The pervasive nature of pain is perhaps the most compelling argument atheists possess. It certainly gives agnostics, as well as many believers, pause. Dostoevsky, the great Christian apologist and prolific Russian novelist, claimed that the suffering of children is the greatest proof against the existence of God. Many have accepted this proof thus rejecting belief in a creator.
In “The Problem of Pain,” C.S. Lewis refutes this argument. What follows is a terse summary, oftentimes in his own words, of Lewis’ reasoning. Let me be clear, these are not my own reflections but the observations of a scholar who has much to impart. But before I delve into his refutation, one caveat: Lewis provides a sterile, syllogistic explanation of why the existence of God is perfectly compatible with a material world where pain proliferates. Reconciling this seeming contradiction does not make experiencing pain palatable, just comprehensible.
So why is pain a predicament at all? It is solely because of Christianity.
Humans, you see, have always had a sense of the supernatural. All cultures have created myths and legends of entities outside the scope of nature. These have not ceased with modernization. The dread associated with dead bodies is a fear derived from something other than the material world since a dead body is incapable of causing harm. The sense of something beyond the scope of nature is referred to by theologian Rudolf Otto as the “numinous.”
While the numinous is a vague notion of something outside of nature, morality is a clearer one. Values differ from culture to culture but all peoples share a common conception of morality. And this common conception is at odds with our desires, creating a frustrating irony: universal acceptance of a morality that is universally violated. Instead of just giving up we continue to try to meet this standard, which seems so alien and largely unobtainable. Materialists, who reject the existence of anything outside of the natural world, claim this standard is a product of evolution. But the material world can only produce reactions as “I better” not “I ought.” And it is these normative prescriptions that give us civilization.
Now, the first people in history to collectively wed the numinous to morality were the Jews. Prior to their understanding, the supernatural was an amoral thing to be feared. They, however, began to believe in a single God who was just. This God would not commit random acts of cruelty without regard for the individual. The historical event, the incarnation of this God, was the Christ.
And so, Christianity creates the problem of pain. If there was no belief that God is good and loving than there would be no reason to question pain. But the philosophical and historical reality of Christianity cause both believer and unbeliever to struggle with calamity. Self-described atheists should be stoic, indifferent to heartache. But try as they might, they cannot escape the dilemma resulting from pervasive injustice and the intrinsic notion that everything happens for a reason and there is justice in the world.
The Ultimate Compliment
Bewildered by the problem of pain, many reflexively question the Christian understanding of divine omnipotence and goodness. For if these were God’s attributes, the argument goes, He would ensure our happiness.
As it turns out, our happiness is rather complex. The ability to be happy first requires an individual self, a consciousness that is autonomous from all other. The mysterious and magisterial nature of autonomy, taken entirely for granted in our Western context, defines who one is. Created in God’s image we are free to think, act, and create. We, as individuals, are inviolable and as a consequence have rights that are inalienable. We are the beneficiaries of the greatest esteem. Recognition of this truth is the basis of all advances in human interaction.
But with freedom comes immense and inescapable responsibility. We have the ability to do great good or great harm. And once freedom is imparted it cannot be simultaneously taken away, such an action is self-contradictory or nonsensical. This impossibility poses no challenge to divine omnipotence. All things are possible with God. Logical fallacies, however, are not things but nonentities.
Understanding what is intrinsically impossible beyond the theoretical stretches one’s imagination to its limits. But Lewis offers a speculative assertion: free will could not exist without a relatively independent and inexorable nature. Self-recognition requires a physical world since it is unlikely disembodied spirits could distinguish each others thought. The physical world must have fixed laws for individuals to have the ability to communicate in an objective way. And this gets us to the crux of the matter—a constant world necessitates that not all states will be equally agreeable. Fire can comfort or destroy. Pain helps distinguish which is which.
The fixed nature of our universe provides the opportunity for courtesy or hostility. Far too often we choose the latter. Such pain accounts for a very large portion of all human suffering. Or as Lewis says, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”
It is often said, usually in the context of celebration, that God is good. And so He is. God is the ultimate good. But the meaning of this is easily confused. Made in His image, we have an innate conception of what goodness is. But our conception is distorted by our autonomy.
An analogy cannot capture the extent of this distortion but one that comes to mind is the near perfect form of a professional athlete compared to the attempts of a beginner. When placed side-by-side the latter displays a crudity that is obvious to the most casual observer. No one doubts the superior skill of the professional. But remove the professional from view and the differences become less noticeable. Isolated, the beginner may begin to resemble the professional over time. And if he does improve his technique he may actually be confused for the real thing.
So it is with us. The farther removed we get from Goodness, the more convincing our distorted attempts become. Inching closer to the real thing improves our understanding of it but ultimately our efforts remain an imitation.
Our imitations form common understandings. These understandings have differed from era to era, as various peoples have emphasized certain aspects of virtue. Contemporary notions appear superior but we are often blinded of our own vice. As Lewis points out, it is easy to criticize the cruelty exhibited by the ancients but it is harder to admire them for being more chaste or courageous since these qualities have fallen out of fashion.
The contemporary notion of goodness is defined almost exclusively by kindness. “All you need is love” has become the defining philosophy and is asserted with moral authority, or even righteous indignation. But all good things taken in excess contaminate. Our fixation on love has devolved into a non-judgmental position that is seen as kindness. Ironically, this postmodern sensibility has rendered us incapable of kindness. It only allows us to be indifferent. This can be seen in a father’s complete permissiveness towards his child, who eventually recognizes such behavior for what it is: callous disinterest.
An even more virulent manifestation of this disinterest is contempt. At its best, contempt may evoke pity toward an object, wishing to remove it from any hardship or suffering. Rationalizations for abortion or euthanasia are derived from this heresy.
Real love is far different. But like our perverse postmodern conception, it is not without irony. Lewis notes Dante’s observation that love is “a lord of terrible aspect.” A romantic couple knows this. Passion demands exacting precision that is painful to achieve but far more rewarding than the alternative.
Given God’s perfection, His love is infinitely more demanding. As Lewis notes, Scripture continuously uses the analogy of the relationship man has with animals to help us conceptualize this. A man trains a dog so he may love it and it may serve him. But in this seeming act of selfishness, the dog’s interests are not sacrificed. Domestication is a painful and contested process but one that results in a healthier creature that gains the ability to enjoy “a whole world of affections, loyalties, interests, and comforts entirely beyond its animal destiny.”
Another analogy is the relationship between a father and son. This is defined perfectly by the authoritative love demonstrated by God and the obedient love demonstrated by Christ. Golgotha was the place of supreme surrender.
Despite protestations dating back to the Greek sophists, man is not the measure of all things. Living as such makes you less human, not more. Suffering, as untenable as it may seem, can help reconcile us with God, making us more fulfilled. Although proclaiming that God is good in times of tribulation is far more difficult than in times of happiness, it is just as accurate.
Call somebody wicked today and it may be taken as a compliment, if the person even takes you seriously. Good and evil are archaic and worthless notions, at least to the modern philosopher who has supplanted such simple-mindedness for the raw authenticity of human desire. Reverence for one’s right to choose has inhibited one’s right to discern, which is seen as unenlightened. The result is indulgence without shame, destruction without remorse.
Violating one’s conscience is as old as humanity itself. What is distinctive today is the push to normalize this violation. Psychologists insist that shame is a repressive and dangerous impulse that prevents fulfillment. Purging it is a moral imperative not only for individuals but for society.
Psychologists can no more eradicate shame than a Marxist can remake man. But their attempts are not entirely futile. The seductive dogma has trickled into mainstream culture, affecting the behavior of many who are assured their personal happiness trumps all. The result is a worldview that sees selfishness as a virtue.
Past cultures may not have been more moral, perhaps they were even less. But with few exceptions, they recognized that ignoring shame was ignoring truth. Despite their inevitable transgressions, they never failed to recognize those transgressions for what they were: sin. As Lewis explains, even the ancient pagans attempted to allay eternal damnation.
Such recognition can no longer be taken for granted. As a consequence the wrath of God appears cruel. How could a loving God allow suffering? The question is unanswerable if we define love by its modern conception: unconditional acceptance. This corrupts all those involved and could never be consistent with divine love, which by definition is perfect and therefore must also be just.
To avoid disillusionment we must recognize our own depravity. Here is another cheerful irony: understanding how contemptible our nature is to God allows us to understand reality. The alternative is to place our faith in humanity, which can only lead to bitterness and cynicism.
A Broken World
Nothing defines our condition with more clarity than the doctrine of the Fall. Although too profound to be fully grasped by human understanding, St. Augustine simply describes it as the sin of pride whereby a dependent creature whose principle of existence lies in another tries to exist for itself.
The first act of rebellion dramatically altered man’s condition. It broke his relationship with God thus subjecting him to the laws of nature. As Lewis explains, this introduced pain, senility, and death into an existence that Hobbes would later describe as nasty, brutish, and short. As the account in Genesis makes clear, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
Man became captive to his own frailty. “Rational consciousness became what it now is—a fitful spotlight resting on a small part of the cerebral motions,” Lewis explains. But far worse was the change to the spirit, which became its own idol. While it is impossible for the created to become the creator, man tried to imitate God. This resulted in powerful desires rooted in the gratification of the self.
Original sin and our own sin are often confused. Lewis attempts to clarify this with an analogy of a child who was raised badly but is taken in by a good family. The boy’s actions are said to be ‘not his fault’ but his character is still detestable. His misfortune and character are inseparable. We act like vermin because we are vermin.
We relive the fall every day in practically every instance of our lives. It is a rare and fleeting moment when we are not slaves to our own desires. Lewis likens this constant struggle to being on an inclined plane. God sits at the top and we are sliding away. The natural pull carries us in the opposite direction and the most pious among us cannot overcome the force.
To the secular mind this may all sound like nonsense. But ignoring the doctrine does not make it any less true. Its implications dictate our relationship to God and, as a consequence, our relationships with everyone else. The crude way in which we treat others is evidence of our condition. Sacrificial feelings toward a lover degenerate into a calculating lust that objectifies. Earnestness for a new job is replaced with schemes to maximize one’s own advantage. Using others is the logical approach to a life predicated on the self but the result is enmity and inevitable conflict.
Rather than fully embrace our narcissism we cannot help but be repulsed by it. There is an understanding, even among secularists, that the world does not work the way it ought. Our choice to live as gods has upended the natural order. Lewis quotes Montaigne, “To obey is the proper office of a rational soul.” Yet this is exceedingly difficult to do. Instead, man has turned to ideology in vain attempts to recreate utopia. The result of all these “smelly little orthodoxies,” as Orwell would say, has been widespread devastation. The communist and the fascist seek to remake human nature but their ways end in death.
Man has spoiled himself so all his endeavors are spoiled. Therefore good, in our present state, must primarily be remedial or corrective good. Our stubborn will makes this a painful process with seemingly no end. But our condition does not have to be terminal, as the apostle Paul declares, “As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.”
Our stubborn will often blinds us to the harm we inflict on others. It is only when such deeds are reciprocated that we fully appreciate the damage they cause. Then we are aware of the injustice committed and it is then that we expect contrition from our tormentor before the relationship can be reconciled.
Trace pain back to its source and you will almost always end up at free will. It is the indignity felt on the receiving end of this pain that often keeps us from destroying each other. The hurt makes us aware of the offense and why it must not be tolerated. We then have a choice to either respond in kind or try to restore the severed relationship.
It is perhaps easier to accomplish the latter when in a position of authority. When a son acts out in defiance of a good father, that father will chastise him in hopes of preventing further disobedience and alienation. While this is a very difficult and painful thing to do, doing nothing is far worse. If the son grows comfortable in his rebellion and is not compelled to change, the father will lose his son and the son will be ruined by his own foolish decisions.
The father and son dynamic is a representation, albeit flawed, of the relationship between God and man. It is therefore reasonable to surmise that God uses pain to awaken us from our malignant condition since pain is the one thing that cannot be ignored. Lewis notes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain.” Only in discomfort do we recognize how dependent we actually are. Pain forces us to see though the illusion of self-sufficiency.
It is only when we acknowledge this dependency and surrender to it that we find liberation. Otherwise we cut ourselves free from our only lifeline. This is perhaps the greatest irony. Christ declares, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” Lewis notes that this act of martyrdom, as radical as it may seem, has been intrinsically understood by every culture. He cites for example the veneration of the buried seed and re-arising corn by the ancient agrarians, the Indian ascetic who mortifies his body on a bed of spikes, and the Greek philosopher who preached that the practice of wisdom is a practice of death.
But it is the historical crucifixion and resurrection that makes this universal truth palatable. Christ has given us the supreme example. Blameless, He made the ultimate sacrifice. We need only weakly imitate it by surrendering our will.
Given our current condition we know suffering is inevitable. As the ancient prophet Isaiah makes clear, all flesh is grass and will wither away. Like Job we cannot fully understand our travails because we are so limited by our human perspective. But God uses the suffering of this world for good. He promises to take the wreckage of this world and make all things new. This realization gives one strength needed to face affliction.