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An Alternative View of Suffering and the Idea of Resurrection

In yesterday’s post I was explaining why I do not think we need to point to Zoroastrianism as the source or reason for the views of “the resurrection from the dead” emerged within Judaism.   This view could have arisen within Judaism itself, because of some internal dynamics.  Here in this post I explain how it may have happened.

I begin where I ended yesterday: in ancient Israel, as up to today, there have been people who think that the reason they suffer is because they have sinned and God is punishing them for it.   Suffering comes from God, to penalize his people for not living as they should.   This is sometimes called the “prophetic” or the “classical” view of suffering, because it was the view wide advanced by the Hebrew prophets in the Bible.

Most people today, of course, realize it is never that simple.   Do we really want to say that birth defects, the death of a child, Alzheimer’s, or any of the other mind-numbing forms of suffering in extremis are punishments from God for something we did wrong?

That simple question is what eventually led some ancient Jewish thinkers to question the prophetic answer to why the people of God suffer.  Maybe it would make sense that God ordained the destruction of the nation of Israel at the hands of the Assyrians as a punishment for the sins of the people.   But if that’s the case, why, when the people repented and returned to God’s ways, doing its best to do what he demanded in his law, why then did they continue to experience social upheaval, political disaster, economic crisis, and military defeat?

Moreover, if the key to a life happy and blessed by God is keeping his law, and the path to pain and misery is breaking it, why is it that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer?  Why do some people exploit the system, oppress the poor, snub the needy, violate every commandment God has ever given and then grow rich, influential, and deeply satisfied with themselves – only to die and get away with it?   And why do other people, meek and humble, quietly live their lives by being concerned for those in need, giving what little money and resources they have to help others,  yet lead lives of personal misery filled with pain, illness, poverty, and oppression, dying lonely and in pain?

It would make sense if there were no God.  Or if there were many gods, some of whom were nasty.  But how can it make sense if there is only one God who is truly good and completely in control of this world?   It was a problem for Jewish thinkers.  And eventually about two centuries before Jesus, they came up with a new solution.   In a sense, the solution was ….

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Does Your Soul Go To Heaven?
Resurrection from the Dead: Were Jews Influenced by Zoroastrianism?



  1. Lev
    Lev  August 20, 2019

    I’m fascinated by these Maccabean era theological innovations:

    1. God created the universe through Wisdom/Sophia.
    2. When the end comes, God will raise the dead and judge them according to their deeds.
    3. God will send the Son of Man to rule over all at the cosmic apocalypse.
    4. The Satan (transformed into the Devil) is the cause of the pain and suffering of the righteous, but he will be defeated.

    It seems all these innovations were adopted by Jesus and his followers – but this wasn’t classical Judaism, this was new. I know the Pharisees held to the resurrection and believed in celestial beings such as angels – did they also believe the Devil existed and was the cause of the suffering of the righteous?

    I appreciate that the Pharisees were a relatively small sect, but so were the Sadducees who rejected these beliefs. Do you have a sense over how widespread these innovations were accepted amongst the vast majority of Jews who belonged to neither sect in Jesus’ time?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2019

      Yes, I too think it was “new.” At the same time, I don’t think there ever was a “classical” view of the religion, strictly speaking, that is, a view that at one time everyone held. My sense is that the majority of Jews were sympathetic to apocalyptic views in Jesus’ day. That seems to be the case with most of the writings we have.

  2. Avatar
    Stephen  August 20, 2019

    Other than the occasional debate I’m not sure how much time you have to keep up with current events in the Evangelical community but there is a bit of a row going on now about the proper view of Hell. The majority still hold to the “eternal conscious torment” view but there is an increasingly vocal minority questioning this view. Just this past weekend there was a Rethinking Hell Conference involving this latter group in Enid, Oklahoma featuring several of the key proponents of what seems to be a form of annihilationism they call Conditional Immortality. Only believers live on. The rest are destroyed. So your new book will add fuel to a fire (hopefully not eternal) already going on. Ha!

    If anybody reading this is interested in the debate –

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2019

      I know about the debates, but not about the conference. Interesting!

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  August 21, 2019

      Enid, Oklahoma. Perfect.

  3. Avatar
    stokerslodge  August 20, 2019

    Hi Bart, In Revelation 12 it says – “war broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon…who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” I don’t mean to sound flippant or glib Bart, but (to paraphrase a well known line from the movie Casablanca) why – of all the gin joints in all the planets, in all the galaxies, in all the universe (or universes) – did he have to be dumped into ours? Any idea why that should be the case?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2019

      Because for the biblical writers,this is the only gin joint.

  4. Avatar
    flshrP  August 20, 2019

    This explanation of evil in terms of Satan does not get the Hebrew god off the hook. It just kicks the can down the road. This infinitely powerful deity is just using an intermediary to inflict evil on the world of humans. Satan, in turn, has his intermediaries (lesser demons, really bad humans, etc). This infinite deity could crush Satan like a bug anytime he wants, but chooses not to do so.

    This confusion arises here, as it always does, whenever a god is considered to have infinite attributes (power, goodness, justice, mercy, etc). Humans don’t know what infinity really is. No human has experienced infinity. It’s just another placeholder word, like “god”, that means “I don’t know”, i.e. that I’m ignorant. Consequently, all kinds of logical contradictions arise that appear to answer the problem of evil, but really don’t. Evil in this world is due either to blind chance (earthquakes, hurricanes, sickness, disease, early deaths of children, etc) or to the harmful actions humans do to each other. No supernatural explanation is required.

  5. Avatar
    jrussel18@aol.com  August 20, 2019

    We can trace these roots into Gnosticism and deism centuries later?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2019

      Yes, Gnosticism goes off in a different direction, but there can be lines of connection seen between them (where the evil in the world is not an enemy created with everything else by the one true God but is inherent in the world created by an highly imperfect entity)

  6. Avatar
    Randybessinger  August 20, 2019

    I like the most likely answer….no God.

    • Avatar
      Bernice Templeman  August 22, 2019

      “There is only one god and his name is Death, and there is only one thing we say to Death, Not today”, GoT
      Sin = Death

  7. Avatar
    nichael  August 20, 2019

    You’ll be glad to know that they’re at it again:

    “Bible shock: Was the apostle Thomas actually Jesus Christ’s twin brother?

    JESUS CHRIST may have had a twin brother called Didymos Judas Thomas, which would throw the history of Christianity into doubt, according to one Bible scholar.[…]

    The Book of Thomas also stated: “The saviour said, ‘Brother Thomas, now, since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion, examine yourself, and learn who you are, in what way you exist, and how you will come to be. Since you will be called my brother, it is not fitting that you be ignorant of yourself’.”

    Bart Ehrman, an American New Testament scholar, argues that this is evidence Jesus had a twin – and that it was Thomas seen after the resurrection, which over centuries has become misconstrued to be Christ rising from the dead.

    Dr Ehrman debated this at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts, in 2006: “Syrian Christians thought in the second and third centuries that Jesus had a twin brother. How could he have had a twin brother?

    “Well, I don’t know how he could have a twin brother, but that’s what the Syrian Christians said. In fact, we have interesting stories about Jesus and his twin brother in a book called the Acts of Thomas, in which Jesus and his twin brother are identical twins.


    link: https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/1168036/bible-proof-news-jesus-family-twin-apostle-thomas-gospel-new-testament

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2019

      Good god…

      • Avatar
        DavidNeale  August 27, 2019

        The Daily Express is a notoriously dreadful right-wing tabloid. Aimed at people for whom even the Mail is too cerebral. This is par for the course for their “journalism”, but still a sad embarrassment.

  8. Avatar
    Wyb546  August 20, 2019

    Were there any people in history who believed that suffering exists because of freedom and freedom stems from love from God?

    This freedom came from God who was/is neither ordered or disordered but infinite. Infinity needs no laws or rules. A countable number of entities needs rules/laws in order for the entities to co-exist, so rules like the laws of physics had to be created. Living creatures came along later and with them free will. Suffering (which necessitates some type of brain), whether natural or man-made, exists because God relinquished control (through the gift of freedom) when he created more than one entity (everything in the universe) and the laws of the physics (in order for them to coexist). If God in narcissistic fashion controlled everything, there probably would not be more than one entity or any diversity of any kind. So as strange as it sounds, suffering exists because of freedom which stems from love.

    If you have mentioned any of this in your previous blogs, books or debates, could you please let me know which? Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2019

      Yup, lots of people. In my 40 years of thinking about the problem of suffering, I have never yet heard a view that many others have not propounded. (Including lots that I get told about over email from people who want to inform me they have finally come up with the solution!)

      • Avatar
        Wyb546  August 21, 2019

        Could you please tell me which blog posts, books and/or debates actually discuss suffering stemming from freedom (not free will which came along much later) which stems from love? I viewed your debate with Michael Brown on YouTube but did not hear it mentioned. Thanks.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 22, 2019

          I don’t know of references offhand. It’s just something I hear people say a lot (often in emails to me).

      • Avatar
        Wyb546  August 21, 2019

        Does your answer mean that it’s only within the last 40 years that this viewpoint came about? Or were there OT and/or NT authors who held this view?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 22, 2019

          No, I’m referring to my own 40 years of thinking about it.

          • Avatar
            Sealawyer  September 14, 2019

            In partial response to Wyb54, I would suggest reading “The Creative Suffering of God” by Paul S. Fiddes,
            Clarendon Paperbacks. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Fiddes) It contains a comprehensive survey of thinking from 19-20 century theologians about the suffering of God in Creation, including the subject as to whether God is “impassible” or subject to change due to suffering. It has been a number of years since I read this book but do believe it also addresses the relationship between freedom and suffering as well. Bart have you read it ?

          • Bart
            Bart  September 15, 2019

            Nope! Thanks.

      • Avatar
        Apocryphile  August 28, 2019

        Of course, it could be something as prosaic as the fact that the term and the concept of suffering are human inventions, or at least attempts to deal with the problem (another of our human words) through using our logic and intellect. Animals (at least as far as we know) simply experience the moment, whatever that contains. They certainly *sense* and instinctively try to escape whatever is causing them fear or pain, but again, as far as we know, they don’t sit down and rationally try to figure out why their world often contains so much of it.

        This is one reason why in the past I suggested some of your blog $$$ go to an organization whose express purpose is to alleviate some of the suffering animals also experience in this world. To my mind, the fact that they lack the intellect to understand what is happening to them (usually at the hands of humans) is all the greater reason to support groups devoted to lessening some of their pain.

  9. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  August 20, 2019

    The Jews have stories of Covenants with God written in their Bible and their land is part of a Covenant. So their stories have to account for the problems in their land.

    I believe that God creates us all equal and the covenant we receive at birth is living in heaven (the Garden) connected with a good God. We also have free will and can create different beliefs that take us out of the garden. We can also change them to get back into the garden. I think you have to love a kind and good God, yourself and others. All people created equally.

    I think you have to get back into heaven while you are alive on earth. Mind, body, spirit. Thoughts, actions, beliefs.

    I don’t think the same bodies are raised from the dead. I also don’t know if everyone who has ever lived is brought back.
    I think your best choice is to believe in a good God and live that way while you are on earth.

    I don’t think you need to be a virgin (or young woman) or the son of a virgin to go to heaven.

    I also think the heaven existed before the Jews and that people were going to heaven before the Jews.
    Women too.

    I think the ability of a Jew or an Irish Catholic to reconnect with God/heaven/eternal life shows people that others can also.
    It may not be the people you expect. You really don’t know the hearts of the people in the stories. You just know what was written about them. You also don’t know the people with good hearts who are not in the Bible.
    All Babies are connected to God/Spirit. I think it was always this way.

    I am grateful to the Jews and writers of the Bible because there are some good things in it. There are also some things in the Bible that are not the best way to live or believe.
    Can prayer be used to reduce suffering instead of increasing suffering?

    I also think you can be prosperous on earth and go to heaven. It takes daily work to do this though.

  10. Avatar
    ajohns  August 21, 2019

    “The unrighteous, on the other hand, will be raised in order to face judgment. They will be shown the errors of their ways, be crushed by their horrible realization of what they had been done, and realize that they will not receive any reward but instead be totally and painfully destroyed.”

    If my understanding is correct, “totally and painfully destroyed” is not the same as “suffering forever in torment in a fiery furnace called hell”. If these ancient jewish thinkers did not believe in our modern conception of hell (eternal torment), and if neither did jesus nor any of his early disciples did, where did this idea come from? Although I’m guessing that this question is one of the main themes of your upcoming book and you might be spoiling it somewhat if I were to get a complete answer, I’m just curious as to how we got from “totally and painfully destroyed” to “not destroyed but instead painfully suffering ever” over the centuries, since if you asked most people today, they would tell you that this idea of Hell / the afterlife was always in the bible to begin with.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 21, 2019

      That’s right. I’m arguing the view does not maintain that sinners will be forever tortured, but destroyed. In my book I will be arguing that was Jesus’ view as well. (And even the view of the book of Revelation)

  11. Avatar
    Montasser Hassanein  August 21, 2019

    Hi Dr. Bart,

    This is my first time I post here. I am so grateful to join this great community.

    The idea of suffering is relevant to social, political and religious discourses. I would like to address it from another faith’s perspective- Islam. It should be noted that there are some similarities between the apocalyptic view explained by Dr. Bart and that of the Islamic faith.

    In Islam evil is not attributed to God despite not escaping his knowledge. When suffering cannot be explained or justified, it is due to humans incapability of knowing of the wisdom behind it. The Qur’an provides a detailed account of a journey in which Moses was commanded to pursue to seek knowledge forma righteous servant of God who possessed knowledge and wisdom. During their journey Moses could not fathom several actions which seemed to be malicious and evil ( making a hole in a ship, killing a teenage boy, and repaying the hospitality of the village people by re-building a wall); all of which were explained by Al Khidr. While Satan is a force evil, his evil plans are described as week. Much emphasis is placed on the necessity for a person to purify his self from its own evil.

    It’s worth mentioning that, Islam makes it a responsibility for everyone to remove evil and suffering by whatever accessible means for saving the structure of the community.

    This is a very brief reflection of the idea of suffering and evil from a different perspective. I would like to post my thoughts about the same subject from social point of view. I also hope Dr. Bart will expand the subject beyond the NT studies to give us his own view of suffering.

  12. Avatar
    doug  August 21, 2019

    Did the pre-Jesus Jewish thinkers offer any reasons why God *allowed* his cosmic enemies to inflict extreme suffering on so many people, including people doing all they could to obey God’s law? I think of Job as a possible example, except that suggests that God is not omniscient and needs to test us by horrific means.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2019

      It was sometimes said to be because of the fall of the angels and sometimes because of the fall of Adam, and the “reason” involved a kind of ancient analogy to what we today call “free will.” Independent beings exercised their choice badly ,and God allowed them to do so. Why? We don’t know.

      • Avatar
        Wyb546  August 22, 2019

        In learning to walk, parents allow their child the risk of falling.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 25, 2019

          Right, but parents don’t let their children walk in front of moving cars so that they can learn better….

          • Avatar
            Wyb546  August 25, 2019

            Not once have I wondered why God didn’t prevent me from getting hit by a car many years ago. Different thinking I guess.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 26, 2019

            Me either. I was just following your parent-child analogy. I *have* often wondered why God would teach people a lesson by having 300,000 of them killed in a tsunami….

  13. Avatar
    Zak1010  August 21, 2019

    Dr Ehrman,

    In the gospel according to John ( RSV ), Jesus mentioned a comforter / Counselor to come after him. Why did he mention that and who was / is this comforter?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 22, 2019

      It’s the Holy Spirit; the word is sometimes translated Advocate or … other things; sometimes it is just left as in Greek, and called the Paraclete.

      • Avatar
        Zak1010  August 22, 2019

        Dr Ehrman,

        [ I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Counselor… In the Greek language in which John’s Gospel narrative was originally written, there are 2 words for “another”: “allos” meaning “another of the same kind”; and “heteros” meaning “another of a different kind”. The word used here (John 14:16) is “allos” – another of the same kind. John is the only New Testament writer to use the word translated “Counselor” or “Comforter” here (parakletos). In his first letter (1 John 2:1) John referred to Jesus as a “parakletos” (translated “advocate”) with the Father. Jesus was a human messenger (the man Christ Jesus, 1 Timothy 2:5), and the coming “Counselor” would be “another of the same kind” – therefore a human messenger like Jesus. ]

        Is the Holy spirit the same as the Spirit of Truth? Wasn’t the Holy Spirit already there?
        The Holy spirit came upon Mary at the conception of Jesus.

        So, Why did Jesus address his followers with this sermon or prediction? What was the significance? How would it relate to us today?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 25, 2019

          Yes, Spirit of Truth for John is the Holy Spirit. In John’s Gospel the Spirit does not come upon mary at the conception; that’s Luke. John has a different view. The Spirit will come upon Jesus’ followers after Jesus leaves.

  14. Avatar
    Rita Gomes  August 26, 2019

    So is there really no monotheism in the belief in god?
    For if he “granted” his powers to Satanas, but turned to evil, we have a duotism here.
    god —> represents all that is good
    Satan —> represents all that is evil.
    If we are the image of God, then we are good and evil at the same time.
    In short this is it.
    There is a doctrine, quite large in Brazil, Spiritism.
    Their theory is that our souls reincarnate several times. And each time we have a list of repairs to be made.
    Those who can fulfill them to a great extent purify their souls to a point that no longer needs to reincarnate on earth, but in a world superior to ours.
    And who can not end up returning to lower worlds.
    Analyzing coldly is how you struggle with your inner good and evil all the time

    • Bart
      Bart  August 27, 2019

      I think the traditional idea is that Satan is not co-eternal and co-powerful with God, but is a creature gone awry.

  15. Avatar
    Arianne  August 26, 2019

    I always thought it was interesting how 2 Samuel 24 says that God ordered David to take a census, while 1 Chronicles 21 said that it was the Devil who told David to take the census. I believe the works of Samuel are generally thought by scholars to be written before Chronicles — the former was likely completed in the Babylonian exile, while the latter were completed in the Persian era.

    If that’s the case, it does make me wonder about the possibility of Persian/Zoroastrian on the idea of a Devil figure. Your point about how early (pre-Daniel) Zoroastrian scriptures might not talk about a future resurrection of the dead is well-taken. However, the earliest Zoroastrian scriptures, the Gathas, do talk about the lying Daevas corrupting mankind and opposing the will of the good Ahura Mazda. So even if Zoroastrianism might not have influenced Jewish afterlife beliefs, there may be better reason for thinking that Zoroastrianism influenced the Jewish idea of Satan.

    I’m curious to hear your thoughts about this.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 27, 2019

      Yes, the shift is very important. But it’s not clear you need Persia for the development of a Satan figure in Judaism.

      • Avatar
        Arianne  August 27, 2019

        It might be of note that a similar shift appears to have happened in India around the same time (i.e., the Persian period). There are lots of stuff in early Buddhist traditions about Mara, the Evil One, tempting ascetics (including the Buddha himself). By contrast Jainism, an ascetic religion that predates Buddhism, has no equivalent of Mara. As far as I know, Mara as a personification of evil and temptation doesn’t feature in pre-Buddhist Brahminical literature much, either.

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