The much loved, affable and erudite Stephen Fry raised eyebrows recently when, in an extended interview on Gay Byrne's “Meaning of Life” program, he left no one in any doubt about the low opinion he holds of the God he doesn't believe in.
Fry was responding to the question of what, if his atheism turned out to be wrong, he would say to God if he ever had to face him.
What followed was a classic, and skilfully articulated remonstration against the injustices and miseries of human life and the God who, if he exists, must be held responsible.
“Bone cancer in children? What's that about?” challenged Fry, with a sudden edge to his voice. “How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault,” he continued. “It's not right. It's utterly, utterly evil,” declared Fry, who went on to describe such a God as capricious, mean minded and stupid; a monstrous maniac.
In his haranguing of the Almighty it is easy to detect an element of personal pain and exasperation. As seems to be the case with so many comics, life has not been an easy ride for Fry. A gay man who for many years felt that side of his life needed to be hidden, he is very open about his mental illness and bouts of serious depression and furthermore is clearly awake to the pain of others.
In making his case Fry no doubt knows his is not a new perspective. Through the ages some have observed the tragedies and horrors of life and lost faith as a result. The German poet Georg Buchner called suffering “the rock of Atheism” and there is no doubt it is the most powerful objection to belief. Indeed, speaking personally, I find the question of suffering the most problematic aspect of being a believer – the thing that, more than anything else, gives me reason to doubt at times. In that sense I share quite a lot of Fry's frustration and bewilderment. There is a moral and emotional force to this argument that is impossible to ignore.
Of course to those who, like Fry have decided that God is a nonsense, the reality is that suffering is simply part of life, and there can be no logical objection to it. In that case, what's wrong with human existence is that we live in a world that is subject to chance and uncontrolled processes, and in the cosmic scheme of things it's astounding that any of us enjoys even the semblance of a good life. There is no one to complain to and there can be no ultimate justice or a final “putting-of-things-right”.
The atheist picture, then, is a pretty bleak one; but at least it offers the satisfaction of a sense of intellectual consistency, and perhaps a cheerful stoicism. What about the believer? Do they just have to shut their eyes to the reality of things? How can there possibly be a god who is both good and all-powerful, and yet the world be the way it is?
Interestingly the Bible is surprisingly realistic about this question. Within the Biblical framework there is enormous space for “lament”: not only the passionate expression of grief or sorrow, but also protest – in the face of suffering. The Bible is full of people who come to him with baffled questions and loudly voiced objections. Lament is not only allowed but modelled all over the place.
This tells us something of the Christian response to suffering. It's hard edged. It sees suffering as an aberration – something to rail against. The laments of the Bible are offered by those who believe they know God, and it's the jarring contrast between that knowledge and the reality that they see around them that causes them to protest. This after all is the God who we are told “has compassion on all he has made”. It's appropriate to ask, then, “how can he not intervene when, for instance, hundreds of thousands of people are killed in an earthquake?” Even for the most faithful believer, there is a mystery here that leaves plenty of unanswered questions.
Ultimately when a Christian stops to consider the struggle of human existence they will want to point to the death and resurrection of Jesus as the centre of a very long, and still unfolding, story of how God launches a plan to redeem the world from its misery – a portrait of a God who has not remained aloof from the suffering but rather has become part of it.
The resurrection of Jesus points to God condemning all the things that have destroyed life, and promising a day when the weight of history and all the centuries of human cruelty, sadness and loss will be overcome. Is it enough? Not everyone will think so.
The biblical picture offers a promise of the possibility of a new beginning when murdered children will be raised up and restored, where families torn apart by violence will find peace and harmony again. It presents a vision of a time where crushing loneliness will be a thing of the past, where bodies broken and ravaged by disease or old age will be restored to strength and vitality, where people who have experienced grinding poverty will find abundance, where children ripped from their mother's arms in a tsunami will be ushered in to new life. In the end Christianity is a story of the denial of the powers of darkness and violence and cruelty and hatred and heartbreak. And in their place the victory of goodness and mercy; kindness and love.
Every aspect of this vision is predicated on Jesus rising from death. If that didn't happen, then it is right and proper to join Stephen Fry and to throw the whole thing out the window. We may even, as Fry claims to have done, conjure up a degree of optimism in the face of the implications of a godless universe. But if we arrive at that point it would be fitting to acknowledge that, while doing nothing to rid ourselves of suffering we will have removed a source of profound hope that for centuries has sustained millions of people in the face of life's joys and sorrows.
Simon Smart is Director of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article originally appeared at The Drum.