For many people, these questions are disturbing enough to prevent them from embracing Christianity. The real issue, I'm afraid, is not the Christian view of the problem of pain, but rather the hypocrisy of Christians, and the unwillingness of Christians to face the question squarely.
There are two things we can do to remedy this situation. Firstly, we need an intellectually defensible approach to the problem, which is where books such as Lewis's can be of great help. Secondly, we must cultivate a respect and sensitivity towards the suffering of others that will accurately reflect the love of God and protect us from the common error of acting as Job's comforters - spouting off answers without having understood the question.
The Problem of Pain is Lewis's classic treatise on the subject. He begins by establishing the omnipotence and goodness of God: Divine logic and Divine love. He then adds a couple chapters about the fall of man and his subsequent state of wickedness. At this point, the stage is set for a knock-down-drag-out examination of human pain, animal pain, and hell - an ambitious programme for 73 pages.
The problem of pain is closely related to the question of human free will, because without free will, God suddenly has a lot to answer for. One of the main reasons why Greg Boyd's explanations for evil and suffering in Letters From a Skeptic are so reasonable and satisfying is that he is working from the premise of human freedom. Lewis's reasoning follows the same line. Man falls - God forgives. Man sins - God sacrifices. Man hurts - God heals.
Pain is not merely a random cosmic response to sin, it is a precision instrument used by God to bring about restoration and healing. God is not a sadist - He is a surgeon. The cancer of sin runs deep, and it must be thoroughly removed. This is only accomplished through pain. "The harvester is near / His blade is on your skin / to plant a new beginning / well then let the cut begin" (-Sixpence None the Richer)
Lewis handles this issue head-on, while at the same time avoiding careless callousness or invincible stoicism. He's dealing with difficult, tender stuff, and he knows it. As he says on page 105, "I am not arguing that pain is not painful. Pain hurts. That is what the word means. I am only trying to show that the old Christian doctrine of being made 'perfect through suffering' is not incredible. To prove it palatable is beyond my design."
For some, the problem of pain is more about others than themselves. It is easy to be overwhelmed by Darfur, or Iraq, or North Korea. Lewis touches on this several times, in one place providing some refreshing perspective on a humanitarian catch-phrase still common today: "the unimaginable sum of human misery."
We must never make the problem of pain worse than it is by vague talk about the 'unimaginable sum of human misery'... There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe.-p. 116-117
As Lewis demonstrates in The Great Divorce, the problem of Hell is basically a problem of Self. The fundamental question that every man faces is whether to stubbornly assert his own will, or willingly yield to God's. This is a choice. God will coax, but not force, the right decision. "They wanted, as we say, to 'call their souls their own.' But that means to live a lie, for our souls are not, in fact, our own. They wanted some corner in the universe of which they could say to God, 'This is our business, not yours.' But there is no such corner." -p. 75
For those who insist on living this lie, God has only one option. Notice how God's response is described in Romans 1: it does not say He punishes the wicked, it says He "gives them up" to their own wickedness, ultimately leading to eternal separation from God, which is exactly what they wanted all along.
The damned are, in a sense, successful, rebels to the end; [..] the doors of hell are locked on the inside. I do not mean that the ghosts may not wish to come out of hell, in the vague fashion wherein an envious man 'wishes' to be happy: but they certainly do not will even the first preliminary stages of that self-abandonment through which alone the soul can reach any good. They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved: just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.God has given man his "corner."
In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: 'What are you asking God to do?' To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.-p. 130
G. K. Chesterton, in his jovial, slightly bucolic style, once turned the problem of pain on its head by asking that we consider instead the problem of pleasure. One could argue that this was an easy thing to say for a man who was plump, carefree, and happily married, but I believe he had a point. Reality contains both pleasure and pain, and any worldview worth its salt must account for both. If we must find someone to blame for suffering, must we not also find someone to thank for joy? It would certainly seem so - if we have any manners left at all.
The problem of pain ought therefore to point us in a positive direction, the way hot sand makes you run faster towards the cool water. Why does suffering make us feel so strongly that something is horribly wrong? Why do we expect health and happiness from life - not necessarily as our right - but as right? Turn to page 14: "Pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving."
If all is not right with the world, it means there is such a thing as the world being right. And if the promises of God mean anything - and I for my part am inclined to think that they do - we have good reason to believe that someday the world will return to that happy state.
And that may be an encouraging thought.
[All quotations from C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, HarperCollins, New York, 1996]
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