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Why Do Good People Suffer? A Blast from the Past

I was looking around for an interesting post from a few years ago, and I found this one, from March 2013, which, as it turns out, is relevant to what I am going to want to say in the thread I’ve just started on views of the afterlife that developed in ancient Israel (leading up to the Christian views that eventually came to be so dominant throughout the West.).    The post provides, in a nutshell, three major views about why there is suffering.  Why is that relevant?  One of my theses I have going into my research for my next book is that views of the afterlife developed originally as a way to explain why there are such inequities in the present life.  Here’s the post:


I’m in New York City for a few days. Last night I gave a lecture at NYU; they had asked that I talk about “God, The Bible, and the Problem of Suffering.” That’s the topic of my book God’s Problem, and so I spun off a talk from there. Part of the point of the book is that the Bible has a large number of views about why people – especially the people of God – suffer, many of these views are at odds with one another, and most of them are different from what people, even highly religious people, even highly religious people who think they based their views on the Bible, tend to think.

The lecture was only to be 50 minutes so I couldn’t spend much time on this that or the other view, and in fact could not deal with most of the biblical perspectives. I didn’t talk about Job, for example (which, in the judgment of most biblical scholars, is made up of the work of two different authors who in fact have different views of suffering) or with lots of other things. Instead I chose the one view of suffering that I think is widely held by many of the authors of the Hebrew Bible, especially the prophets, and which I therefore call the prophetic view, and the one view that I think is most widely held by the authors of the New Testament, which I call the apocalyptic view, and finally the one view that I find most sensible personally but which is not widely shared by biblical authors, the view of the book of Ecclesiastes.

In a nutshell, the prophetic view is that the reason the people of God suffer (military defeat; political, economic, social nightmares; natural disasters) is because they have sinned against God and are continuing to avoid following his law and his ways, and so God is punishing them for it as a way of getting them to wake up, take notice, and return to his ways.. As an example I read selections from Amos chs. 1-5.

The apocalyptic view, in my opinion, was a later reaction to this prophetic view. In the apocalyptic way of understanding things, it is not God who is causing his people to suffer, but forces aligned against God and his people, evil cosmic powers that have this world in their grip and that are making the lives of the righteous miserable as a result. But according to this view, God is soon to intervene in history to over throw the forces of evil and set up his good kingdom. So people need to hold on to their faith and remain true to God, so that they will be rewarded when history comes to a crashing halt in the very near future. I think this was the view of Jesus and Paul and others among the early Christians.

I personally find the first, prophetic, view to be rather unhelpful. (The reason you are suffering is because God is punishing you for your sin.) The second was one I used to subscribe to as a Christian, but eventually I came to think of it as too thoroughly rooted in a an eschatological hope that I thought, at the end of the day, was simply unrealistic and untrue. I’m afraid I no longer think that God is going to make right all that is wrong.

The view of Ecclesiastes is more in tune with how I look at the world today. A key term in Ecclesiastes is the Hebrew word “HEVEL,” which sometimes gets translated (unhelpfully) as “vanity,” or “futility.” HEVEL is a term that refers to something that is transient and fleeting; it is the mist that appears above the ground early in the morning that then is burned off. It’s here for a little bit, and then is gone. Life, for Ecclesiastes, is like that. Everything is fleeting and impermanent. It comes, it goes, it disappears; then it comes again, and goes, and disappears. HEVEL of HEVEL, all is HEVEL, begins the book.

And that includes us. We are here for a little while and then we are gone. So what’s the point? You make a lot of money and then you die, and, well, what good does your money do you? You become well known and influential, you have a fantastic career, you are admired by all – and then you die. Your children will remember you. But your grandchildren, not so much. And your great-grandchildren, forget about it. In 100 years, probably no one will even think of you any more than you think of your ancestors who died 100 years ago. And that’s only 100 years. What about 200 years? Or 1000 years? Or 10,000 years? Or … pick your number of years. And so what’s the point?

For Ecclesiastes, the point is that you should enjoy life as much as you can as long as you can, since you won’t be here long. I resonate with that. And I do not find it at all depressing. On the contrary, I find it completely liberating. We should live for now. This is not a dry run for something else or a dress rehearsal for the real thing to come. This is IT. And we should enjoy it fully.

I went on to say that in my opinion it is not possible to enjoy life fully if we are not ourselves helping others who are in need so that they *too* can enjoy life fully. During the question and answer period, a number of people found that hard to believe; these people appeared to think that if life is short and then it’s over with, that should necessarily lead to a kind of rank hedonism. I don’t think so. I *absolutely* don’t think so. I think a life helping others is part of what it means to life live to its fullest.

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Why I Am Not A Christian
Thinking about Hell



  1. Avatar
    Boltonian  March 5, 2017

    That, in a nutshell, is what I think of as Epicureanism. It is not hedonism, as some people believe, but living a fulfilled life with friendship at ts apex. Epicurus himself was reputed to be an austere and rather ascetic man.

    • Avatar
      webattorney  March 7, 2017

      It’s amazing how Epicureanism has been twisted to mean as something evil, lazy or hedonistic. Life without some enjoyments would be pure hell. How much more boring would life be if we could not savor good food or take walks outside? I am all for trying to enjoy life. If you are happy, then you are more likely to spread that happiness toward others. Therefore, we need more happy people.

  2. Avatar
    ask21771  March 5, 2017

    I need proof the Bible is wrong where do I find it

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2017

      Sorry — I still don’t understand. Why would you need to think that? And if you already think it, why do you?

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  March 7, 2017

      Wrong about what?

  3. Avatar
    Eskil  March 5, 2017

    What is your view on the claims that the christian concept of Hell is a corruption introduced by the early pagan converts that used the concept of Hell to control the multitude?

    This article claims that Plato, Aristotle and Seneca etc. held such views:


    Jews on the other hand are saying that their concept of Hell (Gehinnom) is very different i.e. “the expression of a great kindness”:


    Is there any reason to think that Jesus did not have the same view as Jews today have?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2017

      I’m not sure what you mean by a corruption. I do think that the earlierst Christains believed in a resurrection of the body to eternal reward or punishment and that this view was eventually modified into conformity with the Greek understanding that the soul itself is immortal.

      • Avatar
        Eskil  March 6, 2017

        Well, I find it problematic that OT does not have the Christian concept of Hell in it and that only a few Jew (if any) today seems to belie in it

        However, the OT seems to refer to immortality of the souls in Eccles 12:7: “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it“.

        I assume this is what some Jews mean by that “the soul exists before the body”. (By the way, that also sounds similar to Gnostic beliefs)

        Anyhow, Jews say themselves that: “there is clear evidence in the Torah of belief in existence after death. The Torah indicates in several places that the righteous will be reunited with their loved ones after death”

        In addition, Jews hold beliefs that ”The Messiah will come” and “The dead will be resurrected”.

        Hence, it seems that Jews’ views are quite similar to Christians’ – naturally without any belief in Jesus or his second coming or the trinity.

        My understanding of your theory is that Christians developed new views about afterlife because Jesus’ second coming did not happen. That could make sense but why do Jews say that such views have been their believes “all the time”? Shouldn’t Jesus and the apostles have held similar views being Jews themselves?

        Jews also do not seem to believe in any eternal torment in hell as they say that “The period of time in Gehinnom does not exceed 12 months”. Some Jewish beliefs seem to be even similar with universalism.

        Hence, it seems that what Christians borrowed from the Greeks (Pagan religions) was the horrors of Hell to keep the multitude in control and not for example the belief in the soul’s immortality that can already be found in Ecclesiastes 12:7.


    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 7, 2017

      The idea of hell came in two phases. The first is far older than even Judaism. We naturally want bad things to happen to bad people. Revenge is ancient. But if I can’t hurt them, I hope that at least someone or something else does.

      The apocalyptic worldview is a symmetric pair of ideas. At the apocalypse, good people will finally get the rewards they (we!) so richly deserve. But the bad people will finally get the punishment they deserve. God can make that more nasty than I ever could.

      Not until the late first century did Jewish apocalypticism (and Christian, which synchretized it into their religion) realize the apocalypse didn’t happen on earth as they all expected. That’s when they incorporated Plato’s ideas into an afterlife when this reward and punishment could happen.

      • Avatar
        Eskil  March 8, 2017

        Sounds reasonable and were tempting reasoning.

        However, the following meme seems to hold with the early Church fathers as well: “If you could reason with religious people, there would be no religious people.”

        Tertullian, apparently one of the earliest Church fathers, mixed Christianity and Platonism and apparently introduced hell into Christianity.

        Instead of realizing that “the apocalypse didn’t happen on earth”, Tertullian fiercely attacked against such Christians (heretics) that did not believing in the resurrection. He supported resurrection, soul’s immortality and punishment in hell all in the same book.

        Tertullian writes in the book for example:

        “He, therefore, will not be a Christian who shall deny this doctrine [the resurrection of the flesh].”

        “I may use, therefore, the opinion of a Plato, when he declares, “Every soul is immortal.”

        “We, however, so understand the soul’s immortality as to believe it “lost,” not in the sense of destruction, but of punishment, that is, in hell.”


  4. Avatar
    flshrP  March 5, 2017

    You nailed it. 10 out of 10.

  5. Avatar
    probablynot  March 5, 2017

    But I’m sure you’ve been pushed on that, as I have. “You say a life of helping others is part of what it means to live life to its fullest, but what makes you say that?”

    Is your response, “Helping others feels good”?

    Is your response, “Helping others ends up helping me (because others reciprocate)”?

    Where do you usually go to back up that claim? Maybe both of the above? Is there another point I’m missing?

    If making others happy makes us happy, why must we, as humans, remind ourselves of that so often? Why doesn’t it come more naturally?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2017

      I think some of us (I wish more of us!) are just hardwired for (a bit of) altruism, if that makes sense.

      • Avatar
        webattorney  March 7, 2017

        Or some people tend to feel more guilt.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 7, 2017

      Because altruism must compete with all of our other motivations. Naturally, the strongest of those focus on self.

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  March 5, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, you’re starting to skirt the fringes of my own area of independent research, viz. the evolution of morality. Alas, my work, involving complex mathematical models of behavior and evolution, is probably too esoteric and jargon-ridden to be immediately helpful to you, but there are a few things that I can share that you might find elucidating.

    For starters, it’s tough to grasp the topic of what is essentially the Epicurean trilemma without first looking at how ancient societies viewed justice. Plato, in his Republic, viewed Justice (capital “j”) as itself something of a divine Idea. For him, justice wasn’t merely an abstract word for fairness and goodness in a society. Justice was a real thing that is part of the fabric of the universe itself, like the motion of the heavens and the cycle of birth and decay in nature. As with most things, Plato is half right and half wrong in his argument.

    Which leads me to my next point. If we remove Divine Justice from the equation, and make everything חבל then suddenly everything seems so much less controllable. This is a strange irony, because with the belief in Divine Justice we are forced to believe that, ultimately, everything is up to God, and since we have no control over God, then we have basically no control over what happens to us. But as a corollary to that belief is the belief that we have the ability to persuade God to turn things in our favor, which is the entire point of religion, including the rituals, ceremonies, sacrifices, benedictions, appeals and professions. The whole point of a religion is to get God (or the divine realm in general) to use his (or its) otherworldly power to “save” us. Save us from what? Save us from the seemingly random, meaningless events in our lives, where ostensibly good people suffer and wicked people prosper.

    And that leads me to my final point. The seemingly random nature of the universe is almost more distressing and disconcerting to us human beings than the actual suffering and injustice. If we could know and understand why we and others are suffering, or why we are being treated unjustly, then we would be able to bear such suffering and injustice with at least a modicum of equanimity. But the fact that events do appear so arbitrary, that makes it all the worse. Hence why every human society that has ever existed has some notion of Divine Justice or Divine Purpose, that everything happens for a reason, beyond our immediate understanding. And even if societies didn’t have a belief in Divine Justice or Divine Purpose now, they would evolve one eventually. The belief is simply too consoling, too reassuring, too favorable to survival to not eventually develop in every human society at some point. In other words, it’s an adaptation that serves a beneficial purpose in human society, whether or not it’s actually true.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2017

      Interesting. Many thanks.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  March 6, 2017

        You’re welcome. I wish I could recommend a list of books that would further explicate these concepts, but, alas, the research is still much too thin — hence why I’m forced to do my own independent research for now. But if can recommed one book it would be Pascal Boyer’s “Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought”. Though Boyer’s ideas and connections are riddled with gaps in our knowledge and questionable avenues of inquiry (which my own research is meant to remedy), it’s still a relatively concise introduction into what scientists think so far.

        • Avatar
          dragonfly  March 7, 2017

          I’ll have to read that book. You might find “Why God won’t go away” by Andrew Newberg interesting.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 7, 2017

      You should also read The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, or listen to the audiobook. The Jewish covenantal worldview (Mosaic Covenant) tells them they can control God. By obeying Torah, they force God to bless them, provide rain for their crops, protect them from disease, and defeat their enemies. A feeling of control can be very powerful. The pharaohs of Egypt had totalitarian power, until people finally figured out that the pharaohs didn’t have influence with the gods, and therefore couldn’t control the rains and the flooding of the Nile.

      In the Roman Empire, the idea was universal that people had to give the gods the sacrifices they thought the gods demanded, so that the gods would favor humans as they control the things humans can’t control. That’s why Christians were hated. They refused to offer those sacrifices.

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  March 7, 2017

      “The Blind Spot Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty” by William Byers, if you ain’t already familiar.

  7. Avatar
    doug  March 5, 2017

    I think helping others is part of what we have evolved to be as human beings. We are also selfish, but a balance of helping others and selfishness is what helped us to be one of the few species that has survived to this day. I start each day by doing something totally selfish – I eat breakfast.

    • Avatar
      doug  March 6, 2017

      When I said we are one of the “few” species that has survived to this day, I was referring to scientists’ estimate that 98-99% of all species that ever lived are now extinct.

  8. Avatar
    seahawk41  March 5, 2017

    Amen and amen re the last sentence of this post. I don’t believe it is possible to “life life to its fullest” without helping others, especially those in need!

  9. Avatar
    Jason  March 5, 2017

    How closely would you say your views of life and quality of it align with the classic Epicurus (as opposed to the modern portrayal dismissed by Christian apologists?)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2017

      Pretty closely, actually. Like him I’m a complete materialist who believes in teh simple pleasures, not wild pleasures, and who thinks this life is all there is.

  10. Avatar
    dragonfly  March 6, 2017

    I think the whole Hebrew Bible is about suffering, either directly or indirectly. It’s not surprising. The Israelites made a deal with God, and God didn’t keep his side of the bargain.

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 6, 2017

    Good post. I recommend that new readers of this blog read Dr. Ehrman’s “God’s Problem.”

    I find these ideas to be both depressing and liberating. For me, there being no heaven is depressing. On the other hand,, not having a God judging everything I do is liberating.

  12. Avatar
    godspell  March 6, 2017

    The author(s) of Gilgamesh, the oldest story we have, also contemplated this–this great king and warrior and builder is forced to confront his mortality when his best friend dies. He tries to bring him back, and fails. In the end, even the city he built was reduced to ruins and relics.

    Of course, because somebody wrote the story down, and scholars uncovered and translated it, we do remember Gilgamesh, whether he existed or not. But that memory is contingent on there being literate beings around to read and discuss it.

    Let’s enjoy the humbling revelation that no matter how many times we take a noble philosophic attitude and speak some variant on ‘Carpe Diem!’, this revelation of mortality and impermanence will continue to trouble the human soul, until there are no humans left. And belief systems of one type or another will offer to relieve this pain, offer comfort and the chance of a limitless future (or of blissful oblivion ala Nirvana), and some will accept the offer.

    It is inherent to our nature not to accept Death. Dylan Thomas didn’t, and you can’t very well call him a Christian. Truthfully, there could be nothing more Christian than to accept Death, to disregard it, to view it as a transient discomfort, as Jesus reportedly did. And yet so very few of his so-called followers behave as if they really believe in an afterlife. I mean, who yells more about terrorists than evangelicals–you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist. And wouldn’t that be martyrdom? And thus, eternal paradise? (The same goal some of those very same terrorists aspire to, though I suspect they’re frightened as well).

    It’s not a question that admits of an answer. And yet, it will always be a question worth asking. That only we ever ask. Our many fellow travellers on this planet, our fellow life forms in all their variety, are the only ones who ever live for the moment. We don’t know how to. Because we are human beings. Poor us.

    • Avatar
      webattorney  March 7, 2017

      Well said. You must have been a Humanities major. Your content made me feel all warm and fuzzy. lol

  13. tompicard
    tompicard  March 6, 2017

    Your ‘Ecclesiastes’ worldview is all well and good, and if satisfying for you and others, ok.
    However, as you mention, it doesn’t appear to be a view consistently presented in the bible, and doesn’t appear to be a view held by Jesus.

    And I suppose it can answer adequately the question
    HOW TO best LIVE IN A world in which ‘good people suffer’?,
    but it doesn’t appear at all to answer the question at the title of this post
    WHY DO ‘good people suffer’?

    Am I missing something?

    the other two views you present prophetic/apocalyptic at least try to present an answer to the question which is the title of the blog post. I think I will take a view more in line with that of Jesus, minus the magical “God solves all my/world problems’ parts, which I believe you unfortunately and mistakenly attribute to him.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2017

      Ecclesiastes thinks people suffer because that’s just how the world works. That happens to be my view too!

      • Avatar
        jdh5879  March 6, 2017

        I see parallels between Ecclesiastes and Buddhism.

        • Avatar
          HistoricalChristianity  March 7, 2017

          Of course! Solomon (if he was the author) was maintaining and defending an empire. He was marrying foreign dignitaries with the hope that it would discourage surrounding nations to attack the empire of their daughter. He was actively involved in trade, taxing his own empire, spending it on exotic treasures for his lavish temple and his own profligate lifestyle. When you interact with other demographics, you tend to absorb their ideas.

  14. tompicard
    tompicard  March 6, 2017

    Also, like your questioners, i don’t see that the belief that ‘a life helping others is part of what it means to life live to its fullest’ would naturally follow from the Ecclesiastes worldview.

  15. Avatar
    Silver  March 6, 2017

    As with your ‘Blasts from the Past’ do you still have copies of sermons you preached when a pastor? If so do you ever look back at them and construct in your mind a response? Do you feel that they were good ‘meaty stuff’ like your posts or were they the traditional milk and water sops often associated with the fundamentalist tradition?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2017

      Ha! I do have handwritten copies. And yes, looking back, I’m rather proud of them, coming at that early stayge of my existence. I just don’t *agree* with much of their ultimate point in most cases…. (See today’s post.)

  16. Avatar
    Rthompsonmdog  March 6, 2017

    Although this is a different talk at UC Berkeley, a link for you talking about the subject.

  17. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  March 6, 2017

    I don’t believe I’ve you heard you comment on the notion that God suffers with us, as expressed most intensely in Jesus’s crucifixion, as an “explanation” or “justification” for human suffering. It could make God seem less “unfair” or “callous” though it is inconsistent with God being all powerful.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 6, 2017

      I”ve never found it very compelling. In what sense is he God if he can’t have any involvement with the world other than feeling miserable with the rest of us? And in what sense does he suffer with the starving child? Does he starve to death?

      • Avatar
        doug  March 6, 2017

        And if I’m laying in the street bleeding, I don’t want someone to suffer with me – I want someone to call 911.

        • Avatar
          HistoricalChristianity  March 7, 2017

          Yet, you want the person who stabbed you to suffer. That’s why you invoke the police. That’s why Jews wrote imprecatory Psalms. They demanded that God punish those who caused harm to Israel.

      • Avatar
        clipper9422@yahoo.com  March 10, 2017

        It would be much better to have a god who is all-powerful, perfectly good, and intervened massively against horrible suffering. But there are plenty of good reasons to think it extremely unlikely that such a god exists.

        But, better than no god at all, might be one who is powerful and good enough to ultimately makes things right, say in an afterlife, even though that god seems to rarely be able to do much about horrible suffering in this life.

        That’s one way to understand Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection. God did not prevent or intervene in Jesus’s horrible suffering but made things right afterward. So, even if suffering is a mystery now, there does seem to be potential for a happy ending.

        The point of god suffering is that it’s not a matter of god simply saying that suffering is a mystery and that there will be pie in the sky by and by. God, in Jesus, has to go through the same thing himself. And the resurrection is “proof” that there’s a happy ending. One might want to speculate that things are not “fully” made right for god until they are made right for all sentient beings. So god continues to suffer but is motivated to make things right in the end.

        That’s probably not biblical much less a description of reality. But it may help explain why Jesus’s suffering death and resurrection is a powerful myth that people find comforting.

  18. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  March 6, 2017

    I don’t think any theodicy succeeds. But much great literature is about conflict and a battle with evil. It would be a radically different world without a great deal of evil. So that does seem like an opening for a theodicy. But the overwhelming amount of evil, among other things, creates a lot of problems for such a theodicy too.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 7, 2017

      Theodicy succeeds when it causes you to reject doctrines that create the contradiction. Ancient Israel didn’t think their god was omnipotent or universally good.

      • Avatar
        clipper9422@yahoo.com  March 10, 2017

        I believe it was Leibniz who said that this world is the best of all possible worlds. The argument was that some evil ultimately resulted in more good than one without evil. For the most part the amount and type of evil that we see makes this argument obscene. But if we did live in a world without evil we would lose one of the sources of great literature. I would miss the great literature that comes from the existence of evil and hence wouldn’t find such a world to be ideal. But the amount and type of evil that we have is far too great a price to pay for one kind of great literature. I guess the moral is that nothing’s perfect.

  19. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  March 6, 2017

    One more thought: maybe God is revealing herself, or is simply identical with, the efforts of of humans and other conscious beings to do good. Someone (Telihard de Chardin?) said that the emergence of humanity was evolution become conscious of itself.

  20. Avatar
    Hormiga  March 6, 2017

    > HEVEL is a term that refers to something that is transient and fleeting; it is the mist that appears above the ground early in the morning that then is burned off. It’s here for a little bit, and then is gone.

    The Japanese seem to have gotten to a similar place:


    “Mono no aware (物の哀れ?), literally “the pathos of things”, and also translated as “an empathy toward things”, or “a sensitivity to ephemera”, is a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (無常 mujō?), or transience of things, and both a transient gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life.”

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