The former Evangelical Christian, Bart Ehrman, has established himself as a popular critic of Christianity and New Testament Scripture. I finished reading “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question- Why We Suffer” and can report that I valued this book a lot more than I thought I would. Anticipating that Ehrman would hammer home the theodicy critique of Biblical Christianity exclusively, I was pleasantly surprised to find an important generalized overview of the reasons giving for suffering in the world from the various Biblical authors.
That’s not to say that Ehrman doesn’t offer his personal feelings on the immense amount of suffering in the world and why a good or righteous God would either allow this pain or just stop the incalculable evil in the world. His words: “If there is an all-powerful and loving God in this world, why is there so much excruciating pain and unspeakable suffering? The problem of suffering has haunted me for a very long time. It was what led me to question my faith when I was older. Ultimately, it was the reason I lost my faith.” (Page 1)
Admittedly, the book has some power as Ehrman recounts his journey away from the Christian faith to agnosticism. He cites the main reason for this drift (or change) was the inability to answer the question that is his subtitle: why would a good God allow so much horror in the world? He correctly surmises that this is never an easy question to answer (for anyone who believes in any position). He maligns people (rightly so) who offer pat answers or Bible verses, without context, as a quick remedy to somehow curtail a person who is in a tremendous amount of physical or emotional pain.
Rather than just railing against age old questions however, Ehrman does something unique from other books like this one. He puts forth the generalized overview of the reasons for suffering offered by the Biblical authors. The first reason advanced is the “classical view of suffering” which is prevalent in Scripture and specifically in prophetic writings. This viewpoint, simply stated, involves sin and consequences. If people sin, God punishes them. There is not a doubt that this is one of the reasons taught in the Bible. For instance in a popular account, God “repented” that He had created humanity because of their rampant wickedness in the account of Noah and sends a great flood to decimate the earth.
Ehrman uses many examples in the prophetic literature including very difficult passages to contend with. In Hosea 13:16, we find the following sin/punishment account: “Samaria (i.s, the capital of the northern kingdom) shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword, their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped opened.” According to the Biblical witness, the rebellion of Samaria led to the horrendous consequences.
The above is an extreme example from the pages of the Bible. While Ehrman milks passages like this for all they are worth in attempting to create a generalized overview and communicate how backwards he thinks the Bible is, most of the sin and consequences in the world can be explained even in secular terms. If a person chooses to commit pre-meditated murder, the killer may suffer by spending the rest of their life in a cell. A decision was made to take someone elses life and as a result, our criminal justice system delivers consequence.
We see other examples of this in our world. If someone chooses to be promiscous and sleep around with many partners, there is a chance that the person may contract a painful sexually transmitted disease. This fact does not mean that we cease to try and get this person medical help and pray for their healing but the truth remains, there are real world consequences for decisions.
Ehrman does separate out the two views of suffering: 1) Suffering comes directly from God as a result of sin. 2) Suffering comes as the result of people making bad choices. I would contend that these two are interconnected in a very complex way. In today’s world, it is difficult for people to say that this specific suffering is coming directly from God because God has not told us His mindset about these things. We may obviously discern that some suffering comes as a result of poor decisions that people make.
Another view of suffering that Ehrman writes about that is in the Bible is suffering that is for the greater good. “The idea that God can bring good out of evil, that suffering can have positive benefits, that salvation itself depends on suffering- all of these are ways of saying that suffering is and can be redemptive…In some ways it is the core message of the Bible: it is not simply despite suffering but precisely through suffering that God manifests His power of salvation, whether the salvation of the children of Israel from their slavery in Egypt at the exodus or the salvation of the world through the passion of Jesus.” (pages 153-154) Of course, Ehrman is spot on here but he describes this viewpoint as belittling suffering. I have to disagree. The justification of redemptive suffering can certainly belittle suffering for some issues if someone tries to annoyingly not acknowledge someone’s pain and attempts to radically expose a “silver lining”. Sometimes, there are no silver linings and a lot of times, there is nothing positive to learn from pain. It just sucks. I would agree with Ehrman to that extent but would disagree with his hermenuetics of the Biblical accounts. Jesus Christ died for sins because of His love for the world. God’s sovereign choice was to become a human being and lay down his life to demonstrate His love (Romans 5:8). God chose this as the path for wayward sinners to come. For sin, there must be justice. The divine justice that was accomplished was placed upon Christ.
Ehrman’s book also recounts Job and Ecclesiastes for which there is no reason given for suffering. The Biblical books talk about suffering being a part of living and offer no grand explanation for it other than in the Book of Job, the saint’s agonizing suffering may have been a grand satanic scheme and test.
Finally, Ehrman talks about apocalyptic views of suffering which encompass that people who live as a part of God’s kingdom will experience suffering because the world stands against God’s kingdom and values. Many of these passages, particularly later New Testament books, were written in the context of Emperor Nero and other Roman leaders persecuting and killing Christians. No wonder that the Bible would teach that suffering can come when one stands for the righteous truth.
Ehrman often argues that all of these views from Scripture are in contradiction to one another. Here, I very much disagree. Throughout the scope of human history and experience, suffering happens and there may be multi-faceted reasons for why it does. This is not the Bible being contradictory. This is Scripture being honest about the experiences of men and women throughout history who have contended with the problem of theodicy. The Bible is not meant to be cut and dry regarding issues of pain in the world. There are probably numerous reasons for why it occurs which stem from the theological principle of a fallen world and universe.
In his book, Ehrman always speaks to the compassion he has for people who go through immense pain. This is exactly the attitude to have and even though he may not acknowledge that such an attitude is from God (or inspired by God), I would say that it is even if he has categorized himself as an agnostic. Feeling empathy toward people and not offering simplistic, bumper sticker-esque slogans in the midst of their suffering is what we should all aspire too.
In regards to the discussion of evil and suffering as well, I would put forth that in order to know what evil truly is, we have to be able to establish a transcedental definition of “the good”. If there is no God or we cannot be sure of God’s existence, how can we be sure of right and wrong? Without a moral transcendence, good and evil is merely human beings opinions and as we all know, these can range across countries, cultures and even individuals. Ehrman never really addresses this problem but always talks about evil throughout his book. Obviously, we would know if we are in pain or not but the broader philsophical point of deciphering good and evil (beyond cultures and individuals) is, in my view, reliant upon the existence of God. The good that God has described is what we should seek.