Let’s look at the subtitle of Ehrman’s book and unpack the assumptions: “How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer”.
- Assumption Number 1: Our most important question is, “Why do we suffer?”
- Assumption Number 2: The Bible was written to answer the question “Why do we suffer?”
“Why do we suffer” is clearly Ehrman’s most important question. In an autobiographical first chapter he describes how this question led him to dismiss the evangelical Christian faith he was raised and educated in. In his words, “The problem of suffering became for me the problem of faith” (3).
Reading this book from a Christian perspective, the first chapter evoked pathos and a desire to walk with Ehrman through his intellectual and faith struggles. Unfortunately, his use of tragedy for shock value combined with an air of intellectual superiority quickly undermined any sense of empathy.
Ehrman brutally describes human suffering. From the Nazi concentration camps to children dying for lack of clean water, nothing is exempt from his eye. While it’s critical in a book like this to state the depth of human suffering, he uses graphic suffering to bludgeon carefully nuanced and sincere attempts towards an answer.
The bulk of God’s Problem consists of chapters which describe how different biblical authors wrestled with the question of suffering:
- People suffer because God judges sinners
- Suffering is a consequence of sin
- Suffering is the path to redemption
- Suffering makes no sense
- God will even out the scales in the afterlife
For Ehrman, these views are often mutually exclusive. His historical method precludes any systematic understanding of the whole canon. In the end, he accepts the view of Job (without the prelude and conclusion)—that suffering simply makes no sense.
Let me offer one more implicit assumption—that we should be able to fully comprehend the biggest mysteries of life including, should he exist, the mind of God and the nature of suffering. This was the sort of theological arrogance that God challenged Job about.
I’ll be honest. I don’t know why a good and powerful God allows evil to exist. I do know that Ehrman’s disdain of any attempts to reach towards an answer is no help on the journey.
—Bart D. Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2008).