Stephen Fry was asked what he would say when confronted by God at the pearly gates. I thought that it would be fitting to address some of the points he raised and I trust that the reader will find some of my reflections useful when speaking with those who criticise the Christian faith.
1] The god of Stephen Fry is not the God of Christian Scripture. Fry builds up his own imagined notions of a god and then proceeds to bring such a notion to absurdity. It is always much easier to knock down a straw man representation of god, than to tackle the God of Scripture. If Fry wishes to dismiss the existence of God as an absurdity, then he must deal with God on Christian terms. Disproving a god of his own making is child’s play. Fry needs to step up his game.
Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God, What will you say to him, her, or it?
I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right; it’s utterly, utterly evil.
i] His first move is an appeal to emotion. Cancer in children is undoubtedly one of the most awful things in the world. It is truly horrendous, heart breaking, and sad. Fry manipulates the listeners’ emotions by connecting something truly horrible with the concept of God. This is clever oratory but poor argumentation. His argument contends that God created the world in a state of misery and suffering. But anyone who has read the Bible knows that this is simply not the case. This is not what Christians believe or teach concerning God. The Christian philosophy of life teaches that all the misery and suffering within this cosmos is the consequence of the Fall. God originally created this universe in perfection. It was ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31). The atheistic philosophy, by way of contrast, presupposes that suffering and misery are an essential part of this life. Suffering is engrained into the fabric of the universe. Evil is a normal part of reality. That’s just how life is. The Christian, however, believes that suffering is an abnormality; a distortion and corruption of the original pristine creation. Suffering and evil, on Christian terms, are the consequence of living in a fallen world.
ii] Fry contends that the misery and suffering of life ‘is not our fault’. Again, this is not what Christian Scripture teaches. God had entered into a covenant of life with our first parents upon the condition of perfect and perpetual obedience; forbidding them to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon the pain of death (Genesis 2:17). Paradise, bliss, blessedness, peace, happiness, and life belonged to them provided they obeyed the law of God. It is often the desire of men to blame God for the current state of affairs, but the blame lies squarely with man. Adam was given the responsibility to obey the covenant of life; to love God and keep His commandments. Man himself was the cause of his own ruin. The curse of God came upon this cosmos because of the sin of man. In an act of sinful autonomy, man brought upon himself no end of woe. He disobeyed God. The Lord God had graciously given man everything in paradise, but man threw it all back in the face of his Creator. God is not to blame. Man has ruined himself. This is what the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us, ‘Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions’ (Ecclesiastes 7:29). This doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual’s suffering is the direct result of his own personal sins, but it does mean that suffering and misery in this life are the general consequence of the fall of man into sin.
iii] Fry’s problem stems from poor theology. His doctrine of God is shockingly poor. He describes God as ‘capricious, mean-minded, and stupid’. Let’s be clear, Fry’s god is not the God of Scripture. Nowhere does the Bible speak of God in such terms. The Apostle Paul teaches that fallen men are naturally opposed to God and seek always to suppress the knowledge of Him (Romans 1:18–25). Their own terms are thoroughly anti-God. Fry’s description of God is a callous attempt at suppressing the knowledge of God by making Him appear absurd and ridiculous. Nobody would respect a capricious, mean, and stupid god. Such a god is not worthy of love and adoration. This is why Fry needs some theological lessons. One of the Puritans said: ‘It is impossible to honour God as we ought, unless we know Him as He is’ (Stephen Charnock). The whole trouble with Fry is that he doesn’t truly know God. He has no respect for God because He has no true knowledge of God. The Bible teaches us that God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. The Biblical teaching of God reveals to us a Being most beautiful and glorious. He is a God most worthy of worship and adoration. The purpose of man will never be realised until we see that our chief end is to glorify this God and enjoy Him forever. I am persuaded that only this philosophy of life brings true fulfilment and meaning. This is why Christians worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. The one true God is Father, Son, and Spirit. The glory of the Gospel (the Good News) is that this Triune God doesn’t leave us to perish in a fallen universe, but freely offers salvation and true happiness to all who come to Him believing.
Salvation comes to us from God alone. We deserve only wrath and judgement for our sins but God, being most merciful and kind, comes to us to bring us grace and peace, divine favour and pardon for sin. Such is the seriousness of sin, that nothing but the power and activity of whole Godhead can restore us. There is a certain economy in the Triune work of redemption. The Father lovingly chose a people for His own glory from the depths of eternity past. The Son came to rescue God’s elect by assuming their nature, by meriting righteousness for them, and by suffering the penalty that was due to their sins on Calvary. The Spirit comes to apply the work of Christ to the hearts of the Father’s elect children by creating faith in them and leading them by the hand to the Saviour. What a rescue plan! The whole Trinity was involved in the work of salvation to bring miserable sinners into personal communion and love-fellowship with the living God. The Lord Christ freely offers such grace and peace to all men: ‘Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). Why not come to Him and make peace with God? Fry’s puny little god might be mean-spirited and capricious, but my God and Saviour is nothing like this. He is ready to bestow mercy and pardon upon the biggest sinners who come to Him in true faith and repentance. ‘We have to spend our lives on our knees thanking him?’ Yes! I’ll thank and praise Him gladly for the grace, mercy, and forgiveness He has shown me in Christ Jesus. Thankfulness is the only fitting response to such love and kindness.
2] Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Fry goes on to speak of the Greek deities and philosophy of life as preferable to the theistic worldview.
Now, if I died and it was Pluto, Hades, and if it was the 12 Greek gods then I would have more truck with it, because the Greeks didn’t pretend to not be human in their appetites, in their capriciousness, and in their unreasonableness… they didn’t present themselves as being all-seeing, all-wise, all-kind, all-beneficent, because the god that created this universe, if it was created by god, is quite clearly a maniac… utter maniac, totally selfish.
The Greek deities were little more than exaggerated humans. Fry sees something of his own fallenness in the Greek Gods (their appetites, their capriciousness, their unreasonableness). These gods were a part of the universe, not distinct from it. The assumptions underlying Greek philosophy in general were that all things were ultimately ‘one’ and that somehow diversity emanates from the ‘one’. When the Greeks spoke of gods, these gods were a part of this universe, not distinct from it. If they used the term God at all it was practically in identification with the universe itself. We might describe the Greek philosophy of life as a one circle philosophy. There is only one ultimate being, the universe itself. Their gods are a part of this being, not separate from it.
The Bible teaches a radically different metaphysic. According to Scripture: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1:1). The Bible presupposes the existence of God as the Creator of all things. This mighty God ‘stands as the exclusive creator and sovereign ruler of the cosmos, and is sharply distinguished from the creation itself, which though thoroughly ‘good’, is nevertheless not divine’ (John D. Currid). God creates ‘out of nothing’ and ‘into nothing’. He does not make reality from His own essence, He merely speaks and it is so. This fundamental aspect of the Christian metaphysic or ontology is known as the Creator-creation distinction. God, though Creator, is not mixed with the creation. With respect to our own ontology this means that God is our Creator and we are His creatures. Van Til explains this distinction most lucidly, ‘God has one kind of being, being that is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable and full of holy attributes. The universe has another sort of being, being that has been produced and sustained by God ... The most basic distinction of Christianity is that of God’s being as self-contained, and created being as dependent upon Him’. God is the Creator whereas man and the universe are created. God’s being is original whereas the universe is dependent upon God for its existence. The difference between God and creation is not one of degree, but one of essential quality. ‘The doctrine of God’s being as qualitatively distinct from every other form of being is characteristic of Christianity alone’ (Van Til). Monistic conceptions of reality make no basic difference between the Creator and the creature; they present reality as being uniform, though some will admit gradations between higher and lower forms of being (Plato, for example, recognises the existence of the particulars, but speaks of the forms as a higher sort of being).
If God is the uncreated Creator, then man is a created creature. In this respect we might say that Christianity is a two circle system (John Frame). There is God the Creator, and man the creature. And so, our existence is significant only if God exists. In stark contrast, non-Christian thought, generally speaking, is a one circle system. Man views himself and His ideas and ideals as the sum and measure of all things. This is the whole problem of man and it leads only to absurdity. Thales of Miletus (Ca. 580 B.C.), an early Greek philosopher, searched for a unifying concept to explain all reality. What was his answer? Water. It must have been a wet day. One can imagine the students coming into his class, shaking their umbrellas and splattering droplets of water everywhere. Thales, as it were, is sitting there in his armchair, looking at the rain pouring down outside, and makes the statement that ‘all is water’. That was his great conclusion about reality. It has some merit (much of the human body is made of water and most of the planet is covered in water), but the major problem with this view is that is leads us to absurdity. ‘The ‘all’ goes far beyond any possible observations. It is the language of a man sitting in an armchair, dogmatically asserting what the whole universe must be like’ (John Frame). If all is water, then our thoughts, emotions, moral decisions, wives, children, indeed our very existence is nothing more than water. Thales filled his circle with water and drowned. Today the scene has changed very little. Terminology has changed, but the concepts remain the same. Many modern thinkers believe that ‘All is matter, motion, time and chance’. Reason, thought, ethics, our very existence are all the products of time plus chance, we are simply lumps of matter floating upon a random sea of motion in an utterly meaningless cosmos. No wonder why so many people suffer with depression and suicidal thoughts! Van Til illustrates the problem most vividly:
Suppose we think of a man made of water in an infinitely extended and bottomless ocean of water. Desiring to get out of the water, he makes a ladder of water and then attempts to climb out of the water. So hopeless and senseless a picture must be drawn of the natural man’s [the non-Christian’s] methodology based as it is upon the assumptions that time or chance is ultimate. On his own assumption, his own rationality [and existence] is a product of time plus chance. On his assumption, even the laws of logic which he employs [to reason and debate] are the products of chance.
The logical and practical outworking of such a view would be sheer nihilism, but of course many are dreadfully inconsistent with their worldviews and ‘borrow capital’ from Christianity by acting as if they lived in a moral, rational and meaningful universe. One circle systems, in all their variations, fail to account for reality. The systems must turn in upon themselves. Christianity, however, is outward looking. The Christian is able to look beyond himself, beyond the universe about him, to God as his Creator and Saviour. We have hope in a God who is there beyond this cosmos. Only such a God could ever bring true salvation to sinners trapped within this fallen world. Only Someone from without could bring deliverance to those within. The Greek gods could never save us. They were a part of this cosmos, just as fallen, just as helpless as ordinary men and women. There is undoubtedly an appeal in thinking of the gods like ourselves, but the real question is, ‘do such gods offer us any real hope?’ Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. The Trojan horse of humanism may seem to be a great gift, but it will bring only devastation and ruin.
Men and women today may not believe in Greek gods, but they do like to think of themselves as gods. The Bible calls such thoughts idolatry. Such self-idolatry was at the heart of the Fall in Eden. Our first parents were originally created to enjoy God and glorify Him. That was their orientation in the universe. They believed that God was their Creator and that He was worthy of love, obedience and adoration. Enter the tempter: Satan in the form of a serpent presented a false and rebellious orientation to Eve; a position that did away with God and His rules (Genesis 3:1). He said that she could take the place of God and become wise having knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:5). When Eve fell, she assumed for herself the independence and autonomy that belongs rightly to God alone. Having been deceived by the Devil, she looked at God’s interpretation, then at the Serpent’s interpretation, and she said in her heart, ‘I’ll do it my way’. She made herself, as opposed to God, the final point of reference concerning reality, truth, and morality. To put it simply, Eve thought she knew better than God and Adam followed suit (v.6).
Our first parents took of the forbidden fruit sinfully believing that they would become like God, when in reality they would fall into an estate misery, sin, and death. The sin of our first parents was an act of moral revolt against the clear and sure Word of God. Had not God said, ‘Dying you shall die’? They didn’t want to know. The consequences of this dreadful sin were gargantuan. All humanity descending from our first parents by ordinary generation was plunged into the darkness and bondage of sin and death. And now man by nature is consumed with the desire to suppress the knowledge of God in every way and to assert the supremacy of creature above the Creator (Romans 1:25). The reason why men and women reject the Genesis narrative is not because it is historically untenable but because it is unbearable. It brings before man the reality of his creaturehood, the responsibility he has to submit to the Lordship of the Creator, and it pricks the conscience with the awful reality of sin. It shows us that we are finite and frail. It shows us that we are sinners standing in revolt against a holy God. It shows our need for Another. It shows us most vividly our need for the Saviour Jesus; the One who came to bring us back to God.
The Fall sets the backdrop for the work of redemption upon Calvary. The Fall is a fact-event of space and time, but it is not merely a fact. It has meaning for us today. It is history with attitude. It speaks personally into our situation. Williams Pantycelyn (1717–91), a poet renowned for making his hymns intensely personal, speaks of the Fall as though it was intimately related with his own person:
In Eden – sad indeed that day –
My countless blessings fled away,
My crown fell in disgrace.
The Fall impacts us directly. It is not merely a problem for Adam but for us all. If the Fall is such a personal event for Pantycelyn, so also is the redemption wrought by our Lord:
But on victorious Calvary
That crown was won again for me –
My life shall all be praise.
We must not think of these things as distant and unrelated to us. The Fall of Adam must be as real for us as the redemptive work of Christ. A failure to apply the Fall to our own situation will result in a failure to understand the meaning of the Cross in Christian theology. It is upon Calvary that the Fall is reversed. Christ is not merely dying as our example but as our Saviour. He dies as the One who came to rescue us from a fallen world and lift us heavenward to restore our relationship with God. Christianity is a message of Good News for lost sinners. There is a remedy for every sin and sorrow in Christ. He asks only that you humble yourself in repentance and come to Him in true faith. He welcomes all who come to Him believing. ‘Him that cometh to Me, I shall in no wise cast out’ (John 6:37b). Do the words of my God and Saviour Jesus Christ sound like the ramblings of selfish maniac?