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Book Notes: God’s Problem (Ehrman)

Ehrman, Bart D. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question-Why We Suffer. New York: HarperCollins, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-06-117397-4. 294 pp.

I have previously noted that Bart Ehrman’s books are much more controversial on their jackets than on their pages (see notes on The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot and Response to Misquoting Jesus). This is not to say that there is nothing controversial. Rather, well-known issues are stated in a stark and controversial way.

This book is no exception to this prior experience. I was both amused and annoyed that my copy from the library had been “annotated” by some previous user. That always annoys me, because defacing library books is vandalism and I don’t like it. But the form it took is interesting.

On the title page the words “fails to” are crossed out of the subtitle, and and “s” is added to “answer” to that it says “How the Bible Answers Our Most Important Question.” Then there is a note that says simply “sin, In the 1st Book Genesis 3.” Of course, as any competent scholar would, Ehrman covers the role of sin in human suffering according to various Biblical authors.

In the conclusion he also notes how people are divided between two groups. Those who announce their answer as though it was conclusive and obvious, as this annotator did, and those who really don’t want to discuss the topic at all.

I have thought a great deal about the problem of suffering and am willing to talk about it a great deal, but I don’t actually think I have any very good answers. It was interesting to me that neither Ehrman nor I will give a definitive answer, but we have a certain amount of affinity for similar answers. The bottom line for me is simply, “That’s the way the universe works.”

Of course there is also suffering caused by human evil, so the “sin” solution is certainly a part of suffering. But any of these leaves one with the question of just how God fits in. And there I would differ with Ehrman considerably. The problem of suffering itself is one thing; one can even ask the question why we should not suffer. The problem of suffering when one also believes in a “good” God is another matter entirely.

And that’s why the book is titled “God’s Problem.” On one level this is simply a summary of how the various Bible writers answer the question of why we suffer. On another, it is Dr. Ehrman’s journey in dealing with the fact that we do suffer and the implications of that fact for our understanding of God. Some may dislike the idea of mixing one’s personal experience with a book of scholarship, even a popular one. I would disagree. I think the personal reflections, however much they differ from my own, enhance the book and help one to connect the various scriptural responses to real life.

Let me look at these two levels separately. It was interesting to read this book nearly simultaneously with Bruce Waltke’s An Old Testament Theology. The books differ a great deal in size, intended audience, style, and the level of presentation, yet they very clearly illustrate a significant divide in Biblical scholarship. Do we look try to see the scriptures as ultimately unified, and thus reconcile apparent differences theologically or do we lay out those difficulties as starkly as possible?

That question outlines extremes. There are many variations along the way, including a kind of unity in diversity. I like to refer to the unity of a large river system, rather than that of a carefully delineated pathway. But Waltke approaches the Bible as a unity to be brought into subjection to his christology, while Ehrman sees the Bible as many individual schools of thought and tends to demarcate these schools rather strictly.

As an outline, I’m rather happy with Ehrman’s work. He points out what the major positions are. I think there could be some more work done on seeing how those positions might coexist. For example, the view that suffering is a punishment for sin can co-exist with the apocalyptic view that sees suffering as something inflicted by evil forces. I know people in real life who will respond with either of these options according to the circumstances. They don’t always have any logic other than whether they feel that a particular person is deserving of “discipline” or is demonstrating strength as they face the forces of evil.

Scholars tend to try to keep things more logically disciplined than that, which is probably a good attitude for a scholar to have. But it can get in the way of describing real people who are quite frequently a great deal messier.

In particular, I question some of Ehrman’s work on Job. I think he takes a view on Job that would require the final redactor to be some sort of idiot. See my notes on this on my Participatory Bible Study Blog.

Those who would be very critical of Ehrman’s approach, however, should consider the almost casual way theologians often try to brush aside such objections. I did not include this topic in my notes on his book, but Waltke brushes aside major issues in this fashion, particularly when talking about genocide in Joshua.

There he dismisses the problem by suggesting that those who were willing to repent and convert, such as Rahab were subject to destruction, while those in Israel who failed to maintain the standards, such as Achan, were also destroyed. Many people, myself included, would not see a “convert or die” approach as substantially more acceptable than genocide. In fact, any theory of inspiration that does not take adequate account of human failings and ideas runs aground on this problem. If God in fact said “kill them all, even babies” and intended this as a good thing, then God is monstrous. It is possible that God allowed them to think that, because that was what they were inclined to do. It is sufficiently difficult to explain God allowing such a thing, much less explaining why he would positively demand it.

Yet of course the text says that God did just that. For me, that is a strong sign of how the Bible deals with people, still steeped in the culture and moral standards of the time, struggling with what God would have them to do. This is an aspect of the problem that Ehrman only touches on as part of the punishment for sin view.

As for Ehrman, just as I noted in my review of his book Misquoting Jesus, I think he responds largely to a fairly conservative evangelical view of Biblical inspiration, such as would be espoused by Waltke. I don’t mean that a bit of adjustment in one’s view of inspiration solves all the problems. Hardly! But it does make the discussion much more interesting and offer more avenues for a solution.

And this is where we come to the more personal issue. While I did not go on to get a doctoral degree, nor have I written such popular books, I really empathize with Ehrman’s experience. I came out of seminary with a “this can’t be” kind of feeling, and departed the faith at that point. Twelve years later I came back, but to a much more liberal theology. I came to the realization that I did believe in God, however much I might prefer not to, and thus I would have to deal more with my concept of God.

I’m not trying to present my position as the better option, though obviously I prefer it since it’s mine! But if I’m to believe that the physical universe reveals its creator, then I have to be willing to adjust either the adjectives I use in referring to God or the meanings of those adjectives. In general, it may be more honest to use different adjectives.

That’s why I have written that God is more interested in freedom than comfort. Ehrman discusses the “freedom of the will” explanation for suffering, though he correctly points out that the Bible isn’t that much concerned with such an explanation, and also that it fails to deal with natural disasters that are chosen by nobody. At the same time the Bible does address this issue from the direction of responsibility. Sin comes through one man and thus death (Romans 5:12). But the Bible tends to lay responsibility without really acknowledging freedom, something that puts Paul into contortions in chapter 9, from which he extracts himself (if one is generous) by breaking into a bit of doxology.

By freedom, however, I mean something more than freedom of choice. Rather, God constrains the universe within laws rather than directing particulars. God didn’t want Hurricane Ike to destroy so many homes on the gulf coast; he wanted each hurricane to behave as hurricanes do. If you want to see God as loving, you also have to see him as willing to allow hurricanes to be hurricanes.

Is that a solution? All I can say is that it works for me, but I know plenty of people, my wife being one, who do not find that very satisfying. I found it interesting that Dr. Ehrman and his wife also differ, more profoundly than I do with my wife, on the very issues involved.

The bottom line here is that I deeply appreciate this effort to discuss such a difficult problem, and to relate it to one’s personal struggle. I disagree substantially with the conclusions, but largely because I start with different premises. My belief in God, with the kernel being “ground of all being” (Tillich) is fundamental, while my concept of God is more flexible. I’m much less likely to say, “I see that my old concept of God won’t fit with the suffering in the world, so there must not be a God” than to say, “My concept of God doesn’t fit with the suffering in the world, so I must have misunderstood God.”

That difference is personal and experiential at root, I think, and would be very hard to reconcile. It lies way too far outside the realm of “mostly certain” knowledge. In the meantime, you could do worse than to read this book and see how it helps you think about the problem of suffering.

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  1. Larry B says:

    Thanks for tackling the book for us mere mortals. I’m grateful for your summaries as it spares me from some “suffering” of my own if I were to read it all myself.

    I very much like your position “That’s why I have written that God is more interested in freedom than comfort” and would like links to read more of your views on that.

    I too think that freedom underlines that reason that suffering exists and think that without freedom as I understand it (and I think you are referring to) we would cease to be sentient beings altogether and become incapable of relationship with God.

    1. I do think you have understood what I was trying to say. My note on freedom and comfort is paraphrased from my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic, but it is only a passing reference in a discussion of sin, salvation, and an eternal view, rather than directly talking about the problem of suffering.

      I really ought to collect more of my thoughts on this one. It’s just that I don’t think I’m anywhere near having that much to say. I’m only beginning to get a grip on some questions.

  2. Lifewish says:

    If you want to see God as loving, you also have to see him as willing to allow hurricanes to be hurricanes.

    That comment made my head asplode somewhat! I rather like the idea of a God who doesn’t privilege humans over hurricanes – an elegantly egalitarian concept.

    It seems like something that would lend itself more to deism (or possibly animism?) than conventional Christian theism though. If God is as supportive of the wind and rocks and trees as He is of us, isn’t it kinda counterintuitive for us to hack trees down and use the resulting paper to make compilations of His words?

    1. Hmmm! I think you’re reading more into the statement than I intended, or perhaps I wrote more than I intended. In either case, my major point here is that God operates by setting parameters, not by directly guiding each point. God’s desire for the hurricane to be a hurricane is expressed in the fact that he created laws that would produce such storms and then does not intervene to change.

      I think that is similar to the way in which he works with humans in that he establishes parameters, but doesn’t predestine our every move. It would be unlike the way he works with humans in that God doesn’t (to the best of my knowledge) have communion with hurricanes.

      Of course, I could be wrong!

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