Friday, April 25, 2008

The problem of pain and suffering

Bart Ehrman is hardly the first to have lost his faith because he couldn't reconcile a just and loving God with the pain and suffering in the world:
Suffering increasingly became a problem for me and my faith. How can one explain all the pain and misery in the world if God—the creator and redeemer of all—is sovereign over it, exercising his will both on the grand scheme and in the daily workings of our lives? Why, I asked, is there such rampant starvation in the world? Why are there droughts, epidemics, hurricanes, and earthquakes? If God answers prayer, why didn't he answer the prayers of the faithful Jews during the Holocaust? Or of the faithful Christians who also suffered torment and death at the hands of the Nazis? If God is concerned to answer my little prayers about my daily life, why didn't he answer my and others’ big prayers when millions were being slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, when a mudslide killed 30,000 Columbians in their sleep, in a matter of minutes, when disasters of all kinds caused by humans and by nature happened in the world? ....

Eventually, while still a Christian thinker, I came to believe that God himself is deeply concerned with suffering and intimately involved with it. The Christian message, for me, at the time, was that Jesus Christ is the revelation of God to us humans, and that in Jesus we can see how God deals with the world and relates to it. .... He is a God who suffers. The way he deals with suffering is by suffering both for us and alongside us.

This was my view for many years, and I still consider it a powerful theological view. It would be a view that I would still hold on to, if I were still a Christian. But I'm not.

About nine or ten years ago I came to realize that I simply no longer believed the Christian message. ....
N.T. Wright responded in what became a multi-part dialog. Justin Taylor has provided links to all of the exchange here. In his final response to Ehrman, Bishop Wright says:
...I resonate with a line from Bonhoeffer that has haunted me ever since I heard it as a student: that the primal sin of humanity, as in Genesis 3, is to put the knowledge of good and evil before the knowledge of God. This could [be]... a recognition that the sort of creatures we are are never going to be in a position to set a moral bar and insist that God – if there is a creator God – jump over it. .... ...[M]y creaturely and innately rebellious humanity – can’t pick up the full mysteries of God and the world. Of course, there is continuity between God’s view of good and evil and ours, or it would be chaos come again. But we are never in a position to judge God (if God there be). That’s not a pious platitude, but a rather obvious ontological reality. ....

I don’t think much of the Bible is actually addressing the question, ‘Why is there suffering?’, but rather the question, ‘What is God doing about it?’. When cause-and-effect sequences do occur, as in Amos etc., I read them within the prophetic call to Israel and the warnings, proper to humans in general and covenant people in particular, about the consequences of not going with the grain of the creator’s purposes. ....

If we insist on putting things the Bible says into a grid of our own questions, we will often find apparent contradictions. ....
Every believer either has or will wrestle with this question. This exchange is helpful primarily because Ehrman's position is held by many and N.T. Wright's response will help many.

Between Two Worlds: Ehrman vs Wright on the Problem of Suffering
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