Stephen Fry’s God is no straw man

“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?” That’s what I’d say.
—Stephen Fry

It is right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die. God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs. So God is God! He rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good. God owes us nothing.
—John Piper

—//—

Stephen Fry clearly struck a chord with his impassioned denunciation of God. It’s fast approaching exceeded five million views on YouTube. There’ve been no shortage of responses, either—even Russell Brand weighed in with a video rebuttal… before he had time to make his bed, apparently.

For me, however, the response that resonated most deeply was not a rebuttal. It was my friend Ian’s heart-wrenching story of how he can relate to the anguish Fry articulated, even though (unlike Fry) Ian identifies as a Christian.

Other responses, for the most part, fell more clearly into the “rebuttal” category. Many expressed surprise or bewilderment at Fry’s depiction of God. That’s not the God we know, they protested. Where did Fry get the idea that God is the author of eye-burrowing parasites or bone cancer in children?

It turns out, we don’t have to look far to find the answer.

The second quote at the start of this post is an actual thing a prominent Christian pastor and author has said. Not someone on the lunatic fringe. Someone squarely in the heart of mainstream evangelical Christianity. “It is right for God to slaughter women and children,” John Piper argues. “Anytime he pleases.” Because whatever God does, according to Piper, “is just and right and good.”

Bone cancer in children.

Eye-burrowing worms.

According to this view, God is the author of both. Such a God is every bit as capricious and unreasonable as Fry says he is, because he does not operate according to a consistent or predictable ethic. Whatever this God decides to do is, in that moment, “right and good”—for no other reason than he chose to do it.

Such a God provides no credible standard of morality for us to live by. Such a God cannot be trusted. Such a God cannot be said to be “for us” in any meaningful sense. Such a God exists purely for himself, for his own glory. And if this God decides that slaughtering a million children is the thing that will bring him the most glory, then according to Piper, he is entirely right to do so.

None of which is to pick on Piper per se, rather to point out that there are lots of Christians who hold the same view of God, even if they haven’t been as diligent as Piper in unpacking it full implications. (I disagree strongly with Piper, but I respect him for following his theological convictions to their logical end.)

Indeed, you can build a case for Piper’s view of God through a selective reading of Scripture. Isaiah 45 says God brings both prosperity and calamity. “When disaster comes to a city,”  another prophet asks rhetorically, “has not the Lord caused it?” Both statements ought to be read in their immediate literary and historical context, but it’s far easier to universalize them.

And of course, there are a number of places in the Old Testament where God appears to orchestrate, even command, precisely the sort of atrocities which Fry laments and Piper accepts as normal divine behavior.

Now, I happen to believe there are other explanations which make better sense of the full sweep of Scripture. I happen to believe this is one of many reasons why we shouldn’t treat everything in the Bible as “a list of normative behaviors” (to quote Zack Hunt).

I happen to believe that Jesus is the primary lens through which we see and understand God rightly. Everything else we might say about God—including everything else the Bible might say—must be filtered through this lens. (Note: not discarded or dismissed. Filtered.)

I happen to believe the image we get from Jesus is of a God who emptied himself of power instead of using it against us—something that Giles Fraser pointed out in his response to Stephen Fry. I believe in a suffering, vulnerable savior who set out to right all the wrongs that Fry listed—and I believe this is the most definitive, tangible image of God we have. Not the God who slaughters children at a whim.

But that’s not really my point. The truth is, it’s easy to get up in arms at what Fry said about God. It’s easy to take offense—and then go on the offense. It’s easy to ostracize those who see reality differently than we do.

What’s not so easy is to listen—in this case, to acknowledge that Fry was not attacking a straw-man version of God. He was describing precisely the kind of God that many Christians believe in and worship.

If we do not allow Jesus to fully shape our understanding of God, we will end up with exactly the kind of deity that Stephen Fry so forcefully denounced.

19 thoughts on “Stephen Fry’s God is no straw man

  1. Two of my favorite authors present a worldview that counters Piper (and, because Frye is reacting to Piper, also counters him).

    Tolkien: The universe and all that is in it was planned and sung into being with beauty and wonder. However, a corrupting influence insinuated itself into the song (Melkor) bringing into the world horror amidst the beauty. Iluvatar, the Creator God, did not create the evils. Melkor corrupted the good into evil. This is also shown in the books as well in that Morgoth/Melkor could not create new creatures but could only corrupt existing creatures. Orcs are corrupted Elves, Trolls are corrupted Ents, and so on… even the Nazgul are corrupted men. But all that corruption is taken into the song, transmuted, and brought to a beautiful end… that we haven’t seen yet.

    Stephen Donaldson’s “Chronicles of Thomas Covenant” has a similar theme of corruption. The beautiful Land of Donaldson’s world is, at it’s core, beautiful and pure… but a corruptor, Lord Foul, insinuated himself into the world at the time of Creation and has since then been corrupting the world. The Creator cannot remove the corruptor directly because, to do so would mean unmaking the world before its time.

    Even in Scripture, this theme holds hope… God created EVERYTHING and called it good.. but it didn’t stay good… at some point in history, that good got corrupted and hence we have horrors like cancer, burrowing worms, etc.

    Piper’s God? Yeah, I echo Frye in questioning Piper’s God. But when I see the God as revealed in Christ, that God I do not question because I see love, I see mercy, and I see the power to take what has been corrupted and make it over, renew it, into something beautiful.

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  2. “When I see the God as revealed in Christ…I see love, I see mercy, I see the power to take what has been corrupted and make it into something beautiful.” YES. You stated it so much more beautifully (and succinctly!) than me.

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  3. I found your blog back when you were looking for women authors to add to your reading list, and I’ve been coming back ever since. I never cease to be inspired by the respectful way you engage people you disagree with. Thank you.

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  4. OK, I am going to take a devil’s advocate approach (I often do) for the sake of debate.

    Could it be said that instead of taking the position that God created the evil in the world, such as cancer, He did not create it but still allows it? Of course we could say that – it’s effectively what’s being said in the rebuttal argument. So the follow up to that is why, if God is love and mercy, would He continue to allow some of the most unimaginable things to happen to truly innocent people, such as young children? And if God is in fact willing to let these things happen, then isn’t that just as bad as if He created them in the first place? Doesn’t that make Him just as culpable? Aren’t we talking semantics?

    This is of course assuming that you agree that God is omnipotent, which I think we all do here. That allows for the fact then that God has a choice in whether or not to allow suffering. I’d say in fact that He does have that choice.

    So what we have then is a scenario where we have a God who creates a perfect, beautiful, and completely good world. Evil comes and corrupts it. God could stop it, but chooses not to. Setting aside the misery people bring on themselves through poor choices (sin), there’s still a huge amount of horrific pain this world brought upon innocents (children) – torture, rape, sexual trafficking, etc. In what we can observe, God appears to stay uninvolved. To me, there is no effectual difference. Either way, a God who has the power to end suffering chooses not to do so. One can argue that He will deliver us all in His time (spelled out in Revelations), but that is small comfort to many of the millions who suffer until then.

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    • Greg Boyd has a response to that in what he calls The Warfare Worldview… that there are forces of good and evil at work in the world and that our human experience consists of how that warfare plays out… sometimes evil launches an attack causing cancer and good counter attacks by bringing healing… and so forth. It’s not that God is necessarily choosing to ALLOW evil to do it’s thing but that God, being good, is actively fighting the final battles of that eternal war against evil. The victory has already been assured…but evil is fighting a rear-guard action as it retreats.

      This is one other way the book of Revelation gives hope to Christianity… the veil is pulled back for us to see that war going on while giving us hope that we are already assured the victory. Yes, God is omnipotent…but honestly, when evil attacked my wife with cancer, while God could have easily cured it with a “poof” and a cloud of magic smoke, he chose instead to TRANSMUTE that evil into the good of: 1) a renewed understanding of God’s provision for me and my wife as we experienced what we called “manna moments” throughout the treatment period 2) a refreshed and restored relationship between my wife and I as we found our marriage purified and refined through the fires of the trial 3) a witness to the rest of the world around us and to our friends and family of what a life built on faith looks like when illness and death face us 4) a deeper understanding of what it means to have faith in suffering… and probably many more ways that we are still discovering…

      So, from my limited human perspective, yeah, why doesn’t that omnipotent God simply “fix” everything that evil breaks? But, from God’s divine perspective… perhaps… just perhaps… the GREATER good is served by not simply “fixing” the problem but transmuting it and redeeming it… Again, for me, Tolkien’s imagery of Melkor’s rebellion being transmuted into the Song and making it beautiful is how I see God at work. The evil itself is not beautiful, not good, but God can take it and use it for his glory…

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      • If God is omnipotent, why does he have to fight a battle at all? Why not just snap his fingers and be victorious? The dualistic “cosmic battle” scenario only makes sense if either (1) God’s limitations require him to fight a long, drawn-out, carefully planned battle campaign in order to win, with humans as pawns, or (2) God is unable to intervene in the world at all and requires proxies of limited ability to fight on his behalf. You can’t have omnipotence cake and eat it too.

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      • Paul D… your assumption is that an omnipotent God has no restrictions on how that power can be used when, in fact, God is omnipotent in that God CAN do anything and everything but will not do anything that is counter to God’s character. God can strike down and kill any evil person God wants to…but is that in God’s character? Is God a God of lightning bolts and ultimate retribution? Or is God a God of grace, love, and second (or third or fourth) changes? Is God a God who manipulates people and things (as you said, like pawns on some game board) or is God a God who allows people the opportunities to CHOOSE right or wrong. To quote someone else “A gift demanded is no gift at all”. If God demands and manipulates people into loving him and following him, is it really love?

        God is able to intervene, is able to manipulate people, is able to do whatever is required…but chooses not to, not out of impotence, not out of inability, but out of love.

        You see, humans are not the pawns in the game, we are the prize… and the methods by which God aims to win our hearts and souls are not through the extertion of extreme power but in the incredible love that is offered through service and sacrifice. This is the gospel…

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    • Hey Pat –

      These are huge questions. In stumbling toward an answer (or something that vaguely resembles one), I would first say that I agree with you—yes, if God is omnipotent, he can choose whether to allow suffering. He could banish evil with a single word. The question is, at what cost?

      I think the cost would be our freedom. And this is what complicates the answer for me—not because our freedom is so sacred (that would assume we’re the center of it all), but because freedom and love go together. Ultimately, you cannot coerce someone into loving you. You cannot truly love someone you coerce. We know this to be true in our relationships with each other. I think it’s true of God as well.

      In which case, the price of a perfect, pain-free world would be our freedom. Our freedom to choose to love God (and to be truly loved by him). Instead of love, our existence would be defined by coercion. (In fact, most of the suffering we experience at the hands of others is, I think, a renunciation of love for coercion.)

      Sometimes, in my own experience with pain, I’m tempted to think I could gladly do with less freedom if it meant less suffering. But an existence totally devoid of freedom? I’m not sure I could stomach that.

      I don’t know how helpful this explanation is when we turn to so-called “natural” phenomena which contribute to suffering—e.g. cancer. Except perhaps to suggest that all of creation is interconnected, interdependent…and so humanity’s choice (as stewards of creation) to use our freedom to go our own way has consequences for all of creation. I would also echo Robert’s comments about the warfare worldview.

      So for me, freedom (which is necessary for love) allows the possibility of pain. But that same freedom also allows the possibility of healing and restoration. Given all the suffering in our world, it’s fair to ask if God is all love and mercy. But if he is, then it’s also good to ask, what are God’s means of showing love and mercy in our world today? The answer is us. This is not a new idea. Ancient Israel was supposed to be a “kingdom of priests” to other nations. The church is supposed to be the “body of Christ”—i.e. the closest thing to the physical presence of Christ (who healed disease and eased people’s suffering wherever he want) in our world today.

      That’s what I would seek to contribute to the conversation. Of course, it’s one thing to have a theoretical debate. But when suffering hits close to home, it’s another matter altogether.

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      • Since I posted my comment, there have been several good responses. And yet I remain skeptical…

        Ben points out that a God who banished evil would cost us our freedom. Yet that’s not necessarily true. Yes, we are free to choose whether or not we love God, but couldn’t we also make the same choice if God banished evil? Isn’t that the case in the Millenium described in Revelations when Satan is banished for a thousand years?

        Robert’s example of his wife’s cancer, and God’s choosing to not miraculously cure it but rather to allow it to be redeemed is fine. However, it is narrow in scope. An illness is a part of natural human existence in our broken world, and one which is said to be done away with in the time to come. But it’s also by far not the worst thing people may face in this world. Children turned into child soldiers by being forced to hack their parents to death is far worse. Young girls subjected to FGM or child marriage is far worse. That’s not to make light of anyone who has to face cancer. But that’s to say that the horrors human beings inflict on each other is beyond many of our worst nightmares.

        Yet God allows it to go on and on.

        For the life of me, I can’t see any reason why this great cosmic battle would need to go on. God is right and Satan is wrong. The longer He waits to end this, the more suffering happens, and, to be blunt, it seems both pointless and cruel.

        As Robert mentions in a later comment, God allows people to choose right or wrong. That’s all well and good. But when people make the choice that’s ‘wrong’, and others suffer horribly, the God shared with us by Jesus doesn’t seem to fit with what I see. The ‘Heavenly Father who cares for the birds of the sky, will He not care so much more for you’ doesn’t match the treatment received by innocent people with limbs blown off because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time when a car bomb went off or a military shelled a civilian neighborhood. If God allows these things when He could easily choose to bring about the fulfillment of all that was foretold already, I have to ask what sort of God we’ll REALLY come face to face with we do get to “heaven”.

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  5. How dared Stephen Fry help to create the Blackadder 2 episode that blamed the victim for the undeserved suffering of school bullying, by linking joke villainous character to the receiving, not the perpetrating, of misery in children? It’s not right. Why should I respect capricious mean-minded stupid comedy that targets children for such injustice and pain for attributes not their fault, in real schools after the episode’s every broadcast? What’s that about? You could easily have created a world where this did not exist.

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  6. So if I read you correctly, you’re saying Piper’s view of God doesn’t properly consider Christ. That’s some statement! Although I tend to agree with it.
    I also like Tolkien’s Simillarions and its presentation of creation.

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    • Yes, I think that’s a good way to put it. Which is not to say Piper doesn’t understand anything of who Jesus is or what he did, but I do believe he misses just how profoundly Jesus ought to shape our understanding of God.

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  7. Pingback: Name that quote: the Bible vs. the Quran | Ben Irwin

  8. “According to this view, God is the author of both. Such a God is every bit as capricious and unreasonable as Fry says he is, because he does not operate according to a consistent or predictable ethic. Whatever this God decides to do is, in that moment, “right and good”—for no other reason than he chose to do it.”

    I have to disagree here. Piper would never call God capricious. I know this because Piper is only trying to give the Reformed understanding of scripture (though I don’t know if he is Reformed) which understands that, yes, God works all things according to the good purposes of His will, and that includes death, in whatever form it comes in. Capricious would imply that God does these things for no reason, but God says that everything has a reason, even our tragedies, all of which “work together for good for them who love God, who are the called according to His purpose.” When God had Joseph sold into slavery by his brothers, the scripture reads that what the brother’s did “was for evil, but God meant it for good” to save many more lives. In the case of Job, quite clearly God took the lives of his children (for he gave them over to the power of Satan, whom God provoked in the first place to look upon Job), and this for the purpose of chastising Job! We can’t get by this. God “gave” and He reserved the right to “take away,” even employing the devil for such purposes, but never is this “for no reason.” Certainly we cannot understand why God does what He does in every case, but we can rest assured that it is “for His good purpose,” whatever it may be, no matter how horrible it may be.

    The God you are talking about, who doesn’t kill anyone (though it specifically says in the scripture that he ordains the number of our days himself!), is powerless over sin, too weak or either unwilling to stop evil. But my God brings good even out of evil. This is a significant difference.

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