Paul Hamilton's Reviews > God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question-Why We Suffer

God's Problem by Bart D. Ehrman
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Dec 01, 10

bookshelves: non-fiction, spiritual
Read in November, 2010

From the front cover, Ehrman's position on the question of human suffering as relates to the nature and/or reality of a living, all-powerful God is pretty clear. What surprised me about the book God's Problem is that he uses the Bible almost exclusively as his reference point for constructing his argument that the question of why humans suffer ultimately undermines the tenets of Christian (and by extension, Jewish) belief.

In an obvious-in-hindsight sort of way, it makes sense as any set of arguments based on other texts would quickly be dissected by biblical theologians who lean heavily on the Bible as the divinely inspired work of God and therefore the only resource of any consequence when dealing with such weighty concerns. Curiously, while this approach is likely the wisest in terms of most likely to be effective, in practice it comes across as more or less a reverse sermon with a structure that feels almost comically familiar to anyone who has attended a variety of evangelical churches. Ehrman presents a passage of scripture to support his thesis, describes the context and meaning of the scripture and ties it in to his argument. The only real difference is in the conclusions drawn. For example, wherever a pastor might interpret the verses as suggesting a forward looking prophecy of events to come (Daniel, Revelation, as examples), Ehrman argues that they are meant to be viewed as if the writers were intending the audience to be contemporary. It matters because either argument hinges on the truth of the original intent, but I found it difficult throughout God's Problem to fully accept at face value that Ehrman's conclusions were any more credible than any other scholar/preacher's.

As for the core arguments about what the Bible says about suffering and how they are ultimately lacking, Ehrman's thoughtful examination is pretty thorough. I came away convinced that from a biblical perspective the issue of human suffering (especially the suffering of innocents) is unfortunately poorly defined and even more poorly explained. However, to me, this was hardly a novel recognition. What Ehrman didn't do an effective job at, and it's arguable whether or not this was even an intent, was convincing me that this gap was sufficient to undermine the entirety of the Christian religion. There are two key places where Ehrman's arguments are weak, one being that he casually sidesteps the necessity inherent in religion of faith to overcome when logic and limited human understanding inevitably fail. I suppose since faith is sort of an argumentative trump card he recognizes that those who employ it will discount his hypothesis anyway but it would have been enlightening to hear a discussion about how he personally was able to subvert the call for faithfulness in scripture in order to arrive at his agnostic conclusions, especially in the section where he discusses how parts of Job suggest that it is arrogant folly for humans to question God on the topic of suffering to begin with.

The other failing in God's Problem is that the detail applied to discussions of apocalyptic thought, divine punishment, and even a less-than-omnipotent deity is not given to the intriguing concept of evil (either as a force opposing God or as a side effect of humanity's fundamental flaws) and why it does or perhaps does not exist. It's likely that there simply aren't enough scriptural bases for these kinds of discussions in a book that relies on the Bible as principal reference but for a topic I think many popular notions of suffering center around it could have been enlightening to branch out into other sources at least for this notion.

It's difficult to gauge the success of a book like God's Problem. I suspect there are but two audiences: One that prejudices to agree with the author and are looking for scholarly affirmation of their foregone conclusions. The other that is convinced he is mistaken at base and will find only the flaws in his logic (or faith) to be of any significance. For the small minority who aren't looking for validation but prefer a simple thought exercise, it's an excellent read. For everyone else, you already know what you think about it.
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