The Problem of Pain

I just finished reading C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, and rather than wait six months to write about a book like I normally do, I thought I’d go ahead and post some brief thoughts.

Compared to some of his other works (Narnia, Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters), The Problem of Pain really wasn’t my favorite—parts of it are somewhat hard to follow, there’s a semi-weird chapter on animals, to an extent, he seems to undermine the doctrine of the Fall, and he also suggests a Christology that is lower than I am comfortable with.

Nevertheless, it’s still C.S. Lewis, which means that there is a lot of good stuff in The Problem of Pain. Below are some quotations that I particularly enjoyed…

Free will necessitates suffering:
“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”
(Lewis, p. 25)
On what we wish God was like:
“What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see the young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’.”
(p. 31)
One of the more famous C.S. Lewis quotes that I had heard and like before but never knew where it came from is found in The Problem of Pain:
“A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”
(p. 46)
Lewis suggests and then explains what he calls “the humility of God”:
“…It is a poor thing to strike out colors to God when the ship is going down under us; a poor thing to come to Him as a last resort, to offer up ‘our own’ when it is no longer worth keeping. If God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even though we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him, and come to Him because there is ‘nothing better’ now to be had…It is hardly complimentary to God that we should choose Him as an alternative to Hell: yet even this He accepts.”
(pp. 95-96)
Is it suffering of good people the hardest thing to explain? For Lewis, the answer is “no”:
“The sacrifice of Christ is repeated, or re-echoed, among His followers in very varying degrees, from the cruellest martyrdom down to a self-submission of intention whose outward signs have nothing to distinguish them from the ordinary fruits of temperance and ‘sweet reasonableness’. The causes of this distribution I do not know; but from our present point of view it ought to be clear that the real problem is not why some humble, pious, believing people suffer, but why some do not.”
(p. 104)
On the Christian’s submission of his own will:
“Christian renunciation does not mean stoic ‘Apathy’, but a readiness to prefer God to inferior ends which are in themselves lawful. Hence the Perfect Man brought to Gethsemane a will, and a strong will, to escape suffering and death if such escape were compatible with the Father’s will, combined with a perfect readiness for obedience if it were not.”
(p. 113)
An allusion to the “least of these” passage in Matthew 25 and the ethical implications of following Jesus:
“In the fullest parabolic picture which He gave of the Judgement, Our Lord seems to reduce all virtue to active beneficence: and though it would be misleading to take that one picture in isolation from the Gospel as a whole, it is sufficient to place beyond doubt the basic principles of the social ethics of Christianity.”
(p. 114)
And in reference to the flak that Christians often take for their hope of heaven (I love this quote):
“We are very shy nowadays of even mentioning heaven. We are afraid of the jeer about ‘pie in the sky’, and of being told that we are trying to ‘escape’ from the duty of making a happy world here and now into dreams of a happy world elsewhere. But either there is ‘pie in the sky’ or there is not. If there is not, then Christianity is false, for this doctrine is woven into its whole fabric.”
(p. 149)
Of course, there are other good parts to the book, but the excerpts above at least give a taste of the book’s contents.


Martin Hengel’s Crucifixion

A while back, I read Martin Hengel’s Crucifixion, which is a short little book that gives scholarly treatment to the practice of crucifixion in the ancient world. In some ways, I was a little disappointed—I had hoped for more of a detailed description of what a “historically accurate” crucifixion looked like, and Hengel didn’t really provide that (largely because crucifixion was a widespread practice in the ancient world that differed depending on time, location, and whim). That being said, the book was very interesting, specifically in three respects:

(1) Crucifixion as a deterrent:
In the Roman Empire, crucifixion was rarely used on Roman citizens and was primarily used on criminals of the lowest classes and slaves. This is pretty common knowledge, and Hengel supports it. What is particularly fascinating is the degree to which Hengel argues that the use of crucifixion on slaves was a means of stirring up fear among the enslaved in hopes of preventing any sort of rebellion. In places like Rome, where the slave population outnumbered those who were free, the fear of rebellion was real, and keeping the slaves paralyzed with the fear of crucifixion was seen as necessary.

(2) Crucifixion as taboo:
Hengel also makes the argument that crucifixion was so horrific, so feared, and so reviled, that it was essentially the sort of thing that was not talked or written about. This leads to what may seem like a surprising lack of references to it in ancient sources. This lack of references doesn’t mean that the use of crucifixion wasn’t widespread (it was), but simply that it was so horrible that people avoided writing about it:
“Crucifixion was widespread and frequent, above all in Roman times, but the cultured literary world wanted to have nothing to do with it, and as a rule kept quiet about it.”
(Hengel, p. 38)

(3) Crucifixion (of Jesus) as “folly”:
The overarching claim of Hengel’s book is that the Apostle Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 1.18 that the “word of the cross is folly” to unbelievers is a reflection of the repeated reception that Paul would have received as he went about preaching the message of a crucified Christ.

Crucifixion was so hated and despised that, for the ancient world, following and worshipping someone who had been crucified was sheer madness—it was not a message that easily attracted followers. This part of the message has been downplayed somewhat today (largely because we fail to grasp the level of shame and horror associated with crucifixion) but at its core, the message of the gospel is completely shocking:
“…In the death of Jesus of Nazareth God identified himself with the extreme of human wretchedness, which Jesus endured as a representative of us all, in order to bring us to the freedom of the children of God…This radical kenosis of God was the revolutionary new element in the preaching of the gospel. It caused offense, but in this very offense it revealed itself as the centre of the gospel.”
(Hengel, p.89)

This last point alone makes Crucifixion worth the read, as Hengel seeks to reclaim the scandal of Christianity as central to the message of the Gospel—God loved us so much that Jesus identified with the lowest extreme of humanity in order to reclaim us.


Maybe There’s A Good Explanation For This…

On the radio, I keep hearing advertisements encouraging me to donate any old cars I have to “Heritage for the Blind”. I don’t know anything about Heritage for the Blind, but assuming that their name is at all descriptive of what they actually do, I can’t help but wonder: do blind people really need used cars?

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