God, Suffering, and Stephen Fry

by Professor Shane Clifton
9th June 2015

In a video viewed more than 6 million times on YouTube, Stephen Fry was asked what he’d say were he to meet God at the pearly gates. He replied:

“I would say to God, ‘Bone cancer in children, what’s that all about? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?'”

Here Fry sets out a vivid and powerful version of the atheist argument from evil. There are various ways in which theologians and philosophers have responded to the problem of pain, and while they contain substantive insight, too often philosophical theodicy talks about evil and suffering in the abstract, setting aside the existential – the personal experience of suffering that defies the impassive logic that frames abstract talk of evil. This is particularly so in public debates between atheists and theists which, especially in online comment forums, too often devolve into ad hominem, shallow and vitriolic attacks.

In this light, before responding to Fry, it’s important that I comment on my own situation and clarify some terminology. My examination of this topic stems from an accident I had in 2010 that left me a quadriplegic. So I have some sympathy with Fry’s complaint, and since the accident I have struggled with faith and doubt. Even though I mostly come out on the side of belief, I may well air a complaint or two when and if I arrive at the pearly gates.

I say this because the problem of pain is not a theoretical issue for me, but a thoroughly personal one. This doesn’t make my thinking about the topic any better than anyone else’s, but it does stand as a reminder that this is not principally an intellectual topic. The questions, Why has this happened to me? and, Where are you, God? are much more than topics for debate, but get to the heart of what it is to be human. Perhaps what distinguishes us most from other creatures is our capacity to ask, Why? and to try to make sense of life in the midst of both its wonders and its horrors.

Because this is so, the problem of pain demands a sensitivity and generosity that seems so rarely evident in contemporary debate.

With respect to terminology, it’s important to note that pain, in and of itself, is not the issue. As a person who suffers from distorted pain signals, I’ve learned that pain serves the purpose of warning us of danger. So the problem isn’t pain per se, but ongoing meaningless pain (physical and psychological) – in other words, purposeless suffering.

There is also an obvious difference between suffering and evil. The latter references sinful human choices, whereas the former also incorporates the suffering that comes from natural causes. In citing bone cancer, Fry is arguing from the hardship of human fragility. I’ll return to that issue presently, but I believe there is value in contemplating our own responsibility for the suffering endemic in human society.

The usual starting point for dealing with the problem of pain is to assert that suffering is a consequence of human sin. Whether or not this carries explanatory insight may depend upon a person’s view of divine sovereignty. Those who hold to a Reformed position, understanding God’s sovereignty as absolute, determining every action of the creation including human choices, cannot reference sin to absolve God of the blame for human suffering.

Alternatively, those who draw from the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas (including myself) hold that God is the primary cause of everything that is true, good and beautiful – but not of evil. Evil is understood as privation, as the absence of the true and the good, and so it is the negation of God. God doesn’t cause what he explicitly condemns, and so isn’t responsible for the suffering caused by human evil.

Even so, the assertion that suffering is a consequence of human sin needs to be handled with care. That evil is the negation of God, the absence of truth, goodness and reason, is important to underscore, because it reminds us that we shouldn’t draw on evil to explain or justify anything, not even the problem of pain. Evil, by definition, is unreasonable and unfathomable. So, the only appropriate response to evil is protest and condemnation, as well as determined efforts to work toward healing and restoration. When a horrible evil is cited as a reason for atheism, a theist should resist replying with any suggestion that God has his reasons for causing or allowing such an evil. This is not only logically absurd, but it diminishes the horror of evil, as if there could ever be justification for rape, murder, abuse and so on.

In fact, in attempting to make this case, I am in danger of making evil an abstraction, of talking about it in theory. But evil is a concrete event that demands a concrete response.

At this point, an atheist would rightly respond, “But if God were good, why doesn’t he intervene?” Similarly, some argue that if God were real (or loving), then he should have created and superintended things in some other way, so that suffering was eliminated. It is not obvious, however, what that “some other way” might be. If the freedom to choose is considered to be central to human identity and action, then liberty to pursue truth, to do good and to love is necessarily matched by the freedom to be irrational, evil and hateful. For God to eliminate free will, and hence evil choices – if that is what is meant by intervention – is to make robots of humanity.

Moving beyond the issue of freedom and sin, many formal theodicies argue that suffering (including evil) must serve a greater purpose; that although in our finitude we cannot comprehend it, God’s loving purposes outweigh and overwhelm the suffering we experience. The point being made is that atheists cannot make a logical case against God based on suffering, because they aren’t in a position to comprehend God’s reasons for ordering the world in the way that he has. Christians have many good reasons for believing in the loving character of God – especially in the life, message and sacrifice of Jesus – and so can trust that God has a grand loving purpose for permitting suffering, one that is further supported by the promised resolution: the future new life when justice is restored and suffering done away with.

There is some truth here. Thinking about my disability, I’ve met quadriplegics who claim that if they could have their life over, they wouldn’t change a thing; that their disability has enriched their life in irreplaceable ways. Many in the deaf community have come to a similar conclusion, understanding their seeming impairment as a gift. It is probably true that most people who live with a disability would be able to identify some good that has resulted from their impairment.

In my short time of living with quadriplegia, I’ve experienced staggering generosity, deep love, heartfelt compassion, courageous determination and exemplary care. Indeed, depending upon how we respond, a case can be made that sickness, injury and disability (whatever their cause) enriches society, since almost every human virtue arises as a response to hardship.

Even so, there is a world of difference between the assertion that good can come from hardship, and that suffering is necessary for the good.

In terms of theodicy, the problem with the greater good position, especially with reference to evil, is that it diminishes suffering. So, for example, if God (or a society that practices sacrifice) causes the abuse and suffering of a child, any good that comes from that action is corrupted. No matter what the good, or the glories of a future compensation, it can’t be made sense of, and it isn’t worth the price that is paid. This insight shouldn’t be up for debate – it’s an attitude that atheists and theists should share. In drawing on evil for the sake of argument we underplay its significance, and are in danger of passivity, especially if we try to justify it. As I’ve already said, evil, once recognised, can only be condemned and resisted.

Still, you might ask, if God exists, why create a world in which evil is possible? And what about suffering that results from natural causes? To respond to both questions requires that we face up to the freedom, finitude and fragility that are part and parcel of what it is to be human.

I’ve searched high and low for an explanation for my quadriplegia, and tried to imagine the purposes of God in my situation. But ultimately, I’m a quadriplegic because to be human is to be subject to the vulnerabilities and frailties of finite life. To be human – a creature of the earth – is to be born, to grow, to break down and to die, to be limited in power, strength and knowledge, to be fragile and vulnerable, to be constituted by DNA and imperfect genes, and made up of bones that flex and break, muscles that tear, and blood that spills. It is to have the freedom to think and imagine and to make choices, but also to make mistakes and to live with regret, and to build a life in families and communities, as well as to suffer the mistakes and regrets of others – and sometimes to be subject to horrible evil and unfathomable suffering.

In his excellent new book A Public God, Neil Ormerod responds to the idea that God should have created a world without suffering by observing that, “To repudiate the conditions from which we have emerged is to repudiate our own existence.” Andrew Gleason, in A Frightening Love: Recasting the Problem of Evil, similarly notes, “There is an absurdity in putting an end to human life to spare us the suffering it involves.”

One of the problems of modern society, with all of its medical and technological wonders, is the implicit demand that we should live forever in perfect health. We keep our dead and dying out of sight, we abort babies that don’t match our ideals of normalcy, we worship a photo-shopped image of beauty, and in consequence, suffering, disability and fragility come as a complete and utter shock. We just don’t know what to do with them.

Why then, you might be thinking, do you believe in God? While I really need longer than one paragraph to answer that question, let me conclude as I started, by noting that I empathise with Fry in his complaint to God. Clearly for him, suffering is not just an intellectual problem (although, if God does not exist, I wonder with whom he’s really angry?). The writers of Scripture, I think, would also be sympathetic; consider Job, or the psalmists, or Jesus himself: “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Nevertheless, in addition to hating this bloody, broken body, I have also come to appreciate that life is wondrous, and sometimes even sacred. This is not to weigh the good against the bad, but rather, at one and the same time, to see the wonder and tragedy of life, and to identify God in both.

This position isn’t irrational or anti-science, but instead understands God as the ground (the primary cause) of the laws of nature and beauty of the natural world. So, while God isn’t the cause of evil, I have found that the experience of the Spirit, sensed in the darkest of times, has provided hope and given my life meaning.


  • A version of this paper was originally published on ABC Religion and Ethics 26 Feb 2015