Recently Stephen Fry responded to the question “What would you say to God if you met Him at the pearly gates” by saying, among other things:
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 that is so full of injustice and pain.
[God] could easily have made a creation in which [insects that eat the eyes of children do not] exist. It’s unacceptable.
That’s what I would say.
Rowan Atkinson responded to Fry’s comments stating “it would be a very, very stupid and insensitive person who never felt that,” and he’s certainly right. The problem of evil, as it is coined, has been around as a challenge to the idea of God for a long time precisely because it strikes such a clear chord with us: Why, if God loves us, does He not prevent evil?
Tonight I asked our Lutheran youth — Youtherans, if you will — how they would respond; suppose Fry had asked them, and not God, about cancer in children? I would like to here sketch out three paths we might take in formulating a response to Mr. Fry’s objections.
First, we must recognize human responsibility for suffering. The Christian worldview must be seen in totality, rather than bits and pieces. In the Fall, when mankind first rebelled against God, we broke the whole world. All of creation now travails under the weight of our sins. Often people ask about earthquakes and disease — natural suffering not directly caused by humanity. In the Christian view, all natural suffering is unnatural; it is not the world as it ought to be, but the world broken by our sin.
G. K. Chesterton was once asked to write an essay on what was wrong with the world. He responded with a very brief letter: “Dear sirs, I am.” More pointedly, Jesus Himself said that when we hear about natural disasters like a tower collapse, we ought to repent (Luke 13). Evil doesn’t happen to people because they are particularly worse than the rest of us, it happens because the whole world is sold in slavery under sin. And when you consider the staggering course of human evil, the question might often be better “why do good things still happen to such wicked people?”
Second, in answer to Fry, we must ask “Why is human suffering evil?” Fry and I of course agree that suffering in children is awful. The problem for Fry is that his objection doesn’t carry much weight if God does not exist. After all, suppose that we cured these children: So what? Why is their dying now somehow worse than their dying later? They’ll die either way. And why is it bad that they die at all? After all, we all die, and the weak die out sooner. Isn’t it better that they die now and remove their weaker genes from the pool? This is, after all, the cold logic of natural selection by which the world runs.
Fry states that this suffering is unacceptable, but unacceptable to whom? Himself? And why should we all be beholden to such a man as Stephen Fry? It seems much more consistent with atheism for Fry to say he doesn’t like seeing children suffer. But then some people who are quite sick might very much enjoy seeing children suffer. So Fry must be appealing to something more than a preference here, if he wishes this objection to carry any weight. Fry is necessarily invoking a transcendent moral law which states that children suffering is bad. But where does this transcendent moral law come from?
C. S. Lewis put his answer to this objection in Mere Christianity thusly:
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?…Of course, I could have given up my idea of justice by saying that it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too–for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist–in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless–I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality–namely my idea of justice–was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.
Lastly, it might be prudent to take a bit more of an offensive stance, rather than merely a defensive one, when dealing with an objection like this. Let us grant him that his objection even makes sense, for the moment. What does his worldview have to offer that is better? Whether it happens in our youth or in our old age, all of us will die. Some of us will suffer early in life from bone cancer or leukemia; others will face terrifying mental disabilities and disorders like Alzheimers. Either way, we will all suffer and die in the end, alone and meaningless — our life is naught but a brief spark of consciousness between the voids. Even what legacy we may leave behind will eventually die out, whether that is in the next 10, 100, or 1,000 years, or at the heat death of the universe and the end of all things. There is nothing to hold on to; all of our hopes for immortality are nothing but vanity — it is all vanity. If life’s meaning is only what you make of it, then all meaning ceases with you.
On the other hand Christianity does offer something more than this. After all, it was Christian love and charity that gave rise to the conception of hospitals and universities that have fought back against the effects of sin, producing cures and treatments for horrible diseases. Christianity is working in the here and now to heal what we can in the world. As Rowan Atkinson pointed out in his statement, it ought to give someone pause that quite often it is people of faith who are at the bedside of suffering children. But Christianity does better than just temporal and temporary fixes: Christ has risen! I know, it’s quite a few weeks premature to Easter, but that is the message of Christianity! Christ has risen indeed! Christ is God’s answer to our pain and suffering, to our sin, and ultimately to our death.
Christ stepped down in the midst of all of our pain and suffering precisely because of His great love — it was for both the young and old that Christ died. And just as Adam’s sin struck the cosmos, so now Christ’s righteousness will heal it. He has been raised from the dead; the death He died was for the child with bone cancer, and the old man with Alzheimers, and everyone in between — and so His resurrection is the resurrection of all who are united with Him through faith. That means the little one who dies baptized will be raised to new life. They will not know pain anymore, or tears, or death, because God died on the Cross in their place. That is a hope that no one but Christ can offer to us, all of us, who are dying.
In the end, this objection to Christianity always falls just short. There is surely suffering, but to sit as judge over God requires an objective standard by which to judge God, and atheism cannot produce this standard. It seems to me that disbelieving in God because there is evil in the world is a bit like disbelieving in the sun because there are shadows. Certainly there is darkness, but that is only because something is getting in the way of the light.