How could God allow suffering? Answering Stephen Fry

How dare God cause bone cancer in children, or create insects whose whole purpose is to cause disease and pain? Even if he exists, how can we respect him? These were Stephen Fry’s thoughts on The Meaning of Life show that sparked a reaction on social media in February.
On first hearing Fry’s words, they sound convincing, perhaps. But there are a few things wrong with Fry’s objections.

Firstly, according to the Bible, God didn’t make the world like this. He made a perfect world, without pain, suffering, or even death. (Genesis, in the Bible, describes it as ‘very good’, in what comes across as rather understated in the English translation). But the physical world stopped working as it was designed, when we told the one who was holding it all together perfectly, that we didn’t want him anymore.

Remember, the God the Bible describes is not just the cause for the first particle or reaction in the universe, but the force that sustains every living and physical part of our universe day by day – the code that tells the dice to land as it does in every instance in the natural world as it were. You could say that God is what we call ‘chance’. He is the law that sets the laws of physics and keeps them in place. God ‘sustains all things by his powerful word’ (Hebrews 1:3, The Bible).

But the Bible says that we have rejected God’s rules and his rule over the world. So God has given us what we have asked for, as it were, and stopped ruling over everything to make it work as it should.

Since when …?

You may not feel you have openly opposed God, or asked him to abandon us. You may even believe in him. However, the Bible says (surprisingly, perhaps, for many) that atheists and believers are all in the same boat. Regardless of what we say, our lives live out a rejection of God and all he stands for. We don’t love our neighbour as ourselves; we entertain judgemental or negative thoughts towards others; we’re proud; we don’t bother to find out about God or what he says; we’re dishonest and hide things from others; we are, at the end of the day, living for ourselves as number one. All this destroys trust and the perfect community we should have. With each wrong thought or action, we are saying that we want to be our own god and rejecting God’s place as the benevolent ruler in our lives and world, whose instructions need to be followed.

We haven’t done anything that bad

Does this justify the amount of suffering we experience? Is God’s reaction maliciously off the scale? These faults seem relatively minor, but there is something a lot more ugly and serious than we tend to realise about the choice we’ve made.

It is essentially the choice to make ourselves the ultimate deciding factor in our lives, and this is the root cause of every kind of evil and hurt we see. Love admires the other person and puts them first. But self-centred thinking is what causes unequal distribution of wealth, abuse, war and all kinds of hurt. If we lived for something greater than ourselves, something truly good (as God is, if we ignore various misrepresentations of him), then we would have a reason to put others first, and the world’s problems would be solved. But without something greater than ourselves, life is survival of the fittest – there is no reason to live any other way. And this self-centred approach destroys us. It starts us down a path that has led to a horrific scale of human evil.

Doesn’t it seem strange, if we believe that people are basically good at heart, that genocide and human torture have happened in every age and amongst all ethnicities (Ruanda, Cambodia, Germany and Eastern Europe, to mention only a few places etc.)? You would expect these to be a freak one-off occurrence in the history of mankind, not a repeated norm. And in these cases, so-called ordinary people and neighbours became party to mass scale murder. But even in so-called ‘civilised’ societies we lock our doors. We all have scars from how others have treated us, affecting our thinking and behaviour, and our situations – for some very painfully. Should God continue to reward us as if nothing were wrong?

The Bible puts it ‘Your wrongs have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you … So justice is far from us … We look for light, but all is darkness.’ (Isaiah 59:2,9)

The desire to want to be without God, the source of all goodness, is something very ugly – the cause of serious evil in the world. When we consider who we are rejecting (the force holding the physical world together), and the potential for evil that making ourselves our own gods creates (a million competing selfish centres of the universe), then can we say that the brokenness of the natural world we experience is so off the scale as a consequence?

Added to this, a surprising amount of what we see as arbitrary suffering in the natural world is really caused by human actions – the suffering caused by famine is often due to war and unequal distribution of wealth or stealing and squandering of aid, for example. Perhaps we underestimate how much of our own suffering, particularly in the area of relationships, friendships, family life, financial position, even health sometimes, is a result of our own behaviour and choices. Of course, this is not to belittle the pain many experience due to no fault of their own, but often as a race we have contributed to others’ suffering, or our own, in more ways than we realise.

Real choices allow for the existence of suffering

But that’s not all. There is another important factor Fry ignores. The Bible says that God has not made humans like robots where he intervenes to stop us every time we try to do something wrong. We can choose to do what he wants, or to rebel against him, the very one in ultimate control – what an extraordinary freedom! This is not the restrictive view of God many hold.

This freedom gives us real meaning, it makes us beings who can love and do good – because love and goodness are only real when done out of choice, unforced. The Bible uses Adam and Eve’s story to explain this. God made a rule – suddenly Adam and Eve had this choice. It was a choice to live with him as God in their lives and world, or to be free of him, separated from him, as they find at the end of the story.

So why couldn’t we disobey God and be allowed to enjoy it? Because this is a contradiction in terms. If God is good, then choosing to be free of him means choosing things that are wrong and bad. These have to have bad consequences, or bad would not be bad anymore – there would be no real choice. God would be enforcing his good results on us again, and making us and our experience of the world conform to his intentions again. It is because of this freedom to choose to escape God’s intentions and rule, that bad things came into existence.

The problem Adam and Eve had was the same as ours. They didn’t believe God wanted their best interests. Maybe that is why we are so outraged when we think we will be better off without God and then don’t find anything good as a result. God is what we are really searching for all along. Other gods prove to be deceptive in the end, as they did for Adam and Eve. Sometimes our problem is that someone has painted a picture of God that is not accurate, (perhaps even the church!) just as the snake did for Adam and Eve.

At times we simply would prefer not to be good. There is something in us that sometimes wants to be angry and selfish rather than understanding and generous. We actually dislike God and dislike goodness, our desires are genuinely ugly sometimes.

God has done and will do something about it

But the great irony is this. We blame God for our suffering, yet God (incredibly) has and will do something about it. He doesn’t want to punish us – the opposite, he has more compassion even than we do for others. He is willing to sacrifice his own comfort and security to help us, who are not his friends (unlike we do in most instances). He entered our broken world and experienced suffering himself – a rough infancy, social rejection, betrayal, and some of the worst physical agony, tortured to death in cruel execution. God experienced separation from the perfection of heaven where he belongs: abandonment by God, which is the fate that we face. This was the purpose of Jesus’ life and death. (‘O God, why have you forsaken me’ Jesus cries out on the cross, Mark 15, Matthew 27)

But why? Jesus suffered hell in our place, to allow us into heaven: not dull harps in the sky, but the time and place when he will fix this broken world. He paid our moral debt. The Bible says: ‘You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. 22 Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ.’ (Colossians 1:21)

We may not think we deserve hell but this is the natural consequence we face without God. Fry said he was attacking a God who claims to be perfectly good, as the Bible describes him. Rebelling against the source and creator of everything good should mean that we are left in a world with no goodness, only pain and suffering – hell. Yet God hasn’t removed all good from our experience. Our half-broken world is just a taster before giving us the full extent of what we choose (heaven or hell) when we chose to accept or reject him as God. This also helps make sense of why God allows suffering in the natural world, as a warning loud enough to get through to us, of a worse world we are heading towards.

The Bible says that God will one day do what we feel so strongly, like Fry, that he should, if he is really there. He will end this brokenness, and create a new world of good – turn earth into heaven. Maybe we find it hard to believe – but as Fry shows us, it’s not logical to believe a good God would do anything else. But God won’t force us to enter the world he rules (heaven). If we continue to reject him, we choose hell.

There is one more assumption that skews Fry’s argument. If Fry does not believe in life after death, then terminal illness is utterly devastating. But God, if he really is the creator of life, has the ability to bring back to life. Death is the end of pain, but not the end of that person and the chance to be with them again. That changes everything.

Is there any real evidence for all this?

If you are asking for proof that God exists and will do all the Bible says, you are asking for a sign that God can eradicate suffering and death. The Bible claims God has given these signs in Jesus’ life and death – he healed people, controlled nature and rose from the dead. We dismiss such miracles as things that just don’t happen. But that is the point. If they were anything less than miraculous you would say that they were not be good enough evidence of God’s existence. They could be explained away, as having happened naturally. So we cannot dismiss them with a foregone conclusion that such things just don’t happen, or we are allowing no possibility of ever accepting any proof God could ever give. This is closed minded in the extreme.

That doesn’t mean we have to believe every claim to the supernatural. But we should at least investigate something with as great an impact in history as Jesus’ life and death. There are eyewitness accounts easily available to read in the Bible. If he’s a fake, it should be easy to explain him away, though many have found this hard. I don’t believe Fry has any real hope or answers to face suffering with. But there is hope if all the Bible says is true, and too much at stake not to find out.