A response to Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry was recently asked in an interview what he would say if he was confronted by God

British actor/comedian and outspoken atheist, Stephen Fry, was recently asked in an interview what he would say if he was confronted by God.

Here’s Fry’s response:

“I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to 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? That’s what I would say.”

I must admit, you can’t help but listen to Fry and hear his angst: “How dare you [God]? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil.” In fact, I would go as far to say that if I were in his shoes, his angst makes perfect sense. Stop and think for a moment. Take a look at the world around us. “Yes,” Fry admits, “the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole lifecycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind. They eat outwards from the eyes. Why? Why did you do that to us? You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist. It is simply not acceptable.”

Last year our family’s pet dog was tragically run over by a car. Now I know a pet dog dying pales in comparison to insects burrowing out the eyes of children. But that event hurt our family deeply. As I was digging the grave I found myself thinking about the grief that life would inevitably bring. This would not be the last time my children or myself would feel this way. There is simply no escaping it. Every year is filled with tragedy but 2014 was certainly up there with the worst of them. In preparation for a recent Christmas sermon I came across a number of quotes to describe 2014 in five words:

  • “Seriously, are we done yet?”
  • “The year global terror won.”
  • “I can’t breathe this injustice.”
  • “The plane is still missing.”
  • “Feeling sick? You have Ebola.”

I cried when cricketer Philip Hughes died. I cried when I heard the news that eight children had been murdered in Cairns. Perhaps I’m soft. But I think my tears are a reflection of my growing awareness that the world is, as Fry points out, “not acceptable.” He is right on that. “It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil.”

But what Fry fails to understand is that God would agree with his assessment of the world. The New Testament acknowledges that this world is filled with “sufferings.” And it’s not just human beings who feel the pain. Creation itself actually “groans” in “frustration” longing to be “liberated from its bondage to decay” (Rom 8:18-22).

But while Fry is correct in his assessment of the world, Fry is most certainly not correct in his assessment of God. Fry labels God “a maniac, utter maniac”. This stands in stark contrast to the opening two chapters of Genesis where God creates a “good” world and only wants what is “good” for his people.

One might respond by saying that Fry would put no stock in the Bible’s claims. But let’s not be too quick. Fry is actually aware of some of the Bible’s claims elsewhere and even acknowledges that the God of the Bible has “terms”. For instance, Fry knows that if God does exist, there is demand that we “spend our life on our knees thanking him”. He knows that the God of the Bible is “all seeing, all wise, all kind, all beneficent”. Of course Fry is vehemently opposed to these, but that’s not the point. The point is that in ranting against God, Fry is at least ranting at what the Bible claims about God. If, then, Fry is so concerned to critique the Bible’s claims about God, I suggest he therefore widen his investigation.

Here are three things for him to consider:

1)   God wants everything good that Fry wants for this world – he is simply not finished yet. God’s original intention for this world has not changed. In short, God’s goal is to save this world. His goal is heaven on earth when “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever” (Rev. 21:4). God is not finished. He will intervene. But if God is to be God he must be perfect in every way, which means that he must be patient (you can’t be God and be impatient). Even though it’s in the Bible, who would disagree with the words “Love is patient” (1 Corinthians 13:4)? If God is a loving God, he must therefore also be patient. And he is. He is not working to our time frame (2 Peter 3:8). He is patiently waiting for people (like Fry) to fall on their knees before him and acknowledge that they are not God.

2)   It is not God who is capricious, mean-minded, and stupid. It is humanity. I realize how harsh that statement sounds. But consider the options. Either God is capricious, mean-minded, and stupid, or we are. I can only speak for myself, but there are times when my life is tainted by any one of these traits. And if I look wider afield I also see them in others. Just look at the news tonight, then have an honest think about your own life. Furthermore, my experience of myself and others is confirmed in the Bible. Despite the fact that God created a good world with every good intention, the Bible presents human beings as the ones who have departed from God’s blueprint. The fourth chapter in the Bible stands in stark contrast to the first two – one brother murders another. Turn over a few pages and we read these words concerning God’s assessment of the human race: “everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil” (Genesis 6:5). The pages of the Bible show that it is not God that is capricious, mean-minded, and stupid, but humanity.

3)   If God is to be God he must be perfect in every way. Fry thinks “The moment you banish [God], life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living.” But many in this world have banished God and where are we? Are we surrounded by a world that is “simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living”? Of course not. Even Fry recognizes this. Why then, according to Fry’s logic, is the world not a better place? The answer, I suggest, is that we have banished our own version of God. We have banished the kind of God that Fry thinks would exist if he actually did exist. But that god is not God. That god is the god that we have made up. He’s a god who is at our beck and call 24/7. He runs the world at our command. But if God is to be God he must be perfect in every way. God cannot be a god who strolls around the universe putting out all manner of catastrophes, or even preventing them, left right and center. A god like that would not be perfect. He would instead be like an overprotective overbearing parent always trying to wrap his children in cotton wool. But that’s the kind of god that Fry seems to want. Should that kind of god exist though, he certainly would not gain Fry’s devotion.Because the real god in that relationship would not be God, but Fry!

Fry asks, “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?” The answer is that he should not. Why would anyone worship that kind of god? But that kind of god does exist. It’s there every time Stephen Fry looks in the mirror. But I’m not pointing the finger merely at Fry. American comedian David Letterman is another case in point. On gay marriage, Letterman said: “Humans have the right to do what humans do. That’s it. End of story. There’s no argument. There’s no exceptions. Humans have rights, and they get to do what humans get to do. Case closed. Good night.”[3] This proves precisely what God said about humanity right after the first human pair decided they had a right to live their lives the way they wanted. Pay attention to God’s assessment of things: “Look, the human beings have become like us, knowing both good and evil” (Genesis 3:22).

Fry’s rant against God merely confirms the trustworthiness of the Bible. In telling the world what is good and what is evil, Fry has become his own god. Now, if God is right about Fry, he’s surely right about himself. The truth is that God is better than what Fry and many of us could even imagine. He did what we would never expect from a perfect God. He clothed himself in human flesh, was born in a lowly animal shed, became the target of vicious death plots both as a baby and as a man, and ultimately was arrested as a common criminal, beaten to a pulp, and finally hung up and nailed to a splinter ridden cross like some animal carcass. Has Fry considered that God?

God has never given up on the people he created even though we are often capricious, mean-minded, and stupid. For thousands of years God has been driven by love, a love that eventually saw him come face to face on that cross with the dark evil and injustice of this world. Yes, admittedly some think that’s stupid. But it was through this act of love that God would reach out this world-gone-wrong and invite us to come and confess that we are the ones who are capricious, mean-minded, and stupid. Not him!

Dr Alan Stanley is a New Testament lecturer at the Brisbane School of Theology.