No More ‘God In the Midst of Suffering’

Perhaps it’s why he smokes.

Giles Fraser is a good man. I’ve a lot of respect for him. But in the wake of the comments that Stephen Fry made about God being an ‘evil maniac,’ he’s written a piece that I simply cannot agree with. His argument that Fry has set up the wrong kind of God is fair enough, but he then goes on:

For if we are imagining a God whose only power, indeed whose only existence, is love itself then God cannot stand accused as the cause of humanity’s suffering. Rather, by being human as well as divine, he fully shares in it. This is precisely the point of Christianity: that God is not some distant observer but suffers alongside all humanity.

I have to admit it: I’ve become very tired of this argument. Having once found it a rather good rebuttal to those who might ask where God was in Auschwitz (he was there!) I now found it profoundly cruel. What was God doing in the midst of this suffering? What good was it to suffer it with us?

The problem lies in the underlying assumption that Giles Fraser makes. Because God has suffered with us,

even in the midst of absolute horror, [God] has the authority to whisper in my ear that all will be well.

All will be well. Or, as Rob Bell put it, ‘the universe is rigged in your favour.‘ Which means the cigarettes don’t matter much. Because all will be well. And presumably ebola isn’t much more than a little problem, because all will be well. War doesn’t matter because all will be well, and oppression doesn’t matter because all will be well.

Sing loud, slaves, sing your fine gospel songs because your chains are only temporary because all will be well.

This is not religion at its most gracious, Christianity at its most empathetic and powerful. This is the weak and insipid smile of the priest with no more to say to the dying. ‘God is in the midst of this with you and all will be well’ is the panacea, the final abdication.

It is the means by which our pain is explained away by deference to belief in a future time when God will make everything better. When there will be no more dying or pain, when every tear will be wiped from every eye.

It is the route by which our pain becomes sanctified, the path we follow that relies on our death holding some greater, higher meaning.

And yet, oddly, Fraser doesn’t actually believe in this sort of God, the God of omnipotence, of ultimate coherence:

The other problem with Fry’s argument is philosophical. Simply put: there is no such thing as the God he imagines. It is the flying teapot orbiting a distant planet about which nothing can be said. Such a God doesn’t exist. Nilch. Nada. It’s a nonsense. Indeed, as no less an authority than Thomas Aquinas rightly insists, existence itself is a questionable predicate to use of God.

God isn’t about such trivial matters as existing. Instead, Giles wants ‘God’ to be something more elusive than a force that ‘exists’ or has any power:

God is the story of human dreams and fears. God is the shape we try to make of our lives. God is the name of the respect we owe the planet. God is the poetry of our lives. Of course this is real. Frighteningly real. Real enough to live and die for even.

Hold on, if this is what God is, then where is this sort of God in the midst of suffering now? Writing a poem? Dreaming? If ‘God’ is no more than the shape we try to make our lives, is no more than the dreams and fears that we have or the hopes we have for our planet, then this ‘God’ has no power whatsoever to whisper that ‘all will be well.’

To create a theological scaffold that, on the one hand, wants God to be powerful enough to work towards a point of universal reconciliation, but on the other avoids any of the tough questions of being and wants to be a poetic idea, is as cruel as the God Stephen Fry rightly refuses to believe in.

The question of suffering is one that has worked to generate theologies. Christians have worked extraordinarily hard to explain it: God has a plan, this is only temporary, it’ll be for God’s glory… Fraser’s answer is the latest in a long line, but I think his thinking in this article shows that he needs to have the guts to go far further.

The radical move is not to suggest that God suffered with us. The radical move is to say that God died. God is finished. Ended. If Fraser wants one, that is the true horror of the cross: our assurances of a higher power who would make all things well are erased. Gone. To put it in Fraser’s other language: the heart of the crucifixion is that the long-held human dream that our universe has some higher purpose which we are central to needs to die.

We need to wake up from the dream. I won’t any longer accept this story of God being in the midst, of God being in the gas chamber and in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Far more humanising is the acceptance of the horror of the fact that suffering is ours alone to alleviate. If there are bugs who burrow into the eyes of children, then we must work to lift those children out of the poverty that makes them susceptible to those bugs.

But we cannot expect to live in an Eden. It does not exist. There will be cancer and pain and depression. Fry would be right to rail against an existing God who did so little. But Fraser is wrong to offer comfort on the one hand, and psychological ideas on the other. We need to take tougher, harder, more radical decisions than that.

Our job is not to pat people on the back, tell them not to blame that nasty God, nor pretend that he’s in it with them. Our job is to step into that place ourselves and do what we can to lift one another out of it.



9 responses to “No More ‘God In the Midst of Suffering’”

  1. Thank you for an excellent response to the “God’s in it” argument. It is a line I tried to walk with great difficulty in my thesis/book on survivors of abuse
    I’ve moved on a little since then and cannot minister as an Anglican priest at present. Still working on what my spirituality really is.

  2. I like this very much. Does “The radical move is to say that God died. God is finished. Ended.” lead to the thought that the resurrection is a problem, since that effectively reverses the death of God – Jesus the man who died becomes Jesus the everlasting God. To have a resurrection (which can’t actually have occurred) totally changes the nature of Christianity to something which relies on the backing of a big God, and represents a failure of nerve by Christianity.

  3. As the brilliant Canadian psalmist, Alan Thicke, once wrote:

    You take the good, you take the bad,
    you take them both and there you have
    The facts of life, the facts of life.

    Kester, you write:

    “…the heart of the crucifixion is that the long-held human dream that our universe has some higher purpose which we are central to needs to die.”

    Wait, humans AREN’T the center of the Universe?!? HA!

    Your anthroDEcentric impulse is good here, I think, Kester (the higher purpose in the Universe thing is debatable of course). But if we’re dethroning humans here, then we need to think about the feelings of Nature—I mean, couldn’t it be said that one animal’s suffering is another animal’s dinner?

    Look, for me, complex human experience is just one type of experience present in a universe that is itself experiential at its root. Indeed, greater complexity of experience overcomes triviality, but it does not guarantee bliss…

    Damn. It sucks being human.


  4. It’s to this ‘problem’ of the resurrection (which I don’t think is a problem at all) that I get in the conclusion to this new book Getting High. You can pick up a hint of that actually in the BBC radio programme I did, which you can hear on the front page of this site.

    And yep, Jessi – that’s it! It’s Galileo+: not only is our sun not the centre of the universe, we aren’t central to it in any way. Which gives us, as you suggest, a way of understanding that we are simply parts of a deeper ecology – not masters of it.

  5. Yup. We’re part of Nature. And so is suffering. My point in the comment though is that if we’re going to dethrone humans maybe we should stop using individualistic, rationalistic, secular, human-centered philosophy then too. I mean, all that crap worked great when humans were #1, but not anymore. We humans (especially us educated, white guys) shouldn’t project our feelings of anxiety and meaninglessness onto the nature of existence itself. Pakistani thinker Shahzad Qaiser puts it well I think:

    “…humanistic culture, in so far as it functions as an ideological and therefore as a religion, consists in being unaware of three things: Firstly, of what God is, because it does not grant primacy to Him [sic]; secondly, of what Man [sic] is, because it puts him [sic] in the place of God; thirdly, of what the meaning of life is, because this culture limits itself to playing with evanescent things and to plunging into them with criminal unconsciousness. In a word there is nothing more inhuman than humanism [because] one can not improve man by being content with the surface while destroying the foundations”


  6. I agree with much of this yet I don’t think that all of the emergence of religious belief emphasizes an attempt to explain suffering – I think many sects get caught up in it – but I think the notion that good draws upon us makes one place all pessimism in a level of check. Thus, not so much that we can’t entirely explain suffering, but that we can’t yet consistently explain the surfacing good which unfolds before us.

  7. I don’t pretend to understand everything written here, but there a couple of phrases I can’t buy into being connected. That if he is with me the best he can whisper is some patronising drivel about “all will be well”. Bollocks.
    Claudia (my better half) went to an Alpha event shortly after we moved to London. It was at HTB (from the horses mouth) and there were a couple of young blokes there who when asked why they came said they thought the idea of God was bollocks and had finally decided to come and properly prove it to themselves. Their argument was there couldn’t be a God if Auschwitz (substitute Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Columbine etc) happened. An elderly lady (also in Claudia’s group) said she was there because she had finally decided she wanted to discover the God who she had felt and who had held her together during her time in a concentration camp. The two guys didn’t have a lot to say in following weeks. One stopped going, the other kept going. He was intrigued.
    “All will all be well” was not her catch-cry, but the experience of God not leaving her to suffer alone meant a lot to her but it also disturbed her, hence waiting some 56 years before going to an Alpha to try to find our who he was.
    I wonder if from the Father’s perspective, Jesus was the one and only time he was ever going to forsake anyone, so that he wouldn’t need to forsake us again regardless of our behaviour / attitude? Then again maybe not?!

  8. Pray as if no one is listening.
    Become the answer.
    Do this (not, ‘believe this’) in remembrance of me.

  9. I have a great problem with churches because or they are conservative (God is in control) or are like Fraser (God is not a being/God is a victim). Both are unpalatable. There is no way to council God with suffering. God must die.

    The “Christian Event” (as in Badiou) is the death of the Big Other. Or better, is the prove that there is no Big Other. My question to you is: Jesus wasn’t God, so God didn’t died on the cross. How do you deal with that?

    Anyway, Buddhists also know that there is no Big Other (that’s the truth of anatman, see link below). For them, that’s self-evident. Christians “need a proof” that the Big Other is dead/doesn’t exist. Isn’t the Buddhist thinking way better?

    The Truth of Anatman, by Tom Pepper: