A British comedian and actor named Stephen Fry, who has been an outspoken atheist for many years, gave an interview on Irish TV recently in which he said, in so many words, that if God existed, he couldn’t be considered good or worthy of our love or worship because of the existence of evil and suffering.
As I’ve said before on this blog, this is the strongest reason not to believe in God: objecting to God on moral grounds.
My favorite contemporary theologian (who is also a pastor), Andrew Wilson, reflects on Fry’s words in this blog post, citing various defenses that have emerged in the blogosphere. In Wilson’s opinion, many of these responses fall short because, while they go out of their way to argue that God doesn’t necessarily cause suffering, they fail to grapple with a larger one: Why does God allow it in the first place? Wilson then points us to a 30-minute talk he gave on the subject entitled, “How could a loving God possibly allow so much suffering?”
Wilson’s main answer is, “We don’t know.” Yes, Wilson agrees, there are good reasons that explain some suffering: our ability to make free choices; the constancy of physical laws that enable us to live in a predictable world; the influence of Satanic forces; the development of character; punishment for sin. But he agrees with skeptics that these reasons alone can’t explain all suffering.
He then turns his attention to an argument that Fry and others like him would undoubtedly endorse (I’m paraphrasing):
1) If God exists (and he’s all-good and all-loving, as Christians say), he would not allow evil and suffering in the world.
2) Evil and suffering exist.
3) Therefore, God doesn’t exist (at least not one that we’d want to worship)
1) If God exists, he must have good reasons for permitting evil and suffering.
2) God doesn’t have good reasons for permitting evil and suffering.
3) Nevertheless, evil and suffering exist.
4) Therefore, God doesn’t exist.
As Wilson points out, even contemporary philosophers see the impossibility of justifying the first premise of Argument 1 or the second premise of Argument 2. The reason is that we human beings are limited in knowledge. We simply aren’t in a position to know whether an all-good and all-loving God would have good reasons for permitting evil and suffering. (In the wake of the Enlightenment, we were far more confident in what we could know than we are today.)
We can’t know what God knows. In our finiteness, we can’t begin to foresee what alternative world would exist if this instance of suffering or that instance of evil weren’t allowed to happen. As Wilson points out, this is the main theme of the Bible’s one book devoted to the question, the Book of Job.
This all makes logical sense, of course. But we humans aren’t Vulcans (as yours truly is constantly reminded on this blog or in real life when I try to defend our denomination’s traditional stance on human sexuality). The biggest moral objection to God’s existence is emotional, not logical. But even on this point, Wilson makes a far stronger case for Christianity than any secular alternative.
In the secular story, you lose a child, and in the secular view of the world, without God, there is no basis for declaring anything to be objectively evil. You can say you don’t like it—you can say it’s not very nice if it happens to you—but you cannot say it’s evil. It just simply is. That’s true of everything. There’s no objective basis for saying there’s anything evil—or good—in the world. Creatures are born. Creatures die. The strong eat the weak. There’s no reason to say any of that is wrong, with no shoulder to cry on, and no hope that it will ever get better or be undone, and evil wins. That’s the reality. In the end of it all, you just go back in the earth, and all the evil things that happen remain totally unjustified.
That’s simply not how the world works. There’s no emotional solution at all. There’s nothing satisfying—there’s nothing emotionally or existentially satisfying to cling on to in that story. You have got nothing.
The way the Christian story works, there is a very clear basis for saying that things are good and evil. God is good, is love. Creation is good. Suffering is awful. God enters into our pain as a man in the person of Jesus. He takes human evil upon himself. Human evil is renounced. Human evil is then forgiven. Death and all of the stuff that goes with it is defeated and undone. Death is swallowed up in victory. The world is made new and love wins.
The contrast of the stories when framed that way, you say, “One of those stories has immense emotional power to sustain and undergird someone who’s going through suffering and the other one simply doesn’t.” And as such I think it’s very important to see that the Christian gospel does give us the emotional resources we need to cope with the bleak suffering that takes place, because it pivots on a God who lives and dies as one of us to rescue us.
He concludes by reminding his audience that while he doesn’t know the answer as to why people suffer, he does know what the answer isn’t: It isn’t that God doesn’t love us. Not if the gospel is true.
It’s not that God is distant and says, ‘Well, that’s your problem.” He has made himself as involved in the problem of human suffering as he ever could be. Christians don’t try to get God off the hook for suffering because in the cross, God puts himself on the hook of human suffering. He said, “This is how much I want to show you that I care, and I’m with you in your pain.” He became like us to live through exactly what we go through, and then rose again to defeat its power and inaugurate a new kind of Creation that one day everything gets filled with glory, and there’s nothing of the evil and sin left…
I don’t know why this is happening, but I know it isn’t happening because God doesn’t love me… God will fix evil and somehow turn it into something good.