Stephen Fry has justified his atheism with passion and eloquence to the Irish journalist Gay Byrne. “Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God,” Bryne asked the British polymath and light entertainer. “What will Stephen Fry say ?” Fry’s reply was direct and visceral:
“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.”
Of course, Fry’s problem is that he simply assumes that God could not provide a convincing answer to his questions. Granted, in the here and now there are no neat answers to Fry’s challenges. But it’s reasonable to expect that a direct encounter with God in eternity could change a person’s perspective significantly. It’s also possible that God might be able to better acquaint Fry with the reasons for creation, with the nature of good and evil, and with the possibilities of comfort and healing in heaven. If there is an afterlife every human life could contain more good than evil (unless we choose perdition.) And if human beings have the opportunity of lives with more good than evil, then it is not obvious that the problem of evil has the logical force Fry believes it does. It’s possible that the temporal sufferings of the past, however terrible they were, are evaluated differently by those experiencing eternal bliss.
Fry’s argument is that there cannot be a God of limitless, loving power because there is suffering in the world. Some of that suffering is truly, objectively horrendous – for example, bone cancer in children. Now, although he might have expressed it passionately, Fry has really just restated the logical problem of evil. This argument isn’t new -it’s as old as scripture – and can be set out quite simply:
i) A wholly good being would not want our world to contain suffering.
ii) There are no limits to what an omnipotent and omniscient being can do.
iii) So, if a wholly good, omnipotent and omniscient being exists he would not have created a world which contains suffering.
iv) Our world contains suffering.
v) Thus, a wholly good, omnipotent and omniscient being does not exist.
But in philosophy, it is practically universally acknowledged that this argument is not decisive. It is logically possible that there are greater goods which God could not bring about without permitting suffering in his universe. As strange as it sounds, there are limits on omnipotence: logical limits. To create beings capable of achieving virtue God must give those beings the gift of free-will. An omnipotent God cannot force a free being to choose the good. And perhaps beings with free-will can only make meaningful choices in certain environments; surely there must be consequences for our choices are to be meaningful. God must allow the possibility of danger, suffering and loss or he will fatally undermine human responsibility. And, as John Polkinghorne suggests:
Evil which is not the result of human sin seems to be the result of the workings out of the natural laws of physics (eg earthquakes) and biology (eg viruses). It may well be logically necessary to have such laws in order that beings can emerge who are free to choose to love. And surely a universe without freely given love but without pain would be worse than one with both. The New Creation at the “end of time” is possible only and precisely because the people in it have lived through the present creation and have freely chosen the path of love. 1
Our world is filled with pain and perils; but perhaps we were meant to face these in fellowship with God. Perhaps life hurts so many, so often because the human race has divorced itself from God’s healing power, his guidance and his comfort. So, if humans are to grow in compassion and faith, there must be challenges. If humans choose to live without God, and without the good, there must be consequences. Facing a dangerous world while rebelling against its creator has terrible consequences. And if God were to continually intervene to mitigate those consequences he would significantly undermine human autonomy. We would become his play things, and not free agents.
In Britain, we’re continually reminded of Fry’s prodigious intelligence and learning. But he is not omniscient, and we would courageously venture to suggest that it might just be possible that even Stephen Fry might not know everything about God and his universe. William Lane Craig cautions:
As finite persons, we are limited in time, space, intelligence, and insight. But the transcendent and sovereign God sees the end from the beginning and providentially orders history so that His purposes are ultimately achieved through human free decisions. In order to achieve His ends, God may have to put up with certain evils along the way. Evils which appear pointless to us within our limited framework may be seen to have been justly permitted within God’s wider framework…. A butterfly fluttering on a branch in West Africa may set in motion forces which would eventually issue in a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean. Yet it is impossible in principle for anyone observing that butterfly palpitating on a branch to predict such an outcome. The brutal murder of an innocent man or a child’s dying of leukemia could produce a sort of ripple effect through history such that God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later and perhaps in another land. When you think of God’s providence over the whole of history, I think you can see how hopeless it is for limited observers to speculate on the probability that God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting a certain evil. We’re just not in a good position to assess such probabilities.
And even Stephen Fry might have limitations that might prevent him from knowing all the relevant facts about the sorts of afterlife God could create, or what it would mean for God to create an New Heaven and New Earth. Christians believe that there are eternal goods which can overwhelm and redeem the most horrendous events. While we cannot imagine the greatness of heaven or the New Creation, we know that they will surpass our wildest expectations. So we can conceive of goods that could overwhelm the most horrendous suffering.
Logically, then, it is entirely possible that God could have very good reasons for allowing suffering in his creation. Fry is simply foolish to assume that his challenge to God must go unanswered (and foolish in assuming that God would owe Stephen Fry an answer, but we’ll put that aside.) Furthermore, while Fry is passionate, in his passion he also ignores many deep problems associated with his atheology. He acknowledges the many “splendid” features of our universe, but ignores this evidence of design and focuses only on those features which strengthen his atheism. Furthermore, Fry’s rhetoric only makes sense if there is a moral law which distinguishes between absolute good and absolute evil. But if are laws of nature and if there are laws of morality, surely it is rational to believe in a law-giver?
Fry also ignores how faith comforts and strengthens many who are enduring great evils. Is this a blind faith in the face of overwhelming evidence? Hardly. When we are depressed and exhausted, we are not in a position to engage in abstract arguments. When breathing takes effort or when eating is a chore we need something more than a philosophical proof. In such circumstances, we can choose to have faith because the alternative is unbearable. If atheism is true we are the insignificant consequence of meaningless processes. We would have to concede that love is not stronger than death. We would lose all hope of justice and redemption; yet, can we live without hope? If it is Fry’s contention that a creator would be “evil, capricious and monstrous” it seems to follow that our world is evil and monstrous! Evil must so outweigh good that it would have been better if Earth was as lifeless as the moon. Can anyone seriously believe that this is the case? Wouldn’t this entail the wish that Earth was lifeless?
Are there no grounds for believing that our suffering can be redeemed and defeated? God forbid! The Christian can choose faith because the Christian story gives us reason to trust God even when we cannot understand his reasons. The torture and murder of the innocent Son of God would seem to be a paradigm case of a gratuitous, horrendous evil. Yet God raised his Son from the dead to create the greatest good imaginable. God is great enough to bring good out of the Crucifixion. The evidence of the resurrection gives us a certain hope that God can end all suffering and heal all wounds. This is not a blind faith; it is a faith that is based on evidence and reason and human need.
Yes, there is great darkness in this world. But we believe because a light shines in the darkness; and the darkness has not overwhelmed it.
1 Polkinghorne’s argument seems reasonable when we consider Gilbert Tennant’s point:
“It cannot be too strongly insisted that a world which is to be a moral order must be a physical order characterized by law and regularity. The theist is only concerned to invoke the fact that law abidingness is an essential condition of the world being a theater of moral life. Without such regularity in physical phenomenon, there could be no probability to guide us: no prediction, no prudence, no accumulation of ordered experience, no pursuit of premeditated ends, no formation of habit, no possibility of character or culture. Our intellectual faculties could not have been developed…and without rationality, morality is impossible.”