Response to the Stephen Fry Responses [EDITED]
“Why I don’t believe the people who don’t believe in the God Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in have told the whole truth about God”
Stephen Fry was asked a hypothetical question. He was asked if, despite his atheism, he was to turn up at the pearly gates what would he say to God. Now being forced to answer a hypothetical question which completely undermines your entire worldview is enough to put anyone in a bad mood. Perhaps many don’t see this but consider if a Christian was asked, what happens if you died and it turns out Islam is right and you show up (I’m not learned enough to know if Islam has pearly gates) – what would you say to Allah? Annoying right? Anyway, he took this hypothetical and ran with it anyway. Not so much raging against the actual God that he doesn’t believe in so much as raging about the question itself and the various sufferings of the human race. He was put on the spot and he performed admirably. Obviously Christians would respond – some well, some not so well. But respond they did … ALL over my Facebook wall, so I thought I might as well add my thoughts to the mix.
Many of the Christian responses used some form of the argument that the way to see God is in Jesus and that in Jesus we see someone who ‘gets involved in our suffering’. That has been the strongest intellectual/theological response to the Fry story (Justin Welby’s wasn’t so much a response as a segue on another issue). At least it seems strong.
I’d like to call out this position.
It is persuasive only to those who perhaps haven’t read all their Bibles right through and to those who do read it all and close their eyes at the bits that are unpleasant. [ I edited out some comments here that on reflection were crass and unnecessary] So, I want to paint the entire picture of Jesus.
So the argument above is the following : God so loved the world that he was made flesh in Jesus to suffer on our behalf. God came into the suffering and changed everything by that suffering. We have someone who understands.
Now of course a fuller answer would be – suffering is a result of our human evil. Through sin, death and suffering entered the world. In other words, it is our fault, through Adam and Eve in particular and humanity in general that suffering exists. We caused the insect burrowing out the eye of the child. If you protest to this idea, the Bible says – sorry, you have no excuse – God’s qualities have been clearly seen, you should know this. (Romans 1:18-20)
Jesus himself says as much as this, in the famous John 3:16 passage ‘For God so loved the world…’ goes on to say ‘whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed’. Jesus says all humanity are condemned already to perish, ultimately to suffer. So already we have to believe that the real (but hidden) knowledge of the world is in accepting that the entire species are hell-bound sinners. Lovable but hell-bound.
For many years I believed these things but struggled with them as anyone with any empathy does. I took some comfort in some of Jesus’ final words whilst on the cross. While being tortured to death by the Romans on the cross he is reported by Luke to have looked down and uttered “Father, Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”. I think this is a pinnacle of the ‘good’ view of Jesus. Suffering to save us, even forgiving those who were doing the torturing. This is the stuff that the image of Jesus is probably most famous for.
But that is not the end of the official Bible Jesus story. If you want to know God then you just have to look at Jesus, so make sure you look at all of Jesus. Because we also have the final revealing of Jesus in the book called ‘the Revelation of Jesus Christ’. The slaughtered lamb has some things to say from heaven about what should happen to those on earth since his ascension. Clearly we are going to learn more about Jesus in this book. These are reported to be Jesus’ own words. Let’s not get involved in the finer points of Revelation being a book of prophecy etc. I don’t want to discuss the ‘when’ of its events but only the mood or tone of the words.
Jesus speaks to John, sometimes directly, sometimes through an angel but it is always intended to be the words of Jesus. Jesus, the Lamb is the only one with the right to unleash various levels of punishment on the earth. This is similar to Old Testament Curses but now in a New Testament context and from the mouth and by the hand of Jesus.
Here are some snippets :
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”Revelation 6:9-10
“Avenge” – Vengeance, revenge. Jesus is being implored to unleash his revenge against those who are against him and by proxy, his followers.
15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb,17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”Revelation 6:15-17
“Wrath” – the slaughtered lamb is now full of wrath. No longer forgiving but enacting a raging punishment.
3 And out of the smoke locusts came down on the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth. 4 They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads. 5 They were not allowed to kill them but only to torture them for five months. And the agony they suffered was like that of the sting of a scorpionwhen it strikes. 6 During those days people will seek death but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them.
‘Torture’ – Jesus unleashes torture on the earth. Deliberately torture. It states quite clearly that they must suffer and were not allowed to die even though they longed to die. The majority on the earth are to be punished in this way. Look around you right now and consider the surprise if this was to take place.
Perhaps it is a metaphor? But the tone of it, even if a metaphor is still revenge, punishment and torture. What would a metaphor for torture be about if not some form of torture?
18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book,19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.Revelation 22:18-19
According to the book you are not allowed to ignore it, change it or take away from it on pain of plagues. These are claimed to be Jesus’ words, as important as ‘suffer the little children’ and the other nice bits. There is no sidestepping as an issue of lesser importance.
So the whole picture of Jesus, and therefore God includes not just he suffered for us (or at least the for the ones who believed and get the benefits) but that his final act is to lavish untold suffering, punishment and torture that make ISIS videos look tame on all who do not believe. Which is most of the people around you today. The responses to Stephen Fry didn’t tell the whole story. They didn’t want to tell the whole story because many of them don’t want to consider the whole story themselves. Unless you are John Piper (who has the virtue of having one of the most unpleasant but internally consistent theologies on the market) and his dangerous followers of course.
If you begin to feel that this whole picture of Jesus seems at odds with itself I think you are right. Many of my not yet-unbelieving companions either ignore this altogether or no doubt do the kinds of mental gymnastics I was familiar with to make it palatable to myself. Or else you simply pick and choose bits of the story you like and leave it at that.
For me it no longer has the ring of truth, it was morally reprehensible and this tore itself apart from the inside. The Bible’s authority fell apart. Martin Luther thought Revelation should never be in the Bible. Once you pull at one string the whole garment begins to fray. The centre could not hold if you try and get the whole picture. If you content yourself with the ‘nice’ part of the Jesus picture then you can carry on singing repeatedly the worship parts of Revelation but never face the torture. Your faith will hold at the cost of your integrity. You believe only in the God you have selected, only the God you desire not the picture that the Bible actually presents.
Don’t be afraid to step away from it. It will be tough, the cost is high for many of you as I know myself but your morality and integrity may well demand it.