You know when people are watching a football game and they can’t help shouting at the screen? Throw it to Rice! Lookout! Run! That’s me when I’m watching debates that feature some of my favorite philosophers or theologians.
This morning I retired to my home office with my breakfast and settled in to watch a debate held at Gordon College between the brilliant Dr. Bart Ehrman and author/filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza. The topic of the debate was Theodicy, reconciling God and Suffering. I knew of Dr. Ehrman and had heard some of his arguments analyzed by other philosophers, but this was my first time hearing him speak so I was looking forward to what he had to say.
Before his opening remarks were done I found myself shouting at my computer. Not to cheer for or against anyone, really, but just because I suddenly felt I had so much I needed to say. Dr. Ehrman explained how he’d undertaken a biblical analysis with his students at Rutgers to see what the Bible had to say about suffering. By the time he was done laying out the two main points that came from that biblical analysis, I found I had to stop the video and start writing. It’s the only way I knew how to process the thoughts that had begun bouncing around in my mind as I listened.
Point 1: Contradictory Teachings
The first point that came from Dr. Ehrman’s biblical analysis was that the Bible has a lot to say about suffering, but many of the things the different authors of the Bible say about suffering are at odds with one another.
The examples Dr. Ehrman shared were:
- The Old Testament prophets—Amos, Hosea, Isaiah—proclaim the reason God’s people are suffering is that God is punishing them for their sin. They teach that God uses suffering as a means to get his people to return to Him.
- The Book of Job tells us that even people who do what God wants—the innocent people—are the ones who sometimes suffer.
- The Books of Daniel and Revelation teach that it’s not God who causes the problem of suffering, it’s the forces of evil.
- Proverbs says its neither God nor the forces of evil that are causing suffering. Rather, the universe is set up in such a way that the righteous are rewarded and sinners suffer.
Dr. Ehrman concludes from this analysis that the biblical authors of these books are in disagreement with one another about the cause of suffering and that their teachings are contradictory. This conclusion seems to me to harbor the hidden assumption that there is only one source of suffering, and the false proposition that each of the writers is teaching an exclusive reason for suffering.
In my reading of the texts, these authors are not in disagreement because none of them are claiming to teach an exclusive, ultimate reason for human suffering. Suffering has many sources and the Bible reflects that truth.
As I read it, the Old Testament prophets do not proclaim that ALL suffering comes from God as punishment, just that some specific forms of suffering—famine, plagues, etc.—are a punishment to the specific people to whom the prophets are making their proclamation. Likewise, the book of Job does not teach that all suffering happens to innocent people, only that some suffering does. The books of Daniel and Revelations do not teach that all suffering comes from the forces of evil in the world, only that some of it does. Neither does Proverbs teach that the righteous are always rewarded and sinners always suffer. In the 5th chapter of Matthew Jesus tells us that God causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Point 2: Not Biblical
Dr. Ehrman’s second point is that the Bible does not teach the point of view that many people, especially Christians, hold today about why there is suffering. This is what he calls the Robot Explanation:
“It goes like this: If God had decided that we didn’t have free will, we would all be programmed like robots, and we wouldn’t be able to do anything we wanted to do, we would only do what we’re programmed to do. But if we were programmed only to do good, of course there would be no suffering because we wouldn’t hurt one another. The fact that we have free will shows that we are not robots, and therefore we can do evil to one another.”
Dr. Bart Ehrman
It seems to me that here Dr. Ehrman may have set up a bit of a straw man, or if you will, a “straw robot” argument in the way he frames this explanation. The free will explanation he is attempting to refute, as I understand it, is more accurately described as follows:
In a world where love is possible, choice must be possible. Where choice is possible, free will must be possible. Where free will is possible, moral evil and suffering are possible.
The conclusion, then, is that in any world where real love is possible, suffering is also possible. By defining the argument in this way, it also addresses Dr. Ehrman’s very compelling argument about heaven. He argues that if Heaven is a place where free will exists and there is no suffering, why then can’t (or didn’t) God create a world down here in which free will exists and there is no suffering? More on this in a moment.
In Dr. Ehrman’s larger point he asserts that the Bible does not teach the free will point of view about suffering. Rather he says the Bible only offers various contradictory explanations as outlined in his first point. This is where I had to pause the video of the debate and ask myself, could that be true? Then I spent a couple of hours reading through scripture to see for myself what the Bible says about suffering. The first thing that jumped out at me is that it clearly teaches there is a purpose behind suffering. For example, the verse below tells us that suffering produces hope. Could this be one possible reason God allows it?
“And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope.”
The Bible also says suffering teaches us the value of sacrifice:
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.”
Like discipline, suffering gets our attention and teaches us important lessons about reality. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it, pain is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world”:
“Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline?”
The Bible also teaches us that God is bigger than our suffering, and He can overcome it in our lives:
“For you will forget your suffering, recalling it only as waters that have flowed by. Your life will be brighter than noonday; its darkness will be like the morning. You will be confident, because there is hope. You will look carefully about and lie down in safety.”
“For the Lord will not reject us forever. Even if He causes suffering, He will show compassion according to His abundant, faithful love. For He does not enjoy bringing affliction or suffering on mankind.”
“I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.”
And perhaps most amazing to me, the Bible teaches that God doesn’t just know that we suffer, He enters into our suffering with us.
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of suffering who knew what sickness was. He was like someone people turned away from; He was despised, and we didn’t value Him.”
“He comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any kind of affliction, through the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so through Christ our comfort also overflows.”
2 Corinthians 1:4-5
“But we do see Jesus—made lower than the angels for a short time so that by God’s grace He might taste death for everyone—crowned with glory and honor because of His suffering in death. For in bringing many sons to glory, it was entirely appropriate that God—all things exist for Him and through Him—should make the source of their salvation perfect through sufferings.”
Based on these verses and others, I disagree with Dr. Ehrman’s conclusions. In fact, the verses above make me wonder if maybe it’s because of the suffering we experience, and what that suffering does to us as humans, that free will can be fully exercised in Heaven without producing suffering.
There are a number of other issues that came to mind as I listened to Dr. Ehrman’s opening statements during the debate, but I will leave them for another time. However, I do want to address one last issue; the extremely difficult question of natural suffering. Dr. Ehrman correctly stated that the free will explanation does nothing to explain natural disasters, like tsunamis and floods. The trouble with tackling this question is that it is being posed to theists by non-theists who will only be satisfied with a non-theistic answer. Yet any answer a theist would attempt to put forward would necessarily be rooted in the character and nature of God.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the question is a very valid one: Why do we see horrific natural disasters that cause the death and suffering of hundreds of thousands of people in a world run by a good and loving God? The non-theist settles the question by concluding this must not be a world run by a good and loving God. Interestingly, this conclusion does nothing to solve the problem of suffering due to natural disasters, it only removes any chance of finding meaning or hope in it.
As a Christian, I would start my answer by saying I don’t know why God allows natural suffering, and if I’m being honest, I would add that I don’t like that He does. This area actually touches on theories I am still developing related to intellectual ownership, anthropomorphic bias, and the distortion of bounded perspectives. These are areas, God willing, that I will be exploring on the pages of this blog over the coming months and years.
For now, I’ll just say that the fact that there is suffering caused by natural disasters does not seem to me a valid logical basis from which to conclude there is no God, or that He is unloving. There are a great many reasons a loving God may choose to allow suffering like this to occur, including the reasons listed above for the purposes behind suffering. Here the words of Isaiah ring true to me:
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.” This is the Lord’s declaration. “For as heaven is higher than earth, so My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”
One of the goals I am pursuing—and I realize I may never be able to get it done in this lifetime—is to try to come to a more satisfying understanding of these kinds of tough questions. To me, that’s how I can best live out what Yahweh said to Israel through Moses, and centuries later was repeated by Jesus as the most important commandment of all:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
Deuteronomy 6:5 & Matthew 12:30 (Emphasis mine.)