Friday, July 8, 2011

Ehrman on the Bible on Suffering: A Short Historical Write-Up

Bart Ehrman’s work God’s Problem represents a combination of two different streams of attack on the Christian religion that have gained steam in American culture in the past few years, particularly with the rise and great popularity of the anti-religious zeal of the “New Atheists” (who, in fact, in both age and mostly-regurgitated arguments are ironically on average more on the older side), and – since it is written on a popular level and likely therefore to be rather influential – it is thereby worth looking at. One stream represented in the book is to attack Christianity at its foundations by attacking or trying to cast a bad light on its sacred Scriptures. Another stream is to attack it philosophically, by trying to argue using philosophical reasoning that Christianity simply cannot be correct. In particular, the problem of how there could be an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God given that the world as we know it is so full of seemingly gratuitous and horrendous evils has for several thousand years generally been one of the most important objections to theistic religions of all varieties, not simply the Christian one.
Ehrman’s book, then, combines these two streams and argues that the Bible does not give a satisfactory resolution of the problem of evil I have just described in the previous paragraph. Indeed, Ehrman does not seem to think that there is any resolution – or at least not one he would be willing to accept. Indeed, Ehrman’s own problem with the problem with the problem of evil, as it becomes clear as you read his responses to various Christian or theistic proposals regarding evil, is one of the heart or will rather than primarily of the intellect. It seems hard to imagine him being willing to accept a philosophical or intellectual resolution of the problem by proving that it is metaphysically possible for there to be an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good being and also for there to be evil. This becomes even clearer when one reads subsequent things he has written or said on this subject (he pretty much explicitly admitted as much in an online discussion with N. T. Wright ). In that case, then, contrary to the title of his book, it seems that the problem is really Bart’s Problem, not God’s.
There are a great many very sophisticated and very smart Christian or theistic philosophers of the past fifty years or so who have done much excellent work on the problem of evil – so much so, that atheist philosophers only rarely these days try to attack theism via the problem of evil in its traditional form. Yet Ehrman largely deals with various responses to the problem in his book, when he deals with them at all (he leaves out a lot of interesting and very powerful proposals), by creating caricatures of them and attacking them either in their most unsophisticated forms or in their least plausible forms (and at times, though not always, with rather weak or unsophisticated rebuttals himself). He does not, for instance, deal well with the idea that evil may be a mystery that we are not currently (or, perhaps, will never be) in a position to understand – if, as he is willing to admit, this may be, then why reject God? If there is no contradiction between the existence of God and of evil and we know or accept this but do not know how to explain evil, there does not seem to be any remaining intellectual problem, since that problem is completely tied up with the contradiction, which has been here dissolved in mystery. One is led to conclude, again, that he may have struggled with the problem of evil but it does not seem to have been much at the intellectual level.
Ehrman’s problem seems to be a long rebellion against the Fundamentalist framework he spent so much of his earlier life in and which he is still stuck in and struggling to get out of, a problem I’ve seen in quite a few people who have abandoned the faith. The Bible, in this framework not only needs to be completely infallible in every single one of its written sentences but also needs to be a systematic theology or philosophical handbook by a single author with a single point of view, answering all questions with complete certainty and doing so in a plain and straightforward manner admitting no ambiguity or difficulties. Every answer to every question must be completely and fully answered for all time and for all circumstances, with full and complete assurance. Neither culture nor literary genre (nor the idea of differing manuscripts) are to be admitted into the reading of the text, which, again, means only what it “plainly” means and does and can only mean a single thing, a thing we already have and know.
The Bible, and the Bible’s discussion of suffering and evil, of course, do not fit this framework and hence Ehrman, so stuck in the framework despite his struggles to get out, must denounce the Bible for the lack of a single, clear, certain, unified answer given in a single, clear, certain, unified voice. For him, any answer given by a biblical answer must be read as if it was meant to be the final, ultimate, and only answer to all the sufferings and evil of the world. And since more than one answer is given, he thinks these answers must contradict each other and hence this cannot be the authoritative Word of God (at least in the sense he seems to want and which most Christians believe in) and there cannot be a good answer to the problem of evil at all. But of course, there is no reason to accept the framework of expectations Ehrman is trapped in, whether one is an Evangelical more on the conservative side of things or a Christian more liberal. Again, tellingly, it seems over and over to be Bart’s problem, not God’s.

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