Joad and Lewis on Natural Evil

About a year and half ago I stumbled across C.S. Lewis’ treatment of the problem of the suffering of animals before the human fall in chapter 9 of his The Problem of Pain, titled “On Animal Pain.”  In it he suggests (as he also suggests in Miracles) that the fall of angels may have corrupted the natural world prior to the creation of humanity.  I’ve been helped by this possibility.  I know that for some, this whole issue is a strange one to even think about, but for me, the problem of natural evil is a serious one that calls for some kind of response.  Lewis has lessened the intellectual tension for me a lot.  Nevertheless, I’d always wished Lewis had gone into greater detail concerning his meaning here, and in particular fleshed out the mechanism by which he thinks the rebellion of Lucifer and his cohorts could have affected nature.

I was therefore very interested to learn in making my way through God in the Dock that Lewis has fleshed out his views on this subject more thoroughly, in essay #20 of the first section, called “The Pains of Animals: A Problem in Theology.”  In it C.E.M. Joad, head of the Philosophy department at the University of London, responds to the 9th chapter of The Problem of Pain.  Joad finds Augustine’s old free-will theodicy satisfactory for the general problem of evil, but is not satisfied with Lewis’ theodicy for natural evil.  It is a very courteous and intelligent response.  Lewis’ response, in turn, makes many helpful points, but three in particular that struck me.

First, Lewis stresses the extent to which this chapter of his book was “guesswork” (his term), and argues that speculations about the question can only be helpful once we have admitted that (1) our knowledge is too limited for a definitive judgment for or against theism on the basis of natural evil, and (2) there are numerous possibilities for how this problem may be solved.  In particular, Lewis stresses the possibility that animal suffering may appear to be suffering when it is not; or, more probably, may appear to be far worse suffering than it actually is.  But the important point here is that the “guesses” are only proper once we have first settled the question of God’s existence and goodness on the basis of what we have more certain knowledge of, namely, his revelation to humanity in Christ.  He writes:

No man in his senses is going to start building up a theodicy with speculations about the minds of beasts as his foundation.  Such speculations are in place only, as I said, to open the imagination to possibilities and to deepen and confirm our inevitable agnosticism about the reality, and only after the ways of God to Man have ceased to seem unjustifiable.  We do not know the answer: these speculations were guesses as to what it might be.  What really matters is the argument that there must be an answer (italics his).

Lewis goes on to suggest that God’s revealed goodness in our lives is a sufficient reason for trusting that there is an answer to this question.  This is a very reasonable approach: moving from what we do know to what we don’t know.

Second, Lewis denies a common caricature of his suggestion that Satan’s rebellion may have corrupted creation, namely that the mechanism of corruption was temptation:

If Dr. Joad thinks I pictured Satan tempting monkeys, I am myself to blame for using the word “encouraged.”  I apologize for the ambiguity.  In fact, I had not supposed that “temptation” (that is, solicitation of the will) was the only mode in which the Devil could corrupt or impair.  It is probably not the only mode in which he can impair even human beings; when Our Lord spoke of the deformed woman as one “bound by Satan” [Luke 13:16], I presume He did not mean that she had been tempted into deformity.  Moral corruption is not the only kind of corruption.  But the word corruption was perhaps ill-chosen and invited misunderstanding.  Distortion would have been safer (italics his).

Some people find the notion that Satan’s rebellion may have had effects on nature incredible, but I don’t see it as very different from what Christians have always believed about the human fall, namely, that evil corrupts creation.  The only difference is the agent (angels rather than humans) and the timing.

Finally, on a more basic level, Lewis argues that the very strength of our judgment against natural evil itself suggests theism:

I know that there are moments when the incessant continuity and desperate helplessness of what at least seems to be animal suffering make every argument for theism sound hollow ….  Then the old indignation, the old pity arises.  But how strangely ambivalent this feeling is …. if I regard this pity and indignation simply as subjective experiences of my own with no validity beyond their strength at the moment (which next moment will change), I can hardly use them as standards whereby the arraign the creation.  On the contrary, they become strong as arguments against God just in so far as I take them to be transcendent illumination to which creation must conform or be condemned.  They are arguments against God only if they are themselves the voice of God.”

In other words: the problem of natural evil is an argument against God only to the extent that it is an argument for God.  If the vastness of natural evil were to destroy the possibility of God in our minds, it would simultaneously destroy the possibility of us calling it natural evil.

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  1. I agree that natural evil is a problem–I want to be convinced by this argument of Lewis’ but I have a hard time. I do appreciate his humility in terms of calling it guesswork–perhaps we will just never have the answer to this question in a way that is fully satisfying.