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My Debate on Suffering with Philosopher Richard Swinburne

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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  1. Avatar
    FrancisDunn  June 8, 2014

    Dr Ehrman:
    I think Prof. Swinburne is a moron..

  2. Avatar
    Matt7  June 8, 2014

    I believe in God; I just don’t think he’s paying attention.

    Neither is Dr. Swinburne.

  3. Avatar
    Yvonne  June 8, 2014

    Swinburne made me want to scream. He must live in a different world than I do. He did seem to be talking too much about the person or persons dealing out evil and less to do with the people on the other end. I can think of situations where NO one benefited from a horrible action.

  4. Avatar
    reedm60  June 8, 2014

    Dr Ehrman,

    Do you remember your debate with William Lane Craig? Craig tried to show that there was a mathematical probability for the existence of God. You were completely baffled as to why the two of you were talking about this ridiculous idea in a debate. He said it was not ridiculous and that it came from a highly regarded Oxford scholar, namely Dr Swinburne!!!

    Apologists show how weak their arguments are when they pull stunts like this.

  5. Avatar
    MatthewAMcIntosh  June 8, 2014

    You are debating a philosopher whose nature is to detach himself from the reality of the world that surrounds him because to do otherwise yields his theology defenseless and his god powerless. There is no compassion or empathy in theodicy because the purpose is to justify, not to care.

  6. Avatar
    JudithW.Coyle  June 8, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I think Prof. Swinburne is right.

  7. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  June 9, 2014

    I remember that debate!! I was listening to it and got so angry as well. I just wanted to drag this professor to people who were really suffering badly and there face him with the inanities that he was uttering on that show. It really was unbelievable!?

  8. Avatar
    gavriel  June 9, 2014

    I cant help feeling that Swinburne has a good argument in his summing-up, considered in isolation. Given the laws of nature, suffering on all levels is inevitable unless God constantly intervenes in His own creation, producing endless rows of miracles. Swinburne’s big picture, in which suffering in the end makes sense, is however completely at odds with parts of early biblical thinking as well as early Christianity. I noticed he was quite uncomfortable when confronted with ancient Christian eschatology. The two frames cannot be connected. Disciplined double-think!

  9. Avatar
    SJB  June 9, 2014

    Good grief.

    Two questions then.

    What criteria does the Almighty use to determine who suffers and who gets to derive a lesson from the suffering? Near as I can tell it seems to hinge on the level of technological and medical infrastructure available in a society when disaster strikes.

    I can’t save the whole world but I like to think if I come upon someone in distress I would try to help. God obviously feels no such obligation. Does this make me more moral than God?

  10. Avatar
    RecoveringCalvinist  June 9, 2014

    Professor Swineburn seemed to seemed to promote the “narcissistic” view of suffering. Things happen in this world so “I” can learn something or be inspired. My own character will be edified. Without the Holocaust “I” would have never learned of an extraordinary young woman in Anne Frank and “I” am a better person after reading her diary. This seems to be a modern, selfish, view which tells us we are the center of the universe. I suppose the Bible supports this view when God’s “chosen” triumph (despite their own sinfullness and character flaws) while those around them suffer?

  11. Avatar
    shakespeare66  June 9, 2014

    Swinburne’s argument is a free will argument that God has allowed these evil people to flourish and kill wantonly. It is this free will argument they use as a way to justify the happenings in the world. So, according to Swinburne, he says the Nazis, because they had God’s free will, killed all these people. It is a cop out and a ridiculous argument. Human atrocities exist because God ( if there is one), is completely indifferent to the suffering of humanity. To say that HE cares is ridiculous or the whole range of human history and suffering would not have happened if HE intervened. If you were angry with Richard, you had every right to be because of his indifference to suffering and his malaise toward those who do. I would like to know what, if anything, he does to reduce the suffering of people. Finally, the idea that God is involved in the world is nonsense. He just does not care.

  12. Avatar
    mary  June 9, 2014

    Prof. Swinburne reveals himself at the very beginning of the debate. He does not know when, how or apparently why he is a christian. Except that he has always been with the church and he believes what they taught. No independent thought processes needed. It reminds me of the expression,” because it has always been that way”.

    He expresses no true understanding of starvation, suffering or violent weather conditions.

    People who say they know what God wants of us and what God thinks have always amazed me. Do they Really?

    Yes, he is a moron.

  13. Avatar
    jmorgan  June 9, 2014

    Dr Ehrman’s frustration with his opponent reminds me of an anecdote I heard about him from his early career. As I understand, he was teaching a class to undergraduates on theodicy (the problem of human suffering and God) at Rutgers. He noticed that the students were rather apathetic to the problem, and since they were mostly middle-class, white, healthy, and relatively privileged, they were largely detached from the massive amount of human suffering in the world. So before Dr. Ehrman could even get into the conflict between a good god and suffering, he had to convince the class that human suffering was actually a problem in the first place. So basically he deviated from his class plan and was reduced to bringing in pictures of children dying from war, disease, and malnutrition to try and convince the students that suffering was actually a huge problem and not merely some unproven theoretical assertion.

  14. Avatar
    doug  June 9, 2014

    I used to believe in God. And I know there are theists with great empathy. But I can understand the concern over the empathy of some theists. One question I asked myself was: “Some children die lingering deaths, screaming in horrible pain. If God exists (perfectly good, all-powerful, all-knowing), then God allows that to happen. Since God allows it, do I think it is a GOOD thing that children die lingering deaths, screaming in horrible pain?”.

  15. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 9, 2014

    Based on what you say here, I haven’t – as of now, at least – been able to bring myself to listen to it. I don’t want to hear Swinburne “strain to explain” how the concept of a God who’s supposedly all-powerful *and* “all-good” (a term used in the Catholic Act of Contrition) can be reconciled with the suffering that exists in the world.

    But as I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t need this issue to make me reject the Judaeo-Christian God. I see no reason for having assumed his existence in the first place. “Creation” by a preexisting Being is one possible explanation for the existence of the Cosmos; but it’s *only* one possibility, and IMHO, not the most likely.

    BTW, while I incline strongly to belief in reincarnation, I don’t accept the notion that there’s no real injustice in the world because sufferers are paying the penalty for their misdeeds in previous incarnations. I think that’s a very pernicious idea.

  16. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 10, 2014

    I finally forced myself to listen to it – and, of course, found much of what Swinburne said appalling. Especially his attempt to justify the Holocaust! That really was “unbelievable.”

    And I wanted to scream when he kept babbling about what God was “interested in,” in terms of giving humans free will and so forth. Aside from the attributes of omnipotence and omniscience befitting a Supreme Being, and the quality of goodness believers claim for him, how can anyone presume to know what this God was “interested in”?

    I don’t believe the Adam and Eve story. But as a story, I think it portrays God as an amoral Being. If He was all-powerful and truly wished good things for the new race He was creating, He could have made them, by their very nature, beings who’d be in complete harmony with Him. Alternatively, He could have given them intelligence and free will, and not demanded blind obedience. Instead, He did demand that blind obedience (in a situation where any intelligent being would have questioned His motives)…placed temptation in their way…then dealt out a harsh punishment, to them and all their descendants. It’s hardly a tale that suggests He “loved” humanity.

  17. Avatar
    JBSeth1  June 10, 2014

    Hi Bart,

    The suffering in the world that is caused by war’s, inquisitions, holocausts and ethnic cleansing like events are all both “caused” directly and / or “allowed” to occur by mankind.

    Furthermore, while natural disasters, like droughts, can cause food and water shortages, it is also often the problems of food and water distribution (and not availability) via the various people in power in certain countries of the world that prevents emergency food and water supplies from reaching the people in need.

    As I see it, the vast majority of the suffering that occurs in the world is caused by mankind.

    What I’d like to know is why is this suffering “God’s” problem and not “mankind’s” problem?

    I see no evidence that God has ever stepped in to prevent a war or stopped humans from being inhuman to each other. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that God doesn’t exist.

    – John

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 10, 2014

      Yes, if humans were the only cause of suffering, you’d have a point. But alas, birth defects, cancer, massive starvation, epidemics, tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, droughts …. it’s a very long list, and each one leads to excruciating suffering.

      • Avatar
        JBSeth1  June 10, 2014

        Hi Bart,

        Yes. Good Point. There are birth defects, cancers and other forms of suffering that occur.

        However, in addition to this, there are also many examples of fantastic hope and courage.
        There are stories of people, who against what looked like impossible odds, made it out of the ghetto and became multimillionaires, people who were at the right place at the right time and caught a baby falling out of a 2 story building, people who survived and thrived after massive life threatening illnesses, stories of people who for whatever reason, did not get on the plane leaving Boston on the morning of 9/11. These are also part of the human experience.


  18. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  June 10, 2014

    If fellow bloggers have not felt non-serious suffering in their lives, listening to this will be their first! This was painful. Luckily for me, I listen to it while driving and had no sharp objects near me. Ha!

    You know I’m joking Dr. Ehrman. Thanks.

  19. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 10, 2014

    Have to make another comment, on what Swinburne said about God’s “omnipotence” being limited to what’s “logically possible.” He said, as an example, that God couldn’t make him, Swinburne, both exist and not exist.

    Um, it’s my understanding that some scientists think that *is* “logically possible,” without bringing a deity into it at all! To keep it “simple,” let’s refer only to “our” Big Bang. (There may have been others.) They think it *could* be that every possible outcome of the Big Bang – “possible” within the laws of physics – has happened or will happen, in one of a near-infinite number of alternate universes. So…there are universes in which Earth itself never came into existence. Universes in which there’s a year 2014, but no one who happens to be alive on Earth today ever existed. Universes in which every one of us has existed, but has already died.

    An especially disturbing thought: if that theory is correct, whenever we’re tempted to do something morally wrong (even commit murder) and we don’t do it, there is, *necessarily*, at least one alternate reality in which we *have* done it. How could religion cope with *that*?

    I hope the theory of alternate-possibility universes is wrong. But the theory itself exists, and Swinburne seemingly wasn’t aware of it.

  20. cheito
    cheito  June 10, 2014



    29-“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.

    You said that the problem of suffering is a mystery. For the most part I think you’re right. There are many examples of suffering that we really can’t explain with complete certitude. Our answers may or may not be accurate. This is why it’s a mystery.

    As you say, children are dying of hunger everyday. Why are children dying of hunger everyday? Does anyone really know who is responsible? I don’t know? Do you really know the exact answer to this question DR EHRMAN?

    The fact is that it is happening, and that no one can pinpoint the answer to the question: Whose fault is it?

    You say that since God is almighty then it must be His fault. He has the power to do something about it and He doesn’t. Why doesn’t He do something about it? Are you’re judging God? God is not defending Himself at the moment. Will God be acquitted?

    I choose to trust God. I see enough evidence in the things created by Him to believe that He is love. I see it in the details of the simple things; what we call simple things, like the fruit trees, or the rain clouds, the beautiful colors of nature, the wonderful and practical world we inhabit which God has so faithfully created for us so that we may live.

    Indeed not all is evil. I don’t see evil as all powerful. If were so none of us would exist.

    I also believe that life is a precious gift, and in Christ I understand the power of God. No one dies to Him who calls into being that which does not exist.

    I choose to trust God and I believe that He’s doing the best that He can do.

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