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God's Problem: the Exponent's First Book Discussion

Guest post by G

God’s Problem is about Bart Ehrman’s problem reconciling a belief in an all powerful, all loving, actively involved God with the reality of the enormous suffering in this world. The book is extensive in its scope, and I find myself scanning my notes (several pages worth) and not even knowing where to begin. There are his textual criticisms of the various biblical passages where he contests authorship and origin, there are his extensive explanations of the various biblical answers given, and of course, there are his logic-driven rebuffs to those answers.

In tackling this problem of suffering, Ehrman did an excruciating job of detailing what is meant by that word, giving us gut-wrenching reality checks, the numbers and visuals of ‘suffering’ (i.e., 11 million dead in the Holocaust, 2 million dead at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, 30 million dead from the 1918 flu epidemic, every minute five people die of malaria, every minute 25 people die of water-related health problems, every five seconds a child dies of starvation, etc, etc, etc…).

This book was not just about personal trials and learning experiences, he is talking about the extremities of human suffering that are prevalent throughout the course of human history. Those billions living in pain and dying in horrific ways, was it because they had sinned? Or as a test of faith? Or because of cosmic forces of evil?

God’s Problem brought up all sorts of emotions, challenged many of my assumptions, and left me with more questions than answers. His scriptural knowledge is impressive (I am also enjoying his book, Misquoting Jesus), the contradicting explanations for suffering that he writes about have been on my mind a lot lately and his crisis of faith is one that I understand very well. I did find myself occasionally frustrated by the rigidity with which he held to an all-or-nothing view of the bible’s explanation of God. While rejecting the conservative Christian view of the bible as the literal word of God, he still stubbornly refuses interpretations that are not solidly rooted in the bible. For example, Jesus as divine and suffering on our behalf, or a God that is less-than omnipotent, or an eternal reward in heaven… those are all concepts that he finds attractive, but not substantiated by enough biblical authors to be in consideration as answers; “…for a biblical scholar like me, I have to admit that it still seems problematic.” (pg 272.) I also found his ‘solution’ in the last few pages to be simplistic and shallow. However, given that the point of God’s Problem is to show how the bible explains suffering, one can hardly fault Ehrman for being rigid with what it says, or for not going beyond the scope of the book by expounding upon how we can alleviate suffering (a complex topic all of it’s own.)

This was a fascinating read, and I can’t wait to hear what you thought of it.

What parts of this book stuck out to you the most?
What arguments did you agree with? Which did you disagree with? And why?
Anyone up to challenging or expanding upon Ehrman’s textual criticism of the biblical authors?
What of the LDS scriptures and doctrines about suffering, and how do they correspond to the biblical answers Ehrman talks about? Do they shed additional light on the subject?
And, of course, feel free to add anything else you’d like to share about the book or the topic.

(By the way, reading this book made me very excited to begin our next book, Take This Bread, which will be introduced in a few days. Sara Miles, raised an atheist, doesn’t have Ehrman’s burden of ‘biblical scholarship’ and as such finds a powerful interpretation of divinity in the bible, as well as a personal calling to help alleviate suffering in her community.)


EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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  1. There are many problems with Christianity that I struggle with, but this isn’t one of them. Not that it isn’t fascinating to read about Ehrman’s crisis of faith, because I can relate to this struggle.

    He posits three assertions that all seem to contradict each other:

    God is all-powerful

    God is all-loving

    There is suffering

    He says that theologians and philosophers cannot reconcile all three. But for me, it makes sense that if suffering transforms us into the kind of being we need to become, God will allow this suffering because he loves us, and he will not use his power to take this suffering away.

    Heb. 2:9-11 tells of how Jesus was made perfect through his suffering, and that we are sanctified the same way.

    Now, I’m not finished with the book yet (just got it from the library yesterday!) but skimming through the part I haven’t read, I don’t see that Ehrman really addresses this view. The closest he comes is his notion of “redemptive suffering” where suffering can bring glory to God, or a greater good. He wonders why an all-powerful God could not have brought about the greater good in a different way.

    As far as I have read in the book, he really hasn’t considered the view that suffering makes us saints (or gods, in the LDS view), and though suffering causes earthly pain and anguish, it really is the best way to make us more compassionate and perfected beings.

    I know this is rather simplistic and there are nuances to this view, but it’s hard to explain it all in a blog comment! I’d like to hear from the rest of you about whether you struggle with the problem of human suffering. And I will have more to say through the day as I read more of this.

    Thanks, G–for this great opportunity to read and ponder religious themes!

  2. G says:

    thanks for commenting Biv!
    yes that view of suffering as a way of building character didn’t get it’s own chapter in the book. Ehrman didn’t think it was a ‘common enough’ explanation amoung biblical writers… but he does address it briefly on pgs 263-264. His issue with that view is that the ‘discipline’ is so harsh.

    And while he finds the doctrine of the divine suffering of Jesus (and what that means for us) moving, he doesn’t find enough ‘evidence’ among biblical authors for that view. pg 272-273.
    this was one of those areas where I felt he was being a little ‘rigid’ with the bible. And one of those areas where the LDS scriptures go much farther in explaining the concept.

  3. G says:

    I think that one of his reasons in writing this book was to show how many of the ‘explanations’ that modern day Christianity gives for suffering are not the answers given by the majority of biblical writers. He talks a bit about that in the beginning, how many people misunderstand bible answers (like the condemnation of same sex relations, pg 17).
    so he is not only trying to show the limitations of biblical answers, he is also trying to show how some current prevalent answers are not substantiated by the bible.

  4. EmilyCC says:

    Great rebuttal scripture, BiV!

    I was surprised at how worried I was about starting the book because suffering is something that really stops me when I think about an all-loving God.

    I often think maybe I only believe in God because my life has been so luxurious compared to 98% of the world. Is it a coincidence that the richest nation in the world is also the most religious?

    Ok, kids taking over computer…will come back later…

  5. Caroline says:

    G, thanks for this write up! I had such good intentions of reading the book, but you know how that goes….

    Anyway, I wonder about suffering too sometimes. I particularly wonder about Christ’s suffering. Do I want to believe in a God that would require the torture of his only beggoten son? I don’t like violence. And while I love Jesus’ teachings, it makes me uncomfortable sometimes that Christianity is based on Jesus’ torture.

    Anyone else have qualms about that part of Christianity?

  6. G says:

    so, as I read my mind kept turning to scriptures in the book of mormon and D&C that depicted suffering, like Alma 14:8-11 where all the believers are thrown into the fire or D&C 101: 2-9 where the saints are driven from their homes…

    the D&C account fell several catagories: “suffering as punishment for sin” and “suffering as redemptive” and “suffering as trial of faith”.

    the Alma account is different; innocent people people suffering horribly for no reason, but it is okay, because their souls are going to god. and will stand as a witness against the evil doers.
    I have to say, that particular passage and that explanation have always troubled me.

  7. G says:

    that’s a very interesting point, caroline. I remember as a missionary we would talk a lot about how god sacrificed his son for all of us… and at a certain point, that doctrine started to loose it’s veracity for me.

    Ehrman’s take on it is interesting, he felt that Paul basically created the the need for the crucifixion for salvation as a selling point in his missionary work. (see pgs 141-142)

  8. eyquem says:

    I haven’t read the book, but heard him talk about it on NPR. I also found his ‘solution’ to be very shallow.

    My biggest problem was his reading of Job. In that interview he interprets the text as concluding that there is no answer to the problem of suffering and that you shouldn’t even ask. Even asking why we suffer insults God.

    I have to say that given all the interesting interpretation of Job that exists, this is a very obtuse reading. I see Job justifying the view that a faith response is the only proper way of coming to grips with the question. I find this more appealing because there have been many theodicies over the centuries and the view of most theologians and philosophers is that they fail.

    I just think it is a mistake to look to the Bible for a rational theodicy, and I think the “faith response” reading of Job supports that view.

  9. mraynes says:

    The issue of human suffering is multi-faceted to me; even if I could understand the physical, emotional and mental suffering that so many people go through, I cannot understand God’s distance from his suffering children. I was taught in church that those who are not members of the church do not have full access to the Comforter because they have not received the requisite ordinances of baptism and confirmation. Most people who suffer in this world have not received these ordinances through our church. How could a loving God withhold the full power of his comfort? I love the section in Moses where we learn that God weeps at the wickedness and suffering of His children, yet we have no scriptural record of His providing a supporting hand to those children in need. He shows His sorrow only from a distance.

    Recently, my husband lovingly reminded me that I have no way of knowing or judging what kind of comfort God provides to His suffering children. Of course my husband is right but I’m still haunted by an image I saw in ‘God Grew Tired of Us’ of a boy the same age as my baby boy, emaciated by hunger and crying in pain and fear. No one was there to comfort him and I couldn’t help but ask myself, where was God?

    I’ve only read sections of God’s Problem and so far it falls in line with many of my own feelings about human suffering. I also heard the NPR interview and agree with what other commenters have said, that Ehrman’s conclusion seemed shallow. I look forward to finishing the book and hopefully coming to some conclusions of my own.

  10. G says:

    it seems ironic to me, the one biblical answer that resonates with Ehrman, the one in Ecclesiastes to eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die (see pgs 189-n 196) is the one exclusively condemned in the Book of Mormon (see 2Ne 28: 7-9 “false and vain and foolish doctrines…” etc..)

    now while the actual words of Eccl I find inspiring, the last few pages of God’s Problem (pgs 276-278) it seemed he gave lip service to ‘working to alleviate suffering’ but what sticks out most is his counsel to ‘enjoy good food and drink. We should eat out and order unhealthy deserts, and we should cook steaks on the grill and drink Bordeaux… we should travel and read books and go to museums and look at art and listen to music. We should drive nice cars and have nice homes…” (pg 277)

    I found myself thinking, what a lovely, developed 1st world, upper-middle class, fantasy. Nice to add a little soup kitchen service on the side… but ultimately, just as much a non-answer as any of the other biblical answers he delved into.

  11. G says:

    in other words, I think the eat drink and be merry solution to be just as problematic as the apocalyptic ‘everything will be okay in the end’ solution, and that BOTH solutions can lead to social complacency, and unwillingness to deal with evil. (see pg260)

  12. Jessawhy says:

    Thanks for bringing this discussion to Exponent!
    You said,
    “the Alma account is different; innocent people people suffering horribly for no reason, but it is okay, because their souls are going to god. and will stand as a witness against the evil doers.
    I have to say, that particular passage and that explanation have always troubled me.”

    I’ve been troubled by that passage as well. It not only shows the suffering of innocent women and children, but that women were not really citizens (because the men couldn’t be killed, just cast out) in a sense of having rights.

    I’ll admit that I haven’t read the book (I couldn’t find it at the library, for some reason), but the discussion is so troubling for me. I am actually glad that the author didn’t address BiV’s idea of suffering giving us growth. Having him dismiss it allows me to try to hold on to it.
    I really don’t like the Eat, Drink, and Be merry approach. I hope that isn’t really the best he can come up with.
    I will get this book though. I’m interested in reading it.

  13. Lessie says:

    For a more LDS centered approach to the problem of suffering, you might try Sterling McMurrin’s “The Philosophical Foundation of the Mormon Religion”. I’m sure most of you have at least heard of it before, but I think he deals with this in a way that specifically includes our unique ideas about God and eternity.

  14. OK, I finished it! I put up a (scathing) review on my site.

    Eyquem provided me with a link that discusses some of the theodicy theories and the related problems. One that comes close to what I have been toying with is called the “Irenaen Theodicy.” It states that humanity is not created perfect, but that they require growth in order to approach spiritual perfection. Evil in the world is one of the ways provided for humans to become perfected. Also, importantly for us Mormons, God does not intervene in human affairs to prevent evil because that would be to interfere with free will. I like this explanation of “soul-making” suffering. As with all of the theories, there are questions that are raised:
    1. Does this argument justify evil?

    2. Can we judge any action only on its consequences?

    3. Do the means justify the ends? What sort of good might the Holocaust justify? Would it be worth it?

    4. The idea of “soul-making” supposes that an individual may be given enough time to learn. Where infants die, or children, how can we view their chances against someone who lives, say, to the age of 80?

    5. Does this view imply that some souls are more important than others?

    6. Can the justification of soul-making be used when we can’t prove if the soul exists or not?

    I can answer all of these questions to my satisfaction except for #4. Suffering of innocent children remains quite difficult to understand.

  15. Well, my comment is awaiting moderation. But while I am waiting for it to show up, I also wanted to reference a short story by Ursula LeGuin that Jana had us read a while back on her blog, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” The whole thing can be read here. It is a view of suffering which is quite disturbing. I was hugely affected by these words that Jana wrote about the suffering endemic in Christ’s atonement:

    Could we imagine the innocent suffering child as a Christ figure? Could we consider how Christians displace the blame and guilt for their actions by heaping them up on a scapegoat to suffer for them? If we take this reading of the story, how does it change our relationship to the miserable child in the text?

    For me, this story was part of a major paradigm shift. For I am no longer comfortable displacing the guilt and suffering for my actions on someone else. Even if, as in the case of Christ, he was a willing victim, I feel that I no longer want part in a religious paradigm that has such violence as its foundation.


  16. ECS says:

    Thanks for the post and comments. I’m not sure why, but the existence of suffering – particularly the suffering of children – makes me inconsolably furious with God. Sometimes I feel as if I’m in an episode of Law and Order, where God is on trial as a defendant and I’m the prosecutor waving pictures of children dying of horrific violence and disease in the courtroom as evidence of His guilt.

    Many brilliant and compassionate people have found answers, but my rage and anger continue to be a major spiritual stumbling block for me. Even if there were a rational explanation for needless suffering of the victims of rape, famine and war, more problematic for me is why God chooses to alleviate some suffering, but refuses to act to save others.

    Wish I had more time to comment – thanks for the discussion.

  1. July 16, 2008

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    […] time around, was that it is reminded me very much of a prayer Bart Erhman described in his book, God’s Problem. For Bart, the doctrine of a God who feeds people became proof that there is no God because […]

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