When British actor, comedian, gay activist and atheist Stephen Fry was recently asked on the Irish TV network RTE what he would say to God if he arrived at the pearly gates and discovered that it was all true, Fry had this to say:
“Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you. How dare you create a world in 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…”
His whole response (see it here) is an impassioned and quite frankly beautifully articulated challenge to the idea of an all good and all powerful God. It went viral on YouTube and clocked up about 6 million views in three weeks. It created a huge stir in the English media and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams was quizzed about the outburst on the BBC.
This is of course, a problem with a long pedigree. It was formally raised in the Summa by St.Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and famously by C. S. Lewis in his popular book, The Problem of Pain. (See a summary ofThe Problem of Pain here.)
What Stephen Fry doesn’t seem to realize, is that in expressing his outrage as he does, he’s actually undercutting his own position. He’s giving voice to a brilliant proof for the existence of the very God he thinks he’s denying.
If human beings were not sacred subjects, not sparks of the divine, but rather merely matter, we wouldn’t give two hoots what happened to them. There’s no reason to care what happens to particular arrangements of chemicals and atoms. We’d all be at peace and feel quite at home with a “red in tooth and claw” universe. But we’re not.
The fact that we feel this moral outrage, this sense of violation and injustice about the suffering of the innocent is itself an acknowledgement that human beings are precious subjects, persons with inherent dignity that goes far beyond what a merely physical existence can account for.
But the conundrum as articulated by Stephen Fry and so many others — many of them religious believers — nevertheless remains and Christianity does not dodge it.
In fact, this problem is at the very center of our faith. The crucifixion and death of Christ on the cross is surely the most graphic and poignant representation of terrible suffering inflicted on an innocent human being that there could be.
And in that crucifixion is an answer to the conundrum here raised. The sometimes difficult thing for atheists like Stephen Fry to understand is that the answer and the solution to the problem of human suffering is not a proposition, but a person.
But the question remains, “What does God have to say for himself in response to the suffering of mankind and the evil in the world both of which seem on the surface to be either an indictment against him and his purported goodness or a proof that he doesn’t exist at all”? Peter Kreeft provides the helpful beginning of an answer to that question in his article ”What is God’s Answer to Human Suffering?“
J. Fraser Field is Managing Editor of the Catholic Education Resource Center in British Columbia, Canada.