God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer

In times of questioning and despair, people often quote the Bible to provide answers. Surprisingly, though, the Bible does not have one answer but many “answers” that often contradict one another. Consider these competing explanations for suffering put forth by various biblical writers:

* The prophets: suffering is a punishment for sin
* The book of Job, which offers two different answers: suffering is a test, and you will be rewarded later for passing it; and suffering is beyond comprehension, since we are just human beings and God, after all, is God
* Ecclesiastes: suffering is the nature of things, so just accept it
* All apocalyptic texts in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament: God will eventually make right all that is wrong with the world

For renowned Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, the question of why there is so much suffering in the world is more than a haunting thought. Ehrman’s inability to reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of real life led the former pastor of the Princeton Baptist Church to reject Christianity.

In God’s Problem, Ehrman discusses his personal anguish upon discovering the Bible’s contradictory explanations for suffering and invites all people of faith – or no faith – to confront their deepest questions about how God engages the world and each of us.

Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer

  1. Review

    God does not have a problem, the Bible does. The Bible defines God as all-powerful and benevolent, yet there is pain and suffering in the world. Countless religious philosophers and theologians have wrestled with this issue called "theodicy". Bart D. Ehrman attacks the topic with new vigor using a wealth of collateral he has amassed over a lifetime of intense biblical scholarship. He teases out the Bible's answers to human suffering, and in the process, exposes them as hollow, illogical, contradictory, and often perverse.

    These findings do not seem to come comfortably to the author. At an earlier time in his life, Ehrman was a born-again Christian. He was reared as an Episcopalian. He studied at Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College and Princeton, where he ultimately earned both a M.A. in Divinity and a Ph.D. in New Testament studies. He is currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. Ehrman's research has focused on the authenticity of the written and oral traditions of Christianity. His published work is accessible to the cleric, scholar, or layperson, religious or otherwise, who wants a deeper understanding of the historical development of Christianity. (Tip: Check out Ehrman's university lectures published in audio form by The Teaching Company at http://www.teach123.com). Along his way, Ehrman's findings overcame his Christian devotion. Ehrman now declares himself an agnostic yet an atheist would relish "God's Problem".

    In a prior bestseller, "Misquoting Jesus", Ehrman revealed the shaky under girding of the Bible as a historical record of events in the life Jesus. Ehrman has poured over scriptural texts in the original languages of antiquity finding that today's commonly followed editions are rife with erroneous transcriptions, editorial insertions and pseudonymous authorship. In "God's Problem", Ehrman forgives the Bible these shortcomings, offering it the opportunity to speak for itself in explaining the existence of a good and powerful God despite the misery that surrounds us. Simply put, the Bible cannot make a coherent case.

    Nonetheless, this is a surprisingly hopeful book and it comes at an important time. After Ehrman exposes the Bible's weak take on theodicy, a conclusion emerges that is rather obvious, virtuous and humane. That is, we can only rely on ourselves to relieve pain and suffering in the world. We must be accountable for the "Kingdom" in which we live, not out of fear of eternal punishment nor promised rewards of the hereafter, but simply because it is the only way to make value of our brief moment in time.

    These sentiments are apt to reach many eager ears given a contemporary interest among Christians, across denominations, in reevaluating their religious beliefs with increased intellectual rigor. For these people, biblical authority and church doctrine are no longer a given. They seek instead to identify with the messages of faith and community that can be more directly and accurately ascribed to Jesus. Taking a back seat are the interpretations of Jesus' message that were crafted long after his life that can be seen to clash with the essence of his teachings. This approach is widely referred to as "progressive Christianity".

    It is difficult to put a date to this movement. Albert Schweitzer's work nearly a century ago, documented in "The Quest of the Historical Jesus", is notable. But there is also no denying that the palpable level of questioning going on in Christian circles was piqued by Dan Brown's fiction "The Da Vinci Code" published in 2004. Since then, the best seller lists have carried many non-fiction titles in this genre. It is also telling that in early March of this year the paid attendance at the Westar Institute's annual conference more than tripled from prior levels. Westar organizes the regular convening of the Jesus Seminar, a panel of top scholars in the fields of Biblical study and Christian history. The Jesus Seminar is best known for its publication of a color-keyed Bible, indicating varying degrees of authenticity behind the sayings of Jesus. Disillusionment with Christian dogma will only be fed by the preponderance of senseless violence that Ehrman finds the Bible using to teach faith and virtue. The stories are already familiar to most but, in the context of this search for clues to the theodicy riddle, they seem even more bizarre. Abraham's faith is put to the test when God commands him to murder his son but ultimately stays the execution. Job, a faithful and virtuous person, is made the butt of a cruel joke between God and Satan that causes Job to be tormented with poverty, illness, and the murder of his ten children. Kind David has an affair with his neighbor's wife, arranges for her unwitting husband to be killed in service to the King's army, and is finally punished for this bad behavior only when God kills the offspring of the affair. This is the randomly-administered and perversely-justified suffering that renders the Bible bankrupt in explaining tragedy in a world that it also alleges is overseen by a compassionate and limitless God.

    A common refrain from the Bible's defenders is that the God-given gift of free will requires that we accept the consequence that man will inflict evil upon his fellow man. Ehrman reminds us, however, that free will cannot account for natural disasters that strike unconscionable misery upon the innocent. He further postulates that God surely provides free will to the inhabitants of the Christian heaven and no one expects pain and suffering there. Bible devotees also like to assert that the mystery of suffering will be revealed at the end of time. Ehrman simply scoffs at this as a desperate attempt to hold on to two irreconcilable views: one of the Bible's God and one of the realities of the world.

    The wisdom that Ehrman finds in the Bible is in Ecclesiastes, which we learn is one of his favorite parts of the Bible. The message in Ecclesiastes is genuine and beautifully simple. Pain and suffering just happens. There is no divine answer to why we suffer. We are not being punished for our sins, we are not having our faith tested, our sacrifices are not for a greater good. Indeed, God is not even responsible for our condition. All we can do is work to relieve suffering in the world, industriously apply our talents, and celebrate our lives in happy and benevolent pursuits with family and friends. This outlook on life is all the more delectable when understood within the context of the conflict it caused among ancient Jewish leaders. Many argued against its canonization in the Tanakh, considering the teachings heresy.

    Short of any satisfying rationale for the world's problems, with only the coping strategy of Ecclesiastes' in hand, Ehrman turns to what the Bible can offer in the form of remedy. At the time of Jesus, apocalypticism was spreading as a salve for the oppression and misery that could not be otherwise understood in the context of the prevailing Jewish scriptures, which later became the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. Jesus preached of an imminent end of the age of human suffering and the dawn of the new Kingdom of God. Mark (10:31) famously recounts such encouragement from Jesus, "many that are first shall be last; and the last first." Ehrman stresses that Jesus expected this relief to come very soon, as conveyed in Matthew (24:32-34), "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place." Ehrman also shows that Paul, a Jewish Pharisee predisposed to apocalypticism, interpreted Jesus' resurrection as the sure sign of the beginning of the end, including the bodily resurrection of the dead. Like a doomsday cult that has seen its moment of truth tick by, Ehrman brings to light the Bible's long-past-due timeline for the judgment day that was to bring an end to world suffering.

    The apocalyptic arrival of the new Kingdom of God never occurred as expected. So, the succeeding generations of evangelists conceived of a spiritual afterlife in which souls can bide their time waiting to be reunited with their bodies at a rescheduled judgment day. This post-Jesus religious invention is a striking example of how the Jewish religion of Jesus was transformed, bit by bit, over two millennia into something entirely different. For this reader, the value of "God's Problem" was captured in Ehrman's observation that, "…the horizontal dualism of apocalyptic expectation [was] transformed into the vertical dualism of heaven and earth."

    The review of Jesus' apocalyptic theodicy contains one of the very few shortcomings of "God's Problem". When Jesus states that the coming Kingdom will be ushered in by the Son of Man, Ehrman treats it as obvious that Jesus is not speaking of himself. This point is not intuitive and an understanding requires the reader to go to other sources. Ironically, the book's index reference for Son of Man says, "See Jesus Christ." To the contrary, at the time of Jesus the term "the Son of Man" was a fairly common Hebrew reference to humankind. Jesus' original intent can thus be understood to be that humankind holds the keys to the Kingdom on Earth and its own happiness.

    That is the path Ehrman seems to invite us to continue to explore. He provides a tantalizing introduction to the arguments of Rabbi Harold Kushner in "When Bad Things Happen to Good People". According to Kushner, suffering exists because God is not all-powerful. He cannot intervene to stop suffering but He can give strength and peace to help people deal with suffering. Ehrman is not sold on the notion of a god who is not GOD. He has certainly shown that this god is not allowed for in the Bible. Underscoring his own agnosticism, Ehrman further dismisses such an enfeebled God for lacking any purpose that is not already fulfilled by the compassion that relatives and friends provide each other. Perhaps that is precisely the redeeming message for the still-hopeful reader. While the existence of pain and suffering diminishes the God of the Bible, our response to it brings something truly divine into the world.

    Daniel J Donoghue

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