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My Debate with Kyle Butt on the Problem of Suffering

On April 4, 2014 I had a lively and, well, rather rigorous and at times somewhat unpleasant debate (unpleasant for maybe both of us?) with a conservative Christian apologist named Kyle Butt at the campus of the University of North Alabama (UNA).  Gospel Broadcasting Network aired the event live on their television network, as well live streamed it on the Internet.  We were debating whether the problem of suffering can call into question the existence of God.

Kyle wrote previous of the event explaining that, “He [Bart] is a self-avowed agnostic who claims that the pain and suffering he sees in the world make it impossible for him to believe that the Christian God exists. Thus, the debate will be on the subject of suffering and the existence of God. Ehrman will be affirming: “The pain and suffering in the world indicate that the Christian God does not exist.” I will be denying that proposition.”

Kyle Butt, M.A. is a graduate of Freed-Hardeman University, where he earned a B.A. with a double major in Bible and communications, and an M.A. in New Testament. He currently serves in the Bible department at Apologetics Press.

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  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 26, 2015

    Following this debate, I spent considerable time on the Apologetics Press website. Google “Kyle Butt Apologetics Press.” It is a very thorough and interesting website which might interest readers of this CIA website.. It lists 100s of Bible contradictions and harmonizes all of them usually considering these contradictions to be additions and different perspectives which show that the Bible authors did not “conspire” to iron out all differences. There are, however, two problems with this Apologetics Press website. First, any Bible student who raises questions about contradictions is immediately labeled a “skeptic,” a “cynic,” or worse when maybe he/she is just a Bible student or reader honestly trying to figure stuff out. Second, even if the website authors are correct about all of their harmonizing, they do not address the question about why the Bible, if it is inspired, contains so many “alleged” contradictions. Where in the world was the divine editor?

    I bet at times it was a very “unpleasant” debate for both sides. Sometimes, I wonder why you place yourself in such places, but then you have already explained that previously.. Nevertheless, I still wonder ….

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    Mhamed Errifi  September 26, 2015

    hello bart

    i laughed when in your reply to question whether you will change your mind and go back to chrstianity you said it seems to me no more likely than i will become some other religion jewish for example or other thing

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    ndcoley1983  September 26, 2015

    My oh my. This guy’s opening statements completely and totally miss your point. Does he not know that you are an agnostic? You are saying that the God of the bible, and at the very least, the all loving and all powerful God of orthodoxy, does not exist. You are not making a categorical statement here. Does this guy even think he’s talking to you?

    It makes no sense to refer to the good things that God supposedly does do. There are alcoholic fathers who feed and clothe and house their children while they physically abuse the mother of such children; would someone then use such evidence to call the father good? Silly. Stupid. You should rest your case after opening statements like this. What stupidity.

    • Avatar
      ndcoley1983  September 26, 2015

      I should qualify this by saying that his blurb does indicate that your case is against the Christian God, though his opening remarks do not seem to cling to this distinction is tightly as they should.

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    ndcoley1983  September 26, 2015

    Another thought here: Kyle never really elevates the problem of suffering to the cosmic level. This is where the free will argument collapses. Hitler may want this ovens and gas chambers, for example, but this makes one wonder why God allows such decision to be made in the first place.

    Bart’s proposition is logic. God is all good. God is all powerful. Suffering exists. Why does Kyle keep saying that you are only appealing to emotion here? Without Bart appealing to the very orthodoxy that Kyle holds so dear, then a discussion about the problem of suffering would look very different indeed.

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    john76  September 26, 2015

    Suffering clearly doesn’t disprove God (in general). It doesn’t disprove Zeus, for instance. It does, on the other hand, disprove a certain type of God. If there was a loving, caring, personal God who watched over us and had a plan for our lives, there wouldn’t be tragedies like 3 year old children dying from cancer. That’s not love.

    • Avatar
      godspell  September 28, 2015

      I just can’t buy into that logic. It isn’t logic, in fact.

      We live in a world where in order to live, we kill animals. Now to us, they are lesser life forms, and their deaths are justifiable. But to God, they’d be equal to us–an infinite being would only see “Alive” or “Not Alive”. The very simple hopes and dreams of a squirrel would mean as much to this being as our own.

      Furthermore, we’re all aware of great distant suffering by our fellow humans in less fortunate lands (who for some strange reason, tend to be a lot more religious than us, and in fact they’re the ones that gave birth to all the major religions we follow today).

      And somehow, the unjust and uncaring nature of this hypothetical entity does not become apparent to us until it impacts our own little lives. At which point we’re all “WHY MEEEEEEEEE???”

      Why not me?

      So yes, the story of a PERSONAL God, a God who is uniquely and intimately concerned with your life, is cast in doubt by calamitous misfortune, but only because it was a stupid story to begin with, and not really the story the ancient Jewish holy books, or any other holy books I can think of, were ever telling. We’re just very slow stupid readers. Living in this much more safe, comfortable modern technological world we’ve temporarily taken shelter in (and it’s temporary, bet on that), we are angry at God for failing to live up to a very modern and very silly reinterpretation of Him we came up with so that we wouldn’t have to make the hard choices and sacrifices invariably demanded of those who truly seek spiritual faith. So that we could have our cake and eat it too.

      Believe, don’t believe, but stop with the bad arguments. God could love us very much, and still let bad things happen to us, just like we can love our dogs and cats, and still put them to sleep or dump them at a shelter when they become inconvenient. Difference is, the dogs and cats have done nothing to deserve it. Our problem is that we think God should love us–our species, our culture, our individual selves–just a bit more than anyone else. And that’s a very bad assumption.

  6. Avatar
    walnutriver  September 26, 2015

    Bart,

    I watched most of this debate, gotta admit I skipped some of Kyle’s comments towards the end. I’ve enjoyed some of your other debates much more than this one, not from your effort, but Mr. Butt’s. His voice is that of the ubiquitous southern evangelical minister and immediately was a repellent, though I really tried to not allow this to bias my views of him, but pretty difficult.

    It was obvious how he would cherry-pick biblical verses, yet he would criticize you for reading only certain verses. The huge difference is that you have a much more scholarly understanding of these texts whereas Kyle takes them as “gospel”. As a former Christian (a preacher’s kid at that), but now an agnostic with panentheist leanings, Kyle’s approach and view are very indicative of the general mindset and psychology of these type of folk. I briefly scanned Kyle’s summary on his web site and towards the end mentioned how he had pity for you that you now are now godless as a result of your agnosticism, and how you must be suffering as a result. My response is, I pity him for continuing to blindly follow an incredibly overly simple view of the world and especially the bible.

    Long story short, I enjoyed the debate, I appreciated your assuring the audience that you did not have a mission to convert them, and gave them credit for their beliefs. My favorite comment of yours (paraphrasing) was whether he had studied Middle Eastern cultural anthropology and he said that he hadn’t. I feel this is indicative of people like Kyle, using one source as opposed to secondary sources to validate a claim.

    Take care Bart, and keep up the great work,
    -Jim
    Denver, CO

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    whroll  September 27, 2015

    Thank you for this, Bart. I watched it attentively. No one won. But your presentation glowed.

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  8. gmatthews
    gmatthews  September 27, 2015

    I thought I was watching Jimmy Swaggart: God-duh.

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    Everythingmustgo65  September 27, 2015

    Loved this. Good speech at the end Bart. This subject, has always been a dilemma for me too. I have also read the book. I definitely agree that the issue of suffering challenges the CHRISTIAN view of God, which is what the debate is about. I am undecided about whether there is a higher power we would call God. I struggle with the belief that everything came about by chance, the probability seems too high and I have watched the holographic universe which I find fascinating. Also not understanding something does not make it not so, just beyond what we can know or accept.
    As for the moral absolute theory, it does not work. What often guides our actions towards people is empathy. Psychopaths have none of this which is why they can do what they want to the extreme. They cannot relate to someone else’s suffering. Empathy makes you relate and motivates you to help and like you said many Christians who believe in this moral absolute often seem unable to live by it.

  10. Avatar
    Matt7  September 27, 2015

    You have the patience of Job when it comes to suffering through debates on this topic.

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    anberry  September 27, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, I know the problem of suffering was a strong reason for why you left the faith. When I was in the process of leaving the faith, I watched debates like this intently sometimes favoring the atheist side, and sometimes favoring the theist side. I finally decided that I just couldn’t believe anymore and feel rationally justified, but at the same time I had some nagging “what if you’re wrong thoughts.” In other words, I didn’t feel all that confident in my rejection of faith.

    After being an atheist for over a year now and just taking a long break from thinking about these things in general, when I try to watch these debates, I can’t take the theist side seriously. I feel that if you’re not subject to the frequent reinforcement of the faith by close friends and regular church services and Bible studies, the whole thing begins to just look quite silly. I mean you don’t even need to put forth a tight, formal logical argument to show that its silly to believe in the laws of physics being suspended (resurrections, virgin births) on the say so of an ancient book with anonymous authors. Maybe… just maybe… is there a way to wiggle out of the contradiction of an all-loving, all-powerful God presiding over something like the Holocaust, but seriously, just by looking around the world, who would come to the conclusion that such a God probably exists? We shouldn’t just keep wriggling and contorting the evidence to fit our desired beliefs, but instead let the evidence lead the way and let our beliefs conform to that. If we’re doing that, it’s hard to take a look at all the suffering around and think its anywhere likely that the God of Christianity exists.

    So Dr. Ehrman, after being out of the faith for this long, does it seem harder to take these arguments seriously? Trying to watch this led me to so many unavoidable eye roll moments listening to your opponent. I honestly can’t remember why I took any of these apologetic arguments seriously.

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    • Bart
      Bart  September 28, 2015

      yes, I know exactly what you mean. But I do take the arguments seriously, since they are so widely held!

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    gklane01  September 27, 2015

    I hold deep respect for you agreeing to debates such as this! I have listened to your Teaching Company lectures, read some of your books, and have watched most of your debates and I completely understand and believe you that you get no pleasure debating this topic. Growing up in the rural South I was exposed to fundamental Christianity but it never set right with me because of this very topic. I never could reconcile the widespread suffering in the world and the “all loving” God. My desire to learn more about the Bible to try to make sense of it all is what brought me to listen to your New Testament course. I had no idea who you where or your beliefs, I read your credentials and started listening with an open mind honestly looking to erase some of my doubts. Imagine my surprise! You certainly gave me clarity just not in a way I ever imagined! I am saying all this just to tell you thank you! Thank you for working so hard to expose the general public to your fields of study. Thank you for repeatedly “walking into the lion’s den” and having these debates. Personally I find them entertaining and hopefully you can convince more people that we all should do more to help those suffering.

  13. Avatar
    twfreeman  September 27, 2015

    Your points got through to a few folks that day who have never heard another point of view other than those similar to Kyle’s. I was a member of the Church of Christ until my early 40s but a college professor exposed me to new ideas that I struggled with for over 20 years. I have read your books and find them very thought provoking. Please know your efforts are greatly appreciated.

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  14. Avatar
    toejam  September 27, 2015

    This was depressing to watch. I applaud you Dr. Ehrman for your patience and civility in the face of the nonsense that came out of Butt’s mouth.

  15. Avatar
    Jason  September 27, 2015

    Did you feel like his characterization of your position was fair before the debate? Seems like it was lacking some nuance.

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    Helmut  September 27, 2015

    It sure sounded like Mr. Butts was not debating the topic, but rather was more interested in attacking you. By not reciprocating it showed me that the basis of your morality as displayed by you did more to discredit Mr. Butts than anything he said to try and attack you.
    I was surprised that you didn’t mention that many of our concepts of right and wrong have a social basis and grew directly out of the need to live together.

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    paulmiller  September 27, 2015

    The longer I live this life the harder it is to believe in the simplistic easy answers as presented by Butts. I had accepted some of his views partially when I was younger , having lost both parents to cancer as a teenager, I think easy answers was all I could handle. Now in my fifties I have a muscle disease the affects only one percent of the population. I know as one experiences life most will suffer in some way or other. I know that very many have suffered more then I can imagine and I don’t know how to square that with a loving God. I have come to think” I don’t know ” is the best answer even if it doesn’t totally satisfy. I very much appreciate your honesty before such profound questions and you’re encouragement for people to look inside themselves and to use their God given intelligence instead of accepting easy made for order answers! do you find any of your young and I presume privileged students { at least compared to many in the world} actually struggle with this issue ? thank you again for the time you invest in this blog! Paul

  18. Avatar
    sashko123  September 27, 2015

    Well, let’s see 🙂 I grew up in a Church of Christ in Somerville, TN, where most kids went to Freed-Hardeman University, then FHC (college). I used to receive a monthly newsletter from Apologetics Press throughout high school after having attended a series of lectures in the 80’s given by Bert Thompson, a director of Apologetics Press. A friend of my parents had arranged the lectures for a Swedish exchange student, who was at the time an atheist or agnostic. The arguments about the 2nd law of thermodynamics, an ark large enough to hold a dinosaur egg, and the Biblical description of a dinosaur (behemoth) seemed convincing at the time. I am an agnostic (atheist as to YAHWEH), not only because of the problem of suffering in Candide’s “best of all possible worlds,” but also because as a chemical engineer and a person who has come to study the facts as presented by scientists who are actually experts in the relevant fields (paleontologists and evolutionary biologists), the credibility of these fundamentalist teachers and preachers has been destroyed; and that was all that I really knew. How can they claim to rightly handle the word of God if they cannot rightly handle the facts of science, history, and text?

  19. Avatar
    caseyjunior  September 27, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman:
    After viewing this debate I have to say I admire your guts for going into a place where literally everyone ( or maybe 90% ) is going to be against you and the situation is being set up to show you’re wrong.

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    Arlyn  September 27, 2015

    When Kyle quipped that he’d suffered through his prep reading of your works…. I was thinking about what you were plainly suffering through during the debate.

    Like you, when belief was dispelled, I wondered about the necessity of religious morals. Like you, it turned out to be a non issue.

    My simple view is that sin is destructive behavior. Humankind pragmatically learns that sin affects both longevity and quality of life for oneself and his family, as well as the social community that they depend upon. Thus, morals are embraced to better the human condition. This evidenced by individuals and cultures without Gods.

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