Is God Capricious, Mean-minded, and Stupid?

Editorial Note: Famed English comedian, actor, and writer Stephen Fry made recent headlines with his opinions about God. You may remember Fry as Sherlock Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, in the second of the two Robert Downey Jr. films, or perhaps you’ll remember him as half of the comic duo Fry and Laurie. Prince Charles even referred to him as a national treasure. Recently Fry was asked in an interview what he would say if he encountered God at the gates of heaven.

Fry responded, "I'll 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's 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?’" The video of this segment of his interview has now garnered almost six million views in just a few week’s time.

As a team, here at the RWI, we discussed how we might respond to Mr. Fry and those who share his perspective. Since Fry’s video went viral, scores of Christians have published responses. We’ve read a number of these responses, and many were disappointing to us, mostly boiling down to "Well, I don't believe in that God either," or "It will all come to light in the end." Frankly, we were dissatisfied by how unconvincing Christians can appear in the media when it comes to the problem of evil. We as a group share a certain perspective about the problem of evil (though with plenty of individual variation and nuance) and felt that perspective was under-represented. Below you can read our director’s personal view, framed as his response to Stephen Fry. 

A Response to Stephen Fry

By Brian Lowther

If I found myself in a conversation with Mr. Fry, and if he asked me how I could believe in a “capricious, mean-spirited, stupid God,” I would simply say, “I think your opinions are perfectly logical. Actually, essentially, I agree with you. I believe that what you’re describing is ‘utterly, utterly evil.’"

“Then, why do you believe there is a God?” Fry would undoubtedly ask.

“Well Stephen, (I assume we’d be on a first name basis) we can agree, if God does exist, he is a highly skilled artist because the universe is quite glorious. But, as you say, if that God exists he must also be a ‘capricious and mean-spirited’ artist and thus unworthy of our devotion because his creation is also very dangerous and terrifying.” C.S. Lewis fans will recognize this line of thinking. [1]

“Then we agree?” Fry might say.

“Not completely.” I would respond. “For me, everything is easier to understand in this world, when I think of it as a world at war, a war between God and Satan.” While you might assume that Fry would laugh at this suggestion or at least point out its absurdity, I think he might sincerely consider it. In the interview, he explains his inclination toward Greek Pantheism of all things.

I’d continue, “Just for fun, let’s assume that Satan does exist and that he and other fallen angels are at war with God and behind much of the evil and suffering in our world. If this were true, then we could expect bone cancer, misery, injustice and pain. We wouldn’t question why bad things would happen to good people. To paraphrase my mentor, Ralph Winter, when we reinstate Satan’s existence as an evil intelligence loose in God’s creation, only then do a lot of things become clear and reasonable. Suffering, in a perverse way, starts to make sense.”

“Ah, you’re describing Dualism,” he might say. “Next to Greek Pantheism, I think that Dualism is the manliest and most sensible creed on the market.” (Fry would surely be able to paraphrase C.S. Lewis as well as I could.) [2]

“Yes, but Dualism has a catch,” I would add. “The essence of Dualism is a war between two equal powers—a good god and a bad god—and thus a never-ending war. It would be easy to trust in the goodness of the good god, but not his power, for he is incapable of defeating the bad god. Christianity, on the other hand is built on two promises, that God is all-good and all-powerful, and that one day the war will end. The ‘bad god,’ Satan, will be conquered.”

If Fry took these ideas seriously, as he might, I would imagine his next question would be, “But Brian (again, first name basis), why would God create Satan in the first place? God may be good, he may be powerful, but surely he isn’t very bright.”

I would respond, “Why did God create you in the first place?” I picture Fry glancing at me slyly as he pondered the inherent humor of God creating him, Stephen Fry, solely to point out God’s lack of intelligence.

“To do evil?” I would ask.

“Of course not,” he would certainly reply.

“Can you do evil?”

“Yes,” would have to be his answer.

“God didn’t create Satan to do evil either.” I would offer. “Satan was good when he was created, and went wrong.”

“But why did Satan go wrong?” he might ask. Not in a simplistic way, but in a way as to question why God would allow such a thing, given the possible repercussions.

“Well, a simple answer might be, because he could.”

“But why would God allow Satan that freedom?”

“I think God gave Satan that freedom, and gives all of us that freedom because he wants our authentic love, and you can’t have authentic love without freedom. Take the story of a young man who got down on one knee to propose to his girlfriend, but before she could answer he pulled out a pistol and said, ‘You better say yes, or else.’ [3] Now, of course the young woman said yes, but was this authentic love? Or was it simply fear? When you take away freedom it always destroys love.”

“That’s all well and good,” Fry might say,  “but that doesn’t exactly answer why God allows Satan so much freedom. God could have set parameters around him, which would prohibit his most dastardly deeds. Maybe not chicken-pox, but certainly bone cancer.”

“Let’s put it this way,” I’d say. “Imagine that you are God.”

“Oh, I like where this is headed.” He’d respond.

“And imagine that you are trying to decide the kind of world you’d like to create. You could create a world entirely populated by dogs. And each of those dogs would love you, like all dogs love their owners. They would fetch sticks for you. They would provide companionship. They would bark at your mailman. But would that be enough? A dog world might be nice, but not compared to a planet full of humans who would love you. Humans—at their best—can love in a much deeper, more intimate, more profound way than any dog. Plus, dogs…”

“Actually I prefer cats,” Fry might interject.

“Okay, cats. Cats are not generally capable of nuclear fission, or Shakespearian poetry or even making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But humans are. Humans are capable of enormous good. Now imagine that kind of love and goodness multiplied by a hundred, or a thousand, or a million. Maybe that approaches the angelic capacity for love and goodness.

However, there is a proportional flipside to all this love and goodness. Dogs—or cats in your case—are marvelous companions, but they can bite and scratch and require constant cleanup. Similar issues apply with humans. As much as another human being can love you, and enhance your happiness and make life seem complete, they can also make your life a living hell. Now multiply that by a hundred, or a thousand, or a million and maybe that approaches the angelic capacity for harm and evil. 

If you don’t like that analogy, how about transportation? A skateboard is a good mode of transportation, but a bike is, in many ways, better, safer, faster, etc. A car is better still and a train is better than that. But perhaps the best form of transportation is a plane, for its speed, safety, cost per mile, etc. But the flip side is the proportional amount of injury, destruction and death that can result if something goes wrong.

The point is, if you put parameters around a person or an angel’s capacity for evil, you would consequently put parameters around that person or that angel’s capacity for love and goodness. Who in their right mind would limit how much love they could receive from their parent, or their child or their spouse?”

“But if this is all true, why doesn’t God save us from all this misery and simply wipe Satan out of existence?” Fry might ask.

“Every Christian I know believes that one day, he will,” I’d answer.

“Then what on earth is he waiting for?” Fry would ask. “And before you answer, please, please don’t explain that God is waiting, not because he is slow to act, but because he is patient. I don’t want to hear that God is waiting because he doesn’t want anyone to perish but to come to repentance and faith. And the reason I won’t allow this explanation is because every day 350,000 babies are born. That’s 350,000 new human lifetimes added every day that God has to wait out to see if they’ll come to repentance and faith. As long as humans continue to procreate, it will never end.”

“Okay, that’s fair,” I’d admit. “I like to think of the earth as a stage and the entire universe is intently watching the drama unfold. Satan is causing all kinds of havoc and destruction just waiting to see if God will strike him down. Because if God strikes him down, Satan wins. If God strikes him down, the whole universe will see that he isn’t a god of love and freedom; he’s a god of coercion and force.”

“But God will strike him down,” Fry would respond. “You said that yourself, ‘one day the war will end. Satan will be conquered.’”

“Right, but, I wonder if he will be conquered in a way we’ve never imagined,” I’d reply. “Jesus never did things quite the way the people of his day expected, especially his disciples. In fact, you could argue that Jesus ‘conquered’ his enemies in a completely counter-intuitive manner – by dying for them. Perhaps God is waiting for the moment in history when he doesn’t have to use his power and force to conquer Satan. Perhaps the war will end, when Satan is fully and finally exposed as a fraud.” [4]

“But hasn’t he already been exposed?” Fry might ask.

“If he were already exposed,” I would answer, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation. You wouldn’t be blaming God for bone cancer, misery, injustice and pain. No one would raise their fist to the sky and ask, ‘Why God, why?’”

“And what changes when we stop asking those questions?” Fry might ask.

I’d respond, “When enough people acknowledge that Satan is the source of evil, not God, and stand up to fight every evil with everything in our command, I think a tipping point will occur. Perhaps that’s when Christ will return to this war-torn world and Satan and all his minions will realize that the tide has turned, their war will soon be lost, and they will be crushed under the weight of their own hopelessness, consumed by a ‘lake of burning fire’ from within.” [5]

“So,” Fry might ask, “God is just sitting up there in heaven, passively waiting for all this to play out?”

“No,” I’d respond. “I don’t think God is passive. I think he is constantly at work generating life, beauty, perfection, order and all other things that demonstrate his character of love and goodness, or as the Bible puts it, bringing his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. And I think he’s influencing every free will in the universe to participate in that process.”

“Until Satan is fully exposed?” Fry might clarify. “That’s the end of the story?”

“Oh, no. That’s just the beginning,” I’d respond. “Once it becomes clear that Satan’s kingdom is unsustainable and self-destructive, no person or angel will ever follow Satan’s path again, not because of fear that God will punish them if they do, but because Satan’s road is exposed as a dead end. [6] Then the story can really begin, and heaven can be a place of never-ending peace.”

“I sense that we are now taking great liberties with traditional Christian theology,” Fry may respond.

“To a degree we are,” I’d answer. “But I think it’s worth pondering more deeply. Don't you?”

“Oh, this is all just too much,” Fry might say, as we walked off into the sunset discussing the unfathomable complexity of life.

Brian Lowther is the director
of the Roberta Winter Institute. 

Posted on February 20, 2015 and filed under Blog, Third 30, Top 10.