It was sadly ironic to have gotten through a chapter of Bart Ehrman's God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question -- Why We Suffer
and to find out that a friend's infant daughter was afflicted with a terminal genetic disease. I expressed my condolences and heeded my friend's wishes that there be no pity parties. What else can one do? Suffering just happens sometimes.
Ehrman ultimately takes a similar view after surveying the Bible for reasons why we suffer. Unlike the other book by him that I've read, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why
, God's Problem
is not a critical look at the Bible which undermines notions of divine authorship but an exegetical one. What does the Bible say about suffering? Are its explanations satisfactory to us?
Since there are multiple explanations for suffering to be found in the Christian holy book, the reader is taken through the most common one by one beginning with the idea that suffering is punishment exacted by God for not living within His prescribed laws. Ehrman looks at the words of Amos, Hosea, and others to demonstrate that God's wrath came upon the Israelites when they strayed from the path. In Hosea we find a god that gives no quarter to sinners.I will fall upon them like a bear
robbed of her cubs,
and will tear open the covering
of their heart;
there I will devour them like a lion,
as a wild animal would mangle
I will destroy you, O Israel;
who can help you?
And later:Samaria shall bear her
because she has rebelled against
they shall fall by the sword,
their little ones shall be dashed
and their pregnant women
It's passages like these that cause Richard Dawkins to describe Yahweh as "arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully".
The tour continues with redemptive suffering as illustrated by the tale of Joseph and suffering as a test of faith for which Job's sad story stands as an example. Ehrman relates Job's tribulations in some detail. The Satan, not the cloven footed archdevil, but more like God's consigliere, basically says, "I bet Job will curse you if you completely ruin his life." God takes up the bet and destroys Job's possessions and kills his children. Yet Job does not curse his deity. In the end, Job gets more stuff and has replacement kids. Essentially he suffered immensely because Yahweh and his right-hand man decided to be like the Duke brothers in Trading Places
and play a little game.God's Problem
was for this godless heathen who's only ever read bits & pieces of the Bible a nice introduction to the topic of how the Bible addresses suffering. As a book for layreaders it is necessarily incomplete in certain ways. For instance, Ehrman admits that he doesn't cover every single Biblical explanation for suffering but only the most common ones – those most often offered by theologians and those today who make up the Christian right.
On the other hand, I wish that Ehrman had dedicated a bit more space to how theodicy (a fancy word for the problem of suffering given the idea that God is all-powerful and all-loving) has been approached throughout the ages. He teases the reader here and there, such as when he summarizes Leibniz's conclusion on the matter and Voltaire's retort, but it would have been interesting had he given the reader more along with his own commentaries.