis’s arguments in Chapter 3. We do want counterfeit forms of “happiness” that do not involve us being confronted with or reformed out of our sins. We do indeed want to reinvent God after our own image, as though God was indeed a subservient disengaged kindly spoiling senile uncle who both allowed us to continue in our sin, and yet instantly delivered us when this led us into trouble. We don’t want God’s ethics, but we want a kind of “mob-ethics” or “chav-ethics” where everything centres on our not being stopped from realising our interpretation of our happiness.

I would take issue with Lewis on the following points, however: (a) his appeal to the model of a husband sanctifying a wayward and adulterous wife is biblical, but the Bible seems less sexist – (in fact it is not sexist at all in my view) – in that it also speaks of wives having a redemptive role in relation to wayward husbands. Also, (b), Lewis’s notion of counterfeit happiness is much truer of affluent Westerners than it is of those in the Third World who simply wish to be delivered from death, and to live a normal existence. Lewis rightly argues that 80% of human suffering is due to human (and demonic) sin, but he lacks a strong enough argument to account for which kinds of “counterfeit happiness” the starving are seeking that could account for any remedial suffering that they might experience.

Taking the issue of sexism first, then it is interesting that the “husband sanctifying the wife” image of Ephesians 5 is balanced by the “wife sanctifying the husband” image of 1 Peter 3 and, arguably, of Proverbs 31. In Ephesians 5 the husband, like Christ redeeming the Church, washes and cleanses his wife through the word to make her holy and spotless. Thus, the husband’s “feeding and caring for” his wife is not simply a physical provision, but also has a redemptive sanctifying dimension to it. This point aligns with the kinds of imagery Lewis uses in relation to God purifying his people as though they were his wayward adulterous wife.

In the Bible, however, we are not even remotely left with the impression that it is only women who need purifying. Admittedly, Lewis is saying that both men and women are likened to the “wayward wife” whom God sanctifies. But this image, whilst it is applied to both men and women, seems sexist if left in isolation, since within the context of the image if not within that of its application, it is the wife and not the husband who requires sanctification. The Bible, however, holds such imagery in tension with other teaching.

Thus, in 1 Peter 3, we find what at first might seem to be a sexist passage in that wives, like in the case of Sarah and Abraham, are encouraged to call their husbands “master”, which would be very unpopular in marriages today!

The context, however, is that Peter is teaching obedient wives how to help redeem disobedient husbands. In the Fall, men and women entered into a kind of “gender-war” in which men brutally dominated women, and in which women tried to use manipulation to gain control over men. Male self-assertive dominance tends to take the form of brutish relationship-negating shows of power or of withdrawal, whereas female self-assertive dominance tends to take the form of seductive relationship-distorting manipulative or possessive control. If one is a big hairy bloke, one does not need to learn subtle strategies to gain control, but if one is more delicate and lady-like, then brutality is less successful than subtle forms of seductive manipulative control. This is not to say that men cannot learn manipulative strategies and that women cannot become brutal – the sexes learn sins from each other. But, broadly speaking, the gender-war has a certain asymmetry of fighting styles.

Peter is basically saying: “if you have a husband who is as stubborn and (at times) as faithless as Abraham, then you have to take a leaf out of Sarah’s book: don’t try – out of fear that God will not be faithful – the usual strategies of seductive manipulative control that involve outward adornments. That strategy pertains to fallen gender-war, and just evokes the husband’s equally-fallen brutal relationally-negating responses. Rather, live by example, modelling not the sin of a self-assertive attempt to gain control, but rather the submissiveness and deferring-to-the-other that all love should involve. This approach honours God, since it is loving and forbearing and not fallen, and gives like God gives – i.e. to the undeserving – and so invokes God’s faithfulness in a good way. Then, when your husband sees your good example, he is more likely to be convicted of sin and repent unto belief and unto a similar mode of loving that involves the submissiveness and deferring-to-the-other that, again, all love should involve”. A case could also be made for redemptive examples being shown by wives in Proverbs 31 and elsewhere in Scripture.

Doubtless, Lewis’s stress only on “man redeeming woman” imagery is a product of his times, and we should respond to him graciously. Again, though, the Bible is not at all sexist when it is understood properly, even though it testifies about sexisms – to both male and female forms of sexism.

Moving on to the issue of how well (or not) Lewis’s notions of “seeking counterfeit happiness” and “remedial suffering” can be applied to those living in the Third World, then it seems to me that they can be so applied, but only with strong qualifications.

To begin with, it is often the case that those in poorer countries do indeed futilely desire the affluent life-styles of rich Westerners. The West, having “de-eschatologized” its beliefs, no longer believes in a heavenly city, but only in an earthly utopia (though dystopias are also envisaged). Utopian odyssey, or wandering, replaces eschatological pilgrimage. A material goal – underpinned by the physical determinism of atheistic naturalism – is sought, not the relational goal of the Kingdom of God that biblical Trinitarian thinking emphasizes.

Correlatively, in the West, patient earthly stewardship has become distorted into a frantic earthly hoarding that tries to build a material man-centred Cosmopolis or super designer reality, a space-conquering citadel in the sky, in the here and now – or at least in the near-future. To build such a fantasy (and on God’s building site at that), we seek to maximise our workforce, by motivating as many as possible to sell out to the utopian vision. Such motivation comes through advertising and the media, which everywhere spread news of the possibility of an actualisable middle-class dream – a stake in the utopia – that people world-wide work their whole lives to chase.

At the same time, the costs of building utopias are so prohibitive, that we streamline our industries for the greatest possible efficiency and economy, leading to a tendency to exploit as many workers as possible by giving them only subsistence wages or even by enslaving them, and so leading to industrially-alienating working conditions. Even many “professionals” are worked half to death, even though they form a kind of elite who are allowed to earn more so that the everywhere-advertised “middle class dream” – the stake in the promised utopia that “hard-workers” are promised so as to motivate them – is allowed to appear “actualisable” so as to constitute a “real” motivation.

Oftentimes, though, noble folks work themselves half to death for a better future for their families and offspring, only for their families and offspring to find out that such futures can prove very fragile and very elusive. The middle-class dream is so expensive, that it cannot in fact be universalised, and even outstrips the wealth-creating capacities of industrialised nations, such that a culture of borrowing develops that is underwritten only by the unrealisable building projects of utopian fantasy. And when the fantasy breaks down, the creditors call in the debts, and the financial crises that we are now in ensue.

Often, of course, those in “undeveloped” countries – far from naively thinking that they can become like rich Westerners – realise that they have been plundered and exploited, and that their chances of attaining the middle-class dream are nil. At this point, different future aspirations can come into play, aspirations that are understandable, if still sinful. Such aspirations include dreams of destroying the West, or Western outposts. We need not go into the ways in which Western foreign policy in the middle-east is deemed by many to have produced entire peoples who wish to see the West either destroyed, or at least humiliated.

Many, though, are so poor, that their view of a good future is simply focussed on survival, and neither on the “middle-class dream” nor on resistance to the West. Perhaps the apparent righteousness of their aspirations at first seems to confirm Lewis’s point that God could have used the human evil that created their poverty in order to sanctify their life-aspirations. This would align with Lewis’s arguments in Chapter 7. However, to me it is difficult to see how such aspirations for survival, although righteous in and of themselves, are at all “right” in the sense of mapping onto anything that would align with heaven. In heaven, all is righteousness. And yet, in heaven, the brute desire for physical survival does not exist. Therefore, the brute desire for physical survival is an abnormal righteous desire, a right response to evil and sin, which are abnormal.

But why, then, would “remedial suffering” from God be concerned to produce the abnormally-righteous? Surely, remedial suffering would wish to produce the normal right aspirations of heaven – which do not involve “the brute desire for physical survival”, since heaven is wealthy. If the response is given that poverty can be used by God as “remedial suffering” so as to produce good “others-centred” relational desires, then that is certainly true up to a point. But beyond a certain level of poverty, one simply does not have the means to relate well to others. One is either marginalised, or utterly self-absorbed with chronic suffering, or reduced to generosity of spirit, which can in reality amount to the sheer inability to be materially helpful or generous to others.

To me, then, the poor are not “blessed” so much because of their poverty, but because of their likely destiny. Jesus brings reversals: those who align with Western planet-exploiting utopian hoarding, and justify it, will be called least in the Kingdom of heaven. Those who have experienced bad things in this life due to others’ sin, and yet have called on God for mercy and have lived to please God will be compensated, and will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

To my mind, Lewis is right to stress that: (a) most suffering is not from God, but from “man’s inhumanity to man”; (b) God can and does deploy suffering remedially, to generate righteous desires. But I believe that Lewis completely over-estimates the supposed “positive role” of suffering in God’s economy. To my mind, suffering is an evil that God will reverse. Very often, it is an evil that produces further evil.

Again, suffering is not God’s preferred method of redemption in my view. Lewis’s images of the persistent artist, the dog-trainer, the authoritarian Father, and the exacting husband – if taken by themselves – seem oppressive to me. There is some truth in those images, and indeed they are biblical. But, again, Lewis under-emphasizes other biblical imagery – imagery that is more liberating than fear-inducing, and that should be held in tension with the harsher imagery, as the Bible does. One thinks of the Good Shepherd imagery, of the imagery surrounding Jesus’ calming of the storm, of Paul’s equal stress both on the sufferings of Christ and on the God of all comfort, of the biblical theme of continuing deliverance, and so on. Lewis does stress the relevance of the notion of resurrection to this life, but he stresses death much more than resurrection in my view when it comes to discussion of this life, if admittedly not when it comes to his discussion of heaven.

To my mind, then, it is better to view suffering as an evil that pertains not only to the Fall of man, but also to the fallen demonic realm that both controls the world at some level (since Babel, when the world rejected God and was handed over to the demonic realm by God) and that has not yet been conquered by God or redeemed. Suffering is primarily not redemption, but an absence of redemption. Only when this has been asserted can it also be asserted that God uses suffering in his redemptive activities at a secondary level. We are not so much denying Lewis’s point about redemptive suffering, but are arguing that he over-extends this point at the expense of other biblical emphases and, indeed, doctrines.


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