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Bart D.Ehrman


How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Readers of Ehrman's other books on the New Testament will know that he began his studies as a firm believer in the literal truth of every word in the Bible, but he is now an agnostic. It would be natural to suppose that this change of mind was a consequence of his scholarly work, which led him to conclude that the Bible is a very human document, or collection of documents. But, as he explains in this personal account of his loss of belief, what motivated him was his inability to reconcile the Christian view of God with the extent and intensity of human suffering.

'Theodicy', meaning God's justice, is a term invented by the philosopher Leibniz to refer to the attempt to reconcile God's omnipotence and benevolence with the existence of suffering. Ehrman does touch on philosphy here and there in his discussion, but his main purpose is to examine what the Bible has to say on the subject in both the Old and the New Testaments. He finds that the authors of these texts were much preoccupied with the question and produced a range of different answers, although doubts about God's existence were not among them; all the writers assumed the existence of God as a starting point and sought to find ways of reconciling this fact with the suffering they witnessed around them or experienced for themselves.

Particularly in the early books of the Hebrew Bible, suffering was understood as God's punishment of his people for misbehaviour. God had made an agreement with their ancestors that if they obeyed his laws they would be supported and protected; if disasters happened it was supposedly because the people had failed to keep their part of the bargain. Ehrman presents a brief outline of Jewish history as recounted in the Bible and shows how numerous prophets reproved the people for failing in their duty and bringing divine punishment on themselves.

As a rule the people were promised that if they reformed, God would restore them to favour and put things right, but in practice this often didn't happen,and their tribulations continued even though they had returned to the right path. One disaster followed another, as the Jews were defeated and subjugated by Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans. So other explanations for suffering were sought. Or perhaps there was simply no explanation: this is the implication of the Book of Job and, even more plainly, Ecclesiastes—which is the attitude that Ehrman finds most acceptable on a personal level.

A new way of thinking about suffering appeared in the later books of the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament. This was apocalypticism, meaning the revelation of hidden truths. The idea was that God, for inscrutable reasons, had allowed the world to be dominated by evil powers, who were making things progressively worse for the righteous. But in the very near future God was going to reverse this state of affairs, punishing evildoers and establishing a state of perfect happiness and harmony for those who had kept faith.

Others have pointed out that apocalypticism was probably linked, at least in part, to the influence of Zorastrianism in post-exilic Judaism, though Ehrman does not mention this. Apocalyptic thinking was extremely important for Christianity: both Jesus himself and Paul were fully subscribed to it. The early Christians expected that the new order would arrive in the very near future. They did not think that they were founding a new religion. Rather, they thought they were living in the last days, and all their activities took place in a context of eschatological expectation. Later, as the years went by and nothing happened, belief in the imminent transformation of life on earth gave way to belief in a future life in heaven after physical death.

This is the most personal of the numerous books that Ehrman has written about the Bible; it evidently is based on a very strong awareness of the enormity of human suffering (he does not mention animal suffering). He repeatedly cites the Holocaust, Pol Pot's atrocities, the massacre in Uganda, and other horrors that occurred in the twentieth century, though oddly he fails to mention the Russian purges under Stalin, which were on an even larger scale than the Holocaust. At the end of his examination of the Bible's answers Ehrman sums up his conclusions like this.

In my opinion, this life is all there is. My students have difficulty in believing me when tell them that it's a view taught in the Bible—but it is. It is explicitly the teaching of Ecclesiastes, and it is a view shared by other great thinkers, such as the author of the poetic dialogues of Job. So maybe I'm a biblical thinker after all.

Ehrman is writing here primarily for American Christians, who mostly regard the Bible as the Word of God. Readers who are themselves atheist or agnostic will probably be less interested in Biblical view of suffering, but any who have read and appreciated Ehrman's other books will certainly want to read this one to learn more about the author's own journey from belief to disbelief.

6 October 2011

%A Ehrman, Bart D.
%I HarperOne
%C New York
%D 2008
%G ISBN 9780061173929
%P x + 294pp
%K religion

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