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49 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Needn't be our problem, 12 Feb. 2009
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This review is from: God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer (Hardcover)
"If there is an all-powerful and loving God in this world, why is there so much excruciating pain and unspeakable suffering?" This first sentence sums up the "problem of suffering" that Bart Ehrman explores in this brilliant book. For atheists, there is no theodicean problem, because there is no god, loving or otherwise. For most theists, there is also no problem, but for very different reasons. Either it is simply ignored, or it's thought to have been solved, somehow. Fortunately for theism, it's easy not to think deeply about such a nasty subject, nor to wonder what is going through God's mind when he allows earthquakes and tsunamis to kill millions. For Ehrman, the more he thought about suffering the more devout he became, and yet the more he studied scripture as a "committed Christian", the more the difficulties multiplied. For example, many Christians believe we suffer because we have free will, but these same Christians "also believe in an afterlife" during which they will presumably still have free will and yet be free from suffering.

Even if it worked, this standard explanation "plays only a very minor role in the biblical tradition." The classical view is that "people suffer because God wants them to suffer", because "they have disobeyed him and he is punishing them." Most Christians today (as a result of secular morality) are a little embarrassed when a priest declares that catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina or the AIDS epidemic are actually God's way of telling us what he thinks of the gay lifestyle. Repulsive as such views are, the Bible backs them up. "On every level, disobedience brings punishment."

The first disobedience is very familiar (although there is a good argument that it was God who did wrong, not Adam and Eve), but the punishment that flowed was disproportionate, to say the least. Pain in childbirth, having to work for a living, being filled with sin, for starters. By the time of Noah, all life on earth had to be destroyed, so wicked had we become. No wonder Abraham prefers to "do what God asks, even if it means slaughtering his own son... being faithful to God is the most important thing in life: more important than life itself." God's special creation is finally getting the message. "Whatever God commands must be done". Luckily for Isaac, God intervenes, but what about the "many people since Abraham's day who have murdered the innocent, claiming that God told them to do so"? We lock them up. And Abraham? "We call him a good and faithful servant."

The story of Job is even more telling, and chilling. "God does not explain why Job suffers. He simply asserts that he is the Almighty and, as such, cannot be questioned... The answer to suffering is that there is no answer, and we should not look for one. The problem with Job is that he expects God to deal rationally with him... but God refuses to do so." Remember what Job's suffering entailed: "not just loss of property, which is bad enough, but a ravaging of the body and the savage murder of Job's ten children." In fact, "God himself acknowledged that Job was innocent" and yet he killed his children. Why? To prove a point and to win a bet. "Possibly the most offensive part of the book of Job is at the end, when God restores all that Job had lost - including additional children." Can the pain of a child's death "be removed by the birth of another?" When Job repents, it is not of any wrongdoing: "he repents of having thought that he could make his case before the Almighty."

In ancient Israel, religion was about worshipping God properly, and "not principally a matter of correct belief". Sacrifice was all important. Then the apocalypticists invented the idea of a future resurrection and eternal life, "either in the Kingdom of God or in a kingdom of torment." They believed that God, for "mysterious reasons", had temporarily handed over control of the world "to the powers of evil", and this is why we suffer. The two most famous apocalypticists were Jesus and Paul, although Paul wasn't interested in what Jesus had done during his life. Only his death, because it brought salvation, mattered, only his suffering on the cross had redemptive value: "sin leads to punishment; Christ took the punishment upon himself; therefore, Christ's death can atone for the sins of others." Paul "thought that suffering, ultimately, was a good thing." Not Ehrman: to him, the idea that someone else's suffering is designed to help us is abhorrent. And why, if "Christ took on the suffering of the world", does the world continue to suffer?

Ehrman "eventually became an agnostic" but has paid a heavy price for his years of belief: he describes "a void deep inside" and regrets not having anyone to express his gratitude to. (Anyone who feels this way ought to read Daniel Dennett's essay "Thank Goodness", which addresses just this question.) Whatever his personal journey, Bart Ehrman has the scholarship to explore the big questions that religion claims for itself but cannot answer. He unfolds another familiar comfort blanket and finds it full of holes. Meanwhile, art, science and philosophy continue ask - and answer - more modest questions about why we suffer, and in their way have provided more real comfort than religion ever has or ever can.
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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 3 Jul 2009 13:19:55 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 16 Aug 2009 07:18:12 BDT]

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Jul 2009 08:51:04 BDT
Sphex says:
Of course suffering is a problem for atheists - in that if I stub my toe it hurts! The evolutionary "purpose" of suffering is simple: it is an encouragement to the organism to move out of harm's way, so that its chances of reproducing and passing on its genes are increased.

Suffering is a different kind of problem for theists - as well as feeling the same physical pain as an atheist, the theist experiences an acute spiritual pain in facing the possibility that their god is not the all loving all good being of Sunday school but a malevolent and malicious creature who could prevent suffering but chooses not to. Sophisticated theologians have been very good at inventing theodicies over the centuries - perhaps one of them has convinced you? Much simpler to avoid such casuistry in the first place.

Where have you got the idea that we are chance productions of the universe? Evolution by means of natural selection is anything but chance! You also describe the universe as "amoral". Would you describe a teapot in moral terms? Surely, one of the special aspects of the human species and some higher primate species is that we are moral agents, but again where have you got the idea that the universe itself can be described in such terms?

You ask a very interesting question, "Why do we have emotions and feelings at all?" Have a look at, for example, Antonio Damasio's "Descartes' Error". This is by no means an exhaustive answer, but it gives us some better ways of thinking about this question and like any good science book it provides a wealth of further reading.

You also refer to the "fact" of Jesus's crucifixion. Even though Ehrman accepts that Jesus existed as a historical figure, I am not convinced: the more I examine this question the more elusive the historical Jesus becomes.

You imply that I "do not have to worry about child abuse"! I take that as a personal insult and ask that you withdraw the comment. It is also a dafamation of atheism that is totally unreasonable and without merit. How can you make such a stupid and unwarranted accusation? Perhaps as a result of relying too much on faith to arrive at your opinions, you have forgotten the benefits of reason and evidence?

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Aug 2009 16:36:01 BDT
[Deleted by the author on 16 Aug 2009 07:18:26 BDT]

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Aug 2010 11:45:23 BDT
Felix Benito says:
What a pity DProctor deleted his comments. I would have loved to rear them!!

Posted on 23 Nov 2011 14:08:37 GMT
Kim says:
A good guide to the type of arguments I expect Ehrman to use, as an Author and historical critic I have great respect for him. However, your reading of Job and the early stories in the Bible is very fundamentalist/literalist and so deeply flawed.

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Nov 2011 14:12:07 GMT
Kim says:
Me too. It leaves 'Sphex' as avoice talking to itself.

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Nov 2011 14:29:11 GMT
Sphex says:
Don't quite follow these last two posts - it would seem that Mr Kim Hatton is the one talking to himself...

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Nov 2011 16:33:01 GMT
Last edited by the author on 23 Nov 2011 16:36:37 GMT
Kim says:
No I'm talking to Felix Benito in one comment and to you, regarding your laughable analysis of The Book Of Job in your review.

In reply to an earlier post on 24 Nov 2011 13:03:39 GMT
Sphex says:
I would love to take credit for this analysis, especially as it appears to be so humorous, but I'm afraid it's the work of Bart Ehrman and other biblical scholars. I'm merely a lay reader who happens to find merit in these arguments.

Since you seem to take such a violent exception to the notion of a "fundamentalist/literalist" reading of the Bible, am I right in assuming you are not a Christian? And regardless of whether or not you read the Bible as a string of metaphors, do you have an opinion on the intentions of its authors in this respect?
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