After reading Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” a wonderful historical perspective on the textual criticism of the Bible, I looked forward to his next book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer. In it Ehrman makes even clearer the reasons why he is no longer an evangelical Christian, or any type of Christian for that matter, despite being born again as a youth and devoting his life and education to the study of the Bible, instead acknowledging his agnosticism (though I think he is clearly an atheist).
In the first book, we see that we don’t have any original extant copies of any of the books of the Bible, and of the later copies we do have, textual criticism has shown that they are rife with changes, additions and errors common to the hand copy process prior to the invention of the printing press and our subsequent error free book reproduction technology. As a result, we can’t say that what we read as the Word of God is actually the Word of God. This naturally leads to doubt as the the “truths” supposedly being revealed by the Bible. One point for Agnosticism.
In the more recent book, we see how the unavoidable realization that the suffering of the world does not parse well in a worldview where God purportedly loves his creation, has the power to eliminate suffering, and despite constant entreaty to Him through prayer, he ignores us. Ehrman cannot reconcile the concept of an omnipresent, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god with the horrors of the Holocaust, Pol Pot and 9/11, which are man made evils. Worse, he can’t see how there is any explanation for natural suffering at the hands of such phenomena as weather, disease, and the tectonic movements of the earth. However, as a biblical scholar of some renown, he does have access to, and somewhat superior knowledge of, god’s alleged words, and he uses them to explain the often contradictory views of the writers the Bible (and there were many of them, not just one) and their take on suffering in these various guises.
According to Ehrman, there are actually different responses to the fact of human suffering given by the writers of the bible. The most common is that of the prophets, whose explanation involved God’s punishment for breaking his laws. Man sins, so man is punished. God inflicts these punishments on man in order to induce him to sin no more. These punishments are often brought upon the sinner directly, by bad fortune or bad health, sometimes even death. But often the punishments are meted out to those who have not sinned, such as babies and children, innocent to the the very concept of sin. Or perhaps perfectly good people who follow God’s laws in every respect still find that they are being punished, while obvious sinners seem to bask in the lap of luxury. There is a disconnect, an incongruity, between the sin and the punishment, that often cannot be explained. So how do some writers of the Bible explain this?
The writer of the Book of Job took the tack that God uses suffering to test his people, to make sure they measure up to his standards. In that Book, God actually has a bet with “the Satan” (not to be confused with Satan) that Job is so righteous, he’ll continue to sing God’s praises no matter what the Satan throws at him. Of course, he does, but the lessons learned from this book are hard to swallow. For instance, the Satan kills Job’s ten children, and after Job takes this fact stoically and continues to hold God blameless, Job is rewarded with another wife, and 10 children to replace the ones that were murdered. This is supposed to be a wonderful moral lesson on how obedience to God is rewarded, but wait a minute! Try telling that to the children who were murdered with God’s approval just to win a bet. If I lost one child, I would never think of an after born child as an adequate replacement. I would still grieve the child I lost, and that child would have missed out on the potentials of his or her life. What kind of lesson is that? How does that explain the rectitude of suffering? For Ehrman (and myself) it doesn’t.
Another explanation for suffering is that posited by the apocalypticists, like Jesus and Paul, who contended that there were evil beings in the world who made people suffer, but that eventually the Son of Man would return to Earth, defeat the bad guys and make things better. The problem with this apocalyptic viewpoint is that the books that promise this (primarily Daniel and Revelations) were written for a current audience, not a future audience. They contained immediate promises that this would occur in the lifetimes of the readers.
Truly, I tell you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place. Mark 9:1; 13:30
Even Paul’s writings in the various letters he wrote to churches of the day are clear that he expected to live to see this. However, as we all know, over 2000 years have passed, and all these things have not taken place. It’s only with the hindsight of failure that Christians now interpret these books to mean something other than what they originally were intended to mean. People who predict the end of the world have been around for the same 2000 years, constantly moving the goalposts every time a prediction doesn’t come true. As Ehrman shows, the one thing you can say with certainty is that all of the doom sayers that rely on these books to predict the end times have been wrong 100% of the time. Consequently, Apocalypticism does not seem to convey a very satisfactory explanation for why we must suffer.
So where does that leave human suffering? Certainly it tends to be excellent evidence for the non-existence of God. Most people are in denial, choosing instead to accept these post hoc rationalizations in an attempt to believe in a supernatural entity while, at the same time, not blaming this entity for suffering and evil. This book, however drives home the realization that the Bible is not a good source for finding explanations for human suffering.
Clearly we are better off using our brains and accepting that – shit happens.
Here’s a disconnect I noticed: you stated that the apocalyptic books Daniel and Revelation were not about the future, but current events. However your proof of this is from the book of Mark, not Daniel or Revelation. Was Mark writing about Daniel and Revelation in portion you quoted? (Please note that Revelation hadn’t been written yet.)
People in this world suffer. God doesn’t tell us why. So that means he does not exist? I teach high school. Every now and then, I have to open my classroom door and point out that my name is on the door. In my 20′ X 22′ space, I make all the decisions, with their input when I wish to, but that it’s not a democracy. It’s not my students’ role to tell me what to do. God hasn’t done everything you say he must in order to exist. That does not therefore mean he does not exist. God does not answer every single question I pose to him either. But that doesn’t mean there is no God. I find that a leap in logic. If you wrote to President Bush and never received a reply, would that mean the president doesn’t exist?
I just finished reading Misquoting Jesus last week and I loved it. I had been meaning to read for a couple of years now.
Clark, it’s interesting that you seem to enjoy worshipping a homicidal maniac who delights in the suffering of innocent people. You’re right, if god exists then he is under no obligation to explain to us why he insists on killing, maiming and inflicting disease, hardship and natural disasters on all of us (kind of like President Bush now that you mention it).
People in this world suffer. God doesn’t tell us why.
I think the book that SI is referencing does tell us why; I think thats actually the point of the post. Ehrman, a biblical scholar, discusses the way the bible explains suffering, and everyone one of them falls short. If the bible is the “supposed” truth of the Judeo-Christian God, then its fallible. If your only “evidence” is fallible, contradictory and inadequate, then it should stand that the bible is wrong, god is evil, or you’re wrong.
It should be noted that this book or post does not deal with the god of deism (which ironically is what Christians use to prove their god exists), but with the Christian God. The only “evidence” of a Christian God is the bible; design, the earth, or whatever are not evidence. They are no more evidence of the Christian God, then they are for purple space monkeys. This post is concerned with the explanations the bible gives for suffering; if they are inadequate and false, what does that make the god?
Good post. Sabrina, you make a good point about Christians using arguments to argue for, at best, a deistic god, then make a huge leap from that conclusion to their specific god. The evidence to which they appeal to make this leap is, ironically, the Bible. You correctly note that, if the evidence is flawed, the conclusions are also flawed. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to get Christians to see that their evidence is flawed. Indoctrination, especially in childhood, is hard to shed.
I personally don’t take into consideration what the bible says when arguing about the existence of god. There is no reason to believe that the bible knows better than any other book. The only reason you think it offers evidence for god is that you assume it is the word of god, and therefore when it says it is the word of god, it must be true because it’s the word of god. This is circular reasoning. The bible cannot be evidence of its own divine nature.
The only time I really care about what the bible says is when arguing against somebody’s particular belief that they claim is supported by the bible. So basically I’m not going to bother getting into an argument about scripture.
Obviously the problem of evil is not the only reason I have no belief in god. There are many other arguments which have to my mind thoroughly crushed any reason for a belief in god. Science increasingly tramples the unknown where god has hidden in the past. We no longer say that lightning is a sign of god’s wrath, or the number of species a sign of god’s creativity. We have far more impressive natural explanations which do not need to call on some supernatural father figure to explain the unknown.
You are right that god doesn’t have to explain suffering. But this only holds true if god is a limited, unconcerned deistic god, who either doesn’t care about suffering or is unable to do anything about it. The Christian god has no such right. If he is believed to be all powerful and all loving, there is no reason that should be suffering in the world. He has the power and he cares. He created heaven, where there is supposedly no suffering. He could therefore make a perfect world, but he chose not to allow people in it until they had suffered for a while. Why?
You may say that god does not need a reason. But we do. If we are to worship this god, we should know why he condemns us to suffer, seemingly on a whim. Otherwise he is no better than a powerful dictator who has no concern for the suffering of his people, despite having the power to ease their pains.
And finally, the President Bush straw man is just ridiculous. There is simply no parallel. Firstly, the President is a physical natural being, who can be observed and scientifically tested. We can perform medical tests, see his DNA, find his parents and his siblings. We have numerous people who have met him physically, and hundreds of recordings, videos and pictures all pointing to his existence. His existence is not in doubt, and his existence does not pose any logical difficulties. Not receiving a reply from him can be explained by any number of natural phenomena, due to him not being an all powerful super being.
If god, however, does not reply, it limits the reasons that can be given for his failure. He is all powerful, therefore there is nothing actively working against his reply. So either he just doesn’t answer for reasons of his own, bringing doubts about his benevolent and caring character. Or he just plain doesn’t exist, and you’re just talking to yourself. You decide.
All I can say is that you seem to prove a lot of Ehrman’s point with your comment. The underlying conclusion, the unstated obvious, (actually it is stated) is that the God of the Bible doesn’t exist, because of the sheer contradictions in what we know about suffering and evil, and what the Bible says about it. You, with this comment:
simply assume he does exist, and then proceed to rationalize why he doesn’t do a good job with suffering. You bootstrap all your arguments with that assumption. Drop the assumption, then try to rationalize it all. When you can do that, I can then take you seriously.
Good point. And if he’s under no obligation to explain anything to us, then we’re under no obligation to believe in or worship him. Or vote for Bush.
Exactly. See, now you don’t have to actually read the book. 8)
Making leaps of logic is de rigueur for the Christian thought process. How could they possibly argue with it?
Long time no hear from. Welcome back!
Yes, but it’s one damn good reason. Layer in all the others, and there are many, as you note, and it does become a slam dunk.
Frankly Clark, this post (and I believe this book SI is responding to) does not speak of whether there is or isn’t a god, but rather addresses the question of suffering, or what’ been often called “evil”. Such an issue does push a believer like yourself into a corner with two undesirable doors to choose from to exit. The first being ‘there is no god’ and the second being ‘there is a god’. Why is the latter undesirable? Because then you have to explain the issue of suffering and evil, and that certainly is undesirable since all explanations to date are both inadequate and portray your god unfavorably. The result of this is either to flat out reject the argument for god as nonsensical or accept it but also accept he’s a dick.
This is good post SI and you’ve made a great case for reading this book, too.
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If I had in my possession a holy book which said that President Bush created me, loves me, watches over me, and will grant me anything I asked in His name, and I wrote to Him a hundred times and never got an answer, yeah, I’d begin to suspect He didn’t exist.
When ever I see a statement as below, I like to change God for Frodo ( the hobbit ) and see if it makes sense … it never really does
“People in this world suffer. Frodo doesn’t tell us why. So that means he does not exist? I teach high school. Every now and then, I have to open my classroom door and point out that my name is on the door. In my 20′ X 22′ space, I make all the decisions, with their input when I wish to, but that it’s not a democracy. It’s not my students’ role to tell me what to do. Frodo hasn’t done everything you say he must in order to exist. That does not therefore mean he does not exist. Frodo does not answer every single question I pose to him either. But that doesn’t mean there is no Frodo. I find that a leap in logic. If you wrote to President Bush and never received a reply, would that mean the president doesn’t exist?”