Since I like messing about with gods, I found Bart Ehrman’s interview on Fresh Air about the problem of evil very interesting. In his book, God’s Problem, Ehrman examines how the Bible attempts to reconcile the idea of a loving, omnipotent god with the evil in this world. Each chapter opens with his personal observations about suffering — the terrible question the Holocaust poses, or the killing fields of Cambodia — and asks what sin is a birth defect or a tsunami punishing? He discusses the various answers to be found and why none of them are ultimately satisfying.
This book justifies focusing on the Bible for its place at the root of Western civilization. Even those who haven’t read it thoroughly are influenced by those who have. And it lays out the central contradictory tenets of theodicy, or the study of the problem of suffering.
- God is all powerful.
- God is all loving.
- There is suffering.
We work our way through from simple pat answers to more nuanced ones. For example, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Harold Kushner, denies the first thesis and says God is there to give you strength in times of suffering. Night, by Elie Wiesel, comes close to denying the second in his anger at God. It’s really hard to deny the third.
This book points out that in ancient times the question was not whether God existed, but how to approach him. If you sinned, God would punish you. When you offered the correct sacrifice by killing an animal properly, the punishment would end. You might wonder how exactly this was supposed to work, but that’s a modern mind attempting to impose a theory where none existed. This leads to the idea that Christ’s death was the perfect sacrifice for all humankind. I found following the twists and turns of logic justifying this idea fascinating, but ultimately sick and twisted.
The the genre of apocalypse literature was also fascinating. Aside from Daniel and Revelations, there’s a collection of them, sharing similar elements. The “prophets” were speaking not to foretell the future but to criticize the present. They write of a prophet from the past who has terrifying visions of a future that has already happened from the writer’s perspective. Then they go on to foretell terrible consequences for the sins of the present. This conveniently gives future readers a way to say, See? He was right about those things to came to pass. Think what else he foretells! This strikes me as a particularly insidious form of propaganda.
As we work through the answers, many seem like variants on the persistent idea that God punishes people for disobeying him. After a while, the series of theories about suffering being tried and rejected sound like a dialogue conducted over centuries. In my mind, it goes like this:
Q: We’re obeying God. Why is this still happening?
A: There must be something that you’re not doing right.
Q: Okay, okay, we really are obeying God’s laws as strictly as humanly possible. Now people attacking us for doing so!
A: Some suffering comes not from God but from the actions of sinners, using their free will to do evil. But if God had not given us free will, this would be a less than perfect world.
Q: So why does this have to happen to me?
A: Sometimes God brings a greater good out of suffering. Like Joseph.
Q: But why do innocent people suffer too?
A: Sometimes suffering is a test of faith. Sorry, Job.
Q: What kind of god would do that?
A: Look here, Job. You can’t judge God as you would a human being.
Q: And why do the guilty go unpunished?
A: There is no answer, says Ecclesiastes. Do your best with the life you have.
Q: Do our best? We’re dying out here!
A: We are living in the end-times of an age of suffering and soon, very soon, God will set things right.
Q: Still waiting.
A: After death, everyone will receive their just rewards and punishments.
Q: Well, you can’t argue with that.
In the end, the author accepts the answers given in Ecclesiastes as the best fit for him: We should live well, and do our best to help others live well.
I am moved by his passion, but annoyed that he seems completely unwilling to look beyond the Bible for answers. It’s as if he cannot let go of the idea of the Bible as the ultimate wisdom book, and if you can’t find the answer in there, there is no answer. Anywhere. Considering that the central question of Buddhism is the source of suffering, it’s disappointing to see him mention rather dismissively that he’s heard from Buddhists. But then discussing that answer would be a completely different book.