God’s problem? Can we Christians sufficiently answer why we suffer?

I heard a great interview on “Fresh Air” with author Bart Erhman, professor of religion from UNC regarding his new book: God’s problem: How the Bible fails to answer our most important question–why we suffer. While I completely disagree with his conclusions, you have to admit this guy talks much about the bible in ways we evangelicals would. But he draws opposite conclusions. Listen here.

Dr. Ehrman is an interesting character: becomes born again at 16, is part of Youth for Christ, attends Moody Bible Institute, and gets his doctor of theology at Princeton Seminary. However, he now says he is agnostic. Why? He sees no satisfactory answer to the problem of suffering. In the interview he describes three common Christian answers, all based in the text. The classic answer says that we suffer because of human choices. There are variations of this view. Simply put, the righteous are blessed and the unrighteous will suffer. Dr. Ehrman points to the OT prophets for this view. He finds this unsatisfactory because it doesn’t answer the problem of what causes Tsunamis. [He doesn’t address in this interview how he handles the argument that while suffering may not come in a 1:1 correlation (sin:suffering), no one is righteous and no one gets to say, “not fair.”] He describes a second view as God is mysterious and doesn’t have to answer (e.g., Job). Finally, he describes Jesus’ view as an apocalyptic view suggesting that suffering is caused by principalities and powers which will be defeated at the end times.

Two questions I’d like to ask Dr. Ehrman:

1. Since agnosticism doesn’t claim a full answer to why there is suffering (or why we should do anything to stop it as Dr. Ehrman believes) why does faith in God have to answer it as well? Since one view allows for mystery, why can’t God not clarify every answer?
2. He sees God putting his thumb on Job and squishing him with his final question to Job. “Were you there when I created the universe.” I guess he sees God’s answer as, “then, shut up.” But is that really the message of Job? If it was, why does God not take Job to task in the 40 or so chapters where he rants and raves?

 Dr. Ehrman likes the book of Ecclesiastes. He likes it because he thinks the answer in it is, “live as best you can.” I think Dr. Ehrman needs to re-read the book because it says, “fear God, and live as best you can.” (Phil’s translation)

 I encourage you to listen to the interview. Then afterwards, try Tim Keller’s new book, The Reason for God: Belief in the age of Skepticism. In answer to my title? Can we answer sufficiently? Yes. Can we answer all that we wish we could know? No. But funny, learning what we wish we could know might not be so good (like learning the day you are going to die).


Filed under Christian Apologetics, suffering

4 responses to “God’s problem? Can we Christians sufficiently answer why we suffer?

  1. Scott Knapp, MS

    I think the comprehensive answers to these questions usually fall into the category of things that the “natural man” cannot understand, “because they are foolishness to him” (1 Corinthians 2:14). And while the “spiritual man” has a bit of an edge in comprehending the purposes of God, even then there is a gap in understanding that remains for the purpose of challenging the “spiritual man” to trust God for what he cannot grasp. For the natural man with an unrepentant heart, what good would it do for him to have the full comprehensive answer to why there is suffering? Would he soften and become a repentant, dependent worshiper of God afterward, or would it not merely stiffen his neck and harden his heart further after learning how much less in control of his universe he is than he previously thought? Is not the reason in the heart of the natural man when he asks this kind of question, how might I use a better understanding of suffering to control my world and better avoid suffering in the future, and thus prove I am a sufficient god all to myself? For all of the righteousness Job exhibited in his earlier life, I believe remnants of this sickness oozed from his divided heart as he raged against the God Who allowed him to suffer, and challenged Him to compare cases in the courtroom of the ages. I have been persuaded for awhile now that the Book of Job was not so much about revealing anything new about Job (or mankind), but about drawing back the cosmic curtain and making the astonishing revelation of a maniacally merciful God who remains engaged with his fallen child who has been severely exposed for what is in his heart. It’s a glimpse of that kind of character in the heart of God that compels me to trust Him when my own heart is divided, and my own lust for godhood is exposed. His “severe mercy” is only seen through my suffering, and I think that’s all the more this created being need comprehend in this life to know Him better. Psalms 103:7 tells us “He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the sons of Israel.” To know God more intimately, to grasp His “ways,” makes it a bit easier to continue to trust Him, even when His “acts” make no sense to me whatsoever.

  2. Nate Winchester

    Here’s my logical problem with his argument (just from reading the book jacket, I’m willing to give the book a chance when it’s cheaper or if I’m loaned a copy).

    Say I want to find out the cause of coughing and look in a medical textbook. What will I find? Why there are several possibilities for a person coughing. Does that invalidate the textbook? Should I just throw out western medicine and say “it has no answers”?

    Does Ehrman ever point out or bring up ANY support that the different views of suffering in the Bible are MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE to one another? This whole book strikes me as the rant of a spoiled child who, upon asking his father why his allowance isn’t more and getting a long complex explanation about economies, dad’s pay, bills, taxes etc, simply cries that daddy doesn’t love him.

  3. Lightbearer

    Okay, I just read through the blog, and the two above comments.

    To Phil: Suffering is a very simple concept to someone who understands science in general, and biology in particular, and has a naturalistic, non-interventionist, non-theistic point of view. It’s the believer in an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving supernatural, interventionist creator, that requires the metaphysical hoop-jumping of apologetics. Erhman is attempting to show that even the most nimble of apologists stumble over this question.

    To Scott: Your last comment is a good example of hoop-jumping: “To know God more intimately, to grasp His “ways,” makes it a bit easier to continue to trust Him, even when His “acts” make no sense to me whatsoever.” In other words, you don’t have an answer, and don’t expect one anytime soon. Even more revealing: “His “severe mercy” is only seen through my suffering, and I think that’s all the more this created being need comprehend in this life to know Him better.” In other words, you don’t even deserve an answer. Battered Spouse Syndrome, anyone?

    To Nate: your analogy fails in this way: the medical textbook states the function of coughing, methodology, plus several examples of catalysts for coughing. It then goes on to show known reasons for it to go wrong, various remedies and solutions, and the state of current research. None of this is “mutually exclusive.” Why? Because it only includes that which has been verified to work. Nowhere in a medical textbook will be found faith-healing, demons, intercessory prayer, hexes, witchcraft, djinns, sin, pixies, potions, warlocks, amulets, disco music :), etc., or any of the other causes and cures thought up throughout the history of the human race. Even if multiple causes and cures were found, none of them necessarily contradict each other.

    This is completely different from a text that says A: it is the inerrant word of God and everything it says is true, B: it says contradictory things, C. when asked about the contradictions, it’s author rants and raves about how weak, stupid, and ungrateful you are, D. when fellow readers are asked about the contradictions, they pretend they aren’t there, or rant and rave (see C.). It’s not the rant of a spoiled child asking for more money (ironically, like the church). It’s the rant of a frustrated child asking for more understanding and instead being lied to, or given platitudes, or simply being dismissed out of hand, by a father who is suppose to love him.


  4. I’ve read the book and agree with Ligthbearer.

    To the curious mind, the Bible naturally poses the dilemma of theodicy/problem of evil, and it become painfully obvious that reconciling an allmight, all-loving God with the existence of suffering in our world is very difficult. The answer that Bart Ehrman proposes in his book for the existence of suffering is quite simple: there is no answer, there is no honest reason for its existence. He sadly admits how he wishes he could believe in God, and that there could be an honest answer that could place the question of Suffering in harmony with the God of the Bible .

    In an even more provocative note, he describes one of the most controversial viewpoints originally illustrated by Dostoevskys’ Ivan Karamazov:

    “…I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

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