As I pen this, it has been over nine months sine Aurora, nearly six months since Newtown and almost a month since the Boston Marathon bombings. A reflection on this past year has caused me to think about the problem of evil. Why is there so much hate and how can one remain a Christian as every time we turn on the television some senseless madman is taking lives? If God is good, goes the argument, and he is all-powerful, then evil should not exist. For if he was all-powerful, he could stop the hate, thus he is either an evil God or not so powerful or both weak and evil. This all prompted me to reread CS Lewis’s classic answer to this objection in his work The Problem of Pain.
Much like Lewis does in his work, I must make the disclaimer that I am completely inadequate as a mere layman to sufficiently answer this the hardest of questions, which is why I will simply attempt to put Lewis’s argument into a succinct, easy to understand post with, hopefully, some of my own frills. All Christians and all thinkers are merely standing on the shoulders of those who came before. I hope, then, that this post can be of some help in either causing you to rethink the problem of pain or encourage you in your faith that God is both holy and all-powerful and yet allows for great evils to take place. I suppose if it does neither of those, you are best to throw the argument out altogether but only after having given Lewis’s book a try, for he says this far more eloquently.
Lewis begins this book by setting the stage as he so often does in his arguments: he never tries to confuse his readers, though much of what he discusses is confusing by nature. But the nice thing about Lewis is that he is very concerned about removing all facets of the argument and beginning at ground zero. This argument, like all arguments, is circular. It begins with a destination we long to reach: God is holy and all-powerful despite the evidence of the world. Let us then, begin with God.
It may sound irreverent, if not blasphemous and paradoxical, to say that the omnipotent God has limits. But when we say omnipotent, we are saying God is all powerful, not everlastingly powerful. That is, God is as powerful as he or anything in this universe can possibly be. He has a “ceiling” in a sense. Of course, to our perspective, this appears to be an unlimited amount of power, but it is not. And when we think more on this, it makes sense. If God is bound, he is bound by his own character. Therefore, he cannot sin, and such questions as to whether he can create a ball too heavy for him to lift are discovered to be a nonsensical question. For God is the ceiling of the universe, and thus that power does have a type of limit; nothing can exceed it.
To put it practically, we long for God to use his power often to compromise his love. For example, we believe in our finite minds that if God loved us he wouldn’t allow for us to experience any pain but would only be concerned about our happiness. But as Lewis so beautifully explains, this is not love. In any relationship we’ve ever had, we love the beloved not in some disinterested way that only wants their happiness, but we long for their holiness if we truly love them. Thus, good parents find it necessary to discipline and lovers create boundaries for each other. The child who gets everything he asks for is not as loved as the child who is corrected (albeit in a loving, gentle manner) to become a well-rounded adult. I know nothing about bringing up children, but I observe the effects of good and bad parenting on a daily basis as a teacher. The child who has been given everything he’s ever asked for expects to also be given an A without working for it; whereas, the child who has been brought up with discipline will see the necessity in hard work. (This is merely a general rule of thumb.) Nobody would say this discipline is directly an evil, but a necessity if we are to demonstrate love. It also points out a thing about our nature.
Why do bad things happen to good people? This question relies very heavily on how we look at bad and good. No one would necessarily argue that bad things don’t happen. We don’t differ on that aspect of the question so much as we do on the idea that most people are good. Notice we are not saying that most people can do good but that they are good. But what do we mean by this? That they are not in prison? I think very many bad people reside on the outside, and perhaps a few good ones found their way inside. Where do we draw the line then with this word? If God exists, if he’s holy and loving, would it not make sense that he has give us an inkling into what a good life looks like apart from man’s sometimes arbitrary laws? Does it not make it a little easier to stomach the trials of life — to stare into this holy law and conclude that nothing we could possibly do could make us “good” by his standards? Are his standards too high? Could they be any other way? He cannot deny his own character, and if we hold that being with him is far better than being here (I trust we do) is it so outlandish to believe he is working in us to make us good? And this brings us back to love. We all need correction, and a loving God sees the value in corrective pain to reach that end, just as any good earthly father does their son. If he did not correct, if he allowed us to enjoy our faults, he would not be a loving God. He could give us a world of “happiness” and we would forget him. “We are not asking for more love but less.”
But why then do we have sin in the first place? Why did he not just create man upright, so we could all be perfect from the start? In short, he did. But we must not forget a couple of things. First, God can’t do what God can’t do. He cannot create a world that displays his love, mercy, and grace all the while redefining love, mercy, and grace. And secondly, in order for this to work, he had to give us a sort of free will to rebel against him. You can’t be merciful and gracious to someone who has committed no wrong. The fact that we have the ability to choose happiness apart from God shows the very possibility of us sinning. For anything done apart from the source of all good is sin. Thus, in order to show his grand mercy, God created a universe in which the central characters could rebel against him, and yet he came down to save those rebels. He wrote, in a sense is still writing, the greatest romance ever. I suppose he could create such a world without the possibility of rebelling against him, but then we would know nothing of his grace and mercy and only a portion of his love. If you ask why he could not just create a painless world in which these same attributes are displayed, I would say once again, we are trying to redefine mercy, grace, and love. And he cannot do this, for he cannot deny himself.
This seems a good place to write briefly on the subject of Hell in which Lewis gives us the example of a teacher. Why does God not give a second chance after death? But at some point every teacher knows the retake of the exam is rather pointless. That is, every person who initially chose to rebel during their time on earth would have continued to do so had they been given an eternal number of chances to recant. In the end, they choose hell over God. Lewis states this better and answers the objection with a question of his own.
What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins, 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.
But one aspect I would like to add to this argument which Lewis briefly touches on: the relativity of our pain. Pain is certainly relative in that the Christian who watches his family tortured for their faith suffers greatly but yet not differently than the high school student who everyday wonders where he’ll sit at lunch — the pang of loneliness that only an environment which worships our social natures could create. These two suffer as does the war-veteran who has lost limbs in combat and the mother who undergoes the loss of a child. No one is immune to pain, though some apparently suffer little and others greatly. Yet none suffer as our God did one Friday on Calvary. To be upset at God for creating a world of pain is to forget that you are accusing a painful God. Indeed, he found it wise to create a world that allows pain not just for its creatures but for its Creator: The Creator who before the first sin was committed saw the cross and deemed it good to live a life in which his closest friend would desert him at his time of need as another turned him in. They all but one cowered in fear as his stretched limbs were laid against the wood and the nails were driven through. His blood was shed, and he was mocked and disparaged — the only believer a petty thief. Yet in all the physical and emotional pain that afflicted our Lord on that day, in all the blood that was spilled, none was as intense as the blood which fell from his eyes in the garden. The cry was as painful and split the sides of the earth as his final realization that his Father had for a time rejected him. God rejected God for no reason but that every painful act of man could be heaped on One Man’s shoulders. Every death, all loneliness, anxieties, slavery, shame, abandonment, rejection and fear were given to an innocent man. All the pains of man were given to One with which the greatest pain any single man would go through would be as a paper cut in comparison. “If all men’s tears were let Into one common sewer, sea, and brine; What were they all compared to Thine?” And yet, he rose three days later not so that we could live a peaceful life but so that we could share in his sufferings. Not without hope but as men and women who long for a day in which every tear will be wiped from their eyes and all will be remade and restored. Christianity is not a crutch but a call. For when pain enters our lives we are woken up. We realize our complete insufficiency in nothing but the Son. God could wipe away every pain and problem from our lives but then we would forget God. And he deemed it far better to create a world where we could know him in full than enjoy an eternity of false pleasures.
Kill me not ev’ry day, Thou Lord of life; since thy one death for me Is more than all my deaths can be, Though I in broken pay Die over each hour of Methusalem’s stay. If all men’s tears were let Into one common sewer, sea, and brine; What were they all, compared with Thine? Wherein if they were set, They would discolour thy most bloody sweat. Thou art my grief alone, Thou Lord conceal it not: and as thou art All my delight, so all my smart: Thy cross took it up in one, By way of imprest, all my future moan. — George Herbert, “Afliction” (2)