Book Review: The Problem of Pain

The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis

This book is an excellent philosophical and logical examination of the issue of pain.  One of the oldest arguments against the idea of a sovereign, good god (Christian or otherwise) is that no truly good or truly all powerful god would allow suffering and pain in creation.  Either god has the power to alleviate pain and has chosen not to, in which case he is not a good god, or she wishes to alleviate pain but does not have the power to do so, in which case she is not an all-powerful goddess, or else there is no god at all.  The argument is old and is restated any number of ways.
Of course, it presumes a fair number of things – it presumes that we are not ourselves to blame for pain, that a god exists primarily to eliminate the possibility of pain, even if we as creatures insist on creating it for ourselves and others.  It also assumes that the only appropriate response by a god to pain is one that is undertaken prior to the pain occurring.  It does not account for the possibility that a god might have already undertaken a solution to the problem of pain, but the solution has not yet fully manifest itself.  What appears at first as a very solid logical refutation of pain quickly dissolves into a bevy of unsupportable assumptions.  
Lewis addresses the idea of pain rationally and philosophically.  As such, he belongs by and large to a bygone era when thought and conclusion were held in high esteem – higher esteem than the particular circumstances of any one situation or individual.  Lewis is quick to point out that his logical dealing with the issue of pain in no way means that he is going to handle pain any better than someone else might.  Pain is hurtful, and no rational person desires hurt. 
Lewis’ basic premise is that if we are to interact with other beings, there must needs be a mutual backdrop in which that interaction can occur – a backdrop that is not fully under the control of any one being.  It must be neutral, to a certain extent, so that it is also predictable and therefore can provide meaningful contextualization for interaction.  Reality must be a fairly predictable and stable backdrop that all creatures must deal with on relatively equal footing, or else no real interaction is possible.  This in and of itself leaves open the possibility that what is helpful and good for one creature may be interpreted quite differently by another.  The storm that waters the crops in one area may also bring flooding in another area.  If the backdrop of reality as we encounter it is flawed in some way, then this is even more the case.  
I disagree with some of Lewis’ theological perspectives that are raised in the book.  I’m not sure that we would be in complete agreement on the nature of original sin, and I’m quite sure that his willingness to accommodate evolutionary theory and natural selection is not tenable Scripturally.  His speculations on the nature of hell are fascinating, and while I can see some value in them, I’m sure there are other Christians who would find them wholly unacceptable.  
This is a relatively short read.  Lewis intends it for the lay reader and overall he succeeds, though there are a few sections that would be good to read through more than once to follow his train of thought.  Lewis makes it clear that he also writes as a lay person, rather than a trained theologian.  However I would prefer that more theologians had Lewis’ training, rather than that Lewis should have had more of ours!  
This is not a book to recommend to someone in the throes of suffering pain or loss.  It is not devotional or soothing in that sort of way.  But it provides very interesting and worthwhile food for thought as we consider philosophically and theologically the problem of pain.  

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