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Suffering and My Blog

For over a week now I’ve been dealing with a question concerning my views on suffering.  I could go on for days and days, weeks and weeks, about how the problem of suffering is discussed by the writers of the Bible and how I see it from my own perspective.   But it’s not the most cheerful of subjects and I need/want to move on to other things.   I’ve said enough to make my basic points, I think (if anyone wants more on any specific related topic, just let me know and I can squeeze it in):

  • suffering is a real problem for anyone who stands firmly within the Judeo-Christian tradition, where God is understood to be the all-powerful Creator of all there is and Sovereign over what he created, and yet there is horrible suffering going on around us all the time – and has been since time immemorial.  How does one explain that?
  • The biblical authors have many different ways of explaining it.   The prophets have one way, the prose author of Job another way, the author of Job’s poetry another way, apocalypticists another way, Ecclesiastes another way, and other authors other ways (I know I haven’t covered all this ground here on the blog – but I’ve covered some of it, and if you want more, you can see my book God’s Problem)
  • These various views are not only different with one another, they are sometimes very much at odds with one another.
  • Most of the explanations are not satisfying for those of us living in the modern world.

So what’s the answer?  Why is there suffering?  I have to say that for me and people like me who do not hold to the traditional Judeo-Christian understanding of God, there is in fact no problem.  There is suffering because people are able to do nasty things when they want, and they often do them, usually because it advances their own purposes; and there is suffering because the universe we live in is a hard and cruel place that doesn’t give a rip about us or our needs and sometimes we get in the way of its workings.  And so some suffering is caused by humans; some by nature; and God has nothing to do with it.   That’s pretty much my view in a nutshell.

But that’s only part of the story as far as I’m concerned.   For me the “problem” of suffering is an interesting intellectual question – the very most important question, I believe , when it comes to religious belief (since if one cannot reconcile the persistence of suffering, intellectually, with the existence of God, then one needs to question the existence of God as a logical next step) – but there is more to suffering than simply an intellectual project of figuring it out.  Even more important than “explanations” of suffering are “responses” to suffering.

I’m constantly amazed at how many people in our world don’t respond at all, or respond so very little, to the suffering of our fellow humans.  I just don’t get it.  For me, being human means in part responding to those in need.  Not helping out those who are suffering is to live the life of dumb animals.   Amoebas and worms and aardvarks don’t respond to suffering.  But humans should.  It’s part of what it means to be human.  And yet so many people don’t.  For me, that means living life as a sub-human.

Not everyone can respond to suffering in the same way.  Not everyone can be a mother Theresa, and not everyone needs to be.   But to *some* extent everyone can respond to suffering in a way that is appropriate to them.   Some people do give up their entire lives to help those in need.  May their tribe increase!  Others give up every third Tuesday evening to volunteer at the soup kitchen.  Others give a large chunk of their income.  Others give a small chunk of their income.  Everyone, though, can do *something*.  And in my view, everyone should.  It’s what it means to be human, rather than a worm.

Those who have paid attention to my blog since its inception know that the very reason for its existence – its raison d’être – is to raise funds for charities dealing with hunger and homelessness.  As much as I’m interested in making my views about the Bible and early Christianity known to the world at large, that’s not why I do the blog.  If the point of the blog were simply to disseminate my knowledge and opinions, frankly, I wouldn’t do it.  I *absolutely* wouldn’t do it.  It’s too hard and it takes up way too much of my time.   The one and only reason I do it is to raise money for to fight for those who are hungry and homeless.

I do try to throw myself into the blog with gusto and to make it absolutely as good as I can.  And I hope people enjoy it.  I actually do enjoy it myself, so it’s a labor of love.  But I have other ways to disseminate my knowledge and views without pounding at the keyboard every day at this rate.

I take some flak from people who don’t think they should have to pay to read a blog.  I fully understand that concern.   But the whole *point* of the blog is to have people pay, since it above all  a fund-raising tool.   In its first year the blog raised $37,000.   Every penny went to the charities that I have specified on several occasions.    This year I’d like to raise a lot more.  I’d like to raise more and more every year.   And as long as I do, I’ll keep going with it, tell death do us part!

I’d like to thank everyone who has seen fit to join the blog.   You’re doing a world of good by paying to hear me rant on every day about this that or the other things related to Christianity in Antiquity (and related topics).    And you can do even more good in two ways:

  1. By telling others about the blog and pushing them to join up.  We need more members!  And people can get a lot out of it.  I absolutely think it’s worth the money.
  2. By making an additional donation to the Bart Ehrman Foundation through the blog site.  It’s easy to do, tax deductible, and goes to some amazing charities doing fantastic things for those in need.

A Plea for My Blog
Evaluation of Job’s Short Story



  1. Avatar
    toddfrederick  July 25, 2013

    Thank you for this current response. This is what I was interested in hearing…about what can be done now to lessen some of the suffering around us…in our homes and in the world. Rather than just hearing someone says “I’ll pray about it” we need to be actively involved. We’ll never rid ourselves of suffering for the reasons you stated but we can do something to reduce its impact. Sometime I would like to know about the actual groups you support and what they are doing. I also need to send some contributions to you on a regular basis. Good work !!

  2. Avatar
    FrancisDunn  July 25, 2013

    Dr Ehrman: May I suggest a computer program called “Dragon”….All you need do is speak and your computer types it out. Its wonderful and think of how those magnificent fingers of yours will appreciate it.

  3. Avatar
    RyanBrown  July 25, 2013

    I’m sure others will point this out, but Mother Teresa was a friend of poverty, not the poverty-stricken.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 26, 2013

      I’m not sure what you mean. Members of her order were required to take a vow to provide “wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor.”

  4. Avatar
    dennis  July 26, 2013

    ‘ there is suffering because the universe we live in is a hard and cruel place that doesn’t give a rip about our needs ” Easy there , Bart . Remember that , in fact , you and I are not some visitors from another universe observing ( and judging ) the appropriateness of how this one functions , but are very much a part of this one . ” hard and cruel place that doesn’t give a rip ” ? Oh really ? How about a certain PhD in North Carolina who , with his brave little band of corespondents , devotes time , effort and money to the study of ancient spiritual texts and the implementation of the principles ( though not necessarily the dogma ) found therein ? I am a retired healthcare professional and I can assure you that in my days of practice I saw instances of innocent suffering which , had I attempted to ” figure out ” how these could conceivably ” fit in ” to the Great Scheme Of Things , would have soon rendered me utterly useless in my task at hand ; namely doing what I could to alleviate it . Don’t misunderstand ; while my career was a tad more obvious in its addressing suffering , we ALL serve to benefit those around us . The clerk at the checkout counter , the teacher in the school , the plumber ( unsung hero ! ) , the farmer , etc , etc . are ALL alleviating/preventing suffering . The human body continuously fends off disease not through the heroic action of any single star antibody , but rather through the efforts of millions of them each doing their tiny bit . Call it God or call it the force for Good , it’s a beautiful world and getting better . So there !!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 26, 2013

      We’re in complete agreement: *people* can/do/and should make an *enormous* difference. When I said that the universe “doesn’t give a rip,” I meant the natural world — the one that gives us tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts, and other misery-inducing phenomena.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 26, 2013

    Probably your best blog yet. You do blog with “gusto” and this “gusto” is appreciated. I do think that the God portrayed in the Bible is just too nasty to be really God. So, the Biblical God certainly needs to be rethought. Whether such rethinking can lead to an understanding of God that somehow surmounts the theodicy problem is just not clear to me, but it is an important question, perhaps the most important of all quests and questions. I appreciate your honesty in wrestling with this question. As a physician, I have occasionally read quotes from Hippocrates and Galen, but would never consult these ancient authors to make any day-to-day medical decisions because they are way out of date. Likewise, I see the works of Biblical authors in much the same way, interesting, but out of date and no longer to be taken so seriously.

  6. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  July 26, 2013

    “I’m constantly amazed at how many people in our world don’t respond at all, or respond so very little, to the suffering of our fellow humans. I just don’t get it.”

    Isn’t this due to the fact that most of the suffering is not going on under our own eyes? I mean, ok, I know there are millions of people suffering in Africa, for example, but I don’t get to see them everyday. It’s easy to forget or to ignore. Also, it would be too overwhelming: I would never be able to help all of them anyway!

    On the other way, if I see someone suffering close to me I’m much more inclined to help. It touches me more. And it’s all about what you FEEL when you see someone suffering. You’ll only react and help if seeing this makes you feel BAD (or sad or the like).

    One could also extend this to the suffering of non-human animals too though. Why don’t we care more about how animals are treated, especially those that we’ll eat later on … ? Because they’re just ‘moist robots’? Yet they can feel pain too, no?

    It’s a difficult subject …

  7. Avatar
    glucab86  July 26, 2013

    You talk about suffering and the problem of suffering a lot, but you give the impression to be a very happy person. Maybe you’re a Buddha and you don’t know it 🙂

    Have you ever had interest in other religions beyond christianity? at least from a philosophical or historical point of view.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 26, 2013

      My main interest, apart from various forms of Christianity, has been with Judaism, although of course I have passing knowledge of other religious traditions (as I do teach in a major department or religious studies, which covers a lot of turf).

  8. Avatar
    bobnaumann  July 26, 2013

    One gets into logical difficulties real quickly when one ascribes anthropomorphic attributes such as omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence to God. I tend to think of God as the spirit (holy?) that dwells within us and causes us to love and have empathy for others.

    Btw, could you recommend charities that are really effective in not only alleviating world hunger, but also provide birth control to these developing countries? I am convinced that most of the problemns the world faces are the result of more people than their habitat is able to sustain. We really can’t hope to make a dent in the problem as long as people keep producing children they can’t adequately feed.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 27, 2013

      I’m afraid that I don’t know which charities work to control birth in developing countries. Sorry! I’m sure someone else on the blog will know.

  9. Avatar
    rhsondag  July 27, 2013

    Comment and a question:
    1. I tried to make a contribution to “Bart Ehrman Foundation” through a donor advised charitable fund that I have established at a brokerage firm. The firm’s data base does not recognize you. This simply means that no one has yet tried to initiate such a contribution to your foundation through them. I need your foundation’s IRS tax identification number and its mailing address. (You might want to include this information on your web site for people in the future.) If I were contributing a modest amount, I would use a credit card. However, I was planning on contributing several thousand. Mechanically, the brokerage firm will mail a check directly to your foundation made out to your foundation. You are a credit to secular humanism!!!
    2. In further defense of the universe, I wanted to point out that humans could not have evolved without randomness, mutations, and periodic catastrophic events. Over the last 4 billion years such events have resulted in great damage to existing life. However, without such events life would not have evolved. For example, if cells did not mutate, we would not have cancer. But if cells did not mutate, humans would not have evolved. Similarly, some scientists believe that mammals would not have thrived, but for the catastrophic meteor strike 65 million years ago that killed all the dinosaurs.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 27, 2013

      On point 2: yes, it’s a good point. But an all powerful God could have worked it out differently I suppose!

      On point 2: many, many thanks. I’m afraid I don’t have the IRS tax ID number with me just now; I’m in England for the summer, and the files are all at home in NC. I’ll try to figure out if there is another way for me to get to the information while I’m here (I don’t go back till the end of August), and will let you know. I appreciate very, very much your willingness to make a sizable donation. May your tribe increase!

      • Avatar
        rhsondag  July 29, 2013

        No rush. Post the info when you are home in September and I will initiate the contribution.

  10. Avatar
    shakespeare66  August 9, 2013

    I have posted this piece with my Facebook friends and have asked them to join the blog, and to encourage any of their friends who are interested in the topics to join as well. I am absolutely enjoying the blog on many different levels.

  11. Avatar
    Steefen  September 20, 2014

    A Pastor Who Came Out as Atheist
    His issues are:

    1 Virgin Birth is impossible
    my response: one of the historical Jesuses, King Izates was an “Only Begotten Son” through royal incest.
    (Read four books: 1) The Greatest Bible Study in Historical Accuracy by Steefen — printed version 2) King Jesus by Ralph Ellis, 3) Jesus, King of Edessa by Ralph Ellis, and 4) Antiquities of the Jews)

    2 Feeding 5000 is impossible
    my response: there was a famine in Judea. Queen Helena and King Izates did feed 5,000. When, in the Bible, Jesus, disgruntle, says you only follow me because I feed you food, but there is spiritual food. The proselytes Queen Helena and King Izates probably would have wanted those they fed to receive spiritual nourishment as well.

    3 Theodicy ( in its most common form, is the attempt to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil) and possibly suffering

    my response: the notion of God is wrong. Stop putting up this straw notion of God and losing your faith over it.

    Dr,. Ehrman, does suffering fall under theodicy?

    Steefen, author of The Greatest Bible Study in Historical Accuracy, First Edition (The second edition is in progress.)

    Until persuaded otherwise, it is spiritually criminal and fox in sheep’s clothing for Church pastors to be atheists and agnostics. It’s okay to temporarily entertain atheism and agnosticism for isolating the secular human and empowering the secular human but to wholly be an agnostic or atheist Church pastor is filled with problems.

    The Solar System Matrix as God is a good notion of God. Astrology and Locational Astrology teaches us a thing or two. Reading up on Mundane Astrology which proves the power of Astrology at the civilization level as opposed to the level of the individual is also educational.

    Even without the effects of the Solar System on the psyche of individuals and the spirit of the times, worship the Sun because it keeps us from floating out into the cold space of the Milky Way is a good for a good notion of God. Personify Life as God is also a good notion of God.

    Solar System as God (here, we capture God as Provider and Creator of Earth)
    Sun as God (here, we capture God as Provider and as Creator of Earth)
    Personification of Life as God

    • Bart
      Bart  September 21, 2014

      Yes, theodicy is the technical term for “the problem of suffering”

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