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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 October 2016
This is an interesting and well-written book, exploring the problem of suffering in a world supposedly created by an all-powerful and all-loving God. The contradiction (i.e. that suffering ought not to exist if God exists) is examined in detail. What the author does is identify and analyse the 'solutions' to this problem as presented in the Bible. In so doing, a range of reasons for why we suffer are looked at - all of which accord to scripture. Yet Ehrman is unconvinced by such reasons, and considers the real existence of suffering as bringing into question the existence of God.

Throughout, Ehrman - who's written extensively on Biblical criticism - offers both personal conjecture (relating to his shift from being a devout Christian to becoming an agnostic) and a series of real-world examples of intense suffering, and in so doing presents an engaging discussion. This book is intended for popular readership, rather than representing an in-depth scholarly treatise on the subject. And I recommend this item to anyone fascinated by how the problem of suffering raises doubt as regards the existence of God.
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on 5 May 2009
For most of us at some time in our Christian and/or religious life, our faith will inevitably clash with reason. That crisis between the head and the heart, is a struggle that I have experienced personally and have seen many people around me struggle with. One inevitably realises that things don't always work for good as the good old Apostle and the good book says it does.

Why do bad things happen to good and innocent people if an Omniscient, Omnipotent, and Omni-benevolent deity is on the throne of justice?
I have seen terrible calamities befall good innocent Christian brothers and sisters so it is a question that I have asked personally many times.

In this book, Professor Ehrman dealt with this issue admirably. He looked at all the angles, all the biblical examples and all the explanations that have been offered by various people over the years. He dealt with them one by one and offered us an excellent, lucid assessment and his very informed and well researched views and opinions.

This is a fantastic book, whatever your Christian belief or lack thereof. In the usual Ehrman style, it is well written, well thought out, and contributes substantially to knowledge.

I will recommend this book to anyone who wants to go beyond the dogmas and take a good objective look at what Christianity has to say about one of the most fundamental questions of our time.
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on 12 February 2009
"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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on 7 March 2008
Having myself done a degree in theology and since "deconverted" (to borrow an Ehrman term!), I read some of Bart's earlier stuff whilst doing my degree, and have always rated him highly for his clarity of thought, his ability to express what he wants to get across, and his general approach to his research.

So when this new book came up on the upcoming list, I pre-ordered it, and it was delivered earlier this week. For me it was one of those books that you just can't put down, and I've devoured it already and am on the second reading at the moment.

The way he covers the topic is great - not too much information for the lay person, but also not lacking in clarity and detail for those who want it. It was almost like being back at university again, just brilliant. It is also refreshing to have him doing his own translation of the Greek for his New Testament quotations, which once again reminded me of doing exactly that at university, and once again re-emphasised for me how inaccurate the English translations are. As he mentions on one of the chapters, the pathos you get when reading the account of the passion in Mark in the original Greek is just not there in the English translation. So in summary, the coverage of the material is sufficient without being laboured.

His approach is to look at various biblical interpretations of suffering, and analyse their validity. He does this masterfully and the reader is left in no doubt at all what his opinions on the matter are and why he has come to the conclusions he has.

I can't recommend this book enough, both for those of us that have already de-converted and for those wondering about god in the light of the appalling suffering we see around us in the world.
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on 9 July 2013
The problem with reading this kind of book is that you need to know your Bible and I don't so it's difficult to get a proper perspective on B.E's point of view . The Bible has been studied by theologians throughout history , it has been translated and probably corrupted for political purposes , I think you could interpret its messages anyway you wanted . But this is a book about suffering and why we suffer and who's to blame . If there is a God why doesn't he intervene like he used to . An enjoyable book but i'm still none the wiser . In my point of view we are not looked over by a compassionate God , which is the view shared by the author , the only way we can reduce suffering is in our hands , good politics , a better understanding of and advancement in medicine and good economics and of course compassion for our fellow man , Religion has too many opposing and contradicting views .The concluding pages of this book are what makes it , very life affirming a good philosophy for all .
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on 6 October 2009
God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--why We Suffer

As always Bart Ehrman writes in an accessible and authoritative way.

Although he makes it clear that he is not a believer (although once was) this is not an attack on belief but an exploration of the different interpretations within the bible of why suffering.

Of all the books by Prof Ehrman i have read this seems to be the most personal and i think it gains from that. It would, i feel, be wrong to be dispassionate about suffering.

Whether a believer or not how to interpret suffering and our response to it is an issue for us all. This book is an excellent way of delving into this issue.
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on 19 November 2009
I share the view that this is a good book, well worth reading and, indeed, a number of times because there is so much in it. I initially felt a sense of overkill about the number of pages devoted to describing suffering; he does it repeatedly. However, I realised that the evidence actually deserves the coverage he has given it, and we deserve to feel what he is expressing so well. His style is very accessible and his interpretations of the various texts are convincing.
However, and this is why I have given it four and not five stars, it seems to me that a logical analysis of his argument results not in agnosticism, but in a rejection of the Bible as a solution to the problem, unless one assumes that the Bible is literally god's word, which Ehrman does not. So instead of thinking thus:
1. The Bible does not provide a satisfactory answer to this question.

2. The Bible is God's book.

3. Therefore I cannot believe in God any more.

We should instead, as Ehrman has shown in his other books, replace 2. with something like "The Bible is a human product essentially, even if inspired" and then 3. might read "Therefore I will not look to the Bible for definitive answers but interesting insights".God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--why We Suffer
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on 30 December 2015
First of all I should say that in reading this book I received a lot of confirmation bias. Many of the arguments reminded me of the development of my own atheistic views in my late teens, e.g. that the books of the Bible represent a sequence of increasingly sophisticated human attempts to reconcile our brute experience of the world with an omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good divine being. A problem I decided was most easily solved by there being no God - cue Occam’s Razor. Obviously, Ehrman is a biblical scholar and the analysis in this book is much deeper than that of my teenage years. Nevertheless, the reminiscence of my youthful analyses was one of the pleasures of reading this book which is the first of Ehrman’s that I’ve read. However, this is not the standard atheist debunking text – Ehrman describes himself as a de-converted agnostic and brings a genuine understanding of theodicy to bear. He was brought up in a strong Christian tradition and this book is interspersed with anecdotes and examples that led to his de-conversion. These are all well placed and add to the development of his argument. In fact this book is very well written using largely lay language and I found it to be very compelling reading. The author’s stated intention was to produce an accessible analysis and he definitely achieved this.

So, to Ehrman’s arguments. Firstly, the biblical authors were writing for their own times and the Bible should be understood in that context. Any universal understanding comes from the universality of the human condition and not through divinely inspired prescience. Ehrman does an excellent job of providing the historical context of the biblical authors. Ehrman’s premise is that the Bible contains a number of responses to the question of why we suffer (theodicy) all of which are unsatisfactory. Many of these arguments are presented in a linear fashion as developments aimed at removing the flaws of the earlier arguments. Ehrman largely bounds his attention to the biblical ‘solutions’ to suffering as is his intent. He does touch on the ‘modern’ free-will defence, but this, again, cannot be reconciled with the suffering of innocents and those with no means to exercise free will – e.g. children and babies. The free-will defence is just the latest in a line of flawed solutions to the question of theodicy – why we suffer.

To summarise, the explanations for suffering are, with apologies for the caricatures (these are mine and not Ehrman’s):

Suffering is a punishment from God for sin. E.g. the pain of childbirth is God’s punishment for Adam and Eve for eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Ehrman points out that punishment is usually meted out to people rather persons, hence Israel is conquered by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans etc., as a punishment for its people not following the Laws of Moses. The punishment is indiscriminate.

Suffering is a form of paternalistic encouragement to return to righteousness: the divine equivalent of ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’. This and suffering as punishment are closely linked.

Suffering is redemptive and is God’s way of creating a greater good.

Suffering is a test of faith with Job being the archetypal test subject. Christianity is based on the suffering of one man, Jesus. The apostle Paul ‘revelled’ in his own suffering as it brought him closer to Jesus and hence God.

Suffering is caused by dark forces in the world who are opposed to God; and, by implication, God chooses not to intervene. However, there will be a coming apocalypse when everyone will be judged and dispatched to either Heaven or Hell. Ehrman spends some time on Apocalypticism as a genre and shows how the Books of Daniel in the OT and Revelation in the NT are from that genre. He identifies Jesus and Paul as apocalypticists and that early Christian tradition spoke of a bodily resurrection with the Apocalypse happening within the lifetime of Paul and the disciples.

Apocalypticism Mark 2: The Apocalypticism of Jesus and Paul was frustrated by the brute evidence that the apocalypse and the ensuing rapture did not happen in the lifetime of the early Christians. Hence, this solution has morphed from a bodily rapture in the near future to a spiritual one at the end of time.

Suffering is a mystery that we either never understand or will only understand when God explains it to us at the end of time. This is related to the greater good argument: “God moves in mysterious ways”

Suffering just is. Natural disasters are just the chaotic solutions to mathematical equations and physical laws that govern the universe. Humankind is driven by genetics and we are capable of great good and great evil.

In support of the last argument, Ehrman cites Ecclesiastes which takes a very similar view. To make just one quote “Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!” Ehrman states that Ecclesiastes is his favourite book of the Bible: with a simple message of enjoy life now as it is all we have. Being a book of the Old Testament it is not encumbered by the Christian need for salvation. Prompted by this Ehrman I have just started to read all of Ecclesiastes.
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on 20 June 2013
Slightly sensational title but very good, thought-provoking content detailing the different reasons given by various biblical authors for why there is suffering in the world. The author does not force a single view but gives a clear summary of each "theory" and asks the important question : what must we do to respond to the suffering in our world today. I enjoyed this book very much and recommend it highly.
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on 7 January 2014
An amazing book, which shows how the problem of why a 'loving' God allows suffering in this world destroys strikes at the heart of Christian credibility. A must read for anyone seriously interested in the Bible, the Christian religion or spirituality in general.
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