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Ehrman and Wright on the Problem of Suffering

The following exchange on beliefnet is worth checking out for those interested in the problem of suffering and evil, and how the biblical narrative addresses (or fails to address) it. Bart Ehrman is a former Christian and professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina who has recently authored God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer. N.T. Wright is a biblical theologian, the Bishop of Durham, and the author of numerous books on the the historical Jesus and the early church, as well as, more relevant to this discussion, Evil and the Justice of God.

Their discussion is a very interesting one, although as always in this age-old issue, there are many questions that go unanswered. Both make compelling arguments and are persuasive to differing degrees on on various points. To be honest, I resonate more deeply with Ehrman’s obvious pain and bewilderment when he thinks about the sheer amount and variety of horrific pain in the world; Wright isn’t blithe about it, to be sure, but you really do get the sense that this is much more than an academic issue for Ehrman (again, not to suggest that this isn’t the case with Wright, just that it is more obvious with Ehrman in this exchange).

After reading this exchange, I’m left with the same question I had when I first saw the title of Ehrman’s book, and after reading the introduction to the book while waiting for a flight last month: Does he think he’s offering us some kind of new information? It’s hard for me to understand how a man as obviously intelligent and morally sensitive as Ehrman could imagine that he’s “discovered” something here—as if for most of two millennia of Christian history people had never witnessed horrific evil and wondered how it fit into their view of a good and powerful God; as if most of those who have lived with and under Scripture throughout history were under the misguided impression that the Bible provided an airtight argument explaining the philosophical problem of evil. At best, Ehrman’s book seems to be a chronicle of how he, personally, arrived at a place in his life where he found the disjunction between the existence of evil and his faith in God to be existentially untenable.

I’m intrigued by Ehrman because he’s so honest. Suffering is, simply, a massive problem, and he feels the full force of it. On top of that, he’s spent a good portion of his life in the Christian tradition as a pastor and an educator. His is not some ignorant dismissal of Christianity based on trolling around a few fundamentalist websites—he’s read his theology, he’s done his exegesis (although thinkers like Wright have major disagreements with his conclusions), and he’s spent decades of his life in the community of faith. No one can accuse him of not taking matters of faith seriously. It seems like the pain of the world has just become too much for him to bear.

As always, however, I’m left wondering what positive alternative Ehrman has substituted or would recommend substituting for the Christian view he has deemed insufficient for providing the biblical, philosophical, or existential resources for dealing with the problem of suffering. Wright touches on this question briefly in his last post, but I think much more could be made of this. As many have pointed out, suffering and evil are only problems if you think you have good reasons to expect otherwise.

Unless I missed something obvious in the “blogalogue” (another wonderful technologically-fueled addition to our lexicon!), Ehrman doesn’t address this. I’ve not read his whole book, to be fair, so it’s possible that he does have some groundbreaking insight into this question (although I’m not too optimistic). From my perspective, it’s not worth sacrificing my own moral intelligibility for the sake of a very specifically conceived understanding of how a good God and evil fit together. As I’ve said elsewhere (probably too many times, by now), I just don’t see how things get better (logically or existentially) once God’s out of the picture.

Well (sigh) this was supposed to be a very brief post and is increasingly looking like, well… not that. I suppose I can’t help myself when it comes to this question—it’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I’ll simply conclude by recommending that you read what is a very interesting, engaging, and civilized exchange between Ehrman and Wright.

h/t: Mark Roberts via Ben Witherington

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. jc #

    Thanks for the link Ryan. I recently finished Ehrman’s book. I read his other popular book “Misquoting Jesus” as well. I am glad to have read both of them. Maybe the information in the book is not all that original as you say. For me, its the only book I have read that attempts to caterogize different views on the problem of evil in the Bible[maybe you’ve read few more]. As he mentions over and over in his book that most of the people he meets have simplistic answers to the problem of evil. Mostly the free will/best of all possible worlds argument comes up. I think that most Christians are not aware that the Bible does not speak coherently about the relationship between evil and the world.

    I enjoyed the discussion between Ehrman and Wright even if I didn’t particularly enjoy the format. I hope they go beyond there three post limitation.

    April 26, 2008
  2. “As always, however, I’m left wondering what positive alternative Ehrman has substituted or would recommend substituting for the Christian view he has deemed insufficient for providing the biblical, philosophical, or existential resources for dealing with the problem of suffering.”

    I don’t understand why you want a sufficient answer to the problem of evil to compete with an insufficient one (Christianity). If the Christian philosophy doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. What we need is sufficient alternatives to compete with each other.

    But since we don’t have any sufficient explanation we’ll just have to admit we have no “answer” and commit to furthering the search for one with better questions.

    We can only hope that we will eventually discover what are “good” reasons for our greater expectations. In the meantime, we’ll have to continue our reliance on the larger consensus of what is deemed ‘not-good’.

    April 27, 2008
  3. Gil #

    Jerry,
    The fact that Bart Ehrman (or anyone else) deems the Christian answer to the problem of evil ‘insufficient’ does not make it so (any more than my rejection of agnosticism or atheism as insufficient automatically disqualifies them).

    And since Ehrman’s rejection of God is explicitly based on a moral impulse (how could God allow this?), it is fair to ask the question of what alternative source that impulse could have (especially in a world that is believed to be fundamentally amoral in its processes and their consequent phenomena).

    I think it should go without saying that while many find the Christian answer to the problem of evil unsatisfactory, there are also many who find that it does answer (however provisionally) the deepest and most painful questions that life produces.

    Surely the fact that we have highly educated, intelligent, sincere and compassionate people (Ehrman and Wright, among many others) coming to very different conclusions here makes any reference to a ‘consensus’ highly questionable.

    April 27, 2008
  4. jc, you said:

    “I think that most Christians are not aware that the Bible does not speak coherently about the relationship between evil and the world.”

    I’m wondering if you mean “most Christians in my experience are not aware…” or “most Christians in general are not aware…” I would certainly agree that there are Christians whose knowledge of the Bible and its treatment of evil is fairly limited, but it’s equally obvious that there are many, many Christians who are well aware of the Bible’s “incoherent” account of evil and continue to find the Christian theodicy to be the most rationally and existentially satisfying one on offer.

    In addition, I would obviously have questions about just how “incoherent” the Bible’s account of evil actually is. The mixed biblical picture that Ehrman is reacting against (sometimes evil is described as punishment, sometimes a non-negotiable feature of the human condition, etc) seems to be a fairly honest reflection of the way the world actually is. Some suffering is the direct result of human behaviour, some is inexplicable. If an airtight, rational account of evil isn’t available to anyone, I would at least prefer an account which reflects this reality.

    (To be honest, I wonder how it took someone like Ehrman as long as it did to “discover” the Bible’s “incoherence” on the evil issue. I would think that this would be the kind of thing one notices long before the accumulation of a couple of graduate degrees and years in pastoral ministry.)

    April 28, 2008
  5. Jerry,

    “I don’t understand why you want a sufficient answer to the problem of evil to compete with an insufficient one (Christianity). If the Christian philosophy doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. What we need is sufficient alternatives to compete with each other.”

    Everyone has a “sufficient answer” to the problem of evil even if this is only an implicit position that is parasitic upon the rejection of those deemed insufficient. Everyone lives by some story which claims to make enough moral sense of the world for them to live by. I’m simply asking people like Ehrman to be explicit about it.

    “We can only hope that we will eventually discover what are “good” reasons for our greater expectations. In the meantime, we’ll have to continue our reliance on the larger consensus of what is deemed ‘not-good’.”

    I don’t have enough faith for this.

    April 28, 2008
  6. Ken #

    I have a question that I am wondering if you considered in connection with your research or in any other context. First I need to explain the context of the question.

    Most people I know who profess atheism or agnosticism and who say they were once Christians do site the problem of suffering as the reason they stopped believing in God. Some point to a time in their life in which they have suffered or a child or other relative suffered as being the turning point, the point at which they turned away from God. Suffering was an issue that Darwin raised and so did his friend and promoter Thomas Huxley who lost a child.

    Other people I know have turned to God because of the problem of suffering, including people whose parents were atheists and disdained religion as well as people whose parents were simply not religious or people whose faith had lapsed for a while. Many people begin coming to church when they are trying to cope with suffering. For some people suffering is what connects them with God in a profound way – Simone Weil is a particularly interesting example.

    It seems like suffering can lead both ways. It seems like suffering is not a sufficient explanation for why a person turns toward or away from God. It seems like something else is going on.

    And so the question is: Why do some people turn away from God citing suffering as the reason and others turn toward God citing suffering as the reason?

    June 17, 2008
  7. Ken,

    I think you’re absolutely right – both that the problem of evil is often a catalyst in the rejection of God and that it can lead someone toward God as well (Weil is a great example). Suffering is, I think, one of the central questions we face as human beings – one which has a profound influence on the worldviews we consider.

    Re: your question, I can’t really speak to why some turn away and some turn towards God – at least not with any degree of comprehensiveness. I suspect there will be different things going on in each individual case. Like every other decision we make, there will be a whole host of nature/nurture factors at work. I would also want to make room for the “spiritual” (for lack of a better word) category of “will,” as well. I think that there are at least some cases where people just don’t want there to be a God to whom they are accountable, and the existence of evil gives them all the reason they need to reject him. At the end of the day, God only knows what’s motivating a decision for or against him (which is a good thing, I think).

    I will say what I think is at stake, in the decision, though, which is the preservation of our ability to make moral sense of ourselves. Protest atheism will always run into difficulties in justifying the felt need to protest in the first place. Why, on a view that sees human beings as the result of an amoral dysteleological process, would it ever occur to us to expect moral meaning – from God, from each other, or from the natural world?

    The view that our moral intuitions point to something real about the world preserves our ability to make moral sense of ourselves. We were created as moral creatures. There are plenty of thorny theological issues still unresolved – why did God allow evil in the first place, why doesn’t he intervene more often, etc – but at the very least the fundamental need for human beings to seek moral meaning in the world is preserved, rather than rendered a peculiar byproduct of some other evolutionary trait, or an adaptive strategy foisted on to us by our clever genes.

    June 18, 2008
  8. Ken #

    Thank you for your discussion here. I think your analysis is good.

    I know for me that the occurrence of suffering in the world and in our personal lives makes me lean toward God rather than away, in ways I find hard to fully explain.

    I think we live in an extremely moralistic time, which is ironic, as you have noted here, considering the incongruity of such moralism with the evolutionary view that often accompanies it. Perhaps what we see is something like what happened in Nietzsche’s Parable of the Madman – sometimes when a person embraces the evolutionary arguments of the new atheism the nihilism that logically follows causes a person to shudder and then to seek, in spite of the inherent contradiction, a kind of moral purity, as in the parable the people told the madman to go away (because he had come too early, because they could not face the implications of what they had done.)

    June 18, 2008
  9. I think the analogy of Nietzche’s parable is an excellent one. One of the things I mention in the thesis is that it is very intriguing that the new atheists never even mention Nietzsche. It’s entirely possible – even likely – that some of them haven’t even read him. But I think it may also, as you say, have to due with their unwillingness to face the implications of their views.

    June 18, 2008

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