It occurred during an exchange on an Irish public TV programme, ‘The Meaning of Life’. Asked to explain his unbelief, Fry described God as an ‘evil, capricious, monstrous maniac’. Given bone cancer in children, how can we have any respect for a sovereign, creator God? ‘How dare you create a world in which there is such misery?’ Fry indignantly asked. How could such a God expect us to worship him?
Thick and fast
Responses to Fry came thick and fast. Christian apologists and columnists have written various articles. From Russell Brand to Rowan Williams, almost everyone has had something to say. Fry himself claimed to be taken aback by the response. Speaking on Radio 4 he revealed, ‘I was astonished that it caused such a viral explosion on Twitter and elsewhere. I’m most pleased that it’s got people talking. I’d never wish to offend anybody who is individually devout or pious and goes about their religious ways.’
Plenty of useful responses have been made to Fry’s comments. In fact, most of the published replies from Christians like David Robertson, Krish Kandiah and Martin Saunders have been respectful and robust. Even Russell Brand’s video reply has been sensible. I have not come across any ‘offence’ being taken, only reasonable replies and thoughtful counter-arguments. Fry’s outburst ignores the clear biblical teaching that we live in a fallen world. Bone cancer and child death do not reflect God’s original intentions for creation.
Why such passion?
A deeper question is: why does the existence or non-existence of God generate such passion? If they do not believe in God then it is difficult to see why Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have been so angry with him.
As a Christian I am not angry with Zeus or Baal. I don’t believe in them. I loathe Satan, but then I do believe in the existence of Satan. I hate what some people do in the name of non-existent gods, but that is not the same as hating the non-existent being they believe in.
Peter Hitchins, writing about the atheism of his brother Christopher, noted this passionate hostility. Writing before his brother’s death in 2011, Peter observed: ‘His passion against God, about which he used to say much less, grew more virulent and confident during the years while I was making my way back to the altar-rail.’ (The Rage Against God, p.3) The contrast between the two brothers is instructive. Peter was opening his mind to greater possibilities in the course of his life, while Christopher’s vision was narrowing. The narrowmindedness of much atheism prevents it from taking alternatives seriously. Peter, no doubt on the receiving end of such ire, comments, ‘The difficulties of the anti-theists begin when they try to engage with anyone who does not agree with them, when their reaction is often a frustrated rage that the rest of us are so stupid.’
To return to the problem of evil, this is one of the greatest questions of all theology and apologetics. Why does a good God allow suffering and evil and what will he do about it? In Scripture, it is the question that Genesis addresses. The book of Job explores this theme. Psalms put these questions and laments in song. The issue is addressed by Jesus (Luke 13:1-5) and by Paul (Romans 8:18). It is the question that finds final resolution in the closing book of the Bible (Revelation 21:4).
Jesus and the early church were familiar with suffering in all its forms. The Christian faith was forged in the fire of violent opposition and persecution. There are intellectual responses to the problem. Creation is no longer as God intended it.
Perhaps, then, suffering is a necessary consequence in a world where there is freedom? Perhaps suffering serves a greater purpose in ultimately bringing glory to God (Romans 8:20). Christians have also invested in a practical response to evil. The early church pioneered orphanages to protect vulnerable children. When Christianity came to have political influence the Roman Empire abolished infanticide, the deliberate killing of unwanted children. Christians have worked to develop social reform and medical advances that have countered the suffering and pain of our world. While atheists may rage against God, Christians have continued to rage against evil.
Angry about unicorns?
People get angry about things that matter to them. Most people don’t get angry in a debate about the existence of unicorns or the Loch Ness monster. But people get angry about God. That is because this question matters. They know it does. Could it be that even your angriest atheist friend knows that they were made in the image of a creator to whom they will one day give an account? Blaming God for evil is a lot easier than addressing the evil in our own hearts.
Chris is the D.L. Moody Lecturer in Apologetics, Moorlands College.