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A Response To Stephen Fry – 5 Questions I’d Want To Ask

11 February 2015

Gay Byrne and Stephen FryJust over a week ago Stephen Fry caused a stir around the world as he voiced his opinions on what he would say to God if he were to meet him. Do check out the clip here if you missed it. In short, Fry doesn’t believe in God because of the terrible suffering he sees around him. If a God does exist, he must be a monster. And because of Fry’s eloquence and mastery of the English language this 5-6 minute clip is very powerful. Lots of important and good stuff has already been said by other people here, here and here and much of what I say is covered in these three posts. However, I have been thinking about the questions I would like to ask Fry in response if I got a chance to probe him further. Here are my five questions, which I am sure he’d have good answers to!

(1) Why do you think this world is as God wants it to be?

The universeFry talks as if God wanted or intended the world to be as it is. However the Bible tells a different story. The world was perfect (Creation: Genesis 1-2) but because of human sin and rebellion and God’s judgement on this world as a result (The Fall: Genesis 3), it has gone horribly wrong. Jesus entered this world, died on a cross and rose again (Redemption: The 4 Gospels) and is coming back to restore the world to be a place without pain, suffering, tears or sadness (Consummation: Revelation 21). This is a summary of the whole Bible story.

So whilst there are still questions about why God allowed the world to become so full of pain and suffering in the first place (divine foreknowledge) and why he allows the world to carry on as it is currently (divine forbearance), it is clear that this world is not the place God originally intended it to be, nor the place he will one day make it. This leads to question number 2.

As a side note, there are good arguments around freewill that philosophers like Alvin Plantinga have made to defend God’s existence in the presence of suffering.

(2) From where do you get your distinction of right and wrong/good and bad?

Fry says, “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?”

But where does Fry get this distinction of injustice and pain from? If there is no God, if there is no moral law giver, if there is no objective standard of justice and goodness, then how can we talk sensibly about injustice and evil? C.S Lewis famously put it like this:

“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I com­paring this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple.”

If atheism is correct then there is no meaning, no justice, no good and no suffering. We’re all just here by random chance. It’s survival of the fittest and, in this worldview, those who are dealt a tough hand in life…well, tough luck. Richard Dawkins once put it like this:

“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

This leads me to my next question.

(3) Why is human life valuable at all?

Fry gives a graphic description of East African children whose eyes are eaten away from the inside out. This story is harrowing and as someone born in East Africa (Uganda) because my dad was working as a doctor in a rural hospital, it is not so far removed from my upbringing. However, just as with morality, so with human life, why are we so bothered about people dying? Isn’t death just a normal part of life according to evolutionary atheism? Isn’t in fact essential? Doesn’t it just show that those children were not the fittest and will not pass on their genetic code…which is a good thing for society in the end?

baby being bornI once heard a debate between Christian apologist, William Lane Craig and Peter Atkins, another Oxford science professor and contemporary of Richard Dawkins at Manchester University. It was a fascinating evening. Like Dawkins, he follows through the logical conclusions of his atheistic beliefs and has said that human life is “just a bit of slime on a planet.”  Or before him, Bertrand Russell said human life was “just a curious accident in a backwater.”  If humans are not valuable, if we’re no different in our fundamental make-up than a tree or a rock, why is Fry so worried about whether we suffer? According to the atheistic worldview, human life, in the end, doesn’t have any meaning or value. When we die we rot, we are hoovered up and forgotten forever. Death is natural and not something to worry about.

As I understand things, unless there is an objective law-giver who can tell us what is right and wrong, and unless there is a God who makes people in his image and therefore gives them value and dignity, I am not sure there is a clear explanation to Fry’s rage. His atheism should not give him such problems or anger.

This leads me to my next question.

(4) Do you think God can handle your rage?

Fry is clearly angry, though as pointed out in questions 1-3, I think his anger only makes sense within a theistic worldview. However, we should stop to think about this anger for a moment. When you read the Bible you find that many of the greatest and strongest believers wrestled with God; they got angry at God and they questioned God’s goodness, power, wisdom and love. This starts with Abraham back in Genesis 18, is most powerfully shown in the fullest treatment of suffering from the ancient world in the book of Job, and is seen repeatedly in the Psalms. Then there is Jesus himself who quakes with anger and weeps at the death of Lazarus (John 11). Finally, on the cross, quoting Psalm 22, Jesus cried out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as he was beaten and rejected. True believers get angry at the injustice and evil and weep at the sadness and suffering they see.

Shouting at GodWhy do I raise all this? I think many people think God can’t handle our rage at the injustice in the world. He can’t handle our questions, our doubts, our weeping and our anger. But what we see repeatedly is that when people feel like this and cry out, they are often closer to God than they imagine. They are actually starting to connect with God’s heart and with reality. In a marriage, one spouse may get angry at the other because they feel they have trusted someone deeply and have felt betrayed or hurt, mistreated or taken for granted. As a result they feel angry. The more you love and trust someone, the more you feel angry when that love/trust is broken. But as you can see, the anger only reveals a relationship of love and trust and so it is with God. Because we have trusted him and it feels he has let us down, our anger is enormous.

So in one sense Fry’s anger seems to reveal to me that, underneath it all, he does believe in God and he is angry at him and in my view, that isn’t all that bad. God can handle that. Clearly Fry is not in any kind of relationship with this God, but God is big enough to deal with it if he were to start talking to God directly.

(5) What do you do with Jesus, the suffering God?

I have heard many people say “the God Fry doesn’t believe in, is a God I don’t believe in” and I think this is absolutely true. There is one very clear reason that the god Fry describes is not the God of the Bible and it is that God who created the world, entered the pain and suffering. He shared in it. He comforts us in it. He died to defeat it and will one day return to fully restore us to a world without pain and suffering. John Stott has put it brilliantly when he said,

I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross….in the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?

I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of Buddha, his legs cross, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth. A remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away.

Jesus dying on a crossAnd in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nailed through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged into God-forsaken darkness.

That is the God for me, he laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our suffering becomes more manageable in light of his.

There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolises divine suffering. The cross of Christ is God’s only self-justification in a world such as ours”

I am sure Fry would destroy me in a one-on-one debate on this matter; he has a brain the size of a planet. However, these would be five questions I’d like to explore if I had a chance.

If you’re interested in looking into this more I suggest Tim Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. I have just finished it and it is brilliant from an anthropological, philosophical and pastoral perspective. Or do join us on our next Intro Course where we spend a whole evening looking at the question of suffering and evil.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. 12 February 2015 12:07 pm

    My takes on roughly how Fry would respond:

    1) Assuming the Biblical narrative, Fry would deduce that God intended the Fall. In other words: God is evil by human standards, therefore he fills the world with suffering.

    2) Fry would observe that moral distinctions are made by humans, who value well-being and are averse to suffering. We can determine that nature is full of pain and injustice in by human standards, independently of whether it was created or not.

    3) Human life is valuable, because humans value it. Even if nothing else does.

    4) Fry would say his anger comes from assuming a Christian God who is claiming to be good. You won’t find him angry at capricious Greek gods, or at a natural universe that is indifferent to suffering.

    5) Speculation, but Fry might say that a God who embraces suffering is a God who values and desires suffering for himself and others. He might diagnose a such a God with a psychological disorder.

  2. 12 February 2015 12:30 pm

    Thanks for your comments Graham, I’ll give you one set of brief answers (please do reply) and then we’ll have to continue this in our fortnightly lunches at google…hehe!

    (1) 2 thoughts here – (a) I am still not sure you can say God “intended” the fall, even if he foreknew it. Intention and foreknowledge are different in my mind. (b) in his wisdom he may foresee greater good which we cannot see now which will justify it all. This requires great trust that God is indeed good, wise and loving – which I get from the cross primarily #5

    (2) I am not sure these moral distinctions have objective meaning or can really be spoken of, other than things we value to pass on genetic code.

    (3) I am not sure we can give ourselves meaning by ourselves.

    (4) Sure – but he anger is still at someone. Anger only makes sense if it is directed at someone. So he is angry with a God who claims good but he can’t understand how he can be good. However the existence of this God is assumed in this dynamic and one day God may provide an answer to the anger/questions.

    (5) Never heard that few before. Interesting.

    Thanks again, do come back with further thoughts.

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