ESSAY
Two Solutions for the Problem of Pain
POSTED
November 19, 2019

C. S. Lewis tackled what is perhaps the most difficult and oft-heard objection to the Christian God in his classic, The Problem of Pain.[i]“If God were good,” Lewis restates the problem, “He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.” Lewis concludes: “This is the problem of pain in its simplest form.”[ii]

Pain, in Lewis’s sense, is suffering caused by others or by nature, and perhaps most especially that where the pain-sufferer bears no obvious direct moral responsibility for the pain. Its existence suggest unfairness, and—if God is either good or omnipotent—calls into question those necessary attributes of God (as we understand him), and thus God himself. This problem, and the logical inability of the Christian to solve it satisfactorily, is offered as a prima facie case against basic assumptions of orthodox Christianity, either sufficient to disprove it or at least sufficient to shift the burdens of proof and persuasion–and presumably make those burdens impossible to overcome.

Though Lewis does not stress the point, solving the problem of pain is different from solving (i.e., eliminating) pain itself. Even if the problem of pain, as he articulates it, is “solved,” pain itself, in the world as we know it, will continue. This is important, as there is no solution to the problem stated that in this life can eliminate pain.

There is a ready and straightforward solution for this problem, one that essentially accepts pain as yet one more element of a universe without purpose or plan and without a sovereign and loving God. If there is no one ultimately in charge, there is no responsibility to assign for pain. In bumper-sticker terms, “Pain Happens.” There is no problem. It is solved.[iii]

But pain itself remains, as does dealing with it. And in so solving the problem of pain (by denying God), one must now view pain—and life itself—as essentially without meaning or value. There is no purpose for pain (because there is none for life), and so what might have been viewed as the unfairness of pain when the “problem” remains unsolved has now been exchanged for the utter senselessness of pain (and life itself). One problem of pain may be solved, but in fact it is simply replaced by another—unless one is sanguine and content to live and suffer senselessly, which seems unlikely. After all, we tend to expect and rely upon some sort of order and rationality, and when that is lacking, we yearn to make sense somehow. The why question thus remains (because the pain remains), although it is in a different form, attached to a different (larger) question.

The reason the problem goes away with this solution is that the problem of pain depends on the notion of God in order to exist. Asking the question presupposes the possibility of God, and specifically God who is good and powerful. It is only a problem if there is such a God. That said, the problem of pain and its stand-in when solved—the problem of senselessness—prompt a desire for something better: an existence without suffering or an existence that makes some sort of sense. This yearning for something better is unhappiness at the current state of affairs, and some sense that this current state can be improved upon. In both cases this yearning suggests an unrealized perfection, and so points to God (or, more accurately, a god in some form). In short, solving the problem of pain by denying God does not succeed in entirely removing God from the matter.

For reasons not entirely clear, Lewis does not stress this yearning for something better as itself a pointer to God, so much as he does the general sense (transcending pain and the problem it presents) we have of the numinous outside ourselves (per Rudolph Otto) and a moral sense that we all share as humans. Indeed, Lewis questions how with the world so full of suffering religion was ever contemplated.[iv] Presumably Lewis offers this line of thinking to reject the notion that religion evolved as an opiate of the people, to address pain. He seeks to show how the Christian religion can explain suffering without leaving the impression that it was created for that purpose.

Pain itself, of course, is what Lewis equates with unhappiness in his stating of the question. And pain is what we generally wish to avoid. Setting aside that pain which one does not deem suffering in any way, greater happiness (ergo less pain) would seem to be an assumed aim of all human beings. And herein lies an irony Lewis does not address in his book.

If the “problem of pain” is solved by assuming a world without God and thus without purpose—a senseless world—then there are no compelling moral governors on conduct. It matters not whether one treats others well—save to the degree that enables one to avoid one’s own pain. Without restriction one can increase one’s pleasure and decrease one’s pain at the expense of others. While physical evil may remain constant, moral evil caused by human cruelty will certainly increase—as save for self-interest there is no reason for it not to. Thus in “solving” what Lewis terms the problem of pain by such a denial of God, pain itself is actually increased, and thus happiness decreased. And this is more so when one also factors in the hopelessness, despair, and untethered existence that the problem of senselessness implies. The cost of solving the problem of pain in this way is logically and inexorably more pain.

Focusing on the weaknesses of solving the problem in this way invites the popular retort to the problem of pain Lewis describes: we may not have an explanation for how God countenances suffering, but at least we do not suffer alone and we do not suffer without some sense of ultimate purpose (even if we may not ever know the reason, we know there is one). This may suggest that a Christian view of suffering is one better suited (or the least ill-suited) for a happy life. But it does not address the problem itself—it simply suggests a way of coping with the problem.

Lewis agrees that as stated there is no provable answer that completely suffices which includes God as the Christian understands him. That means that the terms used by the problem are ones that must be carefully considered. Lewis reaffirms Aquinas’s view that God’s omnipotence does not mean God can do anything, but rather that God can do anything that does not compromise his perfection and his character. (God does not have power not to be God.) Likewise, love does not, as the stated problem assumes it does, necessarily exclude the possibility of pain—and may in fact demand it in some contexts. Love is not mere disinterested benevolence, but is in its various manifestations—from love of a pet dog to the love of God implied in the Lord’s Prayer—far more involved and invested in making us the sort of people we should be.[v]

Here Lewis alludes to, but does not expand upon, what is perhaps the best analogy for how love can include pain and, indeed, explain it: the relationship a young child has with his or her parents. Those parents, charged with the child’s protection and care, are at times obliged to do things that the child is unable to appreciate or understand, but which cause pain (physical or otherwise). A child, for example, will not understand how an inoculation can preclude the possibility of a disease in the years ahead that could cause death or other serious consequences. All a child knows is that with no apparent justice or fairness a stranger has jabbed a very sharp needle into her arm and caused great pain. A child will not appreciate the dangers of being hit by a car the child cannot see; the child only knows that a supposedly loving parent pulled his arm painfully as he stepped off the curb. In these situations and others the child will react with fear, a sense of unfair victimhood, anger, or all of these, unable to solve his or her own “problem of pain.” And the fact the child is unable to understand does not prove that the parent does not love the child or that the parent was unable to protect the child (indeed, the pain is evidence of love and protection). It certainly does not prove the parent is not a proper parent and thereby does not exist in any meaningful sense of the word parent.

This analogy of a loving parent seems the most effective way for the Christian to solve the problem of pain as Lewis has outlined it. We are finite beings, with limited knowledge and limited ability to understand. God is infinite in his knowledge and power, and infinite in his love. When we experience pain, be it as a result of physical evil or moral evil, that pain must come because God allows it, and in and through that pain God aims to make us (and perhaps also through us make others) better persons—because he loves us. Like the child who does not understand the shot he receives, we cry out in anguish at our pain, both because of the hurt and because we do not comprehend why we must suffer so. And like the child with his parent, we must respond to God with trust and faith that he is protecting us in love.

Lewis with these definitional clarifications shows that suffering is in fact not inapposite to love. Because God must act consistent with his character—thus allowing us freedom—pain is inevitable as in freedom humans make bad choices that affect themselves, others, and the created world.

What remains unanswered, then, is not the general question about suffering being possible along with a sovereign and loving God, but only why specific instances of suffering come about—the problem of pains, one might term it. And these, drawing on our analogy of the child, may never be known or understood—at least not by the person experiencing the suffering—until that day when all is made clear. Still, however, our experience and the testimony of Scripture and of the saints, past and present, can act to give us confidence that in fact, as Philip Yancey puts it, “the trick of faith is to believe in advance what only makes sense in reverse.”[vi] As we look at our own history, that of others, and that of the world, there are few calamities, however horrible, that have not produced some (usually unexpected) good. The God that redeems us and will redeem creation is no less able to redeem the worst humans can do to one another. “There is no pit so deep,” Corrie ten Boom recounts her sister Betsie telling her, “that his love is not deeper still.”[vii]

Pain for the Christian, then, rather than calling God and God’s love into question can serve as a reminder of both, and a call to trust, obedience, and love. The problem of pain is thus solved also for the Christian, as it is (albeit in a far different way, with far different consequences) for the non-believer.

It is true that neither solution provides a complete answer and complete understanding now—but only one solution promises that in time. Neither solution eliminates pain—although only one solution does not actually increase pain itself. And only one solution does not require one to accept a substitute problem (that of utter senselessness) that forces one not only to question the purpose of pain, but to accept the futility of life itself in all its dimensions. The chosen solution, then, is ultimately a matter of where and in whom one places one’s faith. It is difficult—especially for the Christian—to see how choosing the solution that promises greater pain and futility is either reasonable or desirable.


Alexander Whitaker is president of King University in Bristol, TN.


[i] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (C.S. Lewis Classics) (New York, 1996).

[ii] Ibid., 23.

[iii] It should be noted that the two solutions discussed here are not the only two, as one can posit a God with other attributes. God, for example, might be entirely detached, or arbitrary or capricious, or intentionally cruel. Each of these (and others), however, tend to present variations of the same problems of unfairness or senselessness discussed here.

[iv] Lewis, 13.

[v] Ibid., 40.

[vi] Philip Yancey, “Global Suspense | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction”, n.d., http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/march/22.120.html. (Accessed 28 Oct 2019)

[vii] Corrie Ten Boom, et al., The Hiding Place, (Grand Rapids, 2006), 227.

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