Recently a video clip of Stephen Fry being interviewed by Gay Byrne on Irish National TV[i] has gone viral on the internet. Byrne asked Fry to set aside his disbelief for a moment and tell us what he would say were he to find himself face to face with God. For two and half minutes Fry berated God with a blistering attack, at one point comparing him unfavourably with the pantheon of Greek gods.
I was surprised by the emotional intensity of Fry’s antipathy towards a god that he does not believe in. Why does he get so angry about something that he believes is fantasy?
Leaving that aside, I concluded that the god he describes is not the God that I recognise and believe in. Stephen Fry’s key argument is that he cannot believe in a god who has created a world where there is suffering and pain. He cites things like bone cancer in children, and insects who burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind and then declares that it is not acceptable for god to create a world in which these things exist.
There is no denying that in the world there are innumerable things that cause pain and suffering. The question is where do these come from? The authors of the Bible, most notably in the opening chapters of Genesis, but also in other places such as the Psalms and the book of Job, declare that the world God created was good. Indeed at the end of creation God looked at all he had made as said that it was very good. If the world was so good at the dawn of time, where then did all the evil come from? Again the Bible gives us an answer to that. It is the work of a created, sentient being called Satan who drove a wedge between God and man and brought sickness, death and disease into the world.
The book of Job is particularly interesting because it deals exclusively with real suffering in one individual’s life. Satan is identified as the source of Job’s torment. God is shown as restraining Satan from unleashing the full venom of his destructive nature upon Job. Ultimately Job’s suffering drives him towards God rather than away from him; it intensifies Job’s resolute faith in God.
The god that Stephen Fry rails at is at best only a caricature of the God of the Bible; a caricature I am only too willing to reject. Perhaps like Fry you consider yourself an atheist. If so I would urge you to at least investigate what the Bible claims about God for yourself, rather than dismissing him based on what others say about him.
This blog post featured in the March 2015 edition of Hook Focus
Spoiler alert – this video will affect you emotionally. Make sure you have a box of tissues handy!
Rebecca and Joanna Barnard were born by emergency caesarean section at 28 weeks. Doctors predicted that Joanna would not survive outside the womb due to her underdevelopment. Their parents, Brandon and Jessica, along with their family and friends, prayed that God would miraculously heal their baby daughters. This brief documentary records their journey of faith and their resolute confidence in God.
The problem of suffering is one of the most common objections people will put forward against Christianity, arguing that a loving God would not possibly allow tragedy and disaster. Since the world is full of such events, they reason that there cannot therefore be a God. This is a huge area to explore and difficult to cover adequately in brief. It also makes all the difference in the world whether the tragedy is happening to anonymous people the other side of the globe or to people we know personally. My observation is that often the question is a smoke screen designed to divert attention away from a more fundamental issue that Jesus addresses when he responds to concern about ‘innocent victims’.
It was a commonly held idea in first century Judea that some people deserve bad things to happen to them. Jesus tackled this head on in Luke 13 when he spoke about the Tower of Siloam that fell killing 18 people. Jesus’ comment indicates that tragedy is neither deserved nor undeserved; in fact that is the wrong question. Rather than worrying about the whys and wherefores of tragedy in this life he focuses upon our need to repent in order to avoid a greater tragedy in the next life. Jesus doesn’t get engaged in an argument about whether God exists, or whether he is good. He doesn’t even really discuss whether the people who died were innocent or deserved punishment for their sins. Jesus sees these tragedies as a wakeup call to remind us that we will all one day die and face judgement. Twice in five verses he says: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Hardly a statement epitomising 21st century political correctness!
I am aware that there are more pastorally sensitive responses that we can make; there are also more intellectually satisfying arguments that can be advanced. However Jesus takes us straight to the heart of the matter that, when we hear of tragedies like the capsizing of the Costa Concordia, whatever else we may say the most urgent message that people need to hear is that if they do not repent they will perish eternally. None of us knows the day when we will draw our final breath; the day when it will be too late to make our peace with God. So, when you hear of another tragedy rather than pondering “where was God?” it is better to ask yourself “am I ready?” and if not to repent.
If you read Hook Focus you will notice that I have written a similar article for the February edition. I have expanded those comments a little here as I am aware that they may provoke a reaction and that you might be asked questions about it. So be prepared!
This blog post featured in the February 2012 edition of Lifelines
On an almost daily basis we are confronted with tragedy. Some events, like the capsizing of the Costa Concordia, hit the headlines and become part of a national or even international consciousness. Other events are less newsworthy, though no less distressing for the individuals concerned. In both sets of circumstances, any of us may be called upon to give support and compassion to those affected, and it is often what we do rather than what we say that makes the difference.
Tragedies like this raise many questions, for example why does God allow bad things happen to otherwise innocent victims? There is an unwritten assumption behind this that some people may deserve bad things to happen to them. That was certainly a commonly held idea in first century Judea; an idea that Jesus himself tackled head on in Luke 13 when he spoke about the Tower of Siloam that fell killing 18 people. Jesus’ comment seems to suggest that tragedy is neither deserved nor undeserved; in fact that is the wrong question. Rather than worrying about the whys and wherefores of tragedy in this life he focuses upon our need to repent in order to avoid a greater tragedy in the next life.
How does this answer help us respond to tragedy now? Much will depend on how close we are to those going through the experience. The closer we are, the more love and tenderness will be required from us, in our prayers and through practical support. For all of us who are left behind however a tragedy can be a spur to make sure that our eternal destiny is secure. None of us knows the day when we will draw our final breath; the day when it will be too late to make our peace with God. So, when you hear of another tragedy, rather than pondering “where was God?” it is better to ask yourself “am I ready?”
This blog post featured in the February 2012 edition of Hook Focus