God Has A Problem?

“The problem of suffering has haunted me for a long time. It was what made me begin to think about religion when I was young, and it was what led me to question my faith when I was older. Ultimately, it was the reason I lost my faith" – Bart D. Ehrman

The vindications of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of suffering, known as theodicies, are perhaps the most difficult topics of theological discussion. Some argue that suffering leads one to be a better person. Bart Ehrman is dissatisfied with most of the theodices that are current and writes that "my ultimate goal is to examine the biblical responses to suffering. What comes as a surprise is that some of the answers stand at odds with one another".

The cover of Ehrman's book says: 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 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.

Publishers Weekly commented: In this memoir of his own attempts to answer the great theological question about the persistence of evil in the world, Ehrman refuses to accept the standard theological answers. Through close readings of every section of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, he discovers that the Bible offers numerous answers that are often contradictory. The prophets think God sends pain and suffering as a punishment for sin and also that human beings who oppress others create such misery; the writers who tell the Jesus story and the Joseph stories think God works through suffering to achieve redemptive purposes; the writers of Job view pain as God's test; and the writers of Job and Ecclesiastes conclude that we simply cannot know why we suffer. In the end, frustrated that the Bible offers such a range of opposing answers, Ehrman gives up on his Christian faith and fashions a peculiarly utilitarian solution to suffering and evil in the world: first, make this life as pleasing to ourselves as we can and then make it pleasing to others.

Suffering, God's greatest problem?

Bart D. Ehrman is the author of more than twenty books, including the New York Times bestselling Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and is a leading authority on the early Church and the life of Jesus. He has been featured in Time and has appeared on NBC's Dateline, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, CNN, The History Channel, major NPR shows, and other top media outlets.

Posted March 16, 2008


Elizabeth Murray said...

I think Ehrman is right on target. I am an atheist for exactly the reasons that he gives. The problem of suffering is indeed the problem of faith!

If God intervened before in the affairs of this world through Jesus, why doesn’t He intervene now? Children are dying by the millions in Africa through starvation, illness, and internecine wars.

Why is this so, God? You are the creator, the all-powerful one. Did You create us as some form of a sick joke? You sent Your Son to say “Suffer the little children to come unto me” and then You starve them. Give me a break!

Please, God, answer Epicurus’s questions: Are You unable to prevent suffering or are You are impotent. If You are able to prevent suffering but are not willing to do so, then You are malevolent. If You are both able to prevent suffering and willing to do so, then why do we have suffering?

Reason rules!

James Carnaghan said...

Liz, I’m an atheist too yet very familiar with the themes of the bible from my youthful studies. The theme of the Old Testament on suffering is basically that God’s chosen people have not obeyed his instructions and therefore are being punished for their ‘sins’.

As a famous cartoon says: “Beatings will continue until morale improves”. This sums up the OT’s position on suffering!


Neil said...

This is not one of Ehrman's best books but nevertheless some interesting tidbits about the bible are available. For example, I agree that the story of Adam and Eve (basically not following a right path) and then the story of Cain and Abel (one doing harm to another) is indeed a synopsis of the history of human drama. This is the story of mankind - not doing what is right and making others the ojects of willful, violent acts.


Janet Witherspoon said...

I agree the book is interesting for its review of the various bible stories. I didn’t quite realize that David was such a jerk. Here he has his way with Bathsheba, gets her pregnant while her husband, Uriah, is off fighting his battles. Then he brings Uriah home to have sex with Bathsheba and cover up the scandal and when Uriah doesn’t do so because his comrades are in battle David has him bumped off and then marries Bathsheba. So an innocent man is killed by the great king David just because the king ‘couldn’t keep his pants buttoned’.


Flying Fantastic said...

Reason rules!

.... and yet it doesn't seem to be! Surely, if humans are perfectly capable of making sure everyone is fed. So, why don't we do it? The suffering is inflicted by the behaviour of other humans.


Flying Fantastic said...

"because the king ‘couldn’t keep his pants buttoned’. "

..a story often repeated in modern times!!!

Michael N. Hull said...

One of the interesting aspects of this book is to see the different ways that the bible attempts to deal with the problem of suffering. First that suffering comes from God as a punishment for sin; second that it comes from human beings as a consequence of sin; and third that God brings good out of suffering, a good that would not have been possible if the suffering had not occurred.

I was interested in the parallels Ehrman made between the resolution of the OT story of Joseph in Egypt and the NT story of the raising of Lazarus. Through Joseph's suffering of being sold into slavery, God eventually saves 'His' people and is glorified. While in the NT Jesus allows the family of Lazarus to suffer by letting Lazarus die so that Jesus may raise him from the dead and thereby God can again be glorified by it.


Janet Witherspoon said...


Good point and also I would add Ehrman's point that atonement is based on the idea that sin leads to punishment and without the punishment there can be no reconciliation. Thus suffering, in biblical terms is redemptive in that the suffering brings salvation.

Logically, I don't like the concept. There are two types of justice (retributive and restorative) and these concepts deal only with the first of these two forms of justice. At least the OT does; the NT does a bit better with viewing justice from its restorative perspective.


Vinny Hall said...

There was a good example on the news here recently when a judge sentenced three men to learn English as restorative justice rather than sending them to prison in an act of retributive justice.

Restorative when possible should always be preferred over retributive justice.


Geoff Fox said...

I found the book to be quite an interesting insight into the bible’s views on suffering though I think the section on Job was unnecessarily long. Nevertheless his writing about Job clarified for me the questions I had about what this mythical tale is about.

As to the Apocalyptic view of suffering, I had not realized that Jesus was actually an apocalypticist and I think Ehrman’s summary of this on page 227 of the book was enlightening when he writes:

Jesus and other apocalypticists in the ancient world were dealing with the very real problems of pain and suffering. They did not think that God was causing suffering, either to punish sinners or to test his people. At the same time, they believed that God was ultimately in control of this world. Why then is there suffering ? For mysterious reasons, God has handed over control of the world, temporarily, to the powers of evil, who are wreaking havoc here, especially among God’s chosen ones. But God in the end is sovereign, And evil is not the end of the story. Pain, misery, and death, these are not the last word. God has the last word. God will reassert himself and wrest control of this world from the forces that now dominate it. And those who suffer now will be rewarded then, in the good kingdom that God is soon to bring.

Didn’t the Gnostics hold this view that the world was controlled by a ‘bad’ God and the object was to escape it and get to the place of the ‘good’ God?