Pt 3: 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 3:  Response to Chapter 6 & 7 – Human Pain/Appendix by R. Havard (a Doctor)


I agree with most of what Lewis says in Chapter 6. Lewis rightly stresses three forms of remedial pain: (a) retributive punishment that is justly deserved; (b) spell-breaking and the redirection of misdirected fallen nature; and (c) proving our God-wrought faith and righteousness genuine to us. In particular, Lewis rightly distinguishes divine retribution and vengeance from evil vindictive passionate revenge – a kind of tabloid Lamech-style brutalism that is evil, self-centred, over-harsh or disproportionate, and seeks only to destroy.

Lewis is also correct to argue that remedial pain is universal, life-long, and unevenly distributed (i.e. complexly, and not simply, related to “just deserts”); and Lewis is correct to argue that remedial pain faces us with a choice: whether in response to it we choose patience, humility and repentance or whether we choose instead to run with the crowd and adopt attitudes of culturally-normal anger and cynicism. Finally, Lewis adds an interesting Appendix at the back of his book which basically shows that most medium term pain has a positive effect on character.


One point that I would take issue with, though, is Lewis’s notion that to redirect misdirected fallen nature is simply to “reverse Adam’s steps”. To my mind, this way of putting matters could lead to three possible distortions: (a) Jesus, as the second Adam, supersedes the first Adam, and so we are to pro-actively follow Jesus’ footsteps into the future rather than retro-actively reverse Adam’s steps into the past. We are to be futural, not nostalgic; motivated by promise, not by pre-history; activated from ahead, and not from behind.

(b) It is occult practices that seek to re-access “now-out-of-bounds” Edenic spiritual capacities, going “back to Eden” as it were. Jesus, though, gives us the gifts of the Spirit as compensations for having lost our Edenic capacities. Our minds are structured linguistically, but by introducing falsehood to the mind, the Fall disrupts the unity of our linguistic programming, so to speak, which leads to all manner of cognitive dissonance and psychological disintegration. God combats this: by ordinarily confining our awareness and spirits to a small ordered part of the mind called consciousness so that we can function; and by confining the chaos to the subconscious. Our Edenic capacities are also confined to the subconscious, separated off from our awareness and from our spirits. Occult practices, however, use artificial sleep-states or trances (induced in various ways) to allow the spirit to re-access Edenic capacities in the subconscious. In doing so, however, the spirit activates such capacities through various degrees of subconscious chaos that both renders such capacities chaotic, as in some kinds of poltergeist phenomena, and that intrudes into the conscious so as to produce the aforementioned cognitive dissonance and psychological disintegration. Additionally, in the bad programming of the fallen subconscious, there is often sufficient uncleanness for demonic presences and strongholds to reside, such that any activated Edenic powers will be subject to the control and direction of demonic entities which, in addition, will be able to intrude into the awareness of and oppress the occultist consciously. Since God forbids occult practices of all kinds, to indulge them is also to give demonic entities permission to access one’s life, whereas in obedience to God we are more sheltered and protected from such entities.

(c) Since Adam committed sinful works in his misdirected Fall then “to reverse Adam’s steps” can seem to some to imply that we get right with God again by good works, which is not true. To my mind, this point could partly explain why Lewis at times stresses works more than God’s grace, and why he seems at times to have such an undeveloped view of God’s grace and its efficacy and guaranteed victory. The fact is, it is Christ who justifies and recreates us in his role as the high priest who: offers the atoning sacrifice on our behalf, sprinkles us with clean water, adds to us his fragrant aroma which is pleasing to God, meets with God in the heavenly tabernacle to arrange new terms of peace, disarms demonic powers and casts them out of us, and recreates us in his image, and not in the first Adam’s image. We will be given resurrection bodies and will be unable to sin. Adam had no such body, and was able to sin. Heaven is like a more advanced version of Eden so far as we are concerned, even if heaven is precisely like Eden so far as God and the good angels are concerned.

Moving on, then in this chapter Lewis again over-equates resurrection existence with self-surrender of the self to God. Yes, as resurrected beings we will submit to God’s lordship. But no, as resurrected beings we will not be devoid of all self-relationality, of all attendance to our own selves. In fact, we will be entrusted with more in heaven, not less. It is the irresponsible who have to yield every aspect of self-directed function, not the responsible.

I am also a little unhappy with something in the flavour of Lewis’s notion that only when we choose martyr-like obedience despite extreme suffering and apparent God-forsakenness do we then realise that we are truly God-empowered and acting in pure faith and righteousness of motive. Whilst it is true that Peter focuses on how trials “prove our faith genuine”, Lewis seems to neglect the ways in which God’s promise-fulfilment and blessing also prove our faith genuine. It is not so much the trial itself that proves our faith genuine, as God’s delivering us from trial after trial that proves our faith genuine. Lewis makes a valid point, along with Peter; but so does Paul. Lewis stresses some biblical emphases, but neglects others.

Finally, in some ways Lewis’s Appendix actually subverts his own arguments. Whilst medium-duration pain most often refines character, it is notable that chronic long-term pain, which very many suffer from, most often leads to a degeneration of character. The problem is that Lewis seems to argue in Chapter 7 that pain and suffering that cannot be relieved are to be treated as remedial pain. But this means that, on Lewis’s own definition, chronic long-term pain is to be treated as remedial pain. But since most chronic long-term pain has negative effects, this means that Lewis is asking us to treat what is in fact non-remedial pain as remedial pain.

Now, undoubtedly, Lewis would rightly reply that whatever pain one is enduring, one should always view it as an occasion for repentance, rather than as an occasion for justifying sinful forms of self-anaesthesia. Also, undoubtedly, Lewis would also reply that, on his view, most pain is not from God, but from human sinfulness.

The problem with this perspective, however, is that it still leaves us with a tension that Lewis himself felt: God almost seems somehow to still sanction humanly-generated suffering because it could still, just about, have a remedial effect, no matter how evil it was.

To my mind, though, it is far better to view things biblically: at Babel, humanity as a whole rejected God. God then handed humanity over to demonic fallen angels, whom humanity worshipped as false gods. These fallen angels oppressed humanity and both caused and encouraged great evil, which brought great suffering. God’s redemption plan, however, established a different kind of regime altogether, a Kingdom that advances across the globe and through all peoples and that the “gates of hell” cannot prevail against. The image is one of divine redemption forcibly opposing and advancing against hell on earth, not one of “sanctioned remedial evil”.

Now, of course, to say this is not to discount what we said earlier about God’s sovereignty being completely un-phased by evil. Evil even made the exercise of divine sovereignty less complex in some ways, since sinners are completely predictable. And so, it is true that we do have to say that, at some level, God deliberately allowed evil to exist. It is also true that, for the sake of the growth of the wheat, God has chosen to allow the weeds to grow also, such that redemption seems to be taking a long time.

And yet, it seems to me that not all “un-relievable suffering” should be viewed as “necessary remedial suffering”. No doubt some remedial suffering is necessary in the circumstances of our fallenness, but Lewis’s argument that remedial pain is universal, life-long, and yet unevenly distributed seems to be in danger of conflating the “non-redeemed” with the “being-redeemed”, the life-long binding that Satan can bring with the life-long discipline that God brings, and “the unevenness of the particularities pertaining to redeeming different individuals differently” with “the unevenness that results from the sinful hoarding of wealth by some to the detriment of others”. Again, it is what Lewis neglects to say that is the problem, more than what he does say.


Response to Chapter 7. Human Pain Continued

Much of what Lewis says in Chapter 7 has already been addressed in our response to Chapter 6 above. In Chapter 7, Lewis spends most time on the question of how God uses suffering remedially without excusing the evil that causes suffering. Lewis does also make five other points in Chapter 7, however, as follows: (a) remedial suffering is medicine for heaven, not elixir for utopias; (b) painful self-surrender is unique to each person, not always political or civil; (c) in this life God withholds ultimate happiness, but gives many lesser joys; (d) nobody suffers the “unimaginable sum of human misery”, so it isn’t real; (e) moral evil is contagious; pain is sterilised evil, normally soliciting good reactions.

Taking the last of these points first, then Lewis can only call pain “sterilised evil” by ignoring some of what his own Appendix says: that only medium-term pain “normally” produces good responses. Most chronic long-term sufferers, if not all, suffer some moral degenerations of character that, on Lewis’s own terms, would then lead to “contagious evil”. Thus, much pain is, indirectly, “contagious evil” and not “sterilised evil”.

Working backwards through Lewis’s points then I would argue that the “unimaginable sum of human misery” is not suffered by anybody, as Lewis notes, with the sole exception that it is suffered by God. Therefore, against Lewis, the “unimaginable sum of human misery” is real. The idea of God being one who “suffers with” is very familiar, and so we need not go into it further except to say that God is not some impassive detached God, but a God who is intimately involved in his creation. As one theologian puts it, he is the crucified God, who took upon himself the sins of the whole world. Why he should take such suffering upon himself is one of the greatest mysteries of God’s glory and love.

Lewis’s point that, in this life, God withholds ultimate happiness, but gives many lesser joys is true, but seems to lack any distinction between Christian and non-Christian experience. Nobody has ultimate happiness in this life; everybody, or almost everybody, has lesser joys; but what, then, is unique about Christian joy in this life? Lewis seems to miss this point, except in his earlier comments about the joys that pertain to the mode of self-giving in self-surrender.

What is missing here is any mention of the joy involved in being delivered from the dominion of darkness and into the Kingdom of God. The dominion of darkness involves oppressive enslavements that can persist even during the “lesser joys” that Lewis speaks about. Being “a slave to sin” means being trapped in destructive addictive patterns. Being “under law” means having a spiritual death-sentence hanging over one’s head. Being enslaved to elemental spirits or demons means being harshly accused in a way that demands utter legalistic righteousness whilst, at the same time, suffering temptations that provide the grounds for further accusations. All three of these are going on – often subconsciously – in the lives of those in the dominion of darkness.

Also, however, it is interesting that, in Christian lives, these same three oppressions are often seemingly increased until we become consciously aware of them, and not decreased. At the same time, in Christian lives, there is also an increasing liberation from the same three oppressions, such that we feel joy. The Christian life is truly a battle-ground of death and resurrection, of sorrows and joy. The Holy Spirit establishes a beach-head in our hearts, and then advances into enemy territory. The enemy then wakes up and fights back in a manner that is absent from the experience of non-believers.

Nothing needs to be added to Lewis’s point that painful self-surrender is unique to each person, and so is not always political or civil. With respect to Lewis’s point that remedial suffering is medicine for heaven, not an elixir of life for utopias, then we may affirm the value of what Lewis says here. In line with our earlier points, naturalistic humanistic utopianism, or modernity for short, suggests that we can experience a little struggle in the here and now, but only so that we can realise a utopian middle-class dream in the near-future. A minority, globally, seem to achieve this kind of scenario, not withstanding the multiplying of pre-occupying and life-diverting management-activities that material wealth brings such that, as Scripture says, the woes of the rich can actually multiply.

Most, though, are tormented by the futility of their attempts to attain the middle-class or American dream, and so this dream should be viewed as holding out a false promise by and large. On the one hand, the consumerism associated with middle-class utopianism hoards wealth and strips the world of resources that also belong to others. On the other hand, middle-class utopian consumerism falsely promises an elixir to those trapped within it – that somehow the fullness of life can be had now.

Biblical Christianity, however, is much more realistic: we should have stewarded this world on a pilgrimage to a heavenly city that God builds elsewhere; but instead we exploited this world on an odyssey to a delusional earthly Cosmopolis that we build here, as a kind of surrogate heaven. Realism, though, says that only God can build a heaven on earth. It is escapist utopian fantasy not to believe in a God-built heaven, but to believe in a man-made heaven. And so, remedial suffering must persist not until a delusional utopia appears, but until we enter the God-built heaven in the next life. Materialistic versions of Christianity thus lead to disillusionment, since they equate God’s blessing with a middle-class dream – an elixir – that very often never becomes real.



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