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Teaching about How The Bible Explains Suffering

I’m not sure exactly when the suffering of others came to pose a problem for my own faith; but I do remember clearly when the issues first crystalized for me.  I started my teaching career at Rutgers University while I was a PhD student working on my dissertation in 1984.   It was a fantastic job for me (teaching at a very good research university, without yet even having my degree), but it was not tenure-track.  I was a poorly-paid adjunct instructor, teaching two or three courses a semester, in a range of areas: Introduction to the New Testament; Introduction to the Hebrew Bible; The Life and Letters of Paul; The Gospel of John; and so on.

I had never taught any of these courses before, of course, since this was just the beginning of my career.  And back then my idea was that when I gave lectures, I would actually write out them out, word for word, by hand (I didn’t own a computer then), on yellow pads.   If I was teaching three courses – say New Testament, Hebrew Bible, and writings of Paul, I would have to lecture twice a week for an hour and fifteen minutes for each course.  So that would be six long lectures a week (although I did mix it up with class discussions as well).  Written by hand.

It’s hard to write a 75-minute lecture by hand.  And to do four, five, or six of them each and every week, from scratch – that’s really hard.  And I was supposed to be writing my dissertation at the time.  And I had a wife and two children.  Yikes.

My schedule was pretty crazy.  Basically,

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The Variety of Views of Suffering in the Bible
Is Suffering Our Fault?

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Comments

  1. Benjamin
    Benjamin  July 7, 2017

    One time I tried to discuss the book of Job with a seminarian. That was the last time he really ever spilled his mind. Having a book to depict a God who almost delights in the suffering of his very own? My own reading of the first few chapters suggests suffering was a divine comedy, and we are flies for the gods, as Hamlet suggests, and they kill us for their sports. It was then I realize that this book of Job cannot be divinely inspired, for no gods of mine would have done such a deed. What say you, o Eminent One? In my own Taiwanese theology, it was taught that God answers prayers, and he blesses his own, and if you need something, just ask. In the case of Job, it was deadly, and his children were expendable over a bet God supposedly had with his child Satan. This makes me think that God is extremely unjust, and not a good human being. I certainly have no taste for something like it.

    • johnlein  July 8, 2017

      Many scholars believe that the Book of Job has three sources: 1) An ancient story of a man named Job (the prose prologue/epilogue), 2) The poetry of the majority of the book, and 3) the later “commentary” addition of Elihu.

      If you take this theory, then one might understand the author to be using an ancient story to wrestle with a problem, rather than the ancient story itself being the focal point. Carol Newsom has an excellent book from a scholarly perspective, and on a spiritual angle I love Stephen Mitchell’s translation and introduction where he presents the story as describing an experience of spiritual enlightenment rather than systematic theology.

      Regardless, most critical scholars read this book as imaginative literature, not history. But many, even non-theists, also see it as one of the greatest spiritual books of all time, so there may be value beyond what your seminarian friend sees.

      • hasankhan  July 9, 2017

        KiBible has exaderations and fabrications. From Quran we only know that He was tested and he was patient. There is no mention of how the test was. God doesn’t play sport or enjoy suffering. He is not friends with Satan and He is certainly not human being.

        We don’t ask God to submit to our will and desire of how He should be. We are servants and we submit to Him. His existence is not proven by His nature but by His signs and His revelation.

        • antoinelamond
          antoinelamond  July 12, 2017

          From my understanding of the Quran most of the stories in the book would not exist had there been no Christianity. Essentially it seems like a form of Ebonism with pre-islamic mythology thrown in. Also weren’t Arabs before the coming of Muhammad’s revelation worshiping some 365 deities?

  2. Robert  July 7, 2017

    “If God is the Almighty (as he certainly is in the Bible); and he has chosen his people and wants the best for them (as he does in the Bible); then why are they experiencing one disaster, one catastrophe, one truly ugly incident after the other: hunger, crop failure, economic calamity, military nightmare, social collapse.”

    This sounds like a false problem when applied to some of the New Testament authors who tell their readers to expect suffering and embrace it as Jesus did.

  3. nbraith1975  July 7, 2017

    “But one of the biggest problems I had with some of the students was getting them to see that there was a problem!”

    During a considerably cold snap one winter a neighbor asked my dad if he had a problem with his water pipes freezing and bursting. My dad answered simply that there was no problem – the pipes just freeze and burst.

    Bart – Please tell me what the “problem” is with earth quakes, floods and volcanoes, etc. Do these things just “naturally” happen, or do you believe each and every instance is planned and triggered by some higher power?

    If you believe in the big bang and evolution you should be thankful for every organic/natural thing that has happened since earth was formed and began to cool. Without such, you would not exist and be able to enjoy the life you have.

    Earth quakes, floods and volcanoes are not events humans have much control over. And for that matter, neither do humans have much control over disease or birth defects.

    If you believe in evolution then everything that happens on this earth is a natural part of it – even treating illness and finding cures for disease.

    The fact that you can ponder the things that are happening and try and make sense of those things is also a condition of evolution. It’s ALL evolution – every single bit. We live, we adapt and we move forward – no problem.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 8, 2017

      No, they aren’t a “problem” for me. I’m an agnostic, and I think this is simply a cruel and capricious universe at times. They are a problem only for those who subscribe to a view of the biblical God.

      • nbraith1975  July 8, 2017

        Bart – You often state that you are not trying to change the minds of your readers or students. So how are we to understand when you say the following:

        “But one of the biggest problems I had with some of the students was getting them to see that there was a problem!”

        Just what “problem” were you trying to get your students to see? The same problem you came to understand that ultimately led you to change your mind about the God of the Bible?

        Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that you were trying to get your students to take the same path you took.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 9, 2017

          What I meant was that the Problem of Suffering is a problem, and needs to be recognized as a problem, for anyone standing within any of the great monotheistic traditions — as all of my students did. I’m not saying that I myself find it to be a problem personally. (There are plenty of philosophers who deal with the problem who are not themselves troubled by it).

      • antoinelamond
        antoinelamond  July 8, 2017

        Definitely true, and there in lies my conundrum. I still choose to believe in a god on some level, but Yahweh definitely is either straight up evil or just doesn’t exist. I’m sort of an agnostic marcionite christian I suppose, or something similar in order to better explain the problem of evil.

  4. RonaldTaska  July 7, 2017

    1. For those new to the blog, I recommend Dr. Ehrman’s book entitled “God’s Problem.”

    2. I have given some yellow legal pad lectures myself.

    3. My son has taught me some about Buddhism which seems to focus a lot on the problem of suffering. Do you think that Buddhism has much useful to add to the discussion? If so, what????? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 8, 2017

      Yes, Buddhism, in a sense, is all about suffering. And many have found its teachings far more palatable and helpful for their experiences than the biblical views. But, of course, I’m not an expert in the area.

  5. joncopeland  July 7, 2017

    “J.B.” is an excellent recommendation. I read this in my constructive theology class and it stopped me in my tracks. We read this alongside Jean Giono’s “The Man Who Planted Trees” and C.S. Lewis’s “The Last Battle,” which made for highly engaging comparative discussions.

    Do you have any suggestions for encouraging Christian audiences to read great literary works by authors who challenge or interrogate prevalent theologies, particularly non-Christian authors? I’m not thinking so much about non-literary works like “The God Delusion,” (or, for that matter, “Misquoting Jesus”), but more along the lines of works like “J.B.” and “Night”, which use artistic, literary forms to challenge and interrogate commonly held theological claims and theodicies. I’d very much like to read Wiesel or MacLeish with my church study group, but am unsure how to pitch the idea to them.

    (And for what it’s worth, I’d love to read “Misquoting Jesus” with the group too, so suggestions on approaching that would be appreciated.)

    Thanks Dr. Ehrman.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 8, 2017

      I would suggest maybe thinking about fiction. One of my favorite modern novels (I hardly ever read anything that’s post-Edwardian!!) is Prayer for Owen Meanie. It wouldn’t challenge faith so much as open up discussions about it.

  6. tompicard
    tompicard  July 7, 2017

    Looking forward to next post explaining your understanding of suffering as a ‘committed christian’

    recently you described the classic problem where the these premises appear at odds [God is all powerful, God is all loving, and suffering exists]. The bible (and it is obvious absent the bible) doesn’t ever imply that suffering is nonexistent. The Old Testament emphasizes that God is incredibly powerful; the New, that God is incredibly loving. I personally put more stock in the NT, and so accept that either God is not all powerful or at the least there are things that love compels God to do, yet He refuses.

    Now, both the Old and New Testament authors recognize a link between ‘sin’ and ‘suffering’, but the exact correlation isn’t clear. And modern people (maybe most ‘liberal’ christians) are not comfortable discussing ‘sin’, but Jesus was not hesitant. Will you elaborate your (as committed christian) and/or biblical understanding on the connection of ‘sin’ and ‘suffering’?

    Additionally even if we accept that suffering is intrinsic to sin, it doesn’t get to the root of the problem, but it my help frame it. Cause then we would just ask “Why does an all loving all powerful Creator allow sin?”

  7. Epikouros  July 7, 2017

    Really enjoying your posts on suffering. This one hit home for me. One of the biggest problems I have with religious relatives is their blithe indifference to suffering. We’re talking about affluent, middle-class Americans here, so no surprise, I guess. But aren’t Christians supposed to care at least a bit about this? This is maybe one of the biggest reasons that I can no longer stand to set foot in church. The “we’re saved, it’s all good” vibe is just stomach churning for me. Pointing out that things aren’t so good for a lot of people usually brings on a smug smile and comments about how I shouldn’t worry because God works in mysterious ways, etc.

    • catguy  July 8, 2017

      Not to sound overtly political which is not the purpose of this website, yet it is difficult at times not to. You talk about Christian indifference. I am involved through my church in giving money to do what we can but the problem in this country is the cost of things are so high, it takes a large and continuous effort to help the poor, the hungry, and the homeless and churches can only do so much. Their ability with what money they have is very limited compared to the scale of state and federal government. I try when I vote to elect people who are committed to these problems and do care but you have these right wing evangelicals who believe tax cuts for the rich are next to Godliness and they are so fixated on gay marriage they couldn’t care less about the social and economic problems even within their own communities. I give what I can and I vote as one person and that is all I can do.

  8. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  July 7, 2017

    I am going Church tonight for Fridays teaching. I am sorry for speaking to you that way. My heart is so much more kind than that. Have a great weekend Bart!

  9. hasankhan  July 7, 2017

    If I’m told that a person is very merciful and loving but I’ve never met or seen the person and I found out one day that someone needed help and the person wasn’t helping them while he was there and had the capacity to help, then should I disbelieve in the person or should I change my belief about the nature of person?

    Witnessing suffering is an emotional problem, not an intellectual problem, how can then it lead to disbelieve in existence of a God? God choses to limit his interference in this world, He allows things to happen, He destines things to happen. That’s His will and that’s His wisdom. He choses who He is going to test with what kind of suffering.

    If a child sees how the doctor is doing heart surgery i.e. ripping open the chest, etc then s/he will be terrified and think the doctor is cruel and trying to harm the patient but the child doesn’t know how the surgery is performed and what good is going to come out of this pain.

    • antoinelamond
      antoinelamond  July 8, 2017

      If God chooses to allow children to suffer and he is able to stop it from happening what does that make this god? Wouldn’t he be evil? If god can’t help children then he is powerless and is not all powerful. There is no way around any of this. It just bothers me in African American churches that I attend and have attended that say “aren’t you glad your name is not in the obituary column?” Well if I am glad doesn’t that automatically mean that those who did die now may have love ones who are suffering due to this death, due to them not seeing this day. What if they devoted themselves to god and still died? What if they believed god would heal them and he didn’t? Just think about someone who died in a car crash who may have been listening to gospel music and still died or even became paralyzed. Now they suffered until they died or they continue to suffer as a new paralytic person.

      This is just the tip of the iceberg. I watched Dr. Ehrman’s debate with Dinesh D’Souza and he seemed a bit nonchalant about suffering. He does what most fundamentalist christian do and that is say that we are creating an idol if we do not just blindly accept the current nature of god (i.e. allowing suffering for no reason we limited humans can fathom). I used to hold to this view, but it is more so that as a believer in some type of god I simply cannot believe that god is allowing suffering but maybe there is an entity stopping the New Testament god from doing things. . .

    • antoinelamond
      antoinelamond  July 8, 2017

      Hasankhan don’t emotions come from our brains and thus our minds? If so then aren’t emotions from our intellect?

      • hasankhan  July 9, 2017

        As Muslims we believe that God compensates the believer for every hardship. We don’t know the future but God does. It’s possible that a person who dies early is saved from committing more sins. It’s possible a person is saved from bigger hardship, it’s possible that God forgives the person as compensation, it’s also possible that God gives the person higher level of paradise just because he faced more hardship. The way we look at ease and hardship is different from how God describes it in Quran. For example an evil person getting pleasures in life is actually getting more eternal punishment by sinning more so even though his witdly life apparently looks good but in reality it is increasing him in eternal suffering. God is not obliged to save us from every suffering on earth. Just because He has power doesnt mean He has to use it every where. He does what He wills based on His wisdom and will and knowledge of unseen. When we start competing with Him and try to argue based on our limited knowledge we are trying to become equal with Him or even warning our master to submit to our will.

        He has promised a place that has no suffering but only to those who worship Him alone and do not associate partners with Him (son, idols, etc) and live life according to His guidance and seek forgiveness when we make mistakes.

        So when someone tells you that are you not grateful that you’re healthy that means don’t worry God is more merciful than you can imagine. He can compensate people in hereafter with eternal happiness. Your job is to help others when ever you can and take care of your faith and worship.

        We do our job and God will do His and surely He is more perfect and wise than every thing else.

        I invite you to study Islam to get a better understanding of nature of God, the purpose of our existence and nature of hereafter.

        • antoinelamond
          antoinelamond  July 12, 2017

          hasankhan,

          Not only have I studied Islam I was once a Sunni Muslim. So I understand Al-Islam on a functional level. I also know there are Ahammadiyan Muslims, Suffi Muslims, Shia Muslims, Qurani Muslims, Salafi Muslims, etc. There is also an Ansaar Allah Muslim community that was once led by a guy named Dwight York, who went by the name Imam Issa Sayyid Al Haadi Al Mahdi. He is now in prison for 365 years.

          Anyway there are questions I have more so for the doctrine of Al-Islam and not necessarily the Quran. For example are we to believe that Muhammad traveled the universe (some say to the farthest Masjid and then to meet with Allah Himself) on a being called a Buraq (a horse with a human face) at night? I’m speaking of Isra and Mi’raj.

          If this is the case I am confused as to how a Muslim who HAS to accept this story as fact can say anything negatively critical of any religion. There are more strange yet obviously mythological beliefs Muslims adhere to, but that one has always struck me as odd.

          • hasankhan  July 13, 2017

            Muslims don’t call Islam, Al-Islam. If you’re searching for truth, I recommend you study Islam deeply.

            If you believe in an all-powerful God who created the universe, then believing that He can defy the law of physics is relatively easier than Him speaking to humans via angels, sending Adam from Paradise to earth without space suit or Muhammad ascending to heaven or riding a supernatural creature.

  10. dwcriswell  July 7, 2017

    The way I have always seen suffering explained from a religious sense, is it is a thing of this world, and things of this world are inconsequential. This life is just something we have to struggle and suffer through, much like someone having to have a tooth pulled when no anesthetic is available, just a necessary evil. Is this a common view?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 8, 2017

      I suppose it is. But I don’t think pain is inconsequential to the person experiencing; especially horrible pain.

      • RVBlake  July 8, 2017

        And an all-knowing God would surely be aware of the effect that witnessing this suffering would have on the faith of some of those helplessly viewing it.

      • hasankhan  July 9, 2017

        It’s inconsequential compared to suffering of hereafter and pleasure of hereafter. Believers get higher level of paradise, sins forgiven, saved from sins, saved from bigger suffering etc for suffering in this life. We don’t have perspective of hereafter.

    • antoinelamond
      antoinelamond  July 8, 2017

      Think about conjoined twins and tell me is that suffering justified? Some are conjoined by the face, head, neck, etc. They are needlessly suffering. What kind of plan is allowing this?

      • hasankhan  July 9, 2017

        They’ll find out in the hereafter. Any accident in our life or birth defect is not good or bad in it self but it’s how we respond to it that makes it good or bad for us. Health is a curse for an evil person since it allows him to increase in sin and if suffering humbles the person and makes him come closer to God then it’s good for him.

        So our reaction to suffering and pleasure makes it good or bad for us. We have the free will to respond however we like.

        • antoinelamond
          antoinelamond  July 12, 2017

          Hasankhan that is beyond ridiculous and is just an excuse for this child in question to needlessly suffer.

          • Bart
            Bart  July 13, 2017

            I appreciate your comment, but please, no ridicule!

          • hasankhan  July 13, 2017

            Child is not being tested as I’ve explained in other comments since children are not accountable for their deeds. Every suffering on this earth will be compensated somehow either in this world or in the hereafter. There is suffering destined for every person in some form whether child or adult. Suffering is a reality of this world, it sometimes comes as destiny, sometimes as a test, sometimes as punishment, sometimes because of our own deeds, sometimes due to nature of this world. Suffering does not have a single reason and we can’t ‘guess’ which reason was for what suffering. Only God knows which one of the cases was it.

            God is aware of all suffering and has a plan for compensation for suffering of believers and innocent. For the evil ones, it’s only addition to what they’re going to suffer eternally.

          • antoinelamond
            antoinelamond  July 13, 2017

            Sorry Dr. Ehrman, I do apologize

  11. madmargie  July 8, 2017

    Process Theology appeals to me because it attempts to answer the age old question of why bad things happen to good people. To me, it makes sense and it has good ethics. The God of process theology does everything within God’s power to work for the good without violating human agency. That power of God is persuasive and not coercive. Dominion has proved to be a tragic theological model for understanding our ethical relationship to the world. Process Theology says that God is love and loves perfectly. God suffers with the world and calls us to share a vision of the good and the beautiful but waits for our free response to God’s Spirit. God cannot override our freedom but hopes and tries to persuade us to create the best we can be gotten from each choice that we make. Process thinkers believe God is omniscient and knows everything there is to know perfectly but knows the future as open, as a range of possibilities and probabilities, not as fixed or settled. God hopes we will choose the good but struggles to reach us through the dark glass that often obscures our vision. But God does everything within God’s power to bring about the good without violating our free agency.

  12. Sharon Friedman  July 8, 2017

    The problem of suffering is only a problem if you see life as a problem to be broken down and analyzed with the mind, rather than a mystery to be lived (OMG I tried to look up the source of this quote and found Joseph Campbell, Kierkegaard and this guy, Dr Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan????):

    “Religion is not a movement stretching out to grasp something, external, tangible and good, and to possess it. It is a form of being, not having, a mode of life. Spiritual life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced. It is new birth into enlightenment.”
    It seems to me that religion needs to have a story..Marcion had one story, the proto-orthodox had another, but “it’s a mystery” is a perfectly valid story inside and outside of Christianity. Not to be critical of academic religious studies, but in my experience (because they are at universities where people try to know things intellectually) this is not as acceptable a worldview as it is among the people in the pews, on the rugs, or on the cushions.

  13. seahawk41  July 8, 2017

    I have to say that for me, a physicist, a much larger problem re God is simply the vastness of the universe. If you look at a picture known as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, essentially every point of light in that pic is a galaxy. Thousands of them in a pic of one very small segment of the sky. How can one imagine a being that could create and control such vastness?

    In saying this, I don’t mean to denigrate your issues re suffering; that has clearly been a major problem for the monotheistic religions for ages. Just saying that for me the mind-boggling vastness of the universe is a much greater issue.

    And yet I remain a member (very active) of a very liberal Protestant denomination! Not sure what that says …

    • Wilusa  July 9, 2017

      In relation to this, I often think of the Catholic “Apostles’ Creed” I was taught as a child. It describes Jesus as rising from the dead, then ascending into Heaven and sitting “at the right hand of God.” Which surely implies that they’re about the same size – the Being in charge of the universe no larger than a human!

    • hasankhan  July 9, 2017

      Another way to look at it is how great the Creator of this vast ever expanding universe is and how insignificant and small creatures are we.

      Quran: And the sky was built by Us with might; and indeed We are its expanders.

      • antoinelamond
        antoinelamond  July 12, 2017

        The sky? Are you saying that Muslims thought the universe was the sky? Also, can you tell me why Muhammad suffered just to get a revelation (Surah) while in a cave? Reports in the Hadith said each time he got a revelation he trembled.

        • hasankhan  July 13, 2017

          The arabic word Sama refers to space outside of earth. So the arabic reference is to universe and in english it is translated as Sky since it is used for both.

          Prophet Muhammad has received revelation in many ways. Please watch the short video below for explanation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HlQsty_nT1s

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