Is God’s Problem a problem? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.
God’s Problem is the work of Bart Ehrman on the problem of evil and why he thinks the Bible does not address the problem. This is not his usual type of work. For one thing, I was surprised to read a book of Ehrman’s where he did not talk about the paper he wrote on Mark 2 in college. Yet on the other hand, Ehrman is stepping outside of his territory.
A usual criticism I have of Ehrman’s books is that you get the sound of one-hand clapping. Ehrman only presents his version of the story. He does not interact with those who disagree. Of course, I do not expect him to argue for what someone like myself would say, but I expect him to argue with it. I expect him to bring up writers like Plantinga and Ganssle and Copan and Zacharias and others and say why it is that they are wrong. He doesn’t.
What do we find? On page 18 he says “There are, of course, numerous books about suffering already. In my opinion, though, many of these books are either intellectually unsatisfying, morally bankrupt, or practically useless.”
Why are they they? Who knows? Which ones are they? We don’t know. We’re just told to simply visit any Christian bookstore. Personally, as one who goes to Christian bookstores frequently, one would be hard-pressed to find these kinds of books that Christians should be reading there. If Ehrman’s dislike is based on what is read in Christian bookstores, then I really do feel his pain.
Yet is it really a convincing way to make a case? Can he really just hope a section like that would deal with Plantinga and others? Would it be a convincing argument if I said “I choose to believe in Christianity because books like Ehrman’s are either intellectually unsatisfying, morally bankrupt, or practically useless.”? Of course not. I need to give a reason.
Now if Ehrman wants to say a lot of these books are not written to help those who are suffering. I agree. So what? A lot of philosophers are not professional counselors. Why should they be? In fact, what is Ehrman’s book doing to help people who suffer? If anything, it would hurt them because one could say he’s taking a great source of comfort that they have and calling it into question. Of course, he has all right to do that, but to do such an action and complain about what others are doing is highly problematic.
In fact, I have no doubt that if Alvin Plantinga, a leading Christian thinker on the problem of evil for those who don’t know, had a mother come to his office whose son died in a car accident, he would not give her a copy of one of his books on the problem of evil. He would listen to her. He would comfort her. He would pray with her. He would read Scripture with her. If he was not qualified in his opinion to do any of those things, he would find someone who was. In fact, aside from praying and reading Scripture, I think Ehrman would do the same thing. We all should.
Throughout the book Ehrman does present challenges to people’s faith. (Once again, how is it supposed to help those struggling with evil to go after their faith in a time of suffering, and yet Ehrman complains about others) These are the usual canards. The gospels are anonymous. Moses did not write the Pentateuch. The gospels contradict. Daniel was written late. Jesus and Paul are failed apocalyptic prophets. Anyone who’s read any of Ehrman’s other works will recognize the recycled arguments. It is not my purpose to deal with those here. It is only to point out again, is this the kind of message that Ehrman wants to give to suffering Christians? Is this the bet time to attack their faith? Of course, he could say he has not written this book to give emotional solace but to address an issue. That’s fine, but then why go after other books for the exact same reason. If anything, at least these books are trying to strengthen someone’s faith when they think they need it most.
Many of Ehrman’s objections also seem simplistic. For instance, on pages 12-13, he asks why there can be free-will in Heaven and everyone does the good, but there can’t be on Earth. My answer I’ve had for that for years is that Heaven is the end result of a lifetime of choices. Earth is the place where you choose who you will serve. When you are in the presence of God, you are locked into whatever choice you made. You can still act freely, but not against that basic lock. Now my answer for the sake of argument could be wrong, but it is an answer.
Ehrman also is not inconsistent with his approach often. For instance, he will say that the prophets knew that not all suffering was the result of sin and God judging the people, yet this is the view he still constantly repeats as theirs. The prophets are usually not speaking about evil as a whole, but about a particular evil and saying that yes, the covenant people are not being faithful to the covenant.
An interesting quote for readers is on page 127 where he says “What if I was right then but wrong now? Will I burn in hell forever? The fear of death gripped me for years, and there are still moments when I wake up at night in a cold sweat.” One can’t help but wonder why in a book on evil Ehrman would want to risk having more people do the same thing.
Ehrman does point out that we could all do more to help deal with evil, and I agree. Yet is that all he wants to say? I see nothing beyond that. He’s of the view that we should still enjoy our lives, and I agree with that. If anyone wants to know why I think evil is the way it is in the world today, look at the church. Evil will prosper where the church fails to be the body of Christ. Interestingly in all these disasters Ehrman talks about, he seems to not notice it’s Christians who are responding. When he talks about how he helped someone who had escaped Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge with his family, he mentions it the was a Lutheran ministry that got them here, but Ehrman doesn’t make the connection. Could it be the Lutherans did what they did because of Christ? Could it be God is operating through the church?
If this is the way God is dealing with the problem of evil, then by going against Christianity, could it be Ehrman is himself contributing to the problem he rails against?
I’d also like to point out that evil is not a defeater for Christian belief. It cannot be the case that the first way of Aquinas is true and that the problem of evil shows that God does not exist. The theistic arguments must still be dealt with. It cannot be that the historical case for the resurrection cannot be established because of evil. The case must be dealt with on its own.
I conclude that Ehrman has not dealt with the problem of evil, but the book I suspect is just another way of going after Christianity. Of course, Ehrman is free to do this, but I do not see why one would want to knock down a system to help deal with evil without putting up any system of one’s own in its place. Ehrman is doing what he says the Christians works he condemns are, except worse. At least those are usually trying to strengthen someone in a view for comfort. Ehrman is instead knocking them down.