A blog member recently commented on a radio debate I did on the Problem of Suffering many years ago; over the years I’ve forgotten a lot of my debates — or at least what actually happened in them — but not this one.  I found it completely infuriating.  So I thought I would repost it.  I’m happy to hear your views, whatever they may be!


This is a radio debate that I had on January 10th, 2009 with Richard G. Swinburne, a philosopher who teaches at Oxford; Swinburne is a Christian and is well-known in philosophical circles.  The debate involved an area we are both interested in, The Problem of Suffering and whether it makes sense to be a theist in light of the pain and misery in the world.

I have to say, this is probably the only radio debate that I’ve ever done where I got genuinely angry at an opponent.   Swinburne’s answers to the worlds misery struck me as completely remote from any pain — the stereotypical arm-chair-ivy-tower rationalism that makes me wonder if some people have any empathy at all with their fellow human beings who suffer so terribly.

In any event, the debate was moderated by Justin Brierley for his radio show “Unbelievable,” a weekly program on UK Premier Christian Radio.


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2024-05-06T23:30:03-04:00May 7th, 2024|Bart's Debates|

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  1. the-higgs-boson May 7, 2024 at 8:03 am

    I can see why you got angry! Just two brief comments.

    Firstly, his early example of a surgeon sawing someone’s arm off for a “greater good” is a poor one. A surgeon would surely give a patient pain relief. If it wasn’t given that surgeon would surely be disbarred. A good deal of suffering is experienced without any pain relief whatsoever! He uses the example of God being a good parent: certainly no parent would allow a child to have such an operation without it!

    As to the suggestion that suffering of holocaust victims being for the greater good of others: the idea is monstrous. As he is a philosopher I would have expected Richard Swinburne to have taken on board Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative: people should be treated as ends and not means. If he is arguing that people suffer for the greater good of others then God is using people as means.

    Following his arguments and defence of why God allows suffering leads (in my own mind) to a view of God as someone who is monstrous – despite him saying that he accepted the second proposition that “God is all loving”

  2. RD May 7, 2024 at 9:18 am

    Suffering of others allows the rest of us to take action to alleviate their suffering thus building our own character? Seems rather cold-hearted and one-sided. I didn’t hear Dr. Swinburne elaborate on the benefit suffering has to the sufferers themselves.

    • BDEhrman May 11, 2024 at 12:02 pm

      Hey it’s all about us! (Or about me…)

  3. robgrayson May 7, 2024 at 1:45 pm

    I’m still a Christian (though a much different kind of one than I used to be) and, having listened to a bit of this debate, I can entirely understand why Swinburne’s responses made you angry!

  4. Apocryphile May 7, 2024 at 2:40 pm

    Fascinating discussion and very well moderated by Justin Brierley. I agree that Richard Swinburne has his head ‘in the clouds’ throughout, and, IMO, is too wrapped up with and invested in his Christian faith to see clearly beyond it. If there is a ‘reason’ or ultimate purpose to suffering, it is clearly outside the bounds of any rational argument or logic as we understand those concepts. One point perhaps buried in Richard’s argument that I think might be worth consideration, however, is his idea that there is a certain value, meaning, or spiritual maturation that wouldn’t be possible without suffering. Minus the theological trappings, he might be touching on something here. Whether or not suffering can be ‘explained’ or justified in any way that makes sense to us, it may have something to do with the idea that information (or meaning) is seen by many physicists these days as being at the ultimate core of reality.

  5. Wwzeitler May 7, 2024 at 3:38 pm

    I too was an Evangelical Christian as a teenager. Then, when I was 16, my 13-year-old brother committed suicide. Five decades later it is still a very vivid memory me and my step-father cleaning my brother’s brain-matter off the floor and wall. I too didn’t find the Church’s answers about “why such a thing happens” very satisfactory at all. The other thing I found is that as I recovered my psychic equilibrium (over time), I realized that it had sensitized me to the suffering of others — and that it was all around me and far more pervasive than I had ever could have imagined.

    I have to agree with your assessment of Dr. Swinburne — he does not seem to take any account of the UTTER HORROR of evil and suffering. A mother holding the mangled dead body of her child in her arms. I’m hardly being “extreme” — these are daily realities for vast swaths of humanity. Tidy examples of a surgeon cutting off someone’s gangrenous leg bear no relationship at all to the unimaginable suffering in war-torn parts of the world suffering from famine and terrible disease.

    Thank you for your outrage.

  6. ravenbright May 7, 2024 at 5:01 pm

    Dr. Swinburne’s approach seems not far from William Lane Craig’s more recent sentiment that evil or suffering isn’t immoral if God wills it – the Israelites killing Canaanite children was a moral good, even if it only happened in legend. Also hard to view Dr. Swinburne’s approach as something other than some people are sacrificed for the benefit of others. In both cases, the people doing the suffering are, at some level, to appreciate their own suffering.

  7. Serene May 7, 2024 at 5:02 pm

    Keep facing the light and the shadows fall behind?

    I don’t think humans are going to have a whole answer any time soon.

    Yesterday I figured out the names:

    Abraham and Sarai match Ibarum and Sarrai, family names of Sargon (Sarru) the Great’s lineage. He is the world’s first deified God-Emperor.

    *You have to have lineage to be permitted royal names, even phonetically.*

    Worship of Sargon is a small ancestor cult started by Narram-Sin who is also the first to be deified while living.

    Since posthumously deified Sargon worshipped a lunar god, an ideological schism is evidenced in the Isin-Larsa period. (Iah-Sin is lunar syncretism vs the new style like Larsa’s Elasar El-Sar, which is anthropomorphic syncretism.

    Isaac means Steward King in phonetic Akkadian.


    SM – Sumu is the *deified King of Ur

    Sumu-el and many varied theophoric kings are a callback to Sumu- first conqueror of Babylon


    SR — Sarru is the *deified king of Ur



    MN — Manu is the *deified King of Ur

    In the usual construction for these Ur lineage names (biconsonantal root made of the first two syllables, then add local theophoric) for “the Son of God”, Sargon’s son Manishtushu.


    Manu is a regnal name of Nabataean Abgarids in 1rst Century Edessa near what was 23C BCE Sargon/Sharru’s Temple of Harran.

    The Nabataean Temple of DUSHARA is “Of Sharru”
    (Aramaeanized, converting Akkadian “u”s into “a”s and erasing doubling).

    It’s an ancestor cult so it’s hushy hush just for the royal ancestors. That’s likely why DUSHARA only has anthropomorphic statues, and a line of regnants (it also means king) likely embody it.

    Abraham’s Ur traditions are in the Book of Revelation, like the Four Corners.

    How did some 1rst C people understand 23rd C BCE Akkadian? Nabonidus digs it out, and establishes Nabataeans. Mandaeans wrote in cuneiform Akkadian into the 1rst C.

    Book of Isaiah is a straight plan to reunite that diaspora and govern the world 🙂

    • Old_Agnostic May 8, 2024 at 5:02 pm

      Serene, please know that what I’m about to say is not at all meant to be rude, mean spirited, or to have any negative connotation at all. I come from a peaceful place.

      I’m an educated person. I have read many of your posts. When I read them, I literally have no idea what your talking about. The only time I have to Google search the definitions of numerous words is when I read your posts.

      One of the links in your post above is about someone who lived over 4,000 years ago and has to my knowledge never been connected with first century Christianity. In any way.

      Your post above, if I’m correct, has nothing to do with Dr. Ehrman’s topic of suffering. But I can’t be sure because I have no idea what you’re talking about. In any of your posts.

      Again, no offense is meant. What is meant is to ask you to dumb down what you’re saying. Really, really dumb it down for the rest of us. You might have some good points for the rest of humanity to consider but we can’t… because we don’t understand what you’re saying.

  8. Seeker1952 May 7, 2024 at 7:26 pm

    I recently saw a comparison of the length of time that founders of various religions were publicly involved in doing so, ie, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius, Laotse, and, if he actually existed, Moses. It’s remarkable that Jesus’s public ministry probably only lasted about a year-much less than the others. Given this, how was Christianity able to eventually be so successful? Maybe it only means that there were other more important factors. But I wonder if this highlights how critical Paul’s missionary activity was. Was it critical enough to be able to call Paul the co-founder-albeit as junior partner-of Christianity?

    I’ve read and learned much from your “Triumph of Christianity.” And it’s been a while so I don’t recall all the specifics. But I don’t recall you addressing the shortness of Jesus’s ministry.

    • BDEhrman May 11, 2024 at 12:12 pm

      Right! One of my arguments in the book is that the Christian faith is based on the resurrection, not Jesus preaching ministry.

      • Seeker1952 May 13, 2024 at 2:26 pm

        Ok. I think I understand that Christianity might be less the religion of Jesus than the one about Jesus; and that the proclaimer became the proclaimed; and that it’s based on belief in the resurrection—for both the first Christians and for Paul, who talks very little about the pre-resurrection Jesus. But that suggests an even briefer period of development, ie, limited to the day or days when belief in the resurrection started.

        So did Jesus’s early followers, especially Paul, provide the years of development, albeit enriched by memories of Jesus, that other religions received from their founders?

        And why would Christianity develop and spread based so much on the resurrection and expectation of his return? I wonder if there were other potential religions whose founders (Apollonius?) died and supposedly rose but the religion didn’t eventually take off like Christianity.

        I suppose that’s simply the burden of “Triumph” to explain how Christianity grew, eg, missionary activity, especially from Paul, not requiring gentile circumcision , exclusivity, reports of miracles, etc.

        But it still seems amazing that one year of Jesus’s life coupled with belief in his resurrection could be the origin of a major religion.

        • BDEhrman May 15, 2024 at 10:48 am

          I discuss these issues in my book Triumph of Christianity.

        • BDEhrman May 15, 2024 at 10:49 am

          I discuss these issues in my book Triumph of Christianity.

  9. nanuninu May 7, 2024 at 8:00 pm

    Suffering and happiness are not equal. Suffering has no equal.

  10. callmps May 7, 2024 at 8:39 pm

    Mr. Swinburne’s argument that the purpose of suffering is to improve our character(s) wouldn’t persuade elementary school students. But in fairness to him, he’s put himself in a position of trying to defend the indefensible.

  11. dmondeel May 7, 2024 at 11:34 pm

    How has this English philosopher kept his academic position since 1985? It’s the most elitist, repugnant rationalization of suffering I couldn’t conceive of until I heard it.

  12. BJH1960 May 8, 2024 at 3:46 am

    For the life of me, I’m unable to understand how anyone can talk about victims of the Holocaust and “their availability to suffer” or how they were “given the choice to suffer.”

    I really appreciated your closing statement and reference to Job (we can’t understand suffering) and Ecclesiastes (that’s the way the world is) and that the important thing is we do something about it, which is precisely what this blog is all about.

  13. Bennett May 8, 2024 at 10:25 am

    That was hard to listen to. I suppose I should not be shocked at weird things some professed Christians say, but this was possibly the worst thing I have ever heard, especially from a supposedly learned man. I can now say that I have heard an Apologist for God-purposed suffering in the world. It’s the old “You have to break some eggs to make an omelet” argument. Or perhaps more to the point, the Nazi doctors in the camps “Yes, we did cut people open while they were alive and caused them excruciating pain, but look how much we learned about how much pain the human body can take before it dies.” That guy alone is probably responsible for turning many devout Christians into atheists, assuming they listen to him. It’s a very Job-like response though – the clay hasn’t the right to challenge the potter, and God can do whatever he wants. God doesn’t have to follow his own rules. This guy is the chief spokesman for that viewpoint. Have you found others with this viewpoint in your various journeys? Are there even worse beliefs out there?

    • BDEhrman May 11, 2024 at 6:20 pm

      Oh yeah, plenty of others. And he’s an internationally known philosopher. Go figure.

  14. Stephen May 8, 2024 at 4:25 pm

    What has become of Justin Brierley? He no longer hosts unbelievable apparently. . A shame. A very personable host.

    • BDEhrman May 11, 2024 at 6:26 pm

      He moved on to something else (I forget what just now) and last I tlaked with him was very pleased to be doing something different. He LOVED Unbelievable, but it had been many years and he was happy to move on to use his talents in other ways.

      • the-higgs-boson May 12, 2024 at 4:50 am

        He’s dong a podcast called the “The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God” I haven’t watched/listed toit, but came across it when “looking him up” after watching this debate

  15. kellygene63 May 9, 2024 at 7:31 pm

    I try to keep it simple: it is humanity that causes the most suffering and does the most good. I don’t believe in gods. Because if there is a god and that god has the power to heal, or knows where 20 million kidnapped children and women are held forced into sex slavery, but this god refuses to tell any humans where these children and women are at, then that’s just pure evil, and not worth worshiping. How many mass school shootings have we had? Can’t the gods just warn someone? I guess not!

    • BDEhrman May 11, 2024 at 7:06 pm

      I agree humanity does horrible things. But I don’t think that’s the end of the story. Think floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, drought, epidemic, etc. etc….

  16. daniel.calita May 10, 2024 at 3:27 am


    1) Do you think verses like Revelation 13:8 , Ephesians 1:4-5 , Romans 9:18 show that people’s lives are predestined to salvation or eternal damnation?

    ‭Revelation 13:8
    [8] and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered.

    ‭Ephesians 1:4-5
    [4] just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. [5] He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will,

    Romans 9:18
    [18] So then he has mercy on whomever he chooses, and he hardens the heart of whomever he chooses.

    2) What does the parable of the ten minas want to show us?

    – Is Jesus referring to the king of the parable as himself? The last verse is quite disturbing. If Jesus is the king, he wants the killing of the his enemies? And who are these here?

    Luke 19:27
    [27] But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’ ”

    • BDEhrman May 11, 2024 at 7:13 pm

      1. They seem to suggest that, but it’s hard to know whethe rhte authors really think that literally or if the are expressing their profound believe that ultimately all things, including salvation, are in the hands of God.

      2. Yes, it’s Jesus — the king who returns (from heaven). At his return there will be a judgment, and all those who rejected him will be destroyed.

  17. RICHWEN90 May 10, 2024 at 10:54 am

    You do fascinating deep dives– I have no doubt that the history behind the stories (and names) is highly convoluted.

  18. MichaelBurke May 11, 2024 at 12:30 am

    Justin is a great moderator. He is very good at leaving his bias at the door (not 100% but a good record) . Richard, unfortunately came across as a bit of a british caricature of an intellectual buffoon. I think he failed to adequately present either side of his arguments to persuasive conclusion.

  19. Apocryphile May 11, 2024 at 12:48 pm

    At the risk of sounding like one of those ivory tower philosophers, I thought I would add a few words to my previous comment to perhaps clarify the last thought of my post a little more. If information is indeed, as the physicist Paul Davies terms it, the “ontological basement” of reality, the world we see around us must be “about” something – must mean something, in other words. We encounter a world full of much suffering and pain, but also one full of much joy, hope, and love. Is any of it worth anything? When we consider that information (again, ultimately meaning) is at the root of reality, I can only think the answer must be yes, by definition. As to what it any of it means, perhaps that can’t be defined apart from our individual existences.

    For those interested: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/is-information-fundamental/

  20. PGallanda1 May 12, 2024 at 4:10 pm

    Wow. Just wow…

    I’m shocked — but not surprised — by what I heard from the “philosopher” Swinburne. The depth of his arrogance and sense of entitlement is jaw-dropping. If ever there was an argument to be put forth for anti-theism, this is it.

    I have to commend you, Bart, for your restraint. I’m not sure how you managed to keep from going nuclear. (I found myself imagining how Hitchens might have responded to this guy. Hoo-boy… )

    I also wonder how sanguine Swinburne would be if one of his children or grandchildren were tapped by his god to provide an “opportunity” for us to be “holier.” Just nauseating.

  21. Brad May 13, 2024 at 1:05 pm

    Suffering can only be justified if those that suffer understood that they would suffer and that such suffering would be worth it to them. (A Kantian run-on, I know)

  22. SteveHouseworth May 17, 2024 at 1:39 pm

    Consider this problem from an anthropological perspective: We are one of millions of species on the planet. Our experiences of pain, suffering, debilitation and death are the same as occur with all other species whether an octopus, albatross, termite or mule. Humans have a much greater ability to analyze and reach conclusions than other species, to manipulate environments and to construct ideas into reality, e.g. governments, business and religion. However, this does not change the nature of reality, which is that all species experience pain, suffering, satisfaction, relief, joy and love – well, based on their cognitive levels. But, I think you get the point.

    We humans think our experiences are unique, therefore build elaborate cognitive arguments to either explain or provide perspective. Such experiences simply are…applying a value to them is human but that does not make those values real. They simply are…

  23. Lancemh May 17, 2024 at 2:00 pm

    Mark Twain dissected the conundrum of the Theodicy in his wonderfully satirical tome, “Letters from Earth.”

    I recall the first time I read it in the 1970s when I was still living at home with my mother. She was back in her bedroom watching television, and I was on the couch in the living room, laughing hysterically every few minutes. She came out to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee and asked me, “Who tickled your funny bone?” I said, “Mark Twain.”

    Twain’s conclusion: God is an unfit and cruel father. No loving father would ever do this to his children.

    I agreed. So I simply terminated God’s parental rights. In the Superior Court of Lance, he is barred from having contact with me in perpetuity.

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