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My Views on Suffering Are Not Held by Those Who Suffer

In two of my debates, one with the “Messianic-Jewish Apologist” Michael Brown (whom I had never heard of before, but who was a remarkably good debater) and with the conservative Christian Dinesh D’Souza (whom I had heard of before, loud and clear, and who is also a remarkably good debater), I have been confronted with a point that, in both instances, my opponents thought was a decisive strike against me. My views of suffering are not shared by the people who, unlike me, actually suffer.

It’s an interesting point. To explain it, and my response to it, I need to say a few words about the context of these debates. The topic of my debates on the problem of suffering is never whether or not there is suffering. Luckily. Everyone (at least everyone I debate, and most everyone who listens to the debates) agrees that there is suffering. The question at stake is whether it makes sense to believe in God given the nature and extent of suffering in the world.

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Dennis Steenbergen  June 3, 2012

    Amen! May I touch the hemn of your robe Dr. Ehrman? Thanks for framing this in relavance. When will you debate Dr. Evans again? Those were goodies.

  2. Avatar
    timber84  June 3, 2012

    I think the god of the Bible and the god many Christians worship today are two different gods. The god of the Bible was active and displayed his power very impressively. Today, many Christians believe in a god who acts subtlely within natural laws of the universe. Christians give God credit for things that can be explained without the need for a supernatural being. Some times when good outcomes do happen, was it really God or was it human beings along with the help of modern technology.

    • Avatar
      Jacobus  June 4, 2012

      I think that the Bible is such a vast book relating different experiences of God that it is very difficult to pin God to a certain set of attributes. Human beings have been doing that from I don’t know when. In a certain way the Bible itself is testimony to it. I suppose it becomes a problem when the God of Systematic Theology or Philosophy or the Creeds doesn’t own up to what an individual expects him to do. Part of this is that God must be a god that takes away suffering opposed to a god that suffers with the sufferer. If Job makes God the author of suffering (conveniently explained away by most Christians) and the Gospel of John and Revelation (for instance) makes Satan/ the Dragon the author, where should it leave us? For me personally, God ought not to make sense outside of some or other relationship towards Him (it/ her, whatever). For some God can be reduced to collective memory or the total of being or reality, for others he is a person. When I take the Bible as source document, I take the chance of believing in certain testimonies of ancient people about God. For me, Jesus as the “eikoon” of God as the “falsified” Colossians (1:15) describes it, makes sense, especially in the context of the three Greek words used for statues. I try to funnel my understanding of God through Jesus and venture to see where it leads me. I know it is risky, especially if I take into account that Jesus was probably a illiterate to semi-literate peasant from the surroundings of Galilee. Furthermore I also stand in the tradition of the creeds and a tradition of people that had some insight into the God phenomenon. I like to think that they have not been wrong in everything that they have said. So for me, knowing well the problems, I make a suborn choice to stay committed to Christianity. I am arrogant enough to believe that in some or other way God meets me through legend, myth, history and fiction funnelled through the person of Jesus. I like Ephrem the Syrian’s approach to theology – it always had to be written in poetry and when speaking of God, he spoke of opposites. With all of this said, I am still open to the idea that I might be wrong.

      • Avatar
        ecbrown88  July 31, 2012

        Perhaps Satan is simply “the nether face of God”

      • bchungdmd
        bchungdmd  November 7, 2012

        My son, when I believed as a fundamentalist, I believe in a god that is mighty, loving and caring. Yet in my personal life I too experienced suffering, as this Lord Ehrman so aptly said here. Yes, I am privileged, and I live in a very prosperous community here in the US, but we all experience suffering in all levels. It is as if the author of the Heart Sutra is correct in saying that all senses and experiences of pain and angst do not exist. If you reverse engineered his words, sufferings come at all level. It has led me away from a belief in a god that is loving and caring, and come to terms with my own finite, however, humble existence, and in a way to be humble enough to listen and to help. And I no longer trust in the god of the evangelicals, but that does not mean I stand and watch when others suffer, especially to those who are my neighbours. So, I chose not to trust in the god of the ancient Jews (tribal and murderous person), or the illiterate and humble peasant from Galilee. I appreciate his words expressed by those who follow him, but I cannot trust the web they have spun to get us all. In the end, I cast my lot with my own community and those people around us. As someone once said, “No deities will save us, we must save ourselves.” So help your neighbours!

  3. Avatar
    bbqbrew  June 4, 2012

    I appreciate your thoughts on this and many other subjects. Much of the “pain and suffering” in my life have been caused by my former brand of Christian faith.I think your books and writings have mostly taught me to think for myself. They have also taught me that I can be free from forcing other people to think the way that I do. I have become an agnostic because I believe that the two extremes(belief vs atheism) lead to arrogance that blinds me. I hope to find the humility that you speak of as I unlock my own self.

  4. Avatar
    Margie  June 4, 2012

    I see God as a source of extraordinary strength…but not as a God who violates God’s own laws. When my husband was dying, I had enormous strength and was able to care for him without despair for the week be lived after his diagnosis. I saw that as a strength from an outside source…but from within myself. I see God working in the world through the works and lives of people who care…who care for others enough to try to make an impact. Actually,…. through people like you, professor Ehrman.

    And, yes, I think God suffers with us when we suffer but also supports us .

  5. Avatar
    jasha  June 4, 2012

    Dr Ehrman,

    I haven’t seen your debate with D’Souza but he may have been obliquely referencing the point of view that suffering is in fact a gift in that it brings the sufferer closer to Jesus (the ultimate sufferer). Its not a point of view that I have much respect for, but I’ve heard it put forth.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 5, 2012

      Yeah, I’m not sure if he *agrees* with that view or not. It’s hard to believe that someone within minutes of starving to death is getting anything good out of it….

  6. Avatar
    whatnow  June 5, 2012

    I don’t find Brown and D’Souza’s arguments convincing or believable at all, Dr. Ehrman. As an evangelical friend of mine has observed many times, “People pray, something good seems to happen and God gets the credit. People pray, nothing happens or things get worse and either it’s a ‘trial of their faith’, ‘Satan is on the attack’, or it simply ‘is not God’s will’. God has a nice gig. He can do whatever He wants and nobody holds Him accountable.” I find this bitter cynicism to be common among many Christians (though few voice their struggles so clearly.) It seems to me that the facts force believers into a life of denial and a holding of many conflicting concepts/constructs about who God is and what to expect from HIm. It certainly did for me. We desperately want to believe, especially when we are suffering, but believe in what? “Foxhole Faith” is understandable but, as you say, not very satisfying…

  7. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  June 5, 2012

    Some people are so desperate that they’re willing to suspend all rationality: “Yes, my baby has died of cancer and God did not intervene but at least now it’s with God in Heaven, having a better life etc …”

    Belief in a deity (or deities) and an afterlife is the ultimate consolation for a lot of people who have to endure lots of pain and suffering in this life. I can understand them. Although it’s on the same level as a belief in Santa.

  8. Avatar
    SJB  June 6, 2012

    Prof Ehrman
    I recall your “debate” with British philosopher Richard G. Swinburne who seriously contended that the suffering of others could be justified because it provides the rest of us with an opportunity for spiritual advancement. I noted your long silences during Swinburne’s comments which I interpreted to be your politeness warring with your revulsion at his argument. It’s flabbergasting the lengths to which believers will go to justify the ways of god to man.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 6, 2012

      Yes, that was one infuriating debate. I think anyone who finds the Holocaust even partially justified because it makes us better people really needs to go back to square one. It is inhumane, insensitive, and flat out stupid.

    • Avatar
      Xeronimo74  June 7, 2012

      The idea that others have to suffer to teach US, later-borns, a lesson is just utterly ridiculous and actually quite sick.

  9. Avatar
    Adam  June 7, 2012

    I remember in one of your debates with D’Souza someone in the audience asked both you and D’Souza what you personally did to help those suffering. You said you donate alot of money to charities that help those in need/who are suffering. To my surprise, aftering saying that giving money is not enough (this may be true–something which I fail at personally), he went on and spent his whole time discussing a study which apparently showed that Christians have done more to help others than humanist/atheistic/agnostic organizations. He never said what HE does personally. This is not an attack on him, but I was surprised that after subtly critiquing you by saying we need to do more than give money, he wasn’t able to come up with anything HE does…

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 7, 2012

      Yes, I was a bit surprised too, and did not know what to make of it….

  10. Avatar
    tcc  June 7, 2012

    One of the many things that ticks me off about a lot of these religions, especially the Abrahmic ones, is this absolute refusal (that borders on delusion) to ask any questions about Yahweh’s almight “plan”, less those questions cause you to doubt. It’s as if your relationship with Jesus is supposed to soften the edges of how truly screwed up life on this planet is, and you can disconnect from empathizing with victims of misfortune. And this is where the idea of an afterlife where everything gets set right eventually becomes so destructive; the believers have SO much faith in that, that they cease to care about the present moment, because they think this life is some kind of illusionary test. Christians are required to think, in many cases, that the atheist scientist who cures cancer in this life, is making less of an impact for good than an evangelical who converts an old lady to Christianity on a Sunday afternoon.

  11. Avatar
    peterbrian  June 11, 2012

    I think any loving, decent human being has a problem with suffering, and, finding a God in the midst of it all. I have asked myself those same questions throughout my life so far. I am a person who also has “suffered” in emotional ways for a large part of my life, and, thought life to be very unfair at times. I felt life had been much kinder to other people. I was reading a book called “Death Is An Illusion”, which is a book about the works of Martinus Thomsen, who wrote volumes of what he thought were revelations of “cosmic consciousness” from God. His own version of why we suffer was simply that it creates “experience”. That is, to understand love (or light), there must also be darkness. If somebody painted a beautiful painting with white paint on a white canvas, there is no way to “experience” the painting, no matter how good of a job the painter did. No matter how lovely it might be, it is contrast that gives experience. I thought this explanation to be quite cold at first. I think of innocent people dying, children dying and starving, the holocaust, etc…. Although, now, I may see some truth in his explanation. Our life experience is because of contrast. We know joy only because we know what pain is. We know comfort because we know what it is to be afraid. I also have learned in my own life that there is growth and healing in pain, to show that love still triumphs. Some may argue that others don’t ever feel that manifestation of love (like children who die of starvation). I don’t know what all the answers are. I’m just on this journey like everyone else trying to make sense of all the dogmas and mysteries laid before me. I don’t know what the future holds. For all I know, those who suffered the most on this Earth may have advanced the most spiritually in a life beyond this one. I believe science has been able to show the possibility of a life beyond this physical one that we experience now. Many spiritual people believe our life is a constant journey of our soul, continually growing as we move along by “experience”. Maybe this is childish, but, I feel that love compensates everyone. I believe in karma, if you will. I still believe in “God”. But, only a “God” as Love. I continually feel a comfort within me and a voice that seems to run through me when I need it, a voice that says “everything will be all right”. I could be comforting myself, I suppose. Somehow, it feels natural (for me) to believe in myself as an eternal being. Just my humble thoughts from an average guy… 🙂

  12. Avatar
    leetchy2  June 17, 2012

    The belief in God is irrelevant to whether that God factually exists. So Dinesh’s objection that people who are suffering are most likely to believe in God is baseless in regard to God’s existence. In addition, his objection is totally impertinent in cases of natural disasters where people die instantly for no reason without prolonged suffering.

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    maxhirez  July 14, 2012

    My favorite take on suffering always comes when I meet someone who asserts that we know that the received texts are “correct” because God uses his supernatural agency to protect the scriptures from corruption, but he refuses to use the same intervention against human free will to protect, say, children from sexual abuse by clergy. It’s not really an argument per se, but observing “Wow, that’s quite a God you choose to worship there…” after pointing that out is bound to cause some introspection.

  14. Avatar
    cestmarrant  January 7, 2013

    I am one of those who has `suffered`, both emotionally and physically all my life. Everyone is different, but I`d like to add my two cents. Even though I was brought up as an atheist, I would have been wiling to believe in a religion if it made any sense of my suffering. But there came times in my life of such excruciating pain that I knew that NOTHING, no sweet afterlife, no supposed learning, no wider view, could ever make those moments somehow *OK*. There is NOTHING that can justify the existence of pain like that. I also don`t believe that suffering produces learning – my learning has come out of those glorious moments of compassion that I have, rarely in the past, but more and more now in the present, received from other people.

    I believe that that though there are causes for my pain, there are no *reasons* for it. So I do the best I can knowing/accepting that this is just how my life is, and that I can only survive it second by second. I do believe though, that our organisms turn toward integration and health like flowers turn toward the sun – at least when sun is present. And I believe that through science and now my experience.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 7, 2013

      Thank you for your heart-felt comment. Please accept all my best as you move onward. Happy thoughts heading your way….

  15. Avatar
    Ron  February 17, 2013

    The Buddha is said to have discovered that craving and desire, not to mention ignorance, leads to suffering. (Actually, it was discovered long before the Buddha). I think it’s safe to say that we all suffer to the extent that we subscribe to a monotheist outlook, which is what I keep hearing expressed in this thread. It’s simply an error to refer to God without mentioning His “hosts,” His “messengers,” who carry out His Will. Some of these messengers are not like Gabriel and Michael who have generally good intentions for you. They may, on the other hand, embody traits that you may find belong to God’s archrival, Satan, or whoever it was that tempted Jesus (Isa. 45:7).

  16. Avatar
    shakespeare66  August 8, 2013

    It has always troubled me that the early demise of people is explained away by the simple words “Twas God’s Will.” I used to teach the World View of the Puritans, and basically criticized their World View because they leaned on this dictum. I even used it in a poem I wrote to one of my best friends when he and his wife lost their only son to leukemia at age 5. I found myself, a former Catholic, looking for answers to why these things happen to innocent children. I have long since discovered that it is simply the way of life: one can die early and others have long, productive lives. Hamlet muses in his “to be or not to be” speech about leaving this world of suffering and moving on to the next world, but hesitates when he ponders the mystery of the “undiscovered country” from where no man has returned. Shall I end my earthy suffering and go to the next world? He decides not to because he does not know if there is one. In this world we are lucky if we are born in circumstances that allow us to live a full life. Today, if I was born in Syria, Iraq, or any of a myriad of places on this earth, life might be a lot more suffering and an early demise. I’ll put an end to this long winded musing by saying that human suffering throughout history has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that there is not entity that is involved with this world. If God does exist, then for sure He is indifferent to the suffering of humanity who he supposedly created in His image ( Imago Dei).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 9, 2013

      I just saw a very nice production of Hamlet in Stratford upon Avon yesterday. Jonathan Slinger: *fantastic* Hamlet….

      • Avatar
        shakespeare66  August 10, 2013

        Lucky you ( and Sarah I assume). The last production I saw was at PA Shakespeare a couple of years ago. Quite good though, but I am sure not up to the Stratford upon Avon level. Always a pleasure seeing that play. Kenneth Branagh’s movie production is my favorite.

  17. Avatar
    Francis_Folger  August 27, 2013

    I just stumbled upon your work today. Very impressive. Thanks for dedicating your career to this area of inquiry and thanks for sharing. Your philanthropic work is also wonderful.

    Please share your views regarding animal suffering and whether you believe it’s ethical to eat meat. My wife and I decided to forgo eating meat to lessen the demand (doesn’t hurt my cholesterol numbers either!); since this is such a difficult topic to get our arms around, we’re going down this path even though we’re not completely sold on the merits of our argument! 🙂 I’m also curious to know what your view is of the Genesis account (chapter 1: 29-31) regarding the food which is available to us. I would think more orthodox Christians would refrain from eating meat because of that writing.

    And do you receive many comments that suffering is due to the Fall, that we brought it upon ourselves? And what is your interpretation from the early texts regarding the Fall? It seems that orthodox Christians like to use it as a large bucket to place all the aspects of the world that don’t appear to be a product of intelligent design. 😉

    For what it’s worth, and from what I’ve read so far on your blog, I share your general view on these matters. I find it very, very unlikely there is an interventionist God. And the scientists of our era have given us ample reason to suggest a God was not needed for creation and for life formation (although I realize some big questions still need answers). Lawrence Krauss’ recent work in the field of cosmology is fascinating. We know Einstein was an atheist as is Hawking; I would love to know if Newton would have changed his views had he known what we know today….shame we’ll never know.

    I’m also curious to know what you think of Karen Armstrong’s work. I would think her strong views about compassion would be consistent with your views on suffering. It seems to me the alleviation and minimization of suffering should be one of our top priorities. Life is so wonderful when pain free (and I imagine free from mental illness).

    And if you don’t mind, I am curious to know which factual inconsistencies in the New Testament you believe are the most profound and the most difficult for an Orthodox Christian to refute (how about the top 2 or 3). I’ll read your books, but for now I’m curious to know which ones you believe rank the highest.

    Thanks again for your great work and your willingness to share.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  August 27, 2013

      Good questions! But given all the constraints, I can answer only one a time. I have no problem with eating meat, for lots of reasons. And so so with striking regularity. But I’ve cut down on red meat, not for humanitarian reasons (other than the reason that I’d like to be able to live a humanitarian life for a long time). My daughter declared herself a vegetarian at age 8 (!), and stayed that way for 20 years, for humanitarian reasons, and I completely respect that!

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