Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Review of Ehrman's "God's Problem"

The other night I read Bart Ehrman's new book, God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question -- Why We Suffer. Since it touches on the issue of violence in the Old Testament and since I've received so many e-mails asking me about it, I thought I'd post a review.

This book was better than I expected. I really disliked Ehrman's earlier best-selling book Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman's conclusions were very biased and went far beyond what the evidence warranted. Yet he presented his arguments in such a way that laypeople unfamiliar with the science of textual criticism could (and many did) find convincing. Consequently, I initially resisted reading God's Problem. I figured if Ehrman's work was poor in his area of expertise (Ehrman is a New Testament textual critic), it would probably be atrocious in an area where he isn't a specialist (viz. dealing with the problem of evil). Nevertheless, a friend (Paul Eddy) compelled me to read it and, much to my surprise, I actually thought it was pretty good. It was certainly better argued and fairer than his Misquoting Jesus.

I'll make six comments that roughly follow the outline of Erhman's book.

1) Ehrman does a masterful job presenting the problem of evil in its full horror. His book is permeated with horrific examples of evil, and he gives these because he rightly surmises that most westerners (certainly most western Christians) wrestle with this issue in a detached, theoretical manner. They are thus inclined to accept easy answers that are woefully inadequate. I couldn't agree more.

2) Ehrman notes how Old Testament authors viewed suffering as divine punishment (chapters 2-3). He presents this material -- much of which we've covered the last couple weeks on this blog -- in all its barbaric horror. I would quibble with some of his interpretations (e.g. his view that animal sacrifices were meant to appease God's wrath), but overall his work here is solid. Ehrman concludes this section (as he does each section) with a critique. He forcefully argues that, as a comprehensive explanation for why humans suffer, this just doesn't work. What's odd, however, is that Ehrman correctly notes that Old Testament authors never presented God's judgments as "a universal principle, as a way of explaining every instance of suffering" (49). Yet, he still critiques the punishment motif as if it was meant to be an exhaustive explanation of evil. His criticisms are valid against the divine punishment theodicy, but not at all against the Bible.

3) Ehrman nicely expounds on a biblical motif that views suffering as a consequence of human sin -- revealing that biblical authors had some sense of free will (chapter 4). In this context he discusses the "free will defense." Ehrman notes that there's a tension not addressed in the Bible between affirming human free will, on the one hand, and affirming an "all-powerful Sovereign...who foreknows all things" (113). Elsewhere in the book Ehrman adds that the free will defense doesn't explain "natural evil" (12-13). Those who are familiar with my work (e.g. Is God to Blame?, God of the Possible and Satan and the Problem of Evil) won't be surprised to hear me claim that neither objection is very strong. Given that the free will defense is the most common one appealed to by Christians, I was surprised at how brief and unpersuasive Ehrman was in trying to refute it.

4) Ehrman proceeds to discuss a wide variety of biblical passages that suggest, in various ways, that God uses suffering to contribute to the greater good (ch. 5). I felt that both Ehrman's presentation of the biblical material and critique of the greater good defense in this chapter were strong. Erhman rightly exposes the injustice involved in the idea that God allows or ordains suffering in some in order to benefit others. He also rightly rejects the mistaken notion that God allows suffering because we couldn't appreciate good without it (147-48). Moreover, while Ehrman agrees that good can sometimes come out of evil, he objects to the idea that "something good always comes out of suffering"(147). To the contrary, he insists, "most suffering is not positive..." (ibid).

The trouble, however, is that Ehrman seems to think he's exposing a weakness in the Bible's view of suffering when he offers these criticisms. He's not. Yes the Bible presents a God who is always working to bring good out of evil, and yes it depicts God as always using evil for his own good purposes. But nowhere does the Bible intimate that all suffering is "positive" for those who suffer, and nowhere does it suggest that all evil is allowed "for the greater good."

5) One of the weakest points of Erhman's book, in my opinion, concerns his treatment of Job (chapter 6). He insists that the book of Job is a compilation of two contradictory books: a folktale (Job 1-2 & 42) in which Job is tested, passes the test and has everything restored, and a book of poetic dialogues between Job and his "friends" in which Job rails at God while being accused by his friends. The point of the folktale, Erhman insists, is that "God deals with his people according to their merit, whereas the entire point of the poetry [viz. the dialogues] is that he does not do that..." So, in the folktale, suffering is seen as "a test of faith" while in the poetry "suffering remains a mystery that cannot be fathomed or explained" (154).

There's a number of problems with Ehrman's perspective and interpretation of Job, but time allows me to only mention two.

First, Ehrman's view (shared by many other Old Testament critics) assumes that whoever allegedly compiled the folktale and poetic dialogues into a single book was simply too stupid to notice the obvious contradiction that Ehrman and other critics now find. But why should we assume the redactor (compiler) was less bright than modern critics? It strikes me as more humble and more reasonable to assume that if an ancient redactor didn't see a contradiction, perhaps we're mistaken in thinking there is one. And once you acknowledge this, we have less reason to think there were two different works put together in the first place.

This leads to my second point: Because Ehrman treats the book of Job as a compilation of two contradictory works, he massively misses the point of the entire book! Ehrman thinks that when God shows up "in the whirlwind" to give his monologue (chs. 38-41) he does so simply to assert "that he is the Almighty and, as such, cannot be questioned" (174). This is why there is no answer to the question of suffering (according to the poetic dialogues). But this isn't all God does in the monologues. God points to the unfathomable beauty and complexity of creation (ch.38-39) and then points to Behemoth and Leviathan, cosmic monsters that all ancient near eastern people believed in (chs. 40-41). If God simply wanted to assert that he cannot be questioned, why point these things out to Job?

The answer, I submit, is that God wasn't saying he couldn't be questioned simply because he was "the Almighty." He was revealing why humans cannot know why evil occurs the way it does and thus why they shouldn't question "the Almighty" who does know. It's because a) we humans know next to nothing about the complexity of creation, and b) we shouldn't think we can do a better job than God fighting the cosmic forces of evil that threaten the world. In short, we humans will never know why evil strikes the way it does because we are ignorant.

In this light, the folktale (if we grant it is that) of the prologue (chs. 1-2) makes perfect sense. It's letting the audience of the book in on an event that the characters in the book don't know about -- and never (in the context of this narrative) learn about. And that is the point! Job and his friends assume they know what they're talking about when the former accuses God of injustice and the latter accuse Job of sin, but they don't. Both parties assume God is directly behind Job's afflictions, but the fact is that random events take place in the unseen heavenly realm that adversely affect us but about which we know nothing. At the same time, we can be assured that God is at work in the world to compensate for injustice -- which is the point of the epilogue (ch.42). (I discuss this interpretation of the book of Job in much greater depth in Is God to Blame?).

While Ehrman thinks Job has nothing to say about the problem of evil, if my interpretation is right, it has much to say. For it reveals that the mystery of evil isn't a mystery of God's character or purposes; it's rather a mystery about an unfathomably complex world that is afflicted with hostile cosmic forces. And this leads to my sixth and most important comment on Erhman's book.

6) Ehrman ends his work with an excellent discussion of the apocalyptic worldview and its perspective on evil. He rightly notes that this is the worldview of Jesus and all New Testament authors. In this view, "cosmic forces of evil were loose in the world, and these evil forces were aligned against the righteous people of God, bringing down pain and misery upon their heads, making them suffer..." (191). Not only this, but the reason there are "so many disasters in this world, earthquakes, famines, epidemics, wars, deaths" is because "the powers of evil are in control" (202). Ehrman praises this perspective because it "takes evil seriously" (244) while insisting "quite vociferously that God does not bring disasters; it is his cosmic enemies" (218). It also is the only explanation that accounts for natural evil. In my view, he's absolutely right!

Yet, Erhman argues that this understanding of evil also fails because it's "based on mythological ideas that [he] simply cannot accept" (245). Moreover, the end of the world that apocalypticists thought was going to happen in their lifetime proved wrong (245-46). And, finally, the apocalyptic belief that God will supernaturally intervene in the near future and bring an end to evil "can lead to a kind of social complacency..." (246).

I don't find any of these objections compelling. First, I have never found a remotely persuasive argument as to why we should regard belief in hostile cosmic powers to be "mythological." This is simply a modern, western, naturalistic assumption (and, I should note, one that is being increasingly abandoned).

Second, even if we were to grant that Jesus, Paul and others mistakenly thought the end of the age was going to occur in their lifetime, this hardly negates the entire apocalyptic worldview. Where's the justification for jettisoning an entire worldview just because one aspect of the worldview is mistaken? That's bad logic! At the same time, there are ways of interpreting the various references to the immanent end of the world in the New Testament that avoid attributing a mistake to Jesus, Paul and others. For example, some scholars (such as N.T. Wright) argue that the "end" these people were referring to was the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Alternatively, some argue that the central point of passages expressing a belief in the approaching end to the world are meant to instruct us about how we should live (e.g. with hope and passion, as though each day were our last) rather than to register an opinion about when this end will occur.

Finally, while some who embrace an apocalyptic worldview may become complacent about battling evil in the world, there is no necessary reason why they would do so. Consider, for example, that Jesus held an apocalyptic worldview and yet spent his entire ministry confronting evil. Consider also that a central aspect of the New Testament's message is that his followers are supposed to imitate him in everything. This objection, therefore, amounts to nothing.

In conclusion, I applaud much of Erhman's expositions of various biblical motifs that explain why we suffer. But none of these motifs claim to be a comprehensive theodicy, so Erhman's critique of them as theodicies misses the mark (even though many of his critiques of theodicies based on these motifs are to the point). Most importantly, Ehrman's critique of the apocalyptic explanation of evil is completely without merit. Given that this was the worldview Jesus and his disciples embraced, and given that this worldview provides the best single explanation for evil -- as Erhman himself grants -- I feel justified in relying on this view of evil as the most comprehensive and authoritative in Scripture. And this makes the utter weakness of Ehrman's refutation of this perspective all the more significant.

It means the Bible does provide an answer to our most important question -- why we suffer. Ultimately, it's because the world is held hostage to cosmic forces of evil. But this affliction will not last forever.