Sunday, November 22, 2015

God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer by Bart D. Ehrman

Bart D Ehrman provides a carefully considered, insightful, perspective on the Bible. It is a document which he has spent a long time examining. Ehrman has been a biblical scholar and a professor of religion for over thirty years. He has written 27 books, primarily on topics related to the Bible. Since 1988, he has taught at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. But he does not believe in God. He defines himself as an “Agnostic.” This is a definition he chose not because the word “Atheist” is repugnant to him, but because he thinks that it is more accurate to say that he cannot disprove the existence of God. (One cannot disprove the existence of unicorns either, but that doesn’t mean we need to quibble over the possibility of their existence.) The professor’s purpose in writing this book is to have a population that questions and understands what is written in the scriptures. He’s not out to make atheists. After all, he is married to a churchgoing Episcopal woman and teaches students, the majority of whom are believers. Professor Ehrman’s view is that “the Bible lies at the foundation of Western culture and civilization…the Bible informs our thinking in more ways than we are inclined to allow” (Ehrman, p. 14). Its ethics and ideas have profoundly influenced Western civilization for better and worse. Even today, citizens of Europe and the Americas express thoughts (sometimes direct phrases) that are found in the Bible; often without being aware of their source. So, for Westerners, knowing what the Bible says permits them to be more conscious of factors that have shaped and continue to form, the societies in which they live.
God’s Problem is a methodical, chronological examination of the Bible’s many answers to the question “Why Do We Suffer.” Ehrman takes the reader from the views of the Prophets on this subject, through those of the apocalyptic Jewish sects, to the appropriately final Christian apocalypticists. This author combines a good biblical scholar’s full understanding of the text, with the incisive mind of an individualist Agnostic who is not afraid to question its wisdom or consistency. For example, Ehrman reveals the views of the Prophets who lived during a time when Israel and Judea were Jewish kingdoms. People then were distressed by famines and attacks from neighbors. They asked why they were suffering. The Prophets, almost universally, answered that the people were being punished by God for disobeying his laws. The Prophets assured that God would re-embrace his people when they returned to his laws. Conversely, after Israel and Judea fell, many Jews were being persecuted by their conquerors for maintaining their religion and obeying Jewish law. So why isn’t God returning to his people, as promised, to re-embrace them? When this generation of Jews asked why they were suffering, the apocalyptic Maccabees answered that God’s cosmic enemies and their earthly minions were battling God and harming his people. The book of Daniel, written at this time, assured that God would send a Messiah who would vanquish the Lord’s enemies and establish a heavenly kingdom on earth. So the answer of the Prophets, that God causes suffering as punishment for disobedience, directly conflicts with the apocalyptic Jewish answer, that God’s enemies cause suffering as retribution for obedience to God. These contradictions make clear that the Bible is not inspired or channeled from a Supreme Being. If it were, answers would complement each other, rather than contradict each other. Instead, the Bible is a compilation of writings by different people, at different times, answering the question based upon their situation. Ehrman’s method is to present in each chapter a different biblical answer to why people suffer, then expose the inadequacy of the answer in a final assessment.

In discussing the ways that God punishes his people, our theologian expresses his difficulty in accepting this behavior of God. He criticizes universal punishments like the Great Flood, where God drowns all of the innocent babies on the earth because people have become sinful. He criticizes the individual punishments meted-out on specific wrongdoers, like when God kills the infant of King David and Bathsheeba for their betrayl of Uriah. Clearly, God’s moral actions do not sit well with Professor Ehrman.

Though the writer is capable of complex biblical analysis and extensive, rational contemplation, regarding the question of suffering, his main criticism of the inadequacy of biblical answers derives directly from the compassionate impulses which drove him from belief to Agnosticism in the first place: today’s conditions of suffering and God’s resounding absence. Ehrman is grief-stricken by the overwhelming suffering endured by God’s alleged children: If “the God who created this world is a God of love and power who intervenes for his faithful to deliver them from their pain and sorrow and bring them salvation…Why are babies still born with birth defects? Why are children kidnapped, raped and murdered? Why are there droughts that leave millions starving…If God intervened to deliver the armies of Israel from its enemies, why doesn’t he intervene now when the armies of sadistic tyrants savagely attack and destroy entire villages…If God [fed] the hungry with the miraculous multiplication of loaves, why is it that one child…dies every five seconds of hunger?” (Ehrman, pp. 5-6). Ehrman has many religious friends and students who have posed answers based on the Bible. The most common answer is that God gave humans free-will and humans use that free will to do evil. The professor has two answers to that question: 1: “If God gave people free will as a great gift, why didn’t he give them the intelligence they need to exercise it so that we can all live happily and peaceably together?” (Ehrman, p. 13). 2: “If suffering is entirely about free will, how can you explain hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters?” (Ehrman, p. 229).

Whether one responds to Professor Ehrman’s well-reasoned analysis of the Bible’s answers, or to his personal anguish over today’s conditions of suffering, one will respond. The question of why we suffer leads one on a thought-and-emotion-provoking journey that, at some point, most thinking and feeling westerners exposed to the Bible will undertake. Inviting Bart Ehrman along on this trek, will help to clear-away some of the fog on the path.

Ehrman, Bart D. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.