Why bone cancer does not shake my faith

British actor and comedian Stephen Fry caused a bit of a storm in some sectors of the Internet recently. In an interview he was asked what he would say to God if he met him at the pearly gates:

His language is powerful. He delivers his message well. I can see why it has stirred up people.

Of course, it is not original. Humans have been angry about suffering and death from the first. Job, Ecclesiastes, the Psalms, and Lamentations all give voice to the range of despair and anger that both atheists and the faithful have raised for as long as humans have drawn breath.

Fry suggests that bone cancer and other afflictions reveal God’s character — if he exists — as a cruel, selfish, and insane god not worthy of worship. What person who has lived any life at all does not understand the pain and anger expressed by such accusations?

I am writing this post on Ash Wednesday, when many Christians gather in worship to be reminded that from dust we have come and to dust we will return. It is a day we remember and are reminded that we will all one day die.

If faith is only possible to us in a world without suffering or pain, then faith will be impossible for us until the end of all days.

Of course, if a man is determined to face mortality and suffering by spitting in the eye of God, we cannot reason him out of his plan. We certainly don’t do any honor to God by getting angry at him or posting nasty things about him on the Internet.

If Fry professed to be a Christian and said such things, it would be cause for some church teaching and perhaps discipline. But he is not of our tribe. We can and should be ready to explain the hope that is in us. We should be ready to offer him Christ. We should pray for God to bless him. But we should not be surprised by his outrage.

Our Bible speaks of the same kind of anger and fear. We know suffering and pain. Ashes and dust await us all. And yet God is God.

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18 thoughts on “Why bone cancer does not shake my faith

  1. “If faith is only possible to us in a world without suffering or pain, then faith will be impossible for us until the end of all days.”

    I have a question, do you think this god requires suffering and pain?

    1. Help me understand what you mean by “requires.”

      We all suffer. We all experience pain. What God does not inflict directly, he allows.

      The online dictionary gives several definitions of require. I’m curious in which way you are using the word in your question.

      1. Some Christians have told me that this god requires people to suffer to “teach” them. It requires suffering to delineate between its “good” and “evil”. Do you believe such things?

        This is the definition I am using: “to demand as necessary or essential” from merriam-webster.com. My 7th grade English teacher said it was the best 🙂

        1. I never argue with a seventh-grade English teacher.

          I don’t think God arbitrarily tortures us like ants under a magnifying glass, but I do think some of the pain we experience is a form of discipline. If I put my hand in a fire, I get burned.

          Does God give people cancer to teach them to rely more on him and less on other things? I can’t say that it happens for certain, and would never say that I know that is why a particular person has cancer, but I cannot say that God might not do such a thing.

          I’ve had times in my life that involve suffering and pain that have taught me and shaped me in important and positive ways. Did God cause me to suffer so I would learn? Or did God merely use my suffering to lead me into a new thing.

          I can’t say for certain which is the case. I can see scriptural support for either one being possible.

          I’m not sure I’ve answered your question. If I have not, please set me straight, and I’ll try to do better.

        2. Heh. Mrs. Songer was quite the pain, but she did teach me a lot.

          If your god causes bad things to happen to people as a form of discipline, then why do bad things happen to everyone, and not to the evil people in the world, say the leader of Boko Haram? As the evidence stands, there is nothing to show that believers or non-believers have better lives than the other, with less pain aka “discipline”. If you put your hand in a fire, you’ll get burned because of chemistry and physics. However, if you are a “sinner”, there’s nothing that harms you any more than anyone else.

          To be quite blunt, your god sounds like nothing more than an abusive parent when you claim that it would give someone cancer to make that person rely on him more. It sounds like a bad case of Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy. It also seems to shoot the oft-claimed Christian notion of free will in the foot: an omnipotent being making someone do something. But you may be a predestinationalist, as I was.

          I do not believe in the Christian god because there is no evidence for it at all. However, if I did believe it could exist, I would certainly not worship such a thing if I thought it was capable of something so awful as giving people cancer to make people depend on it more. When you say that Christians shouldn’t get upset if atheists say negative things about god, it does make me think that you simply don’t want Christians to think about such things at all because if a Christian did, they may just become an atheist or another kind of theist.

          If your god requires suffering to teach or to make you depend on it, or it decided not to interfere because it couldn’t think of any other way to teach you something, then it’s not the omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent god that Christians claim. The idea that suffering can teach seems to be nothing more than teaching an animal with a carrot or a stick. It isn’t intelligent so it can’t learn by telling it something; so you have to hit it. I find that humans, adults and at least most of them in my experience, don’t need to be hurt to learn.

          You have answered my question as most Christians have. Thank you. If you wish to ask me anything, feel free.

        3. Thanks for taking time to share your interpretation of what I wrote. I have no questions for you. I do wish you well. Grace and peace be with you.

        4. I took your questions as rhetorical since you followed them with long answers. I’m sorry if I mistook real questions for debating points.

        5. They were questions for you. I do not use rhetorical questions since they are rather pointless. I would very much like to know your answers.

          I would ask another question: if a human acted like your god, causing harm to get someone to rely on them, would you find this acceptable?

        6. Okay. The analogy with human conduct is not straight forward because no human is in the same relationship to another human that God is in relation to a human. But I will give my best answer.

          Would I approve of a human doing that to another human? I cannot think of a case in which I would, but my objection has to do with what I understand to be God’s intention for human conduct toward each other.

          I know you want to zero in on this one hypothetical, but I feel compelled to point out that I have no idea if God has done such a thing. But he is God and certainly could, and I would not feel it my place to stand in judgment of God if he did. He is my judge. I am not his.

          This is where my whole point about death comes back in. If your objection to God is based on the fact that he causes or allows you to suffer, you don’t need stories about bone cancer to make your point. You are going to get old and die one day. God will take away your life one day. He gave it to you. It is his to take back.

          If you want a reason to consider God unfair to you, that should be enough.

        7. Hello,

          Comparing the possible actions and motivations of your god (causing harm to make a human rely on it more) with same actions/motivations of a human is valid if one assumes that morality is objective. If it is wrong for one to do it, then it is always wrong. Do you believe that morality is objective or subjective?

          You have said that this god might be causing harm to make humans rely on it more, so I ‘m not sure how this is related to what you call “God’s intention for human conduct toward each other”.
          I know you have no idea if your god has done such a thing. What I find interesting is that the idea that it could has occurred to you. I think the case can be made from the bible that this god has supposedly done this before, harmed someone to force them to rely on him, in the Book of Job, when this god kills David’s son, blinding Paul, etc.

          My objections to your god are multiple: 1.there is not one scrap of evidence for its existence. 2. Theists all make the same claims for evidence for it, that if one just looks around one can see the universe and their god did it, all without evidence. 3. Theists claim to have some “truth” about morality and what their god “wants” but cannot show that their particular version is the right one and 4. If it exists as described in the bible, it is no better than any other Bronze/Iron Age god, a human writ large, and often being more nasty than the average human.

          If a god causes me to suffer or allows me to suffer, then it is not worthy of worship, because it is no different than a human. Yep, I am going to get old and die one day. This fact doesn’t mean that it’s also okay to give children cancer *if* that is what it is doing. To say that it’s something ‘s right to kill something just because it may have created that something certainly does show that there is no concern for the free will of a human by your god. It certainly is unfair, and belies all of the claims of Christians when they claim that their god is pure justice, pure fairness and benevolent. It also calls into question what I mentioned before about the objectivity of morals. I’m good with the preceding as a description of the Christian god, if it existed, but most Christians have a fit if a non-Christian, be they theist or atheist, if they would dare point out that their god isn’t what they claim.

          I have another question: do you believe in the idea that might makes right?

        8. To answer your first question: I believe that God determines what is good and evil, moral and immoral.

          As a matter of practice, human societies create all manner of ethical and moral systems, some of which reflect God’s will and some of which do not.

          What do you believe about the nature of morality?

          I know you wrote a bunch of other stuff here, but I’d like to try to keep this conversation on a single topic at a time if possible.

        9. Then it would seem to be a case of “do what I say and not as I do” if this god doesn’t follow its own moral decrees. Would you agree? I personally find that attitude hypocritical. So, if this god does something that you would find reprehensible if a human did it, then this god should also be found reprehensible. My question about “might equals right” feeds directly into this by pointing out that any excuses for this god would generally be the claim that this god, because it is supposedly powerful or all-powerful, can do whatever it pleases. That is “might equals right”. I find this unacceptable in humans and in gods.

          I find that morality is subjective with some slight caveats. I do find that civilizations need certain morals to be constant and growing. For instance, we have had the “golden rule” e.g. ” do unto others that which you would have done unto you” far longer than the Jewish or Christian religions. That seems to be a constant one in civilizations, though it is followed more or less in each. We also have property rights e.g. “don’t steal”. As civilizations have evolved, we get more human rights as we discover humans are much the same and leave our bigotries behind e.g. “don’t murder” and going on up to “don’t try to claim a human with different skin color is not a human being”, etc.

          There is nothing to show that some societies reflect some god’s will and some do not. Christians themselves can’t agree on what this god’s will is. I have no way to know which of you is telling the truth, if any of you at all.

          I do not accept that Christianity, nor any religion, has any moral truths at all or that what its followers claim to be objective morals are from some god and are objective. One can see how these “truths” have changed through time, with religion playing catch-up to society and not the other way around.

  2. I don’t see how the bible acknowledging suffering does away with the concern Fry explicates. The suffering he lists isn’t related to freewill and as fatal (as to not allow for some sort of a lesson to be learned). So, how does mentioning suffering excuse God from the cause of it, needlessly?

    1. I’m not actually trying to do away with Fry’s objection. I know I can’t argue him out of his opinion on the matter. I’m not trying to persuade him to change the way he resolves his feelings about the world.

      My point is more that Christians need not get so worked up when someone says such things. We share many of the same feelings and our Scriptures express the same sorts of anger and grief as Fry did. We resolve our feelings about these things in a different way than Fry.

      Another title of the post might have been: Why Christians need not get worked up when an atheist says bad things about God. But that would have been even longer that what I did write.

  3. Club asked: “Then it would seem to be a case of “do what I say and not as I do” if this god doesn’t follow its own moral decrees. Would you agree?”

    I would not agree. God does follow his own decrees. The biblical witness affirms repeatedly God’s faithfulness in keeping covenants and fulfilling promises. God will withdraw his Spirit from me one day, and I will die. He is God. I am his creation. He can do that. He can also tell me that I should not kill other people.

    Might equals right does not strike me as an apt way of understanding this. I am not saying God is right because he is bigger and stronger than me. I am saying God is right because God is God.

    In the end, I understand that you are not going to be persuaded by anything I write. People generally are not argued into faith. My experience is that action and relationship comes before real belief. That, at least, was my story.

    I understand as well that Christians — and other theists — disagree with each other. That can be frustrating even to believers, but I’m able to survive in a world with ambiguity and uncertainty in it. It sounds like you want more certainty and coherence than you find in Christianity. I’m sure many people share that desire.

  4. I find myself perplexed by the problem of how to assist a person who is struggling with the concept of the Holy, as Club seems clearly to be doing. Why is he able to write “Christianity” with a capital C, but refer to God as “god”, or “it”? There must be a part of him that realizes that God simply Is, the God of creation, the God of speed and light, the God of pure being, the God of all, exists, yet is unknowable. But Club sees him as an adversary who must be defeated, so he demeans by refusing to use the capital letter. He doesn’t see him as a lover, a sacrificer of his own Son. He doesn’t realize that if Club were the only person in the world God would still have been able to make this sacrifice for his salvation, and would have done it. He looks at the problem of pain and sees it through his eyes, not God’s. He tries to understand motivation in his ways, not the ways of God, and nothing makes sense. Indeed, nothing does makes sense until one is able to see that God is Being itself, who can only be described with a capital letter and a bow of the head, and the concept of me can only be written with a small m, if that at all.

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