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God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer

Bart D. Ehrman - (2008)


For Paul there is a relatively simple formula for how God provides eternal salvation for his people: sin leads to punishment; Christ took the punishment upon himself; therefore, Christ’s death can atone for the sins of others.
This entire view of atonement is rooted in the classical understanding of suffering: sin requires suffering as punishment. Otherwise, God could simply forgive people whenever he wished, and there would be no reason for Christ to die. The Christian doctrine of atonement, and salvation for eternal life, is rooted in the prophetic view that people suffer because God is punishing them for disobedience. (85)

Authors like Paul focus on the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion (1 Cor. 2:2; Gal. 3:1), but to the surprise of many modern readers, they say almost nothing about the event itself. Not even the Gospels, which tell stories of Jesus’ life and death, indicate what happened at the crucifixion other than to say “and they crucified him” (see Mark 15:24). This seems odd to people who have seen movies about Jesus-most notoriously, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ-that, we are told, give an “accurate account” of what the Gospels have to say about Jesus’ death. But in precise contrast to the Gospels, such movies focus on the blood and gore, the torture and the torment, the pain and agony—exactly those aspects of Jesus’ death that the Gospel writers never deal with, let alone explicate in long, detailed narratives that give a blow-by-blow account. One reason the biblical authors do not explain what happened at the crucifixion may be that their readers knew full well what crucifixion meant and how it was done, and so didn’t need to be told about it. It is striking that the Gospel writers are not alone in that. We have no detailed descriptions from the ancient world of what it meant for someone to be crucified. And so the modern ideas and portrayals of the crucifixion have to be based on scattered references and allusive statements found here and there in ancient sources. (107)

This view of hell was driven into me and deeply burned, so to say, onto my consciousness (and, probably, my unconscious). As a result, when I fell away from my faith—not just in the Bible as God’s inspired word, but in Christ as the only way of salvation, and eventually from the view that Christ was himself divine, and beyond that from the view that there is an all-powerful God in charge of this world-I still wondered, deep down inside: could I have been right after all? What if I was right then but wrong now? Will I burn in hell forever? The fear of death gripped me for years, and there are still moments when I wake up at night in a cold sweat. (127)

Another aspect of the pain I felt when I eventually became an agnostic is even more germane to this question of suffering. It involves another deeply rooted attitude that I have and simply can’t get rid of, although in this case, it’s an attitude that I don’t really want to get rid of. And it’s something that I never would have expected to be a problem when I was still a believer. The problem is this: I have such a fantastic life that I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for it; I am fortunate beyond words. But I don’t have anyone to express my gratitude to. This is a void deep inside me, a void of wanting someone to thank, and I don’t see any plausible way of filling it. (128)

If I have food because God has given it to me, then don’t others lack food because God has chosen not to give it to them? By saying grace, wasn’t I in fact charging God with negligence, or favoritism? If what I have is because of what he has given me, what about those who are starving to death? I’m surely not all that special in the eyes of the Almighty. Are these others less worthy? Or is he starving them, intentionally? Is the heavenly Father capricious? or mean-spirited? What would we think of an earthly father who starved two of his children and fed only the third even though there was enough food to go around? And what would we think of the fed child expressing her deeply felt gratitude to her father for taking care of her needs, when her two siblings were dying of malnutrition before her very eyes? There is a lot of starvation in the world. According to reports released by the United Nations (see, e.g.,, about one out of every seven people in the world—that’s 850 million people- does not have enough food to eat. Every five seconds a child dies of starvation in the world. Every five seconds. A child. I, on the other hand, have way too much to eat. (129)

But what happens when the prophetic view comes to be disconfirmed by the events of history? What happens when the people of Israel do exactly what the prophets urge them to do—return to God, stop worshiping idols and following other gods, commit themselves to following the laws of God given to Moses, repent of their evil ways and return to doing what is right? The logic of the prophetic solution to the problem of suffering would suggest that then things would turn around and life would again be good.
The historical problem was that there were times when the people did return to God and it made absolutely no difference in their lives of suffering. In fact, there were times when it was because they returned to following the ways of God that they suffered, when foreign powers oppressed them precisely because they insisted on following the laws that God had given Moses for his people. How could one explain suffering then? The people must not be suffering for their sins—they were now suffering for their righteousness. The prophetic answer could not handle that problem. The apocalyptic answer arose to deal with it. (203)

[A]ncient Jewish apocalypticists . . . also recognized the historical reality that Jewish people sometimes behaved righteously but suffered nonetheless. These thinkers did not take the views of Job, however, that it was all a test or that it was not a matter that can be explained to mere mortals by God Almighty. These thinkers believed that God had, in fact, explained the matter to them. And that is why scholars today call them apocalypticists. The word comes from a Greek term, apocalypsis, that means a “revealing,” or an “unveiling.” Jewish apocalypticists believed that God had revealed or unveiled to them the heavenly secrets that could make sense of earthly realities. In particular, they believed that God had shown them why his righteous people were suffering here on earth. It was not because God was punishing them. Quite the contrary, it was because the enemies of God were punishing them. These were cosmic enemies. They were obviously not making people suffer for breaking God’s law. Just the opposite: as God’s enemies, they made people suffer for keeping God’s laws.
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. (204-5)

How was one to make sense of this horrifying situation [under Antiochus Epiphanes]? Here was a case of people suffering not because God was punishing them for breaking the Law but because God’s enemies were opposed to their keeping the Law. The old prophetic view seemed unable to accommodate these new circumstances. A new view developed, the one that scholars today call apocalypticism. (208)

[Daniel's] is a vision with bizarre symbolism, explained by an angel, in which the “future” is allegedly predicted to a sixth-century prophet; in reality, though, most of the “future” events that are described are past events for the actual second-century writer. The value of this kind of fictitious prediction is that when the author then goes on to describe what is to happen next, in his own time, it does not seem that he has shifted from talking about what has already happened, historically, to what he anticipates is going to happen now, in the future. The reader reads everything as a future prediction; and since everything else described has already come true (as well it should have, since the author knows what happened in the past), then the predictions of what comes next seem to be sure to come true as well. (213)

Throughout most of the Hebrew Bible there is no idea of a future resurrection. Some authors (most) thought that death led to a shadowy existence among the shades in Sheol; others seemed to think that death was the end of the story. But not the apocalypticists. They invented the idea that people would live eternally, either in the Kingdom of God or in a kingdom of torment. The first expression of this view comes, in fact, in the book of Daniel (chapter 12). (218)

We live nearly two thousand years after Jesus is said to have spoken these words, and, of course, the end has not come. Still, throughout history there have always been people who have expected it to come—within their own generation. In fact, nearly every generation of Jesus’ followers, from day one until now, has had its self-styled prophets—there are many on the scene yet today—who believed they could predict that the end, this time, really was imminent.
One of the times that I saw this for myself, most graphically, was when I moved to North Carolina to take up my teaching position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. That was in August 1988, and there was a bit of a media frenzy at the time involving the imminent end of the world with the reappearance of Jesus. A former NASA rocket engineer named Edgar Whisenant had written a book in which he claimed that Jesus would soon return to earth and take his followers out of the world (the so-called rapture), leading to the rise of the Antichrist and the coming of the end. The book was entitled, cleverly enough, Eighty-eight Reasons Why the Rapture Will Occur in 1988. [See also] (225)

During the seminar, yesterday, a student asked if I was writing anything now, and I told her yes, I was writing a book on biblical answers to the problem of why there is suffering. As I expected, she was ready and eager to tell me “the” answer: “There’s suffering,” she said, “because we have to have free will; otherwise we would be like robots.” I asked her my standard question: if suffering is entirely about free will, how can you explain hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and other natural disasters? She wasn’t sure, but she felt pretty confident that it had something to do with free will.
As we have seen, the “free will” answer is not nearly the focus of attention for the biblical authors that it is for people today. (229)

What did it mean for Paul to be an upright Pharisee? Sometimes people—even trained scholars—speak almost glibly about the Jewish party known as the Pharisees, as if we knew all about them and what they stood for. The reality is that we do not know much about the Pharisees from Jesus’ or Paul’s day, since our sources of information are for the most part later—in most instances, well over a century later.3 We have the writings of only one Jewish Pharisee produced before the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE; strikingly enough, these are the writings of Paul, written after he had converted to faith in Christ. One thing we do know with relative certainty is that Pharisees, unlike other Jewish groups and people (like the Sadducees), were firm believers in the future resurrection of the dead. This shows that Pharisees were by and large apocalypticists, thinking that at the end of the age people would be raised from the dead to face judgment and to be rewarded if they had sided with God or to be punished if they had sided with the forces of evil. This appears, then, to have been Paul’s belief before his conversion to being a follower of Jesus. (237)

[T]he entire passage presupposes an ancient cosmology in which the universe we live in consists of three levels (sometimes called the three-storied universe). There is the level where we human beings now live, on the flat earth. There is the realm below us where the dead exist (e.g., in Sheol). And there is the realm above us, where God—and now Christ—lives. In this understanding, Christ was once with us on our level, then died and went to the lower level. But he was raised from the dead, to our level, and then ascended to the level above us. He is coming back down here, though, and when he does, those below us will go up, and we too will be caught up with them, to meet the Lord above, in the air.
That’s how Paul thought—completely like an ancient person who didn’t realize that this world is round, that it is simply one planet in a large solar system of planets circling a single star out of billions of other stars in our galaxy, which is only a moderately sized galaxy among billions of others. In our cosmology, there is no such thing as up and down, literally speaking. And God certainly doesn’t live “up there” or the dead “down below.” We have a different universe from Paul’s. It’s hard to imagine how he would have conceptualized his apocalyptic message if he had known what we know about planet Earth. (245)

But the sad reality is that I don’t think the book of Revelation—or any other book of the Bible—was written with us in mind. It was written for people living in the author’s own day. It was not anticipating the rise of militant Islam, the war on terror, a future oil crisis, or an eventual nuclear holocaust. It was anticipating that the end would come in the author’s own time. When the author of Revelation expected that the Lord Jesus “was coming soon” (Rev. 22:20), he really meant “soon”—not two thousand years later. It was only a later bit of sophistry that devised the idea that “soon” with God meant “the distant future”—that “with the Lord a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day,” as the author of 2 Peter put it (2 Pet. 3:8). This redefinition of what “soon” might mean makes sense, of course. If the author of Revelation, and other ancient Christian prophets like Paul, thought the end was to come right away, and it never did come, what else could one do but say that “right away” meant by God’s calendar, not by earthly calendars? (247)

There is no book of the Bible more focused on suffering than the book of Revelation. Here we read of war, famine, epidemics, natural disasters, massacres, martyrdoms, economic hardship, political nightmares, and, eventually, Armageddon itself. No wonder people have always—from day one—assumed it was referring to their own time. For every generation, it sounds precisely like their own time. (247)

What happens to an apocalyptic worldview when the expected apocalypse never comes? In Mark’s Gospel Jesus indicates that some of his disciples “will not taste death” before they see the “Kingdom of God having come in power” (Mark 9:1). Even though he says that no one knows the precise “day or the hour,” he does indicate that the end of all things is sure to come “before this generation passes away” (Mark 13:30). Paul himself seems to have expected to be among those “who are alive, who are left” until the Lord appeared in fiery judgment from heaven. The prophet John, in the book of Revelation, heard Jesus say that he was “coming soon,” and so he prayed, “Yes, come Lord Jesus.” But what happens when he doesn’t come? (255)

What happens to a belief that is radically disconfirmed by the events of history?
What happened in this instance was that the followers of Jesus transformed his message. In some ways the apocalyptic hope can be understood as a kind of divine time line in which all of history is divided into two periods, this wicked age controlled by the forces of evil and the coming age in which evil will be destroyed and God’s people will rule supreme. When the end did not come as expected, some of Jesus’ followers transformed this temporal dualism (this age versus the age to come) into a spatial dualism, between the world below and the world above. Or put differently, they shifted the horizontal dualism of apocalyptic expectation of life in this age versus life in the age to come (horizontal dualism because it all takes place on this plane, here on earth) into a vertical dualism that spoke instead of life in the lower world versus life in the world above (with an up and down). In other words, out of the ashes of failed apocalyptic expectation there arose the Christian doctrine of heaven and hell. (255-6)

To be sure, there have always been prophets to tell us that it is sure to come very soon. Every time there is a major world crisis, these prophets arise in force. They write books (many of them make lots of money doing so, which has always struck me as ironic). They tell us that events in the Middle East, or in Europe, or in China, or in Russia, or in our own country are fulfilling what was predicted by the prophets of long ago. But then time goes on, nothing changes except the rulers in power and their policies and, often, the borders of the countries they control. And a new crisis arises: instead of Nazi Germany it is the Soviet Union; instead of the Soviet Union it is Islamic fundamentalism; instead of Islamic fundamentalism it is . . . whatever comes next. Each new crisis generates a new set of books, which again assure us that recent events are now fulfilling the prophecies. And so on, ad infinitum, world without end.
There are problems with these points of view. Most obvious is the problem that everyone who has ever made a prediction of this sort—every single one of them—has been absolutely and incontrovertibly wrong. Another problem is that this kind of perspective tends to breed a religious complacency among those who “know” what the future holds and are unwilling to examine their views critically. There are few things more dangerous than inbred religious certainty.
Still another problem is that “knowing” that all things will eventually be made right by a supernatural intervention can lead to a kind of social complacency, an unwillingness to deal with evil as we confront it in the here and now, since it will be dealt with later by Someone far more capable of handling it than we are. But complacency in the face of real suffering surely is not the best approach to dealing with the world and its enormous problems. There must be a better way. (260)

The idea that God himself suffers is based on the theological view that Jesus was God and that since he suffered, therefore God suffered. But the view that Jesus was himself God is not a view shared by most of the writers of the New Testament. It is, in fact, a theological view that developed rather late in the early Christian movement: it is not to be found, for example, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, or Luke—let alone in the teachings of the historical man Jesus. For me it is an interesting and important theological development, but not one that I find convincing. (273)

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