Paul'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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M_50x66
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Sep 04, 08

bookshelves: atheology, problem-of-evil
Recommended to Paul by: pmanat@gmail.com
Read in September, 2008

This book is well written, no doubt there. Ehrman has a knack for writing to the “man on the street.” As such this book reads fast and smooth, much like his Misquoting Jesus. Thus, my low ranking is due to the content of the book, the cogency of the argumentation. This book is so chalk full of errors that the measly 10,000 characters goodreads gives isn’t enough. I could use 100,000 characters.

God's problem is that suffering exists and the Bible can't explain it. Ehrman tries to show this by noting myriad biblical explanations for suffering and then showing how these answers are “contradictory” (19) with each other. I count roughly 7 explanations for suffering: punishment for sin (Ch.2 & 3); sinners cause it (Ch.4); greater good (Ch.5); no reason (Ch.6); apocalyptic view (Ch.7 & 8); God isn’t all powerful to stop it (Ch. 9); Christ’s suffering is God’s answer (Ch. 9).

Ehrman fails to show how these are contradictory, though. Not sure he knows what a contradiction is. For example, the first view Ehrman admits wasn’t meant to be applied universally: “I should stress that the prophets themselves never state this as a universal principle, a way of explaining every instance of suffering” (53). But he later acts as if this view is “at odds” with some instances of suffering: “The classical view of suffering just didn’t work, for me, as an explanation for what actually happened in the world” (96). That may be true. But, it’s hardly coherent to claim a view as contradictory which you admit has exceptions and qualifications! Ehrman repeats this blunder several times in the book (47, 53-55, 90, 96, 120, 203, 214). Moreover, many of his critiques beg the question. If this is punishment for crimes, why complain? I don’t see him complaining that child molesters are made to “suffer” in jail for their crimes. How dare we punish criminals.

Ehrman also creates straw men. He pretends that many of the answers don’t work because if God helped his people in the past he should help them now: “If God intervened before to help us, why doesn’t he help us now?” (89, also cf.16). Not only does this ignore the fact that God frequently did not intervene to help his people, it ignores the uniqueness of theocratic Israel. Ehrman seems to read the Bible as if there weren’t hundreds and hundreds of years between events. As if miracles and God delivering his people were every day occurrences back then. This is how a 5 yr. old reads the Bible, folks. He also seems to make rather large non-sequiturs that if God did x then, he should do x now. Bart can therefore disbelieve the Bible every time he comes face to face with a bush that is not burning and God not commissioning him to go deliver his people and take them to a bit of physical land in the middle east. Another straw man is the idea that we aren't supposed to suffer given Christianity.

Ehrman also puts himself up as the standard of rationality and what is acceptable for an explanation. Frequently, at crucial points in the argument, he simply dismisses views because he doesn’t think they work. “I could no longer reconcile,” “I simply could not believe,” “I could not explain,” “I don’t think so,” “an answer I could understand,” “I refuse to think,” “I just don’t see,” “I refuse to believe,” etc., etc., etc! He also shows his presuppositions when he claims, “Suffering is not only senseless, it is also random [and] capricious” (61). And he says that there are “those who suffer for no reason and to no end” (p.157). But of course this begs the very question at hand! If suffering really is random, capricious, happening for no reason whatsoever, then of course there can be no explanation! If you think something is random and happens without reason, you don’t go looking for an “explanation.” He also just inserts gratuitous suffering right into the argument, but this is what needs to be debated. His only argument, though, for gratuitous suffering is that he “doesn’t see” a reason, therefore (?), there is none? But thinkers like Bergman and Howard-Snyder have effectively rebutted the poor inference from “noseeum” to “thereisnun.” So rather than cogent argumentation, we get stuff like the above, or emotion laden, question begging epithets: “atrocious,” “egocentric,” “cold-hearted,” “self-centered,” “raving,” “hasn’t matured,” etc! When your argument is paper thin, resort to rhetoric.

Ehrman also applies double standards. In his continued demonstration of his inability to either put forth a cogent argument, or interact with any, he on the one hand claims that the answers put forth by “intellectual theologians or philosophers” seek to give “intellectually satisfying answers” but are “repugnant” because they are “removed from the actual pain and suffering” in the world, only worried about giving answers that are intellectually satisfying (18), but on the other hand complains that the answers he looks at (from the non-scholar) are not “intellectually satisfying” (274)! He also somewhat sympathizes with Ivan from Brother’s Karamazov who says that even if God gave him an answer for all the suffering, one that showed that it was necessary and for a greater good, Ivan would reject it. But it is irrational to reject the truth. So Ehrman avoids full endorsement of Ivan. His “more rational” position is to admit that he would accept God’s explanation, but only if it made sense to him and he could understand it. But this too is irrational. If God says x is the case, then x is true. To argue or disbelieve would be to argue or disbelieve the truth. So if God said that there was a good reason for suffering, and that we could not understand the reason, then that would be true. To hold out seems to me like what a 5 yr. old might do when he can’t understand something his parent says, “Nuh-uh, the moon is really following our car, I can see it!”

Ehrman critiques the apocalyptic view by claiming that it presents a utopia, “utopia is that perfect place that ... does not exist” (89). But when presenting his own view of what the world would look like if he had his way, it looks like a utopia. He offers such clichés and platitudes as: “We should love and be loved. Make money and spend money. The more the better. Enjoy food and drink. Make love, have babies, and raise families. Travel and read books and go to museums and look at art and listen to music. We should love life. Say 'Never Again' to holocausts, murder, crimes, and meanness. Alleviate suffering and bring hope to a world devoid of hope. No poverty. Redistributed wealth. No people sleeping on streets, and no children dying of malaria. No more starvation, no loneliness either” (pp.276-277). Ah, the humanistic Messiah preaches the gospel of a humanistic heaven. No more crying or curse. Notice, too, that the way to live life is the way of the Western intellectual elite. Drink wine, eat cheese, go to art museums and listen to Mozart. I bet a billion Chinese have a different idea. Who is Bart to tell us how to live? Of course his ethic of qualitative hedonism seen above (cf. x, 195) suffers from numerous problems Ehrman is either ignorant of, or too self-serving to mention.

Another critique of the apocalyptic, a view Ehrman says provides the best answers, is that it is false and based on mythology. This is based on a rather odd interpretation of Scripture. Ehrman expects the writers of Scripture to speak in scientifically precise terms. I rebut that view here .

Ehrman seems ignorant of Israel's theocratic uniqueness, the role the covenant of works plays, the concept of federal headship, the nature of the new covenant, the already/not yet view of prophecy, various eschatological hermeneutics that would undermine his minimalism and reductionism, and offers horrible exegesis of Job and Ecclesiastes. For example, he takes a disputed passage in Job as claiming there is no after life. Not only is this uttered by a man undergoing an extreme time of crisis, Old Testament scholars (Ehrman is a NT scholar) like Daniel Block have demonstrated Job meant quite the opposite (see Block's Hell in the Old Testament in Hell Under Fire). And Ehrman seems to operate under the hermeneutic that whatever was reported in the Bible was endorsed in the Bible.

His critique of the greater good theodicy was incompetent. Essentially it runs like this: I can't see the greater good, therefore there isn't one. That's how my 11 month old reasoned when he was getting vaccination shots!

He is completely sophomoric in his comments on sovereignty and free will. Shows he's not trained in this field, or ethics for that matter.

He frequently critiques Christians rather than the Bible. But the subtitle of the book is how the Bible can't answer the question.

Of course Ehrman puts forth no explanation of how his naturalistic and evolutionary worldview can make sense of the existence of good and evil. He just assumes they are features of the world. But given his worldview, this is far from obvious. In fact, I’d argue doesn’t have the metaphysical resources to do the heavy lifting an argument for his presuppositions would require. Ehrman borrows from something like a Christian theistic worldview in order to undermine it.

He also offers no argument for why we should live the way he tells us to. If we only go around once, why not grab for all you can get?

And in the end, Ehrman admits that there is no explanation for suffering. It just happens by chance. No reason for it. So when your friend tells you her daughter has died, if you remove the Ehrman platitudes, the answer is: Shit happens.

I wish I had more key strokes...
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Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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message 1: by Skylar (new)

Skylar Burris This was an EXCELLENT review. Thank you. Your reviews always entertain me. I've read Misquoting Jesus and Lost Christianities, to my chagrin, but I will pass on this one.


message 2: by Steve (new)

Steve Great review. I checked this out at the library because the subject matter interests me, but I was worried about the possibility of "straw men." Thanks for the effort you put into this.


message 3: by Craig (new)

Craig Sowder Paul, you used the word shit in your review. Therefore, your review cannot be reliable or rational.


Paul Craig, re-read it with a Forrest Gump accent, then you'll see how reliable and rational it is!


Nick Stengel The review is thoughtful and seems to be well considered. Ehrman was my first book on the subject and you have pointed the way to others.

But permit me this criticism. When you use his first name so casually and compare his arguments to a petulant 5yr old, you lessen the impact of your real arguments. Try less name calling and you would have more characters left for real critique.


message 6: by Paul (last edited Aug 08, 2011 07:29AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Thanks Nick, but I thought Bart acted like a petulant 5 yr. old and I approached him as such. Moreover, the "petulant five year old" comment was more substantive than you seem to think. I quite literally thought Bart's arguments resembled what one would see coming from a temper-tantrum-throwing 5 yr. old, which could hardly be considered a rational way to object to claims you don't personally like. In any case, I highly doubt that "the good doctor, the esteemed Mr. Bart Ehrman . . ." would leave more space for "real critique." As for what this site is, "goodreads," I thought the critiques I offered were sufficient.


Vincent Since you used the term “straw man” in your review, I can be reasonably sure that you were aware of creating one when writing it. Your lengthy assessment, while certainly passionate and well written, is quite unfair and quotes out of context to inaccurately portray Ehrman’s intentions and conclusions. It is reasonable to assume, based upon your sarcastic language (i.e. “humanist Messiah”), that your dissatisfaction is not so much with Ehrman’s biblical exegesis (for which he is entirely qualified), but rather with the more humanist worldview to which he ultimately subscribes.


Paul Vincent, since you don't bother refuting any of my points, I can only suspect that your disagreement isn't with my post but rather more with my Christian worldview, to which I ultimately subscribe.


Vincent What I mainly object to is your tendency to make broad generalizations about Ehrman’s argument(s) when he is speaking about a very particular incident or Biblical explanation, and then slam him for it. For a specific example, you write: “Ehrman also creates straw men. He pretends that many of the answers don’t work because if God helped his people in the past he should help them now: “If God intervened before to help us, why doesn’t he help us now?” (89, also cf.16). Not only does this ignore the fact that God frequently did not intervene to help his people, it ignores the uniqueness of theocratic Israel. Ehrman seems to read the Bible as if there weren’t hundreds and hundreds of years between events. As if miracles and God delivering his people were every day occurrences back then. This is how a 5 yr. old reads the Bible, folks. He also seems to make rather large non-sequiturs that if God did x then, he should do x now.” Yet the question Ehrman asks is not his own question, but the question of ancient writers, and it is found during a discussion of why such a view as you criticize was unsatisfactory to ancient authors (and apparently modern ones, too). In fact, on that page (89) and the very next he reflects your criticism of applying a specific Biblical incident to all cases. He is entirely in agreement with you. You have taken a quote out of context, inaccurately applied it to the author’s argument, and then say that he reads like a toddler.

There is your complaint that Ehrman speaks of contradictions among the Biblical explanations as though that were the purpose of his thesis and that his argument somehow rests upon it. It doesn’t. Instead, he is offering a point-by-point analysis on individual Biblical explanations (some of which do contradict, some of which do not). You are grasping at straws at a non-issue.

You say that he “ignores the uniqueness of theocratic Israel.” You are unspecific, but if you are referring to the Israelites’ covenant with God, and forgive me if my assumption is wrong here, then he writes at length about it as the roots of the apocalyptic view.

“Another straw man is the idea that we aren't supposed to suffer given Christianity.” Yet Ehrman devotes page after page as to how the view of suffering is vital to coming closer to Christ in the early Christian worldview, especially as related to the epistles of St. Paul. I do not recall him personally claiming that Christians were not meant to suffer.

You accuse him of describing his own utopia when his speaking of making the best in a decidedly imperfect world in which suffering is ever-present – hardly a utopia. You further dismiss it as humanist, when what you quote is actually not too far from the teachings of Jesus in the gospels, save for the money aspect. I will leave that personal judgment to you.

I think that is enough. Where I will give you credit for is your criticism of his use of platitudes to dismiss worldviews without adequate explanation, although I think that he is anticipating that the wider audience for which he is writing is already in agreement with him on those points. I, too, would have preferred more depth. But he is generally careful to qualify such statements as his opinion.

I should not even need to say this, but your Christian worldview is of no concern to me, although I do not expect peoples’ preconceived notions to cloud their objectivity (myself included). In fact, you seem to be reasonably (if not highly) versed in apologetics, and I would have welcomed a thoughtful analysis on Ehrman’s arguments from that perspective. I still welcome it. You are obviously an intelligent individual with strong beliefs, and I was disappointed to see that inaccuracies and philosophical fallacies had ranked so highly in the review column and caused people to skip the book entirely, especially because your apparent thoughtfulness suggests to me that you may have been intentionally deceptive in misrepresenting the book, which is far from perfect but not in the way you have presented it. I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt that this is not so.

I do not object to differing opinions but believe that arguments merit scrutiny. Additionally, I do not disagree with all of your points. And since you are publishing your opinions online for all to see I hope that you will not object to constructive criticism, and would perhaps welcome it.


message 10: by Paul (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Vincent:

1. I suggest you familiarize yourself with reviews. Check NDPR for example. Reviews are usually broader generalizations. Indeed, notice your review of my review. You made a broad generalization without specifics. When asked to clarify you then attempted to do so, as I will now too.

1.a.. This isn't a academic journal, your strictures are rather boorish, then.

1.b.. Good reads had, and maybe still has, word *limits* on reviews, so one can hardly be expected to go into the detail you seem to require, especially where the limit was at when I wrote this review.

2. The question Ehrman asked was his own, as demonstrated by my cf. p. 16. He said the God he believed in was one who intervened on behalf of his people when they were in desperate need." But *now* when he looks around "he doesn't intervene." In the book, Ehrman clearly takes issue with God, since he doesn't intervene now but he's reported as intervening *back then*. Moreover, the question wasn't one asked "back then" but is one raised "by millions of religious people *over the ages*".

3. Fact: Ehrman claimed answers for suffering "contradicted" each other. Fact: He's wrong, even on his own terms. He never ones showed A and ¬A. That was the point of my response. Moreover, I never claimed "his argument rested on it." You are the one grasping here.

4. I am not "unspecific" regarding israel's theocratic uniqueness, as this is a fairly popular term, especially among my primary audience. You seem to not know what it is, and neither does Ehrman.

5. If Ehrman didn't think suffering was incompatible with God and Christianity, why the book!!!! If he thought "suffering" was part of the Christian worldview, then how could it be *inconsistent* with it?

6. Yes, I said his view of what the world should look like is utopian, I quote him again:

He offers such clichés and platitudes as: “We should love and be loved. Make money and spend money. The more the better. Enjoy food and drink. Make love, have babies, and raise families. Travel and read books and go to museums and look at art and listen to music. We should love life. Say 'Never Again' to holocausts, murder, crimes, and meanness. Alleviate suffering and bring hope to a world devoid of hope. No poverty. Redistributed wealth. No people sleeping on streets, and no children dying of malaria. No more starvation, no loneliness either” (pp.276-277).

Looks rather utopian to me.

7. So, I'm afraid I'll have to disagree with all of your points. Since you published your criticism of my post online for all to see I hope you will not object to constructive criticism, and would perhaps welcome it.

I thought the book was an utter train wreck and one of the more poorly argued books on the problem of evil I have ever read.


message 11: by Vincent (last edited Sep 28, 2011 06:44PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Vincent Paul, thank you for taking the time to respond to my criticisms. I don’t feel that they adequately address them, although I do not doubt that you do, but I am grateful that you attempted. As I am actually quite aware of the way reviews work I did not criticize you for not being detailed enough in your points, but rather in what I see as quote mining and straw man tactics, which I then addressed in my own general way and which you have not resolved, and instead have offered others, in my opinion. In case I was unclear, I was not referring to your review as overly generalized, but at your use of quotes to inaccurately, as I see it, generalize and tear down his arguments/intentions.

I do not expect book reviews to be detailed, simply honest. I am sorry if you see such criticism as “boorish,” but I do not feel academia is the only place for addressing such things, nor do I believe honest debate to be particularly crude. I am aware that my formal writing can be very straightforward or uncompromising and can therefore be misinterpreted as insensitive, but I rather assume that you are mature and intelligent enough to take a direct criticism without the help of sugar to help it go down smoother (whether you agree with that criticism or not). If your review did not rank so highly, or if I thought you were simply moronic, I would certainly not have bothered commenting, so maybe you can take something positive from that (notice the sugar). To borrow and paraphrase one of your recent arguments, if you write reviews but do not expect criticism, why publish it where the world can see? (That is a rhetorical question).

On that note I will not take up any more of your time, or mine, on this issue. I am not interested in turning your comment area into a never-ending thread, which I have little doubt it can quickly become, and butting heads with you, as I am sure we both have better things to do (like read books). To be perfectly candid, I am champing at the bit resisting responding to each of your points. But I also realize that if my criticisms came off as accusatory, which is perhaps unavoidable as I was/am questioning your intentions, it is only natural that your inclination will be to take a defensive stance. Any concession to my accusations would be an admission of guilt. If by some chance you feel my arguments are valid (I’m not saying you do), I would not expect you to say so because of this. Given this circumstance, I do not see much benefit of continuing the dialogue (I would not venture to call it an actual debate, unfortunately).

I feel that my criticisms are still valid, but so what? I will agree to disagree, and I hope that you will not see this response as any kind of further antagonism. I think we have both said our peace and can leave it at that. Those who read the book can decide for themselves. Again, I thank you for the time you took to respond. Best wishes.


message 12: by Paul (last edited Sep 29, 2011 06:29AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Paul Vincent,

I think this will be the last post in this exchange. I appreciate your first comment, but it seems to be an exercise is revisionism. For example, you complained that I was "not specific" when I referred to "the theocratic uniqueness of Israel." It does seem to me you required more detail, and I would of course be happy to provide it if/when questioned. Anyway, you will please note that Ehrman wrote, “The classical view of suffering just didn’t work, for me, as an explanation for what actually happened in the world” (96). And one reason for that was because he didn't see God intervening today like he did back then.

I was also not "offended" at what you wrote, and so your second paragraph is wide of the mark. So save the sugar and use it to poison the well against someone else. :)

However, yes, readers can read the book, my review, and decide for themselves. Anyway, I see we both gave five stars to Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers. So that should count for something.

Thanks.


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