Bart Herman offers God’s Problem as a survey of the Bible’s multiple attempts at answering the problem of suffering for the theological layman. While adequately covering the major themes, and even modern approaches (in passing), the effort is hardly without bias against the Bible’s offerings. Ehrman offers little that is truly compelling as an alternative. Instead, he uses the Biblical texts as a platform, a jumping-off point, for indicting God, or even denying him outright. And while his angst is palpable and heartfelt, his logic is faulty on too many occasions to be ignored. To his credit he has a deep heart for the pain experienced by many around the world; unfortunately, this book does little to help them.
Ehrman covers the biggies: 1) suffering as God’s punishment on those who deserve it, 2) suffering as the natural result of humanity’s self-inclined (in biblical terms, sinful) interactions, 3) suffering as a means to greater good, in other words, suffering that is redemptive, 4) suffering as something that simply doesn’t make sense (with Ehrman stressing God’s reticence or outright rejection of our attempts to bring him to account) and 5) suffering as warfare, or the result of that warfare, being caused by the battle between spiritual forces (with the Biblical texts stressing God as ultimate victor and an end to suffering in the long-run). Ehrman also addresses the most common modern answer, that it is the result of man’s free-will, close to number 2 above, but couched in different terminology. Ehrman in the end shares his own proclivity towards the “not making sense” answer, which is expected from his agnostic stance; suffering simply is, and it is our task as humanity to counter it as best we can personally and collectively. God is simply irrelevant to the question, or worse, culpable.
What Ehrman does best, in my opinion, is recount the Biblical stories or background material in a very understandable fashion. In each chapter, the bulk of his text is these recountings, which are gripping, if not sometimes harrowing. In these sections he is himself very transparent, communicating with great depth and personal involvement. But by the end of each chapter he begins stirring the pot, discounting the validity of the Biblical model presented in light of whatever modern peril he can offer. Sometimes these act as a good way of introducing the next topic, and they make sense in this light. But many of his chapter endings have more the feeling of venting, of dismissive rants or scornful accusations. It is at these moments when his logic is usually weakest. Here is where he makes blanket statements, and offers circular reasoning to deny God in the face of suffering.
One of Ehrman’s main contentions early on is that the Biblical answers to suffering are many and contradictory. While I think it is safe to say he proves that the answers are many, he makes no attempt to prove their contradictory nature. This does not stop him from repeating the accusation throughout. The answers are not contradictory, even as presented, but complimentary. They may be contradictory to his own “modern” sense of decency and individuality, but this is another matter entirely!
Indeed, it seems his point to stress how “ancient” the Biblical answer is, and by implication devoid of interest or value to the modern reader:
Is suffering really our fault? Is it not the case that this very explanation – as prevalent as it was in antiquity and as it is today – simply doesn’t work in view of the realities of our world? p.90
This modern view of the world probably explains why discussions of theodicy among modern philosophers is so very different from the discussions of suffering found in the biblical writings… p.121
…the entire passage presupposes an ancient cosmology… p.243
That’s how Paul thought – completely like an ancient person who didn’t realize that this world is round… p. 245
Apocalypticism is nothing so much as an ancient kind of theodicy… p.256
…the apocalyptic view is based on mythological ideas that I simply cannot accept. For ancient thinkers, like the writers of the Bible… p.259
In other words, we understand suffering – its source and how to cope with it – so much better than the ancients did. We can’t really blame them for believing in God and trying to understand suffering as they did. They just didn’t know any better. This sense of historical superiority seems very popular in every age. We must be careful not to be taken in by its allure. Yes, we have a lot of knowledge that was unavailable to them. But there is also a lot they knew firsthand that is lost to our modern sentiments and imagination.
In the end, Ehrman offers a plea for humanity to come together in an effort to “make the world – the one we live in – the most pleasing place it can be for ourselves…the most pleasing place it can be for others” (p.277,278) Since suffering cannot be stopped, as it is not in our power to end it completely, we should at least strive to make the most of life. I think this is less than what I am called to as a follower of Christ, but it is a noble task nonetheless.
I give this book ★★★☆☆. Not as good as I thought it might be.
How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer
Author: Bart D. Ehrman
Hard Cover, 294 pages