You may well have seen it. Lots of people are sharing it around the web. Some are hailing it as a tour de force of irrefutable statements against the worship of God.
Yes, I’m talking about that video of Stephen Fry giving voice to his objection to God: people suffer. Specifically, children suffer. Therefore, he concludes, God is a monster, an evil and stupid being of such mean-minded and selfish caprice that he deserves no respect.
It’s a rather vehement and crude way of restating a problem that people have been talking about for centuries, with much thought, many tears, and considerable energy. Bizarrely, despite the fact that Fry says nothing new, or particularly creative, this short video seems to represent for many a visionary and powerful support for their disbelief in and/or hatred of God.
So, I’ve decided to offer my own few thoughts on a couple of problems with Stephen Fry’s invective against the divine, and serve a fry-up of my own; like him, I don’t offer any new insights, nor do I claim to put forward a comprehensive and thorough answer. But for Christians who are unsettled, or others who think he’s got a point, I want to prompt some further reflection about just how persuasive this video is, once you get past the rhetoric.
Given his chosen topic of disgust, I think I can at least stand as one who knows by experience, possibly better than Stephen Fry, about the pain of broken life to which he refers, and yet still have a vision of God as utterly compelling and wonderful, worthy of all respect, without whom life simply would not be.
From whence the complaint?
First, given what Stephen Fry believes about life, the universe, and everything, why does he even have a problem? If all that is, is the result of blind chance, an impersonal materialistic universe that just ‘happened’, then what’s the problem of suffering children? What is suffering? Why care? The weak die, the strong survive, the species carries on – the categories of ‘wrong’, or ‘injustice’, or ‘evil’ have no place.
Indeed, to speak in such terms is to assume that there is something which goes beyond us, and our universe, something to which we can appeal in order to be outraged at the way things are. From where does the ‘ought’ come? Why ought it to be the case that children don’t undergo pain, and hardship? In an impersonal universe of chance, where evolution is absolute, and we are nothing more than vibrating atoms, there is no claim to be made that some atoms should vibrate in a pleasing way. To suggest that the category of ‘evil’ can remain as a useful human construct misses the fact that whoever says something in the world is wrong, unjust, or evil, they appeal outside the human sphere of authority, to something (Someone?) transcendent.
Please, please, please note what I am NOT saying – I am NOT suggesting that people who do not believe in God are not good, or loving. I take it as an empirical fact that many who don’t believe do, to an embarrassing degree, far excel the church in charity, generosity, and love. What I am saying is that without God, there is no way of accounting for why we even care.
Any model which excludes the Christian God of love and perfection necessarily excludes the complaint that there is even such a thing as suffering, or injustice. In short – if these things trouble you, you (subconsciously, unwittingly) assume the necessary existence of God in order to make the case that God doesn’t exist.
As a child needs to be lifted onto her father’s lap in order to slap him in the face, Stephen Fry needs God in order to say anything at all about the misery of life.
Making it personal
However, Stephen Fry does not reference the fact that the problem of ‘evil’ is as much a problem for atheism (if not more) than it is for Christianity. He seems quite happy to argue on the basis that there is a God – his objection is simply that in light of the way things are, the God who created everything must be a reprehensible monster.
Fry has zeroed in on the severe suffering of very ill children to accuse God of evil, stupidity, and caprice. This is an emotive topic, one which touches a deep nerve in many people, and which deserves sensitive treatment.
I don’t say what follows in an attempt to claim firmer authority for my reflections on God, and suffering. I think God has enough authority on his own for that.
I simply want make clear that when I dismiss Fry’s allegations as misguided and ill-considered, I am not dismissing the real pain which many people have when they come to this question. As CS Lewis helpfully says through the words of Aslan in The Horse and His Boy, when it comes to the question why God allows suffering, we can only really deal with our own story, and not that of anyone else; abstract discussion has its place, but let’s not forget that we deal with individuals.
As you can read about in elsewhere on this blog, after burying my first child, my wife and I are now full-time carers for our second, our daughter Tilly. Tilly has a neurological disability so rare and severe that only ten cases have been reported worldwide. She has seizures, which shake her two year old body and make her turn blue as she stops breathing; her brain stem malfunctions, and causes a terrible movement disorder that sets her nerves on fire and makes her scream; she can’t swallow, so is fed through a tube into her bowel; she was fed through a tube into her stomach, but her stomach churned up so much that she vomited all the time, and we are now in the process of preparing to have her stomach sewn up; her lack of movement leaves her prone to chest infections, bowel infections, circulatory problems, joint pain, and a deformed spine. Her life expectancy is poor, and her life quality is too complicated to even pin down. Her vast cocktail of medicines can only make a dent.
I have watched her stop breathing more times than I care to count; I have administered aggressive drugs in order to break her out of long seizures, and then clasped oxygen to her face and called for emergency help as those drugs depressed her respiratory drive; I have watched her cough up blood from her raw and damaged stomach, and spent weeks of sleepless nights loitering by her bed with suction in my hand in case she started again.
Caprice? Evil? Selfish and mean-minded? Tempting though it might be to use Tilly’s condition as a reason to fall back on such clichéd captions concerning the God of the Bible, whom I worship, we need to do a little more thinking.
The God of the Bible
One of the most striking things about the Bible is that God seems singularly unembarrassed by the existence of suffering. The Bible doesn’t present it as a good thing, and it certainly doesn’t try and skirt around it. I mean, the songbook of the Bible (the Psalms), words God gave to his people to sing praise, is full of questions, and pain, and heartache, and suffering! The God who is willing to have us sing the bleak despair of Psalm 88 clearly doesn’t want to cover up the reality of life in a fallen world.
What I’m trying to say is that it is good, and right, that I am cut to pieces by grief when I think of Tilly. Like the songwriter who came up with Psalm 73, I look around at people whose children are fine, knowing that I would give everything those parents have given and more, and feel sad that my little girl has to endure such pain. I don’t know the reason.
And actually, that’s ok. Psalm 73 moves from questioning and pain, to the house of God, and the realization that he has a better understanding, and reasoning, and knowledge, than I do. I have the freedom to lament, and the firmness of the promise that ultimately, God is doing something I cannot fathom, but that it is good.
And it is here that we need to take a step back from what Fry has said, and realize where he’s gone wrong. He cannot make up a god to disagree with, and then complain that he is unsatisfactory; he needs to take account of what the God of the Bible has said concerning himself, rather than attacking a straw-god, a god in Fry’s own imagination.
The Christian God is, quite simply, not like us. He is not a bigger version of me. He is other. He is perfect, in ways that we cannot even begin to understand. He is his own goodness, justice, wisdom, and power.
With an arrogance that so sadly characterizes the brilliant and intelligent people of history, Fry assumes that God can have no reasons for the way things are that he, Stephen Fry, has not countenanced. He gives no consideration to the fact that a being wise and powerful enough to create the universe might just have access to factors, ideas, considerations, to moral qualities of love and goodness, that mere human beings cannot begin to comprehend. That He might have ends, and goals, which are beyond our understanding and judgment.
In the video, Fry claims that his atheism not only promotes unbelief in general, but also seeks to question what kind of God God might be, given the state of things. One wonders where his implicit claim to impartiality and authority to do so comes from, but the fact he claims it is obvious. In any event, it is clear that he has already prejudged any answers that might be given – why else is God stupid, evil, capricious, and so on?
His suspicion concerning God’s ability to be all-powerful and all-good is unfounded. He should instead be suspicious of his own ability to comprehend the infinite.
In removing the possibility that God might know more than him, might have a greater love and care, might have a perfect wisdom, Fry has also removed any semblance of the Christian God, and therefore removed the possibility of a real interaction with this question. It’s an effective presentational skill – neglect any real examination of another position, construct your own ‘opponent’ in its place, and then knock it down. Unfortunately, there is very little substance to it.
The Good News
As I mentioned above, I don’t have a philosophical answer that exhausts and resolves the heartache my family endures. I would be suspicious of someone who tried to offer it.
Christianity takes suffering very seriously. Without entering into all of the debates about free will and God’s sovereign control, the Bible is clear that suffering is not God’s moral fault, but ours. Humanity’s rebellion against God means that we are both victims and perpetrators; not that in any given instance, one moment of suffering is proportionate to an individual’s sin. Tilly’s condition is not due to a severe transgression in our lives; she does not suffer in this way because she personally deserves it more than others. Not at all; I speak corporately – humanity’s fall meant the fall and corruption of everything that God had made good.
So, suspicion and anger towards God is wrongly directed. The world suffers under the curse because humanity is in the wrong. We live in a world of injustice and pain precisely because we have walked away from the One who is perfect justice and joy; we suffer ugliness and strife because we have rejected the beautiful God of peace.
God would have been just to leave things as they are. But he did not. The essence of the Christian message about suffering is not philosophical speculation, but an announcement of good news, that God entered this world, in the person of Jesus Christ, taking human nature upon himself and suffering on a Roman cross, suffering the curse that we deserve, so that eternally, we might be free from its pain.
With a weakness that is yet strong enough to move mountains; with a stupidity that is yet wiser than Solomon (or Stephen Fry); with a perfect love so ferocious and pure in its brilliance that the highest act of human charity seems like a broken lamp in comparison, the triune God confounds all human speculation about his good omnipotence with the bloodied wood of Calvary.
We are not entitled to know God’s reasons for what he does, and allows. We may weep, and ache, with the question ‘why?’ We cannot, however, demand God’s justification according to our own standards, and consider him guilty until proven innocent. As a friend remarked concerning this video, it is a great presumption to demand such answers from the one who gives us our very lives.
Instead, we should take our hurt to the cross, and listen to Him who died in the place of sinners, asking a much more painful ‘why?’ The Son, fully willing and loving, hung there and asked “My God, My God, WHY have you forsaken me?”
Every drop of blood, every seizure, every tear, and every heartache we have known as a family, are bound up with that God-man Jesus as he experienced the stupidity and evil of suffering, the wise and just sentence of God, as he died in the place of sinners.
In that ‘why?’ all of our own find their resolution, even though we cannot fully grasp it:
“If we again ask the question: ‘why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?’ and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself.” (Tim Keller)
With resurrection hope, we look forward to the day when pain and sadness are no more. Tilly’s suffering is not the final part of her story, nor ours. We aren’t emotionless robots waiting for pie in the sky. By God’s grace, we know that the God who allows our situation is the God who sent his Son to save us, and give us eternal life. And one day, when the tears are gone, and there is nothing but the joy of new creation, we might, just might, start to know by sight what we now grasp by faith – that God is all-good, all-powerful, and if we ever doubt this, or wonder how they fit together, we need look no further than the cross, and have all the answers we need.