I have often heard the lament ‘If there is a God, why does He allow suffering?’ Stephen Fry and Penn Jillette are two celebrities who are often quoted when someone wants to denounce God as heartless and cruel.
Stephen Fry: “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.”
Penn Jillet: “Believing there is no God means the suffering I’ve seen in my family, and indeed all the suffering in the world, isn’t caused by an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent force that isn’t bothered to help or is just testing us, but rather something we all may be able to help others with in the future. No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future.”
A False Premise
The premise of these arguments is that if there truly is a loving God, there should be no suffering. So, rather than believing in a God that allows suffering for a brief moment followed by an eternity of joy, it is better to believe there is no God, suffer for your entire existence and then vanish altogether. Of course, Fry and Penn do not provide any viable alternative, nor do they even argue that suffering in and of itself is bad. If you take away the pain, you take away the joy. If you take away the struggle, you take away the opportunity to overcome. If you take away sorrow, you take away empathy, compassion, and love. To claim ‘god could come up with a better way’ is an argument from silence because, based on what we know of the human psyche, there is no other way.
Just imagine for a moment if there was no suffering. No illness, no war, no risks of any kind. There would be no pain, physical or emotional. Where would humanity be today if all the struggles of mortality never existed? There would be no antibiotics, no heart surgeons, no prenatal care nurses, no ambulances, and no engineers. We would live in blissful ignorance incapable of taking care of ourselves because we would have no need to. Parents could abandon their infant and the infant would fair just fine. People could abandon their elderly parents because god will take care of everyone. There would be no optometrists because everyone would have perfect vision. We would have no need for employment because everyone would be wealthy. God would take care of you cradle to grave and you would have no responsibilities. We would be living naked in caves without language. We would be living as our cousins the apes. Now consider for a moment, which god is utterly, utterly evil: he who does all, or he who allows suffering. Suffering brings about change and advancement as humanity seeks to relieve the suffering.
Fry might respond by saying that there could be some suffering, but no misery. My response would be, where do you draw the line? Do some children suffer terrible disease? Yes, but the vast majority do not. We are to throw out the million good apples to spite the one bad apple. We also forget that past misery has brought us the scientific, technological, medical and philosophical breakthroughs of today.
God Suffered As Well
We need to remember that, in the Christian belief at least, God himself condescended to live among us, to suffer the frailties of humanity, living at a time without medicine of any kind, and without justice. He did not even save himself from a torturous and brutal death. So clearly, God is not doing this to us to torture us into submission. He is allowing us to live in the natural world because we learn through suffering, and the wicked have to be held accountable. He speaks from personal experience.
As heartbreaking and horrifying life can be, we cannot discount the power of the human spirit to overcome. I think of of a friend and fellow gymnast of my daughters who, in her early 20`s, fell from a tree and broke her neck leaving her a quadriplegic for the rest of her life, and yet her life is filled with joy. She is a strength to all around her. I consider Elizabeth Smart, kidnapped and raped for months, who grew up to marry, have children, and to become a powerful advocate against the ills of pornography and other addictions. She overcame and continues to help others overcome.
We also need to step back and consider the critics. Both are actors who, by the very nature of their occupation, seek to sensationalize and draw attention to themselves in the name of self-promotion. When a celebrity stands on a podium to cry out against pollution, poverty and politics while they sit in their ivory tower flying their private jets and feeding their children caviar between divorces, anyone with a sound mind should take a step back and take their rants for what they are worth. They are not philosophers, scientist or economists. They are actors being paid to represent an interest group. They rely on shock value by making ridiculous comments like “If I saw God I would say ‘shame on you’” without context to what is acceptable, or consideration of the consequences of removing suffering that ‘is not our fault’.
I Don’t Believe in the God that Stephen Fry Doesn’t Believe in Either
As Giles Fraser states it, “I don’t believe in the god that Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in either”. Mr Fraser explains:
Too many religious people actually worship power. They imagine the source of ultimate power, give it a name (God, Allah, Yahweh) etc, and then try and cosy up to it, aligning their interests with those of the boss. In this they are just the same as many non-religious people, except they believe that ultimate power is metaphysically situated. Whether it be a king or a prime minister or a CEO or God: the temptation is always to suck up to power.
This is why the Jesus story is, for me, the most theologically revolutionary story that there can be. Because it imagines God and power separated. God as a baby.God poor.God helpless on a cross.God with a mocking and ironic crown of thorns. In these scenes it is Caesar who has the power.
This is precisely the point of Christianity: that God is not some distant observer but suffers alongside all humanity. Which is why, even in the midst of absolute horror, he has the authority to whisper in my ear that all will be well
Consider this perspective as well by John Dickson:
“God’s reasons for permitting evil are indeed loving and, what’s more, that he is able to achieve his aims and, what’s more, that it shouldn’t surprise us that limited beings might not be able to imagine the divine reasons.”
“Looking at the world, there is both a problem of beauty and a problem of pain. We notice the pain more, perhaps, but the beauty, order, bliss, pleasure are every bit as much a part of human existence as the evil and pain – arguably more so.”
“Atheists are the ones making the case against God on the basis of suffering. They must provide the demonstration that these hypothetical loving reasons for permitting suffering do not exist. Atheists, of course, can’t provide such a demonstration, so an argument from the existence of suffering to the non-existence of God is not intellectually strong – even if it retains emotional force in view of our inability to imagine what God’s reasons might be for taking the course that he has.”
There is Beauty All Around
If we draw anything from Mr Dickson’s comments, it is the following: although there is suffering, there is also beauty. It is important to consider that people in developed and wealthy nations are far less happy than people in under developed nations. Wealth, peace and health do not equal happiness. In fact, it does not seem to sustain itself well. The financial fortunes of one generation rarely last past the third. The less health problems you have, the less care you take of your body.
As counter intuitive as it may seem, the more you are taken care of, the more miserable you become. Humans are not designed to be coddled. It is in our nature to step outside of our comfort zone and bring misery upon ourselves to reach for a higher plane of existence. We drive our cars knowing the risks of car accidents, we have children knowing the risks of infant mortality, we climb mountains knowing the risks of avalanches, we travel to distant lands knowing the risks of crime and illness, and we open companies knowing the risks of bankruptcy. Mr Fry would argue that a loving God would not allow us any of this because of the potential pain. He argues that childhood illness is evil, but ignores the amazing medical breakthroughs that have been made because of these illnesses.
It is easy enough to take such a stand, pretending you will stand stoically before God and condemn him. Of course, they provide no alternative. There is no line they can draw where enough should be enough. They can provide no evidence that suffering is inherently bad; by this I mean that suffering brings no benefit. The evidence is quite the contrary. Suffering brings scientific breakthroughs, it strengthens character, it brought us cheerfully into the modern age. Suffering does not cause war, it stops it. Suffering does not cause disease, it cures it. Suffering is the impetus to positive change.
Dr Alan Stanley makes the following observations about Fry’s rant:
God agrees with Fry’’s 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).
God wants everything good that Fry wants for this world – he is simply not finished yet: “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).
It is not God who is capricious, mean-minded, and stupid. It is humanity: God’s assessment of the human race: “everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil” (Genesis 6:5).
If God is to be God he must be perfect in every way: We have banished the kind of God that Fry thinks would exist if he actually did exist. But that god is not God
Strength, and therefore Godliness, Through Adversity
Dr Seery published a paper on adversity in Directions in Psychological Science where he reports that people who have traumatic experiences have had opportunities to develop coping mechanisms more acutely and that negative life experiences toughen people and make then better able to manage subsequent difficulties. This is the science that God understands.
There is a medical condition known as Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis, or CIPA. It is a rare genetic disorder that makes the sufferer unable to feel pain. You would think this would be a good thing, but most infants with this condition do not live past the age of 3. Those that do live to their mid 20’s at most because their bodies simply wear out from injuries. They fail to acquire the instinct to avoid potential injury. Their inability to feel pain prevents them from learning caution; it robs them of the instinct to jump back from fire without conscious consideration. Pain of every kind, be it ever so unbearable, keeps us alive.
No, God will not jump in and save you. You are here to experience mortality in all its gravity and levity. Come what may and love it.
I will end with the ironic advice of Penn Jillette “Two things have always been true about human beings. One, the world is always getting better. Two, the people living at that time think it’s getting worse”
“Honest Questions with Penn Jillette” (2 November 2007), CNN