How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer
By Bart D. Ehrman
Harper One, 2008, 289 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - September 8, 2009
Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, author of over twenty very interesting books, is a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Unlike most professors, his books are very readable and they address issues that interest non-scholars.
Ehrman subtitles his volume "How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer." Ehrman shows that contrary to most people's understanding, the various books of the Bible offer what he sees as a host of different even conflicting answers to the question "Why do so many good people suffer and bad people prosper?" He shows why none of these many answers helped him solve this age-old problem.
Ehrman's question is based on the assumption that God is good, loving and all powerful, is present on earth and is actively involved with what occurs on earth. If this is so, why is God indifferent to the pain inflicted on human beings? As a result of his inability to answer this question, Ehrman, who had been a born-again Christian, an evangelist and very involved in church activities, became an agnostic.
The first books of the Bible, the five books of Moses, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, as well as many prophetical books, say that God is good, He created a good world, and that He only hurts people as a punishment for "sin." This view is problematical. Everyone knows righteous people who committed no wrong who suffer badly. Children, who had no opportunity to do wrong, die young. Six million Jews and five million other people were butchered by the Nazis; certainly not all of them acted improperly.
Ehrman does not mention that these books also seem to say that children can suffer because of the misdeeds of their parents. This notion is also difficult to accept. Many people suffer terribly despite the fact that neither they nor their parents did anything wrong. Additionally, why should innocent children suffer for their parents' acts? Later books, such as Ezekiel and the book of Chronicles, written after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE seem to have revised the notion and say "No," "the person who sins, only he shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4). This apparent revision, while more humane, also fails to explain why innocent people suffer. Rabbi Hayyim J. Angel writes about this ostensible change in theology in his Revealed Texts, Hidden Meanings
A variation of the "punishment for wrongdoing" solutions is the "punishment to teach lessons" found in Proverbs some of the prophetical books. Proverb 3:11-12 consoles its readers: "My child, do not despise the Lord's discipline or be weary of His reproof, for the Lord reproves the one He loves, as a father the son in whom he delights."
Does this answer our question? Is it reasonable to say that God kills a child to teach the parents a lesson? Does punishment really teach anything to everyone who suffers? Did the six million Jews learn a lesson and, if so, what was it?
The prophet in Isaiah 53, whom scholars identify as Isaiah 2 who lived around 530 BCE, has what seems to be the non-intuitive notion that some people suffer to help others: "But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed." There are many problems with this approach. Why should innocent people suffer for others who are guilty? If one person kills another, should a third person be killed? Did the innocent individual agree to be hurt? What happened to Ezekiel 18:4's reasonable "the person who sins, only he shall die"? Isaiah's view was later expanded into Christian theology.
The eighth century prophet Amos offered another position, one that moderns could accept. Suffering can come from other people, not from God. Amos was incensed at the social injustice of his time, how the rich mistreated the poor. The rich did the harm, not God. God, to cite another example, did not tell Cain to kill his brother Abel, and Abel committed no wrong to warrant being killed. This was Cain's idea.
The biblical book of Job offers two new thoughts, which also seem to be unsatisfactory solutions. The opening prologue states that Job suffered because God wanted to test him. This is a curious belief; it implies that unless God put the human to a test God would not know whether he was really pious. The belief implies that God is not all-knowing and, what is worse, it appears to depict God as inhumane for causing people to suffer so that He can obtain information. Many scholars say that other books of the Bible have this concept of a divine test, such as the story of Abraham being sent by God to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac.
The middle of the book of Job has still another idea. Suffering exists, but humans do not have sufficient understanding to know why it exists. People need to realize that God has His reason for acting the way He does but, being fallible and not all-knowing, human cannot comprehend it. The problem with this "solution" is that it does not explain why God wants humans to suffer in ignorance.
The author of the biblical book Ecclesiastes, traditionally King Solomon, seems to throw up his hands in resignation. Although he says that he is the smartest of men, he concludes that we simply do not know. Suffering exists, so just accept it, and eat, drink and be merry. Enjoy life as much as you can.
Ehrman, as most scholars, dates the book Daniel to the middle of the second century BCE, during or just after the period of harsh Syrian Greek persecution of the Jews, the ending of which is celebrated by the holiday of Chanukah. Although ostensibly speaking of Babylonian persecutions, the author of Daniel is describing how the Jews were harshly mistreated by the Syrian Greeks. Ehrman understands that the author of Daniel is explaining why suffering exists and how it will end. Ehrman writes that this last book of the Hebrew Bible speaks about apocalyptic events, in Daniel 7, a worldview that later became the theme of many New Testament books.
Apocalypticists recognize that a good God can only do good and cannot bring evil to this world. They teach that there are cosmic forces of evil that are loose on earth that are totally independent from God. However, there will come a day when God will intervene and overthrow the forces of evil. At first blush, this seems like irrational medieval superstition; yet, over seventy percent of Americans still believe in demons and Satan, a concept that is not in the Hebrew Bible, but is in the New Testament. (The satan in Job is not a demon, but one of the angels.)
It must be noted that while this is Ehrman's and of many other scholars' explanation of Daniel, it is not the only way to understand this book.
It should also be recognized that this synopsis of biblical theology does not include two solutions that are so ubiquitous today because they were developed in the post-Hebrew Bible period: (1) the idea that a messiah will appear who will save the people and create a world free of suffering, although some scholars see the idea of a messiah in Daniel 12, and (2) the notion that while this is a world in which good people suffer and bad people prosper, there is a world to come where good individuals will be rewarded and the bad punished; the just suffer on earth so that all their misdeeds are punished while they are alive and they are rewarded for their uprightness with an eternity of joy.
Ehrlich mentions another modern solution given by some intellectuals of the Enlightenment period, such as Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716). Human beings have to be free in their thinking and behavior in order for this world to be the best possible world that could come into existence. The French philosopher F. M. Voltaire (1694-1778) mocked this idea in his classic satire Candide in which a man experiences such senseless and random suffering and misery in this "best of all possible worlds" that he abandons his Leibnizian upbringing and recognizes that we cannot know the whys and wherefores of this world, and he adopts the position of Ecclesiastes to eat, drink and be merry.
Ehrlich also discusses Harold Kushner's best-selling When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Ehrlich understands that Kushner's answer is that there are simply some things that God cannot do, and relieving people of suffering is one of them. This may not be Kushner's view; but be this as it may, Ehrlich likes this answer the best, but writes that it is problematic because most people believe in an all-powerful deity.
Ehrlich's book is a fine presentation of the problem of suffering and the inadequate solutions that the Bible and others seem to provide. However, two comments should be mentioned. Both are based on the philosophy of Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) in his book Guide of the Perplexed.
First, Ehrlich's analysis of the biblical solutions to the presence of evil on earth is based on a literal reading of the Bible passages. However there is another way to read Scripture, on two levels. First, a statement such as "evil is punishment for sin" could have been worded in this fashion for the general population, to stop them from acting improperly, to frighten them to behave, for their own benefit and for the survival of society. Similarly, threatening people that their children will also be punished if they "sin" heightens the threat.
However, on a second non-literal level, these statements can be seen by more educated readers as "natural cause and effect." When people act inappropriately, the natural result of their improper behavior flows from the bad deed itself, and sometimes even affects others, including one's children who may copy their behavior. Thus, God is not involved at all; evil is the result of natural events.
Second, it should be recalled that Ehrlich's analysis is based on the assumption that God is present in the universe – since He is present and has the power to relieve pain, why doesn't He do so?
There is a solution that Ehrlich did not consider: God is good, as Ehrlich says, and he created a good world that functions according to the laws of nature, which are also good. But He is not present; He allows the laws of nature, which are good, to prevail. There is no need for His presence; He is so wise that He placed in the laws of nature all that it needs. He is not like the incompetent plumber who must return to fix the sink that he inserted in a person's kitchen. Why then do people suffer?
Harm comes from three possible sources: (1) People inflict it upon themselves, as when a person jay walks across the street and is hit by a car. (2) Other people harm a person, as when a robber attacks a man, takes his money and shoots him. (3) People are harmed by the forces of nature, as when a hurricane, which is good for the earth because it cleanses it, strikes a town, demolishes a house and kills its inhabitants.
But why did God create a world with forces that are good for the earth as a whole and bad for some humans? This question is based on the assumption that people are God's prime concern. Once it is realized that God has a higher purpose than people, which we do not know, this last question disappears.
Whether or not Maimonides' solution that is not in Ehrlich's book satisfies readers, Ehrlich's book will.