Bart D. Ehrman is a compelling scholar, or so I’m told. I was entirely underwhelmed by his previous work, The Lost Gospel of Judas, which was largely a historical curiosity with a lot of directed Biblical scholarship; neither moving nor groundbreaking. I was unaware that Ehrman had written another book until I stumbled across it just recently; I decided to read it, hoping it would be a better indication of the author’s writing ability.
God’s Problem is really two interwoven threads. One is largely personal, and partly narrative: Ehrman tells us the story of his change from a fundamentalist Christian (Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, &c.) to an agnostic, and states quite bluntly that his fall from faith was predicated upon the problem of suffering in the world. It’s stated mostly famous by Epicurus, often retold in much simplified versions because there is no canonical version. The problem is this:
God either wishes to take away evils and is unable; or he is able and is unwilling; or he is neither willing nor able; or he is both willing and able. If he is willing but unable he is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God. If he is able and unwilling, he is envious, which is equally at variance with God. If he is neither willing nor able, he is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God. If he is both willing and able, which alone is suitable for God, from what source then are evils? Or why does he not remove them?
This particular problem was neologized by Leibniz as “theodicy”1, and it’s been one of the more complicated and storied cases for Judeo-Christian apologists. This problem, which Ehrman reveals he taught as a course early in his career, was his ultimate cause for disbelief, and he proposes early in the book to study the problem and the various and sundry ways that we’ve answered it.
While Ehrman makes his own convictions known, the book itself mostly reads as a textual and historical survey of theodicy rather than an argument for or against something—I’d chalk this up to Ehrman’s continuing interest in and respect for Christian intellectualism. This is a convoluted way of saying that despite the title of the book, it shouldn’t be something that committed theists are afraid to read: the bulk of it is dedicated to nothing more than explaining how different groups, and different authors of Biblical texts, have explained the presence of “evil” in the world.
One thing that does eventually irritate me about the book, however, is the same Ehrman dedicates to creating specific and overly-long examples of suffering. That is to say, instead of letting his readers tacitly acknowledge that yes, there is suffering in the world, he spends a great deal of time setting up examples of Khmer Rouge-led Cambodia, the Holocaust, sick and suffering children, &c. This particular tactic smells a little like propaganda to me, although Ehrman’s contextualizing hints that many people don’t quite appreciate the issue until it’s laid explicitly in front of them.
There are a lot of things to say about theodicy, and God’s Problem shouldn’t be considered a definitive work by any means: the Wikipedia entry for theodicy lists many more explanations that Ehrman does, for instance. The difference, I suppose, is that Ehrman has his New Testament scholar and (former) practicing evangelical bona fides, and he really does do a good job bringing his extensive knowledge of the Bible and extra-Biblical text to this theodician history.
The first theory that Erhman covers is the idea that God causes suffering as a punishment for straying from his commands (what’s known as the “Classical” view of suffering). For examples of this, see, well, most of the Old Testament. The Jewish god could be a real dick sometimes: this is principally Ehrman’s argument against the efficacy of such a reasoning, namely that the enslavement, death, and continued persecution of his chosen people is hardly a satisfying, theologically, especially to the latter-day Christians, who have largely transformed the Old Testament god into a much nicer, self-realized version of himself, replete with a salvific crucifixion. There’s a big difference between the stern father and one who will kill children just to make a point. With enough torturous logic, you could justify it, perhaps, but surely, Ehrman argues, there must be better.
And indeed, even though the author likely spends the most time on this first explanation (due, in part, to its relative surfeit of textual evidence), there are in fact other ways of approaching theodicy. The next explanation is possibly the most popular form with Christians: suffering exists because free will allows some sinful people to act cruelly toward others. That is to say, Adam & Eve → sin → fallen nature → suffering. The obvious problem with this viewpoint, Ehrman supposes, is suffering that isn’t the responsibility of humans: literal “acts of god,” in insurance parlance, don’t appear to be the end result of human action; they are either built into the nature of the world, or they are created spontaneously by God, both of which are problematic in thinking of about suffering.
Thirdly, there is redemptive suffering: specifically, we experience suffering so that we may be better people. This, too, has a gloss of respectability, Ehrman says, except when you consider all of the fringe cases. Even if you could argue that losing a child in an accident makes a mother a better person (stronger, more faithful, what-have-you), you could hardly say the same for the child. Despite what seems like a lot of exceptions to the rule, the idea of redemptive suffering has become the theological cornerstone of Christianity, as seen in the passion of Jesus.
Finally, Ehrman discusses another viewpoint associated with Jesus and his close followers: apocalyptic2 suffering. Simply put, this is the idea that suffering is fine now because we’ve got much better things coming that will make it all worth it. There are two levels to this: to early apocalyptic writers (Ehrman mentions Paul as an example), contemporary suffering is irrelevant, since divine deliverance is soon at hand. 2000 years later, the idea of “soon” has changed somewhat, but the idea that suffering in the here and now pales in comparison to the rewards of the afterlife is very much a part of the fabric of Christian doctrine. Ehrman, ever the dedicated agnostic, thinks this little consolation for all that happens in this world (insert his many descriptive examples, for the fourth or fifth time).
In the end, I’d say God’s Problem is a bit of an answer without a problem. Although it’s an excellent survey of historical and current Christian teachings regarding theodicy, its contextual problems—the author’s own revulsion to suffering and its effects on his faith—aren’t likely to sway any reader on any side of the debate. I think Ehrman understands this (he appears to disclaim as much), and yet much of his personal narrative, injected between textual analyses, appears worded to provoke just such an event. Theodicy is a very real topic of debate that continues to inform sermons even today, and remains relevant as long as the world continues to appear an arbitrary and cruel place. I knew, generally, of the arguments for suffering, having heard of and contemplated Epicurus’ (in)famous proposal long ago, but it was nice to get lot of textual information with which to frame the subject.
I still haven’t been entirely convinced of Ehrman’s ability as a writer (perhaps I simply need to go ahead and read Misquoting Jesus, which appears to be a fan favorite), even though I accept his reputation as a scholar. God’s Problem suffered at times from its own maudlin sympathies, relying too hard on an argument from empathy in a work that proposed a scholarly debate.
- from Greek θεός‚ (theós, “god”) and δίκη (dikē, “justice”).[↩]
- I should stress here, like Ehrman does, that “apocalyptic” in this context does not refer to either the Mad Max or the Revelations versions, but is literally after the Greek ἀποκάλυψις, or disclosure, and simply meant a revelation, not necessarily a world-ending event[↩]