The Problem of Pain (TPP) and A Grief Observed (AGO) are two very contrasting, but ultimately complimentary, views on the problem of pain and suffering. It is important to note that Lewis deals with both the emotional and physical aspects of suffering. He also is only addressing the traditional “problem of evil” as a part of his treatise on suffering; he is not speaking solely or even necessarily mostly about moral evil (and is almost leaving it to one side entirely in AGO).
In TPP, Lewis sets up the problem of pain quite well; he is not fond of the strawman argument. Essentially, the universe is a dark and cold place, that came from non-life, that treats life cruelly (with respect to disease, death, and extinction), and ultimately results in the heat death of the universe, where all things must end (552). He ends this section with the atheistic challenge: “Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit” (552). The challenge for Christian theism should be evident.
Lewis responds, not by challenging the basic premises in the argument, but by instead bringing up a problem: the idea of morality (557). In a completely reductive universe, morality could not really be binding. Thus, he explains, “it is either inexplicable illusion, or else revelation” (557). The problem of pain still remains, but there is at least some reason to think that theism contains an answer.
Chapter Two begins with the classic formulation that if God were wholly omnipotent, then he would want to see his creatures as happy as possible (560). That obviously has not happened; thus, God must not be omnipotent (or not good). However, Lewis takes pains to argue that what is truly impossible is not a thing for omnipotence to do (560-61). Thus, if forcing a free creature is a truly impossible act, God cannot be blamed for not doing so. And yet this means that a truly free creature can bring about great suffering upon himself and others with poor moral choices. This truly free creature was meant to be in a love relationship with God at the center (574).
A central insight as to how much pain is brought about by man concerns his own perception of the evil man commits. Lewis writes, “As soon as we perceive our badness, it [God’s wrath] appears inevitable, a mere corollary of God’s goodness” (581). Thus, the wrath of God only seems unintelligible when we have failed to understand our own depravity. When it is fully understood, we recognize our characters need a radical transformation. This will form the basis of Lewis’ defense of the existence of human pain. In a world in which creatures interact, there is the possibility of pain. Further, since a man’s character (given sin, freely chosen of one’s own will) is such that he will not grow, pain is needed. Finally, a nature governed by general laws will need to be only rarely divinely interfered with (otherwise there is no point to nature at all).
Lewis then provides a defense of both Hell and Heaven, showing that God, in the end, leaves some people alone as they desire (627). He closes with a chapter on animal pain that a reader will find incredibly insightful, despite the fact he insists it is all speculation (629). He suspects that there may be animals in the eschaton who were joined in a human master, so that our resurrection involves theirs. There may be “soulish” animals (who have higher-order being) who experience resurrection. Finally, there may be types of animals who appear in the eschaton, even if the “original” animals do not live again (637).
AGO is a much shorter book, coming in at 42 pages. Here Lewis is not making an argument as much as a journal that chronicles his thoughts in the aftermath of his wife’s death. This edition begins with a great introduction from Lewis’ stepson, Douglas H. Gresham. The very first chapter is both raw and emotional. It comes within the very first weeks after his wife’s passing (the journaling nature of the work is revealed in that he only refers to his wife as “H”). He attempts to explain his pain by way both of asking questions (such as “why is God absent?”) and by the insight that his imagination cannot bring his wife’s face to mind (662).
The second chapter deals with Lewis’ apparent loss of faith. In these reflections, he looks like a man tossed back and forth between defeated doubt (665) and intellectual faith (668). A faith untested is a faith unknown, he claimed (665). In the next chapter, he realizes that a life without pain means no faith that is strong, at least in his case. His faith was exposed as a “house of cards” (672), and now he is stronger for it. At this juncture, he is still unsure whether or not God is truly for his good or evil (673). Finally, Lewis concludes that he had been thinking about himself, then his wife, and finally God—and all along, he should have been praising God for his goodness, for his wife, and then his faith would have followed along (682). AGO is a book about a journey of rediscovering faith in the midst of indescribable loss.
Lewis writes so clearly and candidly in both TPP and AGO that one may find himself wanting to agree with everything he writes, whether or not it seems to him to be pious or even theologically accurate. TPP is dealt with from a purely intellectual perspective; in fact, Lewis very nearly apologizes for not having experienced certain types of pain himself (though he did indeed lose his mother to cancer when he was a young boy). In TPP, the goal was to tell a story of how it is that a loving and good God, who is all-powerful, could allow so much pain and suffering, and even the existence of an eternal Hell. Lewis achieves this masterfully. In AGO, there is less of an overarching goal as much as a series of lessons. These lessons find their culmination in a practical application of grief and pain, and in that he achieves his objective—at least for him, and others who may be like him.
In TPP there are several strengths. First, Lewis excels at providing a thorough discussion. He includes moral evil, the origin of moral evil, human pain and its purpose given moral evil, the natural world, animal pain, Heaven, and Hell; he also includes God’s omnipotence and goodness, as well as a brief discussion on libertarian freedom. It seems that he left no major aspect unexamined. Second, Lewis did well to assume the evolutionary account of man and still provide an answer. He told a story of how sin may have arisen in the hearts of prehistoric man, even in an evolutionary context, where man ceased to function as God intended (and therefore as man ought to function), and thus sin entered into the world (595). Thus, Lewis argues that, “Science, then, has nothing to say for or against the doctrine of the Fall” (591). On this point he seems quite right.
Third, his theodicy of Hell shows itself to be quite strong. Lewis argues that justice is necessary to any conception of punishment (after all, why punish me if I do not in fact deserve to be punished?). From this, he draws a distinction between condoning and forgiving—and argues that forgiveness must be accepted by the one being forgiven in order for it to be applied (623). Thus, if someone will not accept God, then he will leave them alone (627). He then addresses the objection that eternal punishment does not fit the temporal crime by suggesting that perhaps the eternal punishment is itself timeless (624). This is at least an interesting suggestion, to say the least!
Finally, his defense of animal pain and suffering is worthy to be considered. Lewis argues that most animals are only aware of a succession of pain states, but not that they themselves are in such pain states. Thus, there is a lack of consciousness needed to truly suffer. Thus, most of what goes on in the animal kingdom is not what we would qualify as pain. Next, for even the higher animals that may possibly know that they themselves are in pain, it may be that resurrection in the service of man awaits them; even if not, it may be that the animals were abused by Satan just as mankind was.
AGO’s primary strength is in its candor. Lewis’ openness about his grief and struggles allows the reader to identify with him (and not merely pity him)—even if they have not undergone the specific type of pain he has. Its strength lies in that it is no mere academic exercise. Though it is surely intellectual, it does not come across as sterile. It does not serve to contradict TPP, but complement it. This is why it seems so back-and-forth, verging on contradictory. He recognizes God as undergoing the ultimate grief of sending his own Son, but struggles to reconcile his feelings with a God of ultimate love. In the end, AGO encourages us to view God first, what pleases us or what has grieved us second, and only ourselves third.
Both TPP and AGO are amazing works that can and should be read by Christians and non-Christians alike; however, this is not to say that they are perfect works without any room for improvement or lacking any error. First, in TPP, it is not clear Lewis has established his refutation of the temporal/eternal objection to Hell. This is because, amongst other things, it controversially assumes a B-theory of time, whereby those who are in Hell can be timelessly “removed” from chronological existence. Consider the fact that it seems one can argue that the condemned can be said to be condemned at one moment, and uncondemned at a prior moment (that is, not experiencing the punishment of Hell). Or consider that one could argue that eternal, in Scripture, seems to mean “everlasting” rather than “timeless” punishment. If this is so, Lewis’ response falls apart. He also fails to recognize other, perhaps more important responses, such as a sin against an infinitely holy God is an infinite crime, or that the condemned reap more and more punishment as they continually resist God in their God-abandoned state.
Next, in his chapter on animal suffering, Lewis makes the following claim: “This [the claim that animal suffering results from the Fall] is now impossible, for we have good reason to believe that animals existed long before men” (631). Aside from controversially assuming an evolutionary-like story, even evolution does not preclude human sin from being the reason animal suffering came about. Consider William Dembski’s retrocausal account. It could be that God viewed what would happen, perceived in his omniscience that man would sin, and for that reason, God imparted the consequences unto the world. Now whether or not a Dembski-like account succeeds is not the point; the question is whether it is even possible. It seems that it is, meaning Lewis need not dismiss such an account out of hand (even though, in fairness, he was not aware of it).
If AGO has a weakness, it must only be in its strange assumption that Lewis’ wife no longer existed currently. Perhaps this is due to his belief in Purgatory, or perhaps he was merely emphasizing the nature of time and existence, but either way it seems false. He seems to rely on the claim that passages that speak of hope and life after death and reunions with others as entirely unscriptural if interpreted literally (666-67). Perhaps in one sense he is right: but surely there is a literal truth behind even the most fanciful of metaphors. And what would that literal truth be? “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” While Lewis does eventually recognize there is more to his wife’s person than her body, it does seem that he does not take seriously the idea that she is in Heaven with God even now, and that is an unfortunate loss of comfort.
Both TPP and AGO are strongly recommended. TPP is recommended both for believers and unbelievers alike. AGO is recommended primarily for believers; I suspect that unbelievers will not grasp it without a faith already in Christ. While believers who have not undergone such grief as Lewis may struggle to understand it, it will give them at least an empathetic insight into those who are hurting, and for that reason they will find it very helpful.