There’s been a fair amount of publicity given to Stephen Fry’s impassioned response to the question, “Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God, what will Stephen Fry say to him, her, or it?” The question was posed by Gabriel Byrne in a series on Irish television The Meaning of Life.
Stephen Fry’s response (as an atheist) was passionate and profound: “I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault? It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain. That’s what I would say.”
There have been a lot of responses to this. How do you respond? Do you object to his language to describe God? Do you wonder what gives him the right to sit in judgment on God? I have a degree of sympathy with him, if I am honest.
Once again I sense the gathering of cyberstones ready to pound me into submission so before you lob them at me, let me explain.
I have sympathy because if God is like that then I agree with Stephen Fry. There is dissonance (to put it mildly) with the “and it was good” of creation isn’t there? But I would also want to point out that God is not entirely responsible for the world as it is today. We have a degree of responsibility too. And we also have to accept that in order to give us genuine freedom of choice God has chosen to limit his involvement in this world.
I have sympathy too because we find that view in the Bible. Even today in my reading from 1 Kings 17 we find it. Elijah had been a houseguest of a widow and her son:
17 Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing. 18 She said to Elijah, ‘What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?’
19 ‘Give me your son,’ Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. 20 Then he cried out to the Lord, ‘Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?’ 21 Then he stretched himself out on the boy three times and cried out to the Lord, ‘Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!’
22 The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived. 23 Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, ‘Look, your son is alive!’
Doesn’t that make you want to ask God some questions? It certainly got Elijah, one of the great prophets, hot under the collar of his cloak. Look at the words I highlighted in red. The widow was grieving and blamed God’s representative and he in turn took it out on God. I think you could paraphrase it as, “What sort of God are you?”
You might answer that he is “The sort of God who cares about widows.” But he doesn’t always, does he?
I think he is the sort of God who hears and feels the pain of the innocent who suffer. He is the sort of God whose values of love and justice are affronted by hatred, suffering and injustice. He is the sort of God who has experienced bereavement and shares our anguish. He is a God whose world has been despoiled by evil. There has been a lot written about this – it’s deep and dark – the shadowy side of faith.
And this again is where I have sympathy with Stephen Fry because he correctly identified, “It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil.” I imagine God agreeing with him. It is utterly, utterly evil. And that’s the point at which I diverge from Mr Fry. If as an atheist you don’t believe in God then please be consistent and acknowledge that you don’t believe in the malevolence of evil. If you don’t believe in God because of the existence of evil perhaps you should not believe in evil either. Isn’t saying you believe in one but not the other because of the existence of the former like saying that because darkness exists you don’t believe in light?
Be blessed, be a blessing.