Stephen Fry, God and Suffering

This is the text of a sermon I preached last Sunday in response to the interview held with Stephen Fry the previous weekend.  I add my voice to the many who have already shared their reflections. Last weekend Stephen Fry the comedian and broadcaster was asked in an interview what he’d say to God where he to meet him at the pearly gates. The 57-year-old replied: “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. … The god that created this universe, if it was created by god, is quite clearly a maniac… utter maniac, totally selfish.”

This interview has gone viral – it’s been watched 3 million times since the weekend. In this interview he expresses one of the main objections that people have to belief in God – there is simply too much suffering in this world to believe that it was created by a benevolent, all-powerful God. Such a God who stands distant from the world he created, watches on while we all suffer and expects our devotion or threatens us with hell if we don’t comply is one that he rejects out of hand, as stupid, mean-minded, and maniacal.

Stephen Fry echoes the question of many who are atheists, ‘Why respect a God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?’

He asks a good question, doesn’t he? It’s an issue that I’m sure all of us have wrestled with in some way or another. That there is so much injustice and pain in this world is abundantly clear. The suffering of innocents through bone cancer, ebola and other terrible diseases, starvation, child abuse – is unfair and horrific. How can we possibly defend a God who stands idly by while we suffer? You know what? We shouldn’t. Such a God is not worth our worship. And that’s not the God we Christians worship.

Stephen Fry protests at unjust suffering, but the Bible is also soaked with protestations … The whole book of Job is devoted to wrestling with this very issue, as a godly man undergoes extreme trauma, including the death of his entire family, and chronic sickness. David, the Psalmist laments, ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? Oh my God, I cry out by day but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.”

Perhaps you can relate to the pain that’s expressed here. Perhaps you can relate to the experience of suffering that seems so unfair. And the only reasonable answer is why? How can you reconcile belief in a supposedly good all-powerful God when so much of life is horrific for so many people? If Christians don’t believe in the kind of God that Stephen Fry describes, what kind of God do we believe in?

Firstly, we believe in the kind of God who looks like Jesus. Our two passages this morning tell us something absolutely vital. If we want to know what God is like, we need to look at Jesus. The Bible seems to be quite clear – that Jesus is God.

Firstly, in John 1, we read,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

And then, writing around 20 years previously, Paul expresses something very similar, - The Son is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Jesus himself said, “I and the Father are one.” The message of the New Testament is clear. If you want to know what God is like, then look at Jesus.

And we know, don’t we, what Jesus is like. Jesus, is as Time magazine put it, "the most persistent symbol of purity, selflessness and love in the history of Western man."

“Jesus Christ is to me the outstanding personality of all time, all history, both as Son of God and as Son of Man. Everything he ever said or did has value for us today and that is something you can say of no other man, dead or alive. There is no easy middle ground to stroll upon. You either accept Jesus or reject Him.” – Sholem Ash

So, if Jesus is who he, and the New Testament writers claimed to be, and he then God has to be like him. This, not the selfish maniac, is the God we worship – a God of unparalleled compassion and love. Jesus is the mirror image of God.

So, what about suffering? How is it possible for suffering to exist in a world created by someone so completely pure, selfless and loving?

I guess we need to go back to the very beginning, at Genesis 1. When God created the world, it was good. In fact, when everything was created, he declared it was very good. He created humanity as the pinnacle of his creation, and we were made primarily for relationship with him – we read in the early chapters of Genesis that he walked with Adam in the Garden of Eden, and that our chief role was to be stewards of God’s creation. It was our job to care for the world. So what went wrong? There was a moment of cataclysm when, given a choice between obedience and giving in to selfish desire, Adam and Eve chose to do their own thing, rejecting God’s authority over them. That moment a chasm appeared – firstly between God and humanity. The relationship between God and humanity was destroyed. As Paul recounts in Romans 1

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, … 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

 

Though we don’t have time to look in depth at the following verses, what follows is a litany of shame that reveals a chasm opening up in humanity, as relationships are distorted and destroyed through human selfishness and greed. This passage climaxes with these words …

 

29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.

 

Here is the first answer to the suffering we see in the world. Most of the time, it’s due to sin. Much of the suffering we see is man-made. We often point to the acts of ISIL and rightly shake our heads, but in truth, we’re each culpable. We each make our own choices. In our hearts, we are king, our instinct is to look after number one, and if anyone else gets in the way of our self-interest, then they better face the consequences.

But what about the other suffering, the so-called “natural” suffering that we see? How is that possible in this supposedly completely good world? Firstly, it’s worth bearing in mind that the only way that the world can sustain life is through tectonic plate movements. Without it, the earth couldn’t sustain life. Natural events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc are part of the package. The thing is, we know now where these plates are, and we know the risks, and yet we still build cities on them. Los Angeles and San Francisco are major cities built in a dangerous place. Admittedly, they have access to technology that prevents major loss of life, but some people aren’t so fortunate. Some of the natural disasters have been significantly worsened due to human selfishness … for example, why did so many in Haiti live in badly built houses? What about those who live in floodplains, because the ground is more fertile?

There is even a good possibility that cancer is a manmade disease – a study published in 2010 seemed to suggest that the root causes of cancer are pollutants and diet.

So some of the natural suffering can be explained and understood to co-exist with the world ruled by a good and loving God. But there is still so much suffering that seems unfair. How is this possible, and what does God do about it?

When Adam and Eve chose sin rather than obedience, it didn’t impact only on humanity, but on the whole of creation. In Romans 8, St Paul writes about the world being “in bondage to decay” and describes it as “groaning”. The fall of humanity was cataclysmic for the whole of creation – it affected everything. This was not the creator’s original intention for the world he made.

As Martin Saunders surmises,

“[Stephen Fry] assumes that God deliberately created a universe with appalling undeserved suffering. But a central doctrine of the Christian faith is that God created a good and perfect world and after the fall of humanity nothing is fully as it should be. To blame God for natural disasters and childhood cancer is like blaming the landlord after tenants have trashed their house.”

So, the Fall affected everything. Our sin affects everything. What did God do? Stand idly by from the sidelines and tut at our errors? No, far from it. God got involved. As we read in John 1:14, The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” God took on human form and became one of us. Why? To begin to close up the chasm that we opened. As Paul explains in Colossians 1:19 and 20, God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Jesus, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

 

And now we come to the heart of our faith. God could have, quite rightly come in great judgment and condemned us for the terrible mess we’ve made with this beautiful world. He could have left us this way. Instead, he got involved, to close the chasm that has opened up. He was born to die, and to bring back peace in creation.

Pete Greig wrote the following in response to Stephen Fry,

“The crux of the Christian faith is the cross: a moment of unimaginable and undeserved suffering. Those gospel writers didn’t believe in the God Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in either. They believed in a God of such humility and love that he held himself culpable for the terrors of this world on the cross, and paid the ultimate price to rescue us from it. … This is the tragedy at the heart of Christian faith: the belief that God suffered with us, like us and for us. That God is not distant, malignant or dispassionate. The cross, if it means anything at all, means that he identifies with us in our suffering, and that he is not yet fully in control. Evil things, like rape and slavery, happen which God does not want or intend. … And then the resurrection of Jesus means that evil will not prevail forever. … Sickness and death will be no more. As the last book of the bible says, there will be no more crying and no more dying. Our indignant cries ‘How dare you? How dare you?’ will be silenced in the end by the cross.”

Stephen Fry is right, there is so much darkness in the world. But there is so much to celebrate. So much to rightly give God thanks and praise. He is the source of all goodness, light and life. When we glimpse these things, we see a glimpse of his glory. Let’s not get too caught up in the darkness that we fail to see the light. Let’s not also forget that God put us here for a purpose. We are still called to love and care for this world that he loves and for which he died. When we see suffering around us, whatever the cause, he commissions us to walk in Jesus’ footsteps and look this suffering and death in the face, and meet it with our love and light. It’s no coincidence that two of the high-pofile Ebola nurses are Christians. In Jesus is light and life, and that same light and life lives in us. He calls us to light up the darkness.

Ultimately there are things about this world that we will never know or fully understand, mainly because God is God and we aren’t. One day all of our answers will be answered. In the meantime, we are in the midst of the battle between good and evil. We know that there is this battle going on, because we’re part of it. It happens within each of us. As St Paul writes, elsewhere in Romans, “So I find this law at work: although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me” (vv.21-23). In other words, we want to do good, but something stop us and we find ourselves doing stuff we later regret.

This is the bad news. Suffering exists because of the sin that you and I have perpetrated. The Fall of humanity affected the whole of creation, and the battle between good and evil rages on. But the good news of the Gospel is the God we worship is the God who saw our darkness and sent his son to become flesh and to move into the neighbourhood, to bring his light and love into this world.

“Jesus lived a life of love and grace and died on the cross to bring forgiveness and reconciliation. He promises a future where evil is finally overthrown. The job of Christians in the meantime in our broken world is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, showing the same love and grace to everyone.”

(Martin Saunders)