Stephen Fry, British actor, comedian, sometimes intellectual, and the long-time face of QI was interviewed recently by the ABC’s Tony Jones. Asked about his views on God, Fry raised the question of why an all-powerful, loving god, would create or allow pain and suffering in the universe it had made. It’s hardly a new question, but clearly it’s one that I think all of us, whether believers or not, ask ourselves—and God—from time to time. I must admit, that whenever I hear it asked, I feel a bit uneasy since it seems like a legitimate gripe, and the answers aren’t always clear.
So with that in mind, I’m going to comment on two possible objections to Stephen Fry and ‘the problem of evil and suffering’: the first I’ll call the Arrogance Argument, and the second is known as the ‘Free Will Defense’. Neither of them are original, so if you’ve thought about these issues before, you might be disappointed to find no new insight, sorry.
The best place to start is to try and clarify what the challenge to Christians is. In essence, the argument goes:
1. If a Christian God exists, then He is all-powerful, and good.
2. If God is all-powerful, then He has the power to eliminate unnecessary suffering.
3. If God is good, then He wants to eliminate unnecessary suffering.
4. Unnecessary suffering exists.
5. If unnecessary suffering exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate unnecessary suffering, or doesn’t want to eliminate it.
6. Therefore, the Christian God doesn’t exist.
Related to this, but slightly different is an argument that doesn’t seek to disprove the existence of God per se, but rather just express anger at the way He does, or doesn’t do things. This position, which is less about philosophy and more about emotions and human experiences, is closer to Fry’s comments—but more about him later. It should be pointed out that there’s a difference between arguments that conclude God’s existence is possible (in terms of logic), and those that conclude that His existence is more or less plausible. What’s below concerns both: firstly about likelihood, and secondly about logic.
The Arrogance Argument
If you look at number 3 above, Christians for the most part believe it. But many people, like Stephen Fry, it seems, substitute would for the word wants.
That is, rather than saying that God wants to stop suffering, they say He would stop suffering:
If God were all-powerful and good, He would stop suffering.
They sound like the same thing, but they’re far from it: by changing wants for would, whoever makes the statement must first claim to have a very thorough understanding of God and His will.
Lacking this profound knowledge of God, what seems to have happened here is that people who say what God would do, are in fact projecting what they would do, onto God. It’s as if some try to make God in their image, rather than the other way around. They’ve anthropo- or ego-morphised—given human or my characteristics to—God: ‘If I were God, I would …’
The illocutionary force—the intended meaning—of the statement: ‘God wouldn’t allow suffering’ is actually:
‘I wouldn’t allow suffering, therefore God wouldn’t, therefore God doesn’t exist.’
‘I can’t think of a good reason for God to allow suffering, therefore there can’t be one at all’.
Another substitution for wants, can be should—i.e. God should stop suffering—but either way, this argument is based on either a significant misunderstanding of the incomprehensibility of God, an unfortunate overestimation of human abilities, or just telling God what to do.
Unlike those who might try to find comprehensible reasons for why certain ‘bad’ events occur—for example the good that might result from the death of a relative—some Christians, while perhaps feeling frustrated at God and the evil that seems to have been allowed, continue to trust in His plan despite the suffering around them. The example of Job in the Bible and his pain is an obvious case in point. While losing everything and not understanding why God allowed him to experience it, Job did not question the existence of God, but trusted that it was still under His control, however to the contrary it might have looked.
‘Free Will Defense’
US philosopher Alvin Plantinga, a Christian who has long grappled with the problem of evil, presents an argument that does not try to answer why God might allow suffering, but rather tries to show how, in terms of logic, an all-powerful, good, God is not incompatible with evil.
Taking as his starting point the assumption that humans have free will, Plantinga states that even an all-powerful God cannot make, for example, a person do something freely—if He could make them, they’d no longer be free. Thus, it is possible that after receiving free will, people can choose to sometimes do things that are evil, and cause suffering to others. God cannot intervene in this situation, so the argument goes, or he would violate the free will He’s given to people.
Objectors to this argument might question why people so often, or ever, choose to do evil. A Christian answer, of course, is people’s inherent sinfulness, but this alone is unlikely to convince those who don’t believe in God or sin in the first place. Or, on the other hand, some might ask how a good God would allow natural evil, or events not resulting from human choices—natural disasters, diseases, etc. The appropriate answer to this, and there’s no disgrace in it, is to say ‘I don’t know’. Although that’s not to say that Plantinga and others haven’t thought deeply about these objections and proposed ways of dealing with them. Also worth pointing out is the fact that Plantinga’s argument isn’t necessarily shared by all Christians. He takes an incompatibilist view of free will, saying that it and its assumed opposite, determinism, can’t go hand in hand. Compatibilists, however, might argue that both free will and determinism can coexist.
To go back to Fry, it’s pretty clear that he uses the Arrogance Argument. He at times suggests how he would rule, if he were God, or simply expresses his anger at the god he doesn’t believe in. When asked earlier this year what he would like to ask God, if he got the chance, he said:
“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?”
While perhaps choosing their words more carefully, I suspect this is a feeling that many Christians feel now and then, and there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with that, provided they hear God’s response:
“Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Have the gates of death been shown to you? … Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness? Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth? Tell me, if you know all this. (Job 38)
But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (Romans 9)
In the presence of such power, the sensible thing seems to be to submit. Also, and while it probably won’t do much to convince those who don’t believe in God anyway, to think about the suffering that Jesus went through for people’s sake—clearly He understands, if anyone does, what pain is. It might sound like a Sunday school cop-out, but at the end of the day, what was learnt there was that God doesn’t want humans to suffer the punishment they deserve. So much so that God was willing to put all that suffering on Jesus. If God was willing to pay the ultimate price to overcome suffering, I’ll gratefully accept it and be quietly confident that He’s got things under control.