Pain’s Problems: How Can an All-Powerful God Be a Loving One?

The question has fascinated me for a long time. It has justified me as a skeptic of Christianity and as a Christian but, in all practicality, it is not by knowledge alone that beliefs are shaped. This response to the question of God’s power and love is a satisfaction to read or an opportunity to critique an alternative explanation depending on where one stands. In either case any response should help itself to communication and will be welcomed on my behalf. I want to know what you think; we don’t have to agree.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”[1] The Gospel of John here captures the central theme of Christian belief that Christ was sent into a suffering, evil world to suffer in it and redeem it. Such an understanding forms an irrevocable keystone for Lewis’ response to pain, existence, and God. C.S. Lewis identifies pain, as a subject in several works, which, leaning on Christian mechanisms of salvation and grace, answer the questions surrounding pain’s presence in human life and why it is in many ways necessary.

Lewis defines pain in two ways:

“A.) A particular kind of sensation, probably conveyed by specialized nerve fibers, and recognizable by the patient as that kind of sensation whether he dislikes it or not (e.g., the faint ache of my limbs would be recognized as an ache even if I didn’t object to it). B.) Any experience, whether physical or mental, which the patient dislikes. It will be noticed that all Pains is sense A become Pains in sense B if they if they are raised above a certain very low level of intensity, but that Pains in the B sense need not be Pains in the A sense. Pain in the B sense, in fact, is synonymous with ‘suffering’, ‘anguish’, ‘tribulation’, ‘adversity’, or ‘trouble’, and it is about it that the problem of pain arises. For the rest of the book Pain will be used in the B sense and will include all types of suffering: with the A sense we have no further concern.” [2]


            “Pain B” as Lewis’ working definition serves two purposes: 1) establishing the inclusion of suffering 2) eliminates the biological scientific definition of pain from intruding on the discussion.

Lewis, despite having written extensive Christian Apologetics on the subject, did have doubts about some of his own statements regarding pain that he raises in “A Grief Observed,” a book recording Lewis’ grieving over the loss of his wife, Helen, (or “H”). “Finally, if reality at its very root is so meaningless to us – or, putting it the other way round, if we are such total imbiciles – what is the point of trying to think either about God or anything else? This knot comes undone when you pull it tight,” [3] stating that, “We set Christ against it. But how if he were mistaken? Almost His last words may have perfectly clear meaning. He had found that the Being He called father was horribly and infinitely different from what he had supposed. The trap, so long and carefully prepared and so subtly baited, was at last sprung, on the cross. The vile practical joke had succeeded.” [4] These bitter musings at the death of his wife bring important questions from Lewis that we, the reasoning and literate, are free to revisit in light of his earlier work. Similar questions are raised by Erik Wielenberg is his book, “God and the Reach of Reason”, Wielenburg echoes a dilemma similar to Lewis’ cries, “If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect, then there is no suffering in the world. But there is suffering in the world.” [5] Both sources convey a similar struggle. The problem of pain is that it persists in the presence of a “good” God.

Now there are many kinds and causes of pain. For Lewis’ purpose, we need to make only one distinction between two kinds, pain as the result of human wickedness and natural pain. Citing Lewis, Wielenburg states, “When souls become wicked they will certainly… hurt one another; and this, perhaps, accounts for four-fifths of the sufferings of men… But there remains, none the less, much suffering which cannot be traced to ourselves,” and goes on to say, “natural suffering is one of the tools God uses to transform us, to nudge us toward genuine human happiness while leaving our freedom intact. Natural suffering plays a ‘remedial or corrective’ role,” [6] Lewis sees that pain has a purpose. As Lewis defines it, the pain that one inflicts on another such as insults or stabbing (which can be self-inflicted) is different than pain that happens as a result of nature such as earthquakes or fires or illness that are not inflicted by people, also known as natural pain. But, how then does God use pain and why does he demand that it happen?

“Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”[7] Lewis identifies with a God who loves. Concerning the problem of pain this understanding finds a reason for it all. According to Lewis, “The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word ‘love’, and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake,” he goes on to say that, “We were made not primarily that we may love God but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest ‘well pleased’. To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God… repelled by certain stains in our present character… because he already loves us He must labor to make us lovable.” [8] Lewis sees a God that is at work on humanity constantly. God is at once loving and enjoys his own creation, however, the question of pain accomplishing something in this process remains.

In “The Problem of Pain”, Lewis writes, “I answer that suffering is not good in itself. What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads.” [9] Lewis begins to show the potential pain has in light of God’s love by way of submission. More importantly, Lewis notes that the goodness lies in the submission to God’s will. Something characteristic of God’s will is that in contrast to our own and the intersection of our will and God’s becomes a place where Lewis makes his case. Lewis decrees that the earliest humans, “wanted, as we say, to ‘call their souls their own’… This act of self-will on the part of the creature, which constitutes an utter falseness to its true creaturely position, is the only sin that can be conceived as the Fall… Since I am I, I must make an act of self-surrender, however small or however easy, in living to God rather than to myself,” and, he goes on to say that this is, “‘the weak spot’ in the very nature of creation, the risk which God apparently thinks worth taking.” [10] Human will is essentially unbound from God’s through this ancient act of the Fall and we must submit to God in order to restore it. Now, Lewis has some explanations that allow for an answer to the last question, what can pain accomplish? It can in fact, submit ones will to God. Why must this be painful?

Natural pain, is painful because, “I doubt that it would have been intrinsically possible for God to continue to rule the organism through the human spirit when the human spirit was in revolt against Him… He began to rule the organism in a more external way, not by laws of spirit, but by those of nature.” [11] The laws of nature are free to impose their consequences upon rebellious man because, “the organs, no longer governed by man’s will, fell under the control of ordinary biochemical laws and suffered whatever the inter-workings of those laws might bring about in the way of pain, senility and death.” Just like that Lewis has a will-power oriented explanation for the existence of natural pain. Lewis doesn’t see humanity as a work in progress, but, “rebels who must lay down our arms… to render back the will which we have so long claimed for our own, is itself, wherever and however it is done, a grievous pain.. to surrender a self-will inflamed and swollen with years of usurpation is a kind of death.” [12] So, because the human will is so hopelessly caught up in itself, the act of living involves pain, but submitting that act of living to God again will be painful as well because of how damaging it was to do anything else.

Lastly, Lewis points out that the other source of pain is that which humans inflict on each other, but he insists that like Judas, whose intentions were evil, no action of one person against another can avoid being used by God and inevitably in our submission to God, the pain that is inflicted on us accomplishes “the complex good” Lewis explains:

“A cruel man oppresses his neighbor, and so does simple evil. But in doing such evil, he is used by God, without his own knowledge or consent, to produce the complex good – so that the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool. For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John. The whole system is, so to speak, calculated for the clash between good men and bad men, and the good fruits of fortitude, patience, pity and forgiveness for which the cruel man is permitted to be cruel, presuppose that the good man ordinarily continues to seek simple good.”

Lewis argues that through pain, real good is always possible by merit of our choice to choose submission to God. Now clearly, one can choose a more sinful alternative to submit oneself to should this sort of treatment at the hands of one’s neighbor arise. However, because that is merely pain as a result of rebelliousness from God, Lewis has already accounted for it. So, even when we are suffering at all, there is a way to make that pain amount to something significantly good through submission to God, regardless of the cause.

Lewis knew a great deal about pain and because of that he was able to write a great deal. However, he also learned a great deal about pain later in life that questioned all of it. In a way, much of what he wrote became strangely prophetic in his own life. However, this contributes to the integrity of his arguments. He did not by any means have a painless life, rather by looking at the evidence, he fought as a soldier in WW1 and he was widowed after a fairly short marriage to his wife Helen. He was by all counts a man who had witnessed quite a deal of suffering and its by merit of his faith that he derived such answers to the problems pain poses. The answers provided concerning pain are Christologically based, they cannot be separated from the New Testament sufficiently, making them insufficient outside of Christianity, but within it, they are quite compelling.


  1. Lewis, C. S. The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2007.
  2. The Holy Bible: King James Version. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.
  3. Wielenberg, Erik J. God and the Reach of Reason: C.S. Lewis, David Hume, and Bertrand Russell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  4. New International Version Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

[1] NIV Bible, John, Chapter 3, Verses 16-17.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain: The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York, NY:             HarperOne, 2007), 602.

[3] C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed: The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. 670

[4] C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed: The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. 668.

[5] Erik J. Wielenberg, God and the Reach of Reason: C.S. Lewis, David Hume, and Bertrand Russell             (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) 33.

[6] Erik J. Wielenberg, God and the Reach of Reason, 29.

[7] The Holy Bible: King James Version, Revelation, Chapter 4, Verse 11.

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain: The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. 574.

[9] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain: The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, 615.

[10] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain: The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, 595.

[11] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain: The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. 596.

[12] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain: The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics, 603.

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