Saturday, 7 February 2015


Madeleine Davies A response to Stephen Fry

Giles Fraser The Guardian I don’t believe in the God that Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in either

Maurice Glasman Church Times After the bad and the ugly — good economics

Posted by Peter Owen on Saturday, 7 February 2015 at 11:00am GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: Opinion

You have to read decent theologians on the problem of evil. Not Madeleine Davies, not Giles Fraser, not Tom Wright (hopeless), not the Pope. Someone good like Keith Ward.

Posted by: John on Saturday, 7 February 2015 at 2:40pm GMT

What kind of a God do I believe in? I tell myself, and others who are inclined to listen, that God is a mystery. That's how many Christians 'explain' it when we cannot reconcile the fact of evil with the goodness of God. Our reasoning breaks down. And faith steps in. Both Giles Fraser and Madeleine Davies make good points. And so does Stephen Fry.

Posted by: Pam on Saturday, 7 February 2015 at 9:26pm GMT

I remember when Mother Theresa's diaries came out a few years ago, w/ their lengthy "dark night of the soul" passages. "A-ha!" said some anti-theists. "Mother Theresa didn't believe in God either! Nobody does!"


Unbelievers like Fry dis-believe in the same way that believers have dis-believed since Hebrew Bible times (and certainly before). Which is to say, they don't really disbelieve---and they're angry about that.

But God can take it. God made our "dis-belief", after all.

Posted by: JCF on Sunday, 8 February 2015 at 2:40am GMT

Stephen Fry, i love the man, i think he is neat. I sense what he is challenging us theists is how do we reconcile a loving God with so much human suffering in the world. Fry's challenge to us does cause us to think and re-think about how would we respond to a secular unbelieving world about how god as a person (as Anglicans God is three persons) can tolerate suffering, often needless suffering in the world that he has created?

Posted by: Rob McKay on Sunday, 8 February 2015 at 3:38am GMT

Fr.Giles Fraser - again, hitting the jackpot: The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is One who shares the suffering of God's creation. This is no despot!
Herein lies the kenotic strength of Christianity.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Sunday, 8 February 2015 at 5:20am GMT

God gave us absolute free will. God is not a puppeteer. If rational adults say they don't believe in God, why not simply believe them? Why question them?
Why should God go around "making" people disbelieve?
Now, there may be different types of disbelief. Some may reject the concept of God altogether. Some may reject what they see as most people's concept of God, they don’t like the concept of “the Guy in the sky”.
But, no I don't buy the "Oh, they really believe, but they're angry because their favorite kitten died, or their mother was crippled in an automobile accident, but they really believe, and God forgives them" line. It smacks of patronizing and condescension.
As far as why evil exists in a world with a good God:
Pestilence, plague, natural disasters are simply part of natural events. They are no more evil than an ice-covered surface that causes me to fall.
Murder, arson, muggings, war, terrorism, etc., ad infinitum, are human caused. If, as I believe, God gives us absolute free will, then evil exists because we humans create it. If God is constantly interfering, then we don't have free will.
I see God as akin to a constitutional monarch. Various monarchs, around the world have enormous theoretical power, but some abide by the constitutions of their various countries, and choose not to use it. Likewise, when God gave humanity free will, God put constraints on God's actions.
True evil exists because we humans cause it. In that sense, we are the Devil. We are Satan.

Posted by: peterpi - Peter Gross on Sunday, 8 February 2015 at 7:05pm GMT

The strange thing is that life has always been hard since the time of primitive humans: even the oldest remains often show signs of diseases, injury, wars... There is no evidence of an era when there was only love, peace and harmony...

Yet we feel "it shouldnt be like this".

*THAT* is evidence that there is something beyond this reality- our hearts see how things should be.

Posted by: Rev David on Sunday, 8 February 2015 at 9:54pm GMT

It is not only a question of evil done by humans. It is a question of suffering - and to say that God shares that suffering is understandable (if "unorthodox) but I think meaningless and certainly no answer. For literally millions of years creatures that have evolved have suffered terribly including the various human species up to homo sapiens, and they continue to suffer. Witness David Attenborough's wonderful programs. And can that suffering be justified if a tiny fraction of human beings go to "heaven" or even if all go there - good neanderthals for example ? with or without fellow mortals - insects, fish, birds and beasts ? "Oh Christianity...why do you not answer our difficulties?" Stevie Smith asked in "How Do You See"? Though the question could also be asked of dogmatic atheism. Nearing 80, an Australian priest of the C.of E. for 55 years, I cannot but be agnostic, but I happen (unlike innumerable others) to be blessed in so many ways - yesterday, for example, by Choral BCP Matins in St John's,Canberra for which I travelled 170 miles by train, and by the beauties (somehow I believe "God-given") of nature through which I passed on the way (though it also "red in tooth and claw") and by the opportunity still able each week, as an honorary hospital chaplain (a ministry that helps to keep any mild depression at bay), to meet so many wonderful and courageous people. I can only say - not that "God is love" (for if so it is hardly evident) but that love is God - and beauty, truth, and goodness - wherever found. Of course, there is more to say, but also more that cannot be said. We see "through a glass darkly". I wish any reader joy.

Posted by: John Bunyan on Sunday, 8 February 2015 at 10:57pm GMT

Re the Maurice Glasman piece (thank you) the observation about Catholic social teaching is important.

A "plain" reading of the bible, of the gospels, of the words assigned to Jesus,is not a sufficient framework, taken in isolation, in terms of a rejoinder to contemporary economic injustice.

It is important, first of all, to excavate Jesus' program and lay it out in contrast to the forces he contended with during his lifetime. Dom Crossan, for example, looks at the imperial and mercantile forces in play.

Beyond that, transcendent norms and values, as they may exist in scripture, must be contextualized within a rational and dynamic contemporary framework. Catholic Social teaching over the past century and a half is perhaps the best and most coherent contender.

I'm unclear about whether or not Archbishop Welby is committed to Catholic social teaching in terms of analysis, or whether he is social teaching "lite" ? His homily upholding the witness of the Anglican and R.C. archbishops of Liverpool in hard times is certainly inspiring in terms of pragmatics, which is perhaps a clue.

Within Roman Catholicism itself, Catholic social teaching struggles to be heard in western democratic countries. It appears not to be a priority among the sacred heart of Jesus crowd who tend to see it as dilettante dabbling.

One wonders how Catholic social teaching is received by members of the C of E using the Roman Rite. Are they committed to it as well, or is it a case of cafeteria Catholicism? Just asking.

Posted by: Rod Gillis on Monday, 9 February 2015 at 12:35am GMT

"Why should God go around "making" people disbelieve?"

Oh dear. As soon as I uploaded my comment, I had the feeling it might be misunderstood (truly, my bad).

What I meant was, God made (in God's Image) the human *capacity* to disbelieve, as wholly a part of our capacity to believe (which is why doubt---even angry doubt of God's morality---is an *intrinsic* part of faith).

Beyond that, I don't pretend to have answers . . . and yet, and yet, I still have faith. For whatever reason/unreason.


Back to the Problem of Evil---

"They are no more evil than an ice-covered surface that causes me to fall": but if you include Fry's example of bone cancer in children, many if not most would find your analysis unsatisfactory, I suspect peterpi.

I always wonder about the human contribution---or lack thereof---TO natural disasters, however. What breakthroughs in bone cancer research could be made, I wonder, if (for example) an amount equal to Mr Fry's "Hobbit" earnings were donated to this cause, hmm?

Posted by: JCF on Monday, 9 February 2015 at 5:35am GMT

Good postings from peterpi and John Bunyan.

My general point would be that, since the problem of evil/suffering is so fundamental to disbelief in God, it is no good Christians reacting like rabbits pretrified in light when confronted with it. G Fraser (as usual, I'm afraid) fluffed the opportunity of sketching what an intelligent Christian response might look like. Of course, there are enormous difficulties here, because such a response is going to take you far beyond Christian orthodoxy.

Posted by: John on Monday, 9 February 2015 at 8:57am GMT

Thank you John Bunyan!
I have been astonished by the large number of Christians who did not understand the simple logic of Stephen Fry's questions and whose answers ran from rubbishing him, declaring he was on the verge of becoming a Christian, saying they didn't believe in the same God either, saying that it's all about free will, saying that in Jesus, God showed us that he's suffering alongside with us....

None of that answers the basic question:
If God is the creator of all that is, seen and unseen, if we call him saviour, redeemer, loving... then how can that be squared with the creation he has caused?
Human will is the least of the problems (although one does wonder why we couldn't have had free will with a safety fuse capping the amount of harm we can inflict).
Nature is the one insurmountable stumbling block for many - as Stephen Fry's question about the flesh eating worms makes very clear.

And I would much prefer it if we were honest and said that we don't really understand it either, that we are also deeply troubled by the question at times, and that we try to find a way of living with it while still believing, still trusting.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Monday, 9 February 2015 at 9:03am GMT

Good to have a thread that isn't about current internal church affairs (albeit ones with much wider repercussions).

Thanks to John Bunyan and Erika Baker for their incisive honesty.

I think Giles Fraser is right in his basic approach - the seeking for God, and so for redemption, in the place where grace and suffering meet. That seems like a faith rooted only in 'Christ, and him crucified'.

But there are two caveats to that:
- that there is overwhelming suffering throughout history which appears on face value at least to be without any obvious redemption; a theme on which Donald Mackinnon was particularly strong.
- that this, as has been pointed out already, isn't an answer to the problem of suffering for those who believe in a God of love. A right path, but not an answer. Like Erika and John Bunyan I find it hard not to maintain an agnosticism about any theodicy, but to have faith though there is no clear answer.

And a good number of Christians do appear to give the impression of believing in the God whom Stephen Fry rejects (for similar reasons to David Attenborough's more measured rejection).

John: what is Keith Ward's approach, or where might we find it?

Posted by: fr rob hall on Monday, 9 February 2015 at 10:25am GMT

Erika, agree there are limits to what we can know.

However, I think it's quite reasonable to at least say that we don't think that this world is heaven, and that we don't think that we are angels... we are a mixture of good and bad intentions, and this world is a mixture of good and bad experiences.

To live in a perfectly good world, we would have to be perfectly good!

We pray for God's kingdom to come (eg "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done") and we see that "kingdom" breaking into this world around Christ, and to some extent around His people... but there has to be a new heaven and earth, and we have to be changed, before righteousness and justice can be fully at home.

Posted by: Rev David on Monday, 9 February 2015 at 12:46pm GMT

Rev David,
thank you. The question remains "Whatever other world we might be able to imagine (and all our imagining is always limited by our experience), to say that to live in a perfectly good world, we would have to be perfectly good, doesn't answer the essential question about God and this world.

The fundamental problem is that Jesus on the cross does answer the question of mankind's evil. It does not answer the question of suffering in nature, of the whole process of evolution that is based on discarding what is not fit enough to survive, often very painfully so.

And the more we learn about animals' ability to experience emotional suffering, the more acute that question becomes.

And while it's reasonable for believers to say that there are limits to what we can know, atheists are rightly asking how we ever arrived at the idea of a loving God in the first place, when just opening our eyes shows us that creation simply isn't like that.

I do wish we had, collectively, given Stephen Fry better answers than the ones I have read.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Monday, 9 February 2015 at 1:56pm GMT

fr rob hall,

If you just Google Keith Ward suffering, you'll find things.

Posted by: John on Monday, 9 February 2015 at 2:17pm GMT

Stephen Fry chose his target well and confronted the rationale behind organised religion on its self-acknowledged weakest ground. The thoughtful and religious cannot but admit this.

However it also reveals the limits of the rational approach. Is it not human suffering – sometimes human in origin, sometimes not – that can also drive people into the arms of belief in God? Organised religion could hardly have been described by another of its opponents as the opium of the masses were this not the case. You might argue that this is infantile wish-fulfilment, desperation, or cynical manipulation by the religious-political complex, but: suffering simultaneously repels people from belief in God *and* foments religiosity? Something non-rational but deeply human is going on here.

Posted by: Swithun on Monday, 9 February 2015 at 4:36pm GMT

re: natural suffering/evil/disease

At a risk of being over-simplistic, for myself (and remembering that much in this passing, temporary world is a mystery: not until the world to come shall things be fully revealed; and that in the divine timescale, we are to be as "little children" who do not, until they reach the fulness of the stature of Christ, fully comprehend what/why their Father is sometimes saying/doing):
1) God's design and plan is for a world in which mankind is perfectly free and constantly exercises that freedom to choose what is right.
2) In such a world there must be some mechanism to enable man to know what good, perfect, eternal. (In a world which is perfectly flat terms like mountain and valley become meaningless, as do goodness and perfection in a world which has no evil and imperfection.)
3) Disease and natural disaster, for God's good reasons, if to us mysterious, are the ways in which, in this world, we are meant to learn what goodness and health are.
4) Further, when these occur, they (are meant to] bring out the best in that love which mankind should have for one another - compassion, care, self-giving, even to "what greater love has a man than this?". The exercise of these qualities demands that there are those people to whom compassion, care and self-giving can be shown. Without those people, how would we know what these qualities are?

5)Unfortunately, man's inhumanity to man, his failure to always choose goodness over evil, has multiplied the opportunities for compassion &c.. It took the Incarnation to show that it is possible for a human being to live the kind of life God wanted and wants.

6) Incidentally, some disasters are not always caused as first looks obvious. E.g. the land are the slopes of a volcano may be particularly fertile - those who live there may have to balance the prospect of abundant food against that of being wiped out by an eruption; a rivetter's bad temper may lead to a weakness in a car or aircraft with disastrous results months or years later.

Posted by: John U.K. on Monday, 9 February 2015 at 5:05pm GMT

John UK,
that won't do if you're trying to explain to an atheist why we believe in a loving God.

In Blue Planet there were agonising images of animals having to let their own young die, feeding only the strong one, having to ignore the pitiful pleading of the weaker, because there was only enough food for one...
Scenes like that cannot be explained away with "we are meant to learn what goodness and health are." That's far too human-centric.

And when we watch human children die from diseases we cannot yet control, it's almost shockingly selfish to say that this teaches the survivors about goodness and health. Stating that this is because God is mysterious doesn't answer the question, it avoids it.

That's the problem with most explanations Christians offer. They are, at the heart, unbearably callous and you can tell that they were contrived to get at least some redemption out of an appalling situation.

Well, atheists ask the deeper question. If the world is as appalling as it is, and if it was created, how can we possibly say that the creator is loving.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Monday, 9 February 2015 at 6:17pm GMT

What does it mean to claim we are 'perfectly free'? If we were would not the world be a very different place? The distortion or human will and our helplessness to change is the heart of it isn't it? 'For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do ... Who will rescue me ...?' Rom 7

Posted by: David Runcorn on Monday, 9 February 2015 at 6:35pm GMT

"The distortion or human will and our helplessness to change is the heart of it isn't it?"

Only if you put human beings at the heart of creation.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Monday, 9 February 2015 at 10:16pm GMT

I am very pleased that this subject is being discussed here. It is so necessary.

Struggling with stuff alone can be very tough, I find. I find the 'atheist' arguments (sorry to sound simplistic, using shorthand)very compelling,not only intellectually, but because of the honest passion and integrity of many of these writers.

I often find intellectually and emotionally the Church itself- all of it a huge stumbling block to me -- and so many ways.

Having become a member of the RC church, I am struck by how inadequate it is on a day by day basis, to help one over much.

Watching the Grammy Awards tonight on tv I am struck by how life affirming it is. Especially compared to many christian liturgies. I find it more affirming of women and life for instance than the recent consecration of a woman-- which should have been wonderful.

Do publish this it is heartfelt and thoughtful -- in my own rather ordinary non-oxbridge way.

Posted by: Laurie on Monday, 9 February 2015 at 10:31pm GMT

So, Erika, reading your comments; what is your answer to Stephen Fry's dilemma - if you have one?

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Monday, 9 February 2015 at 11:12pm GMT

One has to be honest about things. The universe itself as it is is the product of destruction as well as creation. We humans are the products of evolution. To acquire energy for living animals have to eat. That mostly means eating each other. That process fosters further evolution. But that further evolution necessarily involves greater suffering (killing an amoeba is nothing, killing a creature with a central nervous sytem hurts that creature). Death is necessary for life. Everyone knows these things, though not enough people acknowledge them (hence the desperate efforts of fundamentalists to deny evolution). And human beings can't be sealed off from the rest of creation - everyone knows this too, though not enough people acknowledge it. Christianity can be made to fit into this picture - but orthodox Christianity (the faith once delivered, etc.) doesn't begin to make the grade. But in all inter-Christian debates, liberals have to fight with their hands tied behind their backs.

Posted by: John on Tuesday, 10 February 2015 at 7:14am GMT

JohnUK, listen to yourself! "Disease and natural disaster, for God's good reasons, if to us mysterious, are the ways in which, in this world, we are meant to learn what goodness and health are." Have you ever been in serious pain? I have, of a long. long time... if that is God's pedagogic trick to teach me what real health is, I'm with Fry, he frankly must not be worshipped. As for all the smug Christian apologies written in reaction claiming S. Fry had no idea Christians spent some 200 years speaking about these things, I have a vague feeling he has. Those who believe that universal predation, death, brutal natural selection (even in mating) are a result of the fall, have a lot of explaining to do. No, death and violence did not enter the world because of our forebears disobedience, they were demonstrably here before humans were even born.

Posted by: Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente on Tuesday, 10 February 2015 at 8:14am GMT

I know this may sound horrifically trite, but I think that we are often looking for a meta-explanation of, or solution to, the problem of evil, when I suspect that the only acceptable answer is God. I would not want to conceive of a solution that somehow explains away the exquisite pain and the suffering that arises randomly from being at the wrong place at the wrong time -- places like the school gates yesterday. Any insight, idea, or even intuition that takes the edge off that sort of suffering is a horror. The same goes for all kinds of natural evil -- the 'necessity' of birth defects given the mechanism of evolution and so on. Oh we try to take the sting away (such as in the free will defence), but such attempts leave a horrible taste in many mouths. In a sense, there is something in me that will not accept any answer less than God; that realises that the only possible response has to be personal, rather than objective; that will not let go of the protest. That leaves room for the incarnation -- but not as an answer. The cross, the dereliction on the cross, arguably underlines and intensifies the utterly personal element and ought to prevent any glib theological answers.

The resurrection, or rather (from our side) the Christian sense that God remains ultimately trustworthy, has not solved the problem of evil: evil still exists and people still experience hellishly short (or long) painful lives. I remember Juan Luis Segundo telling me that we misunderstand the resurrection if we think it is first and foremost about us.

And yet we keep trying to get some sort of objective purchase, something to blunt the complaint. Elie Wiesel's The Trial of God evokes the problem, but so does Job. Neither offers us a way out.

Part of the problem is of our own making. The traditional story of a human fall with cosmic implications (ushering in death and natural evil) is taken to offer an explanation of the cause of evil (human choice), rather than appreciated as offering a description of the predicament we find ourselves in, where we are complicit in some, but certainly not all, kinds of evil. Similarly, our imagining God as like us, but a bigger and better 'agent' in the universe -- this sets us up for another kind of 'fall'. The Eastern Orthodox reluctance to embrace the western notion of original sin and their sense of the apophatic should give us pause.

I think Stephen Fry is to be thanked for calling us on such matters. I do wonder whether we let ourselves and others down when we present the Christian story as if all can be explained in terms of sin and redemption. We rob others of the chance of discovering the core of Christian faith by proffering a glib substitute.

If God is personally the only possible way into addressing the heart of the problem head-on, then we ought not to try to get God off the hook. Instead, if we find ourselves having faith in the midst of the surd of suffering, we need to (will want to/have little option but) to bring all the intensity, poignancy and even the seemingly destructive and hopeless complaint to a heart-breaking crescendo with God, and to attend the divine response.

Many of us will have tried to do exactly that, and the result is often something as opaque as I have just written. The divine response occasions in some of us an experience of God's ultimate personal trustworthiness, but such an experience does not hide the reality of suffering, far from it; and indeed it seems only to underline the problem even more. I don't think I could stand it being otherwise, even if I can barely stand it being so.

Posted by: Joe on Tuesday, 10 February 2015 at 9:27am GMT

My own response, Fr Ron? I don't have an intellectual one. I don't think there can be one.
I have experienced God in my life and it has always been an empowering, healing experience of love. Not the soppy stuff, but the kind that gives hope where there otherwise is none.
It makes absolutely no intellectual sense to me at all.
But it is enough to keep me believing and trusting against the evidence.

But I also know that this is the answer of a believer and that it cuts no ice with those who have not had the same experience.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Tuesday, 10 February 2015 at 12:27pm GMT

Thank you Stephen Fry? For what? Because he took advantage of a situation to promote his own brand of atheism? Because he made squishy Christians feel even more squishy? There is only one question to consider here:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? … Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding….

In light of this we have a number of options, none of which involve answering the question “Why does God ….”

Stephen Fry is an actor who studies his lines and knows how to play an audience and he played this one very well by pulling us all into that situation where no answer can satisfy the grief or satiate the anger so keenly felt. Once we’re all relating to the pain we can all then relate to his response.

This question can only safely be considered from a distance—either before we enter into the experience or after it has lost its edge. In the midst of pain or loss it is too late. This itself gives the Christian every advantage because at the time we have arms to turn to, love to rest in and a source for peace even without understanding.

The atheist and even the agnostic have nothing to dull the pain, nothing to give purpose or meaning, nothing to give comfort and so the pain intensifies until all they have to turn to to mitigate their pain is to try an elevate themselves above by claiming a greater intellect and condemning those of faith as being less worthy because they have, because of the comfort of Christ, less pain.

Thank you Stephen Fry for what then? For reminding us every reason present Christ to all we can before it is too late.

Posted by: Andrew F. Pierce on Tuesday, 10 February 2015 at 1:14pm GMT

Afraid Joe's reflections strike me as an example of the higher mumbo-jumbo.

Erika, the answer is as I have stated it. Or, if not, why not? To quote again Keith Ward. In this sort of question, 'you have to start with the science'. Lorenzo is of course absolutely right that babbling about 'the Fall' (as e.g. Wright does) is historically hopeless. Or if 'the Fall' is understood as a timeless metaphor for the human condition (relatively harmless, I suppose), there's heaps it doesn't explain, like, for example. almost everything here under discussion.

Posted by: John on Tuesday, 10 February 2015 at 2:26pm GMT

Joe's reflections are absolutely spot on.
You can start with any science you like, as there is no actual evidence for God, there is even less evidence for what kind of God there is.

"Erika, the answer is as I have stated it." is priceless.
Your post about evolution does nothing more than describe the status quo. That is not in doubt.
The question is how, looking at the status quo, we can deduce that there is not only a God behind it all, but that this God is loving.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Tuesday, 10 February 2015 at 5:57pm GMT


Seems to me you're missing several basic points. (1) I am arguing from an avowedly Christian stand-point; (2) I am trying to supply an answer to the problem of evil/suffering; (3) I have done so - where's your answer? (4) the implication of what I have said is that there's no divide between 'the science' and 'the theology', because 'the science' could not be any other way if intelligent life were to come to be and have some chance of communication with God; (5) beyond all this, there can be love, but it's 'tough love'; (6) I do think Joe's thing about 'resurrection not being for us' is sloppy, because without general resurrection (mechanism doesn't matter - let's just say an existence beyond the present one) there's no chance of proving - or of there being - a God of love and justice.

Serious answers, please.

Posted by: John on Tuesday, 10 February 2015 at 8:55pm GMT

I thought Rowan Williams rather waspish on Newsnight.

But I must say that in 9 years working with terminally ill infants and their families God was the solace, the hope, the comforter, even the joy and the sharer in their journey...... never the villain or monster.

Posted by: Martin Reynolds on Wednesday, 11 February 2015 at 10:56am GMT

And there I was, thinking I was more or less agreeing with John!

Posted by: Joe on Wednesday, 11 February 2015 at 1:07pm GMT

Nicely put, Joe. I accept the charge - and say sorry. But to 'the ishoos'. Isn't a meta-narrative' precisely what Christianity claims to offer? Then if a difficulty comes up - and not just any difficulty - but 'the' difficulty - Christians say (I paraphrase): 'Boo-hoo, but through it all I still believe in God'. I just think we have to do better than that.

Posted by: John on Wednesday, 11 February 2015 at 1:53pm GMT

that you are arguing from a Christian standpoint is the first problem. Stephen Fry has asked us to put ourselves in his shoes and explain why a Christian standpoint should be worth considering.

We have no idea if science could have been any other way, we can only evaluate the science we know from within the universe we know.
And in that universe there is nothing that requires a God apart from theology's claim that it is so. If there was, the whole God question would have been conclusively resolved by now and atheists would be nothing more than uninformed people. That is clearly not the case.

As for your last point, I don’t know what you mean by saying that without the resurrection there is no chance of proving God.
We believe in the resurrection but we still cannot prove God. It’s a proof, if that’s the right word, that will not be available to any of us until after death.

I have given my own answer - there nothing that is intellectually satisfying or gives a credible answer to why creation (if there was creation) is so obviously cruel. Mythical narratives like the Fall are means of trying to explain observed reality. An answer can only be approached by personal experience of God and faith in him. But that is not something that will easily sways an atheist who has not had that experience.

It is reasonable to believe in God, and once you do, an intellectual case can be made for it.
But it is just as reasonable to believe that there is no God.
That a loving God could have created a cruel universe is a theological statement. It requires a lot of faith because it is counter intuitive and it is not logical.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Wednesday, 11 February 2015 at 4:56pm GMT

John: I don't know that I can add much to what Erika has been saying. I do think we can engage intelligently with atheists, but there is a limit, and the limit is when we start abstracting from the experience of the sufferer. Keith Ward does what he does magisterially, but again there remains something unsaid.

The line I was taking is not that different from that taken by Rowan Williams, though I obviously lack his eloquence. His concern is to keep the voice of the sufferer front and centre and not to mute it via this or that mistaken theory of divine agency. I almost hate to recommend this because it is a tough, tough read, but Rowan's response to Marilyn McCord Adams in his Wrestling with Angels book (sorry can't do italics) is well worth reading and wrestling-with. Williams is quite pointed in his critique and doesn't hold back any punches at all (it is a devastating critique that suggests, to me at least, both some disappointment in the author and also some sense of frustration not just with her, but with theodicy as a whole). What Rowan insists on is that we not pretend ever to reach the point where we can stop listening to the sufferer, that we can ever reach a point where we have somehow domesticated his or her experience, which is to say made it our own.

In a nutshell, Rowan is arguing that wrestling with evil (as opposed to domesticating it or explaining it away) 'might be a way into knowing about God'. It prevents us from treating God as one agent amongst others, one who might be able to counterbalance the evil that gives rise to theodicy. In the end, he says, 'Even the best and subtlest of theodicies cannot be but a strategy for evading most of this.' What we are evading via our philosophising and theologising is the perspective of the sufferer, the other, the one who testifies to the suffering. If you try to abstract from that, you are abstracting not just from humanity, he says, but also from divinity: you're doing to the sufferer what we do to God, denying God's irreducible difference.

I apologise for what must seem to be even higher mumbo-jumbo. Re Rowan, it takes quite a bit of work to get on his wavelength, though it is almost always entirely worthwhile. As John said in the first comment in this thread, 'You have to read decent theologians on the problem of evil.'

Posted by: Joe on Wednesday, 11 February 2015 at 8:24pm GMT


I am an academic, I believe in proper argument. Just one example: 'As for your last point, I don’t know what you mean by saying that without the resurrection there is no chance of proving God.' What I actually said was: 'there's no chance of proving - or of there being - a God of love and justice'. That was a response to Joe's minimisation, or relativisation, of resurrection. Because, oh so obviously, when millions of human get horribly killed through no fault of their own, there has to be a mechanism whereby they obtain true justice. I do not maintain that resurrection is an easy doctrine - I do maintain that it provides another - and an absolutely necessary - dimension for a coherent and multi-pronged reply to the likes of S Fry. I will add that I wrote some of these posts in response to Laurie - as far as I can see, no else here has paid the slightest attention to his needs.

Posted by: John on Wednesday, 11 February 2015 at 8:40pm GMT

John, I think you are still not answering Stephen Fry's question, which is not whether a God of love can redeem suffering , but whether a loving God would have created a world that subsequently needs to be redeemed.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Wednesday, 11 February 2015 at 10:13pm GMT

John: do read the Chapter on Williams. He addresses exactly the point I think you're trying to make about resurrection: it cannot be commensurable with the kind of horror you point to. In Wittgensteinian terms, it's a category mistake; in theological terms, it's a projection of our finitude onto God. I'm certainly not relativising the resurrection (far from it, I'm 'upping' it), but what I am doing is recommending Rowan's argument against McCord Adams's attempt to address the 'healing of outrages'.

This is not the best forum to address such issues. Its difficult to say , 'Hang on, that's not fair, or I didn't say or imply that' and get the kind of immediate response that keeps the discussion moving apace.

Posted by: Joe on Wednesday, 11 February 2015 at 10:59pm GMT

also, as an academic who believes in proper argument, I would have liked you to engage with the other points I made thought this thread and not simply pick out the one where I misread you.

Laurie said that he finds the atheist argument compelling and much the church offers not helpful. As I agree with him, there is little I else I can contribute there.

It troubles me that Joe and others here say that you need to read the very most complex theologians to get an understanding of the issue.
Because atheists come in all shapes and sizes, like Christians, and if we have nothing to say to the people we encounter in our day to day lives other than "get an Oxbridge education and a theology degree so you can understand Rowan Williams, and then you might get an answer that could potentially satisfy you", we're not going to get very far.

At the very least, however academically superior we might feel towards those asking such unhelpful questions, if the church wants to survive or even grow, it has to realise that most people aren't interested in what kind of services we offer, what the difference between an evangelical and an Anglo-Catholic is, and that many aren't even interested enough to know what we think of women and lgbt people. The problem starts with the scandal of God himself.
That's the first question people ask. "Why do you believe in this God", "What makes you think he created the world, and if he did, what makes you think he's a loving God who cares one little bit about his creation".

For purely practical purposes we should have better answer and more accessible answers than I've seen so far.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Thursday, 12 February 2015 at 9:16am GMT

If God is love, then He must desire to increase love. That cannot be done without free will. Without free will, we would not be happy, not safe, not . . . anything. Mindless and meaningless, mere extrusions. With free will, some will choose evil, some good.

The argument that diseases and parasites are evidence of an unloving God or no God at all is shaky, at best. If God loves all creation, then He must also love the parasitic insect, the bacterium. Should He strike down humans because we predate on plants? Death is not an evil, in the sight of an eternal, transcendent and yet present God, because there is no end. As for giving us the escape from the suffering, we have it. Our minds, our skills, our medicines, our consciousness and compassion - all built right in. If these things are withheld, or priced beyond reach, or denied, that isn't God but Humanity.

If that choice were taken from Humanity, we would no longer be human. A world in which there is no struggle, no thought, no self-sacrifice is empty. You wouldn't be happy because there is nothing to be OTHER than happy. How horrible to have a human mind, and nothing to do with it.

I'm sorry, but I find Frye's "serious questioning" solipsistic and puerile, proceeding from a life of what is contemptuously called "First World Problems" and good minds unexercised. His points are not serious challenges to God or Christian belief.

Posted by: MarkBrunson on Thursday, 12 February 2015 at 10:55am GMT


Thanks very much for this. I do agree with much of what you write but that's not really the point: I appreciate the graciousness. On the arguments - depends where on the scale you want to start - but I do of course still think you have to slam in some theodicy quickly as a holding-measure against Fry-type attacks. Then you can do the subtle stuff.

Till next time,


Posted by: John on Thursday, 12 February 2015 at 11:35am GMT

Not to sound too defensive, but my references to Rowan's work were meant to suggest that there is a problem to theodicy, that there may be a problem with the expectations behind the questions that theodicies try to answer. Perhaps I put too much trust in Rowan: he can be really accessible when he wants to, but in this case, the problem is too stubborn. I do think there is an answer (not that that's the best word), as I said in my original post, but the answer is God, not in ideas about God. And we come face to face with that 'answer' in prayer and in our daily lives as we wrestle with all kinds of evils. I also think the incarnation says much the same thing: we encounter God in the midst of creation with all its joys and troubles. I also think that resurrection says both more and less about this: more inasmuch as resurrecting is God's doing, not ours; and less because most of us can't begin to imagine what the heck resurrection means, apart from knowing that it is not in vain that we place our ultimate trust in God.

My sense is that this is a terrifically difficult discussion to have with atheists. An appeal to religious experience is not likely to get us very far. And yet that appeal explains why I believe in a loving God -- and does so in a way that no theodicy could ever do.

At the same time, we can indeed point out that most of us -- believers, atheists or somewhere-in-between -- act as though things are ultimately worthwhile, that loving one another is worth it somehow, that even sacrificing our lives for one another makes some kind of sense in a universe where entropy will eventually win and where the universe will inevitably die out. It seems to me that this is a large part of what gives rise to the question of theodicy in the first place: we actually care. But why? That's where I'd start if I wanted to have a formal kind of engagement with the question. At the same time, in terms of being a human being who cares alongside others who care, my response is hardly abstract and it is simply to be present to the sufferer. In ministry, it always seems to me to be a mistake to try to explain (or explain away) suffering: you have the scientific or medical explanations for certain kinds of suffering, but the inevtability of suffering still gnaws.

As I said, I don't think an answer less than God will do.

Posted by: Joe on Thursday, 12 February 2015 at 1:08pm GMT

"As for giving us the escape from the suffering, we have it. Our minds, our skills, our medicines, our consciousness and compassion - all built right in"

That's a very human-centric view focused on our own century only.
It does not take into account earlier times with less medical knowledge and it does not take into account the suffering that runs through nature as a matter of course.

To say that "if God loves he must also love the parasite" is back to front. It tries to read love into a world that appears to be without it. Of course that can be done as an act of will.
But it cannot be deducted from what we see, and I cannot blame any atheist for not seeing it.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Thursday, 12 February 2015 at 4:38pm GMT


Thanks again. I will try to read said chapter.


Don't really understand. No one here is saying you have to be oxbridge-educated to talk about these questions and no one certainly is decrying those who aren't oxbridge-educated.

On parasites (very nasty ones, that is, many are benign): the answer is - I know this will annoy you - as I have stated it: (1) Because of evolution such creatures will occur. (2) Unless one is a very fundamentalist Christian, one does not believe that in his laboratory in the sky God designed and gave life to such parasites. (3) Therefore it is grossly simplifying to say God 'created' them, hence he is 'guilty' (or would be, if he existed, therefore he doesn't). (4) He is, nevertheless, to an extent responsible for their existence. (5) When innocents are maimed/ruined/killed by such parasites,there is a resposibility on God to 'make up'; (6) this is done through general resurrection.

Back to Joe. 'Difficult to talk to atheists'. Yes - but there are more and more of them. I actually think western Christianity is on the brink of collapse. Many reasons, of course, but essentially more and more people find central Christian claims implausible/irrelevant/incredible. So one needs to talk to atheists more and more.

Posted by: John on Thursday, 12 February 2015 at 8:30pm GMT

your answer does not annoy me, why would it. It is one of many possible answers.
What frustrates me is the number of people who dismiss the question.

And, you're right, your answer does not satisfy me.
"Because of evolution such creatures will occur". Yes, that is stating the obvious.
It does not explain why a loving God would have created this process of evolution. If a God wanted to get to where we are now, he's chosen the right process. It is not obviously loving.

And to what extent people find comfort in the idea that the resurrection "makes up" for suffering will have to be left to them to decide. We cannot simply "state that it is so" without betraying a huge lack of empathy and imagination.
Otherwise, as you rightly point out to Joe, many more people will find our Christian claims implausible and irrelevant.

I would want us all, collectively, to take the question more seriously and to try and find helpful ways of engaging with questioning atheists.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Friday, 13 February 2015 at 9:39am GMT

John: "But God didn't create that parasite worm — he only created part of the universe" or "But God didn't create that parasite worm — he just set the universe going without knowing how it would turn out" would seem to be adequate answers to Mr Fry but they don't seem to be exactly what the Church says to us, and given how well they deal with the problem, why do they come so late in these comments?

Does the general resurrection "make up" to the innocents of the animal kingdom, who are mostly those in need of a "making up"?

Posted by: Picky on Friday, 13 February 2015 at 2:01pm GMT

Well, I'm glad this conversation is continuing.

Erika, I think evolution was the best mechanism, otherwise you just get God creating puppets. I also think the negatives of evolution are easily overstated. The world is in many ways beautiful, animals are beautiful, there is much love. I completely agree questions about pain and suffering - hard-wired into evolution as they are - should not be ignored. That's why I'm confronting them head-on. And - pace Joe - I do think they raise questions of theodicy.

Picky: what God knew or could have known at the outset of the process are difficult questions. I am holding God responsible in some sense. (And I should say here that I am a very liberal Christian who thinks that the traditional Christian 'sin narrative' is very one-sided and needs hefty supplementation from other narratives). As for innocent animal suffering, obviously I do think evolution problematises animal-human divisions, and it may be that the general resurrection should include all living things - though in some relatively non-physical form, otherwise the whole cycle would have to start all over again. (That's why I think those who insist on a physical resurrection, whether of Jesus or of all people at the end of time, haven't begun to think things through.) Anyway, glad reasonable relations all round restored here. Things have been a bit scratchy - and I'm sorry for contributing to this.

Posted by: John on Friday, 13 February 2015 at 10:02pm GMT

One of the things overlooked about the suffering of animals is that we don't know. We know that they feel pain, we know that they are abused by us, but pain is not the same as suffering. This will outrage and offend many, but it is true. We can't speak for what animals feel. My cats, when sick, are in pain, or, at least, discomfort, but I can only be certain that I suffer.

To the exploitation of animals, even the Biblical narrative makes that a consequence of human sinfulness - it isn't seen as a normative or healthy expression of the stewardship of the world. Which comes back to our actions and decisions as humans being the primary source of the unhappiness and suffering in all levels of creation, and to the question of free will. What would you have? A humanity that is not free, not sentient? Really, what is the point of such a creation? God already had God's love, and love isn't possible without free will.

As for talking to atheists about faith, why do you need a strategy? What are you trying to win? If you want to be a public apologist, do so. If atheists engage you in goodwill, then just talk. You have faith, share it. If you want to convince people like Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox, Ricky Gervais - forget it. They are dogmatists, fundamentalists, provocateurs, conscious builders of division for their own goals - they are the mirror image of the fundamentalists (even down to being privileged white men of a higher economic and professional class), and their goal is not Truth or even truth but partisanship; there, you are merely an apologist, and one without much hope. People long to believe that their unhappiness is someone else's fault, and Christians are good a target as any, better than most, when you have so many right-wing extremists calling themselves Christian and destroying all goodwill and human accomplishment! God will not let Christianity die, if it is His Will. But it might be good for it to suffer, and these people want it to suffer - the new priesthood of Fry, Dawkins, Cox, et al, for personal glory, and others for something to alleviate their own frustration. Once the two fundamentalisms fight one another to a standstill, and both sides' supporters realize that nothing's improved their lives, true Christianity can emerge and be tolerated again.

Posted by: MarkBrunson on Saturday, 14 February 2015 at 6:03am GMT
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