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.