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God’s Problem:

How the Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question - Why We Suffer

A Review

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question - Why We Suffer
Bart D. Ehrman
(HarperCollins, 2008)

If you let it, this book will tear a piece out of your soul. And it should.

Ehrman’s book has two purposes: to survey the Bible’s different approaches to the problem of suffering, and to show that the problem has no solution. In both areas he does an excellent job. While my own theological position is very different from his, I deeply admire the honesty and integrity with which he presents his case. In this he outstrips the vast majority of religious writers on these topics. Ehrman’s book should rock the world of any person of sincere faith. Whether one emerges from reading it with one’s faith shattered or deepened, it will have been worthwhile.

An Intractable Problem

Why does an all-powerful and loving God permit people to suffer as extremely as people often do? Ehrman shows that the Bible does not speak with one voice on the matter. The biblical prophets articulate the classical view: suffering comes as punishment for the nation’s sins. While this view may seem simplistic, it is not without wisdom. The prophets understood that widespread corruption and greed, leading to the exploitation and injury of the poor and defenseless, weaken a society and make it vulnerable to foreign aggression. It is a lesson the United States might well need to learn right now, especially those who tout America as a “Christian country.”

Another biblical view is that sometimes suffering can have a redemptive purpose. One example is Joseph: after his brothers abuse him and sell him into slavery he goes through many changes until he becomes a high official in Egypt and saves a nation from famine. The Israelites suffer in slavery themselves, so that they can come to know God and form a nation hopefully devoted to realizing God’s will on earth. In the Gospels Jesus heals the sick and the dying so that their suffering may become transformed and glorify God. And Jesus himself suffered beyond imagining, to emerge from it whole and victorious over death.

But we do not always experience redemption in suffering, and sometimes our suffering seems far disproportionate to any offenses we may have committed. In fact, Ehrman points out, in post-prophetic times the people seemed to suffer precisely because they tried to follow God’s will. The persecution of Jews and the Jewish religion during the time of Antiochus IV and the Maccabees is a prime example. And so another approach to understanding suffering evolved, beginning during the Maccabean era and exemplified by the book of Daniel, which comes from that period. It is known as apocalypticism, from the Greek meaning “revelation.” The most familiar example of this genre is the biblical book of Revelation, but there were in fact many works of this type in circulation during intertestamental times. Apocalypticism explains the suffering of the righteous by positing a form of dualism: the world lies in the throes of a battle between forces of good and evil, with evil temporarily dominant. But at the end of the age, which is set to come quickly, a final cataclysm will ensue and then God will put everything right again. God’s kingdom will be realized on earth and the righteous will be vindicated.

Ehrman understandably has problems with all of these approaches. Clearly vast numbers of people suffer far beyond anything that could be justified as punishment for their sins. And in much of this suffering it is hard if not impossible to find a redemptive purpose. As to the apocalyptic view, people have been predicting the end of the world for years and years, and it’s never happened. It is an empty promise.

But he saves his harshest words for perhaps the best-known biblical treatment of suffering, the book of Job. God toys with Job, wiping out his family and possessions and inflicting him with painful sores, all to find out whether Job would still praise a God who would do such things to him! When Job protests and raises questions, God squashes him down, telling Job he is nothing and not even fit to raise his voice. Then when God finally does restore Job’s fortunes, God thinks it sufficient amends to give Job new children, as if his old ones were replaceable. Ehrman finds this morally offensive.

This discussion would not be complete without mentioning the most popular theodicy of modern times, one not found in the Bible but which many people, including pastors, now take for granted: God must permit suffering in order to protect human free will, or else we would hardly be more than robots. This view is as easy to knock down as it is common. Ehrman points out that free will has nothing to do with natural disasters, such as earthquakes, mud slides, and volcanic eruptions, that can wipe out entire towns. And is unbridled free will so sacred that it justifies allowing atrocities such as genocidal wars? What about the victims of others’ free will? Do they not also deserve God’s consideration?

The one biblical view with which Ehrman does resonate is that of Ecclesiastes. The author of this work appreciates the futility of life, and does not rely on anything after this life to provide balance or redemption. Therefore we should simply appreciate life while we have it, and savor its pleasures while we can. Ehrman is grateful for the good life he enjoys, but this gratitude is tinged with a keen sensitivity to the very many in this world who have so little and whose life is defined by suffering.

Ehrman, a professed agnostic, possesses a highly developed ethical and humanitarian sense that outdoes many who are religious and who love advertising it. He donates all the proceeds from his blog to fighting hunger and homelessness. He is tormented by the question of the suffering of others to a degree I would actually call spiritual (although he might not appreciate that!). He intersperses his scholarly discussion with many detailed descriptions of people who have suffered unspeakable horrors in the Holocaust and other genocides, or in natural catastrophes. Getting through these anecdotes is the book’s greatest challenge, and one should not just brush them off as statistics but feel scarred by reading them.

Ehrman tells the story of a survivor of the Khmer Rouge with whom he became acquainted, how this man was separated from his family and sentenced to labor on a slave farm. His wife was forced to work outside in all weather conditions, and to sleep outside in standing water. He also recounts (as told in The Brothers Karamazov) how Turkish soldiers in the Bulgarian wars tortured women and children, how they would toss nursing infants into the air and catch them on their bayonets, being sure to do this in the sight of the babies' mothers. (The Turks did the same thing during the Armenian Genocide.) There are many such examples in this book, presenting a very strong case for a Godless world.

Another View

How might a person of faith possibly respond? First, by taking Ehrman’s case seriously. His concerns are genuine and he states them cogently. Ehrman rightly objects to the tendency of many theologians to turn theodicy into an intellectual exercise, like solving a puzzle. No mere intellectual construct will address it appropriately. This is where real people live and bleed.

Ehrman is right that no solution to the problem of theodicy exists. We need the humility to admit that. But we don’t really need a complete solution. All we need is enough to go on, some clues to enable us to move forward with some kind of faith that life is worth living and still has meaning in spite of all the threats to our existence.

We might start by asking: What would life be like if we could eliminate suffering from it? No doubt it would be much easier. But we would lack something critical: awareness. It is through the pain we experience that we become aware of self and others. Psychologists tell us that if the infant feeding at the breast were never frustrated, it would never differentiate its mother from itself. It would live in a world designed for its gratification, with no need to move beyond it. A world in which we did not know frustration, pain, and suffering would be a world in which we lacked awareness of differences, of where self leaves off and others begin. The world would just be an extension of ourselves, with no sense of anything “other.”

And in a world without awareness love could not exist. Love grows from the awareness of the individuality of the other. Above all else, our experience of pain teaches us to comprehend the pain of others and to feel for them. That is the literal meaning of “compassion.” So while we might legitimately wonder why the magnitude of human suffering is so great, suffering exists not by divine fiat but by necessity. One cannot learn compassion without suffering, and without compassion there can be no love and we cannot be the image of God.

A Christian Response

Can there be a specifically Christian response to this problem? There can, if we go beyond the traditional atonement model of Jesus’s suffering and death. Why did Jesus have to die? A merciful God would not require innocent blood to atone for another’s sins. There must be another reason. And if we read the passion predictions in the Gospels not historically but symbolically, through the eyes of faith, we will see the necessity of Jesus’s death indicated.

Jesus’s passion, that is his suffering death, was the necessary completion of his messianic task. He did not fulfill that task in the expected way, a military-style conquest of evil and establishment of a new earthly kingdom. He demonstrated a different way of overcoming the forces of death: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). He accomplished this by choosing to be with us in our suffering, by willingly accepting the same fate as befell many of those around him. And by choosing to be present with us, he discovered that God was present with him. Like us, Jesus passed through a time when he felt alone and abandoned, and he gave words to it: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Those who claim that Jesus was really expressing reassurance and triumph by quoting Psalm 22 miss the point. If Jesus meant to proclaim victory he would have quoted the end of the psalm, not its beginning. Jesus said what he meant and what he felt. And as he worked through those moments of despair, he found his way to peace by trusting in the God he spent his life teaching about to others.

Jesus completed his messianic task by expressing in the most radical way God’s transcendent presence. This came through decisively in his resurrection. However one understands the resurrection, it was an experience of the presence of Christ by those who followed him. God present with Jesus, Christ present with us: this is the Christian response to the fact of suffering.

This response only makes sense if one recognizes a dimension of existence beyond time and space and what our physical senses tell us. As Paul Tillich has put it, “we live in two orders,” one temporal, one eternal. It is the experience of the “second order,” the eternal, which is part of this life and not simply something that occurs after death, that is the basis of faith and that carries us through suffering.

How do we know this is real? We can yearn for it, until it becomes a conscious part of our lives. I also know it is real because I’ve seen it in the lives of many. Many of the hospice patients I’ve worked with demonstrated incredible faith, in spite of the miserable things that cancer does to the human body and that even the best palliative care cannot remove. This faith came from a sense of something greater than daily existence, even greater than cancer. I have also seen many patients who experienced terrible anxieties as they felt the end approaching, but when I was able to be with them up to the very end I almost always noticed them transitioning into a peacefulness deeper than anything found in the normal course of life. Jesus’s life symbolized this passage: from the anguish in Gethsemane, to “Why have you forsaken me?” to “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” The life of nearly everyone will end on the cross, in suffering preceding death. But Jesus’s willing embrace of this human fate shows us that the transcendent presence persists even during our despair and carries us through a final peace to whatever may be waiting.

In this life we can always find evidence that there is no God. Ehrman presents plenty of it, and it must be taken seriously. But there is also much evidence that there really is something more. In everything we have to be grateful for, in every experience that moves us deeply, we may sense something greater than ourselves at work. This happens especially if we are blessed to find our lives guided towards ways of making use of our talents for the benefit of those around us. And there is no more powerful witness against the emptiness of a Godless world than the persistent faith of one whose suffering is so great that we could not imagine suffering that way without fear of losing our own faith. There are more people like this than we know, and we may even be surprised to find ourselves among them when our own moment arrives.

So yes, there are contradictory sets of evidence, for both God’s presence and God’s absence, or at least it seems that way. One does not negate the other, and we should not throw out one in deference to the other. Neither the good things of life nor its evils are fairly and equally distributed, and there is no rational explanation for that. Yet this inequality can incentivize us to struggle for a more humane world and to realize God’s love on earth. In spite of life’s ambiguities we cannot say that anyone is ever cut off from the transcendent presence. Even in the mass tragedies Erhman cites, whether from earthquakes or genocides, the vast numbers of people who may be involved are really all individuals, experiencing their fate individually. We have no access to anyone’s spiritual struggle but our own. From the outside, another’s fate may seem irredeemable. But how the individual responds to it, what one does with it, and how it ends up affecting one’ s life is each one’s sacred territory, and is unknowable by others.

Ehrman does not deal with any of this, and there is no reason why he should. Ehrman is a historian, and historians by definition work inside the temporal order. The “second order” is the province of the theologian, not the historian. As a student of history, Ehrman is keenly aware of many things that should challenge religious faith. It then becomes the task of the theologian to respond to them.

And here we see the limitations of Ehrman’s approach. Historians can provide theology with raw material calling for a response, but historians cannot draw theological conclusions. Jesus stands at the intersection of time and eternity, at the point where the “two orders” meet. Ehrman, working entirely within the historical order, presents a very reductionistic Jesus: an apocalyptic prophet who preached that the end of the present age would soon arrive and that people must prepare for it. Ehrman’s Jesus is hardly more than a miracle-working John the Baptist. But Jesus really was more than this.

It is very true, as Ehrman points out, that the term “Kingdom of God” had a specific meaning in apocalyptic theology. It pointed to a time when God would intervene and change the external conditions of this world, so that the forces of good would finally and decisively conquer the forces of evil. But if one studies carefully how Jesus used the terms “Kingdom of God” and “Kingdom of Heaven,” it becomes clear that Jesus was not talking about a new kingdom observable in the physical world (see especially Matthew 13 and Luke 17:20-21). Jesus was talking about the “second order,” the transcendent presence, the eternal dimension of existence, which is different but not separate from temporal, earthly life. Jesus used apocalyptic imagery to express it because that was the language of the time, but he did not use apocalyptic symbols the way other apocalypticists did, including Paul. Yet many still take those symbols literally.

In summary, there is no complete or definitive answer to the questions Ehrman raises, at least not on this side of the eternal boundary. But neither does this mean that nothing lies beyond the suffering we experience. As with Jesus’s moments of despair on the cross, God may still be present even when we do not know it. We can try to open ourselves to that presence, comforted by knowing that others in similar conditions have found it. And we can try to bring that presence to each other, by meeting the pain of others with non-self-interested love. That is God’s Word, which still dwells among us.

January 2019