Monday, June 2, 2008

Bart Ehrman's Problem

Review of God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer by Bart Ehrman, (HarperOne, 2008)

This book has two intertwined purposes, to show that the Bible offers no real answer to the question posed by suffering and evil and to provide an apologia for Ehrman's agnosticism. Such is made clear from the very beginning: "I have now lost it [faith] altogether. I no longer go to church, no longer believe, no longer consider myself a Christian. The subject of this book is the reason why...I realized that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with he facts of life (pp. 2-3). Having come from a fundamentalist Protestant background, Ehrman is now an agnostic: "I think that if there is one [a god] he certainly isn't the one proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition" (p. 4).

These two intertwined purposes, it seems to me, account for the book's rather uneven quality. With regard to the first purpose, Ehrman attempts to maintain the mental posture of the historical critic and, thus, he tells us that "It is a matter of using our intelligence to assess the merit of what the biblical author's say" (p. 17). With regard to the second purpose, Ehrman tends to cast aside intellectual precision and to lapse into an agnostic mood. "The darkness is too deep, the suffering too intense, the divine absence too palpable" (p. 6). Having made the intelligent judgment that the Bible offers no real answers (and, indeed, that its answers are generally ridiculous), Ehrmancan't quite get out of the postmodern mood: "I should stress that it is not the goal of this book to convince you, my reader, to share my point of view about suffering, God or religion. I am not interested in destroying anyone's faith or deconverting people from their religion" (p. 17). I am willing to take Ehrman at his word but it seems odd to lose one's faith, write a book showing that the Bible's response to suffering is incoherent and finally ridiculous and then hope to have no effect on readers. If Ehrman believes that his position is true (which he clearly does), should he not want others to share it?

One of the ways in which this book is uneven is in its lack of intellectual precision. Ehrman can be quite precise when discussing biblical texts and yet when he turns to the question of suffering there is a distinct lack of clarity. Almost from the beginning he dismisses the theological and philosophical writings on this issue as "either intellectually unsatisfying, morally bankrupt or practically useless" (p. 18). Which writings? Why unsatisfying, bankrupt or useless? This seems particularly dismissive in that Ehrman never clarifies what he means by suffering which, of course, can include everything from the normal aches and pains of everyday life to the moral horrors of torture and genocide. It appears that for Ehrman the insolubility (a word which needs clarification but which he devotes no attention to) of the problem of suffering is not so much a conclusion but a premise: "For me, at the end of the day, the philosophical problem called theodicyis insoluble" (p. 122). Does this mean that we should simply accept that the existence of suffering can not be reconciled with Christian convictions about God? For Ehrmna, this seems to be not so much the conclusion of an argument but a premise based upon a mood (however justified it may be). It is interesting (and highly suggestive) that Ehrman seeks to drive a wedge between the Bible and later traditions of Christian theology and then to discount the latter. It is also interesting that while being quite critical of "Enlightenment" views of theodicy (the attempt to reconcile suffering and evil with a God of infinite goodness and power), he ultimately embraces the Enlightenment's solution to the problem: "The pain done to human beings by human beings is not caused by a superhuman entity. Since human beings misbehave and hurt others out of their free will (which does exist even if God does not), then we need to intervene ourselves and do what we can to stop the oppression, torture and murder" (pp. 122-123)

The first biblical approach to suffering which Ehrman takes up is the notion that the cause of suffering is divine punishment, a view he sees present in the prophetic literature of the Old Testament in particular. For Ehrman, this literature offers a definitive answer to the question of suffering: "To a person, the prophets maintained that Israel's national suffering came because it had disobeyed God, and it was suffering as a punishment" (p. 31). While he acknowledges that the prophets were addressing their own specific situation and not attributing all suffering at all times and in all places to divine punishment, Ehrman, oddly, ignores this in the course of the book and goes on to make the prophetic perspective on suffering an iron law which does explain all suffering at all times. This is another of the book's uneven features. While insisting that the Bible offers a variety of answers to the question of suffering, Ehrman does not allow them to speak in concert but, rather, examines each individually to see if it offers the answer. Predictably, each "answer" comes up short and so we come to the conclusion that the Bible offers "no answer to the question of suffering".

Ehrman beleives that the prophetic view of suffering extends into the New Testament and that it is the foundation of the doctrine of the atonement: "The Christian doctrine of atonement, and salvation for eternal life, is rooted in the prophetic view that people suffer because God is punishing their disobedience" (p. 85). While this is partially true, it requires much more theological elaboration than Ehrman allows and he goes on to consider divine punishment as the sole cause of suffering. He repeatedly refers to this view as "the classical view of suffering" and then concludes that "the classical view of suffering just didn't work for me, as an explanation for what actually happens in the world" (p. 96). The mode of argumentation has dictated the conclusion in advance.

The historical books of the Old Testament offer yet another answer tot he question of suffering for Ehrman. Here the answer is that the cause of suffering is the sinful actions of other people; suffering is rooted in human inhumanity. This is an obviously promising approach to the problem--too promising from Ehrman's perspective. At this point he abruptly concludes that this view involves convictions about human freedom which do not play a prominent role in the Bible. Really? (Again, severing the Bible from later traditions of Christian theology works to Ehrman's advantage.) Besides, Ehrman says, we can't believe that God somehow involved in human sin for this would mean that there would be nothing we could do about it. This seems to short circuit the issue nicely.

Ehrman next takes up the notion of redemptive suffering which involves the conviction that God can and does work to bring good out of evil. This discussion is prefaced by Ehrman's declaration that "I no longer believe in a God who is actively involved with the problems of this world" (p. 126). Once again, the premise determines conclusions. Ehrman can see no sign of God's activity in the world. Unfortunately, he offers no argument for this view--as it now stands this is simply part of the agnostic mood. Of course, the notion of redemptive suffering is central to the New Testament and to Christian doctrine. He concludes that this view is absurd first by insisting that it involves affirming that all suffering is redemptive all the time (it does not) and second by ex cathedra judgment: "I especially, and most vehemently, reject the idea that someone else's suffering is designed to help us" (p. 156). For him, the idea that the suffering of one person could enoble another is simply "offensive and repulsive" (p. 156). Why? I would certainly not claim that all instances of suffering are redemptive but on what basis does Ehrman conclude that such a notion is absolutely impossible? Apparently on the basis of his own dictum.

In the books of Job and Ecclesiastes Ehrman finds a much more congenial atmosphere (because he believes that they agree with him). Here, he says, we don't find suffering attributed to divine punishment or human sin nor do we find notions of redemptive suffering. (At certain points one gets the impression that Ehrman is simply philosophically opposed to the notion of God.) What doe we learn about the cause of suffering in these two books? "The answer t suffering is that there is no answer, and we should not look for one" (p. 188). In a sense, the Bible actually does provide an answer to the question of suffering, the "answer" which appears to be Ehrman's premise: "My own suspicion is that the Teacher was right, that there is no afterlife, that this life is all there is. That should not drive us to despair of live however. It should drive us to enjoy life to the uppermost for as long as we can and in every way we can" (p. 194). Belief in a benevolent and omnipotent God can not be reconciled with experience but a moderate Epicureanism certainly can.

The final biblical answer to the question of suffering that Ehrman considers comes from the apocalyptic tradition. For this tradition, the world is in the grip of cosmic evil powers and liberation will only come with the direct intervention of God. This is the tradition behind the books of Daniel and Revelation and such figures as Jesus an Paul. For this tradition, the mystery of evil and suffering can only be understood in the light of God's ultimate victory. Given that Ehrman has already made it clear that he does not believe in a God who intervenes in history, it comes as no surprise that he finds apocalyptic theology to be inadequate. His rejection finally comes down to this: "I have to admit that the apocalyptic is based on mythological ideas that I simply can not accept" (p. 259). This, of course, is not an argument but a premise or assumption derived from the agnostic mood: "there is no God up there, just above the sky, waiting to come 'down' here or to take us 'up' there" (p. 259).

Where does Ehrman leave us? As I have already indicated, I think he leaves us simply with a mood, a mood of mild agnosticism which is one of the defining features of postmodern culture: "The solution to life is to enjoy it while we can, because it is fleeting. This world, and everything in it, is temporary, transient, and soon to be over" (p. 276). Oh, and we really should do something about people suffering. It is not clear to me how Ehrman gets from this postmodern Epicureanism to a program of vigorous concern about the suffering of others. I find it disappointing that after supposedly tearing down the edifice of biblical theology Ehrman should come to such a shallow position. It appears to me that Ehrman holds Christianity to a higher set of intellectual criteria than he holds his own agnosticism.

After heaping scorn on Christian hope as "just wishful thinking, a leap of faith made by those who are desperate both to remain faithful to God and to understand this world" (p. 270), Ehrman goes on to embrace the notion that by finally embracing the pointlessness of the universe we will be spurred on to deal with suffering with unprecedented generosity and effort. What he does not seem to realize is that his agnosticism simply makes "the problem of suffering" disappear for in a pointless universe suffering is not suffering but only "the way things are" and they way they will always be. While wanting to leave Christian faith behind he still remains within the Christian worldview.

The problem of suffering is a very real problem but in the final analysis all this book does is to sneer at Christian hope while providing no real answers of its own--perhaps because it has none.

Michael Petty


Blogger James said...

Hello Fr. Michael,

There are some words being lost from your text when you post. You may have a technical issue to look into.

I think a lot can be said to and about Ehrman, but from your review two things spring to mind. First, he does not appear to clearly distinguish between the problem of evil as an intellectual problem, and as an existential one. That is an important distinction to make in evaluating whatever rational difficulty the reality of evil presents for the Christian faith. Second, is he really serious when he says that abandoning hope in the supernatural will spur us to solve the problems of the world's suffering here and now? Come on. If I lost my faith I'd be busy building empires and gathering pleasures. Most of the human race would do the same.


June 3, 2008 at 3:17 PM  

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