Trevor'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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's review
Aug 30, 08

bookshelves: history, philosophy, religion, social-theory

Read this book.

I don’t care if you are a fundamentalist Christian or a wishy-washy Christian or a lapsed Christian or a never was Christian – the discussion here in this book is so important and so well put together that I would find it hard to believe that any thinking human being would not get something worthwhile out of it.

I’ve only recently finished reading another of his books – Misquoting Jesus. I came away from that book not really knowing if the author was a Christian or not – and really not caring. What was utterly clear was that this guy knows his stuff. Having been that most rare of God’s creatures – a Fundie with a brain – he has researched and studied the Bible in more depth than most of us would ever dream of doing. His command of his subject matter is inspiring. For this alone reading this book is worthwhile – it is an article of my faith that when people write about subjects that truly concern them they almost invariably write well.

But this isn’t just a well written book. This is the story of why a man who spent years trying to become a better Christian finally had to give up on Christianity. The problem that ended his faith and the problem in the title is the problem of suffering.

Suffering is one of those things that is supposed to drag people into churches. And this isn’t something the Churches themselves try to hide – we have all heard that ‘there are no Atheists in the fox-holes”. So, this book seeks to discuss the answers presented in the Bible to explain suffering and asks whether these answers are good or bad answers.

One of the things people might find surprising is that the Bible doesn’t have one answer for why there is suffering, but many. Also that of these many some of the answers are mutually exclusive and contradictory. I’ve no real problem with that – the Bible is supposed to be a book about life and life is, if anything, contradictory and full of mutually exclusive answers.

The first major explanation for suffering in the Bible is that it is God’s punishment for us not following his laws. But this doesn’t make a lot of sense – as some of us are punished without having committed any sin. Children born with AIDS, for example.

There is an extensive discussion of the book of Job and this was utterly fascinating. I didn’t realise Job was two books that had been rather inexpertly patched together – a prose book and a poetry book. You’d think I’d have noticed such a thing. I am going to have to read this book of the Bible again at some stage. It is, beyond question, the strangest book of the Bible. Take a man without sin and make his life an utter misery – kill his kids, take away his property, give him sores – and just to see if he ever gets around to cursing God. And this all done by God so he can win a bet!

I also hadn’t realised that the Jews didn’t originally have a notion of eternal life and going to ‘heaven’. Ehrman points out that whoever wrote Ecclesiastes clearly felt this life was all there was and that we should live life in this life so as to enjoy it to the full. In fact, Ehrman says that if he is a follower of the Bible at all – then this is the book of the Bible that he follows. There is no eternal fame or anything like it – there is here and now and everything you love is set to perish – so live and love and share and engage and make the world a better place. This is all there is and welcome the joy and beauty and utter wonderfulness of it.

I’ve never quite gotten as far as Ecclesiastes in my readings of the Bible – but I definitely will have to read it now.

Also discussed are the standard religious views of suffering – that suffering is good for you as it focuses the mind on God and doesn’t make us too ‘uppity’. That suffering now is part of the way to ensure you get good stuff in the next life – for he who is last shall be first.

Ehrman rejects each of these views in turn as a basis on which to build a good or moral life.

Oh, I should have expressed the problem by now – I’ll do it immediately. The problem is: why is there suffering in the world? If God is all ‘good’ and all ‘powerful’ – then why does he allow suffering? The answers to this question have tortured people of faith throughout time. Which is why we end up with answers like, “It is God’s punishment.” Which is appalling. There is a really nice bit in the book where Ehrman explains why he doesn’t say Grace for his food. The problem being not in feeling grateful for the abundance of food he has – but because thanking God for this abundance also implies its opposite, that God is responsible for the shortage of food that confronts and that kills so many people around the world today.

I never have been religious, I find it hard to understand how anyone could be religious, so it really isn’t my place to go recommending books to the religious, I guess. Whatever you get out of ‘religion’ is forever barred to me, I suspect. All the same, if any part of the religious experience is open to rational discussion then this book should be essential reading for all Christians. I don’t mean that it will end your faith – that isn’t Ehrman’s intention – and even his wife is still a believer (and let's face it, if you can't even convert your wife - who has to put up with you all day long - you're not doing a terribly good job of converting people). What it will do is make you think about the nature of suffering and perhaps see that the message Jesus was giving wasn’t, “I want you to be rich” – but something a little different. I think I could almost put up with Christians if one of two of them where a little more Christian.

This book isn’t about converting people to atheism, nonetheless, it presents the problem of suffering in a way that ought to be a challenge to anyone’s faith. This is a problem that made the writer lose his faith. He is a compassionate, interesting, intelligent and thoughtfully close reader of Biblical texts. You may not agree with his conclusions, but you ought to read him all the same.
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Comments (showing 1-33 of 33) (33 new)

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message 1: by Lena (new)

Lena Excellent review, Trevor. Thanks.

message 2: by Meen (new)

Meen that most rare of God’s creatures – a Fundie with a brain

That was so funny, and the rest of your review so astute, that I have to friend you now!

Wendy Great review, Trevor. So glad you like Ehrman as much as I do! Job is really one of the most interesting knots in the Bible and oft quoted by people who at some level wish they could explain it in a way that is palatable!

Trevor Thank you all for your comments - Ginnie, I'll see if I can find your friend's book.

message 5: by Bruce (new)

Bruce I like your review, Trevor. I intend to read some of Ehrman's book but haven't had the chance yet. But I have "done" several of his courses through The Teaching Company and they have been outstanding. I have great respect for him and his intellectual integrity. You might look up the info about his courses; perhaps you might like to try them.

Trevor Yes, I'll have to look for them. I'm very fond of The Teaching Company and its courses. Some of their courses on philosophy are outstanding and I listened to one on Shakespeare (word and action I think it was called) which I enjoyed very much.

Krishan I've just finished his book - "The Lost Gospel of Judas: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed". It's a must read. I'll post a review soon enough.

Trevor I saw he had written this - I'll look forward to your review.

message 9: by Richard (last edited Dec 20, 2008 10:53AM) (new)

Richard Ehrman is a regular cottage industry in biblical studies. I've never read his books -- I stumbled on him as an audiobook lecturer at The Teaching Company where he has done a dozen or more lecture series. And he does a good job at it, too.

Oh, I just realized Bruce already said this... :-)

It is strange, I haven't been a believer since my teen years, but I've never understood the big problem. After all, after you die, Christians believe you will (a) understand all, and (b) be with God for eternity, right? So the magnitude and trauma of any suffering here on earth is akin to a child scraping their knee -- it seems really bad to the kid, but in the larger scheme of that child's existence it really doesn't count for much.

The obsession with suffering on this side of the veil should be as silly as worrying about material possessions. Just an example of people neglecting to look at the big picture.

Trevor And it seems even more strange the other way around. Imagine you are an all powerful God. You create a universe. You pop some ants into it. You let them play out their games for three score and ten (which in view of eternity is much the same as not letting them play at all) and then You either punish them for eternity or give them riches beyond compare for eternity - and all on the basis of how they behaved in that twinkling of an eye. I can understand how people might fear such a God, but love Him? That seems incomprehensible to me.

message 11: by Richard (new)

Richard Yeah, my biggest problem with all our religions is their lack of rationality. I mean, logic is one of a perfect God's greatest gifts, but then He ends up being contradictory and irritable? What's up with that?

Trevor I've been thumped a few times on Goodreads for saying much the same thing - although, admittedly, I was being a prat and basically asking for it.

I think Ehrman would consider himself 'spiritual' (perhaps) rather than religious (I guess). These distinctions trouble me. I can never work out what any of them mean. But there is little wonder in the fact that when people are confronted with all the bignesses and littlenesses of our existence that logic strains under the weight. I can see why people turn to something - but as soon as I say something like that I feel like I am being patronising. And perhaps I am, even if I don't really mean to be.

message 13: by Meen (new)

Meen Awww, look, Trevor! This is the review where we first met!


(Richard, I'm an official Trevor-review groupie, in case you couldn't tell.)

I do the same thing, Trevor (see why people turn to religion), and I think it is inevitably patronizing at some level, b/c the whole thing that leads me to say that is that I don't turn to it anymore because I think that I see beyond it now and really wish everyone else could.

message 14: by Petra X (new)

Petra X I've ordered the book for my shop on the strength of this excellent review.

message 15: by Betsy (new) - added it

Betsy Boo Trevor wrote: "I've been thumped a few times on Goodreads for saying much the same thing - although, admittedly, I was being a prat and basically asking for it.

I think Ehrman would consider himself 'spiritual..."

Great review! This book was recommended to me because I am going through a crisis of faith right now. I am a Christian...have been one all my life...but I have recently found myself in a bad place regarding religion and the Bible. I had never read the Old Testament straight through and a few months ago, decided I would. Didn't get very far because in the Old Testament God is not compassionate, but vengeful. I do love the New Testament for its lessons on how we should love one another.

Regarding the "distinctions" you mention Ehrman speaks about between spirituality and religion...can I simply say that I believe that there is a difference? I discovered the difference when I finally gave up on "organized" religion a few months ago. I finally realized that the church has lost sight of what its purpose is...that is, if it ever really understood it.

message 16: by Paul (last edited May 23, 2010 01:09PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Richard : "So the magnitude and trauma of any suffering here on earth is akin to a child scraping their knee -- it seems really bad to the kid, but in the larger scheme of that child's existence it really doesn't count for much"


I guess some people rally do think this but


(the sound of one mind boggling)

message 17: by Mark (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mark ?????????????????????????????????
this boggles your mind? ;-) I wish you'd explain, Paul.

message 18: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Not sure how serious a wish that is, Mark! But really, theodicy does boggle my mind. See my review of Theology A Short Introduction for further perorations, if interested.

message 19: by Mark (last edited Jun 11, 2010 06:17AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mark I guess I should attempt to clarify the context in which I replied to your comment. Both of us came lately to the thread, but I hadn't taken the chance to explore your other reviews of books on similar topics to know your perspective on theodicy.

What (I thought) you commented on was Richard's comment that the magnitude and trauma of earthly suffering was akin to a child's scraping his knee" ie, not amounting to much in the grand scheme of things.

Richard seems to be saying that although he lost his faith years ago, he still understands why believers attempt to comfort each other with the knowledge that God will "kiss it and make it all better." Why should it not be possible for someone without a belief in eternal reward to at least agree that in the larger scheme of the universe, human suffering is a matter of indifference? Even if you don't believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, you could hardly disagree that "man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live and is full of misery."

message 20: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Ah right. Well, of course I do actually believe in the indifference of the universe, and I do actually believe that whilst there might be something that brought this universe into a state of being able to be, as it were, which I'm happy to call by a name, even God, this thing called God has no more awareness of us than electricity is aware of a lighbulb & this is where I part company with the believers. But it's the believers who tie themselves in the weirdest knots by trying to ascribe a personality to God, and further, a caring personality! The psychology is clear, and hapless. But what it means is that the believers have to give some account of why a Good God would allow humans to evolve on a planet that's prone to disease and earthquakes, for instance, neither of which can be ascribed to human free will. And some of these responses boggle my mind. They have to redefine the concept of "good" to a point where I would describe it as "evil".

message 21: by D. (last edited Jun 11, 2010 10:09AM) (new)

D. Pow great review, brilliant idea for a book. I believe in God but have never been able to swallow the sola scriptura party line. Just dumb.

message 22: by Jen (new)

Jen There are many solas- five I think? All of the solas are pretty sure of themselves- there is no sola doubt or sola question.

message 23: by D. (new)

D. Pow I rhink that whole damn Sola family doesn't give a good gawd damn what other people think.

message 24: by Jen (new)

Jen I rink ro roo. :)

message 25: by Jen (new)

Jen Calvinists aren't normally big on evangelism...growing up, they were always called the "frozen chosen"- and my parents were five pointers on the TULIP scale, so this was always their way of laughing at themselves.

Trevor I need to know what the TULIP scale is... It sounds amusing

message 27: by Jen (new)

Jen It involves John Calvin, so it is likely to be far from funny, but here goes:

T- Total Depravity
U- Unconditional Election
L- Limited Atonement
I- Irresistible Grace
P- Practically Perfect in Every Way
(not really- I forget what the P stands for! I think maybe Priesthood of the Believers)

message 28: by Jen (new)

Jen I just remembered I read this book on it a long long time ago and added it. I remember it being fairly explanatory and dry as toast. But blissfully short.

message 29: by Mark (new) - rated it 4 stars

Mark Ok, I'm unfamiliar with the Sola reference--anyone willing to clue me in?

message 31: by Carlo (new) - added it

Carlo Excellent review Trevor. I just finished reading Forged and it was like no other. I was thinking about starting Jesus, Interrupted now, but seems like I'll read this book. It is about precisely the same thing that made me lose my faith as well.

Trevor I think I would order his books with this one as the best, Misquoting Jesus next and then the two you've mentioned and the one about Judas all about the same. I thought this one was really fascinating, I keep meaning to read his book on the Da Vinci Code, but never seem to get around to it.

message 33: by Carlo (new) - added it

Carlo I read a book on The Da Vinci code called Da Vinci Code: The Investigation . I read it in Arabic at the time and I'm not sure if it's available in English. It was quite critical to the book and vaguely sympathetic towards the church. As far as I remember, their research was quite good. I rated it 4 stars but don't know how I would do now. I'm quite certain Ehrman's book is better. He knows his subject incredibly well.

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