Christopher Smith would like an answer to question one before we move on to question two

I see that the comedian Stephen Fry has become the latest atheist to tell us how wicked is the god in whom he does not believe. If he could have the Greek gods that would be OK, because they (although he presumably doesn’t believe they existed either) are rather like humans and don’t pretend otherwise. But God God, well, in answer to the hypothetical question, ‘What would you say to God if you met him?’, Mr Fry pulls no punches. You may have seen his performance, given recently on an Irish television programme called The Meaning of Life. ‘How dare you?’, he begins with a rhetorical flourish. ‘How dare you create bone cancer in children? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault?’ Fry’s god is, he tells us, ‘evil’, a ‘capricious, mean-minded, and stupid god’. He is selfish, monstrous, and deserves no respect.

Oh, it’s all so dull, isn’t it? A rant born out of no theological thinking, but only a desire to apportion blame. No doubt he, like Richard Dawkins, would in one breath extol the wonders of evolution caused by natural selection, and in the next, set up a straw ‘god’ in order to tear him down. But surely, if Mr Fry does not believe that the world in which we live is created, he must find someone or something else to blame for the misery, and the obvious baddie is natural selection. It seems so illogical to blame a non-existent god for the existence of the particularly unpleasant insect to which he takes exception, and not to regard natural selection with opprobrium for allowing the thing to develop and survive.

If these people were possessed of any theological literacy at all, they would know that Christians have never believed in that ‘straw god’ of theirs. A God who creates out of love does not create in order to play a divine version of the Hunger Games. Indeed, you can see that primitive understanding of God disappearing before Old Testament eyes. Job’s comforters, as Job can clearly see, are offering shallow solutions, and it is an equally shallow solution to say petulantly that ‘God does not exist, and even if he did I would have no time for him’.

What annoys me most in all this is the atheist trick of answering the wrong question. While pretending to answer the question, ‘Does God exist?’, they are really answering the question, ‘What is God like?’ So they tell us what they think God is like, and then say, ‘And it is ridiculous to believe in such a being’. But almost always, we don’t. We believe in the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, the God of Scripture and the creeds, the God who not only creates but also sustains his creation.

But to find common ground with the atheist, we need to take him back a stage to the first question, the one he has not adequately answered. That is the ‘natural theology’ question – does God exist? – and for an atheist to answer it, he must explain how we have come to be and how we continue to be. The answer is obvious to you and me: we are created and sustained by God who didn’t need to create us, but did so out of pure love, a God who is Being itself, and not part of his creation. God does not exist in order to create, since his very essence is not to create, but to be. We know that all that Hegelian guff about ‘God without the world is not God’ is nonsense: God without the world is still God, but the world without God would not exist.

But none of this, of course, will satisfy Mr Fry. If you have turned your back on the very idea of God, you have presumably turned your back on the immortality of your soul, and you must find ways of compensating for what must seem like the pointlessness of your existence. You have, after all, put aside all thoughts of having to account for your actions, your belief, your lack of belief, before the God whom you believe not to exist. But I long to encounter the atheist who will admit that there are no watertight arguments for the nonexistence of God, and that the belief that we magically sprang into being without an act of creation really is the most extraordinary leap of faith. It would be so refreshing to hear some doubt as to God’s non-existence that would enable us legitimately to go on to question two: not ‘Is God?’, but ‘How is God?’, the question that we believe is answered by revelation. But I want these rat-bags to deal with question one first!

So pity the atheist, railing against the god he doesn’t believe in, and against the type of god no one believes in. Ironic, isn’t it, that Christians have never claimed to have all the answers, but are content to trust in God, the God whom Job refused to curse. And we do know that we are not part of a kind of cosmic puppet show, even if Mr Fry would prefer it. So much easier to have one’s strings pulled by an all-powerful puppeteer in the sky, even if he doesn’t exist, than to have to have a relationship with the true and living God who creates us, sustains us, and redeems us. ND