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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. However one emerges from reading this book, wrestling with these questions is valuable and sometimes inevitable.

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 commonplace. 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, at least not within our earthly existence. We need the humility to admit that. But we don’t really need a complete solution. All we need is enough to go on, to keep us from despair, 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 entirely? No doubt life 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, to realize eventually (even if much later) that she is a person with needs and feelings of her own. 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. To put it most succinctly, without suffering, love would be impossible.

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. Politically, Jesus had to die because he was attracting so much attention the Romans thought he was an insurrectionist. However, we can also interpret Jesus’s death theologically. 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 in them.

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 present with others in their suffering in the most radical way possible, by willingly accepting the same fate as befell many of those around him. And by choosing to be present with others, he discovered that God was present with him.

People will interpret this in different ways. At one end of the spectrum, the conservative Christian will see Christ’s suffering overcome by his bodily resurrection. At the other end, the atheist will not resonate with this at all. What about the vast numbers of people in the middle?

The brutality of crucifixion was nothing short of genius. It is hard to imagine a more horrible way to die, or a way more fearful to the witnesses. Typically the body was left hanging on the cross for days, wild beasts attacking it from below and birds of prey pecking the head and the eyes. The Romans dotted the landscape with these grotesque figures even after bodily decomposition, for those passing by to imagine what might become their fate if they ever thought of defying Rome. We are told that Jesus died the night he was crucified, but that would be highly unusual.

How, then, to explain why Jesus’s followers were not utterly crushed by what happened to their leader? How to explain their persistence with a kind of renewed faith? They should have been devastated, Some may say the disciples hallucinated Jesus, as some do when a loved one has died, but such experiences usually don't occur on a mass scale nor do their effects usually last that long. The reports of a literal, bodily resurrection, however, could well have been influenced by the apocalyptic theology of the time, which conceived future fulfillment in terms of resurrection. It may be simpler and less controversial to say that, in some way not clear to us, they experienced God’s presence precisely at the time they should have felt God’s abandonment. This explanation will not speak to everyone, but that does not matter very much. It’s significance lies in providing a way into “God’s problem” that, while still falling short of a complete solution, can point the way toward hope.

There are those who have felt God’s presence precisely during the worst times of their lives. I met a number of them when I worked in hospice. I marveled at their faith. Somehow they felt they were not alone even while experiencing pain, sickness, and impending death. It was their own experience of the cross, and God’s presence with them while they suffered it. It may well be similar to what happened to the disciples on that first Easter.

When Jesus passed through the time when he felt alone and abandoned, he gave words to it that capture how some of us feel: “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 (and whether it was the Jesus of history or the Jesus of faith does not really matter) 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. The story of Jesus on the cross points toward a response to the problem of suffering that may have redemptive value, at least for some, and perhaps, potentially, for us all?

This response is meaningful only 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 can carry us through suffering.

How do we know this is real? This question can be answered only in individual experience. A loving relationship or an experience of beauty may hint to us of something greater than this world. I have also seen it, as I mentioned, in many of my hospice patients. Their 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 one finds in the normal course of life. The peacefulness I felt being with them was greater and deeper than any peace I have ever known, and spoke to me of some part of reality I don’t really understand. The life of nearly everyone will end on the cross, in suffering preceding death. But Jesus’s willing embrace of this human fate symbolizes a transcendent presence that persists even during our despair and carries us through a final peace to whatever may be waiting.

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 so we have mentioned three possible responses to the problem of suffering: an existential response, notiing that without suffering there can be no love; a Christian response, that even in suffering one may know a transcendent, redeeming presence; and a humanistic response (Ehrman’s), that the best response to suffering is to invest one's energies into alleviating the pain of the human condition. None of these provides a complete answer. Each of these is worthy of respect.

Critiquing the Critic

I would like to conclude this essay by considering a very supercilious review of this book by William Willimon that appeared in The Christian Century (May 11, 2011). Willimon chides Ehrman for not following Jesus’s example: Jesus didn’t waste time on philosophy. “He offered us few explications of suffering and injustice.” He didn’t waste his time writing books; instead, he just suffered with the people. Don’t worry about your faith in God, just roll up your sleeves, get to work, and fix what has been broken.

Willimon gives as an example members of a church whose building was destroyed. No one asked Why me? Why God? They were too busy trying to rebuild what they lost in the dust and the rubble to engage in “philosophical speculation.” And that, Willimon says, “is better even than learned explanations.”

I don’t mean to minimize the loss of a beloved church, but I have yet to hear of anyone who lost their faith in God because a building collapsed with no human casualties. Is this what Willimon thinks people have in mind when they worry about where God is when people are suffering?

I think of the men in Elie Wiesel’s concentration camp who put God on trial and found God guilty. What would Willimon say to them? Would he tell them to stop wasting time in philosophical speculation?

Coming from a pastor, Willimon’s attitude toward this problem is surprising. People whose faith is shaken by the tragedies they suffer are not interested in philosophical speculation. They are afraid. They are looking to restore their sense of well-being and security in an uncertain and dangerous existence. They want to know they are not alone. They want hope. The last thing they need is to be told to get out of their heads and knock it off.

Finally, one wonders if Willimon even understood the book. Willimon criticizes “learned explanations.” But Ehrman didn’t offer one! It is precisely because he doesn’t have an explanation that he lost his faith. Ehrman apparently takes the issue of God’s presence in the world much more seriously than Willimon does. Ehrman knows that the question of the possibility of a good God in the face of suffering is critical. Why doesn’t Willimon? Was Willimon not deeply moved by the tragic examples Ehrman recounts in his book? I was. Willimon (in an earlier review, see next paragraph) dismisses them as banal.

After I wrote the above, I came across another review of this book by William Willimon in The Christian Century (December 29, 2008). It seems Willimon hated this book so much he reviewed it twice in the same publication (he is a contributing editor, so apparently he has that prerogative). This other review is also twice as long and twice as vitriolic. It contributes nothing of substance except to reveal Willimon’s dislike of having his beliefs questioned, so there is no point in summarizing it. The personal nature of the attack on Erhman in this review is actually embarrassing.

But above all, the word I would use to characterize this review is “defensive.” Willimon deflects questions raised about faith with sarcasm and ridicule. Whatever Willimon may think about Ehrman personally (and one can only guess what might occasion such a strong personal reaction), it is certain that many people reading Ehrman’s book will have those same questions. They do not deserve to be dismissed, and especially not by a pastor as celebrated as William Willimon. I welcome sincere questions about faith - and I do believe Ehrman’s book is sincere - both because they keep me honest, and because those asking such questions need and deserve to be heard.

In summary, there are no complete or definitive answers 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. Some have found this to be true in their lives - I did, after the sudden and tragic death of my first wife, the most traumatic and difficult experience I have ever had to face. Going through it was hell, but afterwards, looking back, I could sense an unseen presence guiding me through it, shaping my life, and directing me towards healing. I do not say this to convince anyone. An atheist might chalk my experience up to coincidence, or even illusion. I can only say that’s not what it feels like. Of course, that doesn’t prove anything. It just is.

And I know not everyone feels anything redemptive in their suffering. No one should look down on that. “Theodicy” is only a fancy word theologians use to express a deep and anguished cry that is anything but intellectual. And because extreme suffering will always be a part of human life, people will always ask the questions toward which that word points. And that means inquiries like Eharman’s have a ncecssary place. A faith that cannot respond to such inquiries and that instead turns them away is no faith at all.

I don’t claim to have answers that can satisfy anyone else. I don’t even have answers that completely satisfy me. I only have little clues, which hopefully make life’s trials a little more bearable. There is comfort in knowing there are those, like some of my hospice patients, who have found a spiritual presence when they most needed it, and by knowing that others in similar conditions have found it. We can even try to bring this presence to each other, by meeting the pain of others with compassionate, non-self-interested love. That is God’s Word, which still dwells among us.

January 2019 / September 2021