The Goodness of God
Bryce Wandrey discusses Stephen Fry and this world of suffering
If you walked up to the pearly gates and were confronted by God, what would you say to him, her or it? This was the question put to Stephen Fry by Gay Byrne on his TV show, The Meaning of Life. Fry’s answer instantly went viral. This was due to more than the clout of his celebrity – his concerns hit a wide range of issues that resonate through the ages.
“How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault?” he declared. “It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain? ...The God who created this universe, if it was created by God, is quite clearly a maniac, utter maniac. Totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him?! What kind of god would do that?”
Well, what can we, people of faith in the God who creates, say to such things? First and foremost, I think we can say, “I am with you Stephen. I am with you. If that is God, I will stand right alongside you. If that is God, I will follow Ivan, the alienated rationalist in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and hand my “ticket” back to God.” I think that is a valid response. But here is a second response that is equally valid. That is not our God. This capricious, mean-minded deity that Stephen Fry and so many others have described as god is not the God of Christian faith and theology.
Many respectable thinkers have given the impression that the Christian God could be mistaken for the god described by Fry – not least Bertrand Russell. So how do we argue that their God isn’t the Christian God? Well, we can assert that we believe in a God who has created this world but not one who has created suffering and death.
Admittedly, that is a fine line to tread – acknowledging God as our creator, but not deeming this creator to be responsible for everything that has evolved out of the creative process. Yet this is a belief that we try your best to maintain – the inherent goodness of creation and God in the face of all the opposites or absences. For if we don’t maintain that, then we would be worshipping a selfish, maniacal God.
Before I get to my real point, I need to first run through some caveats. And hopefully, they won’t disappoint you too much – hopefully they won’t take the wind out of the sails.
No matter what we say, we have to admit that we don’t have God all sewn up. No matter what I might say in response to Fry and others I don’t want to give the impression that we have God figured out. I don’t. We don’t. We do our best. And, given the interpretative key that I will use towards the end of this article,
I do my best to say why I think the God we worship isn’t the one that Fry and so many accuse us of worshipping (even if they aren’t speaking specifically of the Christian God).
We don’t have an answer for suffering. Or, at least, we cannot explain suffering suffering in relation to God in a way that makes it okay. We can’t, and we shouldn't. How could we? We have our theories of how evil and suffering have crept into our world, a good world created by a good God. But those theories, should never allow us to conclude that we are now okay with it all because we think we understand the origins or causes. Actually, because we believe in a good, loving and life-giving God, we should be just as appalled as Stephen Fry at the suffering of this world. Our God is appalled at it too.
We believe in a God who is the author of creation; the Creator. We also believe that God bestowed his creatures with what we call ‘free will’. The Christian tradition has tried to explain some of the su?ering of this world in relation to the creature’s ability to choose — to choose not only good but also to choose evil. This freedom inevitably means that creation and the evolutionary process also has an element of freedom or unpredictability to it. I say this to conclude with…
We cannot laud the quality of freedom but then expect the divine to impede its use. We can’t say, “Isn’t God great for giving us freedom!” (for we surely have it) but then demand God stop all the abuses of freedom. Taken to many of its logical conclusions, that would make life pretty hard to live. (See CS Lewis’ The Problem of Pain for a fuller discussion) This leads us to…
We live according to the laws of nature. We live according to laws that don’t change every time they end up in suffering or catastrophe. And if we must live by these laws then God must live by them as well, because God was the source of all of this. Saying that doesn’t deny that things can happen outside and beyond these laws. It doesn’t exclude miracles.
But miracles are like spices: they improve the quality of life but you can’t live on them. A life lived on the basis of miracles – on the basis of the laws of nature being transcended every time something bad happens – would be a highly chaotic and anxiety-driven life.
I am the first to admit that none of those caveats explain why there are nasty insects and nasty human beings and nasty diseases that cut life short or make life miserable. They don’t make it any easier to confess that we still believe in the wonder and goodness of creation, and of God, even in the face of these evils. But we do.
And we do so because, in the face of all the atrocities, we don’t look to God as their source and cause, but as our source of hope, salvation and comfort. We look to a God who doesn’t say to us, “Get on your knees all day long and thank me and praise me” but to a God who first says, “I have come to serve and not to be served” and we look to a God who hopefully inspires us to fight all of the suffering, atrocities and death.
They are against His will; they should be against ours as well. If you would like to get on your knees and give thanks for God’s service and love – to give thanks for a suffering and loving servant God – then that seems like an appropriate response. To get down on our knees isn’t the first move. It is a response. It isn’t a prerequisite demand. It is a reaction.
All of this brings us to my final point: which is that is that we look to a God who we see through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Everything we say about God should start there. The German Reformed theologian Jurgen Moltmann puts it succinctly: “All Christian statements about God, about creation, about sin and death have their focal point in the crucified Christ.”
What does that mean? Well, it means we worship a God who shows his power in the birth of a lower-class, defenceless child. It means a God who exercises his authority by becoming one of us in order to love and serve us. It means that we worship a God who sees the suffering of this world, a world authored by him, and comes to suffer with it. Not to punish it, not to lay it waste, but to suffer alongside it and in it.
All of our statements about God, and creation, and sin and death spoken through the focal point of the crucified Christ means that we do not worship a selfish, maniacal being. Instead, we worship a God on his hands and knees, serving us out of love and devotion.
Because we believe in God through the person of Jesus Christ, we also believe that God and suffering are no longer contradictions.
And we believe that the God who is love has done something, through suffering in his being, that all of our loving and su?ering cannot: give this world hope through the resurrection of Jesus. As the writer to the Hebrews wrote, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” He helps us because his suffering with us didn’t end in death. His suffering with us ended in life beyond death.
Ultimately, we don’t praise and worship God because we have all the answers – because we have some kind of special knowledge that makes suffering and evil okay or understandable. Instead, we worship a God who has suffered with us because God is love.
We worship and have faith because we hope in that God of love – even in spite of all the absences of good and love. I don’t think that any of that would necessarily convince the strident atheist. It is what Paul would call a bit of foolishness and a stumbling block – an all-powerful God who redefines what it means to be powerful by suffering and dying out of love. It isn’t scientific; it is faith, hope and love.
But, rationally convincing or not, there is a lot of hope, salvation and comfort to be found in that God, a God whom we find in Jesus of Nazareth; a God who comes to serve and not to be served, a God who suffers with us instead of remaining separate from us.