Sunday, June 14, 2009

God's Problem

God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question -- Why We Suffer
© 2008 Bart Ehrman
294 pages

While gazing at the library shelves in the "Religion" section attempting to find a book by Marcus Borg, I saw the title of this book and was immediately intrigued. The book description only confirmed my interest and I was soon reading it. Bart Ehrman is a New Testament scholar and former minister, his faith having been broken by the classical problem of religions with "good" deities at their center: if those gods exist, why is there suffering? How can evil flourish so well in a world supposedly built by good and powerful entities? This question has personal relevance to me, as I was never able to really trust God after reading Anne Frank's diary and realizing how the Holocaust destroyed real people. Ehrman actually uses the Holocaust as an extended example.

This book grew out of a class he once taught about Biblical attitudes toward suffering, and the approach he takes is to identify three general explanations for evil, explain their origin and influence, and then to evaluate them from the perspective of someone who wants to believe but can't. I say "three general explanations", but this is my organization -- not his. The first two explanations -- suffering as a consequence of sin and suffering as being part of God's Mysterious Plan ™ -- need no explanation, either of what they are or of what's wrong with them. It is the third general explanation -- apocalyptic thinking* -- that I found most intriguing. Here Ehrman not only explains what that thinking is and how it applies to the suffering question, but in so doing makes the whole of the New Testament make sense. Being familiar with history and with Judaism-- having studied it in 2006 and 2007 -- much of the New Testament has confused me. If it arose from Jewish/Hellenic culture, where did the New Testament characters get some of their ideas? Why were Pharisees suddenly talking about a Resurrection when OT Hebrews had never heard of such a thing? Why did people make such a big deal of Jesus' ability to raise the dead? Fitting the New Testament into an apocalyptic context makes it make much more sense.

In addition to these three general explanations, Ehrman also points out that some of the Biblical authors felt that suffering just couldn't be explained, and he uses Ecclesiastes and Job as its source. (Ehrman believes that Job contains two conflicting explanations for evil: the first is suffering-as-penalty and the second is the inexplicable.)

Given that I am not a religious believer struggling with the problem of suffering, I cannot comment on Ehrman's ability to convince the audience. He writes well, uses familiar examples, and appears to be quite thorough: for instance, when writing on the explanation of "suffering as a penalty for sin", he shows that this view influenced the entire historical narrative in the Hebrew scriptures. I think the book bears reading for those interested in what religious people coming from a Judeo-Christian background might say in defense of their God when asked to account for suffering.

He ends the book with an elegant defense of life in the face of continuing suffering, beginning with this: "I have to admit that at the end of the day, I do have a biblical view of suffering. As it turns out, it is the view put forth in the book of Ecclesiastes. There is a lot that we can't know about this world. A lot of this world doesn't make sense. Sometimes there is no justice. Things don't go as planned or as they should. A lot of bad things happen. But life also brings good things. 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. We won't live forever -- in fact, we won't live long. And so we should enjoy life to the fullest, as much as we can, as long as we can. That's what the author of Ecclesiastes says, and I agree. "

* In my response on my philosophy/humanities blog, I include Ehrman's explanation of apocalyptic thinking.

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