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Biblical Views of Suffering

On something different from Christology!

I’m in New York City for a few days. Last night I gave a lecture at NYU; they had asked that I talk about “God, The Bible, and the Problem of Suffering.” That’s the topic of my book God’s Problem, and so I spun off a talk from there. Part of the point of the book is that the Bible has a large number of views about why people – especially the people of God – suffer, many of these views are at odds with one another, and most of them are different from what people, even highly religious people, even highly religious people who think they based their views on the Bible, tend to think.

The lecture was only to be 50 minutes so I couldn’t spend much time on this that or the other view, and in fact could not deal with most of the biblical perspectives. I didn’t talk about Job, for example (which, in the judgment of most biblical scholars, is made up of the work of two different authors who in fact have different views of suffering) or with lots of other things. Instead I chose the one view of suffering that I think is widely held by many of the authors of the Hebrew Bible, especially the prophets, and which I therefore call the prophetic view, and the one view that I think is most widely held by the authors of the New Testament, which I call the apocalyptic view, and finally the one view that I find most sensible personally but which is not widely shared by biblical authors, the view of the book of Ecclesiastes.

In a nutshell, the prophetic view is that the reason the people of God suffer (military defeat; political, economic, social nightmares; natural disasters) is because they have sinned against God and are continuing to avoid following his law and his ways, and so God is punishing them for it as a way of getting them to wake up, take notice, and return to his ways.. As an example I read selections from Amos chs. 1-5.

The apocalyptic view, in my opinion, was a later reaction to this prophetic view. In the apocalyptic way of understanding things, it is not God who is causing his people to suffer, but forces aligned against God and his people, evil cosmic powers that have this world in their grip and that are making the lives of the righteous miserable as a result. But according to this view, God is soon to intervene in history to over throw the forces of evil and set up his good kingdom. So people need to hold on to their faith and remain true to God, so that they will be rewarded when history comes to a crashing halt in the very near future. I think this was the view of Jesus and Paul and others among the early Christians.

I personally find the first, prophetic, view to be rather unhelpful. (The reason you are suffering is because God is punishing you for your sin.) The second was one I used to subscribe to as a Christian, but eventually I came to think of it as too thoroughly rooted in a an eschatological hope that I thought, at the end of the day, was simply unrealistic and untrue. I’m afraid I no longer think that God is going to make right all that is wrong.

The view of Ecclesiastes is more in tune with how I look at the world today. A key term in Ecclesiastes is the Hebrew word “HEVEL,” which sometimes gets translated (unhelpfully) as “vanity,” or “futility.” HEVEL is a term that refers to something that is transient and fleeting; it is the mist that appears above the ground early in the morning that then is burned off. It’s here for a little bit, and then is gone. Life, for Ecclesiastes, is like that. Everything is fleeting and impermanent. It comes, it goes, it disappears; then it comes again, and goes, and disappears. HEVEL of HEVEL, all is HEVEL, begins the book.

And that includes us. We are here for a little while and then we are gone. So what’s the point? You make a lot of money and then you die, and, well, what good does your money do you? You become well known and influential, you have a fantastic career, you are admired by all – and then you die. Your children will remember you. But your grandchildren, not so much. And your great-grandchildren, forget about it. In 100 years, probably no one will even think of you any more than you think of your ancestors who died 100 years ago. And that’s only 100 years. What about 200 years? Or 1000 years? Or 10,000 years? Or … pick your number of years. And so what’s the point?

For Ecclesiastes, the point is that you should enjoy life as much as you can as long as you can, since you won’t be here long. I resonate with that. And I do not find it at all depressing. On the contrary, I find it completely liberating. We should live for now. This is not a dry run for something else or a dress rehearsal for the real thing to come. This is IT. And we should enjoy it fully.

I went on to say that in my opinion it is not possible to enjoy life fully if we are not ourselves helping others who are in need so that they *too* can enjoy life fully. During the question and answer period, a number of people found that hard to believe; these people appeared to think that if life is short and then it’s over with, that should necessarily lead to a kind of rank hedonism. I don’t think so. I *absolutely* don’t think so. I think a life helping others is part of what it means to life live to its fullest. I’ll say more about that in a future post.

Seriously off topic….
“Human” Appearances of God in the Old Testament



  1. Avatar
    toejam  March 8, 2013

    I completely agree. Theists are always telling me: “If you don’t believe in God, then you can do whatever you want!”. I typically respond with: “Yes, that’s right! And what I WANT is to live a life of peace, and the only way for me to do that is to not only help myself, but help others in the process!”. Our compassion for others has been moulded by our evolutionary history. Compassion is what humanity ticks. Thanks for clarifying the “hevel” word. Makes more sense than “vanity” now.

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    Xeronimo74  March 8, 2013

    Ecclesiastes is an amazing book indeed.

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    toddfrederick  March 8, 2013

    Hey there…welcome to the club…you’re a Buddhist !!! With compassion, as you expressed it, you’re not a hedonist. Reading Ecclesiastes, many years ago, and now, got me to consider Buddhist philosophy and practice seriously. You can practice it without the Buddhist label. Thanks for the “Hevel” term…I don’t know Hebrew at all.

    Regarding books: how can I obtain one of your basic New Testament text books that you use for your courses?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 9, 2013

      You can buy it on Amazon.com. The New Testament: A Historical Introductoin to the Early Christian Writings.

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    hwl  March 9, 2013

    I think your view of meaning in life by helping other people resonates with the position of the eminent philosopher of ethics and well-known atheist, Peter Singer (professor at Princeton). For example, see his 2009 book “The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty”. Singer gives away 25% of his income to charity, shaped the debate on animal rights with his groundbreaking book in the 1970s.
    In my view, in the 2009 debate held at Princeton, entitled “Can there be morality without God”, Singer trumped Dinesh D’Souza, in a way a learned professor would correct an articulate but thoroughly mistaken student: http://www.apologetics315.com/2009/04/dinesh-dsouza-vs-peter-singer-debate.html
    (The above audio is cut off; for the Q&A, see
    Highly recommended.

  5. Avatar
    Jim  March 9, 2013

    The Book of the Watchers part of 1 Enoch was estimated to date from about 3rd or 4th century BCE and Ecclesiastes from around 3rd century BCE. Were the apocalyptic and Hevel theologies competing approaches during the inter-testament period? I ask this because from the NT writings, you generally only hear about the apocalyptic worldview, unless the Sadducees possibly held a more of a Hevel view (I don’t know much about them).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 9, 2013

      My sense is that the views of Ecclesiastes were never a serious competitor in the marketplace of Jewish thought.

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    David Chumney  March 9, 2013

    Bart, clearly you practice what you preach. This blog is one small example of “helping other people.” There is, of course, the financial benefit–the money donated to charity, which in turn helps people in need. However, you are also sharing your knowledge and expertise with all who are interested. You do that here on the blog, in your speaking engagements like the one at NYU, and in your various books. While you benefit financially from the books and the speaking engagements (which is only fair–don’t muzzle the ox!), thousands of others benefit as well for what is a relatively small price. You enrich our experience by sharing a lifetime of study and research that very few of us would have the opportunity to enjoy otherwise. By living your own life to the fullest, you’re enabling others to do likewise. Thanks!

    • Avatar
      scunning@stagnes.org  January 23, 2017

      Agreed. Kudos, Dr. Ehrman.

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    mjardeen  March 9, 2013

    And this is why I read your work, thank you.

    When I finished reading God’s Problem I felt for the first time that someone had put in a single book the single biggest reason I am not a Christian, why I became what I have come to call an Agnostic Diest.

    I left because I completed the journey that started as a teenager when the seed of my third cousins death took hold. Mark was 14 months old and to look at his pictures is to see this beautiful blond haired boy who was full of joy. He died from a brain tumor in less that two weeks time. In September 2011 I did the memorial video for my Uncles Funeral and one of the things that stuck with me was the pictures of joy in my Uncle’s face as he held each of his first three children. The image of him holding the fourth was different, in that image you could see the sadness in his eyes. On the personal human level I was never able to rationalize a loving caring God doing that to my Aunt, Uncles, or cousins. As I reflected on the larger issues of human scale I realized I could not find any rationalization that made intellectual sense.

    The Agnostic Deist term comes from my feeling that the possibility of ‘god’ or ‘gods is just as silly to deny as the idea that there is a white bearded guy sitting on a throne in a golden city is fact. So I am neither Christian or Atheist. I have no idea if there is a God or Gods. I just don’t think it is even a relevant question because I have as little a chance to understand a God as an ant walking across my shoe has of understanding me. So like you I ask what does it mean and what can I do to enjoy my brief moment in time.

    • Avatar
      pdahl  March 11, 2013

      Marjardeen, I like your term “agnostic deist,” which pretty much describes me as well these days, after several years of focused historical study and deep theological contemplation of my own (Lutheran) faith tradition. In his many books, I find that Bart has elegantly articulated all of my own lifelong problems with the Judeo-Christian conception of God, but of course far better than I could ever have put into words myself.

      In contrast, Einstein’s concept of a hyper-intelligent Creator God, unencumbered by all the the Judeo-Christian accretions, works reasonably well for me. Likewise, the great Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich refers to the unknowable, ungraspable God — in direct contradistinction to the personal, intervening God embraced by most Lutherans irrespective of all the theodicy problems that God concept incurs. As I understand Tillich, he argues that the traditional Judeo-Christian concept of God is merely a symbol that points to the Ultimate Reality, which he then refers to as “the God of the God of Theism.” In this sense, someone who describe him/herself as an a-theist need not necessarily be a disbeliever in God per se, but rather a disbeliever in the theistic Judeo-Christian concept of God that both Einstein and Tillich push back against.

      So, thanks for your “agnostic deist” phrase, which may be helpful for many spiritual people who are struggling to find their way in matters of faith.

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    tcc  March 9, 2013

    The New Testament’s view that “the world’s in the grip of Satan, but don’t worry, Jesus and/or his dad Yahweh are coming back to destroy all of our enemies!”, is also demonstrably not true. Not just because I don’t believe in evil spirit beings, but because the cosmic destruction of evil was supposed to have already happened 2,000 YEARS AGO. The last verse of Revelation (“Surely I am coming soon”) encapsulates everything wrong with that worldview.

    There isn’t a more potent force for atheism than the NT, for me. Jesus crying out “my god, my god why have you forsaken me” in Mark proved one thing–we have to help each other, because there is no god coming to save us. That’s the way the Jesus story can still resonate; don’t wait to live.

  9. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 9, 2013

    About the “prophetic” view: How did they rationalize the suffering of children, who hadn’t lived long enough to commit “sins”? Is there any evidence they accepted the idea of reincarnation (sins committed in previous lives)? Or did they imagine an omniscient deity punishing individuals for sins He knew they *would* commit?

    Leaping forward in time, I can’t help thinking of an episode I’ve heard is in one of the Gospels (I don’t know which one). Someone asks Jesus whether a man was born blind as punishment for his parents’ sins, or *his* sins. It’s been claimed that mention of the latter possibility suggests a belief in reincarnation. Jesus gives some kind of answer indicating that it wasn’t a punishment for anyone’s sins. But some say it’s significant that he doesn’t take the opportunity to specifically deny reincarnation.

    Full disclosure: I incline strongly to belief in reincarnation. But I don’t believe human suffering is punishment for anything we’ve done in previous lives!

    About the idea from Ecclesiastes: The concept of everything’s being transitory, in a sense illusory, reminds me of a Buddhist teaching I’ve encountered. “Don’t build your house on a bridge.” Meaning that it’s unwise to become too attached to any specific things (or, presumably, people), because nothing is permanent. Reality is constantly changing and evolving. But the Buddhists, certainly, don’t see that as inconsistent with survival after death.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 9, 2013

      On the suffering of children, I’m afraid I don’t know!

      • Avatar
        mjardeen  March 10, 2013

        I think I can answer this one based on my own experience. The answer of course is the problem.

        In the case of my cousin Mark there are several answers. One is the idea that, ‘God Works In Mysterious Ways’. The GWMW answer is the to cop-out answer as it is used to dismiss the matter by telling us that we cannot understand all of God’s plans but that we should simply put faith in that he has a plan. Sadly for me these days when I hear that phrase I see the Joker with his grin saying, “It’s All Part of The Plan”.

        The second answer is that the child was God’s perfect vessel to send a message, a lesson that needed to be learned. This is the guilt answer that tells the parent that this child was given and taken for the purpose of God making some kind of point. What point? That is the painful question. For my Aunt and Uncle it was a message that they should be closer to God and the Church. I find this to be a horrible, vindictive way to make a point.

        Another answer is that our time is defined by out need and that Mark’s soul was perfect, and as such he was elevated to heaven because that is where God needed him. This is the comfort answer and is an attempt to mitigate the loss and pain of those grieving at his loss. This is an attempt to provide a concrete answer to the person who cannot accept the GWMW answer. It gives a concrete answer that is chased by the, ‘You will see him again in Heaven’ statement. I call this the rejoice for god needs your child answer. He must need a lot of children. He must also need a lot of blown up, brutalized, savaged children. Of course he needed one 14 month old cousin of mine.

        I am sure that Professor Ehrman could apply with time each of the schools of thought on suffering to the grief of parents at the loss of a child. In the end the answer remains the same as we see no purpose, no need, and no reason to think that a loving, caring, all-powerful God would need to do this.

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    philologue  March 9, 2013

    So at this point are you an atheist/agnostic/deist – given the suffering that is evident in the world, what do you believe about God, if you believe he exists at all?

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    RonaldTaska  March 9, 2013

    Another good post. Although I read “God’s Problem,” this blog summarizes it quite concisely. Thanks.

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    Mikail78  March 9, 2013

    100% hedonism and materialism is unsatisfying…..but so is 100% asceticism and selfless devotion to others. I think there needs to be a balance, and I think most people here,excluding evangelical/fundamentalist Christians and conservative Roman Catholics, would agree with me.

    I will say, though, that as I reflect on my past days as a fundy Christian, the things that were taught to me were quite ridiculous. I was basically taught to forsake “the pleasures of the world” because “Jesus was all I need” and that “he will make things right one day” (apocalypticism). In evangelical/fundy circles, any kind of hedonism or self-pleasure is discouraged except for “Christian Hedonism” (John Piper came up with this term).

    Well, anyway, I’ve come to learn that Jesus is NOT all I need and like Bart, I’ve come to realize that he’s not coming back to make things right. Imaginary friendships with dead historical figures of the past aren’t fulfilling.

    Now, spending a few hours with a hot, beautiful babe is beyond fulfilling. 🙂

  13. Avatar
    Mikail78  March 9, 2013

    Hey Bart, speaking of pleasure, march madness is upon us. 🙂 I gotta hand it to Roy. His small lineup is kicking ass and taking names. You think your ‘heels have a chance to make a run at the final four?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 9, 2013

      I doubt it. But we have a bona fide chance to make the Sweet 16, or at least the second round.

    • Avatar
      pdahl  March 11, 2013

      Are you by any chance referring to the papal bracketology? If so, who will make it to the Sweet Sistine, the Ecumenical Eight, the Flagellant Four, and the Diocesan Duo?

  14. Avatar
    maxhirez  March 9, 2013

    Here here!

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    natashka  March 9, 2013

    The fleeting mist! It was a fantabulous and riveting lecture, thank you so very much. I think one of the biggest misconceptions many of religious faith have about agnostics/atheists is that the only reason we “stubbornly refuse” to believe is because we want to dive into a downward spiral of rank hedonism. And indeed, they fear for themselves that any veering from the strict structure of their religion would surely doom and damn them to a life of debauchery instantly. But, as you and Ecclesiastes describe–and as you illustrate with your own life and actions–it is quite the opposite. Savor a great glass of Cabernet and help the hungry brother next to you get a meal. Live and help live, we’re all in this together. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.

  16. Avatar
    Adam0685  March 20, 2013

    For those interested, NYU posted a video of Bart’s talk at http://nyuad.nyu.edu/news-events/new-york-city-events/2013/03/god–the-bible–and-the-problem-of-suffering.html

    Bart, you sould post this video as a blog entry! Great lecture!

  17. Steven.Clark.Cunningham
    Steven.Clark.Cunningham  January 23, 2017

    I couldn’t agree more with your last paragraph, Dr. Ehrman. The concern that viewing life as a fleeting HEVEL (or that not believing in a personal God) will somehow lead to everyone suddenly giving into the basest of instincts is, among other things, offensive. We don’t need eternal life, or fear of eternal punishment, to do the right thing; “ordinary conscience will do,” as Christopher Hitches puts it in “God is Not Great.”

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