I recently finished Bart D. Ehrman's latest book, God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer (HarperCollins, 2008). Like all Ehrman's books, it is both informative and troubling.
The book is informative in presenting a clear summary of several different answers the Bible provides to the question of why we suffer, or what C. S. Lewis called "the problem of pain." Here's a short list of the biblical explanations for suffering Ehrman discusses: (1) Divine punishment, also called "the classical view" as it features prominently in both the Old and New Testaments, but most notably in the OT prophetic books. (2) Consequences of human decisions to sin, as in the suffering a murderer causes an innocent victim and the victim's family. God may one day punish (inflict suffering on) the murderer, but the transgressor as a human agent can also cause suffering by the innocent. (3) Redemptive suffering, by which suffering somehow works a greater good. The story of Joseph in the last part of Genesis illustrates this view of suffering, as does the New Testament view that the suffering of Jesus on the cross is vicariously redemptive. (4) Suffering has no satisfactory explanation that we can grasp, seemingly the message of Job and Ecclesiastes. (5) Apocalyptic justice: God will at some point triumphantly intervene in human history or bring to pass a Last Judgment in the next life to punish the wicked and justify the righteous.
I found the last chapters on apocalypticism especially useful for bringing biblical apocalyptic literature within this biblical conversation about suffering. Ehrman presents biblical apocalypticism as essentially the response of second-century BCE Jewish thinkers to the failure of the other explanations to give an adequate explanation for the arc of Israelite and Jewish history. In the apocalyptic view, it is independent and autonomous forces of evil (depicted, for example, as the beasts in Daniel's vision) that cause suffering, but one day God will triumph over the forces of evil and bring an end to human suffering.
So how is the book troubling? Some readers will be troubled by Ehrman's forthright account in the first chapter of his own loss of Christian faith: "The problem of suffering became for me the problem of faith." He says that "ultimately, it was the reason I lost my faith." I don't question Ehrman's sincerity, but I no longer accept constructed conversion or deconversion narratives at face value. There's always more going on beneath the surface. But I do appreciate Ehrman's willingness to put his own cards on the table, yet not proselyte. He is not an apostle of the New Atheism. And one can't really fault Ehrman for becoming disenchanted with evangelical Protestant beliefs.
Others might be troubled that their own view of human suffering does not seem to raise the deep moral qualms or philosophical challenges that Ehrman uses to frame his discussion. In other words, some readers might respond that the proper response to suffering and evil is not to intellectualize it, but to alleviate it. Paraphrasing Marx, we might say the point is not to understand suffering, but to change it.
A related response along these lines would be that into every life a little painful rain must fall, but we must press on with hope rather than dwell on the pain. Think of that scene from Lonesome Dove where Gus (Robert Duvall) counsels a disconsolate young Newt (Rick Schroder) who is grieving at the fresh grave of a friend with words something like these: "The best thing to do with death is just walk away."
I'll wind up by noting that Ehrman himself comes close to endorsing these unphilosophical responses to the problem of suffering. I'll give him the last word:
I tend to agree with scholars like Ken Surin--who is easily as brilliant as any of the theodicists he attacks--that many of the attempts to explain evil can, in the end, be morally repugnant. I can even sympathize with theologians like Terrence Tilley, who argues that a believer's response to theodicy should be to renounce it as an intellectual project. ... Suffering, at the end of the day, should not lead merely to an intellectual explanation. It should also lead to a personal response.
Originally posted with comments at Times and Seasons.