Stephen, you’re on the wrong floor

You may have seen Stephen Fry’s rant last week. Here’s a (partial) transcript of what he said in an interview with Irish broadcaster RTE:

Asked what he’d say to God, if he met him:

I’ll say ‘bone cancer in children – what’s that about? How dare you. How dare you create a world in 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 which is so full of injustice and pain. To see the whole video (2 mins 24 secs), click here.

The issue of human suffering is without doubt the most powerful and certainly the most common argument against the existence of God. I have ruminated on this question so much, I ended up writing a novel about it. More on that another time.

A couple of observations concerning Mr. Fry. As with so many, the emotional response comes first and initially, there simply is nothing that can be offered, let alone heard, in reply. Did he sound in a mood for dialogue? I think not.

There is no question that immense suffering plunges us towards mystery. Make that Mystery with a capital M. In particular, the suffering of children is very very hard to accept. When little ones suffer, we are fully justified, I think, in shaking our fists at the heavens. Such a response seems very natural and I would expect nothing less from a parent whose child lies in a hospital bed.

Stephen Fry, however, offers little in terms of argument; in short, he simply states, ‘if God exists, I don’t like him and I think he’s immoral.’ That’s not really an argument; it’s an emotional outburst. Many think that you can dismiss God’s existence with a short-form argument that goes like this:

God exists.
Suffering exists.
Those two are incompatible and therefore one must not exist. Since suffering exists, God must not.

Elegant in its simplicity perhaps, but false.

Why? Because the argument requires another premise to make its case. Most people assume this premise without stating it. So, the argument is actually this one:

God exists
Suffering exists
There are no reasons why God would permit human suffering
Therefore God doesn’t exist

It’s the third premise which is the one which theologians focus on and debate. And there are all sorts of justifications (theodicies) which can be offered. But not today.

Today, I’d like to draw attention to something a little different. You may have noticed from Stephen’s comments, that he is drawing on ideas almost without knowing that he’s doing it. What do I mean? Well, he assumes there is something called ‘morality.’ He also believes in value and good and evil.

The great apologist, Francis Schaeffer, observed many years ago that atheists are often in the habit of using ideas for which their worldview has no justification. It’s rather like a building with two stories. Francis Beckwith summarizes the analogy like this:

In the lower story is the cognitive stuff that counts as real knowledge: science, reason, data. In the upper story is the non-cognitive stuff that gives life meaning, but it is ultimately non-rational and therefore deeply personal and incapable of being judged or assessed by third parties. More here.

So Stephen enters the building and he takes a look at what’s on the shelves. What can he use to make his argument? Well, if he’s being consistent, he’ll notice that really all he has are facts about the physical world. Furthermore, he must confront the idea that his universe had no cause that he can account for, and all things will eventually be extinguished. So questions like ‘what are things for?’ or ‘how should we live?’ can only be answered with reference to science and empirical data.

Stephen decides, however, that science isn’t helping much with questions of how one should live or even what things are for, so he strolls upstairs and finds an embarrassment of riches. On the shelf lie all kinds of resources he didn’t have downstairs. Things like moral values, ethics, good, evil, even purpose. These are so effective in making an argument that he decides to use some of them. He calls God ‘evil.’ He assumes that human beings are valuable and ought not to suffer. He assumes that any Creator must be someone who would agree with his outlook on life. Lots of ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ floating about.

But hold on, Stephen, you’re on the wrong floor.

Though he doesn’t acknowledge it, he’s not supposed to be up there, using resources which aren’t available to him as an atheist.

But wait a minute. Didn’t Beckwith write that these things are non-rational and therefore deeply personal and incapable of being judged or assessed by third parties.You can’t make arguments with those things, can you?

Well, it turns out that the building is poorly designed. Because the Christian faith, which draws on these ideas of morality, good, evil, value and purpose, does so rationally and with logical consistency. It’s our opponents who claim that morality and value are non-rational and deeply personal. Not true.

Morality isn’t non-rational at all. It’s accessible to all and even logically verifiable and you don’t need science to know that morality exists. Trust me, you don’t need a test-tube to affirm the truthfulness of the statement, ‘torturing babies for fun is wrong.’ What you do need, however, is the existence of something non-physical who grounds all these ideas, makes sense of them. Because science ain’t gonna get the job done.

You know who we’re talking about, Stephen. We’re talking about God.

You don’t like him? Well, basing morality on personal preference is a castle built on sinking sand. But you don’t think it’s just personal preference, do you? You think some things really are wrong. Absolutely wrong. Well, you’re bang on target.

So . . . here’s a thought to mull over during your day.

Morality is prescriptive, not descriptive and this makes ALL the difference. Science is entirely descriptive. It tells us ‘how things are.’ Morality has to do with ‘how things should be.’ The chasm between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ cannot be bridged by science, since science is not equipped to carry us across. Morality proposes moral laws and as C.S. Lewis argued many years ago, moral laws imply a moral-lawgiver.

We call that person God.

Final thought, Stephen. You’re right. Something’s terribly wrong. And if something’s gone badly wrong, you want to choose a worldview which can account for this. You respond instinctively to suffering as we all do. You don’t simply rail against the existence of suffering children, you express the feeling that ‘this shouldn’t be happening.’ Something’s gone terribly wrong with the world.

But Stephen, your cherished atheism can’t account for this intuition at all – beyond a subjective response – and it certainly gives no answer. Blind natural forces are so mute when you want an answer.

No, you need a worldview, a Story which explains what’s gone wrong and offers some kind of hope that ‘things are being put right.’ That’s why you and I, well, we all believe intuitively in Justice and it’s why we all long for Peace.

Turns out there is a Story full of hope. It’s called Christianity. And we have a full-blown doctrine of how and why things have gone wrong. But more importantly, we have hope, based on a Story in which an interventionist God partners with his people in restoring what’s broken, helping them to learn and grow in the midst of pain while also equipping them to share his love with hurting people.

Not only that, he too has suffered horribly. And for our sake. He has not left us. He is with us and he can be with you too, if you would but turn to him.

You too, Stephen.

His love extends even to those who shake their fists at him.

© Richard Collins 2015


Something rather than Nothing

From my last post, you may remember that I mentioned a series of Youtube videos called How (movie title) should have ended. I expressed my strong dislike for such videos. To be more precise, there is one in particular which I watched and from which I recoiled with horror. I’m the emotional type!

So, here’s why.

The Youtube video is called How Lord of the Rings should have ended. Just below the screen, the user has uploaded this strapline:

Gandalf forgot a very simple option when the fellowship decided to destroy the ring.

The video contains cheap animation and lasts just over two minutes. It has over 23 million views. The gist of it is this: While Sauron is distracted, Gandalf and the four hobbits are carried by a huge eagle to Mt. Doom. As they fly over, Frodo drops the ring into the lava which swirls deep in the mountain thereby destroying it. Sauron is defeated. As the ‘victors’ fly away, their dialogue goes like this:

-Well, that was incredibly easy.

-Yes, it was.

-Can you imagine what it would be like if we had walked the entire way?

-Ho ho, don’t be so ridiculous. (They all laugh)

One of the posted comments:

I always thought LOTR was padded. Three hours per movie? Why not just have Sam and Frodo FLY to Mt. Doom instead of walking the whole goddamn way?

So, what is so objectionable about this video? Isn’t it just a bit of fun? Well, of course it’s ‘just a bit of fun,’ but underneath, there’s a subtext which concerns me greatly.

If there’s struggle, if there’s pain, we don’t want it. Indeed, if it can be avoided, it should be.

You’ll notice, first of all, the use of the words ‘simple,’ and ‘easy’ in the Youtube users’ remarks. If an easier option is available, it must, by definition, be preferable. Why tramp over those jagged rocks, scale the mountain, do battle with Shelob . . . why have anything to do with Gollum if you can fly over the mountain and solve your problem in one easy move?

If you found that you didn’t have an immediate answer to this question, then well, I think that’s a problem.

The writer, Tim Keller, in his excellent book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, makes this superbly observed point: Modern secular humans lack any useful resources for coping with suffering.

Given the Story they propose, which ends with extinction, suffering is devoid of any kind of value or purpose. When you only have one life, suffering is always a hindrance, an obstruction to personal happiness. And personal happiness is the only goal worth pursuing. There is no silver lining, there is nothing to be gained from going through adversity. The tragedy is that Christians are deeply influenced by this aspect of our society’s zeitgeist. Indeed, when confronting the existence of evil and suffering, Christians are often left shrugging their shoulders, unable to offer any kind of meaningful answer. So, let’s address one of the most basic questions regarding human existence.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Whoa, that came from out of left field (If you’re a UK reader, that’s a baseball reference!) Let me explain.

Make no mistake. All the evil in the world was foreseen by our Creator. I wonder if you’ve ever heard this one? The world isn’t as God intended. When Adam and Eve fell, the world stopped being the one that ‘God intended.’ Words are powerful things, aren’t they? They alter how you see the world. Think for a moment. What kind of God doesn’t always get what He wants, doesn’t get what he intended?

Let me be absolutely clear about this. The God of the Bible, the real God, the one who exists eternally and in glory, always, always gets what he wants. Always. God isn’t God unless his power is omni- and his knowledge is omni-. So yes, that means that the entire history of the universe is known to your Creator. And mine. All the good stuff and all the bad. Before it happens. That means that this world is the one which God planned from within his timeless existence (it’s okay, not even the brightest philosophers know how he does it either – you’re not alone!) And it means this is indeed the world which God ‘intended,’ if by ‘intended’ we mean the one which he foresaw and which he created. And of course, there is only one of those and you’re living in it.

In another post, I’ll address how his intentions can incorporate the Fall but right now, let’s apply this to the problem of suffering. If God knows that the Holocaust will take place, or the Hundred Years War or the 1918 Influenza pandemic, then why, oh why, did he choose to create in the first place? When he chose to write the Story, why didn’t he choose an easier option? Why didn’t Christ die a couple of weeks after Adam fell? Why go through this lengthy trawl through Israelite history (hiking up mountains and fighting huge spiders)? Why not sort things out nice and tidily at the beginning?

The first answer to this question comes from the book of Job. As you might imagine, this book informs a lot of my views on pain and suffering. In chapter 38, God finally gives his response to Job and his ‘friends.’ We’ve waited for 37 chapters, remember, and we sit with baited breath to hear what the Ultimate Authority will tell us. And his response is a description of divine power. What?!? Yup. I’m God and you are not. That just about sums it up. It’s beautifully written but that’s about it. I made a lot of stuff and . . . you haven’t.

But once you think a little deeper, you realize that God’s answer makes perfect sense. It’s more than an assertion of his power, a reminder that we are puny and he is our creator. It’s a category distinction and that’s immensely important. This particular category distinction makes all the difference. To tell a creature, ‘you wouldn’t understand’ or ‘you are not privy to such knowledge’ is one thing. But it’s so much more than that. Just read this verse:

Do you know the laws of the heavens?
Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?

If you are not humbled by it, then . . . well, you should be. You ignorant modern man, who wishes for things to be made easy, who thinks that an ‘easier option’ is even available, who hasn’t bothered to think through the ramifications of your criticism, be still and listen to the One whose knowledge not only surpasses yours infinitely but whose knowledge is in a category which you don’t occupy, for it is Divine Knowledge and you are NOT divine.

Why is the problem of pain and suffering so hard to understand? Because we’re human. We’re not God.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

Because God deemed it right and good to create a world in which evil and suffering exist, because in his infinite wisdom, he is at work to achieve his purposes, which are right and good. If you think you know better, then you are simply asserting knowledge which you do not possess. And that’s ignorance; it’s not knowledge.

The second reason that I dislike those Youtube videos has to do with the issue of greater goods. Greater goods are the benefits which arise from struggle, pain, difficulty, suffering. Let’s summarize the unintentional wishes of our naïve Youtube friends.

Let’s get rid of the profound and deeply touching friendship forged between Frodo and Samwise Gamgee. Let’s eliminate the courage displayed repeatedly by both of these hobbits. Let’s do away with that perseverance which Sam displays when Frodo is unable to walk the final steps up Mt. Doom. Let’s cancel out the grace which pours out of Sam all the way there, when his friend, Frodo, believes Gollum instead of trusting his friend from childhood. Let’s get rid of all these benefits and while we’re at it, let’s delete the rest of the cast, whose friendships and courage and love and goodness shine like stars in the darkness.

In the face of greater goods, our response ‘suffering hurts so it must be stopped immediately’ surely appears misguided. And yet, when your child is suffering, ‘stop it now!’ seems the only natural response. We are too small, too inward-focused to appreciate what is taking place. We think we know better, when we are ignorant of our own ignorance.

In the New Testament, you’ll notice that there is a lot written about suffering. Peter, in particular, references the suffering of the saints a lot. Where does he write that they should pray for it all to go away? Nowhere. Greater goods are nowhere more in focus than in those numerous passages from Peter and Paul on perseverance and patience and most of all, trust in God.

God is far more interested in developing human beings who trust him than eliminating suffering at every turn. Indeed, perhaps heaven itself is not fit for beings who have avoided suffering at all costs. I believe that God’s development of virtue in the human being is one of his most important objectives in writing our Story. In LOTR, Samwise Gamgee reflects on the story of which he is a part and on stories in general:

It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer.

What if the development of the soul – crafted in the crucible of pain and suffering – is essential to its ability to appreciate the wonders of heaven? What if souls thrill to the glory of God, seen most clearly in the crucified Christ . . . only when they have undergone a measure of deprivation and agony themselves?

Maybe when that new day comes, souls who have learned to trust, who have persevered, who have sacrificed, are the ones who possess perfected vision.

They are the ones who can truly see that the sun really does shine out the clearer.

© Richard Collins 2014


 Well, that was rather heavy. If you feel the need for some light relief, click here.