God, Christians declare, is all-powerful and all-loving. And yet, the pain and suffering in our world suggests that God is either too weak to eliminate it or too apathetic to care to do so. That, in a nutshell, is the problem of pain, and it is has stood for centuries as one of the crowning arguments against the existence of the God of the Bible. Skeptics from Hume to Richard Dawkins have offered the problem of pain as incontestable proof that our universe is not run by a benevolent personal God who works miracles and involves himself in human history.
As an apologist, Lewis knew that he could not hope to challenge the skeptics of his own day if he did not make some attempt to address this problem in his writing. Accordingly, Lewis’s first full-fledged apologetic work was not Mere Christianity or Miracles, but The Problem of Pain.
In Chapters 2 and 3 of that book, Lewis argues that pain is the upshot of God’s free-will experiment. In asserting the existence and necessity of human free will, Lewis does not mean to imply that we are free to do anything we want or that God is not sovereign. Rather, he reminds us that as creatures made in God’s image, we possess consciousness, rationality, and will. God did not intend to create a race of puppets, but of moral beings who think and choose and create.
Though the vast majority of Christians would agree with Lewis on this point, few take the time to draw out the implications of God’s choosing to give us a will distinct from his own. God cannot give us choice and take it away in the same breath; that would be a contradiction, and God, Lewis boldly asserts, does not violate the law of non-contradiction.
If God truly meant for us to be moral agents, Lewis theorizes, then he would have to create a playing field where we could act out our choices. However, to ensure that we could not manipulate that playing field to suit our own whims (and thus impinge unfairly upon the choices of other moral agents), he would have to make the field both fixed and stable. Unfortunately, for the field to be fixed and stable, God would have to leave open the possibility that his creatures would collide with it, causing discomfort and even pain.
Our world, Lewis suggests, may not be the best of all possible worlds, but it may be the only possible kind of world God could have created to allow us to engage in his free-will experiment. Of course, a critic will be quick to point out that God could turn rocks into pillows every time one of us fell down, so that we would not bruise our head. Well, Lewis admits, God does sometimes do just that when he performs a miracle, but if God were to change nature every time someone was in danger of being hurt, the game, as a game, would not be playable.
So the fixed nature of our world—necessary if we are to enact our free will—makes pain an ever-present possibility. But that is only part of the story. Too often Christians, especially American Christians, believe that God created us to have a good time. But that was never his intent. He created us to grow into something greater, even if that process of growth involves pain and suffering. Yes, Lewis concludes, God may at times treat us harshly, but he has never treated us with contempt. To the contrary, he pays us the “intolerable compliment” of loving us fully and irrevocably. And that love demands that we grow into the creatures he created us to be, no matter the cost. It is the beloved son, not the servant, whom the father disciplines.