Christianity is a faith of paradoxes. We are alive now, and then we will die (unless Christ returns before we die), but there is life after death. On Sunday, we officially begin to look upon the Virgin who will give birth to a son. By dying, Christ conquered death. Either this all makes perfect sense, or it makes no sense at all. This is not an apologetics post, but as I’ve alluded to in previous reviews, one of the biggest barriers for many non-Christians is what philosophers call the problem of pain, the problem of evil, or the problem of suffering: God is all-powerful and all good, yet it seems that innocent people suffer. If you can’t make sense of that reality, how can you believe in Christianity? As with most spiritual questions, I have turned to those much smarter, wiser, and more focused than I am; in this case, I read another C.S. Lewis nonfiction book, very directly titled The Problem of Pain.
I hope you have read Mere Christianity, also by C.S. Lewis. If not, you should, and you should do that first. Lewis does a masterful job there of introducing the reader to Christianity and explaining the basic non-negotiables without getting too bogged down in social applications or denominational differences. The Problem of Pain takes the major weakness of Christianity and elaborates on that issue in particular. Although the two books were published around the same time, tackling the problem of pain requires enough of an understanding of Christianity to see why it is a problem; if you don’t believe Jesus existed, then nothing he is claimed to have done really matters at all. I also found The Problem of Pain vastly more philosophical and tougher to understand than Mere Christianity. The sentences are longer, the examples are more complex, and the conclusions are less immediately practical. Suffering is tangible; reasons for suffering can be intangible. If you’re not used to thinking in abstraction, you will probably find The Problem of Pain difficult to understand. (And maybe even if you are used that. I am, and I did!)
Lewis approaches the problem of pain systematically. He begins with omnipotence: God is all-powerful or almighty, so he could have created a world without suffering and would have done so. The short answer is that God doesn’t necessarily do things just because he can do them, and by giving us free will, he allows us to do things he doesn’t necessarily even want. We wouldn’t have free will unless he gave it to us, and since free will comes with the possibility that we will choose to do the wrong thing (evil) and cause or experience suffering (or pain), the existence of suffering does not mean that God is less than omnipotent.
He (Lewis) is systematic, but not necessarily easy to understand. This is the kind of book you will need to take notes in, reflect upon, and perhaps even take breaks from. However, the beauty of truth is that, when you approach it with an open mind and heart and in an orderly fashion, confusion becomes understanding and belief. From the omnipotence of God to his benevolence (is God really all good?), and then to human wickedness, the Fall of man, and an extensive discussion of human pain, animal pain, hell, and heaven, the problem of pain is gradually solved.
If you or someone you know is struggling with the problem of pain as a barrier to Christian faith (Catholic or otherwise), I encourage you to seek wise counsel. Solve the problem! The Problem of Pain is neither a book to be taken lightly or a problem to be tackled lightly, but it must be solved, and knowing the solution is sweet indeed.
Up next: Looking for Mary, or, the Blessed Mother and Me, by Beverly Donofrio