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Two Unsatisfactory Solutions to the Problem of Suffering

In this thread I have started to grapple with the question of how there can be a good, loving, and powerful God in charge of the world in the face of the massive suffering experienced by the human race – not just in general terms (“there sure is a lot of suffering out there!”) but in very specific concrete terms, as what individuals experience.   What we experience.  What you have experienced.  How does one make sense of personal suffering (especially intense suffering) in a Judeo-Christian world in which it is widely believed that there is a God who is sovereign and in control?

One of the most interesting things about this question is that – unlike anything else I ever encounter, think about, read about, or write about in my career as a biblical scholar – this is a question that virtually *everyone* has reflected on and has an opinion about.  Just about everyone.   Even those who say “I have no idea!” are invariably people who have thought about it and realized that none of the solutions make sense, or that it is beyond their ability to figure out.  Many, many people (most people) do have some kind of solution or, more often, a set of solutions, which either satisfy them intellectually or, more important, comfort them emotionally.

My view is that some approaches to the problem of suffering are better than others.   In this post I’d like to talk about two approaches that strike me as completely unhelpful.  These are approaches I encountered after I wrote my book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer..   The first approach was taken by a well-known, high profile biblical scholar who took an intellectual (I would even say cerebral) approach to the issue. The other was taken by a poor, unknown mother who was grappling with a horrible incident in her life.

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The Classic “Problem” of Suffering
The Kind of Suffering that is a Problem



  1. Avatar
    bcdwa288  June 27, 2017

    I would say that the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Geneses have had more impact, for the fundamentalist evangelical, on Christianity than any other part of the Bible. They are the foundation of the idea of the need for atonement and redemption which in turn is the cornerstone of Christianity. The Fall of Man provides the perfect answer to the question of why is there suffering. God imposed on Adam and Eve and all their descendants (us) all the suffering we bear and observe as punishment for eating “of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil”.
    Christianity preaches that people should spend their lives studying what is right and what is wrong, learning the difference between good and evil, doing the right and avoiding doing the wrong, but all human suffering, in all its forms, in the world, is punishment of Adam and Eve and their decedents imposed by God in the Garden of Eden because they disobeyed Him and ate of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Surely the cosmic catch-22 between these claims is obvious. We must know right from wrong, do the right and not do the wrong but we are dammed because our ancestor discovered the difference between the two. Go figure!!

  2. Avatar
    dragonfly  June 27, 2017

    I think all answers to how there can be an all-powerful, all-loving God when there is so much suffering are Talmoore’s epicycles – attempts at explanations to allow ourselves to continue to believe something that was never true in the first place.

    Shit happens.

  3. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  June 28, 2017

    We’re the only answer to ending suffering. According to National Geographic’s “Year Million” it’s possible. That gives me hope. What bothers me are those who do not see there’s a problem, not to mention those who inflict it. A story just came out today that’s one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever heard of. The only *good* I see from it is that several commenters are questioning their faith over it. Others have stated that God is going to bring wrath to mankind. I kmow they probably can’t help but think as such, but it does grow tiresome listening to it after a while.
    Here’s the link to story–

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  June 29, 2017

      I believe Satan is on welfare benefits now that his job has been made obsolete.

  4. Avatar
    Saemund  June 28, 2017

    I have a question which is irrelevant to this post. What did theopneustos mean when originally used in 2 Tim. 3.16? Did it mean literal inspiration that every word came from God? Did it mean that the overall message came from God? Did it mean that God made these authors somehow smarter, wiser? Or did it mean something else entirely? Also, did this inspiration, however it was defined, allow for any kind of mistakes in the scriptures?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 28, 2017

      The word itself was invented by the author, and it liteally means something like “god-breathed.” The only way to figure out what he actually *meant* by that is by … interpreting what he meant. There’s no other way. That’s why it can be debated.

  5. Avatar
    cjeanne  June 28, 2017

    Bart…I told you this once before at a book signing. Your book…”God’s Problem changed my life. I found it shortly after my perfectly healthy husband contacted terminal cancer. It was far more comforting than any of the easy answers and believe me, there were many, It also led me to much research about faith and lack thereof and throwing off those shackles has given me a new way of looking at life…..and the truth shall make you free. Wheaton ’63

  6. Robert
    Robert  June 29, 2017

    “… one of the top experts in the New Testament in the world.  This scholar is … very comfortable among progressive evangelicals. … This other scholar looks at the Bible from a different angle.  Instead of diversity he sees unity. … he sees unity … none of [All these things] was at odds with the other, and that one needs to see the broad sweep of God’s Great Design for the salvation of the world behind it all.  If one sees what God is achieving in the world, it all make ssense.”

    This proponent of biblical theology is obviously not a great scholar. He may have read the work of many others, but he has not yet acquired even a most basic and fundamental appreciation of critical method. Better to debate true scholars in my opinion.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 30, 2017

      Oh no, he is a bona fide scholar who is a true expert in critical method. He just *also* has a rather large vision.

      • Robert
        Robert  June 30, 2017

        Biblical theology is not critical method. If you are correctly representing his views, and he cannot acknowledge genuine diversity of viewpoints, even contradictory ones, among the various biblical authors, he is not a very good practitioner if critical method.

  7. Avatar
    Tempo1936  June 30, 2017

    All the views on suffering in the Bible are true in this diverse , complex world, again proving the Bible is true.

    • Avatar
      godspell  June 30, 2017

      ” First off, it’s not my logic, Steve, it’s God’s logic as written in the Bible, every word of which is true. And we know every word is true because the Bible says that the Bible is true, and, if you remember from earlier in this sentence: every word of the Bible is true. Now, are you following me here, or are you some kind of mindless zealot?”

      From an interview on The Colbert Report.

      And for the record, Mr. Colbert remains a practicing Catholic.

      Well, we could all use some practice.


  8. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  July 3, 2017

    There seems to be a bug in your blog. Several times, for how long I don’t know — it’s been more than a few weeks — I’ll be logged in and try to post a comment. I get a message that I must be logged in to post. Usually logging out and logging in again solves the problem. This morning I tried that and got the message I was denied access because of a security breach. I closed the browser tab, did a search for your blog (instead of finding a link in my browser history) and things seem fine now (I hope, we’ll know for sure when I click “add comment”). I hope it’ nothing serious. That might add to our collective suffering!

  9. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  July 3, 2017

    This post has unleashed a storm of emotion I don’t recall witnessing before on your blog! Do you think it is because suffering strikes at the heart of what we all want to believe — that the universe must, at some point, be just? Even as great a thinker as Dr. King subscribed to the assumption that “the moral arc of the universe … bends toward justice.” Would you agree or disagree that the problem of suffering is only a problem for beings who can think about suffering as a category (hopefully only humans — I’d hate to think that an insect being eaten alive from the inside by larvae hatched from eggs that were implanted under its exoskeleton by another insect that reproduces that way, can actually reflect on what is happening to it and ask, Why?)?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 4, 2017

      I”m not sure how to explain it — but something is getting under some skin! It’s an emotional issue, I suppose.

  10. Avatar
    Texaggie79  July 3, 2017

    Suffering is an experience. Something that in the vast majority of the human psyche is looked upon as a bad thing.
    When extracted out from the temporal world how would an eternal being see temporary suffering? Would it be similar to how humans view temporary suffering with no adverse long term affects? Why do people seek out things such as body piercings that can sometimes bring intense pain? Horror movies and attraction that make them temporarily terrified? We humans have been known to willingly participate in things that bring about great distress and even pain so long as we know that it’s temporary. How would it be any different for an eternal being looking at experiencing something in this temporary plane of existence?

    Of course all that is thrown out of the window if you add on the notion of eternal suffering where after the temporary suffering the eternal being is sent to suffer for all of eternity. That’s not something congruent with a “loving creator”.

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