One of my favorite movies is Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. The action is intense and the portrayals of the characters are brilliant. I normally don’t consider myself discerning enough to assess good acting or bad acting. I just know I loved that film and much of my love for it involves the way the characters interacted. This includes the way Stephen Fry played the part of Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother.
I am pretty sure that is all I knew of Stephen Fry until recently when he was interviewed and the interviewer, knowing Fry is an atheist, asked him what he would say to God if there was a God. “Suppose it’s all true,” interviewer Gay Byrne asks, “And you walk up to the pearly gates, and you are confronted by God.” What would the atheist say?
“Bone cancer in children?” Fry responds, “What’s that about? How dare you! How dare you create a world in which there is such misery which is not our fault.”[i] He goes on to deal with theodicy, the problem of evil and suffering. If there is a God, Fry would want no part of him or his heaven because God demands adoration and worship from humans while at the same time imposing unspeakable pain on us.
At one point the camera pans to Byrne whose looks taken aback, but why would he? Why would anyone be surprised? He knew before he asked the question that Fry is an outspoken atheist. His statement is consistent with his worldview. Atheists don’t think there is a God. Outspoken atheism advocates not only don’t believe, but also are hostile toward Christian expressions of God. They also reject theologies in other faiths, but I will stick to my field of familiarity, the evangelical stream in Christianity.
After the video was aired, there was the expected backlash which puzzles me as much as Byrne’s surprise. Why would Christian leaders speak out in opposition to an atheist saying what atheists say? One clergyman called him “spiritually blind.”[ii] Well, no kidding. We Christians believe Jesus is the Light (John 8:12). If someone has not put their faith in him and given their life to him, then they are blind. We could say that about anyone who does not profess faith in Jesus, so billions of people.
But, we must say this with humility. We think the Bible is true. We think the message of the Bible is wrapped up in a simple declaration: Jesus is Lord. So, anyone who does not affirm that assertion and live under Jesus’ Lordship is lost. That’s what we think. That is a base level evangelical confession. Nothing Mr. Fry said enlightens that. Harangues from red-faces pastors may give him a chuckle, but it won’t change his worldview. The only way Stephen Fry would overcome theodicy would be revelation. The Holy Spirit would need to get a hold of him in a way that he would see and then choose to respond.
I believe the Holy Spirit comes to all people throughout their lives. I do not believe in irresistible grace. People can choose. Judas Iscariot walked with Jesus, saw the miracles, and was himself filled with the power of God (Mark 6:13). Still, he chose to betray Jesus. He was that close and still chose another path, one that leads away from God and to death. Just as Judas has choices, so too does Mr. Fry. And I do not assume he will always profess atheism. He may one day turn and follow Jesus.
He won’t do it because pastors hammer him with scripture verses. That is the wrong tack. It always is. And it won’t work with him because several things he said are absolutely true. First, he said there is awful misery and suffering in the world. He’s correct. It makes one’s heart sick to see starvation, racism, disease, and so many other things that hurt people. This should be grieved and not shrugged off. Agony over pain should be brought right to God.
Second, Stephen Fry is absolutely right in his statement that God expects us to spend our lives worshiping God. Fry presents this as a burdensome duty that is distasteful because of God’s complicity in human misery. I think he has no sense of how wonderful worship is but that is not my point here. I want to affirm that yes, there is pain; and yes, the Christian view is that the proper way humans relate to God is in worship.
So, if he is right then what could a Christian possibly say in response? I’ve seen Fry’s words described as a rant, but I found him to be quite eloquent. He’s the type of speaker who is so interesting and beautiful in his speech that I think I could listen to him read the ingredients on a canned soup label. What can I or any Christian say?
I don’t think we attempt to prove God’s goodness or God’s existence. If God could be reduced to proofs, God wouldn’t be God. No, what I think we do is bear witness. We say that we believe where there is suffering that is where God is. And we undergird this belief by going to where there is suffering, helping where can, comforting where it is needed, praying constantly, and standing with those who suffer. We can say God is with those who hurt the most because we have been with those who hurt the most and thus we saw God there.
I think of the words of the brilliant song by Matthew West. “So, I shook my fist at Heaven, Said 'God why don't You do something?' He said, ‘I did, I created you.’”[iii] West beautifully captures what Christ followers know. The miracles of God come in the context of real human lives. Do you want to see a miracle? Go where God is at work. If Christians are the leading voices advocating for peace, the leading minds in cancer research, and the leading volunteers on projects to feed and educated the poorest of the poor, and if we do it all in the name of and to the glory of Jesus Christ, we will make our statement about God. It won’t convince Stephen Fry of anything, not without the Holy Spirit grabbing his mind and heart. But it will dramatically punctuate our insistence that Jesus is Lord.
I recoiled when I first heard what Fry said to Byrne. It is sharp. But I hope the Holy Spirit will whisper this message to all believers who aren’t sure how to best give a different view of God. I hope the Holy Spirit will tell us evangelicals, “Don’t worry about Stephen Fry. Pray for him. And then come volunteer your time to care for kids with bone cancer. Lay hands on them and pray for them. Volunteer your time to be on teams that travel to third world communities plagued by blindness, illiteracy, and hunger.” If we go and serve, both locally and globally, we will see what God is doing. We will live in that story. And we won’t need clever comebacks to the articulate atheist. We just say what we have seen.