Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bart Ehrman, Questioning Religion on Why We Suffer (Initial Evalutaion)

Having just listened to NPR's Interview with Bart Ehrman on his New Book "Questioning Religion on Why We Suffer", I present the following observations/comments:

1. I question Ehrman's sincerity and truthfulness when he states he does not want to convert people to be agnostic as he is. (Perhaps it might be stated he desires people to question the God of the Bible, or the Bible, or Christianity, but otherwise...) Why write the book?

2. Despite Ehrman being a professor of religion (even a recognized one), I question his understanding of the very Scripture passages he bases his argument on. For example, his explanation of the book of Ecclesiastes misses the point when he suggests the writer of the book concludes that since everything is going to pass away the ultimate point is simply to eat, drink and be merry (as if perhaps from a secular humanist standpoint)... But note the author's own concludion (Song of Solomon 12:13) who writes "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man." (To understand this view, let me recommend Walter Kaiser's book on Ecclesiastes.) Similarly, with the book of Job, Ehrman seeks to divide the text without seeing the natural relationships and unfolding of Job's story to reach the conclusion through the struggles he had due to suffering. When one divides, takes from, or distorts the text, it should not be surprising to find them arrive at distorted conclusions!

3. Errors are found in each of the arguments Ehrman sets forth as to why the Biblical view of suffering does not add up. For example, in failing to recognize and understand that suffering has come as a consequence of man's sin, Ehrman dismisses man's free will simply because it does not cover all situations like natural disaster. There is nothing in Scripture that states that the cause of suffering will be limited to one entity or source. In regard to the "mystery" or our not knowing "all things" about suffering, Ehrman dismisses the truth and tries to equate our "not understanding everything" as the same as there "is no answer." In regard to suffering and a loving and powerful God, Ehrman confuses "all loving" with the necessary to always show all mercy and grace and do all that one can immediately and in fullness and totality so as to alway completely alleviate all suffering and to the full, immediate and complete satisfaction of the one enduring suffering ... or else he's not all loving. This is to misunderstand or fail to take into account the nature of mercy and grace, the various aspects of love (in which in some cases patience and allowing it to work out is best, etc.). In regard to the God is "punishing" argument, Ehrman fails to distinguish between suffering as a natural "consequence" of "man's" sin and as he puts it "God creates suffering". Confusing the two results in the errant conclusions he makes. In regard to the "Suffering can be redemptive" argument, while Ehrman admits it can be true, and perhaps is alot of the time, he then goes on to argue against suffering being "always redemptive" (i.e., he not only switches the argument, but also suggests it is not while asserting his own personal groundless temporal assessments without considering the issues in light of the greater context of God's purposes and accomplishments in redemption. In regard to the suffering being a "test" argument, Ehrman fails to recognize the various uses of suffering and also suggests because the Bible refers to it in one way in one passage for Job, that must deny other aspects, applications, or usages. In regard to the "apocalyptic" view of evil and suffering, Ehrman's argument came down to two reasons. First he suggests that the Bible contradicts itself by suggesting it is caused by man but then attributing it to the "devil, demons, diseases, death" etc. but fails to recognize that "as" the consequence of man's sin, man is subjected to these other things. Second, he suggests that since generations of believers have thought of the end as immanent ... but in his view "has not happened" then it must be false. This is to fail to take into account that each indidual of past generations has "soon" (in respect) come into the passing of this life where the "now" meets the "not yet" as well as the fact that with God a thousand years is like a day and especially given a view such as the amillenial view, not only there the present rule of Christ even now, but also that a return in the "near" future would certainly satisfy Biblical prophesy especially when one takes into account the various ages and the eternity and perspective of God (and spiritual man). What's sad is he fails to take into account the very warning Scripture gives concerning the very argument he makes that there will be those who because they have not seen will question its very truth. In effect, Ehrman's multiple errors in exegesis and logic lead to his faulty conclusions. (Too bad there's probably going to be alot of hype about this book which has so many holes in it!)

4. Revisiting Ehrman's motives, one must wonder when he presents his being "born again" and his "evangelical" studies and participation, is he presenting this simply as "credentials" or is he using this as others do to try say "I was a REAL Christian" but now I'm admitting I was wrong" so as to try to discredit both Christianity and those who are true believers. What's interesting is that Ehrman's own testimony is not congruous with those who are "born again" (for those who are... not only receive the testifying seal of the H.S., but also do not deny Christ as the Son of God).

5. The saddest part of this book is that for the unspiritual, uneducated and undiscerning, many will be persuaded both by his story and his arguments. However, the great news is that even this book fits within the greater context of God's redemptive plan in bringing all the elect to himself so that not one will be lost.

6. While I do not deny that it's an absolute qualification for one to be religious to teach in a religious department, UNC's decision in having him in this position on one level could be likened to having a creationist teach evolution classes or an evolutionist teach classes in creationism. While there's certainly nothing that forbids it, one must question whether it is best and how much stock one should put in what they have to say.


  1. Bart's fundamental error here is the assumption that God owes man a trouble-free life. He also ignores man's sinful nature, and the resulting wrath that God owes to man.

    Jesus dealt with a few examples of suffering in his day, specifically "the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices" (Luke 13:1) and "those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them" (Luke 13:4). His response was adamant.

    "No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." (Luke 13:5)

    See also The Futility of Atheistic Challenges. Such questions have nothing do to with the existence of God, but are merely humanistic objections to the way God runs things.

  2. I concur!

    While Ehrman laughs now and asserts that if there is a God and we're confronted by him in an afterlife, it will not be the God the Scripture presents; unless he changes course he will not be laughing later when he discovers the God HE's talking about is NOT the God the Scripture actually presents.

  3. I think what Ehrman is trying to show in his book is that no one bible author has a solution to what he calls "the problem of suffering". While many authors explain the bad that happens to us, there are differing opinions. Eventually, we must choose which opinion we believe- we cannot simply say that there is some consensus among authors when there are clearly different answers given by authors!

    Here, we run into a problem because we are forced to pick and choose which authors' perspectives we agree with or think are correct. But what makes one biblical author's word credible and the other's word false?

    In other words, it cannot be that God is punishing people for their wrongdoings, and this is why we suffer [terrible things happen to people who do very little wrong, while thieves and murderers get away]. Rationally, this cannot be the answer because it doesn't make sense!

    Some would argue that there are multiple answers- that God punishes because we do wrong, that we suffer because we are given free will, and that we should not even ask why we suffer. Each author deals with this problem differently; just as the differing views of Jesus in early Christianity [docetic, fully-divine, etc.] cannot all be true at the same time, so too is it impossible for there to be multiple answers to why we suffer.

    The authors of the books of the bible did not KNOW that another author was going to write a later book that would add to the understanding of suffering- these were PEOPLE who wrote what they believed. The author of Ecclesiastes had different beliefs and perspectives on why we suffer as compared to the author of the book of Luke- he/she didn't think he had one little piece of the solution that would fit into the bigger answer that would come later. In the same way, we must see each author of any book about suffering as a DIFFERENT author with a DIFFERENT perspective.

  4. Stephen,

    I do not object to your description of the differences between my position (/perspective) and that of Ehrman. Nor do I argue that theological presuppositions (/perspectives) affect the outcome (/conclusions) people draw. What I do differ with is the following:
    1. Whether Ehrman's historical views are consistent with the text. (i.e., see my argument of his treatment of Ecclesiasties).
    2. Whether Ehrman's historical perspective alone which denies the various other exegetical and hermeneutical perspectives and context is the correct one. (i.e., is it wise to form one's conclusions based on only one exegetical aspect separated from all the many others??)
    3. Whether Ehrman (or YOU???) take the concept and consequences of original sin into account.
    4. Whether the fact that men "murder, steal, and [seem to] get away with horrible things" means God does not respond to men's sin. (i.e., whether either Ehrman or you understand passages such as Ps 73, 37,etc.)
    5. Whether it's "worthless to argue over the interpretation of these passages" (i.e., for depending on where you stand in regard to the Lord, your very salvation and edification could come about and/or be enhanced through it.)

    (It may be Monday morning before I can get back, but would love to discuss these matters with you more)

  5. To Quote: " I must say I do partially agree- I feel like Ehrman's summation of Ecclesiastes is more of his personal perspective being read into the words than the words themselves being interpreted. While there are a few passages that support his idea, I agree that he seems to have taken them and applied their meaning to all of Ecclesiastes."

    Response: Thank you. You have affirmed my position...and even made it clearer in referring to Ehrman's eisogesis rather than exegesis ("personal perspective being read into the words than the words themselves being interpreted"). This not only raises questions when it comes to acceptance of his position, but perhaps his motive and presupposition as well.

    Likewise, while I'm prepared to answer your remaining questions, one must wonder _why_ you have such opposition to the Scripture being right. Note other than finally admitting that Ehrman is wrong (when the evidence is clearly against him), rather than seeking to find if the issues raised can in any way be reconciled, you have on every issue been ready to argue against them. Suppose, like Ehrman, this could not only be an issue of scholarship, but even more importantly an issue of the heart? In Acts 9, Jesus not only lays Saul's sin before him ...that (though he thought himself smart, righteous, etc., that) he was persecuting Christ (denying his entity as the Son of God as well as his authority and kingdom), but Jesus asks the question "Saul, WHY do you persecute me? This, even beyond the issues is the ultimate question that must be addressed. Steven, why is it (as you demonstrate) that you oppose Jesus?