Stephen Fry outside the pearly gates

It might sound like the beginning of a joke, but when Stephen Fry was asked in a TV interview over the weekend what he would say to God if he unexpectedly found himself outside the pearly gates, he gave a serious and angry reply.

Fry, who is well known as an atheist, responded: ‘I’d 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 which is so full of injustice and pain?’ See the whole exchange in the clip above.

Stephen Fry’s outburst against God isn’t original, as philosophers and theologians have been debating the issue of why suffering exists (when God is said to be all-powerful and all-good) for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. One modern theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, calls it ‘the open wound of life in this world’.

The psalms in the Bible include plenty of people arguing with God over the terrible things which happen to them, and a whole book of the Bible – the book of Job – is devoted to a man who loses his family, possessions and health and brokenly tries to work out why a good God has allowed such calamities to fall on him.

The Christian faith not only acknowledges suffering as a real problem for faith, but expresses it in language which is as dark and anguished as Stephen Fry’s. Even Jesus cries out on the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Stephen Fry’s anger was powerfully expressed and works perfectly as a short clip on YouTube. He managed to condense strong feelings which everyone has about the injustice of suffering and fashion them into a powerful complaint against God. Because of that, his YouTube clip went viral (3.7 million views and counting), triggering a torrent of posting on Facebook and Twitter, as well as commentary on blogs and in the media.

Pete Greig, one of the founders of the 24-7 Prayer network, posted a thoughtful blog entitled, Amen to Stephen Fry’s atheism. Responding to Fry’s question of why he should respect God when there is so much suffering, Greig says, ‘It’s a sensible question. And the answer is, of course, that he shouldn’t, he mustn’t, respect such a deity. And neither do I. Let’s not leap to defend a god we don’t believe in. We have a name for a “capricious, mean-minded, stupid” being, but it isn’t “God”. Read his post here.

Meanwhile, Krish Kandiah, a British evangelical leader, wrote: ‘At the heart of the Fry’s argument is the idea that the world that exists is as God intended it to be. He assumes that God deliberately created a universe with appalling undeserved suffering. But a central doctrine of the Christian faith is that God created a good and perfect world and after the fall of humanity nothing is fully as it should be. To blame God for natural disasters and childhood cancer is like blaming the landlord after tenants have trashed their house.’ Read his post here.

For short videos which address the problem of God and suffering, see the following:

Why does God allow pain and suffering? – A short film (8 mins) by the Curiosity Collective of writers, philosophers and thinkers exploring the question of God and suffering.

Is God good? – This animation (2 mins) introduces the free-will argument, a key Christian response to the problem of suffering in God’s world.

God and suffering – Professor of Philosophy Peter Kreeft gives a philosopher’s view on the issues surrounding God and suffering (5 mins).