The Problem of Animal Pain


According to Lewis’s last secretary Walter Hooper, Lewis loved his animals.  This excerpt is from C.S. Lewis: A Biography by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper:

“Walter Hooper noticed during the months he lived in The Kilns what a pleasant relationship the people and the animals enjoyed.  Lewis and the others did for the cats (Tom and Snip) and dog (Ricky, a boxer pup) what was expected of them.  Otherwise, they left them to a very carefree, live-and-let-live existence.  Hooper was particularly touched by Lewis’s intervention on behalf of ‘Old Tom’, a much-loved cat who had been a great mouser in his day, but had now lost all his teeth.  Lewis’s housekeeper, Mrs. Maude Miller, suggested that the time had come for Tom to be ‘put down’.  Lewis would not hear of it.  ‘No,’ he said firmly, ‘Tom has worked hard.  He’s a pensioner now.’  Thereafter he had Mrs. Miller cook fish several times a week for Tom.  It was deboned and prepared specially for this much-loved old cat.  Once when Hooper and Lewis were walking down the private lane of The Kilns they met Tom.  As they passed, Lewis lifted his hat.  ‘He’s a pensioner,’ he reminded Walter.”

One of my favorite stories comes from my professor, Dr. Michael Ward’s, book called Planet Narnia:

“… readers recognise that Lewis’s mind and imagination did not work randomly. (His poetry, for instance, is fantastically complex, and the poems which look as if they are in free verse are often in the most complicated metres of all.)  These readers know also that Lewis could be playfully deceptive.  Once when out walking in the countryside with a friend, George Sayer, he deliberately misled a fox-hunt:

‘He cupped his hands and shouted to the first riders: “Hallo, yoicks, gone that way,” and pointed to the direction opposite to the one the fox had taken.  The whole hunt followed his directions.'”

I must also recommend Lewis’s chapter on animal pain in his book, The Problem of Pain.  I can guess that animal suffering troubled Lewis as much as it troubles me. He writes, “from the doctrine that God is good we may confidently deduce that the appearance of reckless Divine cruelty in the animal kingdom is an illusion.”  I have tended to believe that mankind’s fall into sin is the primary reason that animals suffer.  In other words, it’s my fault. Indeed, Paul tells us as much in Romans 8:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.

Christian theologians and philosophers have tried to reconcile animal suffering (especially for the millions of years of animal death before the fall of man, according to the scientific consensus)  by surmising that differences in brain architecture could indicate that though animals may feel pain, they lack the self-awareness to know they are suffering.  Lewis discusses this option in addition to how the fall of man and the actions of Satan (as the ruler of the kingdom of the air”) could be factors, as well.  For me, these are plausible answers, but they are still unsatisfying.  It seems to me that I would have to harden something in my heart to be satisfied with them.

Once again, in considering the problem of evil and suffering, we are not given complete answers and must trust in God’s goodness.  He has allowed pain for some reason even up to the point of entering that suffering Himself through the Passion of Christ.  In the end, these questions are unanswerable on this side of the darkened glass.  At some point, along with Job, we must put our hands over our mouths and trust Him who is goodness itself.

The speculative portion of Lewis’s chapter on animal pain fascinated me the most.  Here we see Lewis’s imaginative efforts to uncover the secrets of man’s unique relationship with animals (and all of Creation, really) and what that might look like in eternity.  Basically, Lewis is answering the question all young children ask when a beloved pet dies:  “Mommy, will I see Thomas in heaven after he dies?”

A short digression:  I had horrible nightmares as a child.  Horrible!  My parents were at a loss to know what to do with me.  The only way I would sleep in my room was if my cat Thomas was with me.  I loved that kitty and he was attached to me in his creaturely way.  He would sleep curled on my pillow above my head.  I felt safe with him in the room.  My mother believes that the poor fellow mourned when I moved off at age sixteen to study ballet.  He died when I was away.


Thomas:  fierce defender against monsters and nightmares.

Someone once told me that animals do not have souls and that they will not be in heaven because they are not as important to God as we are. When they die, that is it.  They are dead.  Can you imagine how this made me feel as a child?

Actually, I refused to believe it.  My God was good and He loved me.  He wouldn’t give me Thomas only to take him away from me forever.  After all, Thomas was an answer to prayer for I often asked God to take away my fear.

Poor Thomas.  I am told he endured at least one baptism.  He was one of the most good-natured cats I have ever known.

Lewis writes that “the complete silence of Scripture and Christian tradition on animal immortality is a more serious objection” when it comes to speculating what happens to them with respect to eternity.  Yet, he writes, it would be a “fatal” objection if “Christian revelation showed any signs of being intended as a systeme de la nature answering all questions.  But it is nothing of the sort: the curtain has been rent at one point, and at one point only, to reveal our immediate practical necessities and not satisfy our intellectual curiosity.”  Therefore, he concludes, “the argument from silence is very weak.”

He notes that if certain animals do not have the level of consciousness that we have, the awareness of “self” extending through time, then immortality for them is meaningless.  For God to bring them back into existence would simply mean a continuation of the “succession of sensations”that make-up life for these animals.  They would not know that they are the same animals as before because they have no “selves.”


Cecil the lion.

Yet in considering the higher animals, especially those that are domesticated, we should take seriously our intuition that they have some level of self-awareness.  Lewis writes, “the error we must avoid is that of considering them in themselves.”  It is here that Lewis begins a careful, imaginative exploration of how these animals’ relationship with us might be a sort of sub-reflection of our relationship with God.

He writes, “atheists naturally regard the co-existence of man and animals as a mere contingent result of interacting biological facts; and the taming of an animal by a man as a purely arbitrary interference of one species with another … the tame animal is an artificial or unnatural thing.”  In other words, atheists’ view is highly reductionist.

Lewis, the consummate anti-reductionist, would not stand for this and we shouldn’t either, in my humble opinion.  He writes, “man was appointed by God to have dominion over the beasts, and everything man does to an animal is either a lawful exercise, or a sacrilegious abuse, of an authority by Divine right.”

Yes!  Our intuition that the treatment of animals (and Creation) is a moral issue is indeed correct and we must not dismiss it entirely.  Of course, like most of our moral intuitions, this one has been tainted by sin; therefore, our interpretations of it will be equally flawed (as history has shown).  That some interpretations are flawed does not mean that we should discard the intuitions completely, as so many do.

Lewis speculates that the ways in which we are “in” Christ as humans might correspond to how animals could be “in” us as sub-rulers and delegated authorities on earth.  As we are subordinate to God – “the Center of the universe” – animals could be subordinate to us as the delegated “center of terrestrial nature.”  And just as God entered history as a Man to redeem mankind from our fallen state, mankind can serve a similar (albeit lesser) function for the wild animals.  Lewis writes that we see this when we domesticate animals for they seem to gain a personality as they relate to us (indeed, this can be seen with wild dogs and feral cats).  And just as we have immortality in Christ, Lewis writes, “it seems to me possible that certain animals may have an immortality, not in themselves, but in the immortality of their masters.”

To really understand Lewis here, I think one must consider his ideas about redemption as expressed in many of his writings, particularly “The Grand Miracle”.


Our Sophie.

Yes, this novel idea is possibly more imaginative than orthodox.  Yet I think his speculations provide us with an excellent model for how our imaginations can be informed by theology and reason.  As a medieval scholar, Lewis admired how the medieval mind sought to reconcile what might seem conflicting information about the world at first glance. They refused to discard data that did not readily fit their models.  Instead, they strove to expand the models while staying within Christian orthodoxy’s boundaries. I think Lewis’s speculations here follow their example quite beautifully, actually.

This is the challenge:  to speculate, but humbly set it down when needed, leaving it on the line in the sand that God has drawn.  God does not give us more information for some reason and I cannot help but think it is often a consequence of our sinfulness.  Mankind has a track record of turning knowledge meant for good into evil.  It is the same answer to the question:  If God is good, why doesn’t He give us the knowledge to cure diseases?  Perhaps it is because every cure comes with knowledge that helps and knowledge that we use to hurt.  Think of biological weapons.  Given what I know about my own heart, I am convinced that God sets the boundaries in “pleasant places” for our good.



God does not tell us much about His plans for the animals.  He does tell us that He cares about them.  I do not think it is wrong to speculate as long as we remember the limits of such an activity and refrain from forming rigid (and / or oppressive) doctrine around it.  Plus, it gives some consoling ideas for a child who is coping with the loss of a beloved pet.  In the end, I must strive to rest in my confidence in God’s goodness.  If it is good for us to have our pets in heaven, then our good God will allow it.  That is the answer that my husband and I give our girls.

Why speculate then?  For some of us who see animal pain up front and close and who have beloved pets that have died, this kind of speculation is something to hold on to as we grieve.  Perhaps we have not reached that level of spiritual maturity that says “God does not tell me, so I will leave it at that.”  For me, given what I know about my own heart, that could be entirely possible.  God knows how immature I am!  Yet God in His goodness has allowed for our speculations, I think.  God is so patient.  More than we deserve, I am sure.

Here is something that Lewis wrote in a letter in 1962 that touched on how Lewis’s view of the resurrection informed his ideas on animal immortality:

” . . in The Problem of Pain I ventured the supposal—it could be nothing more—that as we are raised in Christ, so at least some animals are raised in us. Who knows, indeed, but that a great deal even of the inanimate creation is raised in the redeemed souls who have, during this life, taken its beauty into themselves? That may be the way in which the “new heaven and the new earth” are formed. Of course we can only guess and wonder. But these particular guesses arise in me, I trust, from taking seriously the resurrection of the body.”

Read more here:  “Pets in Heaven?” @ Mere Inkling

NOTE:  my favorite quote from this chapter?  “I have been warned not even to raise the question of animal immortality, lest I find myself ‘in company with all the old maids.’  I have no objection to the company.  I do not think virginity or old age contemptible, and some of the shrewdest minds I have met inhabited the bodies of old maids.”  

So there, C.S. Lewis defends the crazy cat lady!


Speaking of, I had some help from Chloe in writing this post. 🙂

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