First published 15 April 2015
This post is now incorporated with 22 other similar ‘reflections’ in my book, Facing Cancer with Faith.
When I first heard about Stephen Fry’s now infamous outburst against God in a recent interview on Irish TV, I admit that I dismissed it as the ranting of a celebrity amateur atheist.
However, I’ve started to take it a little more seriously after something I saw on facebook. What I saw was Stephen Fry’s ranting replayed in someone’s own words in commenting on a Christian tweet. “Reasons we should be angry with God,” said the person, “He allows all the suffering in the world. Cancer, rape, war, murder…”. Fry’s comments, I assume therefore, have struck a chord with a number of non-Christians, who would call themselves either atheists or agnostics. And therefore Christian responses also need to be heard and spread.
However, what follows here is not attempting to be a full response. In fact it’s not even how I would usually approach this issue.
What is on my mind on this occasion is simply that lots of Christians suffer and still love God.
In fact I have suffered myself and I am not angry with God. I have had cancer twice in the last 5 years and I am not angry with God.
I have been made redundant at least 3 times, and had one 8-month period where I was unable to find a job and almost came to financial ruin, and I still believe in God. In fact I love God.
Perhaps someone will say to me, as Satan suggested to God about Job (Job 2:4,5), that I haven’t suffered enough to really test my faith. Perhaps that’s true. And perhaps there are harder challenges to face in the future. But for now, no one can accuse me of speaking with no experience at all of suffering. At the very least people should concede that when I speak of my faith in relation to suffering I am not speaking abstractly.
I guess this is on my mind because people like Stephen Fry (when they say “God is mean”, “God is horrid”, “How dare you God?”, etc, etc) speak as if it’s obvious that if there is a god we should hate him for all the bad things that happen in the universe. And they don’t bother to ask what Christians actually believe about God and about the suffering in the world before making vitriolic statements. The implication is that if you’re suffering and remaining a Christian then you must be stupid, because suffering should lead you to hate God. But I want to point out, 1) there are, and have been, millions of Christians that have suffered and have not lost faith; and 2) the Christian worldview in fact does have a perfectly cogent positive explanation for the existence of suffering in the world.
Suffering is bad
Perhaps I should also make clear at the outset that I hate suffering. I hate cancer. I hate war. I hate murder and oppression. I hate earthquakes and the death of children in floods and hurricanes and plane crashes. Suffering is bad. Pain is bad. Death is bad. Illness is bad. There is no sugar-coating the awfulness of suffering, whether it’s the middle-aged lymphoma sufferer being laid aside for a few months suffering sickness, exhaustion and financial difficulty, or whether it’s the thousands of infants both killed and orphaned in the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.
And I could write another whole article explaining how those statements make sense within a Christian worldview but don’t make sense in an atheist worldview. If we are just randomly formed collections of atoms, developed as a species after billions of years of random mutations, how does it make sense to say that cancer cells are abnormal? How does it make sense to say that pain is bad? How can we make value judgments about random purposeless happenings, painful or not?
But that’s not what I want to draw out here.
The question I want to explore is: Why do we Christians love God in the face of such awful pain and suffering?
God is all-powerful and perfect by definition
First let me say that God is most certainly all-powerful and perfect. I say that because it’s common for atheists to argue that the all-powerful and perfect God of Christianity cannot exist because of human suffering. They say that a good and loving God would want to alleviate suffering, and an all-powerful God would be able to alleviate suffering. So they say that the fact that human suffering exists shows that such a God doesn’t exist. If a god does exist, suffering exists because he is either powerless to prevent suffering (and therefore he is not all-powerful) or he doesn’t want to prevent suffering (and therefore he is not perfect). The force of the Fry-type argument is the latter. But the outcome is similar.
And atheists and agnostics come to the same practical conclusions. An atheist may say that God doesn’t exist because if there was an all-powerful good God then there wouldn’t be suffering. An agnostic may say that there may be a good God, but if there is He’s irrelevant because He can’t do anything to make a difference in the world (this is the kind of God mocked in The Simpsons). On the other hand the Fry-esque agnostic may say that there may be an all-powerful God who created the world, but if there is He’s not worth bothering with because He doesn’t do anything to prevent human suffering. For both atheists and agnostics there is no God they want to believe in, and certainly no God they want to love.
But as a Christian I see things differently.
God created the universe. And if He is powerful enough to create the entire universe in all its mind-blowing scale as well as its infinitesimal detail, then He is certainly powerful enough to do something about human suffering. He could have made fire that doesn’t burn flesh. He could have stopped the earth’s crust from fracturing and causing earthquakes and tsunamis. He made our emotions, so He could change our emotional responses. He made our bodies, so He could make them impervious to pain. He created desire, so He could have created only pure unselfish desire.
God is all-powerful by definition, because He created all by His power, and he created all power (heat, light, gravity, magnetism, etc) by His power.
And God did not have to create the universe. He was happy and complete without it. It was His decision to create it. And having decided to create the universe He wasn’t bound to necessarily create it in a particular way. There is no physical or logical law in the universe that meant God had to (i.e. was bound to) allow suffering.
So if I believe God has power to prevent suffering, and if I hate suffering, why do I still love God who still allows me to suffer, and others to suffer more? Doesn’t that make Him mean and uncaring? Doesn’t that also make Him hypocritical on one level, because He commands His followers to love and care for others, even their enemies, and yet He apparently doesn’t do everything in His power to do the same?
Before we get to answer that, though, there’s something else we have to be clear about. God is not just sitting back, folding His arms and not doing anything about suffering. He is not an idle bystander who could intervene but chooses not to. In the Bible God tells us that suffering is something that He initiated in response to human disobedience. God created a perfect world with no suffering, but God brought suffering into the world.
The first time suffering is spoken about in the Bible is in Genesis 3, where God responds to the first sin: “I will surely multiply your pain…” (v16); “cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it…” (v17)
Stephen Fry and today’s angry atheists/agnostics make out that God allows suffering because He isn’t perfect. How can He be perfect? How can He be called Good if He causes and allows all this suffering? But the opposite is true.
God initiated human suffering and universal decay because He is perfect.
Being the Creator of everything makes God the definer of everything. Human beings, we’re told are created in God’s own image (Genesis 1:27). That means we are made to function in the same way, with creativity, with relational capacity, with moral sense, acting, thinking, speaking, and so on. And by definition the original is always the perfect version, against which the ‘copies’ are compared. So when we look around the different moral standards operated throughout humanity, if we want to know what is perfect we must look at the original. God is by definition perfect, because we were made to be like Him. He is the original, who we were intended to be ‘copies’ of.
Sin has marred us as His special creation, because we have distanced ourselves from His character. We are no longer the perfect ‘copies’ that we were before The Fall. And just as sin marred us, God has ensured that human beings cannot live without the frustration and pain of an unmarred universe. Why should beings that have shrugged off the image of the perfect live in a world fit for the perfect?
So God’s omnipotence (all-powerfulness) and His perfection are foundational. If God is the Creator of everything He is all-powerful. If God created human beings in His image then He is perfect. And suffering, pain and death, are the consequences of sin ordained by the all-powerful, perfect God.
The unfairness of suffering points to the solution
Now at this point I’ll acknowledge that part of the struggle we have with thinking about suffering is not with suffering per-se. If Osama Bin Laden suffered, who cares? If Adolf Hitler suffering, who cares? If a mass murderer or terrorist suffers, who cares? Right? The suffering we struggle with is the suffering of those who don’t seem to deserve it: The child who has leukaemia, the poor who starve in the Third World, the families devastated by earthquakes and tsunamis. Even if we admit that nobody is perfect, the pain that some people go through seems out of proportion with their sin.
Why do I love a God who seems so unfair?
Jesus’ disciple, John, said, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)
God loved us? With all the pain and suffering and misery and death in the world? God loved us?
Yes. Because if we struggle with the unfairness there seems to be in suffering, we need to ask ourselves what was the most ‘unfair’ suffering in the history of the world? The widest disparity possible between the extent of suffering and the amount it was deserved would be between infinite pain and sinless perfection. Jesus was sinless perfection, and yet on the cross suffered infinite pain in His death and in separation from His Father.
The worst suffering in the universe was inflicted on the One who least deserved it. And who is Jesus? He is God’s one and only Son. He is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), “all the fullness of God” is in Him (v19).
And what did He die for? As John said, He was sent “as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” He took the ultimate punishment that we deserved so that our sins could be atoned for, removed, dealt with, so that we wouldn’t have to face that punishment.
Paul characterized Christ’s sacrifice in this way: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:6-10)
Elsewhere we read, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16-17)
So those who accuse God of not doing anything about human suffering are ignoring the most significant event in human history. In dying on the cross, and rising from the dead, Jesus, God’s Son, was not just dealing with suffering. He was dealing with the root cause of suffering – sin. He was dealing with the sickness and not just the symptoms. And that leads us to three points:
- The physical suffering, pain, betrayal and rejection Jesus suffered, and the wrath he suffered at the hand of his Father on the cross, shows that we under-estimate the seriousness of our sinfulness. We don’t appreciate how much God’s image has been radically ruined in our selfishness, our desire for self-rule, our hatred of His rule. Because Jesus died for our sins we see in the horror of his death the horror of our sins. Not only is it what we deserve for our sins and our sinfulness, but you can get a measure for the seriousness of the disease from the seriousness of the treatment. Just as cancer requires drastic treatment like chemotherapy, surgical organ removal, stem cell transplants or radiotherapy, sin requires drastic treatment in the death of God’s only Son. That shows you how seriously God takes sin.
- Jesus’ death takes away our sin, and through his resurrection God’s purpose was to give us the hope of eternal life. “The wages of sin is death,” Paul says in Romans 6:23, “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” So our concern for the suffering and pain of this life (as well as the meagre pleasures) must always be set against the infinitely greater pleasures of the eternal life that is promised in Christ.
- More than that – for those who have repented of our sinful, self-centred ways, and have faith in God through Jesus Christ, it is those very pains and sufferings that prepare us for the glory of eternal life by exposing to us the transience of this life. “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)
It’s these perspectives that characterise the Christian gospel and worldview. It’s why the Christian worldview is good news, not just an alternative philosophical system. It teaches us, as it taught Job in the Bible story, to be humble as we both recognise our sin and recognise the eternal nature of God’s good purposes for His people.
That’s why Corrie Ten Boom could remain joyful and faithful when living in the squalor of the Nazi death camp.
It’s why Joni Eareckson-Tada has remained joyful and faithful after being totally paralysed below the neck in a diving accident 50 years ago.
It’s why the apostle Paul stuck to his mission to preach the gospel in spite of beatings, imprisonment, shipwreck, illness and persecution.
And that attitude is displayed by Christians the world over. Not perfectly, not consistently, but visibly and tangibly. Suffering may knock back the true believer. It should still shock us and move us. But rather than despising God for allowing it, we recognise God’s justice in it, and look to God our Father for our relief both now and for eternity.
Atheists and agnostics who tell us all the reasons why God is worthy of our hatred and anger imply in doing so that Christians are either sadly deluded or dangerously stupid. But I hope at least two things emerge from what I’ve outlined above:
- Christians have a faith that is rational. Suffering is not a philosophical problem that undermines our belief in the existence of God. On the contrary: The big picture solution to suffering is what the Christian message is essentially all about.
- The joyful, faithful, Christ-praising, lives of suffering Christians around the world, will I hope at least give pause for some thought among those tempted to jump on the Stephen Fry bandwagon. If Christians can be joyful in the face of the inescapable awfulness of suffering – some much much greater than my own – if their faith does not fail, shouldn’t that at least cause some tempering of the rhetoric?
Ultimately my hope is that somebody somewhere would read this and rethink their attitude to God, because of what Jesus Christ did on the cross, turn to him in repentance and faith, and enter into eternal life.