Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem
I bought Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem on the strength of reading his Misquoting Jesus, and I wasn’t disappointed.
There are three things about Ehrman’s writing that help me sit up and listen to what he is saying.
First, he is world renowned scholar in his field. He has been teaching the bible at university level for years and knows the book and its documents and the scholarship associated with it inside out.
Secondly, he is a very able communicator. The substance of the Misquoting Jesus is the scholarship surrounding the New Testament documents – a very technical subject. Despite this, he wrote a very readable book for the non-expert. In God’s Problem he looks at the subject of suffering and examines how, for him, the answers as to why we suffer provided in the bible seriously fail to convince him that an omnipotent and loving god exists.He moves with ease and grace through the theology and philosophy of the Old and New Testaments, all the time reminding us that despite the words, suffering is a very human problem. The modern day examples of suffering he discusses are personal and real, and cry out for answers. We may be able to detach ourselves from the suffering of Old Testament nations, but, as Ehrman reminds us, the obscenity of the Holocaust is closer to home, as is the suffering of our family members and neighbours.
Thirdly, he writes as someone who has had inside knowledge, not only of the bible, but of Christian apologetics. He knows the kind of things that Christians say because for years, he was one himself. Before gaining a PhD from Princeton, he had studied at the fundamentalist Moody Bible Institute, the Evangelical Wheaton College and was a church minister. He doesn’t write from an assumed knowledge of what the church is saying – he knows, and he knows too that for him the answers don’t make sense when critically examined. And for Ehrman that critical examination is all the more compelling because it is based both on strong academic argument and pastoral experience.
In times of questioning and despair, people often quote the bible to provide answers – or sometimes produce their own glib answers reflecting what they want the bible to say. The bible, however, does not have one answer but many – and these often contradict one another. The prophets and many of the history books tell us clearly that suffering is a punishment for sin. Some of the Wisdom literature tells us either that suffering is a test to be endured, or that suffering is beyond comprehension and has to be accepted. All apocalyptic texts in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament tell us that god will eventually make right all that is wrong with the world. Other parts tell us that we suffer because of other sinful human beings. Other parts tell us that god causes suffering because it is in some way redemptive. Ehrman establishes the biblical basis for each one of these arguments and then examines the answer in the light of logic and experience.
Despite the potentially bleak subject, and despite what I thought would have been my over-familiarity with the biblical text (I read, studied, and taught the bible for over thirty years), I found this a surprisingly stimulating book. This, in part, is due to Ehrman’s light but authoritative style and his ability both to present complex issues simply and to make potentially ‘dry stuff’ live. However, I found it refreshing to read in at least two other ways.
First, he opened windows on the familiar biblical text, enabling me to see something different for the first time. At times we are invited to soar over the mountains with the eagles as he draws his subject out of large parts of the bible. We get the global picture – the woods as well as the trees. That enabled me to have a new context for understanding particular books. But then he deftly swoops down to some detail and provides new insights into over-familiar passages. I especially enjoyed his commentary on the prophets, and in particular his exegesis of some of the classic suffering servant sections of Isaiah.
Secondly, he asks the real, awkward questions, that I was unwilling to seriously face when I was a Christian. And because he asks them with such compassion and such compelling evidence from experience, it is hard for them to go away or to be dealt with by less than adequate theology and philosophy. Here is just a sample of some of them:
- If suffering is a punishment by god for sin (a major theme of much of the bible), why are some notoriously evil people allowed to live long and healthy lives in luxury while innocent babies are killed in car crashes or are born with birth defects? Does everyone killed in flooding or earthquakes merit such pain and devastation?
- Why does there have to be suffering because of sin? Why can’t god do what you or I might choose to do? If my child is disobedient I may express disapproval, but there doesn’t have to be a death (either of the child, or a substitute – the pet cat?)
- If suffering is caused by the sinful actions of others, and if god is all powerful and loving, why doesn’t s(he) intervene more often to stop it. Clearly s(he) does at times in the bible. Why not more often? Why allow people to have free-will sometimes and not others?
- If suffering is redemptive in some way, what has that got to do with the eighty year old woman who was raped and strangled?
- Why does god cause suffering so that s(he) might be glorified? Where is the compassion and the free-will in that?
As Epicurus asked two and a half thousand years ago:
Is god willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent.
Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then why is there evil?
In some ways this is a very personal book. Ehrman describes the problem of suffering and the inadequacy of the biblical answers as the biggest factor in his own loss of faith. He was a very reluctant de-convert. Whether or not you agree with Ehrman’s conclusions, he presents a compelling case that the Christian answers do not do justice to the weight and range of human suffering and to the enormity of the awkward questions.