Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bart Ehrman on Suffering

Just for something different, I thought I'd post about my most recent read. As the graphic to the left indicates, the book in question is God's Problem by Bart Ehrman. Ehrman is a former evangelical believer and minister who now labels himself as an agnostic although he teaches New Testament studies at the University of North Carolina. I rather delight in reading Ehrman who is able to reveal much of biblical matters in a straightforward way to ordinary plods such as myself. It takes talent and application for an academic to write so lucidly for the ordinary Joe.

It was the question of suffering that ultimately drew Ehrman away from the faith, and it is that issue that he tackles in God's Problem.

In God's Problem, he explores various biblical explanations for suffering, beginning with the ancient Hebrew prophets for whom suffering was a punishment directly from the hand of God to his disobedient and wayward people. And so, the early Israelites were overrun by Assyria and Babylon and carried off into exile and slavery. It must be said that much of God's anger was against the powerful of society who abused the common and poor. Of course, the ordinary folk were also brutalized and carried off into slavery when Israel and later Judea were conquered. On the other hand, sometimes in the ancient texts, suffering served a redemptive purpose. Such was the case of Joseph, who was beaten by his brothers and sold into slavery but in the end was able to save his family from starvation.

He then turns his attention to two books of wisdom in the Old Testament: Job and Ecclesiastes. According to Ehrman, Job is two books fused into one. The two books (or sections) have different answers to suffering, which maybe is why I could never quite relate to Job. In one book (or in part one of Job), God tests Job to see if he's faithful. In this section, Job is compliant and passes the test. In the other section, Job rails against the way that God has treated him. That section ends with God being angry and declaring, in effect, that he can do whatever he pleases just because he is God.

The other book of wisdom, Ecclesiastes, that Ehrman analyses, offers a different view,  for the writer is of the opinion that there is no particular reason for suffering. It's the way of the world for "time and chance happeneth to them all." (Ecclesiastes 9:11) For this reason, we must snatch what pleasure we can out of life: "So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun."  (Ecclesiastes 8:15)

Eventually, Ehrman examines the Apocalyptic viewpoint as represented by Daniel in the Old Testament, and Revelation in the New Testament. The essence of this apocalyptic vision is that God has ceded control of the world to Satan and his cohorts. At some point (which was always imminent for the ancient writers) God would come down from heaven and do battle with and defeat the hordes of evil. Ehrman makes the point that Jesus and Paul were both apocalypticists (Ehrman's word) who believed that the end times were imminent: "I assure you: This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place." (Matthew 24:34)

That's my pathetic Q&D summary of Ehrman's, God's Problem, but I would like to say in passing that I learned a lot about the scriptures in general. I think I have a much better understanding about a number of including apocalypticism, Job, and the background to the writings of the prophets.

I must say that Ehrman is not highly polemical in this book, as much as my poor summary might sound like he is. He's not really trying to convince the reader of his views at any cost, if at all. He explains what he believes and why the various biblical reasons fall short in his view, but he doesn't bludgeon the reader to accept his conclusions. The book is primarily an overview of what the Bible says about suffering and only secondarily what Ehrman thinks of the message. I think that I learned a lot about the scriptures in addition to reading Ehrman's personal views about the problem of suffering.

I hadn't planned on reading God's Problem because the issue of suffering hasn't been a major theological source of angst for me (although perhaps it should have been), but since it was there on the library shelf as I was browsing and, since I had read and appreciated Ehrman previously, I picked it up, and I'm glad that I did.

In closing, I would like to include three paragraphs from very near the end of the book, for I think they give the flavour of the man far better than my own words. I'll bet there's a whole lot there with which most people of any religious or political persuasion can agree.

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 thinks, and I agree.

In my opinion, this life is all there is. My students have difficulty believing me when I tell them that that's a view taught in the Bible — but it is. It is explicitly the teaching of Ecclesiastes, and it is a view shared by other great thinkers, such as the author of the poetic dialogues of Job. So maybe I'm a biblical thinker after all. In any event, the idea that this life is all there is should should not be an occasion for despair and despondency, but just the contrary. It should be a source of joy and dreams — joy of living for the moment and dreams of trying to make the world a better place, both for ourselves and for others in it.

This means working to alleviate suffering and bringing hope to a world devoid of hope. The reality is that we can do more in dealing with the problems people experience in our world. To live life to the fullest means, among other things, doing more. There does not have to be world poverty. The wealth could be redistributed — and there would still be enough for plenty of us to be stinking rich. Even on a microlevel, we could distribute some of our wealth (I'm not calling for a Marxist revolution). There don't have to be people sleeping on the streets in my city of Durham. Children really don't have to die of malaria; families don't need to be destroyed by waterborne diseases; villages don't need to die of massive starvation. Children don't have to face the prospect of going to school without a healthy breakfast. A living wage for everyone doesn't have to be just an idealistic vision for a group of wide-eyed liberals. The nation doesn't have to spend billions of dollars on wars it cannot win to empower regimes that cannot survive.


Gina said...

That sounds like a really interesting book!

Speaking as an agnostic here, myself.

KGMom said...

AC--as you know, I have read a fair bit of Ehrman, including God's Problem. It is the pivotal question for those who wrestle with an understaning of God. At least trying to understand.
And it is completely understandable to me that it would do Ehrman in as far as his beliefs.
He remains a seminal thinker and a theologican I continue to enjoy.

Janet said...

I'll have to get this one. I really enjoyed Ehrman's "Misquoting Jesus."

Cathy said...


I was completely with you and thinking " . . . this is a really cogent, lucid appraisal of the realities of existence. AC is asking that on matters of an after-life and a caring God that we stand open-eyed and face the facts."

Many, many years ago I was introduced to Archibald MacLeish's J.B. I'll never forget these lines:

"Blow on the coal of the heart.
The candles in churches are out.
The lights have gone out in the sky.
Blow on the coal of the heart
And we'll see by and by . . "

Person to person we address the pain. Heart to heart. Through our private interactions, through our donations to charity we exercise our decency and experience first-hand the two-way gift of giving.

Now. When you turned south with the tact into 'when is enough - enough, redistributive jargon and insist it's not 'Marxist' . . you knee-cap any attempt to make the case that while you're asking us to look at the reality of existential matters - you're suggesting that we look away from the hard realities of the inherent flaws in human nature.

Yes, those flaws that include bureaucrats and politicians that know they are wiser, kinder and smarter than us and will tell us who has made enough and how much of our labor's fruit will be taken to create that 'just and perfect' world that is simply not possible. Ecclesiastes clearly states that
no-one knows what is good for humanity; righteousness and wisdom escape us.

To this point in the planet's history - Free, unbridled, self-interested human beings have created the wealth that makes civilization and our level of prosperity possible.

Human hearts opening generously through private and international agencies have done worlds of good.

Europe is not fascist/communist because of war.

We are not a perfectible species.

That is one of our major flaws. We hope and therefore believe we can create a perfect world.

All well-intentioned . . .

. .. But, born of a refusal to accept the realities of human proclivities, the limits of human wisdom.

Please read David Mamet's addressing the reality-denying goal of disarming the public.

Truly. I enjoyed your essay. I would not have responded with this lengthy response if I had not found it intelligent, thoughtful and well-written.

But the fact of the over-seer state diminishing the individual by taking over the finer inclinations toward personal charity, is one of the most troubling issues of the day.

Regenia said...

I am totally unaware of this writer. I will most definitely have to read this book. It sounds fascinating and I very much like learning about different perspectives on the difficult, troubling questions for which we want answers.

Lorna said...

The parts of the book that you reproduced both dismayed and inspired me. Way to go! I thought I knew where my head was, but it is now moving in a new direction. Luckily I might not remember in the morning.

Ginnie said...

Wow ... this is quite a diversion from your usual posting, AC .. but very interesting.
As you probably know he lives within an hour from me and I relate to the homeless on the Durham streets. I guess I related the most to his last paragraph where he gives his thoughts on the distribution of wealth.

Donna said...

Never read him...Every time I open the Bible, I see something new...

Anvilcloud said...

Cathy: I would really love to respond properly to your lengthy commentary. I have tried, but you reactionary piece is so tangential to the subject of suffering that it makes responding coherently very difficult for me. It seems that my choice is either to prattle on and on about your missing of the point or to just give up and keep it short. After several failed attempts to offer a substantive reply, I am forced to chose the latter option.