C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain[1] and Elie Wiesel’s Night[2] may rightfully be considered to be two of the most popular works, that each in their own way addressed the subject suffering and theodicy, produced in the 20th century. The comparison of these two works may appear strange or inappropriate, given the number of differences between themcs-lewis-problem-of-pain such as: (1) one is Christian, the other is Jewish, (2) one is written at the beginning of World War Two, the other is post-World War Two, (3) one has a perspective from outside the Holocaust[3], the other has a perspective from inside the Holocaust, (4) one is a theodicy, the other is an anti-theodicy, and (5) finally, one is a philosophical/ theological treatise, the other is a personal autobiographical narrative.

            Yet, as will be shown, when these two divergent works are compared with respect to: (1) their views of who God is and what God is like, and (2) their responses to their belief in God with suffering/pain/evil[4] as part of their knowledge of the truth about reality, that they nevertheless do share one belief in common, that God is somehow a participant in the suffering of human beings. In addition, it will be shown that while both writers view the participation of God in human suffering as a tragic event, they both nevertheless take this notion also as an occasion for triumphant rejoicing (to whatever degree) because this event provides liberation for human beings.[5] For Wiesel, God’s suffering frees one from the obligation of religious duties, from subservience to a deity not worthy of worship. For Lewis, God’s suffering in the figure of Christ provides the first and foremost example of God’s love for us and frees us for subservience to a deity, worthy of the utmost praise.

            Wiesel begins his work with his encounter with Moishe the Beadle, who often chanted and “…of spoke of divine suffering, of the Shekhinah in Exile…”[6] Wiesel later explains that he went under the tutelage of this man, who taught him to ask God questions, the real questions and to listen for God’s replies.[7] From Wiesel’s mention of his excitement over his “initiation” into Jewish mysticism,[8] we may reasonably conclude that Wiesel began his journey with a view of God that was shared amongst the wider Jewish community, namely that there was one God who had made a covenant with the Jewish people. Thus, at the beginning of Wiesel’s work he held a view of God as one who was powerful enough to save his people from the hands of the Egyptians (and other oppressors) and who shared a deep, personally invested intimate relationship with them in the form of a covenant.

            However, all of this appears to have changed as soon as the German officers began to arrest the leaders of the Jewish community and the ghettos were created. As Wiesel said, as they were celebrating the Passover during this episode, “We wished the holiday would end so as not to have to pretend.”[9] In other words, the hope of God’s coming redemption for his people was beginning to fade in Wiesel’s mind.  Later in his narrative, it becomes clear that Wiesel did not so much become an atheist but rather began to question “What God is like, if he[10] is really just?” and whether he is worthy of thanks and praise, given his silence in the face of the atrocities committed in the concentration camps.[11] NIGHTElieWieselSometime after his initial doubts about God’s just nature Wiesel, after someone had asked where God was while children were being hung on the gallows, recounts himself thinking,  “Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows…”[12] At this point in the narrative, Wiesel’s personal account can no longer be viewed as an expression of an explicit theology but rather as a collage of emotional expressions toward, from Wiesel’s perspective, his now proved to be false long-held beliefs. Wiesel’s account at this point in the narrative consists in the three beliefs of  (1) God’s death[13], (2) man’s sense of justice as clearly being higher than God’s, so much so that Wiesel could be “…the accuser, God the accused”[14], and (3) yet despite God’s death, non-existence, silence, injustice, and no longer being worthy of praise, still the need to pray to him, for lack of any other option.[15] As we can see then, Wiesel’s transition does not lead to a logically coherent view, but nevertheless a forceful view, of God as the dead, silent, unjust, torturer, covenant-breaker, powerless or callous, deity worthy of no praise.

            Lewis’ view of God in the work under primary examination here, namely The Problem of Pain, may be properly summed up as a traditional Protestant view of God, namely that God is found in the Numinous experience described by Rudolf Otto as the sense of dreadful awe that humanity throughout time has experienced as something ‘beyond good and evil’, who has established a moral law to be abided by and who (most importantly for Christianity) became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ, whose death changed humanity’s standing with the Numinous law-maker from guilty to innocent.[16] What Lewis also very insightfully points out is that it is precisely the belief in “ultimately reality” as “righteous and loving” (shared by both Judaism and Christianity), that creates the ‘problem of pain’/theodicy in the first place, for an atheist, while having to deal with suffering as an experiential reality does not have any philosophical/ theoretical problem to deal with as to the nature of what reality is supposed to be like but is not.[17]

            Another key aspect of Lewis’ conception of God is that God is omnipotent, but that omnipotence does not allow for absurdity or, as Lewis puts it, “…meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’.”[18] As such being the case, Lewis contends “…the possibility of pain is inherent in the very existence of a world where souls can meet…It is men, not God, who have produced racks, whips, prisons, slavery, guns…”[19] In other words, for Lewis, it was not possible for God to create a world where people had free will and yet were not allowed to commit atrocities, not because God was not capable of doing so but because such a universe is a logical absurdity, and not even omnipotence could make absurdities not absurd. One last key aspect of Lewis’ view of God is that in Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross in Christian theology, not only does God incarnate submit to God, but “…the very Father to whom the sacrifice is made deserts the victim, and surrender to God does not falter though God ‘forsakes’ it.”[20] In other words, God, in Christian theology according to Lewis, knows how it feels to be God-forsaken.  Lewis’ view of God then consists in an all-powerful, all-loving, moral law-giver, whose awesome presence is felt by all, and who, by becoming a human being, in some manner knew how it felt to be God-forsaken, and (more controversially of course) in some sense died,[21] but this ‘death’ of God is our salvation.

            What Wiesel and Lewis then appear to share in their view of God is that apparently at some point in history God was a participant in the suffering of the people with whom he has an intimately close relationship with, and in some sense, died. They also share the belief that God is all-powerful, however for Lewis this power is used to mold and shape us as the “consuming fire” who wishes to remove our blemishes as an artist continually wants to perfect his art,[22] whereas for Wiesel God’s power is used malevolently.[23] As we will see, these divergent views on how God uses his power will determine their responses to God in light of the reality of suffering.[24]

            Wiesel’s response to God in light of the suffering that he has gone through may be described as to treat God as an object that is subject to him, to his accusations, to his requests for strength, rather than as the sovereign Lord of the Jewish people that he once was in Wiesel’s mind. Wiesel’s most obvious response to God though is simply rebellion. Wiesel views himself as a Job-like figure[25] whose acts, as simple as swallowing soup when he should have been fasting, are symbolic acts of rebellion against a God he does not any longer believe exists.[26] Ultimately, Wiesel’s response to the tragic death of his God was a feeling of strength in the face of the Almighty, to whose obligations his life had been bound to for so long but from which he was now free.[27] Thus, there is an element of a small degree of triumphalism in the death of God for Wiesel, for at this point in the narrative Wiesel feels as if the ‘yoke’ of the Torah has been lifted off him, that his religious duties no longer apply, that because God broke his covenant with him he was no longer obliged to fulfill his part of the covenant, and now the God to whom he was subservient to, is now subservient to his sense of justice, “…for the sake of this deed he will be part of a higher history than all history hitherto.”[28] Lewis’ response to suffering as part of reality in The Problem of Pain is not nearly so bold. Lewis straightforwardly addresses the accused callousness of writers on theodicy in the following manner,

“All arguments in justification of suffering provoke bitter resentment against the  author. You would like to know how I behave when I am experiencing pain, not writing books about it.[29] You need not guess, for I will tell you; I am a great  coward…But what is the good of telling you about my feelings? You know them already: they are the same as yours. 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.”[30]

            In other words, Lewis admits in this work that his response to suffering in his life is the same as any other person, that of experiencing an unwanted reality. Yet, Wiesel’s response to God was more than just experiencing unwanted suffering and addressing one’s complaints to God, rather his response was rebellion. Lewis’ response to suffering in The Problem of Pain, also appears to have somewhat of a triumphal spirit to it as well, however not as a freedom from obligations to God but rather as freedom to join in God’s suffering and thus, be part of the process of redeeming creation.[31] In fact Lewis begins his work with an epigraph from George Macdonald, a Scottish preacher, “The Son of God suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like His.”[32] In other words, Lewis’ ideal response to suffering is to view one’s suffering as a participation in the suffering Christ experienced on the cross. For Wiesel, God’s suffering frees us from the suffering of the burdens of religion, and for Lewis, God’s suffering frees us from viewing our suffering as meaningless, purposelessness and frees us to see our suffering as redemptive.[33]

            As we have seen then by comparing these two works with respect to (1) their views of who God is and what God is like, and (2) their responses to their belief in God with suffering/pain/evil as part of their knowledge of the truth about reality, that they both shared one belief in common, that God is somehow a participant in the suffering of human beings and that while this is tragic, it is nevertheless also an occasion for triumphant rejoicing (to whatever degree) because this suffering provides liberation for human beings in some manner. Thus the figure of a suffering God is central to both the theodicy of Lewis and the anti-theodicy of Wiesel. We may then end on a brief note about the usefulness or validity of theodicies and anti-theodicies. Lewis notes that the authors of attempts at theodicies, especially ones that contain the doctrine of Hell as Lewis’ does, are often viewed “…in the eyes of every hostile reader, as it were, personally responsible for all the sufferings I try to explain—just as, to this day, everyone talks as if St.Augustine wanted unbaptised infants to go to Hell.”[34] While authors of theodicies cannot be held personally responsible for atrocities, theodicies may perhaps be properly seen as mechanisms for riding oneself of motivation to relieve the sufferings of our world now. As Immanuel Kant has written,

“For as regards the possibility that the end of terrestrial life might not perhaps be the end of all life, such a possibility cannot count as vindication of providence; rather, it is merely a decree of morally believing reason which directs the doubter  to patience but does not satisfy him.”[35]

            In other words, hope is no substitute for a theodicy, a justification of the mysterious ways of God that allow suffering to happen despite God’s all-powerful and all-loving nature. As for anti-theodicies, Joel Marcus, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow, notes that despite the dangers of theodicies,

“If the innocent do suffer in this world—and they do—isn’t it more comforting to believe that their suffering has some higher purpose than to think that it doesn’t?…must not there be some redemptive purpose to the millions of innocent men, women, and children falling to the ground? But such thoughts must not be shouted. They can only be whispered. Perhaps they should not be said at all.”[36]

            The question as to the validity of anti-theodicies is of course still up for debate, but Marcus’ point is that perhaps, if the convictions of anti-theodicies are true, those who are ignorant of them and believe in theodicies are in a better position in the face of the sufferings of life, than those who know the ‘truth’. But if theodicies are true, than perhaps they should not be arrogantly shouted to the shame of those suffering but rather whispered as acts of compassion or perhaps should not be uttered at all given their unpalatable nature to our understanding of the world.[37]

 

 Works Cited List

Adams, Marilyn McCord. “Horrors in Theological Context.” Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 55, No. 4, 2002. Pg. 468-479.

Kant, Immanuel. “On the Miscarriage of all Philosophical Trials in Theodicy.” in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason and Other Writings. Eds. Allen Wood and George di Giovanni. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pg. 17-30.

Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. New York, NY: Harper San Francisco, a division of Harper Collins Publishers, 1996. [Originally published 1940]

Lewis, C.S. A Grief Observed. New York, NY: Harper San Francisco, a division of Harper Collins Publishers, 1996. [Originally published 1961]

Marcus, Joel. Jesus and the Holocaust: Reflections on Suffering and Hope. New York, NY: DoubleDay, 1997.

Meekhof, Don. “God’s gift to All Mankind.” Ellensburg Daily Record [Ellensburg, Washington], Dec. 24th 1984. Accessed: Nov.23rd, 2012  <http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=860&dat=19841224&id=x4VUAAAAIBAJ&sjid=LI8DAAAAIBAJ&pg=6723,10833973>

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Parable of the Madman” in The Portable Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. US: Viking Penguin, 1982. Pg. 95-96.

Wiesel, Elie, and Marion Wiesel. Night. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. [Originally published 1972]


[1] Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. New York, NY: Harper San Francisco, a division of Harper Collins Publishers, 1996. [Originally published 1940]

[2] Wiesel, Elie, and Marion Wiesel. Night. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. [Originally published 1972]

[3] The emphasis on this difference is not to say that Lewis was a man unacquainted with suffering as such, in fact quite the contrary. As Lewis’ step-son, in the introduction to Lewis’ A Grief Observed pointed out, Lewis had experienced the lost of a parent in childhood as well as the loss of friends in the first world war (Lewis, C.S. A Grief Observed. New York, NY: Harper San Francisco, a division of Harper Collins Publishers, 1996. [Originally published 1961], Pg.XX). Rather the emphasis is to say that Lewis was not acquainted with the degree of suffering normally associated with the Holocaust.

[4] While using these three terms synonymously can of course be debated at length for good reason (as Lewis indeed does) for our purposes it is sufficient to put these into one category or to use Lewis’ terminology “Pain in the B sense” as “Any experience, whether physical or mental, which the patient dislikes.” (Lewis, The Problem of Pain, pg.87-88).

[5] Neither one (of course) views the suffering of God in an Nietzsche-like manner, as a society changing event that precludes the development of secular modernity (Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Parable of the Madman” in The Portable Nietzsche. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. US: Viking Penguin, 1982. Pg. 95-96)

[6] Wiesel, Pg.3 (emphasis mine)

[7] Wiesel, Pg.5; to ask the ‘real’ questions may be thought to be the job of every scholar.

[8] Wiesel, Pg.3-5

[9] Wiesel, Pg.10

[10] The obvious gendered language here is merely to point out God’s personal nature in Judaism, not that God is masculine but as Wiesel uses the term ‘he’, so will be followed suit here, though the theology may certainly allow for God being called ‘she’.

[11] Wiesel, Pg.33, 45; ironically Lewis perhaps best captures the difference between atheism and misotheism (hatred of God) when he notes in his more personal work, “Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is coming to believe such dreadful things about him.” (Lewis, A Grief Observed, Pg.6)

[12] Wiesel, Pg.65

[13] By which, we may reasonably deduce he means the death of God as Wiesel thought of him. No longer was God all-powerful, or at least if he was, he was no longer on the ‘side’ of the Jewish people: “Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar?” (Wiesel, Pg.67). In addition the notion of God as having broken his covenant with the Jewish people is also present in the words of one of Wiesel’s ‘faceless neighbors’, “I have more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people.” (Wiesel, Pg.81)

        [14] Wiesel, Pg.68; Also worthy of note, is Andrew T.L. Armstrong’s parable in which, at the end of time, people from various groups, who suffered under a diverse number of forms of atrocities, accuse God of not understanding their pain, only to be shown the figure of Jesus, who suffered in all the various ways these peoples have suffered (Meekhof, Don. “God’s gift to All Mankind.” Ellensburg Daily Record [Ellensburg, Washington], Dec. 24th 1984. Accessed: Nov.23rd, 2012 <http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=860&dat=19841224&id=x4VUAAAAIBAJ&sjid=LI8DAAAAIBAJ&pg=6723,10833973> ; one may only speculate how Wiesel would respond in such a situation.

[15] Wiesel, Pg.91

[16] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Pg.5-14; it must also be pointed out that the comparison done between Wiesel and Lewis in terms of their view of God, is not a comparison between Judaism’s conception of God and Christianity’s view of God, but rather, these two men as they stand in their religious tradition’s understanding of God as presented in their works. For instance, debates about the Trinitarian nature of God will not be discussed in this paper as it is not explicitly relevant to our discussion.

[17] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Pg.14

[18] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Pg.18

[19] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Pg.86

[20] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Pg.102

[21] Of course Lewis, along with most Protestant theology, does not believe that God in a metaphysical sense ‘died’ but does admit that somehow the divine nature of Jesus as the ‘son of God’ must somehow have been involved in his crucifixion, thus in some sense ‘died’.  In addition, concerning God’s covenant with the Jewish people it may be reasonably deduced that in accordance with the majority of Protestant theological views, Lewis believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of that covenant and that therefore, God is not the covenant-breaker, as portrayed in Wiesel.

[22] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Pg.39

[23] Wiesel, Pg.67

[24] Of worthy note perhaps here are Lewis’ comments on these divergent views, as during a period of his own suffering, he had held a view similar to Wiesel’s, “Of course the cat will growl and spit at the operator and bite him if she can. But the real question is whether he is a vet or a vivisector. Her bad language throws no light on it one way or the other.” (Lewis, A Grief Observed, Pg.40)

[25] Wiesel, Pg.45

[26] Wiesel, Pg.69

[27] Wiesel, Pg.68

[28] Nietzsche, Pg.96; while it must again be said that Wiesel may not have Nietzsche’s notion of the death of God at the forefront of his mind, the echoes are nevertheless present, as Francois Maurice, one of the original translators of Wiesel’s Night, in the foreword to our translation notes as well, “For him [Wiesel], Nietzsche’s cry articulated an almost physical reality…” (Wiesel, Pg.xx)

[29] The irony of course is obvious for us now as we see in hindsight that in fact Lewis did just that when his wife died and wrote A Grief Observed.

[30] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Pg.105

[31] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Pg.102

[32] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Pg.vii

[33] This position is similar to Adams’ position in that they both believe that suffering can in some sense be ‘defeated’ by its integration into one’s relationship with God but different in respect to the fact that in The Problem of Pain Lewis does not express belief in universal salvation (in fact quite the opposite) as Adams does; Adams, Marilyn McCord. “Horrors in Theological Context.” Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 55, No. 4, 2002. Pg. 468-479; however, having said this, Lewis may have perhaps embraced the doctrine of universal salvation in A Grief Observed, when he embraces the conviction that ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ (Lewis, A Grief Observed, Pg.65).

[34] Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Pg.95

[35] Kant, Immanuel. “On the Miscarriage of all Philosophical Trials in Theodicy.” in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason and Other Writings. Eds. Allen Wood and George di Giovanni. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pg. 22

[36] Marcus, Joel. Jesus and the Holocaust: Reflections on Suffering and Hope. New York, NY: DoubleDay, 1997. Pg.61; Marcus’ advice is perhaps something Adams should have heeded given her belief in the redemption of Adolf Hitler, which may perhaps be true but perhaps is too offensive to utter (Adams, Pg.476).

[37] Note also Kant’s advisement of recognizing the limitations of our knowledge to understand the ways of God; Kant, Pg.23