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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. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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.”

      • Avatar
        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.

    • Avatar
      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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      JakSiemasz  June 28, 2017

      You miss the entire point………..

      • Avatar
        godspell  June 30, 2017

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

  4. Avatar
    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!

    • Avatar
      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.

      • Avatar
        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.

        • Avatar
          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.

      • Avatar
        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.

        • Avatar
          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.

          • Avatar
            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.

    • Avatar
      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.

    • Avatar
      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.

    • Avatar
      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.

    • Avatar
      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.

      • Avatar
        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?

      • Avatar
        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. Avatar
    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!

      • Avatar
        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.

        • Avatar
          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.

          • Avatar
            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?

        • Avatar
          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.

      • Avatar
        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. Avatar
    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!!

      • Avatar
        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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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

    • Avatar
      RVBlake  June 27, 2017

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

  13. Avatar
    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.

      • Avatar
        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.

      • Avatar
        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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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.

      • Avatar
        Michael Toon  June 27, 2017

        Please write about that, Dr. Ehrman!

      • Avatar
        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.

          • Avatar
            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”)

          • Avatar
            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…

          • Avatar
            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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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.

      • Avatar
        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. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      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. Avatar
    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. Avatar
    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.

    • Avatar
      GregLogan  June 27, 2017

      The pie in the sky thing….

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

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