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Views of Suffering Among Those Who Suffer

There is always a lot of suffering going on around us, if not in our neighborhood then certainly in our country, not to mention our world.  Now more then ever.  And more obviously than ever.  But the “ever” itself is really very bad, when you think of the millions being slaughtered in civil war and unrest, driven from their homes, starving, dying of curable disease for want of medicine or from lack of clean water, etc. etc. etc.

But it’s on our minds right now more than ever, between a worldwide pandemic and a national recognition of deeply rooted and massive racial violence and injustice.  Suffering is always there, but now it is all we are talking about.

I was browsing through old posts on the blog and came across this one I wrote eight years ago.  As some of you know, one of my books, God’s Problem, deals with the problem of why there is suffering.  In it I examine what different biblical authors have to say about it to show that they represent many different views, some of them at odds with one another.  I also evaluate the views to some extent and, most controversially, as it turns out, explain why the problem itself and the inadequate answers to it (not just in the Bible but generally) eventually is what led me to lose my faith.

After my book came out I had a number of public debates on the topic.  In this post (slightly edited and updated) I discuss an intriguing argument that my opponents frequently used those debates,

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In two of my debates, one with the “Messianic-Jewish Apologist” Michael Brown (whom I had never heard of before, but who was a remarkably good debater) and with the conservative Christian Dinesh D’Souza (whom I had heard of before, loud and clear, and who is also a remarkably good debater), I have been confronted with a point that, in both instances, my opponents thought was a decisive strike against me.  My views of suffering are not shared by the people who, unlike me, actually suffer.

It’s an interesting point.  To explain it, and my response to it, I need to say a few words about the context of these debates.  The topic of my debates on the problem of suffering is never whether or not there is suffering.  Luckily.  Everyone (at least everyone I debate, and most everyone who listens to the debates) agrees that there is suffering.  The question at stake is whether it makes sense to believe in God given the nature and extent of suffering in the world.

In these debates I never …

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If We Did Have the “Original” Gospels, Would That Make Them True?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    WhenBeliefDies  June 3, 2020

    A beautifully written article Mr Ehrman, thank you for sharing it with us!

    I wanted to ask if you were planning on justifying just one sentence in the last paragraph, maybe in a future post?

    You said ‘My ultimate view is that even if suffering may lead us away from a belief in God, as it did for me, it should at the same time lead us toward humility in the face of the universe and toward a more caring, loving attitude toward those who suffer.’

    I guess I didn’t see in your article a clear explanation for why suffering should lead towards the things you mention. I do not think you are wrong, but it would be good to have it rationed out, as I think this is the only place you make a claim without any evidence.

    Unless of course you are just talking about yourself, but even then, it would still be interesting to know WHY you list and believe those things to be what suffering moves you towards.

    I hope that doesn’t come across rude at all.

    Thank you for all you write and share – it makes my day every time I see a post come up 🙂

  2. Avatar
    fishician  June 3, 2020

    Right on, the church is often a collection of survivors but many others have fallen away because their God did not or could not give them an understandable explanation for what was happening in their lives. I also wonder about those who give Jesus so much credit for suffering for less than 24 hours, while many people in this world suffer worse things for much longer. Yet in orthodox Christianity their suffering counts for nothing, and if they don’t come to have the right belief values they are going to suffer even more after death. It’s a bizarre and cruel belief system, which as you say is often very dismissive of very real suffering in the world.

  3. Avatar
    mikemacstl  June 3, 2020

    Bart, I’d just like to add this perspective. If there is a benevolent God of agency in the universe, a God that is pro-life and anti-suffering, why would the universe be so “god awfully” hostile to life? As far as we can tell, little Edens like earth are incredibly rare in the universe. That can be explained by God’s unique special interest in us and us only within our vast universe(biblical view). Or, it can be explained more logically it seems to me by the fact that despite incredible odds the exact right set of circumstances arose to create life on earth. If there were a God of both interest and agency in the universe, wouldn’t it make more sense for life to be abundant? Does it make sense that God would create a universe of conspicuous violence at almost every turn, bathed in life denying high energy cosmic rays? I don’t think so. The counter intuitiveness of a life affirming God creating such a non-life affirming universe is what has most strongly persuaded me to no longer believe in that type of God.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2020

      Yup, that would have to be answered. Of course, those with answers could answer it. (It’s not God’s fault but the Devil’s; or sin’s; or free will’s; or tectonic plates….)

  4. Avatar
    Todd  June 3, 2020

    Suffering is experienced by all human beings, and all animals and perhaps all creation. Suffering is not simply pain. It is anquish. It is loneliness. It is unsatisfied greed. It is anything that keeps us from getting what we want. It is NOT up to God to protect us from suffering. It is we who can keep ourselves from suffering by changing our attitudes toward that which causes us to suffer. We cause ourselves to suffer. I think you gave up your belief in God for the wrong reasons. It is not God who causes us to suffer; it is we who cause ourselves to suffer.

    • Avatar
      Rthompsonmdog  June 5, 2020

      I have a hard time accepting the comments, “It is we who can keep ourselves from suffering…” and “it is we who cause ourselves to suffer.” A great deal of suffering is caused by humans or is contributed to by human action or inaction. However, there is much of suffering where human agency plays no part. This was particularly the case for a large amount of human history where we had much less control over the environment and it’s impact on us.

      Maybe you are proposing a form of stoicism in the face of suffering. If so, I would address it differently.

    • Avatar
      flcombs  June 5, 2020

      You obviously don’t believe in the Bible where it said that God caused inflictions on people. Or that all of us are suffering due to that “fruit”Adam ate, even though those alive today had nothing to do with that.

      But if God can create a heaven as described in the Bible without suffering, then of course God is responsible for suffering. He could have created a world without suffering but chose to create one with it. If he’s “in charge” and could have done it differently he’s responsible.

  5. Avatar
    Bennett  June 3, 2020

    I am curious to know if you ever passed through deism on the way to agnosticism and atheism. I get that it’s difficult to believe in a god at work in the world while there is so much suffering, even though most of it is caused by us and perfectly possible to eliminate in large measure by us. As a scientist I marvel daily at the beauty and complexity of the universe from the largest galactic clusters to the smallest subatomic particle. This universe produced beings who can contemplate their own existence! While I cannot prove the existence of a higher power, I find it impossible to believe that this whole thing, existence itself, is purposeless. I suppose in the end it is a search for meaning.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2020

      Yes, I had a short period of considering it, but it never worked for me. I too marvel at the beauty of it all. But I also realize that since I’m *part* of it all it’s not surprising that I’m amazed at it all; someone not part of it all might have a different opinion. We’ll never know! But how we came out of non-existence and then out of non-living, yikes — obviously these are issues people like you deal with, directly or indirectly for a living. I am spending LOTS of time thinking about the phenomenon of “consciousness” these days….

      • Avatar
        Bennett  June 5, 2020

        Ah, there you go. That’s really at the bottom of everything, isn’t it? – At least as far as questioning existential matters. Then there is the question of the difference between animal consciousness and human consciousness. And how memory works (or doesn’t). In fact, how everything in the body works. And whether or not mathematics is a thing or just a construct of our minds. You and I are about the same age, and for myself, I need another thousand years of life to understand all these things and a hundred others. My son lives in Durham and one of these days when I visit him, I will take you out for a beer or six and we can solve all this…

  6. Avatar
    Hngerhman  June 3, 2020

    Even if one grants that suffering sometimes brings people closer to their God, it still remains insufficient as a justification for said suffering being allowed by said God.

  7. Avatar
    Poohbear  June 3, 2020

    If you say “I DO NOT LOVE God because He allows suffering” then I can understand that. But if you say “I don’t BELIEVE in God because because he allows suffering” then that’s a different proposition. Because the God of the bible did not say there would not be suffering – in fact this God BROUGHT suffering to people.
    I had a Jewish friend who endured a German concentration camp. She would ask, “Where WAS He?” concerning God. And yes, the Jews suffered – exiled from their nation, driven out of 120 or more countries and enduring pogroms, crusades, genocides and the like. But Jesus wept for these people and Jerusalem, He was weeping for their suffering and exile.
    As I see it, the point of life isn’t about this earth but about eternity.If you have no concept of eternity then it isn’t God which is problematic, but life itself.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2020

      I would never say I do not believe in God because he allows suffering.

  8. Avatar
    Pegill7  June 3, 2020

    Some evangelicals tell me that all the evil in the world is perpetrated by Satan (“The Devil made me do it”).But as the book of Job implies Satan (here not the Prince of Evil but rather one of God”s counselors) can only do evil if God gives his permission. If God allows Satan to do evil things then God is ultimately responsible for them if He is all-powerful and could have prevented them. But why would God consent to untold suffering on the part of his creatures?
    A test (ala) Abraham?

  9. Avatar
    seandavey  June 3, 2020

    Suffering is at the heart of the “problem of evil” but is also a problem in other areas. Why must sin be paid for with suffering? Could not an omniscient God come up with a better way to educate us and inspire us not cause suffering in others? Why was Jesus suffering for our sins an acceptable solution? Did God just require a certain amount of suffering and didn’t care who did the suffering? And, as you’ve addressed, how is an infinite amount of suffering in hell for a finite amount of sin in any way fair or just?

    The suggestion that suffering is good for us sure falls apart when considering things like childhood cancer and natural disasters. There are far better ways to learn lessons than by seeing others suffer. And lessons like “life is hard” and “death comes to us all” are unnecessarily imposed on us by God.

    D’Souza and Brown’s point is a bit strange. People who observe suffering in others can suffer themselves in the act of being aware (not to suggest the scale is the same). I like your point that our own beliefs are not determined by the beliefs of others.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2020

      One could also point out they too are talking about those suffering in extremis when they, like me, are not….

  10. Avatar
    cristianp  June 3, 2020

    As you said in your account, you already know all (or almost all) the arguments against what we might call “agnostic thinking regarding the existence of God”, but it is evident that this refers to a very particular concept of God. I think that the “God of the Bible” is a variable interpretation of God, a rather institutionalized God, a God who lives in a distant place, very remote and difficult to access, a God of sacrifices and pain, that is actually departs from what God really is

  11. Avatar
    Toby  June 3, 2020

    Bart

    Thank you for the free access to your blog during the Coronavirus crisis (which thankfully looks like it’s reaching an end in site – my pastor said that God could stop Covid 19 in an instant if he wanted – so why hasn’t he?! LOL)

    I’m seriously considering subscribing – I find your work fascinating and your thunderous debates on youtube are a joy to watch. You’ve really opened my eyes on so many levels. But even though I know you’re right and speak the truth, I still have a great affinity for the teachings of the gospels – and whether mostly fiction or partly true, they are close to my heart.

    I think you have gone through a fascinating transformation in your life – and the inner conflict you’ve had mirrors a lot of us who are trying to wed religion to the rational side of our being.

    I hope you and yours stay safe and well

    Toby

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2020

      Definitely you should subscribe! It will help stimulate your thoughts and you’ll be giving money to help those in need. What could be better?

  12. Avatar
    senyung  June 3, 2020

    I am a new member, but almost read all your books, the newest bought but not yet finished. I experienced similar deconversion as you, Ehrman. What I want to add to your views is my experience on 11/5/2008, the day before Sichuan earthquake which caused 20,000 to 100,000 deaths. On that day, my family joined a global prayer meeting in a Coliseum, that meeting later on was claimed to have gathered almost 150 million Christians all over the world, of course in different place. When I left the meeting, I prayed to God, Why didn’t You appear and illuminate us a bit, we are SO MANY LA! Next day the disaster came, later on, my wife, a medical worker volunteered for a service of 5 years to help those amputated ones….Say that just because we thought we need to involve in the question asked to God. From that time on, my view of God changed astronomically, 150 million prayers didn’t change His plan of disaster, 150 million prayers could not make Him move forward a bit to say something. So, the direct thought is either He does not exist or it is our delusion of what God is.

  13. Robert
    Robert  June 3, 2020

    Does the lack of goodness in the world make us more, or less, aware and appreciative of goodness wherever we find it? More, or less, aware of evil in the world? That seems to be the fundamental question at stake here. One does not need to believe in God to be appreciative of goodness, and ultimately to be good. We should think more about how to bring more goodness into the world. To argue there is a God despite the lack of goodness in the world seems to miss the point entirely.

  14. fefferdan
    fefferdan  June 3, 2020

    Bart, you said “It was my deep angst in the face of suffering that led me to conclude that there is not an all powerful and all loving God who is actively involved in this world.” Reminds me of my dad, a Jewish atheist, who said, I don’t believe in God, and if he exists I don’t want to meet the son-of-bitch.” Knowing what he had gone through growing up without a father and then living through the holocaust, I’ve always thought that this was a perfectly legitimate theology. I myself have concluded that God does exist, but she isn’t all powerful. I prefer to think of a loving but relatively weak deity rather than a strong one who allows/causes such evil to exist. A universe with no deities is OK with me too. Well… maybe I should say it’s OK with me that people think that way. And you are a fine teacher either way. My Bible group thinks so too [all firm believers BTW].

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2020

      Thanks. Somehow I think your particular Bible group is not located in the Southern Baptist church near me….

  15. Avatar
    roy  June 3, 2020

    totally understand and agree with your views and it constantly amazes me how many people think or actually “know” the Christian god exists, many thinking “he” is a loving and forgiving god.( that must be why we have st judes and shriners hospitals for children, both of which I donate to) these people have never given a thought to how the culture they happen to be born into nearly always sets their faith, or have no idea how they happen to be protestant rather than catholic(they may have a vague idea who martin luther was) or how horrible their history has been(like isis for 1500 years) thankfully we live in a time of very soft Christianity and do not get burned at the stake or stoned. and while I know there are many very good Christians there are also tremendous numbers of hypocrites, nor do they ever think of their god (if bible stories were all true) as the most prodigious abortionist ever. by the way what is a miscarriage if not a naturally aborted fetus(a bit more suffering for many), and all those starving children, well they are a long way away and we can pray for them

  16. Avatar
    zipzom  June 4, 2020

    We all suffer. It would appear that life on earth is a struggle for survival. We all know humans suffer terribly from natural disasters, ravages of war, starvation, pandemics, disease… Animals and wildlife also suffer. Cats are large carnivores that hunt, kill and eat elephant calves, pigs, moose, and other large prey. Animals suffer and inflict suffering on others. Suffering is all around. Is it right to eat the flesh of animals that have been killed? I guess that is the way life has evolved.
    If the Earth was created by God – it looks like a bungled job to me.
    We can respond to the suffering by trying to help others by supporting the work of charities (such as this blog) that alleviate suffering.

  17. Avatar
    Paramucho  June 4, 2020

    Two years ago a friend of mine wanted to attend an Alpha course run by a local church, but didn’t want to go alone and so asked me to also attend. Alpha courses combine videos and discussions to introduce people to the Christian faith. It was a strange request to make for a 73 year old humanist. I switched off during the gushy videos, but enjoyed the dialogue with these sincere, country Christians. We had more in common than that which separated us. Suffering was part of the sales pitch: that Christ could act as a balm to suffering, and that begs the question: would we have these forms of sacred belief if there was no suffering to heal? That there’s a dependency here.

  18. Avatar
    Zak1010  June 4, 2020

    Dr Ehrman

    Although there is suffering in life, human beings are mostly responsible for it. Blessings are not. There are more blessings than suffering. One can not count the blessings we have…. its infinite. . .
    Humans are born pure. They are not born racist and evil, it is home grown and manifested by humans.

  19. Avatar
    AJ  June 4, 2020

    Was there suffering in the time of Jesus….or during Old Testament times? Well obviously yes. Disease would likely have been more common, natural disasters even less avoidable, and wars bloodier. So as Christianity started and grew, there would have been no expectation that God intervened daily to pick winners….or losers….based on some assessment of righteousness. John the Baptist, Paul, and Peter weren’t spared suffering because they were “holy”…or righteous. So suffering could simply be understood to be part of the human condition and living in the physical world….while God is most concerned about our eternal soul. I think the idea that God MUST act is built into us as human….just like our other natural instincts.

    Now personally my problem is more with the idea that God had to sacrifice himself to himself to open up the gates of His realm that He ostensibly controls to pay for our sinful human nature that He alone created and knew from the start…if He is in fact all knowing. The arbitrary or random interdiction in human affairs is certainly curious….but in my mind requires a lot of gymnastics to even get there

  20. Avatar
    jscheller  June 4, 2020

    I am a pastor. As such, I’ve dealt with a lot of people searching for comfort and a sense of support in times of adversity. I’ve also witnessed firsthand, deeply grieving people that receive platitudes and unempathetic bible quotations from those that should be there to help instead of hurt. This is the paradox of the Church. On the one hand, there is need to believe in something bigger, that is in your corner, for a significant portion of humanity. Without it, these people fall into despair, a sense of futility, and even bitterness. It is the exceptional person that is mentally, emotionally, and spiritually mature enough to face a godless universe without such negative responses. On the other hand, too many religious institutes, that such people turn to, are more interested in correction and control of thoughts and behaviors based on dogma, than in seeing and meeting needs of the infirm (bodily, spiritually, emotionally, resource-wise) where they are. My belief in a loving and beneficent Creator, in spite of unexplained suffering, is key to my being able to help such people while aiding them in shedding harmful religious traditions. A crutch? Some need crutches.

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