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The Kind of Suffering that is a Problem

I’m not completely sure when I first started realizing that the enormous amount of suffering in the world, so much of it completely gratuitous, is a problem for anyone who believes that there is a loving and powerful God who is in control of what happens.   Before reflecting on the evolution of my own thinking on the problem from years ago, let me stress a couple of points.

First I am talking about enormous suffering.   I am not talking about the small and even not so small aches and pains of daily life – the broken wrists or torn ligaments, the fender-benders, the shattered relationships, the worries about the mortgage, or the loss of a loved one.  Such things, in my view, do not call into question the existence of God, because they could well be explained if there is a loving and powerful God in charge of the world.  They could, for example, be “teaching us something,” or molding our character, or making us more grateful for the (other) good things we have (no pleasure without pain), etc.

No, I’m talking about suffering in extremis, enormous suffering that helps no one, least of all the sufferer.   Every seven …

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Two Unsatisfactory Solutions to the Problem of Suffering
Why I Was Afraid to Become an Agnostic



  1. catguy  June 26, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I hear this a lot, mostly from people with no religious training at a university level and I certainly understand their dilemma. But I do think it is unfortunate if this is the reason people abandon their faith and belief. My very simple and unprofessional answer is that I believe from the beginning God has a plan. The reason there is so much suffering is because of sin. Maybe you agree or disagree with me but I believe Satan is in charge of this current world. He is the master of this earth as much as God allows him to be. But it is a finite realm and on the day Christ returns all of this will be turned upside down. There is a passage in the Bible that says those who are saved will one day judge angels. My personal belief is that this means we will judge Satan and his millions of demons. At any rate, my belief gives me hope. There will be an end to this when Christ returns and “all tears will be wiped away.” From the time of Adam and Eve man has had to make choices. They chose to believe the lies of the devil and sin entered the world. We are all born into that sin. The reason (my humble opinion) that God does not now intervene and put an end to all suffering is that He has a plan and for all of us who have ever lived will be able to recognize on a daily basis the consequences of sin. It is the evil in the world that brings about all of man’s inhumanity and/or neglect of others, not God. Thank you for allowing me to share what is, again, my personal opinion.

    • Michael Toon  June 27, 2017

      Catguy, when I began reading the Bible with a critical lense, I was slack-jawed to learn the following:

      “God sends a lying spirit (1 Kings 22:22-23)- “And the Lord said to him, ‘How?’ And he said, ‘I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ Then He said, ‘You are to entice him and also prevail. Go and do so.'” 23 “Now therefore, behold, the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; and the Lord has proclaimed disaster against you.”

      God cannot lie (Titus 1:2) – “in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago.”

      • catguy  June 28, 2017

        But did God lie? In reading the scripture you referenced my impression is that first, the lying spirit might have been Satan. Secondly, Ahab heard from these lies what he wanted to hear. When someone has immersed themselves in any kind of deceit about themselves or their situation, they are not usually willing to hear the truth anyway. It in some ways reminds me of 2 Timothy 4:3 about the itching ears and will seek the counsel that pleases them. Well, it’s my take on this for whatever that amounts to.

    • wawawa  June 27, 2017

      Would a JUST GOD punish person-A for sin/crimes of person-B? Answer is NO. e.g. What is the sin of that deformed newly born baby that justify such a suffering? So does not it mean that if GOD exist, that GOD is not a JUST GOD and therefore unworthy to be worshiped.

  2. Michael Toon  June 26, 2017

    Your views on the problem of suffering has been heavily influential on many people (including myself) over the years, Dr. Ehrman. In a recent post I asked a rhetorical question about human tragedy, victimhood, and why do people insist that because of the “grand cause” of life (their view), subjects of tragedy are not actually victims at all. Whatever they experience in life—everything—it was something that they called into existence so we can grow. Like you, I took umbrage with this view, as one commenter entered the thread and mounted an unreflective argument to substantiate it. But like the debate you had with Swinburne, I exposed the unjustifiable rationale that Swinburne’s explaination (and people who think like Swinburne) places upon the spirit of those who are the subjects of enormous suffering. In this thread I talk about things like my own tragedy, a tragedy that literally changed my life forever, I talk about sensitive subjects like survivor guilt and survivorship bias.


  3. godspell  June 26, 2017

    All religions came into being in a world with far more suffering and evil than exists now in developed countries, and even some third world countries.

    It’s not suffering that is a problem for faith, because faith is a response to suffering. This is why we see religious faith doing better in places afflicted by poverty and war (no atheists in foxholes). Jesus was himself preaching mainly to the poor, Buddha said “Life is suffering”, Islam is a religion professed primarily by poor people. One looks at atheists and agnostics, one mainly sees very comfortable well-off educated people (not overly educated, in too many cases, sad to say, but literate, they had access to education, and may have chosen not to take full advantage).

    You yourself have been extremely fortunate, and have taken advantage of that good fortune. So you’re saying because people you don’t know are suffering and dying (sometimes because of actions taken by our own secular state), you can’t believe in a loving powerful God.

    You started as a fairly nominal mainline Christian. You became a very passionate committed Fundamentalist. You then tried liberal Christianity. Now you waver between atheism and agnosticism, and clearly you have some doubts about this, or you wouldn’t keep making post after post trying to explain and justify it. It’s impossible to make any compelling argument in any direction here, and you know it. But you keep trying.

    Looking for the certainty you so briefly had, and lost. It’s not there.

    Question–suppose we had, as a species, eliminated all poverty, all war, all want, all oppression. Something we certainly have the power to do, and have failed miserably to accomplish, in spite of many noble attempts. By our own free will, we choose not to do this, because it would get in the way of selfish pursuits, and requires too much self-control.

    But if we had chosen to make this the world we think God should have just given us upfront–there’d still be death. In the natural world, for one thing. The God of the Old and New Testament cares about the welfare of animals, so we’re told. The natural world is a world of predators and prey, disease, old age, injury, famine, and ultimately–invariably–death. Without which, life would be impossible, or at least new life.

    You say you accept death? How does that make sense? It’s okay to die at 99, but not at 9 months? In the eyes of an immortal being, what difference would that eyeblink of time make? And why, precisely, should the death of a child mean more than the death of an insect, to a force that created both, and is far beyond either. Reverence for life surely should go beyond mere sentimentality.

    Don’t you see that this attitude comes from the same place as the obsession over the afterlife? The inability to accept limitations, to accept death, imperfection–and it is this that has led to most human evil, from both theists and atheists. The willingness to kill and oppress to create the world we believe we’re entitled to in our imaginations, in some air-fairy world after death, or in some grand Marxist future state–but are unwilling to act collectively to achieve in reality now.

    If ceasing to believe in God doesn’t fix this bug in the human program, then what difference does it make? Religion at least makes some people aspire to behave better. Agnosticism inspires–what?

    Okay, fine–the God you were raised to believe in doesn’t exist. But that God–ANY God–is just our attempt to grasp the infinite. It’s never, ever, literally true. So disproving that doesn’t disprove anything of consequence. One can believe God is powerful and loving, because of the immense beauty of the world we were given, its abundance, the staggering improbability that there would be any life here at all. The capacity for joy, for doing good works, for achieving one’s potential.

    Destroying a cliche does not destroy the truth that gave rise to that cliche.

    I don’t see an argument here.

    • JakSiemasz  June 28, 2017

      You miss the entire point………..

      • godspell  June 30, 2017

        I didn’t miss yours, since you never made one…….;)

  4. Wilusa  June 26, 2017

    Of course I agree with you about the horror of that kind of suffering…if I hadn’t rejected belief in the Jewish/Christian God already, I probably would have done it when I was mature enough to recognize the “suffering” problem.

    Something that really irks me: When there’s a report on the news about, let’s say, a tornado that’s struck a community and killed dozens of people. And the ones who are uninjured are giving thanks to this wonderful “God” who’s spared them, never seeming to wonder why he’d let their neighbors die!

    • godspell  June 27, 2017

      So nobody should ever be thankful? When you’re fortunate–or avoid severe misfortune–you aren’t grateful for that?

      Of course you are. You don’t think “Oh no, other people are miserable, oppressed, dying, in horrible pain, I have no right to be happy, ever.”

      The only difference is that people of faith–real faith–actively work to make other people’s lives better, as well as pray for their welfare.

      Raised as a Catholic, I remember the Prayer of the Faithful–where every Sunday, we would pray for those who had died, those who were suffering. Many did more than pray.

      Hypocrisy is not uniquely theist, and certainly compassion isn’t either.

      But I think you’re determined to only see ill in those who believe differently than you.

      • Wilusa  June 28, 2017

        I think it would be in better taste, in these situations (tornados, hurricanes, etc,), for people to keep their gratitude for God’s favor to themselves, and not proclaim it to the media.

        • godspell  June 30, 2017

          Most Christians would agree with that.

          It’s more of a cultural than a religious expression, what you’re critiquing here. I agree with your critique, but wouldn’t those same people basically behave the same self-congratulatory way if they had no religion at all?

          Trump doesn’t even know what Presbyterianism is, even though he was raised as a Presbyterian (kind of).

          There’s a reason he was able to connect so well with people like that, even though he self-evidently has no religion at all, unless you consider egomania a religion. Which I suppose it could be.

      • SidDhartha1953  July 1, 2017

        Some people I know actually do seem to feel more guilt than gratitude for their good fortune. They wonder why life is so good for them when it is so awful for others, who are no worse, perhaps better, people than they. I don’t advocate such self-torture, but it is very real.
        I also agree with the comment that it is in poor taste to proclaim one’s thankfulness at not being targeted by God’s seemingly random victimization of the innocent — like the white woman I once heard say she was thankful she wasn’t born black. She was trying to express sympathy for the undeserved suffering of black people in a racist society, but it didn’t come out quite right.

        • godspell  July 2, 2017

          Jesus would have agreed with that. He told the story of the Pharisee in the temple, who said “Thank God I was not born like this other man.” And that other man only prayed for forgiveness, promised to do better. And we are told it was that man who won God’s favor that day.

          • SidDhartha1953  July 7, 2017

            At least he didn’t give thanks he was not born a woman!

      • antoinelamond
        antoinelamond  July 6, 2017

        Who said we shouldn’t be happy we are not in misery? However, we still should wonder (if we are theists) how do we answer the question that people are needlessly suffering even though they do not deserve it? Children are born with painful birth defects. For example, do you ignore the fact that there are children born with anophthalmia? Things like this bother me. That makes the problem of evil hard to explain, and explaining it away helps NO ONE.

    • catguy  June 29, 2017

      Honestly, if I were spared a tragedy I would certainly praise the Lord but I would also pray for the victims of a tragedy and help them in any way I could. In the OT in particular in many situations those with faith were likely also to be victims of war, torture, and captivity. I have had a number of Bible studies where the pastor would make a statement that there were probably some relatively faithful people taken off by the Assyrians from the northern kingdom. So it is more likely “innocent” people (if I can use that word) suffer right along with the worst sinners. It is of note that when God is about to strike Sodom and Gomorrah that Abraham pleads with God to save those two cities if there are so and so many people not caught up in the sins of those two locations. God is willing to listen but in the end it is determined there was no one, not one, worthy to prevent their destruction. I used to live in a part of the Midwest that was prone to tornadoes. Tornadoes make surgical strikes and often will destroy one side of a highway but not the other or touchdown in one neighborhood and leave the other neighborhoods untouched. You wonder why some are struck and not others. Maybe it is location, location. I do not think anyone has the answers.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  June 26, 2017

    To quote Stalin: One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

    Sadly, until it affects them personally, it’s rather easy for most people to become complacent and cavalier about the nature of true, abject pain and misery.

    • GregLogan  June 27, 2017

      I think this is a critical point – it is simply not real to them – so they can create neat aphorisms to explain.

    • godspell  June 27, 2017

      True. It’s also easy for us to use it in the abstract, as a talking point in tendentious never-ending arguments.

      Which does the suffering and dying people no good whatsoever.

      Whatever some present-day self-styled followers of Jesus may say, Jesus said to help anyone you could. To give to the poor, to tend to the sick, to visit those in prison, to bind up the wounds of people who had been attacked, and to never, under any circumstances, commit violence upon anyone’s person.

      The thing about ideals is that we tend not to live up to them, but some do. Some do. If we don’t, that doesn’t mean there’s no God, or that God isn’t powerful and loving.

      It means we, the human race, are weak and selfish. With many noteworthy exceptions–and I’d have to say, an awful lot of them are believers. Not necessarily in Jesus. But always, in things that can’t be proven.

    • catguy  June 29, 2017

      It would seem to me that there is far more tragedy, terrorism, death and destruction on a global scale than I can ever remember growing up. Maybe I am just getting older. Floods, fires, multiple destructive tornadoes seem to go on all spring and summer wheras you might have had a bad weather incident once a month or two months and the forest fires usually never encompassed the massive areas they do today. I think it is just difficult for a person to mentally process all the suffering going on in the world today. It isn’t that you don’t care but your brain just gets numb listening to the news everyday. These wars we started in the Middle East go on and on and on. Worse than Viet Nam. There are thousands of refugees suffering from all the bloodshed in that part of the world. It is an increasingly dangerous world. I could write a book. But I do not think most people can absorb it all.

      • godspell  June 30, 2017

        It may seem that way, but has it occurred to you that you didn’t grow up with cable news and the internet?

      • llamensdor  July 9, 2017

        There are really not more extreme events in the world (tornados, hurricanes, etc.) there are just more reports — TV, social media, etc.

  6. Todd  June 26, 2017

    Well said. I can understand the reason for suffering being a natural part of being human….growing old, being vulnerable to the accidents of living, day to day events that cause physical and mental pain. What is not understandable for me is preventable suffering resulting from the intentional infliction of pain on other sentient beings, either on a small scale and, most significantly, on a larger scale as in war, mass torture, terrorism, famine, widespread hunger and poverty. I would agree that trust in an all powerful God, in total control, who does not prevent such suffering is very difficult to believe in much less follow. I have no answers and understand what you are saying. Please keep this conversation going.

  7. tompicard
    tompicard  June 26, 2017

    I do agree that suffering is a huge problem for believers in God.
    Though, I don’t think I agree with your statement,
    “But [God] is active . . . and can stop individual and communal suffering whenever [H]e wants to.”
    I can think of the instance when the Israelites were hungry He dropped manna and quail on them, but is that generally the case?

    According to Gen 1:28 humans are supposed to have dominion over the earth.
    How do you answer the question, ‘Should God negate His principles and His direction to His children that they manage the produce and natural phenomena on this earth?’

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2017

      I’d say it’s the case throughout the Bible. God is completely sovereign and intervenes whenever he chooses. All over the place in both OT and NT!

      • godspell  June 27, 2017

        The OT God allows his ‘chosen’ to suffer over and over again. The NT God sacrifices his own son. In both cases, we see human beings who are anything but in control of their own lives seeking a sense of control in their religion, a way to believe God is with them, even when they are oppressed and suffering. Jesus reportedly asks God to intercede on his behalf–God is silent.

        Both versions of God are, of course, creations of man–approximations of what God might be. But to me, this argument smacks a bit of the Mythicists you’ve so often twitted here. They say “We can prove all these things in the bible didn’t happen, therefore nothing in the bible is true, and our non-belief in God is now a proven fact.”

        There are, as you know, as many visions of God as there are people who believe in some version of God. Your position here seems to be “The Fundamentalist God I once believed in clearly makes no sense. The Liberal God I tried to believe in after that is likewise impossible to reconcile with reality. Therefore, there is no God I can believe in.” Because if your version of God isn’t true, no one else’s can be.

        The notion that a powerful loving being could never allow pain or death I find mystifying. There is nothing in the world I see around me that confirms that. I can think of many men and women in history who were both powerful and capable of great love and devotion, who nonetheless actively did cruel hard things, when left with no other option. Lincoln was one of the best people who ever lived–look at what he was forced to do, and how would you have chosen to behave in his place? That’s not much of a dilemma compared to overseeing all of creation, but believe me, Lincoln saw the parallels, whether you do or not.

        How do we know what God’s options are? Maybe God can’t do anything, everything, negate all rules of the universe. The old paradox–could God create something God could not destroy?” comes to mind. There are things beyond our ability to comprehend, probably always.

        Agnosticism starts by saying “I don’t know” and ends by saying “I know everything.” Because to draw the conclusions you have stated here, you literally would need to know everything.

        • HawksJ  June 29, 2017

          [[There are, as you know, as many visions of God as there are people who believe in some version of God. Your position here seems to be “The Fundamentalist God I once believed in clearly makes no sense. The Liberal God I tried to believe in after that is likewise impossible to reconcile with reality. Therefore, there is no God I can believe in.” Because if your version of God isn’t true, no one else’s can be.]]

          But, somehow, you are confident (actually, ‘convinced’) that your version is correct.

          [[How do we know what God’s options are? Maybe God can’t do anything, everything, negate all rules of the universe. ]]

          God is either all-powerful, or he’s not. There is no gray area. Bart’s position on suffering is CLEARLY based on the premise of an all-powerful god.

          • godspell  July 1, 2017

            My version? And what is that, precisely? I’d like to know. Seriously.

            Bart is knocking holes in the arguments and beliefs of others–not mine, because I don’t believe Jesus was God, and I am only here because I’ve found so many of his arguments persuasive.

            But I don’t find him persuasive here, because frankly, he’s not an expert on any of the things he’s discussing here. He’s far outside the boundaries of his domain. He’s basically thinking out loud, and anyone can do that and anyone has. I say this as someone who finds much of his writing very powerful. He’s just not making much of a case here. He’s rationalizing to beat the band.

            “God is either all-powerful or he’s not.”

            That’s a reasonable supposition, but no human knows what being all-powerful would mean, what it would imply. Does it mean God can just erase the whole universe and start over from scratch? Does it mean God can selective rewrite history? If God answered one person’s prayers, wouldn’t that mean denying someone else’s, quite often? Could God create a being as or more powerful than He/She/It?

            People get so wrapped up in the logic of long-established religious beliefs–even those who have rejected those beliefs–that they can’t see outside the box they’ve made for themselves. Bart is confronted with the existence of religions that don’t have this logical problem he’s confronting–and he says “Well, I wouldn’t find such a religion satisfying, I don’t know what anyone would get out of believing that.” Geez, might as well be in Sunday School.

            But I keep running across this notion–“This isn’t the world I would have created, so God must either not exist, or be evil.”

            If it’s okay with you, I’ll take this world over what you or anybody, religious or not, would create in its place.

            I’ve studied history, and I know what happens when we start to try and make over the world in our own image. We make our own hells and live in them.

            I respect Bart. A great deal. Enough to tell him the truth.

      • tompicard
        tompicard  June 27, 2017

        yes I agree with you, the biblical authors over and over emphasize God’s power to do whatever He wishes.

        I think the point of these passages describing God’s mighty power are not for the purpose of teaching us that God can make spherical cubes or other pointlessness, but to emphasize and compare God’s great power and strength to our feeble human nature.

        On the other hand there are many passages that imply that human beings by their poor choices have frustrated God’s great desire to give us blessings, and some passages that imply God’s own sadness and maybe His own suffering as a result.

        So why won’t (can’t?) God bestow the great blessings upon us that he wants to, regardless of our inappropriate actions?
        Is there some principle God must or chooses to follow ?
        I don’t know how to answer that, but it may be the case. . .

        just speculating here, but God gave us (i.e. humans) dominion over the earth, so isn’t it our responsibility to solve hunger war etc, even many diseases?

        • godspell  June 28, 2017

          The Abrahaminic God worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims began as one god among many, and then over time the founders of what became Judaism came to dislike polytheism, to want to believe in an absolute unitary deity. This took a long time to accomplish, because polytheism had very deep roots in the Middle East, and was not easily dislodged, even among the Jewish people, as the Old Testament clearly records. I would argue polytheism has never really gone away, and can be found even in Islam, albeit never admitting itself as such (the belief in djinn).

          It’s an overreaction to the problems of polytheism, and in a way, an attempt by the Jews, beset on every side by more powerful peoples, to say “Our God is the God of all, and we are his Chosen, so oppress us as you will, we shall stand triumphant in the end if we are faithful to our Lord.” And that tendency continues to exist in all Abrahaminic faiths.

          If that’s all it meant, I wouldn’t put much stock in it. But there were always more profound spirits, among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, who saw further, wanted more. And they stand for the best in the human spirit, as do other profound spirits of other types of believing.

          And we can aspire to reach their level. Or we can sink back down to believing in nothing but our own material needs. And the 20th century should tell us how that project would end.

      • johnlein  July 3, 2017

        Dr. Ehrman, I’m curious if you’ve read Richard Friedman’s “The Disappearance of God” and if so what you think of it? He proposes that the narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures shows a progressive withdrawal of God from intervention or presence.

  8. gwayersdds  June 26, 2017

    I don’t know why there is suffering in this world either. I am of the general feeling that God is like the clockmaker who wound up the universe and then let it tick away on its own. I do feel that much of the worlds suffering is attributable to poor choices made by man exercising free will sometimes with disasterous consequences. sometimes I feel that God created the natural forces of this world like hurricanes and tornados etc but doesn’t perform “miracles” to change their course or save those in the path of destruction. Famine can be due to the choices made by people to over plant and suck the soil dry. Use too much water so others can’t have it. Cause war so that crops can’t be planted or harvested, creating refugee crises etc etc. Over populate so what food is available won’t stretch far enough to alleviate hunger. What’s a God to do?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2017

      Yeah, I’m not sure he really needed to create those hurricanes and tornados!!

      • SidDhartha1953  July 1, 2017

        That would be an interesting question for a philosophically minded Christian climatologist: What is the minimum number of hurricanes per year to ensure there is no drought in populated areas of the world? Why does God not make sure there are enough, but only enough hurricanes to ensure sufficient rainfall for the good of Its creatures, whom It loves?

  9. doug  June 26, 2017

    When I ask myself, “If God exists, do I think it is a *good* thing when a baby is born with severe birth defects that leave that poor baby screaming in constant searing pain until the baby finally dies, because God let it happen?”. No, I don’t think it’s a good thing. It is partly due to moral outrage that I don’t believe in a supposedly perfect God.

  10. wawawa  June 26, 2017

    Another problematic issue is the fact that edicts of the god of the bible in the old testament caused enormous pain & sufferings. How that is justified by followers of this deity !?

  11. Kirktrumb59  June 26, 2017

    May I speak for William Ockham? Sure, why not? Wm. O (one very smart fella) would, in the 14th century anyway, argue that not only COULD his all-powerful omniscient god make a square round (or render the 14th century your neighborhood Whole Foods), perhaps god already has rounded a square while or after creating, maybe, any, all or some infinite number and variety of universes with laws and tenets unrecognizable to us, in which “while” and “after” have no meaning. We don’t know whether god has done so, ’cause we can’t possibly understand such a being. So Ockham would agree that “there ‘is’ an answer but that we don’t, or more often can’t, know what it is.”
    Yeah, right.
    I’d like to believe that were Ockham, who for my $ proposed quantum theory in embryo not quite 600 earth years prior to Max Planck, alive today, he’d reject such an analysis and allow god to attend to the other universes. But for all I know, he’d be underwriting your Oxford professor’s salary. Hope and fear chase each other’s tails.

  12. Mitchmarfl  June 26, 2017

    When I speak with my Christian friends and relatives about suffering, I am told that god gave man “free will” therefore god won’t or can’t stop a Hitler or a Dahmers from committing atrocities. When I bring up natural disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes (obviously I have read Bart’s book on suffering), and all the death and destruction they bring, I am more or less told that god doesn’t interfere with natural phenomena. I don’t know if that explanation is correct or if that is how a fundamentalist Christian scholar would respond. But if god won’t or can’t intervene with Hitler slaughtering 6,000,000 Jews and can’t or won’t intervene in deadly natural disasters, what does god do in our daily lives. I guess he comforts us in all the suffering he can’t prevent. That doesn’t seem all that powerful to me.

    But what truly irks me is the way people attribute all the good things that happen to god, but none of the bad. For instance, I am so thankful to God for answering my prayers; for curing my sick daughter, for getting me my new job, for the 35 points I scored in basketball last night. But when something bad happens, god is off the hook because he can’t do anything about it because of free will or my favorite, it’s because it is all part of god’s plan.

    • wawawa  June 27, 2017

      “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
      Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
      Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
      Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

      ― Epicurus

    • RVBlake  June 27, 2017

      Bad things are attributed to the “God is mysterious” argument.

  13. nbraith1975  June 26, 2017

    Not to mention that in defense and promotion of God’s “chosen people, God wiped out what I consider to be thousands of innocent people simply because they were “not” his chosen people. He even allowed women to be taken as spoils of war for the Hebrew men. I’m pretty sure in the midst of those throngs of people were simple folks trying to eek out a living and had no interest or say in what their “leaders” were doing. I’m pretty sure these are not the actions of an all living God.

    Bart – what are your feelings on those acts of God?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2017

      Right: like the murder of every man woman and child in Jericho. These make for great stories if you are on the winning side! Otherwise, to put it mildly, they are not worthy of the divinity.

      • Kirktrumb59  June 27, 2017

        All men (and even women!) of “good will” certainly can and should object to the attitudes, karma if you will, of the late iron age authors who depict, particularly in Joshua and Judges, this righteous biblical violence.

        Murder of everyone in Jericho and just about everything else in Joshua and Judges….is fiction. Didn’t really happen.
        Just sayin.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 28, 2017

          Completely agree. I’m talking about the views these texts support, not the historical reality (or lack of it) behind them.

      • SidDhartha1953  July 1, 2017

        Does the fact that there probably was no battle of Jericho as described in Joshua, no “conquest of Canaan,” at all mitigate the evil of God or his people in the OT? Is it as bad to celebrate fictional slaughters as it would have been to actually command or commit them? I know you are not of the New Atheist persuasion, but it irks me when one of them turns biblical literalist over the numbers of people slaughtered by the israelites. Those numbers are surely gross exaggerations, if not complete fictions.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 2, 2017

          My views are not predicated on the historicity of the destruction of Jericho!!

  14. Stephen  June 26, 2017

    Yes I remember your discussion with Prof Swinburne very well. I was utterly flabbergasted by his detachment. Even your host Justin Brierley seemed taken aback. I think I would have gone for the “God moves in mysterious ways” argument rather than the one he presented. Are all the towers at Oxford made out of ivory?

  15. leo.b@cox.net  June 26, 2017

    Thank you so much for sharing how you moved from Christian Fundamentalist to Agnostic/Atheist. Like any discipline, to have a theological or philosophical debate/discussion, I think it is very important for one to define his or her terms. In this case: ‘God”. I believe in a God (designer/creator) but with a different definition than most so-called Christians or Jews today. A personal question, if I may: Do you ever see yourself believing in a God with a different definition than you were exposed to growing up? Again, thanks so much for the blog. I have touted it many times to my friends.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2017

      No, I’ve never been attracted to a different kind of God. Maybe I’ll post on that.

      • Michael Toon  June 27, 2017

        Please write about that, Dr. Ehrman!

      • GregLogan  June 27, 2017


        Isn’t the real issue not what you are “attracted” to – but what is “real”?

        What is the “different kind of God” is real… and not necessarily especially attractive to certain of our sentiments….


        • Bart
          Bart  June 28, 2017

          I was just being diplomatic. What I mean is that I’ve never personally found any arguments for some other kind of divine being plausible.

          • godspell  June 28, 2017

            I can only sigh at the notion that plausibility is the basis of any belief system, theistic or secular. If we had plausibility, we wouldn’t need to believe.

            You know the difference between truth and fact. Why can’t you see the difference between belief and knowledge?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 30, 2017

            I have a very clear and distinct understanding of the difference between the two. But I do think that people “believe” things for reasons, not for no reason, since if there was no reason of any kind, they wouldn’t believe it. (I’m not saying the reason is necessarily logical or conceptual, involving what you’re calling “knowledge”)

          • GregLogan  June 28, 2017

            I think where I am ultimately going is that there are NO arguments – that faith is not based in argument (“the wisdom of men”) – but only in “the power of God” – of personal revelation.

            I am proposing that personal revelation of God – is really the only meaningful basis of faith that there is (whether overt miracle or implanted faith or vision or whatever). Sort of a burning bush encounter. Naturally, of course, that basis only applies to the recipient….

            And in such an experience – one finds God very different than imagined – a Creator who really finds no meaningfulness in suffering as an example because of a completely different perspective on the matter. “Even in nakedness, famine, the sword” Etc. Suffering is fine with God – the only reality that matters is our openness to walk with Him. Sort of an ending of Job approach.

            Our theodicy is found in the context of a theology – of a creator that simply is structured different than our developed sentiments. Not the big huggy daddy in the sky that will wipe your nose as we must suffer through every Sunday in 90% of the evangelical communities…

          • godspell  July 2, 2017

            There was a time when none of our ancestors believed in anything but food, shelter, self-protection, procreation, companionship. An enviable state in some ways, but I don’t see anybody volunteering to go back to it.

            We say “They created gods to explain all the things they couldn’t understand, and to create some sense of control over their lives.” That’s reasonable enough, except none of them are around to tell us if we’re right. And much as we’ve learned, there are still so many things we don’t understand, and we feel less and less sense of control over our lives in this modern era, where faith has clearly been in decline (and often responds to that decline with fundamentalism, which is a mere parody of faith).

            Religion may literally be the only thing that separates us from our fellow creatures on this planet.

            Maybe that’s not a good thing, but it’s a thing.

  16. anthonygale  June 27, 2017

    One of the things I find unacceptable about the idea that God allows massive suffering for some mysterious (or specific) purpose is, if an all-powerful God exists, surely this God could have met the same end in some other way. Did God allow the death of six million Jews to teach us (whatever)? I doubt it, but even if so, would five million not have sufficed? Could a God capable of creating the entire universe not simply teach us (whatever)? Many people who explain away massive suffering also believe that nonbelievers will suffer forever, as just punishment, for not believing the right thing. They say that free will is a gift given out of love, and human sin is a result of how people use that choice. Could the creator of the universe not design people with free will and 1% greater ability to avoid hell? Or choose not to create hell in the first place if he is all loving? There are even people who believe that aborted babies or people living in the rainforest, who have no opportunity to be baptized or learn about Jesus, go to hell. What end does the eternal torture of an unborn baby serve? Make those who accept Jesus on their deathbed appreciate heaven more?

    Have you ever asked a fundamentalist: If God has a plan for everything, and even suffering resulting from human sin is part of that plan (e.g. child born from an act of adultery), how could you avoid the conclusion that God wills people to sin? What kind of response would you get/have you gotten?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2017

      Ah, well, he does allow some free choice (is the usual answer)

  17. Alfred  June 27, 2017

    I think the religious will always be able to find ways to justify or explain human suffering as a consequence of original sin, drawing attention to the celestial bliss that awaits (many) sufferers. What they cannot explain is non-human suffering. Darwin put it most clearly: “There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice”. Incidentally Bart, are you a Darwin fan? His writing, which I admire immensely reminds me of yours in the way he marshals facts.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2017

      Yes, I’m a Darwinian, mutatis mutandis.

      • godspell  June 28, 2017

        Okay. So what’s the logic of that belief? How has it generally been acted upon in human society? Social Darwinism, in all its forms.

        Oh, but that’s a distortion, Darwin didn’t mean THAT.

        Well no, and Jesus didn’t make any of the arguments you’re attacking here. I doubt he’d have understood most of them. Yes, he believed God would come and make everything perfect–when we had proven ourselves worthy. Have we?

        You say “I can’t believe in God because suffering” but logically, calling yourself a Darwinian means you shoudl believe that suffering and death are a natural and necessary and indeed beneficial part of life, that they improve the species, prevent overpopulation.

        There’s also Malthus, well before Darwin, who talked about surplus population. “If they’re going to die, they had better do it.” Charles Dickens, liberal Christian that he was, was perhaps unfair to Parson Malthus, who was merely making sound observations about how the earth can only support so many people. Which were then used to justify all kinds of horrible treatments for the poor, by those in power.

        Again, I’ve no problem with people believing or not believing as they please.

        I have a huge problem with people saying “My belief is the only logical one” then not following those beliefs to their logical conclusions.

  18. Boltonian  June 27, 2017

    Your anger was entirely justified, in my view, but there has been progress.

    Much (most?) human suffering, of course, is caused by human beings but as an antidote to the depression that that thought might engender, I suggest reading Steven Pinker’s magnum opus, ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature.’ Violence generally, and violent deaths in particular, have been declining over time, so that we now live in the most peaceful age ever known (present events notwithstanding). The same thing goes for deaths from disease and malnutrition. He gives many reasons for this very welcome decline.

    Of course there is still much suffering in the world but nowhere near on the same scale of horribleness as in previous times. None of this progression has anything to do with an omnipotent and benevolent god, by the way, nor have we suddenly evolved into a wise and peace-loving species.

    Have you read it, Bart?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 27, 2017

      It’s on my shelf and high on my soon-to-be-read list.

    • SidDhartha1953  July 1, 2017

      I wonder about the appropriateness of Pinker’s statistical approach (deaths per 100,000 population, for instance) We don’t experience suffering and violence as populations, but as individuals. Like the starfish the child throws back into the ocean (or not), it always makes a difference for THAT one.

  19. RVBlake  June 27, 2017

    Excellent article…Sums up my position perfectly. I’m on my way out of the Church, and in the face of all rationalizations not to go, pointless suffering is the reason against which I never see a counter-argument worth considering.

  20. DavidBeaman  June 27, 2017

    As you know, I believe in a loving God. However, I certainly abhor the same suffering as you do. Heck, I can’t even stand to see an animal suffer. So, my belief in God is contingent on a belief in a happy afterlife. Without an afterlife, I would not believe in a loving God. I would be a non-believer or be very afraid that I was at the mercy of a powerful being who needed to be appeased properly for me to stay out of trouble.

    • GregLogan  June 27, 2017

      The pie in the sky thing….

      Televangelists are great on that – as long as you are sending in a donation.

  21. Wilusa  June 27, 2017

    I’m surprised that in all these comments, no one has advanced the notion that reincarnation plays a part in this – that people who seem to be suffering needlessly are being punished for their misdeeds in previous lives. I guess that’s because most of the followers of this blog are Christian or of Christian backgrounds.

    I just want to say that I believe in the basic fact of reincarnation, but definitely *don’t* think people are suffering because they “deserve” it! Years ago, I turned against a well-known actor because he was claiming that. We actually have no way of knowing “how reincarnation works,” in its details. And I would never speculate about anyone’s possible past lives other than my own.

    • dragonfly  June 29, 2017

      I don’t think belief in reincarnation itself requires belief in a deity, but to believe that you are rewarded or punished for what you did in a previous life, I think that requires a deity. Morality is subjective, so some being needs to decide what’s right and what’s wrong. I don’t know what the point would be in punishing someone for something they know nothing about, and can’t learn from. That goes for hell too, what’s the point in punishing someone forever when they will never be able to make amends?

    • SidDhartha1953  July 1, 2017

      Reincarnation presupposes some form of mind-body or soul-body dualism. All the evidence I know of suggests that the mind or soul is specific to the brain that does the thinking or the body that does the living. And if we all have so many past lives (we must, given the ads for psychics who will help us remember them) why are there more people alive now than there ever have been in the past? Does the transmigration center have a way of subdividing souls so everyone gets half a soul (which, like half a crumb, is still a crumb)?
      Seriously, I think reincarnation/karma is a useful metaphor for the fact that our actions have consequences, not only for ourselves and those around us, but for future generations of people. We ought to live compassionately, not only for the present but for the future as well.

      • Wilusa  July 2, 2017

        I’m not trying to “convert” anyone to my views, but I can’t resist responding.

        “All the evidence I know of suggests that the mind or soul is specific to the brain that does the thinking or the body that does the living.”

        Then there’s evidence you don’t know of! Above all, I’d suggest you read “Life Before Life,” by Jim B. Tucker. There’s strong evidence that many young children have accurate, first-person memories of the lives of individuals who provably existed. In many cases, they were unrelated, lived at a distance from one another; and no one stood to gain anything by making false claims. (It seems more likely that a child will have such memories if the previous personality expected to be reincarnated.)

        Throughout our history, humans have been forced to accept things as fact long before we came to understand how they could be explained.

        “And if we all have so many past lives…why are there more people alive now than there ever have been in the past? Does the transmigration center have a way of subdividing souls so everyone gets half a soul (which, like half a crumb, is still a crumb)?”

        Here I can only advance my own hypothesis.

        We now know that all the Matter in our solar system – even the Sun itself – was once within older stars. And our bodies contain Matter that was within many different stars! So ever-changing streams of Matter pass through different forms. I’m theorizing that the same is true of “Mind” (which I think of as a form of Energy). There are no individual “souls,” but ever-changing streams of Mind.

        And yes, I do theorize that the Mind-stream associated with a person may divide, after his or her death, to animate more than one newborn.

        Think of this sort-of-parallel: Let’s say a woman gives birth to twins. We’ll make them identical twins. Is each of them only half a person? Of course not!

        • SidDhartha1953  July 7, 2017

          Thanks. I’ll look up the book.

  22. GregLogan  June 27, 2017

    I am likewise severely appalled and wrenched by the suffering – esp. when manifest via video (cf The Untold History of the United States by Oliver Stone).

    I am good with say – I don’t know – I cannot explain it.

    I would start with –

    Who is God really…

    What is love really….

    And I don’t have any great answers…..

    Humility is a wonderful pie that I have come to appreciate.

    Maybe if nothing less – in light of my recognition of suffering and resultant sentiment – the focus is on whatever little part I can play in decreasing it.

    I appreciate Bart’s provision to decrease suffering via the funding of these blogs!

  23. RonaldTaska  June 27, 2017

    There is a problem indeed. Billy Graham used to have a preaching partner named Templeton who lost his faith over the same issue, small children starving in Africa when a little rain would have solved a big part of the problem.

    I certainly don’t have an answer.

    • godspell  July 2, 2017

      Jerry Seinfeld did this skit on SNL, where he’s Superman, and he’s on a radio call-in show. Some angry person calls in to complain about the garbage collector strike, and wants to know why Superman didn’t just collect all the garbage, melt it with his heat vision into one huge ball and throw it into space. To which Superman says “I’m not a garbageman!”

      Whatever God may be, God is not a rainmaker. We need God for the things we don’t understand. We understand what causes rain–or drought. And we have it in our power to feed those children. So we don’t need God for that either.

      But apparently we will always need someone to blame for when things go wrong. And different people will respond differently when they do.

      Again, as I keep saying, our problems come from pretending to understand God–that’s a very weak form of faith, that either falls apart under stress, or devolves into blind fanaticism. Templeton went one way, Graham another. (I think Graham’s son is mainly in it for the money.)

  24. cheito
    cheito  June 27, 2017

    DR Ehrman:

    Your Comment:

    My point now is not that there is no answer. My point at this stage is simply that there is a problem.

    My Comment:

    If your point isn’t, that there is no answer, then your saying that there is an answer, and what I hear you saying is, that the answer is that God is the problem. God doesn’t do things the way you think things should be done, so you judge him and deny him.

    I would agree with you, if everything was suffering and misery in this world, but what about all the good that happens in this world? Who’s responsible for those things?

    I don’t know all the answers to all the suffering that happens in this world, but I know in my heart, that the answer isn’t that God is at fault.

    I’m convinced that at the end of it all, God will be acquitted of all the charges brought against him, and each of us will then know the reasons God allowed things to take the course they have taken.

    As one prophet said, “Though He slay me I will still believe in him.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 28, 2017

      I just meant that hte point I was making in saying what I did at that time was not that there was no answer. I wasn’t saying there is no answer. There are lots of answers!!

      • cheito
        cheito  June 28, 2017

        What I’m saying is, that the ANSWER to the problem of suffering, IS NOT, that God is the problem.

        God is the creator! God is Love. HE’S has the power over death and life! And yes, there is suffering! All these are true!

        As you stated, “There are lots of answers”…

        And I will reiterate, that the ANSWER IS NOT, that God is the problem…

        • SidDhartha1953  July 1, 2017

          Or, if God is the problem, there is no solution, because God will be what God will be. We have no control over that. I choose not to worry about God, but rather what I can or should do, when I can remember to do that.

  25. Jwhitmire  June 27, 2017

    Dr Ehrman,

    Thank you for continuing to share your thoughts on this blog. I think you help lots of us by articulating so clearly your progression from fundamentalist to atheist. Please keep sharing, and keep being so open and honest. I hope you ignore the people that post “gotcha” statements. Thanks!

  26. dragonfly  June 27, 2017

    Listening to Richard Swinburne’s rambling drivel is a suffering that does not lead to a greater good.

  27. silvertime  June 28, 2017

    All of these comments supporting a loving God are based on the premise that that God is the Christian God in the Bible. What about all of the other religions and their God, or the God of the Deists? The followers of these religions believe that their God is the “real” one, and the rest are going to hell. How does one choose which religion has the “correct” God? From my experience, in my cultural setting, I know that Christians base their belief because the Bible says it is so. However, what proof is their that the Bible is correct, factual, and is the inspired word of God? The only proof is that the Bible itself says it is so. This is circular reasoning, and it does not proof anything. Many say that they have faith that it is the inspired word of God, and that God reveals it to them. The members of the other religions feel the same way. Therefore, if one is to believe in a God, the only reasonable one is the God of Deism who is God of all religions and the vast universe of solar systems and galaxies.

  28. tompicard
    tompicard  June 30, 2017

    Rhetorical . . .
    Which worldview of the human being would be most conducive to minimizing this type of suffering?

    Darwinian view of humans who for the current short moment in history are top of the evolutionary scale?

    Marxist view of humans whose value stems from their ability to harness their labor to create products?

    Jesus’/Christian worldview of a of humans as children of a supremely loving and caring Creator?

    something else?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 30, 2017

      Yup, there are lots of options. Even more!

    • godspell  July 1, 2017

      Caveat–I don’t think that was precisely what Darwin thought. It is how many if not most people interpret him.

      There is no idea that can’t be perverted to evil ends, and we all need to remember that. You can’t fix the human mind by writing new software for it. The underlying bugs remain, to corrupt that software.

      I think Darwin has his place, and Jesus, and Buddha, and many others.

      We don’t have to pick just one. We’re fools if we do.

  29. rburos  July 5, 2017

    On another important note–Amazon sent me an email offering me the opportunity to pre-order your book for its February release date. Grrrr that’s so far away. . .

  30. AlecRozsa  July 9, 2017

    Perhaps the shallow oversimplification is what is truly upsetting, when one simply says “children die so we can become better.” But what about this: These types of unimaginably horrible things happen, no one really knows why. Maybe it’s impossible to bring up the idea of such suffering without dramatically reducing its meaning verbally; clumsy and awkward as human speech is, there are really no words that can make it go away, or even bring consolation. There is however a desire that it invokes, in good people such as yourself, to alleviate such suffering wherever possible. The suffering itself doesn’t make us more noble. Our choices do. If we do nothing, the suffering remains. If we do something, the suffering remains. The desire it invokes in some people, and their resultant actions upon it can never make up for it. For me personally that doesn’t mean it disproves the existence of God, or breaks the formula so to speak.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 10, 2017

      Yes, I agree with this reasoning, very much so! At the same time don’t think it reconciles the realities actually experienced in life with the existence of God.
      (I.e., it’s not an explanation for why a God who answers prayer would not intervene when people desperately need him to. If he’s not a God who intervenes, what is he? And what would make someone believe in him?).

  31. usmanrahmati  October 30, 2017

    Let’s say you didn’t have a problem with suffering. Would still remain a christian in light of everything you know about Christianity?

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