You may have heard a little noise this week about some comments made by Stephen Fry.
It seems he doesn’t have very much good to say about God.
His hostile rant put him in the headlines of every major British news outlet this week including The Guardian, Huffington Post, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Evening Standard, as well as some North American ones. Those in turn triggered an avalanche of re-postings and opinionated commentaries in social media. My own Facebook newsfeed was full of them.
I’m not going to repeat his entire rant here, but in a few words, it was the classical “how can an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving God allow so much evil and suffering in the world?” (his version had a lot more persuasiveness, color and ouch-factor than this ultra-distilled version).
I’m sure you know he isn’t the first person to have pointed his finger at God and screamed “Why?” or “How dare you?” Many have done so over the years, and then swaggered off smugly because they weren’t vaporized by a lightning bolt immediately after uttering the challenge. Those questions are as old as the Bible itself.
In several of the Psalms, David points out to injustices all around him and cries out “How long, God, will you just stand back and let these things happen?”
The entire book of Job is about Job’s response to horrendous personal suffering … the complete destruction of everything he owns, the sudden and dramatic death of his ten children, and Job himself contracting a hideous skin disease … seemingly by the very hand of God.
The book of Ecclesiastes addresses many of the big questions of life, and includes passages like:
“I saw the tears of the oppressed — and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors — and they have no comforter.
And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive.
But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.”
Even Jesus himself addresses the problem: “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! …’”
So you can’t call this question of unexplained suffering and evil a new one. Nor can you call Stephen Fry brave for asking the question that others don’t dare to ask. It’s been asked for millennia … from the pages of the Bible to the pages of the British tabloids.
Yet it still produces a powerful faith-testing tension for anyone with a heart and a brain. It’s perhaps the biggest question with which theists have to wrestle. It’s derailed the faith of many a believer and hardened the hostility of many an atheist.
But can we really lay all the blame at God’s feet, or might we ourselves be a big part of that problem?
We humans inflict many evils intentionally (wars; crime; murders; rape; muggings; beatings) and unintentionally (train accidents; a misfired hand-gun in a purse; an airline pilot who didn’t get enough sleep and lost control of the plane). We can’t pin those things on God.
In other cases, the problem is our selfish lazy choice to not intervene when it was completely within our power to do so. Like keeping our money to ourselves so we can enjoy the comforts of life, knowing that others are literally starving or freezing or dying of easily treatable diseases. Or putting life and limb on the line to stand up against oppression because we’re rather fond of our life and limbs.
By choosing to not involve ourselves, we become part of the cause of their misery.
Even something like the drowning of thousands of Bangladeshi people in a monsoon flood is partly our fault: every year the monsoon rains flood them out, millions are displaced and countless die by drowning and disease. We know for a fact that it’s going to happen again soon, probably even this coming spring. We could solve that problem tomorrow by flying those people here to live with us. But we won’t, because that would put a strain on our economy. And because we might have to live next door to them. So we leave them in Bangladesh, and when disaster strikes and children drown, we call it an act of God.
Do you see how, our own Free Will is at the root of much of the suffering in this world?
Many don’t like the Free Will explanation. They feel God has to shoulder at least some of the blame. Especially for the things that are outside of our control. “Isn’t he responsible for the bone cancers that afflict some children?” (one of Stephen Fry’s examples). “And for that tsunami on Boxing Day in 2004 that killed hundreds of thousands?”
Let’s look at those too.
We demand that God create a world without bone cancer in children. Except that, if he’s going to draw the line at bone cancer in children, it wouldn’t be fair to older people or those with other forms of cancer, so why not demand a world without cancer in general. Well, we can’t just exclude cancer, we should probably expect him to eliminate other heavy-hitting killer diseases like heart attacks and Lou Gehrig’s Disease. On the other hand, to be fair, we should probably demand that he also add less life-threatening diseases to the list, like kidney stones and heart burn. But if he’s going to have to prevent those, why not go the whole way and include inconvenient medical problems like baldness and the common cold?
But then you can’t just stop at disease. To be fair, we need to also talk about other things, like the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. And we find ourselves going through the same exercise there… “No more massive tsunamis, God! For that matter, same goes for medium-sized tsunamis. May be allow only small-sized tsunamis? On second thought, let’s forbid any tragedy of any kind that involves water, including bath-tub drownings.”
And so in the name of justice and fairness we keep increasing the number of things that we expect God to control in order to prevent suffering and tragedies in general. Which means God’s going to have to make it so that cars no longer loose traction in snowstorms and go off the road. And alcohol suddenly loses its intoxicating effect when drivers slide in behind the wheel. And knives turn to rubber in the hands of hoodlums about to stab their victims. And planes safely land themselves rather than be directed at the Twin Towers. It becomes a very strange world.
No matter where you draw the line to define the side on which God must intervene, you’ll always have someone on the other side of that line saying “that’s not fair, why doesn’t he intervene over here too?” Such are the thoughts of the people picking through the rubble of their demolished houses while listening to their neighbor exclaiming to the TV News crew about how “we saw that tornado coming right at us but God spared us … it just went right around us and kept on going and our house wasn’t even touched!” To eliminate every single example of unfairness, you need a world in which absolutely everything is perfectly controlled … which means God dictates every little detail of every facet of life. And here’s where your Free Will gets in the way: that kind of world also means that he pulls the puppet strings on every minute movement everyone makes and every decision they take. And my guess is you won’t put up with that either. You object to being turned into a robot.
So we’re back to the root problem being Free Will. Like it or not, it seems you can’t have a world that has humans with Free Will without evil and suffering. Just like you can’t have love without the potential for pain and rejection. Add those to the list of other things God can’t make, like a square circle or a rock so big that he can’t lift up. In that sense, God is not omnipotent.
Am I completely satisfied with this as an answer to all the evil and suffering in the world? Not at all.
Does it make it easier to accept bone cancer in children or the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami? Not at all!
But does it make me want to throw out the idea of God? Not at all. You haven’t fixed anything by erasing God from the picture: you’re still left with the same evil and suffering. You can’t say the injustice proves God doesn’t exist, any more than it proves we ourselves don’t exist: we have no right to hurl accusations at God if we ourselves are also guilty of doing nothing about the problems. Stephen Fry describes God as being “totally selfish” because of all that suffering. Who is he to talk? Who are we to point fingers? As long as we have a few pennies in our pockets and time to watch TV, we need to keep our mouths shut.
When David, Solomon, Job, and Jesus addressed this age-old problem, there was a common thread in their responses: they all pointed us back to God … urged us to pursue God relentlessly for an answer. In that sense, evil and suffering in the world serve to point us toward God. And he in turn spins us around 180 degrees, sends us back into the mess, and asks us to make a difference. To be his hands and feet. Matthew chapter 25 in action.
It’s the reason we’re here.
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