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.