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Explaining a Columbian Mudslide

During the term when I was teaching my class on the problem of suffering at Rutgers in 1985, one of those unthinkable natural disasters occurred that made headline news and disturbed all caring people around the world.   The night before there had been a volcanic incident in Columbia that caused a mudslide that wiped out several villages, killing thousands of people in their sleep.  The death toll in the end was 23,000, men women and children.

Some people blamed the Columbian government – they shouldn’t have allowed these villages to be near a volcano.  Fair enough I suppose.  You have to blame *someone*.  And who can blame a volcano?   But why do disasters like this have to happen in the first place?  And how do people who believe in the God of the Bible account for such things?   Blaming government officials for a volcanic eruption seems a bit lame.  And it didn’t occur to most of us at the time, as we were reading accounts in the papers.  Instead, our reactions were “Oh my God!  Why do things like this *happen*????”

As you might expect, I raised the issue with the students in my class.  Most of the “explanations” for suffering in the Bible really didn’t seem to work very well.  Could you say that God had allowed such a thing to happen in order to punish people?  That, as I’ve said, is a very common view in much of the Bible – it’s a constant refrain on page after page after page in the Hebrew Bible especially.

But really?  Who…

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Apologies to All Colombians
The Variety of Views of Suffering in the Bible

57

Comments

  1. Michael Toon  July 10, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman,

    As you continue to write your personal views on God and the question of suffering, I resonate with them more and more, deeply. You helped me during a very tragiic period in my life going back to 2012: you granted me a membership to your blog: for two years back-to-back. I was grateful them as still continue to be to this day. And because of it, I’m going to make a donation of my own to the blog next week (as you may recall, I’ve donated two membership fees of my own last year to the blog).

    You explain: “Or is this not God’s fault, but the fault of human sin? Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and brought sin into the human realm, and God’s utopian world became a disaster. It was all Adam and Eve’s fault! And all our fault because we all sin! But wait: if we sin because of Adam and Eve, than how is it *our* fault? Isn’t it *their* fault?”

    True. As a one-time committed Christian I never found this view satisfactory at all. It never made sense. But when you were a fundamentalist Christian, did this view make any satisfying sense to you?

    Also, can I please copy and paste this particular post (the whole thing) and share it publicly on my Facebook profile? Your wisdom in it deserves to be heard and needs to be reached by an even wider audience.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 11, 2017

      Thanks for your kind words. And feel free to repost the post.

      • Michael Toon  July 11, 2017

        You are welcome. And thanks! 👌

      • antoinelamond
        antoinelamond  July 11, 2017

        Not only have I been addicted to reading your books I have also watched your debates and your talks (the ones with clear sound). One of my favorite videos by you is the one you did at the University of Michigan. On another note I just bought ‘Did Jesus Exist?’. I am still reading ‘Lost Christianities’ and after that will read ‘How Jesus became God’. It has done strange things to my faith, but despite what people say it has not taken it away.

        Thanks for giving me a different point of view than the one(s) I once had!

  2. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  July 10, 2017

    You may have heard of Dr. William Petit, the doctor whose wife and two daughters were murdered during a home invasion. Oprah asked him about forgiveness and whether he believed in God. If I recall correctly, he said he did not forgive the two men responsible for his family’s deaths. It was inappropriate to forgive that kind of evil. He still believed there to be a God, although, he didn’t intervene most of the time but will sometimes. That was several years ago, so I’m not sure if he still feels that way.

    I resonate with his reasoning. I go through my daily life with no tangible evidence for a God, nothing out of the ordinary to suggest there could even be one. On the other hand, I still feel as though there’s *something* present that both simultaneously doesn’t interfere in most daily activities (free will that allows me to make my own decisions) but still guides me/us toward an ultimate goal (the illusion of free will that’s limited due to our biology and environment). It’s complicated!

  3. godspell  July 10, 2017

    How the people actually impacted by the mudslides reacted–

    http://metro.co.uk/2017/04/27/did-figure-of-jesus-appear-over-colombian-city-where-17-died-in-landslide-6600181/

    And you have what, exactly, to offer them in exchange for their naive faith?

    Their suffering, whatever causes it, doesn’t exist to validate your choices, or mine, or anyone else’s.

    And it doesn’t prove a damn thing, except that life is not fair, and who didn’t know that already?

    They still believe in heaven, Bart. They still believe in an eternal life for those who do good.

    That’s why when I talked to my Jewish/Agnostic friend about how she can afford to pay for homecare for her mother, without fearing that they’ll rob or abuse her mom, she says she relies on Latin American immigrants who go to church.

    • godspell  July 10, 2017

      Also, if you’re looking for an explanation a little more down to earth to explain why these mudslides are getting more and more frequent and deadly–

      http://www.newsweek.com/colombia-mudslide-mocoa-climate-change-578123

      So God is still used as a dodge to avoid responsibility for the evils men do.

      Even by people who don’t believe in God.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 11, 2017

      I have my humanity, which is all any of us has.

      • godspell  July 12, 2017

        I can’t argue with that. Nor can I see it as a cogent or terribly helpful response. Any theist might offer the same–quite a few are offering more than that.

        http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2017/04/19/colombia_church_provides_concrete_aid_to_flood-stricken_moco/1306709

        This is something historians of the Roman era have been uncovering–I assume in your upcoming book on the triumph of Christianity, you’ll be talking about how Christians developed a reputation for banding together to aid the poor and sick in the Roman world, which improved their reputation, and won them many converts. The very concept of charity is essentially a Christian invention, though it must have existed in some form before that.

        Your gist here has been to explain why you’re an agnostic leaning towards atheism. You saw an example of the kind of thing that led you in this direction. You cited it. It was not an expression of sympathy, which I know you do feel, but it still ultimately comes down to why you can’t believe in the liberal God you tried after you abandoned fundamentalism.

        But you don’t know precisely what forms their beliefs take, how they react, as a community or as individuals, to this challenge to their faith (and you must realize there have been innumerable such challenges in the past). These are not, you must understand, either fundamentalist or liberal Christians who mainly died here. You were not raised in such a community. You were neither a Catholic nor a Pentecostal (Pentecostals are fundamentalists, but differ substantially in their practices).

        You are treating them as objects, not subjects. Means of proving an argument. Which cannot possibly be proven. There are many other horrible things happening in the world–but this ‘natural disaster’ (greatly aided by human activities) is germane to your argument. This is why you brought it up.

        Abstract sympathy doesn’t help anyone. I guess I will agree with you that prayers, in themselves, don’t help either. But I think prayers lead to material aid more frequently than abstract sympathy does.

        • godspell  July 12, 2017

          Interesting sidenote–much of the relief for the victims of the mudslide will come from the International Red Cross. An organization that was founded (as we all learned in school) by Clara Barton. Who was raised in the Universalist church, which she did not formally belong to, but identified with as an adult.

          If there was a living embodiment of liberal Christianity, this would be it–

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universalist_Church_of_America

  4. catguy  July 10, 2017

    I have held a view for sometime that would apply in some but not all cases about such natural disasters. I am not familiar with this particular catastrophe and, again, mine is a generalization, not a one size fits all. As the world population increases people build homes and establish cities in precarious places. You see this even in California where usually upper middle and wealthier classes want to build in that one place with a spectacular view but they end up in a mudslide as just one example. In poor countries with increasing populations the lands are being deforested so people have more room to build homes and farm. Deforestation is often a prelude to mudslides. So in an indirect manner maybe the sinful world we live in leads to more and more problems. Not individual sin or deliberate sin but the condition of sin. So is God the cause of this type of situation where people build on or near fault lines or areas prone to mudslides and forest fires? Or is God allowing these things to happen? I don’t think anyone has an answer.

  5. wostraub  July 10, 2017

    Bart, the Colombian disaster perfectly points out the arguments you made in your book God’s Problem. Apologists for God’s allowance of such suffering have gone from punishment for transgression to redemptive punishment to the willful, malevolent acts of Satan, but there’s no real answer other than God, if he exists, is simply not the Judeo-Christian God we’re led to believe in.

    It would be interesting to know exactly how and when sin was personified (given “agenticity”) by suffering Jews and Christians. I know from your work that when Syria ruled Judea in the 2nd century BCE, Jews were actually forbidden to follow God’s laws under pain of death. This motivated the notion that suffering was not punishment from God but was instead due to a kind of evil force of nature (Satan), and that, for whatever reason, God was unable to do anything about it. But, after thousands of years of unrelenting human suffering, why did the early Christians believe that God was about to destroy this evil force in their lifetime?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 11, 2017

      To my knowledge it was apocalyptic Jews who began ascribing agency to Sin, so about 160 years before the birth of Jesus.

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  July 10, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, not to nit-pick, but I believe you’re refering to the nation of “Colombia” (unless, of course, you’re refering to the tragic mudslide at Columbia University). It’s a common mistake.

  7. talmoore
    talmoore  July 10, 2017

    I can think of a closer to home example. I’d like to hear an apologist’s explanation for why God allowed the Hyatt Regency skywalk collapse to happen. Did God purposely allow those engineers to make that one ever-so small engineering mistake that caused the gruesome deaths of over hundred people so as to teach us all a lesson in proper engineering and architecture?

  8. madmargie  July 10, 2017

    I don’t think God had anything to do with that disaster or any disaster. It was just a natural disaster. I don’t believe God interferes with those or even with our own decisions. God, to my way of thinking, is a positive influence on human beings to try to influence them to be the very best person possible and to be a positive influence on those with whom they come in contact and have influence. Those who hear his small still voice may choose to work with it or they may choose to ignore it. Any coercion on God’s part would be unthinkable. I believe God works by persuasion.

    • catguy  July 11, 2017

      I think God has in the past deliberately done things as alluded to in the OT in terms of disasters such as Soddom and Gommorah, etc. But I also think God is blamed way too much for things that are directly or indirectly the result of human activity. As I commented in my post many of the forest fires and mudslides are affecting people because of where they choose to live-areas that in the past were avoided as dwelling places by humans. I think Christ has made a difference in the way we live in at least Western societies. There was a televangelist by the name of James Kennedy who wrote a book and did a TV presentation on “What if Christ Had Never Lived.” He lays out all the influences of Christianity on our modern society.

    • godspell  July 12, 2017

      You may recall the episode of The West Wing (a show created by a Jewish American) where the Catholic President Bartlet learns that his lifelong friend and confidante, Mrs. Landingham, has been killed in a car crash. He goes to the National Cathedral, his faith deeply shaken, and begins to shout at God–

      “You’re a son of a bitch, You know that? She bought her first new car and You hit her with a drunk driver. What? Was that supposed to be funny? ‘You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,’ says Graham Greene. I don’t know whose ass he was kissing there, ’cause I think You’re just vindictive. What was Josh Lyman – a warning shot? That was my son. What did I ever do to Yours but praise His glory and praise His Name? There’s a tropical storm that’s gaining speed and power. They say we haven’t had a storm this bad since You took out that tender ship of mine in the North Atlantic last year. Sixty-eight crew. You know what a tender ship does? Fixes the other ships. It doesn’t even carry guns. It just goes around, fixes the other ships and delivers the mail. That’s all it can do. Gratias tibi ago, Domine. Yes, I lied. It was a sin. I’ve committed many sins. Have I displeased You, You feckless thug?” He lapses into Latin after that.

      Then he has a vision of his friend, and she says to him, “God doesn’t hit people with cars, and you know it.” He has work to do, to make this world a better place, and we don’t have time for self-pity and recrimination against the creating and sustaining force of all existence, however we may understand Him/Her/It.

      This is the enduring flaw of literalism, in religion, and pretty much everything else. Life is too complicated for us to understand, now or ever–so we come up with simpler answers we can understand–when our understanding becomes more complex, we become angry at the answers we ourselves came up with, and really at ourselves, for having bought into them. And it achieves nothing. And it helps no one. And it brings no peace, or greater understanding.

      It’s a blind alley.

  9. curioso7  July 10, 2017

    Colombia 😊

  10. jmestill  July 10, 2017

    The nation is Colombia, not “columbia”. The people who live there are called Colombians.

    Sorry, it’s a pet peeve.

  11. Todd  July 10, 2017

    Why do we have to attach some sort of cosmic blame when tragedy and suffering occur? Bad things happen…someone slips off a cliff, falls asleep at the wheel of their car, gets In the path of a tornado, trips over their cat and breaks their arm, is attacked by a mad man…shit happens in life. It doesn’t mean God is pissed or we have sinned or anything like that.
    Life is a hazardous experience and we all suffer. That’s just the way life is.

  12. tompicard
    tompicard  July 10, 2017

    Jesus didn’t discuss suffering due to tsunamis in Indonesia, mudslides in Columbia, starvation in Darfur. How could he ? But he had a lot of concern for the those suffering he was aware of – those cheated and exploited, the poor, those with terrible diseases, etc. And as an apocalyptic prophet, he preached an imminent coming Kingdom initiated and ruled by God where such suffering would be alleviated or eliminated.However, I disagree with some of the finer and supernatural details of Dr. Ehrman’s understanding of Jesus apocalyptic mission. For instance I can’t at all speculate, but kinda doubt, whether Jesus really expected in the coming Kingdom the end of falling Towers in Siloam or of natural phenomenon like earthquakes and floods.

    Most Christian’s, and I suppose Dr Ehrman at one time, saw Jesus love and compassion for those suffering as an exact reflection of God’s love and concern over the suffering of His children.

    The hard part to of being an 20th century apocalypticist, for me, is the belief in Satan, who Jesus most certainly believed in. On the other hand (I am not sure if this is an adequate apocalyptic view of the devil), I can admit and recognize like Paul in Rom 7:22 conflict between the Laws of God in my mind and the laws of sin in the body.

  13. hasankhan  July 10, 2017

    When a disaster happens we don’t say that it happened because God was punishing them. We only say God is punishing them when God himself tells us that He punished a group of people via natural disaster because they all rejected the Prophet and disbelieved in His message.

    So we don’t try to ‘guess’ the matters of unseen and try to determine why something happened. We rely on divine revelation and that has stopped long ago therefore we cannot make a claim why something happened.

    Natural disaster wiping out all the people only happens when there is a Prophet among them and they rejected the message. The believers are usually saved in that case and there are no more prophets coming so that can’t kind of disaster punishment doesn’t apply in this case but we still don’t know.

    Qur’an (8:25) And fear a trial which will not strike exclusively to those who have wronged among you, and know that Allah is severe in penalty.

    Death is a reality that every person has to taste. And people will die due to various reasons.

    Qur’an (29:57) Everyone shall taste the death. Then unto Us you shall be returned.

    Children and babies are not ‘sinful’. In Islam a person’s accountability only starts when they reach the age of puberty and mental maturity. An insane person is not sinful and a child and baby is not sinful so if they die. No matter how they die, we don’t say they are being punished. We say their life on earth has ended because they were meant to live that much long.

    If God destines a natural disaster to happen in a place, what do we expect God to do? Have the babies fly in the air before volcano erupts? Or should they become invincible and buildings fall on them but they are still sitting and smiling? Things are not designed to be this way on this earth.

    Natural disasters are a reality of earth regardless people are sinning or not. God can use them to punish people but they will happen otherwise also. People will die because people have limited life on earth. People will die because of various reasons.

    In Islam we don’t believe people are born in ‘sin’ and they are doomed because of Adam and Eve. That concept doesn’t make sense. No one person is ‘punished’ for the sin of another person.

    Qur’an (6:164) And every soul earns not [blame] except against itself, and no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another. Then to your Lord is your return…

    We are not on earth because Adam and Eve sinned. We are on earth because God wanted to send humans to earth regardless what Adam and Eve did.

    Earth is a place where natural disaster will happen. People will die and people will survive with suffering also. We don’t say death is a test for the person who died. Death is end of life, their test is already over at death.

    Death is indeed a test for those who survive and grieve but we don’t say that is the not the ‘only’ reason why God decides to take someone’s life. We don’t say God killed a baby because He wanted to see how Bart would react to it. Baby was meant to live that much long anyway. And babies go to heaven.

    Compared to life in heaven, this world like a prison. People of heaven don’t wish they had lived on earth longer and suffered more.

    In the face of natural disaster we should always reflect on what we can do to prevent harm from people. Not because we want to blame someone but because we care for humanity and God has asked us to do that. So asking government to not allow people to live in a certain area is a good step. But we can’t say it is Government’s fault why volcano happened.

    Narrative of Job in Bible has exaggerations and fabrications. No one has seen God on earth. So Job wanted to complain to God and meeting him, etc is a false narrative.

    We’ll have opportunity to speak to God in heaven and we can take the opportunity to understand why a landslide or volcano eruption happened.

    There is no objective morality in absence of God. We can’t say something is good or bad because over time our morality has been changing. There were atheists before who believed in racial superiority and there are atheists who believe humans are equal. There are atheists who argue prostitution is a right of women and there are atheists who argue that it is exploitation of women.

    Our moral values shift over time. We can only say something is moral or immoral based on divine revelation. God decides what is good and what is evil for ‘us’. If we do something wrong then that’s evil for us because we’ll be punished for it. If we do something virtuous then its good for us because we’ll be rewarded for it.

    God is the creator of universe. He owns the universe. He can do whatever He likes with it. There are no consequences for God. He is eternal and all powerful. Nothing can benefit him or harm Him.

    Circumstances in our life are not evil or good by themselves. It is how we react to them, that makes it evil or good for us.

    A person living a life of sin, is accumulating eternal punishment for himself. So his life is evil for him. A person dying early and going to heaven will find his death as a good thing.

    Death is only a means for being shifted to another reality. It is not end of our ‘life’. We continue to live even after we die. People dying in natural disaster is not evil. It is how they lived their life is what makes their death evil or good for them.

    Our job is to help the humanity whenever we can. If someone is destined to live, then our help will only be a means and if someone is destined to die then even if the entire world and every doctor in it had come to help, we cannot save a person or bring him back to life.

    Every person will taste death. Our job is to worship God in the meanwhile and so when we die whether by accident or landslide or get robbed and killed or whatever, we go to heaven.

    For a baby and child, there is no issue, they go straight to heaven. For a person who doesn’t have sense, there is no issue either.

    It makes no logical sense to try to dictate to the Creator of universe how He should run His own universe or try to argue with Him based on our limited knowledge and intelligence. He is more intelligent than us and more knowledgable than us. It is His world and He knows better.

    It makes less logical sense to argue with a math professor without even knowing basic arithmetic. We need to have knowledge that God has and wisdom that He has in order to have any sensible opinion on how things should go about. We have absolutely no knowledge of the future. It requires humility to understand our place in front of God to realize that we’re not in a position to make any claim against Him.

    Finally in Islam we do believe in a personal devil for every person. But His only job is to whisper in our mind and give us evil suggestions. He doesn’t cause natural disaster and He does not hold power against God. Devils job is only to give us thoughts and doubts in our mind, provoke anger, jealousy, lust, arrogance, etc.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 11, 2017

      I think more people would read your comments if you would make them much shorter! But it’s up to you.

    • godspell  July 13, 2017

      Hasan, again, I think you are telling us the beliefs you have been taught, and assuming they are the same precise beliefs held by over three billion other Muslims spread across the globe.

      Currents events would strongly suggest this unanimity of belief exists only in the minds of some believers–of any religion.

      Not only theistic religion.

  14. doug  July 10, 2017

    And if Adam and Eve had really existed, the all-knowing God would have known from the get-go that they would “sin”. So why the pretense of giving them a “chance” to obey? The all-knowing God would have also known of all the natural and moral evil and suffering his imperfect creation would bring. If there were a God who is perfect, I’d like the same, please. I don’t want to hurt myself and others.

  15. RonaldTaska  July 10, 2017

    It is quite a “turning point” indeed. The last time I had this discussion with someone I was told that it was the fault of the victims since they chose to live in an unsafe place..

    • dragonfly  July 12, 2017

      That’s the just-world hypothesis.

      • RonaldTaska  July 13, 2017

        Dragonfly: Thanks, I have heard it explained as being part of giving us the “free will” to make bad decisions where to live.

        • dragonfly  July 15, 2017

          We help if we can, but if we can’t, we do the next best thing… blame the victim. It’s the same reasoning that blames a woman for being raped because she should have worn different clothes, or had less to drink, or lived in a different neighbourhood, or… something. It’s a just world, so if someone’s suffering they must deserve it. How much choice did these people really have in where they lived?

  16. jutterback  July 10, 2017

    I had the same feelings with the tsunami in East Asia.

  17. mannix  July 10, 2017

    Another interesting example would be the 17 AD (or CE if you prefer) earthquake in the Lydia region of what is now Turkey. Fifteen cities were ruined; Pliny called it the worst earthquake in human memory. This happened during Jesus’ lifetime…probably when he was around 21 and presumably living “next door” ! At least God could have spared the region such a disaster while He was physically here on earth!

  18. DavidBeaman  July 10, 2017

    I believe in God, but not all that is said about God in the Bible. As you know and teach, the Bible was written by people decades to centuries after the events described, if in fact they occurred at all.

    The God I believe in created matter and energy and set everything in motion that led to the universe we have. He, She, It is too much for us to grasp, let alone contain in a book.

    As for us, I think we were given everything we need to make choices that will enable us to survive in the world as it is. If we didn’t make the choice to be materialistic and did make the choice to care for others even if it meant sacrificing, most, if not all, suffering could be avoided. I have given this a lot of thought and I cannot think of any suffering that could not be eventually eliminated if people made good choices and were willing to sacrifice.

    The people in those Columbian villages would and could have been made to know that living anywhere near a volcano is not a good choice. What prevented it was selfishness and a failure to act to help those people make the right choice to begin with.

    There is wisdom in the Bible, more than there is fact. And the Bible speaks of caring for one’s neighbor. You want a god who would make it so that nothing bad ever happens to anyone. But the God I believe in gave us free will and the ability to make choices and suffer the consequences when we make bad ones. I think that was part of his purpose for creating us.

    I don’t understand God’s decision-making and reasons behind his purposes. I think he, she, it is too much for us mere mortals to understand fully. But if we all take care of each other, each according to his or her ability, life can be good for everyone.

    I don’t ask God for a lot. I am grateful for being created and having the chance to experience life as a human being. To me, a god who would do that is worthy of my gratitude. And along with my gratitude, the responsibility to help others, not just with money, but by sacrificing materially and giving up my comfort to go places, often far away, to help people who, one way or another, came into my life. And I know others and have heard of others who have done the same and more.

    People come into our lives that need our help. No one of us can help everyone, but if we each would help those who come into our lives, much, if not all, suffering would be avoided.

    • John Uzoigwe  July 11, 2017

      Have tried to glance through your mumbo jumbo and sorry to say none of your explanations makes sens. First of all why does God have to cause a natural disaster and even if I want to accept that your god out of drunkiness has to cause natural disasters to punish the wicked I do believe there’s a better way to do that. Did your Quran not say he holds the breath of every man. Couldn’t your god just snuff out the breath of the wicked. Again you talked about the narration of Job as being exaggerated and fabricated as if your Quran is not full of exaggerated and fabricated stories from the Bible. More also your Quran says Allah guides whoever he willeth and lead astray whoever he willeth. Since your god has predetermined everything why on earth does he still punish the wicked? Did he not create the wicked? and if you man has been given free will. Pls tell me, to what extent is this free will, can a man decided his fate when Allah already predetermined everything? And if Allah still punish us for the free will he has given us is that not a violation of our free will? lastly you believe in moral evolution yet you still tell us that man needs divine revelations. you also said in Islam Allah doesn’t test his people. Well sorry to burst your bubbles have read the Quran and there are several verses that talked about your god testing his people.

      • Bart
        Bart  July 13, 2017

        You have good questions here! But please, do try to refrain from making derisive remarks about the person you’re disagreeing with. The questions are powerful themselves without reference to mumbo jumbo!

        • DavidBeaman  July 14, 2017

          Thank you. One of the reasons I respect you so much is that you refrain from derisiveness.

      • hasankhan  July 13, 2017

        If you’d like to have an intellectual discussion, please feel free to ask questions and I’ll answer them if you state them in a respectful manner. But I won’t respond to profanities and insults.

      • dragonfly  July 13, 2017

        I think you replied to the wrong comment.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 15, 2017

          Yes, please, to all, let’s keep the rhetorical tone civil!!

      • DavidBeaman  July 14, 2017

        I value constructive criticism. However, I neither value, nor do I pay attention to comments laced with insulting and demeaning adjectives.

  19. Stephen  July 10, 2017

    English science-fiction writer Arthur C Clarke wrote a short story in the 50s called THE STAR [spoiler alert] which dealt with a Jesuit Father serving as a scientist on a space ship exploring a distant solar system that had been destroyed when its sun exploded. The explorers discover the remains of an alien civilization, knowing it’s fate but lacking the ability to escape, who planted a marker on the most distant planet in their solar system to preserve records of their soon to be annihilated culture. I’ve always found the ending of the story quite moving.

    “I know the answers that my colleagues will give when they get back to Earth. They will say that the Universe has no purpose and no plan, that since a hundred suns explode every year in our Galaxy, at this very moment some race is dying in the depths of space. Whether that race has done good or evil during its lifetime will make no difference in the end: there is no divine justice, for there is no God.

    Yet, of course, what we have seen proves nothing of the sort. Anyone who argues thus is being swayed by emotion, not logic. God has no need to justify His actions to man. He who built the Universe can destroy it when He chooses. It is arrogance—it is perilously near blasphemy—for us to say what He may or may not do.
    This I could have accepted, hard though it is to look upon whole worlds and peoples thrown into the furnace. But there comes a point when even the deepest faith must falter, and now, as I look at the calculations lying before me, I have reached that point at last.

    We could not tell, before we reached the nebula, how long ago the explosion took place. Now, from the astronomical evidence and the record in the rocks of that one surviving planet, I have been able to date it very exactly. I know in what year the light of this colossal conflagration reached the Earth. I know how brilliantly the supernova whose corpse now dwindles behind our speeding ship once shone in terrestrial skies. I know how it must have blazed low in the east before sunrise, like a beacon in that oriental dawn.

    There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?”

    -THE STAR, Arthur C Clarke

  20. cheito
    cheito  July 10, 2017

    DR Ehrman:
    Your Comment:

    Could you say that God had allowed such a thing to happen in order to punish people? That, as I’ve said, is a very common view in much of the Bible – it’s a constant refrain on page after page after page in the Hebrew Bible especially.

    My comment:

    Yes, one can say that God allowed such a thing to happen in order to punish people, but it wouldn’t be based on the O.T. prophets. Nowhere in the prophets of the O.T. will you find that God destroyed 23,000, Colombian men, women and children because of sins they committed. We don’t know why 23,000, Colombian men women and children died in a natural disaster.

    However, the mudslide that wiped out several villages, in Columbia in 1985, killing thousands of people in their sleep, has nothing to do with the judgements that God brought on the Jewish nation in 586 B.C.

    Some of the details of that judgement in 586 B.C. are revealed to us by the prophet Jeremiah in the book of Jeremiah, and in the book of Lamentations.

    God revealed to Jeremiah the prophet His reasons for judging Israel at that time, therefore WE KNOW God’s reasons for judging Israel, but, again, We don’t know why 23,000, Colombian men women and children died due to a natural disaster.

    The nation of Israel had gone to far in their moral depravity, to the point that they were sacrificing their children on a fiery altar, to a so-called god, named Baal.

    According to Jeremiah, God proclaims: On a nation such as this should I not avenge Himself? God is the judge! He decides the judgement according to His own knowledge of all the facts.

    My point:

    In the O.T. prophets, the reasons for God’s judgements are clearly revealed to us. The “natural evil”, i.e., disaster, that wiped out several villages in Columbia in 1985, killing thousands of people in their sleep is indeed a mystery. We don’t have a record in the bible of the 1985 mudslide disaster in Colombia, explaining to us why God did it or allowed it. Whatever answer one gives will be speculative. No one except God knows the real answer as to why it happened.

    We can ask all the questions we want. If there’s no answer form God then all we can do is speculate.

    The secret things belong to God and the things revealed belong to us…

  21. anthonygale  July 10, 2017

    Even if one believes that cosmic forces aligned against God cause suffering, would God not have created these forces in the first place? I see how it “explains” forms of suffering that other explanations do not, but if you don’t subscribe to the price of free will theory, how does this explanation get God off the hook any more than the others? If a dog mauls a child, you might put down the dog but you will definitely prosecute the owner.

  22. NancyGKnapp  July 11, 2017

    It seems to me that humans evolved at some point where they could observe the world around them with awe and wonder. The thinkers among them began to develop myths to explain how it all came into existence. The philosophers and prophets among them began to ask the big questions and work on explanations for them. All world cultures did this. One book, “How the People Sang up the Mountains,” (Maria Leach, 1967) illustrates this. Here is an excerpt (pp. 36-37) “How the World Began,” by the Greenland Eskimo. It gives an explanation for death. “Long, long ago, soon after the earth fell out of the sky and became the earth, men rose up. …The days went by and the people lived their lives. New babies were born, and the people became many. The old ones wished to rest, but they did not know how to lie down and take the long rest that each man deserves after a long life. They did not know how to die. There was no sun yet in the world. The people had only the light of their lamps in their houses. [Then an old, old woman wished for light and death.] Suddenly there was light and with it came death. After this the sun and moon and stars were in the sky. …and every time someone died there was a new star shining in the sky.”
    Science, too, seeks answers to the big questions of how the universe came to be and how it works. It is probably a surer way of finding answers than religion. The scientific method causes one to discard theories that are proven to be incorrect. Whereas, religion holds on by faith to theories way past their time. Consider how many hundreds of years it took before the Hebrew prophets let go of the “God is punishing us for disobedience” theory and move on to the “apocalyptic” theory of the coming kingdom. Each generation thought it would happen in their lifetime. Finally, Christians stopped in large part talking of the coming kingdom and turned to the idea of individual souls going to heaven when they died? Progressive Christians have let go of the orthodox doctrines of the Roman Church and are now searching for new ways to understand the meaning of God for our lives.

    • dragonfly  July 15, 2017

      That’s a very touching story. I like that they didn’t view death as something to be avoided, but a fitting reward for a long life. Thank you.

  23. Seeker1952  July 11, 2017

    Do you think that one significant reason Christianity is still attractive to many who experience terrible suffering is because God, in the form of Jesus and his passion, is also thought to have suffered terribly and ultimately triumphed over this suffering? Christianity, I would argue, can’t explain or justify the conjunction of terrible suffering and an all-powerful, perfectly good God. It can only say suffering is a mystery. By suffering himself for the sake of humanity, God shows that he still cares about humanity even if he can’t stop terrible suffering or that somehow it’s necessary in order to have the best of all possible worlds. God’s suffering may provide many Christians with (false?) hope and comfort when confronted by the mystery of suffering.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 13, 2017

      Yes, I would say that is a fairly recent theological view to appear, but one that is very popular in some Christian circles, “the God who suffers.”

  24. Seeker1952  July 11, 2017

    Terrible suffering only has something like a “purpose” because we can make it our purpose to reduce it. I don’t mean that God planned it that way. I simply mean that reducing it can give our lives meaning and purpose. I’d be inclined to say that any sort of good god comes closest to existing in the efforts that human beings make to foster a better world.

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