C. S. Lewis and Christian Healing
This article is being published simultaneously in MOVIEGUIDE(R) magazine and on their website and is reproduced here by permission.
Any Christian apologist must eventually address the dilemma of how a powerful and loving God can allow human suffering, and what, if anything, He may do to relieve it. This question is one of the primary objections directed at Christianity by nonbelievers. It is also a cry from the heart of believers faced with tragedy.
Some apologists have opted to resolve the dilemma by downplaying either God’s power or God’s love: either God cares for the suffering of His creation but is not powerful enough to remove it, or else is powerful enough to remove suffering but lacks sufficient compassion to do so. But a caring, though weak, God ceases to be God because omnipotency is inherent in divinity. On the other hand, a powerful but uncaring divinity is not the God of the Scriptures, but rather the “unmoved mover” of philosophy. Refusing either to demote God to a lesser power or deny God Scriptural compassion, the apologist is faced withy explaining the existence of human suffering.
While a confession of ignorance may be wise — who can truly fathom the mysteries of God? — such humility removes one from being an apologist to those asking intellectual questions and a friend to those whose hearts cry out. C. S. Lewis’ book The Problem of Pain (1940) restated in a popular way the standard answer of Christian apologists throughout history.
Lewis asserted that much, if not all, of the suffering of the world is caused by misuse of the free will with which God chose to endow people. Unless we were created as mere robots we must face the consequences of human choice, often false and destructive. This order will exist until Christ comes back to make the new heavens and earth, to separate forever believers and nonbelievers, to make believers perfect and to remove human free will. This is the standard answer of most Christian apologists.
If God allows pain and suffering as a consequence of human free will until the return of Christ, did the Incarnation of God in Christ inaugurate an in-breaking of the Kingdom to come? In other words, are there now to be miracles in general, and miraculous healings in particular, prior to the final removing of suffering?
Lewis addresses this subject in his book Miracles: A Preliminary Study (1947). He addresses those who say that miracles cannot happen because they violate the fixed “laws of nature.” Lewis acknowledges there are such laws — God did not create a universe that is random and chaotic — but that the laws are more profound than naturalists acknowledge. Both the normal ways of things happening — “the laws of nature” — and exceptions to those normal ways — “miracles” — have their origin in God. “…there are rules behind the rules,” he writes in chapter 12, “and a unity which is deeper than uniformity.” Noting how miracles occur at pivotal points in the history of God’s relationship with the human race, Lewis states that miracles “are not exceptions (however rarely they occur) nor irrelevancies. They are precisely those chapters in this great story on which the plot turns.”
If one asserts on philosophical grounds that miracles cannot happen, then any evidence that suggests they might would be considered so seriously flawed as not to be evidence. But this is an a priori philosophical argument, not one based on an open-minded examination of purported evidence.
Lewis notes that the difference between Christian miracles (which he believes did happen) from those of mythology (which might occasionally have happened), is that mythological miracles do not work with the system of nature God has set up. They are too fanciful. Christian miracles, however, “show invasion by a Power which is not alien [to the world that Power created.] They are what might be expected to happen when [the world] is invaded not simply by a god, but by the God of nature: by a Power which is outside [the world’s] jurisdiction not as a foreigner but as a sovereign.”
Lewis distinguished two kinds of miracles, “Miracles of the Old Creation” and “Miracles of the New Creation.” The former are miracles which “reproduce operations we have already seen on the large scale.” The latter focus on that which is still to come as Christ’s Kingdom expands and is con summated at the end of time. “Not one of them is isolated or anomalous: each carries the signature of the God whom we know through conscience and from Nature. Their authenticity is attended by the style” (Chapter 15).
God heals the sick not just by providing “medical assistance and wholesome environments” but in that the body’s amazing ability to repair itself is empowered by God Who “energizes the whole system of Nature.” The miracles of Jesus are of the same order but now that divine Power has put “on a face and hands.”
Lewis encapsulates his philosophy of healing throughout the “Narnian Chronicles.” In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lucy makes use of an equivalent of anointing oil to restore people to health (Chapter 10). Aslan, the Christ figure, restores stone statues back to living flesh (Chapter 16). Much of The Magician’s Nephew hinges on an allegory of surrender to the compassion of Christ in a situation of physical suffering.
While young Digory Kirk’s mother lies at home dying, he holds in his hands the power to save her life if he will only disobey the Lion. Ultimately, Aslan rewards his obedience with restoration, but even while her status lies in doubt, Lewis’ Christological figure (Aslan) overflows with supernatural compassion. “Great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself” (page 83).
Lewis neither addresse the issue why the miracles of Jesus were natural processes which were sped up in certain cases for reasons known only to God nor whether the Church would expect to minister these as Christ did. He did, however, believe that such healing miracles — though not happening frequently — do continue to occur.
Some have found Lewis’ answer to the problem of suffering to be too pat, a theoretical response of one who had not personally tasted misery. It was not that Lewis was personally unacquainted with suffering. His mother had died of cancer when he was nine, and he experienced as a soldier the horrors of World War I. However, this was not as poignant as the suffering he would experience in the illness and death of his wife.
Joy Davidman Gresham was aware of her health problems when she and Lewis were married in April of 1956. Their marriage was a civil, not an ecclesiastical, one, done somewhat quickly to avoid the deportation of Joy and her sons. Neither of them, however, believed, as practicing Christians, themselves to be married in the sight of God nor did they live as husband and wife. The difficulty in obtaining a church marriage was Joy’s status as a divorced woman.
Soon after their civil marriage, Joy’s health problems were diagnoses as cancer. Anglican Father Peter Bide was willing to solemnize their civil marriage and did so while Joy was hospitalized. The cancer had eaten through her thigh bone. Doctors gave her six months to live; the nursing staff a few weeks. Father Bide prayed and ministered the laying-on-of-hands for Joy’s healing.
Soon thereafter her cancer went into remission. She progressed rapidly from bed to wheelchair to almost normal walking. Her physician, Dr. R. E. Havard, said this was no ordinary remission but an intervention of God.
However, by Autumn of 1959, her cancer had returned and this time there would be no miracle. Though Lewis had said he would take the illness onto himself if Joy would be healed, Lewis recognizes that death is not the worst thing. He has Aslan say, “The day would have to come when both you and she would have looked back and said it would have been better to die in that illness” (The Magician’s Nephew, chapter 14).
His book A Grief Observed – compiled from his diary entries following Joy’s death – is a candid description of what went through his mind and heart when tragedy struck home. Some observers, responding to Lewis’ lashing out at God, say that his faith crumbled.
More likely it was not his faith in God but his understanding of God that was called into question. He writes, “Images of the Holy easily become holy images – sacrosanct. My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time…. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?”
Like job, at the end of this process Lewis knew less yet trusted more. At the conclusion of A Grief Observed, he writes, “When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’”
Lewis died shortly after Joy, on November 22, 1963, the same day as John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley. Perhaps Lewis, like so many who deeply love, lost interest in life when the beloved one died. Joy’s healing, though brief, brought him three unexpected years as a happily married man. Both “Jack” and Joy now exist in a place where all harms are healed. We await the day when we, too, will join them. +