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Why Is This Happening To Us?

It is very difficult to be a sentient human being just now and not wonder occasionally or, well, obsessively: “Why is this happening to us?”  I’m not speaking of the scientific questions of how Covid began and spread, how it is like and unlike other viruses, how it works, how it spreads, how… well, there are a million scientific questions and we read about them every day.  I don’t mean those, but the more existential question.  How do we make sense of it all?

It is is less of a problem for naturalists, who do not believe that there is anything beyond the physical universe (in any sense), any non-material superior being, for example, or any non-material thing at all, that has any dealings with it.  For hardcore naturalists, the universe and everything in it, living or not, is all particles; sometimes the particles line up in ways that are not conducive for us to survive, let alone thrive.  And so the existential “why” something happens, for many naturalists, is a pointless question.  It’s only a scientific question to be answered in terms of natural law and probability.

The “why” questions are much deeper and debatable for those who are not absolute naturalists, deeper because they go beyond scientific demonstration – even among supernaturalists who absolutely subscribe to science in every way – and more debatable because … well, for the same reason.  They go beyond scientific demonstration.   Even today, the vast majority of Americans are still in this category; around the world, apart from parts of Western Europe, it is even more so.

The major “why” question has been well known for thousands of years, and has never been answered to everyone’s satisfaction.  It is the standard question of “theodicy” – how does one explain suffering if there is a God (or gods), a loving divine being in the world.   If he (let’s call him a he, since most people do) is loving, then he wants the absolute best for people; if he is all powerful he is able to provide the best for people; but people suffer in horrible, horrible ways.  Why is that?  Three obvious solutions: he is not in fact all-loving; or he is not all powerful; or there is no suffering.  People take all three positions.  But most people who believe in God accept the premises and try to explain.

Members of the blog and people who contact me from other social media and just random folk who write me emails out of the blue regularly want me to know “the answer.”  Especially now, during the pandemic.  Almost always they genuinely don’t seem to understand why I find their answers completely unsatisfying.  Often these notes begin with “Have you ever thought that maybe….?”  But almost never,  ever do I hear an answer that hasn’t been batted about roughly forever.

Recently I had a back and forth with someone who wanted to convince me that Covid-19 was a “test” from God.  God wanted to see if ….

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A Plea for Humility in the Face of the Universe



  1. Avatar
    Mark57  July 8, 2020

    Yeah, but when is that zombie apocalypse coming?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 12, 2020

      Very soon, it seems.

    • Avatar
      Martintee  July 12, 2020

      God’s passivity to suffering pales in comparison to his evil deeds. Everybody loves the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Jewish practitioners celebrate the Passover with a Sader. (which are wonderful events) Jesus celebrated Passover at the last supper. However they seem to forget that God kills the first born male children of the nation of Egypt. That’s right, murdering hundreds of thousands of innocent children! Apparently God couldn’t find a better way to free his chosen people from servitude. He also appears unable to identify his chosen people without lamb’s blood sprinkled on their doors. This is insane, and religious people have a hard time explaining it. It’s either, God is vengeful and pharaoh should have released the Jews, or it’s a mystery.

  2. Avatar
    Tempo1936  July 8, 2020

    There is no reason for suffering. Its just a part of life. Of course suffering can be caused by our own actions or carelessness such as getting drunk and having an accident. Or as the case with a friend,who was recently terribly injured by a drunk driver for no fault of her own, will suffer for the rest of her life. it was random event of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. My cousin, a wonderful christian husband and father, has a failing heart and needs a transplant or he will die. Just a random chance of genetics not God testing his dear young children’s faith. Christian relatives keep saying “God is in control”. What does that mean???? Just accept your fate? Don’t complain??
    If there is a God, he seems disinterested in most of the suffering that I see in my friends and family.

  3. Avatar
    francis  July 8, 2020

    ….. let’s see if their minds are changed when they get the disease…..

  4. Avatar
    tskorick  July 8, 2020

    I’ve struggled with this mightily myself and never came up with an answer that wasn’t some weak “ineffable divine mystery” masking piles of narcissism and hubris. I don’t have a problem accepting that there is no grand design, but I absolutely believe there is something we can do about *some* of the misery. Good on you, this must be a lot of extra work for you and we get an awful lot out of it along the way.

    • Telling
      Telling  July 11, 2020

      Eastern religions tell of us creating our own misery, for everything in our makeup results from past thoughts and actions.

      The non canonical Gospel of Mary includes this line indicating same:

      “Then [Jesus] continued. He said, ‘This is why you get sick and die: because you love what deceives you.'”

      The idea is that we attach ourselves to the things of the world that are temporal. The instruction is to focus the mind on that which won’t die. This would be the inner person, focus on the inner being. By dropping attachment to things of a temporal nature we’ll end suffering and live eternally. This is the message underlying all the religions.

  5. Avatar
    Shawnmrmsh  July 8, 2020

    A co-worker who is an Evangelical Christian, claims the purpose of suffering is so those who have been saved will have an opportunity to teach those living in sin the error of their ways. I’ve never said so to her, but I’ve always thought that makes “God” come across like a terrorist.

  6. Avatar
    dankoh  July 8, 2020

    I remember the Catholic archbishop of New York around 50 years ago making the observation that Jews had a special gift of suffering to give the world, and his being honestly astonished the fury his statement evoked. It was especially infuriating in that Jewish suffering was not the result of some natural disaster, but of persecution largely led by the institution of which he was a representative.

    I am not, God knows, a believer in God. Suffering is neither a gift from God nor a test by God. It exists because nature doesn’t care and all too often people don’t care. The closest thing I can come to a “simple” answer is that suffering is a challenge – not to endure it, but to end it.

  7. Avatar
    roy  July 8, 2020

    an excellent letter, and i wholeheartedly agree with your position, as a long time non-believer i frequently struggle to understand the beliefs in all religions when it seems so black and white(pardon the comparison these days) if one only thinks for themselves and looks at the evidence. just the simple fact of the culture(geography) you are born into defines most peoples beliefs. they need to believe in a good and loving god yet reading the bible reveals that absurdity, the christian god is a malicious killer. even something like abortion which almost all christians strongly are against, what is a miscarriage if not a naturally aborted fetus. i wonder how they would accept an updated exodus story. god returns and tells the nation of mexico you are now my chosen people, and i will give them the means and ability to take the promised land(the usa) and kill everyone there(and their puppies and livestock, which was highly logical in canaaan??) and run their grandchildren through with the sword and dash them on the rocks. great story, huh? No, i definitely do not think we are being tested by god by this virus, but our credulity/ gullibility is tested daily

  8. Robert
    Robert  July 8, 2020

    “But I find most religious answers offensive against God, even when I don’t believe in God! …”

    Ironically, for medievals such as Thomas Aquinas, it was the very simplicity of God that preserved the ultimate mystery that the human mind could not penetrate. God’s simplicity meant he could not be defined as a species within a genus, ie, could not be defined. Being fooled by the pseudoepigraphy of pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Thomas quoted him more than any other thinker. At least that seems to be one good use of pseudoepigraphy. I wish more religious people would just admit they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. As pseudo-Dionysius would say, it is more true to say that God does not exist.

    It’s ultimately the atheists, agnostics, and other apophatic theologians that are the best defenders of God’s goodness, regardless of whether or not he exists.

    • Telling
      Telling  July 13, 2020

      The simple answer to whether God exists is:

      “I exist, therefore God exists” -Me.

      If you can’t truthfully answer what you’re made from, where you came from, and what existed before you did, then you cannot make claim to the title of God, and thus a greater being than you certainly does exist (that’s really the question, isn’t it?).

      But we need to define term “exist” in advance. God is the unknown and surely is awareness because you are awareness, and (also) by our dictionary definition God is everything that exists.

      But what does “exist” mean? Can “God doesn’t exist” mean something also? I think Buddhists would agree to that. What is existence? The Buddhist answer may be: God exists and doesn’t exist, and so God truly “is” and “is not”. When we’re speaking of formless entities, which we are, the definition of existence is unclear.

      Final answering, if we agree God both exists and doesn’t exist then our conclusion must be “God exists”, because we’re speaking in the same sense that “you” exist.

      If you were to argue that you don’t exist then I think it is fair to argue that God doesn’t exist, otherwise, no.

      God exists.

  9. Avatar
    Christian David  July 8, 2020

    I enjoyed reading this post. It reminded me of an experience I will never forget about nine years ago when I was in high school. Me and three of my friends were in a van on our way to a local restaurant when suddenly an SUV hit us from the side, and the car flipped over. I don’t remember much after that because I blacked out. What I do remember is waking up in the hospital and discovering that all my friends were killed in the accident. I was devastated. I was in the hospital for a few days, and as my family began showing up at the hospital over and over again, I heard, “thank God, you are ok.” At one point, I erupted in tears saying, “What about my friends? What is their family suppose to thank God as well?” From this moment on, I was no longer satisfied with the answers for suffering in this world religious people gave.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 10, 2020

      Wow. I’m so sorry to hear about this. How horrible. I hope you’re finding some ways of healing.

  10. Avatar
    ddorner  July 8, 2020

    My view isn’t to ask the “why” of suffering. It’s unanswerable. But it’s why in the midst of suffering do so many, millions and millions, become more faithful? the human experience during times of suffering runs exactly contrary to the logical conclusion. It is argued If there is suffering there is no God. but when people suffer faith increases. Is it a test? Is God good? Is God moral? is God just?

    Removing God,or a sense of purpose, or hope from the equation does not solve the problem. You’re simply hopeless in a vast eternity. Whereas in some simple way keeping God present can give some hope, meaning and value to the circumstance. As illogical as it may seem.

    Ultimately, suffering exist whether a divine realm exists or not. But losing faith means you’ve suffered now more, both from this world and the loss of the divine.

    It’s easy for us now, as humans, to hold “God” accountable. “if there’s suffering there is no God”. But for generations past it’s exactly the opposite. If there’s suffering there must be God.

    Whether God exists or not, the suffering is the same. But without God the suffering increases.

    • Avatar
      jscheller  July 10, 2020

      Very well said ddorner! That is exactly the tack I take when preaching on the subject, but I must say that your comment here is both eloquent and the best apology for God on the question of suffering that I’ve seen in the posts.

      • Bart
        Bart  July 12, 2020

        It just shows that intelligent people have very different views. My sense is that many people suffer *worse* when they wonder why, if God loves them, they are in such unbearable pain.

        • Avatar
          jscheller  July 13, 2020

          I think everyone that suffers such pain asks themselves that question. I also think that the first order of business for us as fellow human beings is to do all we can to alleviate the cause of such pain where possible. I also REALLY believe that many Christian platitudes offered in such conditions are both, insulting, and cause further pain. However, the fact remains that such pain does and will exist, despite our best efforts. It has been my experience that those in that painful situation have multiple choices of perspectives to adopt, but that the one I have observed being most healthful for said individuals is to have trust in God in spite of the inexplicable situation. It is the difference of having hope or not.

    • Julian
      Julian  July 13, 2020

      Appalling things happen, very sadly, to many undeserving people. Pretending that there is some underlying reason without good evidence delays coming to terms with the situation and moving on if that’s possible. You’re just prolonging the pain.

    • Avatar
      Mark57  July 13, 2020

      “Whether God exists or not, the suffering is the same. But without God the suffering increases.” You might want to analyze that sentence. The suffering is the same either way, but increases without god? That’s a contradiction in the same sentence.

      As for why millions become more faithful in the face of suffering is because it becomes a security blanket that the mind needs to survive the trauma, regardless of it’s validity. The same can be said for a pet dog or cat that provides comfort in bad times. Love has always originated in the mind. The same is with suffering.

      Natural selection has no ‘feelings’. We may have chosen religion as a means to help survive suffering, perhaps even as a evolutionary trait in our DNA, but that is hardly evidence of it being valid. It’s simply a psychological crutch that seems to fill a void like a dopamine rush. Some would say if it works then what harm can there be? I would prefer to live in reality regardless of the consequences & the harm is long term & in so many ways.

  11. Avatar
    Glasswalls  July 8, 2020

    Thanks Bart, it was an interesting article.

    As long as life exists, suffering will too. The points you make are good and we all have to confront them seriously.

    The Christian does have an advantage compared to secular people to deal with suffering however. As Paul gloried in his thorn that God let Satan deliver to him (lest Paul get puffed up in the pride of his flesh), Christians can realize that “[God’s] strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9). The flesh is weakened so that the spirit can be strong. Fleeing from suffering at all costs should not be the main goal of Christians, as Christendom usually treats it as.

    Furthermore, if a believer were zapped in to heaven immediately after believing the gospel, they’d have not developed any patience or longsuffering from their tribulations, both of which are qualities God needs of his saints.

    This can only apply to the man of faith of course. Suffering’s main benefit to the unbeliever is to ultimately let him recognize his sin nature and look for a solution, which for man resides in the gospel.

  12. Avatar
    Apocryphile  July 9, 2020

    Yeah, like you, I have to wonder about people who can give simplistic answers as to why God allows things like pandemics, and actually expect others to say “oh wow! I had never thought of it that way before – that totally makes sense to me now!” The only thing I can think is that these people have never experienced real suffering in their lives. No one has the answers, of course, but as I get older and look back on my life, I often get a strange feeling that there were many times where what I thought were random occurrences or random encounters at the time turned out later to have been meaningfully connected, sometimes deeply so, forming some sort of larger “psychic tapestry” of my life (for want of a better phrase).

    The great psychologist Carl Jung believed in a sort of world consciousness – what he called the “collective unconscious” or “world soul”. In this scheme, we aren’t just isolated islands of consciousness – we’re all part of a bigger picture. Who is to say? But it does make me wonder.

  13. Telling
    Telling  July 9, 2020

    There is a forth answer: We create our own suffering.

    This comes from the Jane Roberts/Seth material. This foundation premise applies:

    “You make your own reality, there is no other rule.”

    What seems a deadly new virus is a mutation of a virus that normally inhabits a person and contributes to the overall health of the body. The mutation happens when the mind goes into fear, depression, hopelessness; it is the state of mind going negative that weakens the immune system and creates the sickness.

    I wrote an article published by OM Times summarizing the Seth material. It is a summation of Seth’s books but does touch on pandemics about two-thirds down in the short article here:


    • Avatar
      JonW  July 11, 2020

      ….So you’re saying when I contracted Covid-19 3 months ago, it was my own fault. lol Thank you for the laugh – I’m glad I was lucky enough to shake it off to read your thoughtful illumination of my reality. Okay, buddy. Thanks for playing, though.

      • Telling
        Telling  July 12, 2020


        “Ignorance” not “fault” is the cause, something we’re born into until we can shake it off. As Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism) already know, the foundation of this world is consciousness, there is no solid fixed world, it is illusion, we are essentially dreaming.

        Everything in our experience is created by mind; your mind, my mind, collective mind. Sickness is an indicator of something wrong with our thoughts, and a higher consciousness will seek to correct it, illness being a method.

        There were some very serious things wrong in this world when the pandemic hit, primarily at the level of politics with a polerizaton like I’ve never before seen (happened during Reagan era, but more in pockets like Berkeley where I was living). At that time I felt waves of great fear washing like giant waves through my mind. It is probably far worse today, although I’ve not felt it myself (I’m of sounder mind now in my old age). It is this kind of fear at such large scale along with hopelessness and apathy that causes people to not want to live that brings the higher mind to make automatic correction.

        Glad you are still with us. Could you share your symptoms?

        • Avatar
          JonW  July 16, 2020

          I agree in so far as my ignorance that the virus was starting to run rampant at the facility I work at in early March was definitely the reason for me catching the virus. That I’ve zero doubt over. And I’m not attempting to be glib when I say that. I understand where you are coming from to a degree regarding the mind’s eye, higher planes of consciousness and the slipperiness of the limited perception we have of our universe; however, where the aforementioned becomes dangerously akin to the error of magical thinking is to think that we can create our own reality solely using the power of one’s mind and believing we can negate our and other’s suffering in life by denying that there are, in fact, things in our existence way beyond our control.
          Using your postulate, I could say your ignorance/”great fear” you mentioned is responsible for creating the ecocide that big companies like Exxon Mobil and many others have perpetrated that are causing the beginning of the next wave of impending (if we as humans do nothing to stop it) planetary extinction. I don’t believe that’s genuine.

  14. epicurus
    epicurus  July 9, 2020

    If there is a greater good that comes out of suffering it’s a shame the Bible couldn’t have added an extra dozen or so pages to it’s already large number to explain what that greater good is.

  15. epicurus
    epicurus  July 9, 2020

    I bet the people who write you with explanations never consider it’s not their god but rather the god of a different religion who is punishing us – such as this interview with a guy from ISIL saying God is using Corona to punish enemies of the Islamic state:

  16. Avatar
    stokerslodge  July 9, 2020

    I’ve heard some evangelical Christians claim that the reason for all the suffering and death in the world is that Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Just wondering Bart: would you have subscribed to that explanation when you were a believer?

  17. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  July 9, 2020

    Thanks Dr Ehrman. Firstly I agree with every syllable of your post above. Secondly- just to be mischievous for a second – I think the people who got it (almost) right were the Gnostics. After all, they posited an incompetent god or demiurge in charge of our universe, which makes sense, and a proper God so remote that he/she only occasionally takes any interest in us. Finally, I think the Deists of the Enlightenment era may have suggested a god who created the universe and then just abandoned it to it’s own devices. I can sort of get that having abandoned a few projects myself in the past.

  18. Avatar
    geli  July 9, 2020

    I’m not a theistic person. But someone showed me this quote from Aeschylus (as trans. by Bobby Kennedy) recently, and it’s been on my mind a lot as I’ve been wrestling with my own existential crises. It doesn’t explain the suffering, and it’s certainly no apologia for God, but its very meaningful for me somehow.

    “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God.”

  19. Avatar
    MS53051  July 9, 2020

    I can’t find where this was, but I remember seeing a film where the protagonist says to another, “I envy you the simplicity of your faith.” There are people close to me who find great comfort and direction from their simple faith. I do envy them but, unfortunately, I believe in your assessment of the presumed Almighty.

  20. Avatar
    Poohbear  July 9, 2020

    Some will tell you their intelligence won’t allow them to believe the conundrum of a god that permits suffering. Now instead of one dilemma they have created two:
    1 – the universe must have created itself before it existed
    2 – the universe, and ourselves, are here for no reason whatsoever.
    If they are happy to live with two new conundrums (or more likely, can’t grasp them) then maybe they weren’t really concerned about conundrums at all: Maybe they were just looking to justify themselves.

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