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Bart Ehrman vs. Michael Brown on Suffering

In my post on Saturday I discussed the issue of death and laid out briefly my view that this life is all there is.  That does not mean, however, that I think we should just party-hard since there is no life to come.  I have long been intrigued by the “problem of suffering,” and I have never, in fact, taken it to be just an intellectual problem.  I think as human beings we need to deal with suffering if we want to lead life to its fullest.  But I’m still intrigued with the problem: how can there can be such massive suffering in the world if there is a God in control of it?  I have had several debates on the subject, and here is one of the hardest, on video.

The debate was with Dr. Michael L. Brown, a very smart Jewish believer in Jesus.  We had the debate on April 15, 2010, at  Ohio State University.  The debate was inspired largely by my book, “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer”.  Michael Brown did not much like my views of such things.  He’s a very good debater.   As you’ll see!

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Debate with a Mythicist! And the Book of Revelation. Readers’ Mailbag September 25, 2016
Where Did the Trinity Come From? Video Lecture.



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 19, 2016

    You, my friend, are also a very good debater. After reading your book, “God’s Problem,” I read a powerful novel entitled “The Shack.” In that book, the author raises the question a little differently: Why would any God, worth His or Her salt, allow a small girl to be sexually assaulted and murdered when any of us would have tried to intervene in such a situation? I also know that Billy Graham used to have a preaching partner who left the ministry because he just could not understand why God would allow thousands of children to starve in Africa when His making a little rain would solve the problem. Finally, we come to Darwin who focused on why a God would create a parasite that blinds the eyes of children. This was a huge turning point for Darwin.

  2. Avatar
    cjeanne  September 19, 2016

    Good debate. As to hope, reading your book after the untimely death of my husband from a rare form of sarcoma, changed my life.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2016

      I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. I can only imagine what it’s like. Best wishes.

  3. Avatar
    rivercrowman  September 19, 2016

    Bart, this debate was in 2010, which I notice predates the birth of your blog, from which 100% of subscriptions go to charity. … A blog such as yours couldn’t just drop out of the sky. Share with us sometime how the idea germinated in your mind, and the necessary planning and procedures that led up to it. Thanks!

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    DavidBeaman  September 19, 2016

    Clearly you made the academic case and had the facts to support it. I was disappointed that Michael Brown was not a scholar in the sense that you are. Apart from your facts, the debate was about personal opinion in terms of morality. I would be more interested in hearing from a scholar of your caliber who is a believer. I would want to know how that person reconciles her/his belief in God with the scholarly facts.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  September 19, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, in my work on the evolution of morality, I start off by addressing the philosophical objections to Divine Command Theory (viz. the Euthyphro Dilemma of Plato and the Trilemma of Epicurus), and how they show that a supernatural origin for good and evil is essentially a non-starter. From there I develop my theories purely on a naturalistic basis. Now, I can’t get into too much detail of my work, because it’s terribly complex (the proposed work I have outlined so far would probably lead to a 1,500 page book), not to mention the fact that the mathematical models I have created are so esoteric that I’m not completely sure that I even understand them. But I can offer this much concerning the nature of suffering without getting too deep into the weeds.

    First, excusing suffering as somehow necessary — as many a theologian is wont to do — is not only dangerous but reprehensible, because the implication behind suffering is that a person isn’t experiencing the normal, transitory, day-to-day pains of existing in a world with a myriad of dangers to avoid (such as hot stoves and spider bites), but is experiencing a prolonged, seemingly interminable agony (such as childhood leucemia or starvation). Such a form of suffering, by its very definition, is something we should want to minimize if not eradicate with every ounce of power we have. Therefore, excusing such suffering as somehow necessery to our existence is at best counterproductive, at worst needlessly fatalistic and destructive.

    Second, once we accept the fact that the universe doesn’t ultimately care whether we live or die (assuming there isn’t a God there who cares), then that’s actually rather liberating, because where before we felt helpless over those things that cause our suffering, so, therefore, we delegated that job to an “all-powerful, all-loving power”, who, being non-existent, is in the habit of shirking that duty, we can, instead, feel free to pursue more effective means of reducing and/or ending suffering. That is, instead of relying on an outside entity (that may or may not exist) to make things right, or, rather, to rationalized away why that outside entity doesn’t seem to be living up to all the hype, we can, instead, use that as a reason to redouble our efforts as a species to do everything we can to minimize suffering in the world by our own hands (metaphorically take back the wheel from Jesus, if you will). But, alas, theological rationalizations and justifications from the likes of your opponent only stifle such progress, and, unfortunately, can actually cause more harm than good by permitting suffering to exist for the sake of somesuch divine justice.

    • Avatar
      Junto  December 2, 2016

      The naturalistic evolution of morality, or comparative moral progress, is a fascinating subject to me. For instance, why is the moral code found in hunter gatherer tribes different from that of modern civilization and how did that progress take shape, what were the mechanisms that drove it? Who were the moral thinkers that initiated a quantum leap in moral progress and who’s shoulders were they standing on? Comparing and contrasting ancient moral codes such as the difference between the law code of hammarabe to the mosaic law. When did the concept of reciprocity take root and why is it that the concept seems to have been “discovered” by many great moral thinkers at around the same time period? I am interested in a world wide chronological analysis. However, I’ve found very few books on the topic. “The Quest for a Moral Compass”, by Kenan Malik being one of them.
      Reading your post, it’s obvious you are quite well read on the topic so I was wondering if you could recommend any books to me on the subject?

  6. Avatar
    Monty  September 19, 2016

    I’m with you on the Bordeaux and the fancy desserts. I find it ironic that Dr. Brown would say that he’d rather be an atheist than to believe in a myth. I fully expected you to say, “Me too.” The subject of this debate was crystallized for me when a devout member of my family (she swoons in dismay if someone says a curse word in a movie) brought up a plane crash in which every one of the 250 people on board was killed, except for one small child. “Isn’t it wonderful what God did?” she asked. “Truly a miracle from God that the child survived.” My response was that I was very pleased that the child was spared, but I had one question for her. “What do you suppose the other 249 people did to piss God off that much?” In response to my question I got a swoon, of course, and a sanctified word salad about as satisfying as the one you enjoyed here.

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    Kevin Nelson  September 20, 2016

    A fair number of professional philosophers have discussed the problem of suffering, and I was wondering how widely you’ve read in that literature. I know you’ve had a debate with Richard Swinburne, but I haven’t heard you mention any other names in the field (John Mackie, Alvin Platinga, William Rowe, Michael Tooley, Peter van Inwagen, etc.). I’m sure you would find plenty to disagree with in some of those authors, but they’ve made arguments that seem highly relevant to the issues you’re talking about here.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2016

      I’ve read some of the philosophical literature, but not all of it. I’ve always been more drawn to the biblical and theological scholarship, probably because of my background and context. The philosophy I’ve read on the subject (especially Swinburne himself!) I often find arid and remote from life, and sometimes infuriating as a result….

      • Avatar
        Boltonian  September 21, 2016

        I recommend the wonderful Anthony Kenny (former Roman Catholic priest): especially his short book called, ‘The Unknown God,’ which deals with the suffering issue. Vis: how can God be all good, all powerful and all-seeing, and yet there be such suffering in the world?I assure you that Kenny is neither arid nor remote from the world.

        • Avatar
          turbopro  September 22, 2016

          If I may pls: thanks for the book recommendation.

          This is another good reason why I enjoy Bart’s blog. Where else should I have heard about Anthony Kenny.

      • Avatar
        Kevin Nelson  September 22, 2016

        Academic philosophers often take the attitude that their job is to evaluate abstract arguments. So even if on a personal level they feel very engaged with some aspect of life, they try to set that aside when working in their professional capacity. This is really quite similar, I think, to the way you and Bruce Metzger refrained from discussing your personal religious views. Maybe it would help to look at things from that angle when reading contemporary philosophers.

        • Bart
          Bart  September 22, 2016

          Yes, I agree, that does help. They are just doing their job! Still, there are some jobs that I find either a little or a lot distasteful! (And abstractly discussing why other people experience such horrible suffering is one of them!)

  8. Avatar
    bensonian  September 20, 2016

    Excellent debate. I’m surprised that Michael didn’t indicate that suffering may be a fair warning of Hell, or the bad things that could happen during the after life. What kind of a God would allow people to suffer during the after life without some sort of fair warning here on earth? What better way to warn than to allow suffering? It may not be a very good reason, but it is a reason.

  9. Avatar
    Pegill7  September 20, 2016


    What do you make of Ecclesiastes 11:9: “Rejoice, young man while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart and the desire of your eyes, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.” It seems that the reader is advised to live the pleasant life but that at the same time he should fear judgment for doing just that.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2016

      Ecclesiastes is a tricky book, in part becuase it has long been thought by scholars that after it was written an editor decided to add a few lines (including the ones that end the book) stressing more traditional Jewish beliefs, so that in its final form, after these additions, it sounds more conventional. The thrust of most of the book is that there is no life beyond this one and that the current state of affairs simply doesn’t make much sense….

  10. Avatar
    Boltonian  September 20, 2016

    Epicurus himself could not have made a better job of your peroration, Bart. Excellent!

  11. talmoore
    talmoore  September 20, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, by the way, I know this is off topic, but Seth Andrews plugged your Great Courses videos on his The Thinking Atheist podcast. I really wish you would do his podcast and counter all the mythicist nonsense that has infected the secular community, especially since you have that debate with Robert Price coming up, and it would be a great way to promote the debate. Sometimes I feel like I’m a lone voice of sanity in the secular community, especially when I’m one man arguing against a dozen mythicists who, invariably, quotemine you yourself, Bart Ehrman, as a source to defend their mythicism. (Yes, they cite you as an authority in defense of their mythicist nonsense!) I’m kind of tired of getting mocked by a bevy of crackpots whenever I point out that Paul did not, in fact, believe Jesus was never a living, breathing, flesh and blood human being.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2016

      My sense is that nothing one says to a mythicist (NOTHING!) will make any difference. At least that’s been my experience. You just can’t argue with conspiracy.

  12. Avatar
    Scott  September 20, 2016

    How unsatisfying. Mr. Brown had no answer except the one peddled by street corner preachers for centuries: JESUS!

    I had to stop listening when your opponent trotted out a quote from a women who claimed that her children’s death had brought her closer to God. Leaving aside the fact that his cherry-picked anecdotes do not add up to a truth in a world filled with people whose lives are permanently shattered by the loss of a loved one. Perhaps he would blame those people’s suffering on their lack of faith.

    Like your reaction to Job’s replacement family, I was horrified by the fact that this man believes that if I “learn something” or “deepen in my faith” it justifies the suffering or death of another. That woman’s children are still dead. They paid a hefty price for her benefit. What kind of God operates this way?!

  13. Avatar
    toejam  September 20, 2016

    Quick question. Although it is not the consensus view, I notice that many scholars (e.g. Burton Mack, L. Michael White, the collective of the Jesus Seminar, etc.) date Luke-Acts a little later than yourself, into the 90s or even early 2nd Century. Although you regularly date Luke-Acts to 80-85CE in your books, how confident are you that it is not from the period of, say, 90-110CE? Would you consider that an “absurd” or “highly unlikely” dating, or simply an unlikely one?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2016

      I’m not hugely confident of my dating, but I haven’t seen any compelling arguments (compelling to ME) that indicate a later date is more likely. It is indeed being dated by some now to the 120s or so. I wouldn’t be amazed to find out that was true, but I’m not that persuaded.

  14. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 21, 2016

    I don’t think I’ll take time to look at this. I may change my mind later, when I *have* more time! But here’s my reason.

    As I understand it, this is a debate on whether the suffering in the world should lead people to doubt, or outright reject, the existence of “God.” And for me, heartless though it may seem, it’s a moot point. As I see it, if people really *think*, they’ll conclude that there’s no compelling positive evidence *for* the existence of such a Being.

    I think that rather than *assuming* the existence of “God” and then asking whether there are reasons to *doubt*, the better approach is to *start by assuming nothing* (including the validity of claimed “revelations”!), and considering all possible explanations (that one can think of) for the existence of the Cosmos.

  15. Avatar
    Ronhenn  September 21, 2016

    Bart, I love that you can call a debate opponent “a very smart … believer.” There isn’t enough thoughtful, respectful debate in the media. I greatly prefer your approach to much of what is to be found online. I hate to bring up names of those who don’t show the same decency, but as a friend of mine would have said, his initials are RC 🙂

  16. Avatar
    Tempo1936  September 21, 2016

    I don’t think Jesus was concerned about explaining the poor and suffering on this earth. Jesus warned people that they should be concerned about their life after death .

    In an accident where 18 people were killed, jesus told those Who were asking why the 18 died in an accident, Jesus responds that they should not be concerned about those who died but should be concerned about their own souls and repent.
    Luke 13:4-5
    Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

  17. Avatar
    dragonfly  September 22, 2016

    I’ve thought about suffering a fair bit, and I think I’ve had my unfair share of it, and it’s led me to the unexpected conclusion that Christianity is not actually monotheistic. Let me explain.

    Before the Israelites, the world was generally polytheistic. This is not just about the numbers but the nature of the gods. There were good, bad and indifferent gods, and power was shared among them all. Suffering was easily explained. A plague could devastate an entire city because one god was having a bad day. A drought could happen if one god wasn’t being worshipped enough. Enter the Israelites. They didn’t start out monotheists, they didn’t deny the existence of other gods, but they only worshipped one. Maybe this god got angry sometimes, maybe he wasn’t completely all-powerful, people still suffered. But eventually the Israelites became strict monotheists. There exists only one god, and this god is all loving and all powerful. This kind of monotheism fails to explain suffering. The Israelites were his people and they still suffered even when they followed God. Things come to a head in the second century BC when the people are suffering precisely for following God. Jewish apocalypticism emerges and the devil is born to explain suffering. What is the devil? The devil is as much a god as any in polytheism. A bad god, maybe not as powerful as the other god, but a god nonetheless. Two gods. They had to revert to a form of polytheism to explain suffering.

    If someone today said they believed in polytheism like the ancients, I wouldn’t be able to think of one argument against it. It would explain the world much better than Christianity.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  September 27, 2016

      So you’re saying that, first, Judaism (or a sect of it) became polytheistic and that was picked up in Christianity?

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  September 29, 2016

        Yes. I think the devil first appeared in apocalyptic Judaism. I think Jesus and his followers were apocalyptic Jews. Jesus’ followers were the ones who started what became Christianity. I see it more of an evolution than a discrete break. I think the devil was necessary to explain apocalypticism, and apocalypticism was how they explained the suffering of the righteous. If the devil is not a god, what is he?

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  September 29, 2016

          I don’t think the Devil or Stan is anything myself. But we’re talking about what the ancients believed. They ended up explaining the devil as a fallen angel and angels are not gods but simply divine beings. Are all divine beings gods? I don’t know. If the two can be equated, so be it; I don’t know all the in’s and out’s of those distinctions.

          I would amend your sentence, “Jesus’ followers were the ones who started what became Christianity” to read, “Jesus’ followers were the ones who started what became, in the hands of others, Christianity.” If it had all turned out as Jesus thought things would play out, Christianity would never have come into being. You agree?

          • Avatar
            dragonfly  October 5, 2016

            They ended up explaining the devil as a fallen angel, but I don’t think it started that way. Regardless, in other religions at the time, gods could give birth to other gods, or even create other gods. In Judaism or Christianity, they just use different names for the same thing.

  18. Avatar
    Tempo1936  September 22, 2016

    Under the new covenant brought by Jesus, Christians believe their hope is in eternal life. Jesus tells us there will be suffering and death in this life on earth. Only in the OT will you find promises to Isreal as to blessings if they obey The old covenant. Israel did not and there were curses as stated in Deuteronomy 28. The Bible makes more sense if you view the old covenant compared to the new covenant promises
    Of course if Jesus was not resurrected then it makes no difference

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  September 27, 2016

      The Hebrew Scriptures, without reference to the New Testament, has made and still makes enough sense to Jews so that they thrive still, some 2,000 years after the advent of Christianity. It is much too simple to say Israel did not” (follow the covenant). That’s as much an exaggeration as saying “Christians are not good.”

  19. Avatar
    michael_kelemen  September 22, 2016

    Mike Brown quotes Victor Frankl saying that far more people who went through Auschwitz deepened their religious commitment than abandoned it. I’ve never done a survey but it’s not my impression of Holocaust survivors (not just Auschwitz survivors) that this would be true.
    Years ago, I went to a talk by one woman who was in Auschwitz and she said that when she speaks at religious schools they tell her not to talk about her religious experience because she came from a religious family and came out of the war not believing in God.

  20. Jeff
    Jeff  September 23, 2016

    Whoa! You were pretty hard on the boy! I sure hope some of it sunk in and made him think!

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