When The Meaning of Life host Gay Byrne asked Stephen Fry what he would say to God if he found himself standing before the Pearly Gates, his reply was short and sharp: “Bone cancer in children: what’s that about?” Fry then proceeded to launch into a powerful description of how “evil” and “stupid” God is to allow suffering we have not brought on ourselves.
The minute long snippet soon went viral – and rightly so. After all, Fry was expressing the feelings of many, including those who make the same complaint within the pages of the Bible.
But I do sometimes feel that atheists like Stephen Fry could perhaps do more to see things from a believer’s point of view. While the problem of evil continues to unsettle and perplex most thoughtful people, including Christians, there are reasons it cannot succeed as a logical case against God’s existence or goodness.
Fry’s conclusion might be warranted on atheist assumptions, but it is illogical on Christian assumptions. So, I want here to invite my atheist friends to join me in a thought experiment. I want to ask them to try follow the reasoning of a Christian believer.
Throughout history religious believers of every stripe have looked at the world and become convinced there must be a Powerful Mind behind existence – which, by definition, cannot be part of creation or part of the course of time. Regardless of whether that Mind is good or bad, it seems clear to the vast majority of people that such a Being exists.
Sure, atheists aren’t convinced by this, but they have to acknowledge that equally thoughtful people find this compelling. For the sake of the thought experiment, however, I’d ask atheists to continue to follow the logic, as follows.
Looking at the world, there is both a problem of beauty and a problem of pain. We notice the pain more, perhaps, but the beauty, order, bliss, pleasure are every bit as much a part of human existence as the evil and pain – arguably more so. The ancient Greeks (and ancient Vedics) had a solution to this dual problem of beauty and pain: the gods are capricious and unpredictable; they are sometimes good to you, sometimes not. Ancient Greeks would reply to Fry’s complaint, “Sure, the gods are evil sometimes – what of it?” There is a certain logic to that.
Of course, the great Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, walked a different path, insisting that, whatever the gods are getting up to, the Good draws all things – to a lesser or greater degree – toward itself. Still, my point is: if you find yourself stuck with the intellectual conviction that there must be a Powerful Mind, you will puzzle through both the beauty and the pain, unable to accept Dawkins’s universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication.
The Judeo-Christian tradition follows a particular intellectual route because of a particular reading of particular evidence. Biblical theism finds powerful reasons to believe that God is fundamentally good and loving. This is amped up to an extraordinary degree in the Christian tradition, where God has shown himself in person and experienced injustice and injury on behalf of his beloved creatures. The cross changes everything – if believed.
Again, thoughtful atheists need to bear with this a little longer. They mustn’t rush to the usual atheist “outs” – Jesus didn’t live, Jesus isn’t God, and so on. That would be to abandon the thought experiment and refuse to learn why, on Christian assumptions, Stephen Fry’s conclusion is not reasonable.
An intellectually sympathetic atheist must grant that thoughtful Christians genuinely feel they have good warrant for believing in the God revealed in Israel’s history and the history of Jesus Christ, just as sympathetic Christians must accept that atheists feel they are justified in thinking we live in a universe of blind physical forces. My line of reasoning is not an argument for Christianity per se, but an attempt to help atheists see why their reasoning seems cogent to them but not to Christians.
So how do Christians cope, intellectually, with the evil and suffering in the world? The ideas of the “fallenness” of humanity and the “fallenness” of creation are important. But I think these will only ever be partially satisfying as an explanation of evil and suffering. There is always the question: couldn’t God have done it some other way? To which the answer is: probably.
But here we arrive at the heart of the issue. Given that Christians find themselves convinced – on other grounds – that God is all-loving, in addition to being all-powerful and all-knowing, it is far more logical for them to conclude that God’s reasons for permitting evil are indeed loving and, what’s more, that he is able to achieve his aims and, what’s more, that it shouldn’t surprise us that limited beings might not be able to imagine the divine reasons. The atheist might dismiss this as the “God’s ways are mysterious” cliche, but it is surely just cool logic: God is all-knowing and we are not, so there’s an obvious knowledge gap to recognise.
The above paragraph begins to touch on why evil and suffering cannot be used as a logical proof against the Christian God. One could only use suffering as evidence against an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving God if one could first demonstrate that such a being could not have a grand reason for allowing suffering to continue. It is no good insisting that Christians must provide the reasons. Logically, they don’t. They just need to point out that such a Being could have a reason, consistent with his love and wisdom.
I understand that atheists will buy none of this. But for my purposes that doesn’t matter. I am asking sceptics simply to step through this as a thought experiment.
Atheists are the ones making the case against God on the basis of suffering. They must provide the demonstration that these hypothetical loving reasons for permitting suffering do not exist. Atheists, of course, can’t provide such a demonstration, so an argument from the existence of suffering to the non-existence of God is not intellectually strong – even if it retains emotional force in view of our inability to imagine what God’s reasons might be for taking the course that he has.
Incidentally, perhaps it is because of this gap between our imaginative powers and God’s reasoning that the biblical tradition allows – even invites – us to cry out to him, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from my groaning?”
My central point is that, on Christian convictions, it is entirely logical to look at the suffering of the world in all its miserable array and conclude that God must have bloody good reasons for choosing this course and, further, that his promised resolution must be bloody amazing to make up for the measure of ugliness that mars the beauty and order of existence.
The cross and the resurrection are the guarantees of both. The cross tells us that God’s self-giving love for his creatures is primary, and thus his reasons for permitting human suffering must fall within the plans of self-giving love. The resurrection is God’s pledge to breathe new life where there is death, to restore all things to a just and whole outcome, to the satisfaction of everyone.
(Incidentally, one need not posit some kind of universalism here. Universalism, the idea that everyone will be saved in the end, is one imaginary scenario that helps some Christians feel a sense of resolution. I think it clashes with too many biblical texts to be valid, but it does provide a reminder of one thing: if human minds can come up with a semi-satisfying scenario like universalism, God’s own resolution must be infinitely better, even if it doesn’t involve the salvation of everyone.)
I understand that atheists will buy none of this. But for my purposes that doesn’t matter. As I say, I am asking sceptics simply to step through this as a thought experiment. If you can imagine holding Christian convictions, you will be able to see why it is simply not logical for the believer to follow Stephen Fry in arguing that God doesn’t exist or that he is evil. The only logical conclusion to the existence of misery is that God must have loving purposes in mind, which he alone is able to achieve, which he alone knows. This is the only rational line of thought for those convinced that an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God exists.
It might be argued that the evil and suffering of history outweigh any proof of God’s love in the death of Christ, and I can see why people might think this. But even if we could show somehow that this was mathematically true – that all the suffering of creatures is “heavier” than the suffering experienced by the Creator – the extravagant, unnecessary display of divine love in the cross provides adequate warrant for taking God on trust for everything else.
As I’ve said, it is not illogical to suggest that an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God could hypothetically have a grand, loving purpose for permitting suffering. In the cross (whatever its relative weight of suffering) this theoretical possibility is made concrete. The unjust, bloody death of God for the sake of his creation seems a good reason to trust this God’s intentions toward the world, come what may.
Finally, let me reiterate that I am not trying to demonstrate the truthfulness of Christianity. I am just asking sceptics to ponder why their arguments don’t seem as powerful to Christians as they do to atheists. Christian convictions about the nature and history of God logically exclude the conclusion that Stephen Fry reaches and logically call for trust in God’s good intentions.
I can certainly see why atheists would conclude as they do. Their assumption – that God has not proven his loving intentions in Christ – gives them little intellectual space to ponder anything other than “God is evil” or “God doesn’t exist.” In that sense, I have attempted the atheist form of the thought experiment. I am just hoping atheists will return the favour and acknowledge that, on Christian assumptions, suffering remains emotionally unsettling but not intellectually crippling.
John Dickson is an author and historian specialising in early Jewish and Christian history. He is a director of the Centre for Public Christianity and Honorary Fellow of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University.