Sunday, February 1, 2015

Stephen Fry, Job, And The Problem of Evil

So the internet is all aflutter with this exchange between Stephen Fry and an interviewer

You can read about/see it here:

There is a lot to say about all this and I'm going to be writing sort of stream of consciousness, so bear with me.

First of all, there is all this self-satisfaction by the atheists commenting on this exchange, about how Fry 'stunned' the interviewer. As if no one has laid out the problem of evil in as stark terms before. But that is simply ridiculous. Nothing Fry says here is any more devastating or straightforward as anything said in Job. Job lays out the problem of evil in the darkest, starkest and most colorful of ways, and lays blame for it all right at God's feet. Job accuses God of the very things that Fry accuses God of here: being sadistic...being evil...being mad.

If the interviewer is stunned or the onlookers of the internet impressed, neither should be. Nothing here is original, nothing here is even said originally. The interesting bottom line to all this is that no one nor nothing anywhere ever lays out the Problem of Evil as the Bible itself!

The question of whether Fry could get into Heaven after such a tirade is also illuminated by the Book of Job, since God never punishes nor chastises Job for what he says, and what he says is on par with Fry's comments.

In the second article listed, the commentator says that Fry has less of an argument against, say, the Greek gods than against the Christian God. But this is to miss the entire point of Christianity as a separate religion from, say, Judaism. For the Christian God may be morally perfect (indeed this idea, I think, is foundational), but Christ Himself IS God's response to Job's complain. God responds to Job by showing that He IS Job, or rather like Job. The Christian God is all-good but not all-controlling. God is crucified! No statement of any evil in this world can be as terrible as that one. The very fact that God suffers is enough of a statement of the evil of the world.

Christ shows us that the evils of this world are not God's fault. God does not will any of the things Fry (or Job) accuses Him of willing. God is the victim of sin and suffering, not it's author. Creation, to exist at all, must have a level of self-determination, of freedom. This freedom is given as a gift, it is a necessary part of existing at all, yet there comes with it the risk of great suffering. God does not have a choice between a creation with the risk of suffering and a creation without that risk, but between a creation with the risk of suffering AND NO CREATION AT ALL.

THIS is the true message of the Christian God. Stephen Fry's argument against God cannot extend to God AS HE IS REVEALED IN CHRIST JESUS, for such a God creates in and through Love, and therefore vulnerability, and therefore risk. That just IS what God IS. Fry is not "accusing" God of having created the universe of is "accusing" God of CREATING everything that is in the universe NOW. And God is not the sole creator of the things that make up this world. He is the Creator of the world as a whole, but not of everything produced within it.

And that is the entire point of the Christian belief in a devil that works over against God. Indeed, Fry in his own creative speech points to this fact. The truth of the horrors of the world is not just that they deny God's existence, but that they point to a god that is evil. For to experience horror is not to experience merely the indifference of the world, but to experience life as the enemy. Our EXPERIENCE of evil and horror is an EXPERIENCE of a force that stands over and against our life projects, of our very existence.

But the wonders of life, the wonders that Fry mentions so casually, point the opposite direction. The world is full of beauty beyond imagination, and every experience of beauty is an experience of an assurance, an assurance that life is good and that we are ultimately loved. Every creative moment, every laugh, every individual encounter with the purity of absolute love, it all is so wonderful that it leads us to faith in a God that loves us. And every horror, every evil, every moment of suffering raises in us fear that we are pursued by an evil of cosmic proportions.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, void any access to revelation, the most reasonable position, the position that makes the most sense of our science AND our human experience of life is NOT atheism, but dualism. Fry's argument has 0 weight, and actually is self-defeating, in the face of the proposition that there are two gods, one evil and one good, or rather one light and one dark.

BUT I AM NOT A DUALIST. Why? Because of the revelation of humanity, life and especially God we have in Christ Jesus. However great and godlike evil may seem, it's power and its hold is illusory. The true God finds victory in defeat, and so cannot be defeated. In this world good and evil may seem equally ultimate, but evil is bound for nothing, nothing, nothing, bear nothingness, while good is eternal. The evil in the world is only apparent because we have a God that is vulnerable, that is love, and so capable of taking in all that happens in the world and giving it ultimate meaning. Every moment of value, of virtue, of beauty, of righteousness, exists FOREVER in the life of God. Suffering is shared so as not to be meaningless, and ultimately transmuted into joy.

Christ is crucified, and resurrected. By this He shows us that God is both vulnerable but triumphant. And only by living out the same can we fully make sense of this world, and find the joy that is our birthright within it.


  1. Let me take your argument as true. What this leaves me with is a god that will do nothing whatever to stop any suffering in this world. No matter what misfortune of nature occurs or wickedness of humanity is inflicted upon a victim, "God" will not intervene.

    This terrifies me in ways I find hard to express. It tells me prayer, good works, all of that is useless. Because when the evil comes to you, there will be no reprieve, no aid, no comfort. You will be forsaken. Thanks be to "God", eh?

    I know you mean all of this to be good news, but it is dreadful, terrifying news. You say your "God" is a god that suffers with us. I don't want that! I want a god that removes or better yet, prevents all suffering. That sounds far more like love than the rest of this. Your sort of god is of no use to me. In fact a god like that, is similar to no god at all; indistinguishable in fact.

    This means the only way I have to avoid suffering is to build up societies where evil is rarer and rarer and keep a means of egress handy at all times. In a world like you describe an accessible, quick and painless means of suicide seems the height of prudence. Not a sin but perfectly reasonable thing to do. God won't help, better be ready to help yourself.

    You claim God does this not because he is cruel, but because he is weak. Powerless before the sadist and the cancer. Yet somehow this weak god is able to save us at the very end? How convenient. You may have some personal revelation that makes this make sense. I just can’t see it.

    Thanks for posting this though. It is bringing into clearer focus that I need to decide if I really can believe this stuff anymore.

    1. I suggest the book WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE.

  2. Josh I finished When Bad things Happen to Good People byHarold Kushner today and I think I owe a response to you.

    To put it frankly, I still can’t follow the idea of God that Kushner, and yourself, prefer. This is a deity so weak as to not matter. I don’t want a god that suffers with me, I want one that takes the suffering away. Anything less is just not worth the bother.
    I think this idea of a Suffering God only works if you have some desire to love God or already do. As someone who has never loved God, this is just pointless. And yes, I’ve never loved God. I’ve been abjectly afraid of displeasing God but that is very much not the same thing as loving God.

    Kushner asked three main paragraphs of questions. I thought I’d finish off with answering them.

    "Are you capable of forgiving and accepting in love a world which has disappointed you by not being perfect, a world in which there is so much unfairness and cruelty, disease and crime, earthquake and accident? Can you forgive its imperfections and love it because it is capable of containing great beauty and goodness, and because it is the only world we have?"

    No. I hate this world. It is a place of pain and suffering and the few good things that do happen cannot outweigh the bad. How many glorious sunrises does it take to offset one child killed in a death camp? What is your fearful calculus on that? How spectacular of a person must you be to offset the suffering of your mother in pregnancy and the horror show that is childbirth?
    No I do not forgive it, certainly not simply because it is all we have. I have no love for this world. It has hurt me, it has hurt countless others far worse than that. It is wicked and dangerous and I would rather have nothing to do with it.

    "Are you capable of forgiving and loving the people around you, even if they have hurt you and let you down by not being perfect? Can you forgive them and love them, because there aren’t any perfect people around, and because the penalty for not being able to love imperfect people is condemning oneself to loneliness?"

    Once I thought I could. I forgave as quickly as I could in the hopes God would forgive me. Again out of that abject fear of God I forgave them. So I guess I don’t know if I can forgive as Kushner suggests. Don’t know if I ever have.

    "Are you capable of forgiving and loving God even when you have found out that He is not perfect, even when He has let you down and disappointed you by permitting bad luck and sickness and cruelty in His world, and permitting some of those things to happen to you? Can you learn to love and forgive Him despite His limitations, as Job does, and as you once learned to forgive and love your parents even though they were not as wise, as strong, or as perfect as you needed them to be?"

    No I can’t. That is why I’m considering if it would be better to just abandon all pretense of belief. A god like what you and Kushner like seems pointless. It could just as easily not exist. The facts on the ground would remain the same. And if this god does exist as you say, well I guess I need to be on guard for oncoming suffering and keep morphine and a bullet handy. Because that is the only real mercy available in this universe. There is none from the god Kushner describes. That deity will only give me the ability to continue to suffer. Why would I bother with that?

    1. What about the chapter where Kushner explains what God CAN do? I disagree with you that the world looks the same with or without God, because even on my view, without God there would BE no world (the entire point of Whitehead's PROCESS PHILOSOPHY, which spawned systems theory in science and process theism in religion, is that an honest metaphysical reflection upon modern physics lends strong credence to the proposition that there is mind guiding, but not controlling, the universe). Kushner makes several points in WHEN BAD THINGS... and WHO NEEDS GOD as to why God matters.


  3. "People who pray for miracles usually don't get miracles. … But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayers answered." [page 125] "The God I believe in doesn't send us the problem; He gives us the strength to cope with the problem." [page 127]

  4. God expands on what God CAN do in his second book WHO NEEDS GOD, which I am not suggesting to you, but putting out there for anyone else reading this.

  5. Let me say I am in no way trying to convince you God exists. I am just trying to clarify what seems to me to be a consistent mischaracterization of my position. I do not think God is IMPOTENT. I think God is powerful, effective, and important. Just not omnipotent in the way that word is classically conceived.

    1. And I'm saying that the power you speak of is of no use.

      I read what he said God could do. I'm saying if that is all there is, what is the point? Why should I even desire to have courage to endure the unendurable? It makes far more sense to numb the pain or end this life. Anything else seems to be pain for no gain. If all are already saved, why delay? If there is no god, then why go through the pain?

      Neither of you consider that somethings should never be endured even if grace if provided to endure. I posit you do so because you inherently see good as greater than evil, that life however horrible, is better than death. I do not start with that assumption. Life is only good, so long as it remains not too bad. There is a point where nothing that follows could ever make up for the evil that is happening now. There are things I will not endure and ask no one to endure. Under the wrong circumstances, I’ll do anything to end it and nothing to continue through it. All because I see no benefit in continuing..

      There is a scene in one of the Dark Tower books that gets at my perspective. A plane crashes and the survivors, burned terribly, were screaming either for morphine or death. Yet the rescuers weren’t doing either. They were getting them out of the wreckage and trying to get them to a hospital to save their lives. To what end? To endure unspeakable horrors and then live as a cripple? Certainly no one was putting them out of their misery. That was out of the question, and yet exactly what those poor bastards were calling for. But those rescuers knew better. Those who felt no pain knew the victims “would thank me later” as it were. Knew they would prefer to live through this unspeakable misery. All in service of the concept that life is good and should go on, regardless the pain. This is what I cannot accept.

      There are things that simply should never be endured. A conception of God only providing a means of continuing what should never happen in the first place, is just nonsensical. There seems no purpose in bothering with such a god.

  6. Ok. I'm going to start from the top and work my way down.
    Fry seems to have more of a problem with the way the church (as a whole, there are exceptions) presents God rather than the way God is presented in the Bible. I have similar problems with the presentation that everything is rosey and fine and just have blind faith. However, that is not how God presents Himself or how Jesus portrays God in his life and death. Jesus knows everything isn't rosey and fine and talks about that extensively in his sermon on the mount in Matthew. He makes His life one about healing and doing what he can to end suffering. Jesus himself suffers so much he sweats blood. That is medically viable and only happens when people are suffering and stressed to a degree most people never reach.

    I think the reason that Fry's response floors so many people is that he takes Job and condenses it into a 2 min youtube video clip. He also puts it in more modern terms and presents the message in a way that is more accessible. The part that is missing is God's response. It's been a while since I have read Job or Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, but from what I remember, God continues to love Job and does what he can to give Job back more than he had originally.

  7. I think the best way of addressing the problem of "God letting suffering happen" is to look at God like a parent. (Disclaimer: I am not a parent, but I am someone's child. I am also 24 and have given a lot of thought as to how I would want to raise a child and what kind of person would I want to marry and possibly raise a child with. I do not have all the answers.) A parent does not want their child to suffer. However, a parent cannot prevent all suffering. When a child learns how to walk, they will inevitably fall and they will get bumps and bruises and scrapes. That doesn't mean you remove all of that suffering and pain by never letting your child learn to walk. My entire job as an emt right now is moving people who cannot walk and that is far worse suffering than a scrape on the knee. When children get older there is more possibility of suffering. Bullies at school, living on your own for the first time, failing a class, bombing a job interview, getting your heart broken, being broke when you start your career, hating your first job. There are so many things I will not be able to protect any children I have from. I don't want my child to ever have their heart broken, but I also don't want them to never love either. There is suffering I cannot take away, but that I can be there for my children and suffer with them. That won't make me a weak parent, that won't make me cruel, it's just the way life happens. Without some "tough love" and discipline and suffering, you get spoiled brats. I've seen it happen and nobody wants that. Why should God as a parent be any different?

    As a child, I am so stubborn. I don't ask for help as much as I should (probably), I want to do everything on my own. When I get my first career job and am paying back student loans and living in a crappy apartment that I can barley make the rent for, it will still be MY crappy apartment. It will suck for a while and there will be some suffering, but I need to do it on my own. In that sense, I limit how much my parents can do. I know I do the same to God.

    I would like to address the specific point of pregnancy and childbirth. Again, I have not had children, but I am female and therefore set up for that. Childbirth terrifies me. The last trimester of pregnancy is hard on everyone: mom, dad, the marriage, and any children that are already there. That doesn't mean the first 2 trimesters are easy, but the last one is particularly difficult. I have seen childbirth live. I held up the mom's leg and was right there when the episiotomy happened. Not pretty stuff. But I also saw the mom when she first met her baby boy. I saw the mom when she fed him for the first time. The miracle of that moment was what made so many people want to be a part of the process before hand (and there were about 15 people in that room). I have taken many biology and anatomy classes, and the more I learn about reproduction, the more amazing it becomes. It has suffering, and some women have it really bad, but the fact that this little person exists is truly a miracle. Kendall puts it better than I can and she has all the experience anyone could ever want.

    There are other points that I cannot practically respond to. I love the world and people. I always have and probably always will, but I can't adequately explain that.

    1. I appreciate your perspective on this. I still don't see it, but I appreciate you sharing it.

      Kathryn I suppose I simply see childbirth and the agony involved as fundamentally a torture inflicted upon women. No universe made by a just god would have it this way. When you mentioned what happened I could hardly read it. A chill of fear and horror went up my spine. I can think of things more horrible, but they do take some thought.

      The problem to me is few human lives are ever worth the price paid to bring them into this world. The trope of the Jewish mother using the guilt over a difficult delivery, has truth behind it. It is something horrible. To me it is only a start to the awfulness life has in store. I guess you and others can see the joy as something that makes it all worthwhile. I simply don't. Never have really. I can't see past the agony to anything else.

    2. As for the God as Parent proposition: a skinned knee is not cancer, or torture at the hands of other humans. So the idea breaks down when it scales up. What lesson could possibly be worth the horrors daily inflicted upon humans in this world. A parent who allowed something like that we'd think was mad, or evil.

      It is easier to believe the universe has no god than to believe a just god would stand idly by.

  8. I have gained a lot from my pain. I have learned more about myself and my strengths and how I can use my experiences and those strengths to help others. I get a lot of joy from helping others as I was once helped and it adds a lot to my life. I still suffer and have pain, but getting through that pain gets me go such a good place that I wouldn't trade it for the world.

    Also, first responders do not carry morphine, but hospitals have lots. As a first responder, it is my job to keep people alive and get them to the best care possible. Don't go bashing rescuers because they are trying to keep people alive to try and get them to a better place. I have seen people heal very well from sever burns. It's quite possible.

  9. Let me apologize for bashing first responders. I wanted to question the logic of always saving a person, regardless of the suffering before them. I'll be more circumspect in the future.

    I'm glad you see your pain as helpful. I do not see mine that way. Never have.