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Personal Response to Suffering?

QUESTION:

I would like to know more about your personal beliefs regarding the god issue and human suffering in all of it’s forms…all forms…war, poverty, governmental responsibility in suffering, population explosion, church persecutions and tortures…everything.  I’m not just referring to your book on the history of the problem of suffering (God’s Problem) but your personal thoughts about it and how you are involved to help alleviate suffering and what you think the future of humanity is since there seems to be no stop to suffering.  Suffering (not just people but animals) is of great concern to me and I see no solution…ever.

 

REPLY:

For the past week or ten days I’ve been answering questions one at a time, one post per question.  This is the kind of question that makes me feel a whole series of posts coming on, a real thread.   We’ll see.

The first thing to say is that God’s Problem is not really about the history of the problem of suffering, or the history of the discussion of the problem of suffering, so much as it was about the various biblical responses to suffering.   Of all the trade books I’ve written now (eleven; with two more currently in press), God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails To Answer our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer is the one that most obviously stands out from the pack.  It is the one book for a popular audience (or any audience, for that matter) that is not strictly about the New Testament or the history of early Christianity.  Of course, the New Testament is an important component of the book, but the book is not about what scholars are saying about the New Testament so much as it is about what the New Testament authors themselves were saying, about this one problem of why there is suffering.  Moreover, in this book, unlike the others, much more attention is paid to the Hebrew Bible than to the New Testament.   That’s because the Hebrew Bible has a lot more to say about suffering than the New Testament does, in no small measure because it’s a much bigger book with many more authors and far more perspectives on this that or the other issue.

I have long thought – for nearly thirty years now – that many of the authors of the Bible were either directly or indirectly wrestling with precisely this question of why there is suffering given the fact that God – the God of Israel, the God of Jesus, the God of the Christians – is obviously able to intervene to prevent or stop suffering, that he has done so in the past for his beloved chosen people, and yet is just as obviously not doing so now.  God’s Problem was written to deal with what different authors of the Bible had to say about that.  Part of the thesis of the book was that different biblical authors had very different – even contradictory – views of the matter; and part of the thesis was that most of these views really cannot be seen as acceptable in our day and age.

The dominant view in the Bible is found in the Hebrew prophets (but also Psalms, Proverbs, parts of the NT, etc.), that God certainly can stop suffering for his people but he won’t for now or any time soon.  In fact, he’s the one who is making his people suffer – famine/starvation, drought, epidemic, economic collapse, brutalities of war.   Why would God do such things?  Because his people have sinned and he is punishing them in order to get them to repent.   When they do, he will relent and the good times will return.   You don’t need to trust me that this is what the prophets say: simply read them!  A good starting point is Amos 3-5; but really you can plop down in most places in the prophets and you’ll see this is their view.

Sometimes this view gets generalized, as in Proverbs and places in the Psalms.  The way the world works is that if you are good and hard working and upright and moral and kind then you will be rewarded and have a good life; if you are evil and lazy and sinful and immoral and mean, you will be punished and have a rotten life.  So hey, if you have a rotten life, it’s your own fault!

There were obvious reactions to this view.   The book of Job is the best known reaction, but the book is complicated because it embodies the work of not one author but at least two, and these two have not the same point of view but radically different points of view.  Maybe I’ll devote a post to that.  Neither point of view finds the prophetic understanding that I mentioned above acceptable however; both authors of Job know that the righteous suffer, often worse than the sinners.

The apocalyptic authors of the Bible knew that as well (Daniel; Paul; book of Revelation; in fact most of the NT writers, and Jesus himself).  In this view it is not because they sinned against God that the people of God suffer, but because they were righteous; in this view it is not God who is causing suffer but the forces of evil who are aligned against God who cause suffering; in this view repentance will not end the suffering because sin is not what is causing it; it is instead the destruction of the evil forces opposed to God and his people that will bring an end to this miserable state of affairs.

There are other views of suffering in the Bible:  it can be redemptive; it can have a silver lining; it is a mystery that cannot be explained (one of the authors of Job thinks this); it is a test to see if God’s people will remain faithful even if they have to suffer for it (this is what another author of Job thinks); and so on.

At the end of my book I do get around to saying what I think myself.  And I think maybe I’ll spend at least one post or more indicating here on this blog what I think, as one of the things I think is that this is the biggest issue that any and all of us can deal with, whether we are suffering ourselves or are deeply concerned about the suffering of others or are simply thinking people who want to understand our world and our place in it better.


The Two Books of Job
Jesus’ Literacy

15

Comments

  1. Avatar
    micmko  July 15, 2013

    God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails To Answer our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer is probably my favorite book of your’s Dr. Ehrman. The “problem of suffering” ranked high on the list of reasons that I went form a born again Christian, to a dead again Agnostic/Atheist.
    I have a quick question. What is your response to those that say that without evil, how can we know it’s opposite? They say things like, without suffering how can you know bliss? etc. This seems more difficult to me than the “free will” argument. It seems to me that I can’t really know a thing, unless I have something to compare it to.

    TIA,

    micmko

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 16, 2013

      Yes, I’ve never thought highly of this view. I’ll make a post on it to explain why.

  2. Avatar
    toddfrederick  July 15, 2013

    Thank you for addressing this issue. In my opinion the problem of suffering is a deal-breaker as far the God issue is concerned.

    It was so significant that 500 years before Jesus came on the scene, the Buddha made suffering the central issue of his movement and rather than conjure up a god to resolve the problem he turned to look at human behavior as the cause: the attachment to things and ideas.

    In my opinion suffering is the result of human action and the impact of natural disaster, to mention a few. None of these are the result of sin or a punishment from God, IMO. In the New Testament, illness was caused by personal or familial sin, and emotional disorders caused by demon possession.

    For many Christian on the far right wing, the answer is in the second coming of Christ, the judgement and then an earthly paradise. For those on the left wing of progressive Christianity the answer is through human social and political action, and through education (a humanistic approach).

    Regardless, suffering will be with us always. I think there is no resolution to suffering…it is a part of being a living creature. We may be able to lessen suffering but never eliminate it. Suffering is an integral part of existence.

    I look forward to your personal conclusions on this and would especially like to know how you see the charities you sponsor having an effect on the lessening of suffering in the world. Thank you.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 16, 2013

    I would like to hear more about the two authors of Job and their conflicting views. I know you reviewed this in your book, but I would appreciate a post summarizing this. It seems like a lot of Bible books were written by more than one author. Was this multiple authorship a common practice with other books written during Biblical times?

    I have now listened to the first four lectures in your Teaching Company “The Greatest Controversies” course. All four of these lectures are really terrific and I thank you so much for putting this series together. The lecture about whether or not Mary was a virgin is an especially good lecture. Having spent so much time in environments where the quoting of scripture is used to answer all theological questions, I have been learning from the course how some theological doctrines (the perpetual virginity of Mary, the Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, etc.) have been developed without any, or hardly any, scriptural evidence. I am also surprised that so many extra-canonical Gospels were copied enough over the centuries to be transmitted over the centuries. Were there groups of scholars who just sat around hand copying stuff?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 16, 2013

      Well, in the middle ages there were monks in monasteries who spent their days copying texts, yes!

  4. talitakum
    talitakum  July 16, 2013

    Yes, there are suffering and pain out there. However, instead of wondering “why” I think the practical question is “so what?”. Suffering and pain are there, but they’re not *all*. There are also our hopes, dreams and love, and maybe they are the real center of our lives, possibly stronger than suffering and pain.
    Jesus strongly believed in his dream and preached hope and love, although he definitely had his share of suffering and pain. God vindicated him, so I’m inclined to think that Jesus was right… Let’s keep on dreaming !! 🙂

  5. Avatar
    Pofarmer  July 16, 2013

    It seems to me that suffering is something that just “is”, much like the concept of original sin trying to explain why people are how they are. When you start trying to put a deity in charge, things are bound to get a little finagled trying t figure out the inconsistencies.

  6. Avatar
    markchubik  July 17, 2013

    When my faith was evaporating, I did much study of theodicy, including reading Dr. Ehrman’s book on the problem of suffering. I concluded there is no satisfying answer to the problem, except what each individual life bounded together with others can do to alleviate it somewhat. Empathy, determination and drive to help the plight of the much less fortunate can make a difference and give meaning and some degree of satisfaction to life. The real question is what will we actually do about it today?

  7. Avatar
    bobnaumann  July 17, 2013

    God gave us natural laws and gave man free will. Natural suffering (disease, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, famine, etc. ) results from our failure to understand these laws and respect them. For example, bringing children into the world in regions that cannot provide sufficient resources to sustain them. Man made suffering in an abuse of free will and good men and women not doing enough to prevent it. The problem comes from the expectation of some sort of supernatural intervention when we should realize that God works through us.

    • Avatar
      gavm  July 20, 2013

      so the boxing day tsunami victims were at fault because they lived (poorly) in regions where they didn’t understand the geography of the area and figure out that a giant tidal wave would come and kill them all??? its ok most of them weren’t Christians (being from Indonesia, India Thailand ect) and so will be punished in Hell forever for there bad deeds.
      btw do you have any advice for where these people were supposed to live so they wouldn’t be deserving of downing to death?

  8. Avatar
    gavm  July 20, 2013

    do you have any opinions on Alvin Plantinga and his statements on god and suffering?

  9. cheito
    cheito  July 21, 2013

    I haven’t yet read your book, “God’s problem”. I will buy it and read it. For now I’d like to say that although I do believe that the God of Jesus, the Old Testament prophets, and of the nation of Israel is the same God, I don’t accept every book of the Old Testament or The New Testament as the “Words of God”. For example, when I read the words of Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes, I understand that this is Solomon expressing his world view and not Solomon speaking “God’s Words”. So to seek God’s mind in Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes shows a lack of understanding what the Word of God is.

  10. Avatar
    spiffwalsh  May 24, 2019

    I just read this justification of suffering from my childhood Episcopalian priest who is now practicing Russian Orthodox elsewhere. It sparked me to come back to your blog for reasoning, and I’ve just downloaded God’s Problem on Audible. I can’t make any sense of this:

    “If a child is conceived, there will be suffering:

    1. There will be the suffering of pregnancy
    2. There will be economic hardship
    3. There will be medical risks
    4. The child will be born with no guarantee of success
    5. The parents of a child will have to suffer in order to be good parents

    The list could be longer. Goodness inevitably involves suffering. None of the suffering surrounding the conception and birth of a child are a reason to kill the child. Suffering is to be endured. That is the true nature of love.

    Someone is suffering for your sake. Suffer for others.

    Be the kind of person that makes it possible for someone else to bear their suffering.

    Making suffering disappear may seem like love, but is often little more than an avoidance of life. It is not the meaning of goodness.”

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