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.