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The problem of Evil: responses to Stephen Fry

The problem of Evil: responses to Stephen Fry

Last Monday we posted an item about an interview with famed British comedic actor Stephen Fry “where he is asked a hypothetical question by presenter Gay Byrne. “Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and you are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to him, her, it?”

Fry responds with indignation, stating that he’d criticize God for the natural evils within the world. Fry explains that his atheism is founded not merely on the idea that there is no God, but that if there was a God, he’d be a monstrous and capricious creature.”

Several commenter in the UK have published responses worth looking at.  The problem of evil has been a fertile ground of study and speculation in theology for a long as, well… for as long as there’s been theology.

Giles Fraser, writing in the Guardian admits to an admiration of Fry’s honesty in his answer as well as Fry’s willingness to speak truth to power (even a power he doesn’t believe in).

And though I think there is a whopper of a mistaken assumption at the heart of his answer, I nonetheless think it was an admirable one.

Why? Because what Fry was asked was what he would say to God if he met him face to face. And this presumes that God exists. So imagine: Fry is sitting opposite God and telling him that he is a bastard because he invented cancer and insects that burrow into children’s eyes. These things are pinned on God by Fry because God is literally the creator of everything and all-powerful. God could have done something to change the situation, but he chose not to. QED: he is a bastard.

What greater example of speaking truth to power could there be than this? And for absolutely no reward. For if Fry is right about God being an omnipotent bastard, then he could hardly expect to be rewarded for his honest observations. He tells the truth then burns in eternity. In this scenario, Fry is entirely heroic in his truth telling.

Too many religious people actually worship power. They imagine the source of ultimate power, give it a name (God, Allah, Yahweh) etc, and then try and cosy up to it, aligning their interests with those of the boss. In this they are just the same as many non-religious people, except they believe that ultimate power is metaphysically situated. Whether it be a king or a prime minister or a CEO or God: the temptation is always to suck up to power.

Author Madeline Davies also admires Fry’s willingness to answer honestly, suggesting that struggling with the answer is an important part of what it means to live faithfully – to follow Jesus even in the face of contrary evidence; to follow the one whose answer to death is resurrection.

I don’t have the answer to Fry’s question.

But I have rejected his God.

I can’t, and don’t, believe in a God who is “capricious, mean-minded, stupid”.

Neither do I believe in the sort of heaven presented in the film on death produced by the British Humanist Association, which he narrated – a place you hope to scrape into if you’ve done enough good things to merit a reward.

To be fair, Fry was responding to the sort of God given to him by the presenter: the bouncer at the “pearly gates”.

(Incidentally, it was quite funny when this presenter said: “And you think you’re going to get in?”

My personal impression of God post the two-year Bible read is that he has a soft spot for ranters.

I also imagine he found the Speckled Jim episode hilarious.)

So, no, I don’t spend my life cravenly thanking a God who sits on a cloud just watching while we suffer.

The God I believe in is loving, compassionate, present – sometimes through other people – and cries with those who suffer.

“Jesus wept”


posted by Jon White


Image: The Raising of Lazarus by Vincent Van Gogh



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David Streever

Thanks for the follow-up, Jon; I enjoyed reading these!

Philip B. Spivey

I sometimes wonder why the notion of Evil exists no where else in the universe except in the human heart. Is it one of OUR many creations?

If I understand the term Evil, it’s about intentional harm and injury. If an earthquake rattles, a volcano belches or children live with diseased eyes—is that Evil, per se? I don’t think so.

I believe that Evil is the human proclivity to neglect basic human needs; Evil is the inability or unwillingness to fully and adequately minister to the victims of these earthly reflexes in a timely manner. Evil is preventable harm and injury.

Diseased eyes are not a sign of Evil; children must live with diseased eyes in the 21st century because there is no prevention, care or cure of this disease when the science to prevent and cure this disease is globally available. That’s Evil and God’s got nothing on us.

I think we happily conflate our responsibilities with those of God. “Why doesn’t God end war?” I say, why don’t we?

JC Fisher

I admit I’m rather confounded at the moment by the question of Evil as it relates to mental illness.

So, as you can see, we have this conspicuously mentally ill person who regularly shows up here at the Cafe. When the irrationality of her posts cause her to be moderated, her disease then provokes her to greater levels of paranoia.

When I think about non-mental illness as an aspect of the human condition, like many of you, I tend to go to the dichotomy of “as natural, it’s not Evil per se” but “as exacerbated by human cause or neglect, it’s a sign of our social evil.” At any rate, the application of sufficient (curative) health care solves the problem: cure the bone cancer Stephen Fry cites, and no one is blamed, humans OR God.

But w/ mental illness? Here, we see a victim (is she a victim?), who doesn’t believe she’s ill. Instead, there’s (apparently) a competing worldview of health/wholeness: one where posts to the Cafe go unmoderated, and HM QE2 is arrested for treason (!).

My flip answer to The Problem is, of course, Thorazine! But that does beg the question of Power-Over. Absent the “immanent harm to self or others”, can you compel a change-of-worldview via medication (et al)?

Now, I’ve written a post which may itself be moderated. But even if it is, the question I’ve raised will remain: how do you sort out Evil when the brains doing the sorting may not be sane? (Yours truly excepted—I hope! ;-))

Philip B. Spivey

Dear JC: Mental illness has gotten a bad rap over the centuries; it’s been a long time in coming before we were able to know (and believe) that mental illness is nothing more than a long list of maladies that affect us humans. Even so,, there are holder-oners who sill think mental illness is the work of the (D)evil.

We know that throughout history, things we could not explain inj any other way were attributed to Satan. In the United States, the Salem Witch trails stand as a testament to kind of ignorance and Evil. No doubt, some of these victims were mentally ill, but many I believe were not: It didn’t take much in these colonial times to identify a scapegoat and crucify her if she stepped out of (patriarchal) line, i.e., broke the rigid social code of that time.

As I’ve stated above, the nature and origins of Evil become clearer when we begin to take stock of ourselves and our society.

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