'The Problem of Pain,' by C.S. Lewis An outline

by Sam Selikoff April 9, 2013


Chapter 1: Introduction

  1. The Problem: Lewis identifies 'the problem' - the fact that everyone recognizes there is evil in the world. He then notes the difficulty of squaring this fact with man's conceiving of an all-loving, benevolent God. Why would man have ever conceived of such a God in the first place? Who, living in a fallen world like ours, one destined to extinguish with all life erased from memory, would posit that it was made by an all-loving God? He argues it is unreasonable to think that such a conception simply emerged out of the minds of men. He then examines the origin of religion.
  2. The origin of religion
    • Perhaps religion came from the minds of simpler humans, whose ignorance produced a non-negative, pleasing conception of the world and thus led to the idea of a benevolent creator. But Lewis argues that old writings demonstrate prehistoric man's fascination and fear of the universe. So it is obvious that man was aware of pain and suffering, before our present day.
    • Three aspects of religion that cannot be explained by facts of the natural world
      • Awe/dread. Lewis ponders the source of human awe and dread, which are elements of religion. Remember, we're discussing the origin of religion here. Now Lewis is breaking down religion into its various components, and examining them. When he uses these words, he means something different than fear. He defines Numinous, an object which brings about a sense of dread within us. Suppose you believed a mighty spirit were in the room with you. The feeling you felt, that is the awe and dread, and the spirit would be the Numinous. Lewis argues that it is impossible to infer such a feeling from the facts of the universe. Nothing about the natural world would lead man to fear this type of supernatural being; but the feeling comes from man's interpretation of the universe. It is similar to beauty. One could not explain why an object is beautiful to a creature without aesthetic experience, even if he explained all the facts of the object to him. So where does awe come from? Either awe is a random artifact of the human mind, or it is a real experience - a revelation. The problem with the first explanation is that awe has showed no tendency of disappearing from the human experience, even from the most advanced and sophisticated humans.
      • Morality. There is another feeling that surpasses the facts of the natural world: morality. The feeling of oughtness, like awe, cannot be explained by the physical universe. There's something interesting about morality: even where men differ, they all agree is prescribing a behavior, a correction. Men are aware of breaking the moral law, and of guilt. Religion also has this element, the concept of a moral law both approved of and disobeyed. Men are conscious of this - yet it cannot be explained by facts. We bring it to our own experience. So it, like awe, is either illusion, or revelation.
      • The combination of awe/dread & morality. Lewis says when religions put these together, but that it is not obvious why someone would. Even if awe/dread and morality come from nature, why would man combine them? Why would he make that which he dreads the giver of his moral law? This is the biggest jump that religions make, that can't be explained by facts. If this aspect is in fact revelation, the Jews should be recognized, as they were the first to fully and unambiguously combine the Numinous with morality (identify awful presence haunting black mountain-tops and thunderclouds with 'the righteous lord' who 'loveth righteousness').
      • The historical event of Jesus. Jesus claimed to be the son of or 'one with' the Numinous moral law-giver. Either he was crazy, or a real revelation.
    • It is important to grapple with these aspects. Often skeptics consider how likely it is that the universe formed from chance; but this misses the point. The problem of pain is only a 'problem' if we ascribe righteousness and love to our reality. Similarly, we must explain the historical development of Christianity. People can deny morality and the feeling of the Numinous, but if they do so, they cut themselves off from the great poets and prophets of all of human history.

Chapter 2: Divine Omnipotence

  1. The problem of pain exists because (1) god is all powerful and (2) all good, but (3) his creatures are not happy.
  2. Omnipotence
    • Doesn't mean power to do nonsense. "Be orange and not orange at the same time." "Draw a rounded corner." Cannot change nonsense just by throwing god's name in.
    • Means ability to do extrinsically impossible things, rather than intrinsically impossible (ie contradictory ) things. Extrinsic means, impossible unless...(some condition is changed)
  3. Mutual necessities
    • Human reasoning is flawed. We may think things are possible when really they are (intrinsically) impossible. For example, merciless and uncaring natural disasters seem to contradict the existence of a good God, but Lewis argues there cannot be independent laws of nature in a world where man is free. This is because freedom implies choice, which implies choice between things, which implies things outside of ourselves. There must be a 'nature', a common medium (space and time, at least) where people can meet things outside of themselves, including other people. And this nature must be neutral in the sense that it is not under a person's control; otherwise, the other people not in control would not be free. As a result, this nature will be at times favorable to humans, and at times not. If a fire is warm from a certain distance, it will be uncomfortably hot at others. Or, there will be hurricanes. So, this is inherent in a world with a free society, that is, a neutral 'nature' is mutually necessary with a world of free spirits.
  4. One possible world
    • Perhaps this is not the "best of all possible" universes, but the only possible one; that is, all aspects of it are mutually necessary. When we ask what God could have done, we're ascribing the idea of human choice to God. But if God is perfectly good, he cannot question which end is best to pursue; there is no debate about which world is best - he already knows.
    • Does this mean God is unfree, since he cannot choose? Lewis argues that God's freedom means (1) only he can produce his actions, and (2) no one can stop him.
    • Note that none of this (human suffering caused by nature is a necessary fact of our world's creation) implies anything about God's goodness, namely, whether or not God being good is consistent with him having made a universe that was destined to cause suffering on us. This is the subject of the next chapter. (Question: is he saying suffering is a necessary fact of our world's creation, even without the fall?)

Chapter 3: Divine Goodness

Was it good for God to make a world that was destined to lead to human suffering?

  1. God's moral standards vs. ours
    • We may think God does something evil (such as destine us for suffering). But God is wiser than us - he knows what's good and evil.
    • But then why do we worship him? If his standard of morality is so different than ours, is it out of fear?
    • Lewis argues that we can recognize God's morality is of a higher standard, even if it's different from ours at the beginning. Suppose you are a somewhat immoral person. If you surround yourself with moral people, a process takes place where you would gradually learn to accept their standards. Even if they aren't in your mind already, in your mind they are 'better'. You know this because you feel guilt and shame.
  2. Love is not happiness
    • Perhaps we wish that God made our world & us so that we were always happy. But this means that we want less love, not more.
    • Consider a father's love for his son. "The father uses his authority to make the son into the sort of human being he, rightly, and in his superior wisdom, wants him to be." He doesn't want him to just turn out however he will provided he is has happy as possible.
    • So, as long as we trivialize love, it seems that God could not be long & allow the existence of human suffering. But love is not trivial.
  3. Man is not the center of creation
    • The point of creation is not man, or man's happiness. Man wasn't created for his own sake
    • We were made primarily so God could love us.
    • Is this selfish? No, because selfish loves requires (1) needs and (2) needs that differ from the beloved. God does not need our love; in face, he can't need it, since he is the source of love. If there is something in him akin to a want or need, it must be created by his will for our own sakes, since we need to be needed. And God is not separate from us as a father is from his son, and he cannot misunderstand him the same way.

Chapter 4: Human Wickedness

In the last chapter we said that love doesn't always involve happiness. Since we were talking about man, we are assuming that man needed to be changed to be fully loved. Why does man need to be changed? The Christian answer is that he has used his free will to become wicked.

  1. People don't think there's a problem. Two causes:
    • People think they are kind, and this overrides their vices. "I've never hurt anybody" and "my heart is in the right place." We are happy - but are we sacrificial, temperate, chaste, humble?
    • Psychoanalysis. We are convincing ourselves that true vices - cowardice, unchastity, falsehood, envy - are just natural, and we need to condition ourselves to overcome the guilt associated with them.
  2. Christ doesn't make sense without consciousness of sin.
  3. But upon introspection people do believe in sin.
    • There are moments when we do something and we are truly ashamed of it. In moments like this, where we perceive our badness, God's wrath seems inevitable, appropriate. It's only when we talk about being bad that his wrath seems barbarous.
    • Think about all the small things that happen on a daily basis, the sly remark, the nasty thought you have about even your friends, the arrogance. Most people recognize these as wrong.
    • And these people recognize against something outside of themselves. They recognize a 'social' conscience.
  4. People think virtues are common across time and space.
    • Moral leaders throughout the ages have agreed on nearly everything.
    • People in different cultures and times are isolated from one another, yet still judge each other by certain shared standards.
  5. Ultimately, shame is a useful emotion.

Chapter 5: The Fall of Man

In the previous chapter, Lewis argued that man is wicked. How did it come about? The Christian answer is the Fall.

  1. Man abused his free will, and became a horror to God and himself.
    • The most significant way of stating the real freedom of man is to say that if there are other rational species than man, existing in some other part of the actual universe, then it is not necessary to suppose that they have also fallen.
  2. This doesn't contradict the goodness of God. God created free will, which is good; but wrapped up in the nature of free will is the possibility of evil; and humans chose this.
    • The doctrine of the free Fall asserts that the evil which thus makes the fuel or raw material for the second and more complex kind of good is not God's contribution but man's.
  3. Lewis argues that the Fall does not tell us that we are being punished for Adam's sins.
    • "Yes: we behave like vermin, but then that is because we are vermin. And that, at any rate, is not our fault."
    • Is this an excuse to be evil? No. Think of a badly brought up boy who is introduced into a decent family. The family is - and ought to be - aware of his detestable character. The boy begins to feel shame and guilt over it, too. Even though he was unfortunate in his upbringing, it is he himself who acts deplorable.
  4. Some argue that science undermines the Fall, as it demonstrates a steady rise of the human race, in terms of advancement, refinement and virtue. Lewis says it is wrong to draw such sweeping conclusions from the previous few artefacts we have of ancient peoples.

The doctrine of the free Fall implies that good, to us in our present state, is primarily a remedial or corrective good. We will now consider what part plays in such a remedy.

Chapter 6: Human Pain

Is pain (suffering, anguish, not necessarily physical pain) a necessary part of good?

  1. We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved; we are rebels who must lay down our arms. We have been harnessing our will towards ourselves for so long. Relinquishing this and surrendering it to God will be painful. It's a kind of death.
  2. Think about childhood. Lewis: "the bitter prolonged rage at every thwarting, the burst of passionate tears, the black, Satanic wish to kill or die rather than to give in." The first step is to 'break the child's will'. We stamp and howl less when we are adults, but we still must die daily.
  3. Dying to ourselves is actually made easier by the presence of pain. There are three ways suffering is useful to our corrective good:
    • It tells us something is wrong. We experience pain when we are out of touch with our Creator.
    • People think bad men should suffer. People also have a thirst for revenge. This is not good, but the end is not wholly bad - it wants the evil of the bad man to be to him what it is to everyone else.
    • This point may help us understand more about God's vengeance. There is a good aspect of retribution. Until the evil man finds evil unmistakably present in his existence, in the form of pain, he is under an illusion.
    • We think good people experiencing pain is unjust. But, if it is true that all the happiness their lives can offer can not make them blessed, is God not being merciful and loving by showing them they must know him to not be wretched?
      • It is hardly complimentary to God that we should choose Him as an alternative to Hell: yet even this He accepts.
      • The creature's illusion of self-sufficiency must, for the creature's sake, be shattered. Kindly, honest people may be under this illusion of self-sufficiency, and so on such people misfortune must fall.
    • Thirdly, man before the fall loved serving God; it was his only inclination. All his actions lined up with God's will. So, it was pleasurable to serve God. But because of our fallen natures, we inherited a whole system of desires which ignore God's will. We cannot therefore know that we are acting for God's sake, unless the material of the action is contrary to our inclinations (i.e. is painful). The full acting out of the self's surrender to God therefore demands pain: this action, to be perfect must be done from the pure will to obey, in the absence, or in the teeth, of inclination.
    • This sounds like Kantianism. He thought an action had no moral value unless it were done out of pure reverence for the moral law. How can the Christian solve this conflict between the ethics of duty and the ethics of virtue? God commands things only because they are good. One of the things he commands is that rational creatures should freely surrender themselves to their Creator in obedience. So, the thing we're doing is good, but also the mere act of obeying is good, since we're willfully fulfilling our creaturely role (which reverses the act by which we fell). So Christians agree with Kant so far as to say that there is one right act - the act of self-surrender; and we agree with Aristotle that the better a man becomes the more he will like his duty.
      • Think of Abraham's act of going to sacrificing his son. Even though God may knew he'd be capable of it, Abraham didn't; and it's idle to talk about what he might have done. The reality of his obedience was the act itself.
      • This is also why martydom is the supreme enacting and perfection of Christianity, which was exemplified for our imitation by Christ on Calvary. But this doctrine of dying to self is even subtley all around us. Huxley espouses non-attachment. Old agricultural communities believed that 'without shedding of blood is no remission'. The indian ascetic mortifying his body on a bed of spikes preached the same lesson. The greek philosopher tells us that a life of wisdom is a 'practice of death.'

What does Lewis think of pain when he is experiencing it, rather than writing about it? He thinks the same as you or I. He is not arguing that pain is not painful. Pain hurts - that's what the word means. He is only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine of being made 'perfect through suffering' is not incredible.

When Lewis experiences pain, "first he is overwhelmed, and all my little happinesses look like broken toys. Then, slowly and reluctantly, bit by bit, I try to bring myself into the frame of mind that I should be in all times....And perhaps, by God's grace, I succeed, and for a day or two become a creature consciously dependent on God and drawing its strength from the right sources. But the moment the threat is withdrawn, my whole nature leaps back to the toys...And that is why tribulations cannot cease until God either sees us remade or sees that our remaking is now hopeless."

A final point: Christ talks about the poor being blessed. Even the Marxist, who thinks Christianity is an 'opiate of the people', has contempt for the rich and everyone except the poor. But this is not compatible with a belief that the effects of poverty on those who suffer it are wholly evil; it even implies that they are good (as we have been arguing).

Chapter 7: Human Pain, contnued

We will cover some more topics.

  1. Christianity says blessed are the poor; but Christians are supposed to help the poor. What gives?
    • Suffering isn't good in itself. What's good is (i) for the sufferer to submit to God, and (ii) for others to help him.
  2. If tribulation is necessary, it will never cease until God sees the world redeemed, or no further redeemable.
    • There is no heaven on earth. (Still, natural and good to seek out alleviation from pain)
  3. Lewis has been arguing that as creatures we are to submit to our Creator; nothing can be drawn from this about our duty (or lack thereof) to submit to any political entity.
  4. This doctrine of suffering may explain why we find joy and pleasure in this life but not settled happiness or security.
  5. It may not be meaningful to talk of 'the sum of human suffering'. You cannot add these units of suffering, for no one is suffering them.
  6. It is interesting to note that pain is different from sin in that sin tends to proliferate, while pian does not. One sin can often lead to many more; and once the sinner realizes this, he must repent of each one. Pain does not do this. Once the pain is cured, it is sterile. Each pain doesn't need an undoing, like each sin does. Another way of saying it: a sin done in public infects everyone who witnesses it: either they condone it, sharing my guilt, or they risk being proud or out-of-place in condemning it. Pain doesn't do this. Pain brings about a good effect in people who witness it - pity. "Thus that evil which God chiefly uses to produce the 'complex good' is most markedly disinfected, or deprived of that proliferous tendency which is the worst characteristic of evil in general."

Chapter 8: Hell

Hell is most unfortunate, but it comes with humans having a will. It is intolerable, yet Lewis argues that it is moral.

  1. Some object against retributive punishment.
    • But all punishment becomes unjust if there is no payment
    • Also, think of a very wicked man who lives his whole life never questioning his ways, thinking he's gotten the best of everyone. Do you really not sense an ethical demand for justice against him?
    • Pain brings recognition of the evil. This is better than ignorance of evil, or ignorance that the evil is contrary to our nature.
    • Some say God should forgive the man. But forgiving is not condoning. Forgiveness needs to be accepted as well as offered if it is to be complete: a man who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness.
  2. One way to think of hell is simply the fact of a man separated from God being what he is. Death removes his last contact from the world outside of himself. When he lies wholly in himself and makes the best of what he finds there, that is Hell.
  3. Some say being punished for eternity is out of proportion to committing transitory sin. But our lives here affect our eternities.
  4. Some object to the intensity of pain in Hell.
    • But this is only one aspect found in scripture, which is usually emphasized. There is also destruction. What does this mean, and how does a Hell where this is emphasized as strongly as pain and torture look like? When something is destroyed, it becomes something else. A log becomes gas and heat. Perhaps we become unmade, no longer human. When we go to heaven, we become more human than we ever were on earth. When we go to Hell, we lose our soul, our humanity, and serve ourself.
  5. Some say if I were in heaven, I'd have compassion for those in Hell - and wouldn't that make me more merciful than God?
    • Yet Hell doesn't coexist with Heaven, at least in duration. Scripture speaks of the finality of Hell.
  6. Some say that a single soul rejecting God and going to Hell means God is no longer omnipotent.
    • But Lewis says this is a miracle, for God to make creatures that are capable of 'resisting' him. He says this is what omnipotence means for God, since from the outset his creatures had the ability to do this. But in the end they're not resisting him and becoming free; they enjoy the horrible freedom they hav edemnaded and become self-enslaved; while the blessed, who submit more and more in obedience to the will of God, become more and more free.

Chapter 9: Animal Pain

  1. Sentience is relevant here. A dog is different from a plant.
  2. Further, there is division among sentience. An ape is different from an earthworm.
  3. But sentience isn't consciousness.
    • Think of our own. Say three things happen to us, A, B, C. We can recount that A, then B then C happened. We have the experience of passing through ABC. But this implies that there is something in us which stands sufficiently outside A to notice A passing away, and sufficiently outside B to notice B now beginning and coming to fill the place which A has vacated; and so on. This something is Consiousness or Soul. This proves that the soul, though experiencing time, is not itself completely 'timeful'.
    • Animals don't have this. So in fact when we say "this animal feels pain", we are misspeaking.
    • Lewis admins some of the higher beasts may have this a little, but most probably do not.
  4. If animals have any identities, it is in their masters.

Chapter 10: Heaven

  1. Sometimes when we talk about heaven people think that its the point, that you become a Christian so you can obtain heaven. But 'heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire.
  2. Each of us have secret longings, things that make us like this or that, and that others can never fully understand. As long as we are alive we desire it. It's what makes us like the books and movies we like. Lewis speculates that Heaven will be the fulfillment of this desire for everyone.
    • He says even if this is the product of nature, that God simply used nature as one of his instruments to create our soul.

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