For this alone reading this book is worthwhile it is an article of my faith that when people write about subjects that truly concern them they almost invariably write well. Suffering is one of those things that is supposed to drag people into churches. So, this book seeks to discuss the answers presented in the Bible to explain suffering and asks whether these answers are good or bad answers. One of the things people might find surprising is that the Bible doesnt have one answer for why there is suffering, but many. Ive no real problem with that the Bible is supposed to be a book about life and life is, if anything, contradictory and full of mutually exclusive answers. The first major explanation for suffering in the Bible is that it is Gods punishment for us not following his laws. I am going to have to read this book of the Bible again at some stage. That suffering now is part of the way to ensure you get good stuff in the next life for he who is last shall be first. I dont mean that it will end your faith that isnt Ehrmans intention and even his wife is still a believer (and let's face it, if you can't even convert your wife - who has to put up with you all day long - you're not doing a terribly good job of converting people). This book isnt about converting people to atheism, nonetheless, it presents the problem of suffering in a way that ought to be a challenge to anyones faith.
There's a celebrity death match between God and Satan, a nervous Jewish spokesman, and something called The Lone Bangster. It could be that I read this book sadistically, having cruel fun watching the poor Christians run around like rats frantically looking for the impossible way out of the trap that they themselves created, which is: -God is omnipotent -God loves us -We live in an ocean of human suffering which laps and lashes at everyone's life. God loves us? But he does say that Christianity fails to explain human suffering. In this version, the ancients were not wrong to state that there was an original creative and sustaining power, I mean, there was, wasn't there!, but because they couldn't conceptualise in any other way, they gave this power all these human attributes. So all human suffering is nothing to do with God. In this version God will be kicking down the door real soon, like a giant supernatural police raid All right, Satan, up against the wall - YOU'RE BUSTED! Now, we think of a person's religion as being what they believe, but back then it was to do with what they did i.e. whether they followed all the complex rules, which for the Jews was the Torah. So you needed a way of saying sorry that you broke the rules, and hence sacrifice. I mean, God sends his only begotten son so that he may be a sacrifice to God so God forgives the human race for their poor attitudes to each other and him, and he withholds the punishments they all so richly deserve. You can see the idea of God as a puppeteer of humans here. Later on, Exodus says specifically that God "hardens the heart" of Pharoah so that he doesn't listen to Moses and doesn't let the Israelites go until the final plague, in order to prove, once again, a point, i.e, that he is very powerful. The story of God and Israel in the Old Testament is the tale of an abusive relationship. God : Forth. God: Okay then no more Baal! (This is what Dostoyevsky rants about.) So that - for me - scuppers the notion of God being in any way loving. Added to the natural disasters, for me that means that, sorry, and all that, but it looks like there's nobody here but us chickens. *** ADDENDUM I just read a great essay by Ron Rosenbaum (author of one of my favourite ever books Explaining Hitler) which addresses in anguish and compassion our topic. He was reading Bob Dylan's unreadable anti-novel "Tarantula" and came across a line which set him off thinking hard : "hitler did not change history. In the 10 years I spent writing a 500-page book called Explaining Hitler, not one of the historians, philosophers, artists, or other sages I spoke to or read ever made as white-hot an indictment of humanity as that. In those eight words it seems to me, Dylan is not saying Hitler's evil genius was unique, exceptional. He's saying Hitler representsembodiesa distillation of all the horrors routinely perpetrated by human civilization. I didn't realize the degree of anger I still carried around, not just at the Holocaust, but at those who could remain complacent and go on with their worship of God as if nothing had happened. "Our God problem," I said, was the abject failure of post-Holocaust Jewish theodicy: The attempt to maintain a belief in a God who had given Hitler free rein to murder. The failure of contemporary Jewish sages, scholars, and the rabbinate to come up with an adequate explanation for God's silence, God's absence, is scandalous to me, virtually an admission that there is no good explanation. Rabbi Richard Rubenstein, a famous dissenter from the complacent rabbinic orthodoxy, wrote, "Jewish history has written the final chapter in the terrible story of the God of History" (sounding a bit like Dylan's "Hitler WAS history"). Therefore, the world will forever remain a place of pain, suffering, alienation, and ultimate defeat." Other scholars, such as Irving Greenberg ("Not to confront is to repeat" Hitler's crime, he wrote in "Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire," his influential essay) and the late Emil Fackenheim (whom I interviewed in Jerusalem), have wanted to preserve a belief in God but at least have had the courage to face the failure of explanation to fit the old religion into the new, evil revelation. The theodicy of the Shas rabbi in Israel, for example, who declared that the Holocaust was God's punishment for European Jews who'd slid away from orthodoxy to secularism. That Hitler was "the rod of God's anger" against them. No less obscene than those who claimed the Holocaust was "part of God's plan," perhaps His way of hastening the establishment of a Jewish state. Then there was the argument that it was not God's faulthe just gave man free will to use for good or evil. this hell on earththe best of all possible worlds an all-powerful God could have created? It was only toward the end of the question period that a rather frail and aged figureI believe I was later told he was both a rabbi and religious scholarstood up almost shaking with rage. His rage was ostensibly at my citation of Dylan's rewrite (in "Highway 61 Revisited") of the Abraham, Isaac, and God human-sacrifice story. ("God said to Abraham, 'Kill me a son' / Abe says, 'Man, you must be puttin' me on.'") The enraged rabbi raised his voice to cry out that Jews didn't take this story literally. It was (this was later confirmed to me by a colleague of his) because I had sought to strip away any possibility of a grown-up's continuing to believe in the loving and powerful God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob after Auschwitz. My position, should you care, is that I love everything about Jews and being Jewishexcept the Jewish God. (I'm the kind of agnostic who is always arguing with the God he doesn't believe in.) And it wasn't that I couldn't take criticism. Hitler is dead, and I had nonetheless hurt the feelings of an undoubtedly good man to make a point about Hitler, God, and Bob Dylan.
And I don't mean Our Problem as is "reconciling human suffering with a loving creator-god is a problem, or puzzle, to be worked through." Likewise I don't mean Our Problem as in "we're the ones with a problem here, not God, because we're the small-minded creatures who can't understand the Creator's good plans for us all." No, I mean Our Problem as in "human suffering is a real problem in the world, and it's our responsibility to solve it, not God's." I'm not the only one who doesn't like the book's title. Our loving God allows bad things to happen in the world because (insert your favorite Christian platitude here). And each of Christianity's attempts to reconcile human suffering with a loving God turn out to be little more than platitudes when they are subjected to a bit of critical thinking. Indeed, in my opinion, it is not difficult to refute Christianity's standard answers to the question of why a loving creator-God allows so much human suffering. Now, I don't want to start listing all the answers to the question of why God allows so much suffering and then shoot them down in turn. (That's not all the book is for, incidentally; Bart Ehrman has much more to say in God's Problem than simply "Christians can't explain suffering.") But feel free to fire off your favorite answer in the comments to this review and I'll explain why it's just a platitude, cliché, or tautology.
God's problem is that suffering exists and the Bible can't explain it. Ehrman tries to show this by noting myriad biblical explanations for suffering and then showing how these answers are contradictory (19) with each other. I count roughly 7 explanations for suffering: punishment for sin (Ch.2 & 3); sinners cause it (Ch.4); greater good (Ch.5); no reason (Ch.6); apocalyptic view (Ch.7 & 8); God isnt all powerful to stop it (Ch. 9); Christs suffering is Gods answer (Ch. 9). For example, the first view Ehrman admits wasnt meant to be applied universally: I should stress that the prophets themselves never state this as a universal principle, a way of explaining every instance of suffering (53). Frequently, at crucial points in the argument, he simply dismisses views because he doesnt think they work. And he says that there are those who suffer for no reason and to no end (p.157). If suffering really is random, capricious, happening for no reason whatsoever, then of course there can be no explanation! If you think something is random and happens without reason, you dont go looking for an explanation. His only argument, though, for gratuitous suffering is that he doesnt see a reason, therefore (?), there is none? So rather than cogent argumentation, we get stuff like the above, or emotion laden, question begging epithets: atrocious, egocentric, cold-hearted, self-centered, raving, hasnt matured, etc! In his continued demonstration of his inability to either put forth a cogent argument, or interact with any, he on the one hand claims that the answers put forth by intellectual theologians or philosophers seek to give intellectually satisfying answers but are repugnant because they are removed from the actual pain and suffering in the world, only worried about giving answers that are intellectually satisfying (18), but on the other hand complains that the answers he looks at (from the non-scholar) are not intellectually satisfying (274)! He also somewhat sympathizes with Ivan from Brothers Karamazov who says that even if God gave him an answer for all the suffering, one that showed that it was necessary and for a greater good, Ivan would reject it. His more rational position is to admit that he would accept Gods explanation, but only if it made sense to him and he could understand it. So if God said that there was a good reason for suffering, and that we could not understand the reason, then that would be true. Ehrman critiques the apocalyptic view by claiming that it presents a utopia, utopia is that perfect place that ... Another critique of the apocalyptic, a view Ehrman says provides the best answers, is that it is false and based on mythology. Not only is this uttered by a man undergoing an extreme time of crisis, Old Testament scholars (Ehrman is a NT scholar) like Daniel Block have demonstrated Job meant quite the opposite (see Block's Hell in the Old Testament in Hell Under Fire). But the subtitle of the book is how the Bible can't answer the question. Of course Ehrman puts forth no explanation of how his naturalistic and evolutionary worldview can make sense of the existence of good and evil. And in the end, Ehrman admits that there is no explanation for suffering. So when your friend tells you her daughter has died, if you remove the Ehrman platitudes, the answer is: Shit happens.
The thesis of this book is that the bible provides us with a number of views on suffering, and some of them are contradictory. As most reasonably aware people already know, the bible isn't a book. To call the views within it 'contradictory' is only a point if your active assumption is that sixty-six books authored by different peopleand sometimes a single book is the product of several sourcesare all conspiring to make a cogent point about why we suffer. According to God, the reason Job suffers is that God does not owe him a damn explanation for anything. Job says, "Oh yeah, you're right," and God rewards him by giving him ten new children, kind of like how you'd get your girlfriend a new puppy if the old one died. What the deranged sadist of an author seemed to forget was that the audience had already been given the explanation for Job's suffering on page one. So the God character, who already foreknows the outcome of the wager, who can not be bettered one iota by winning it or deprived of anything by losing it, driven by psychotic disregard for the wellbeing of an innocent man, allows unspeakable misery and cruelty to fall on Job. The reader is perfectly aware of this throughout the entire narrative, making it both overlong and the ending a complete failure at every level. If there is a highlight to biblical musings on suffering, it is Ecclesiastes, the most human, poetic, and beautiful book in the bible. I appreciated this book, which is a habit of mine when it comes to Ehrman's work.
I remember the day she died - I asked my step dad's vicar why people suffer. My mum never smoked a day in her life and even if she had, does any 'deserve' or ask for that level of suffering?
Commonly, people who have suffered are kind and generous. As Mark Twain noticed, happiness isn't a thing in itself, merely a contrast with something unpleasant. Twain shows that it's because we suffer that we know joy:(view spoiler) Twain noticed his Negro servant seemed always happy. He said, "Aunt Rachel, how is it you never had any trouble?" She looked at him incredulously. This is A True Story (1874) from The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain: funny, sweet, and true.
Why would it be so important to write a book about it? I think the fact that he cares means that he has not really rejected faith--he is still open to it. He found no intellectual answers for suffering. The intellectual answers fly in the face of human experience.
"...came to realize that I could no longer believe in the God of my tradition, and acknowledged that I was an agnostic: I dont know if there is a God; but I think that if there is one, he certainly isnt the one proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, the one who is actively and powerfully involved in this world." p. 4 Ehrman claims to be open to some god other than the Judeo-Christian one, but later he says; "But there is no God up there, just above the sky, waiting to come down here or to take us up there." p. 262 Finally, he thinks that only God knows how many Iraqis died during the war. No, but it is typical of the way a historical-critical interpreter, like Ehrman, analyzes a text, or at least that's the way it appears to me. Ehrman doesnt believe there can be a loving God in heaven because of these things. He says that he lives a great life, but apparently, the fact that many people have good lives is no reason for thinking there might be a God. Its all about what God can do for me.
Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. Professor Ehrman has served as President of the Southeast Region of the Society of Biblical literature, chair of the New Testament textual criticism section of the Society, book review editor of the Journal of Biblical Literature, and editor of the monograph series The New Testament in the Greek Fathers (Scholars Press). Winner of numerous university awards and grants, Professor Ehrman is the recipient of the 1993 UNC Undergraduate Student Teaching Award, the 1994 Phillip and Ruth Hettleman Prize for Artistic and Scholarly Achievement, and the Bowman and Gordon Gray Award for excellence in teaching.