12 June 2009

God's Problem: Book Response

While perusing library shelves, my eyes happened to see God's Problem. The title struck me as strange, interesting, and perhaps promising. The full title is God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question -- Why We Suffer. Author Bart Ehrman was is a New Testament scholar and was previously a minister before the problem of suffering/evil forced him to evaluate his claims and arrive at agnosticism. In his introduction, he says that the book was the result of a class he taught on Biblical attitudes toward suffering -- why it is, why God allows it -- and indeed the book is on that theme.

To the end of examining Biblical attitudes toward suffering, he goes through the Christian bible and identifies a few basic trends: suffering as punishment for sin, suffering as redemptive ("God works in mysterious ways"), and apocalypticism. His research appears to be fairly thorough: while he identifies suffering-as-punishment as originating with the Hebrew "prophets" -- men like Elijah and Amos, who spoke on God's behalf and typically threatened Israel with all sorts of unpleasantness if they didn't start following God's law -- Ehrman also notes that this classical view dominates the Hebrew scriptures, including its historical narrative -- and he shows why. The first two trends probably do not bear further explanation on my part: I imagine most people have heard them before.

It is in the third explanation that Ehrman really comes through for me: for many years, aspects of the New Testament have confused me -- until this moment. Ehrman believes that they are examples of apocalyptic thinking and his explanation does answer my questions: for instance, why Jews suddenly went from not being aware of a Resurrection in the earlier scriptures to claiming belief in a grand Resurrection of souls at the end of time in the New Testament. To explain what is meant by "apocalyptic thinking", Ehrman goes over four traits of it: dualism, with a Good Being and an Evil Being and that at present, Evil is winning; Pessimism, that humans cannot do anything to change fate; Vindication, that one day God will prove triumphant over evil; and fourth, that this will happen (from the view of Jesus and contemporaries) very soon. Using this view, suffering is seen as a result of evil currently winning the battle between it and good -- between what the Zoroastrians would call the battle between the Lie and the Truth. This view probably became popular after the Babylonian "imprisonment", and Ehrman tries to make the case that the whole of the New Testament is apocalyptic thinking.

Adding to his explanations of what these attempts to explain away evil are are his critiques of them -- his examination of what makes them seem to work, but what ultimately makes them fail. Ehrman ultimately returns to what he sees as a theme in both Job and Ecclesiastes: that suffering can't be explained. He ends on this note:

"I have to admit that at the end of the day, I do have a biblical view of suffering. As it turns out, it is the view put forth in the book of Ecclesiastes. There is a lot that we can't know about this world. A lot of this world doesn't make sense. Sometimes there is no justice. Things don't go as planned or as they should. A lot of bad things happen. But life also brings good things. The solution to life is to enjoy it while we can, because it is fleeting. This world, and everything in it, is temporary, transient, and soon to be over. We won't live forever -- in fact, we won't live long. And so we should enjoy life to the fullest, as much as we can, as long as we can. That's what the author of Ecclesiastes says, and I agree. "

I will share more from that particular section a little later on. Ehrman is not dull, and his material is insightful.I'd give it a go if the subject is one you are interest in.

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