06/08/2008 05:58 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

New Book Asks: Where's God While We Suffer?

Books by three atheists created a firestorm last year. Surprisingly, some of the harshest criticism came from other atheists, scientists and philosophers, whose big complaint -- summarized by religion writer Peter Steinfels -- was "that anyone attacking theology should actually know some." Which makes it all the more remarkable that when an author who's spent a lifetime studying and teaching theology writes about the compelling reason for his loss of faith -- one that many thoughtful people can appreciate -- it attracts so little attention.

That's the fate, so far at least, of Bart A. Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina. Author of more than 20 books, Professor Ehrman is an expert on early Christianity and the life of Jesus. His new book is entitled "God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer." I find that it succeeds in its effort to respectfully consider and effectively refute every one of the Biblical arguments for the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God in a world of profound, continuing and widespread human suffering. The book came out in February. Alone among major magazines and newspapers, the New Yorker reviewed it, just last week.

Prof. Ehrman is an unlikely unbeliever. Now in his fifties, he was for many years a devout Christian. Reared as an Episcopalian, an altar boy at 12, "born again" in high school, he then attended the fundamentalist Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. He completed his undergraduate work at Wheaton College, and earned a master of divinity and a Ph.D. in New Testament studies at Princeton Theological Seminary.

While at Princeton he abandoned the Episcopal Church because "I didn't think it was serious enough about religion," and worshipped, preached and pastored over the next few years at several fundamentalist churches.

His loss of faith came gradually in his career as a New Testament scholar; first, when his studies convinced him that the Bible was "a very human book" filled with "discrepancies, contradictions, errors, and different perspectives of different authors" rather than an inerrant revelation from God; later and more importantly, when he left the church "kicking and screaming," after "I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life.

"In particular," he continues, "I could no longer explain how there can be a good and powerful God, actively involved in this world," given that so many people lead lives that are a "cesspool of misery and suffering." "Why doesn't he do something about it?" Ehrman calls himself an agnostic rather than an atheist because although he lost his faith, "to declare affirmatively that there is no God (the declaration of atheists) takes far more knowledge (and chutzpah) than I have."

In examining Biblical efforts to reconcile God and suffering, Ehrman first considers the Hebrew prophets, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah and others. How did they explain that God allowed his chosen people to endure catastrophes like famine, pestilence, drought, and repeated conquest by foreign armies?

All the prophets' explanations were the same, he finds: "Israel's national sufferings came because it had disobeyed God, and it was suffering as a punishment." The prophets saw God's punishment for a variety of sins: sexual misconduct, the rich exploiting the poor, worship of false gods, and others. All boiled down to disobedience.

Ehrman doesn't buy that explanation. Should we really believe that collective punishment makes sense, for the innocent to starve along with the guilty, or that "the brutal oppression" of two of Israel's many conquerers, the Assyrians and the Babylonians, "was really God's doing, that he urged the soldiers on as they ripped open pregnant women and dashed little children against the rocks?"

And he finds the suffering-for-sin explanation no more plausible for other disasters befalling other peoples in other ages. There is the Holocaust, of course, with six million Jews slaughtered because of their religion. Five million Christians, met a similar fate, "eleven million people killed not in battle because they were enemy combatants but as human beings unacceptable to those in power and brutally murdered." Where was God when that happened? Or when the Khmer Rouge slaughtered two million Cambodians? Or when almost a million people were killed when India and Pakistan gained independence?

Ehrman says the most frequent answer he hears about why God allows so much suffering is that God gave people free will, that if he hadn't we'd all be less than human, and free will is easily - often cruelly - abused by some people against others. He doesn't buy that either: "if God gave people free will as a great gift," Ehrman asks,"why didn't he give them the intelligence to exercise it so that we can all live happily and peaceably together?" And why does God sometimes nullify people's free will, as when he destroyed Pharaoh's army at the Exodus, or raised Jesus from the dead after Pilate had him killed. "If he intervenes sometimes," why not more often, or all the time?

And what about diseases and natural disasters, which, throughout history, have killed millions of people no more guilty or innocent than those who were never even threatened? Evil people were certainly not responsible for the the 14th century Black Death, which took 75 million lives in Europe and Asia. Or the smallpox that killed at least 300 million people in the 20th century alone, before it was eradicated just 30 years ago. "Do we really want to say that God brings starvation as punishment for sin? Is it God's fault for the famines in Ethiopia? ...Was he the one who caused the 1918 influenza epidemic that killed thirty million people worldwide? Is he killing seven thousand people a day with malaria? Has he created the AIDS crisis?" asks Ehrman. " I don't think so."

The next explanation for suffering Ehrman considers is that sometimes
good can result from it. This idea, that suffering is redemptive, "is found throughout the Bible, from the Jewish Scripture to the New Testament...In some ways it is the core message of the Bible: it is not simply despite suffering but precisely through suffering that God manifests his power of salvation, whether the salvation of the children of Israel from their slavery in Egypt at the exodus or the salvation of the world through the passion of Jesus."

While acknowledging that suffering may sometimes lead to good, Ehrman emphatically rejects the view that this usually happens. "The reality is that most suffering is not positive , does not have a silver lining, is not good for the body or soul, and leads to wretched and miserable, not positive outcomes."

Any discussion of God and human suffering must consider the Book of Job and its central question: Why does a good person suffer? And Ehrman does not disappoint here. Job is "perfect and upright," according to the Bible, a God-fearing, evil-avoiding man, and very rich to boot. When Satan tells God that Job's righteousness and piety are solely the result of his good fortune and would vanish if he lost it, God tells Satan to put the man to the test; and, in short order, Job loses all his money, flocks and servants, becomes terribly ill, and suffers the deaths of all his 10 children.

Still, Job fails to denounce God. And in the end he's rewarded, getting all the good things back - including 10 new children. Job's suffering, like Abraham's readiness to sacrifice his son Isaac, is a test of faith. But don't ask God to explain why he demands such unreasonable trials. When Job attempts to do so, God tells him it's none of his business, and how dare a mere mortal even question the Almighty!

In the Book of Job, Ehrman sees Biblical authors giving two very different answers to the question of suffering: first, that, as noted, it's a test of faith; and, second, that it's a mystery: people will never be able to understand God's ways, and God feels no need to explain them.

Neither answer impresses Ehrman. As for the first: "If God tortures, maims and murders people just to see how they will react--to see if they will not blame him, when in fact he is to blame--then this does not seem to me to be a God worthy of worship. Worthy of fear, yes. Of praise, no." As for God's refusal to explain himself: "Doesn't this view mean that God can maim, torment, and murder at will and not be held accountable? As human beings, we're not allowed to get away with that. Can God?"

Another challenge Biblical authors faced was how to explain why the Israelites sometimes suffered terribly not because they broke God's laws, but because they followed them. That often happened when foreign armies conquered the Hebrews, but especially early in the second century BCE under the Syrian despot Antiochus IV.

Antiochus twice brutally attacked Jerusalem, shed much blood, and killed Jews for observing their religion. He defiled the Temple with pagan sacrifices and executed anyone found with a Torah scroll. Worse still, Ehrman tells us, women and families who had their children circumcised were put to death and the infants hung around their mother's necks.

How to explain being punished for obedience to God, rather than for disobedience? That, Ehrman says, required the Biblical authors to devise nothing less than "an entirely new worldview," which today's scholars call "apocalypticism." It is found for the first time in the Book of Daniel, the last book written in the Hebrew Bible. Daniel was written around the time of a Jewish uprising against Antiochus.

An apocalypse is the vision of a prophet. It can involve frightening presences such as terrible beasts, beautiful scenes such as heavenly kingdoms and climactic battles such as Armageddon. Most important, apocalypticism is characterized by conflict between good and evil.

Why such a conflict? God may be all powerful and all good, but, "for some unknown reason," Ehrman writes, "God has relinquished control of the world to the forces of evil--for the time being. Pain, misery, anguish, suffering and death are the result."

In the end, of course, God will intervene to save the world. "He will send a savior from heaven--sometimes thought of as the 'messiah'; sometimes called "the Son of Man"--who will execute judgment on the earth and all who live on it. Those who have sided with God and the powers of good will be rewarded when this day of judgment appears; they will be brought into the eternal kingdom, a world in which there is no more pain, misery or suffering. But those who have sided with the Devil and the powers of evil will be punished, sent away to eternal torment to pay for their disobedience to God and the suffering that they caused for God's holy people. Moreover, this judgment will affect not only those who happen to be alive when the end of this age arrives; it will affect everyone, living and dead."

Why an omnipotent, omniscient benevolent God would have allowed evil to take over the world, and to remain in power for so long and cause so much suffering is a question the Biblical authors don't answer - probably because they can't. Ehrman doesn't much discuss it either.

He does emphasize, however, that for the author of Daniel, as well as later, for Jesus and Paul, leading apocalypticists in the New Testament, the "eternal kingdom" mentioned above was imminent, rather than centuries or millennia away. He quotes Jesus as declaring: "the Kingdom of God is very near," that "this generation will not pass away before all these things take place," and that the eternal kingdom will come before his disciples "taste death."

Furthermore, says Ehrman, that kingdom was not to be in some otherworldly location, but "a real place, here on earth, where God reigns supreme over his people in a utopianlike state," where only good people are welcome.

Ehrman explains the stress on imminence as crucial because "apocalypticists were writing in times of terrible suffering and they were trying to encourage their readers to hold on, for just a little longer. Do not give up the faith'; do not abandon your hope. God will soon intervene and overthrow the forces of evil..."

The most complete description of apocalypticism comes in Revelation, also called the Apocalypse of John, the final book of the New Testament to be written. Despite the assurances of all apocalypticists, the perfect Kingdom of God on earth stubbornly failed to materialize. Suffering remained as central as ever to human existence. How to explain that?

Well, it all depends on what the definition of "soon" is. Ehrman assures us that when the author of Revelation had expected that Lord Jesus 'was coming soon' "he really meant soon - not two thousand years later. It was only a later bit of sophistry that devised the idea that 'soon' with God meant 'the distant future'--that 'with the Lord a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a day,'" as one New Testament author put it. At any rate, the world is still waiting.

Having wildly stretched out the time frame for the coming of the Godly Kingdom, the apocalypticists' next effort to explain its absence was to alter its location. "In this transformed view, the Kingdom of God is no longer thought of as a future kingdom here on earth; it is the kingdom that God currently rules, in heaven." And, Ehrman tells us, there is still another big change. "It is in the afterlife that God vindicates his name and judges his people, not in some kind of transformation of this world of evil." The Bible says little about Heaven or Hell as places individual souls go after death. Christians developed those doctrines later.

Ehrman dismisses apocalyptical arguments as depending on the "mythology" of such constructs as demons and a three-story universe, and on unsupportable "blind faith" that everything will turn out right in the end. And, finding no Biblical arguments persuasive in reconciling God and suffering, Ehrman instead finds his answer in the Book of Ecclesiastes. He agrees with the author and says that "given the ultimate impossibility of understanding this world and making sense of what happens," including why we suffer, blind chance rather than a powerful, just God, is what motivates matters. Quit wasting time trying to figure things out, Ecclesiastes tells us, and Ehrman agrees: "the very best we can do is enjoy life while we have it," "work to alleviate suffering wherever possible and to live life as well as we can." And in the end "all of us die. And that's the end of the story."

That is not an answer that can possibly satisfy religious people. But given the enormity of suffering and the inadequacy of Biblical efforts to explain it, Ehrman's answer makes the most sense to me.