My thoughts on the problem of suffering. On April 17th, 2008 I appeared on a show called “Conversations with History” with host Harry Kreisler, sponsored by the Institute of International Studies, Regents of the University of California at Berkeley. The show was called “Biblical Insights into the Problem of Suffering,” and was based on my then recently published book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer.”
Harry Kreisler is the creator, executive producer, and host of the Conversations with History series. Conceived in 1982 by Mr. Kreisler as a way to capture and preserve through conversation and technology the intellectual ferment of our times, Conversations with History includes over 500 interviews. Harry Kreisler was the Executive Director of the Institute of International Studies at the University of California at Berkeley (1974-2014). In that role, he shaped, administers, and implements interdisciplinary academic and public affairs programs that analyze global issues.
Below, beneath the interview, were some thoughts on the book that I wrote up at the time. I think I still agree with much of what I said then!
Bart Ehrman: How the Problem of Suffering Ruined My Faith
For most of my life, I was a devout Christian, believing in God, trusting in Christ for salvation, and knowing that God was actively involved in this world. During my young adulthood, I was an evangelical, with a firm belief in the Bible as the inspired and inerrant word of God. During those years I had fairly simple but commonly held views about how there can be so much pain and misery in the world.
God had given us free will (we weren’t programmed like robots), but since we were free to do good we were also free to do evil—hence the Holocaust, the genocide in Cambodia, and so on. To be sure, this view did not explain all evil in the world, but a good deal of suffering was a mystery and in the end, God would make right all that was wrong.
My Life as an Evangelical Was Over in My Mid-20s
In my mid-20s, I left the evangelical fold, but I remained a Christian for some twenty years—a God-believing, sin-confessing, church-going Christian, who no longer held to the inerrancy of Scripture but who did believe that the Bible contained God’s word, trustworthy as the source for theological reflection. And the more I studied the Christian tradition, first as a graduate student in seminary and then as a young scholar teaching biblical studies at universities, the more sophisticated I became in my theological views and in my understanding of the world and our place in it.
Bart Ehrman Suffering Plagued Me
Suffering increasingly became a problem for me and my faith. How can one explain all the pain and misery in the world if God—the creator and redeemer of all—is sovereign over it, exercising his will both in the grand scheme and in the daily workings of our lives? Why I asked, is there such rampant starvation in the world? Why are there droughts, epidemics, hurricanes, and earthquakes? If God answers prayer, why didn’t he answer the prayers of the faithful Jews during the Holocaust? Or of the faithful Christians who also suffered torment and death at the hands of the Nazis?
If God is concerned to answer my little prayers about my daily life, why didn’t he answer my and others’ big prayers when millions were being slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, when a mudslide killed 30,000 Columbians in their sleep, in a matter of minutes, when disasters of all kinds caused by humans and by nature happened in the world?
I read widely on the matter. I read philosophers, theologians, biblical scholars, great literary figures, and popular authors from Plato to Sartre, from Apuleius to Dostoevsky, from the Apostle Paul to Henri Nouwen, from Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot to Archibald Macleish, from C. S. Lewis (with whom I was very taken) to Harold Kushner to Elie Wiesel.
Through Jesus, We Can See How God Relates to the World
Eventually, while still a Christian thinker, I came to believe that God himself is deeply concerned with suffering and intimately involved with it. The Christian message, for me, at the time, was that Jesus Christ is the revelation of God to us humans and that in Jesus we can see how God deals with the world and relates to it. He relates to it, I thought, not by conquering it but by suffering for it. Jesus was not set on a throne in Jerusalem to rule over the Kingdom of God. He was crucified by the Romans, suffering a painful, excruciating, and humiliating death for us. What is God like? He is a God who suffers. The way he deals with suffering is by suffering both for us and alongside us.
This was my view for many years, and I still consider it a powerful theological view. It would be a view that I would still hold on to if I were still a Christian. But I’m not.
My Life as a Christian Ended
About nine or ten years ago I came to realize that I simply no longer believed the Christian message. A large part of my movement away from the faith was driven by my concern for suffering. I simply no longer could hold to the view—which I took to be essential to the Christian faith—that God was active in the world, that he answered prayer, that he intervened on behalf of his faithful, that he brought salvation in the past and that in the future, eventually in the coming eschaton, he would set to rights all that was wrong, that he would vindicate his name and his people and bring in a good kingdom (either at our deaths or here on earth in a future utopian existence).
We live in a world in which a child dies every five seconds of starvation. Every five seconds. Every minute there are twenty-five people who die because they do not have clean water to drink. Every hour 700 people die of malaria. Where is God in all this? We live in a world in which earthquakes in the Himalayas kill 50,000 people and leave 3 million without shelter in the face of oncoming winter. We live in a world where a hurricane destroys New Orleans. Where a tsunami kills 300,000 people in one fell swoop. Where millions of children are born with horrible birth defects. And where is God? To say that he eventually will make right all that is wrong seems to me, now, to be pure wishful thinking.
The Problem of Suffering Led Me to Write a Book
As it turns out, my various wrestlings with the problem have led me, even as an agnostic, back to the Bible, to see how different biblical authors wrestle with this, the greatest of all human questions. The result is my recent book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer.
My contention is that many of the authors of the Bible are wrestling with just this question: why do people (especially the people of God) suffer? The biblical answers are striking at times for their simplicity and power (suffering comes as a punishment from God for sin; suffering is a test of faith; suffering is created by cosmic powers aligned against God and his people; suffering is a huge mystery and we have no right to question why it happens; suffering is redemptive and is the means by which God brings salvation; and so on). Some of these answers are at odds with one another (is it God or his cosmic enemies who are creating havoc on earth?), yet many of them continue to inform religious thinkers today.
My hope in writing the book is certainly not to encourage readers to become agnostic, the path that I took. It is instead to help people think, both about this biggest of all possible questions and about the historically and culturally significant religious responses to it that can be found in the most important book in the history of our civilization.