Book Review

God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Questions – Why We Suffer by Bart D. Ehrman.  HarperCollins, New York, 2008; 294 pages, ISBN 0 -06-117397-4, hardcover, $25.00 (paper, $16.99, available Feb 2009).

Why do we suffer?  Is there meaning behind the suffering of children, animals, and other innocents; behind natural disasters like tsunamis and hurricanes, and human catastrophes like the Holocaust and the Cambodian killing fields?  The author has found that it is not a popular subject of discussion: “The reality is that most people don’t want to talk about suffering – except to give you an answer that explains all the pain, misery, and anguish in the world in fifteen seconds or less” (p. 198).  For many years, however, Bart Ehrman, authority on the early Christian Church and the life of Jesus, has wrestled with this problem in the context of Christianity and the Bible.  This book examines the major responses to suffering found in the Bible, the context in which these sometimes contradictory explanations arose, how they might be useful, and whether they are adequate responses to the reality of human life.  As to his purpose:

“This book is designed to help us think, not about the solution, but about the problem [of suffering].  And the problem I’m addressing is the question of why.  Why – at the deep, thoughtful level – is there such pain and misery in the world?  I’m not asking the scientific question of why mosquitoes and parasites attack the human body and make it ill, but the theological and religious question of how we can expalain the suffering in the world if the Bible is right and a good and loving God is in charge.” – p. 200

It is also in some measure a personal account of the author’s wrestling with suffering, the nature of God and Christ, and the authority of the Bible.  It tells why he became an agnostic after having been a dedicated fundamentalist and evangelical Christian who wished strongly to continue believing in his faith, but who in the end could not reconcile a good and kindly God with the misery and suffering in the world.

What are the major perspectives on suffering put forward in the Bible?  The author examines suffering as: 1) a punishment of sin; 2) the result of other people’s sinfulness and oppression; 3) as redemptive or for the glory of God; 4) a test of faithfulness; 5) parental discipline or a means of character development; 6) something that will be rewarded in an afterlife or a heaven on earth; and 7) having no explanation or one beyond our ability to know.  These explanations entail various pictures of God’s motivation and character, and appear in different books of the Bible.  For each view, the author quotes extensively from the relevant books to clarify the viewpoint, analyzes the context, and finally evaluates how successful the explanation is for modern life. 

Of course, most of these explanations are still used by Christians and other religionists.  One particularly popular idea is that of suffering as a punishment for sin or disobedience to God. This view provides the interpretive framework for the historical and prophetic books of the Bible, the way these writers understood and presented the history of the Jewish people in the face of numerous disasters and sometimes catastrophic defeats.  It periodically makes a public splash, as when prominent fundamentalist preachers blame terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and epidemics on people’s “sinful” behavior.  Such divine wrath is presented as righteous punishment and an opportunity and goad for repentance.  But God’s words in the mouths of the prophets too often sound like the ravings of an abusive husband and father who savagely beats his wife and children if they won’t obey him and participate on his terms in his “loving” and “protecting” relationship, all the while feeling completely justified and self-righteous.  He would rather destroy them completely than have them abandon him or his rules.  As the author says of the God portrayed in Hosea: “This is not the kind, loving, caring, forgiving God of nursery rhymes and Sunday school booklets.  God is a fierce animal who will rip his people to shreds for failing to worship him” (p. 46).  

How can punishment be avoided?  Sin could be atoned for by sacrifices or offerings, generally animal sacrifices, which were at the heart of ancient Jewish worship and temple activity.  The centrality of sacrifice appears in the story of Abraham and Isaac, an episode which moves the author to comment: “There have been many people since Abraham’s day who have murdered the innocent, claiming that God told them to do so.  What do we do with such people?  We lock them up in prison or execute them.  And what do we do with Abraham?  We call him a good and faithful servant.  I often wonder about this view of suffering” (p. 170).  The centrality of the atoning power of sacrifice led early Jewish Christians to interpret and present Jesus as the ultimate animal sacrifice, the Lamb of God, who would take away eternally God’s punishment for all people.  This is still the basis of most Christian theology and belief. 

The flip side of the punishment coin is the idea that God rewards the righteous.  This thinking justifies the many variations of "Prosperity Christianity," where wealth and success are signs of God’s favor.  (One can only wonder what then becomes of the many sayings of Jesus advocating poverty, such as “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”) Ehrman points out that this outlook is apt to make those who don’t suffer feel self-righteous, while those who lose a job or a child feel guilty because such misfortunes indicate that they must have sinned.  Nor does the punishment-and-reward attitude explain suffering from natural disasters, where infants and people of all descriptions perish together by the thousands.  Does killing these innocent people somehow serve as a divine punishment for the guilty? 

Perhaps the most intriguing section deals with the apocalyptic answer to suffering, a stance that has become very popular today among fundamentalist and evangelical Christians.  It originated around the time of the Maccabean revolt with the question: what response can we make when people suffer or are killed precisely because they are being obedient to God and trying to faithfully carry out their religious obligations to him?  Here suffering is certainly not a punishment, reproof, or lesson.  The concept of an afterlife arose to give meaning to this type of pious suffering and death – no mention is made of an afterlife in Biblical books older than about 170 years before the birth of Jesus.  How did this view develop?

“For apocalypticists, cosmic forces of evil were loose in the world, and these evil forces were aligned against the righteous people of God, bringing pain and misery down upon their heads, making them suffer because they sided with God.  But this state of affairs would not last forever.  Jewish apocalypticists thought, in fact, that it would not last much longer.  God was soon to intervene in this world and overthrow the forces of evil; he would destroy the wicked kingdoms of this world and set up his own kingdom, the Kingdom of God, one in which God and his ways would rule supreme, where there would be no more pain, misery, or suffering.  And when would this kingdom arrive?  In the words of the most famous Jewish apocalypticist of all, “Truly I tell you, some of those standing here will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God having come in power” (Mark 9:1).  Or as he says later – to those who were standing right in front of him – “truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place” (Mark 13:30).  These are the words of Jesus.  Like other apocalypticists of his day, Jesus believed that evil forces were causing suffering for the people of God but that God was about to do something about it – soon, within his own generation.” – p. 205
    “Most Christians today, of course, do not think of Jesus principally as a Jewish apocalypticist.  This is certainly not the view of Jesus taught in most Sunday schools or proclaimed from most pulpits.  Nevertheless, this is how the majority of critical scholars in the English-speaking (and German-speaking) world have understood Jesus for more than a century, since the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s classic study, The Quest of the Historical Jesus . . . What I’m trying to show is that the Bible contains apocalyptic teachings – and it is beyond doubt that throughout our earliest sources describing Jesus’ life, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus is portrayed as delivering an apocalyptic message of the coming end and the need to remain faithful to God in anticipation of the judgment soon to occur.” – p. 219

Paul was also an apocalyptic believer, which is why the physical resurrection of Jesus was so vital to him: as a Pharisee he believed that physical resurrection would mark the end of history. “For Paul, the solution to the pain and suffering of the world comes at the end of the age, when all are transformed and brought in to the glorious Kingdom of God in which there will be no more misery, anguish, or death.  This is a future event, but it is imminent.  The evidence?  Jesus has been raised from the dead, so the resurrection as begun” (p. 242).  Jesus’ physical resurrection from the tomb marked the beginning of the general resurrection of the dead, showing without doubt that the end times were at hand and that Paul and his generation would live to see the Kingdom of God imposed on earth. 

Apocalypsis means “revealing” or “unveiling” in Greek, and most documents of this genre tell of a vision seen by the author showing the end of history and the fulfillment of God’s plans. The four elements of apocalyptic thought are: 1) dualism: good vs evil, God vs the Devil, with evil now ascendant in the world but God soon stepping in to overthrow evil and reward the faithful. 2) Pessimism: evil controls the world and there is nothing that human beings can do about it; only God can intervene. 3) Vindication: God will intervene and reward forever those loyal to him and punish eternally those who have sided with evil, both the living and the dead, as there will be a physical resurrection of the dead at the time of judgment; here is the origin of eternal reward and punishment and a physical resurrection. 4) Imminence: God will intervene very very soon, so keep hoping and being faithful.  Ehrman considers as advantages of this view that it takes evil seriously while not holding God responsible for injustice, illness, and disasters – these are brought about by the forces of evil.  Yet if God has the power to intervene and chooses not to, wouldn’t he be responsible for the evil done while he failed to act?  On the minus side, in the over 2000 years since this view was formulated, God has not intervened and every single of the many predictions that the end was near or would arrive at a particular time have proven completely wrong.  Moreover, it is predicated on the physical reality of a three-level universe of heaven above us, flat earth, and underworld. This is no longer credible – God is not “up above” the clouds, the earth is surrounded in every direction by stars and galaxies extending as far as telescopes can see.  Apocalypticism also tends to lead to complacency about evil because it is not a human problem or open to human solutions; only God can address evil and only at the end of history.

God’s Problem is a thoughtful reflection on and analysis of the views offered in the Bible on the causes of suffering and the resulting implications for the nature of God.  It encourages us to look beyond facile and convenient conventional answers to this central problem of human existence. – Sarah Belle Dougherty (November 2008)

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