Category Archives: Theodicy


During the epistolary debate we’ve been following recently between Bart “What’s-God’s-Answer-to-Suffering?” Ehrman and ex-Bishop N. T. “The-Kingdom-is-Inbreaking” Wright, Ehrman comes, ahem, right out and says to Wright at one point: Just answer the question! What does the Bible say about all this suffering? What kind of a God would allow it?

To be fair, Wright alludes to an answer — basically, that the resurrection inaugurated a new way of life that is yet to be fulfilled — but doesn’t quite come out and say it. And today, I encountered a passage in Romans that could have sufficed; in it, Paul seems to explain quite clearly what suffering means and what God intends to do about it.

The passage in question occurs in Chapter 8:18-25, where Paul explains to the community at Rome:

“I consider that the sufferings [there’s that word! – ed.] of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.”

So Paul admits there is suffering. But it is “nothing” compared to what is coming, presumably when the Kingdom of God is established at the imminent end.

“For creation [Paul continues] was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it [presumably, God – ed.], in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

Here, Paul seems to say that God purposely made humans to suffer just so they could be “set free.” Passages like these are why every student of theology thinks Paul is hard to read. He is. But his point is clear-ish: people suffer now because God somehow uses that pain to set up something glorious in the future.

“We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”

In other words, human suffering can be compared to the pain of labor — pain that serves an interim, but greater, purpose. And then he gets to the really deep part of the passage:

“For in hope we were saved. Now hope that sees for itself is not hope. For who hopes for what one sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.”

The answer to present suffering, says Paul, is to hope in the unseen — to have faith — that the pain is but a stage toward redemption.

So Wright might have answered Ehrman’s question like this: God created us to suffer so that we might, through faith, endure that suffering as a temporary stage through which we pass toward something so glorious it makes our present pain seem “as nothing.”

Now, if you don’t believe in eschatological themes or the resurrection — as Wright, um, rightly points out — this explanation of Paul’s won’t satisfy. But there it is.


Wrights and Wrongs

N. T. "Tom-Tom" Wright

N. T. “Tom-Tom” Wright is on the spot. He’s been challenged to explain — not cavil, calumniate, careen or cajole, but EXPLAIN — how he can believe in the Christian God in a world where a child dies of starvation every, well, no one is quite sure how often, but it happens all the time!

First, says Wright, the Gospel message is that Jesus’ ministry was “the inauguration of ‘God being in charge of the world’ in a new way.” This “new way” was not what contemporary Jews expected, nor is it the kind of Godly world we might want. But it was the reality of what Wright likes to call the “inbreaking of the Kingdom” into our world.

Okay, so Jesus represents a glimpse of what the world would look like were God in charge. Which means he’s not in charge yet; which means — here I’m saying what I think Wright is saying, which may not be right, or Wright, but is, ahem, write — that it’s wrong to think human suffering somehow proves God’s non-existence. He’s not quite in charge yet.

Here, it gets sticky. Wright makes the poignant point that the Gospels — and Jesus himself — represent “a challenge to all expectations.” This is particularly true when we try to explain how the Kingdom of God is supposed to be started by an executed-and-resurrected criminal. We’re back to the old, old Christian dilemma of just how and why a suffering God-man was required to bring on the Kingdom.

Why didn’t God just bring it on? What’s the point of the man on the cross?

Well, says Wright: “Near the heart of Jesus’ proclamation lies a striking redefinition of power itself, which looks as though it’s pointing in the direction of God’s ‘running the world’ … in what you might call a deliberately, almost studiedly, self-abnegating way.”

Wright links atonement and the problem of evil. The Gospels are another chapter in God’s story of Israel, a story that continues today and points toward a future redemption that has already, in a real way, begun.

Poetic summary: “It is because I believe in Jesus’ resurrection that I believe that the creator God has inaugurated his new creation in which, at the last, he will wipe away all tears from all eyes.” Ultimately, if you don’t believe in resurrection, the debate itself is pointless — and, reading the Ehrman-Wright fight logs, I get the dismaying feeling it is.

In the meantime, Wright says, Christians should work in the world as healers and love-bringers, like Jesus, and so provide a mild foretaste of the glorious banquet to come. Forgiveness looses all burdens.

Ehrman’s response is two-fold. First, he reiterates the thesis of his book “God’s Problem,” pointing out that the Biblical view of suffering is quite clearly “the reason people suffer is because they have sinned and God is punishing them for it.” He cites Amos 3-4, where God’s on a killing spree, and mentions the Flood in Genesis where the entire human race (almost) is slaughtered. And the Book of Revelation is no sweeter.

But really, he says, people like Wright who seem to believe “the Kingdom of God is at hand,” while they are certainly in the Markan and Pauline tradition, are always wrong. “The kingdom never did come. You seem to think that it will.” The Synoptic Gospels use Jesus to show what the Kingdom will look like (no death, disease, demons, etc.) but do not claim it has already come — just that it will, very soon.

Wright is still waiting. Ehrman has stopped. He doesn’t think it’s coming.

The last word goes to Wright, and no end is in sight. He still takes issue with Ehrman’s maudlin litany of grotesquerie (20 pages on the Holocaust, rather than 2), which he thinks is agnostic propaganda. More seriously, he thinks Ehrman is wrong about Amos, et al.

Amos wasn’t trying to explain suffering, says Wright, but laying down the serious stakes involved in the covenant with God: “The prophets were not, by and large, answering our philosophical question, but acting (so they seem to have believed) as mouthpieces for the covenant God.”

Ultimately, as in Job, God’s mind is inscrutable to us:

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.

God decided to call Abraham and “address the problem of evil through people who are part of the problem as well as part of the solution.” It’s a “mess.” Then with Jesus, it gets even messier.

Wright returns to the resurrection. Essential Christianity is that “the kingdom did come through the death and resurrection of Jesus.” So with that event, “God’s new world — the world where God’s writ runs — had already begun.” The Holy Spirit worked through them to change the world right away. Neither the early Christians nor Wright are actually waiting for anything. It’s here.

So the kingdom is here. Look around. Hmmm? As Wright says, it’s not what we expected. But the suffering God on the cross tells us it’s here.

Let me put all this in my own words and get it wrong.

Bart Ehrman: Human beings suffer. The Bible explains suffering as punishment for sin and that is morally unsatisfying. Jesus’ followers thought the Kingdom would come soon. They were wrong. God probably does not exist.

Tom-Tom Wright: God exists. The Bible is not God’s apologetic for suffering but the story of how he chose to work out salvation through the people of Israel. Working through people is messy. God becoming man and suffering was a challenge that showed “my ways are not your ways.” We must trust in the resurrection but ultimately can not understand suffering.

So we are where we started. Who won? I give points for logic and clarity to Ehrman and points for spooky nuance to Wright. Ultimately, I’d rather live in Wright’s world. Perhaps there is no “real world” at all — perhaps we can choose where to live.

Suffering has ended. This post is complete.

Making the Rounds

We were listening in to an epic debate between Rock Star Bart “Sparky” Ehrman and N.T. “Tom-Tom” Wright. Their topic: Is the existence of a Christian God compatible with human suffering? (I invented these nicknames out of sheer whimsy, not disrespect. And Ehrman makes clear he’s a historian, not a theologian, so I hereby retire his erroneous Spy-like title.)

Round 1: Sparky says it’s too, too much — God makes no sense in a world such as this. And if he’d been on the 10 bus down Nicollet Mall yesterday morning at 7am, he would not have changed his mind, believe me.

Round 2: Tom-Tom accuses Sparky of making an appeal to emotion. The Biblical story is one of God working out a long-range plan to save a suffering humanity.

Now, Round 3: Sparky will have none of it. Suffering is human and so evokes an emotional response. “In the time that it has taken me to write this response to your posting, there have been something like thirty thousand children who have died in this way — by horribly starving to death — in the world.”

In his previous riposte, Sparky had said a child dies of starvation “every five seconds” — horrifying enough, of course. But unless he’s claiming it took him 100 days to write his post, the math doesn’t work. The point is clear enough.

Sparky also doesn’t buy Tom-Tom’s claim about the Biblical narrative as the story of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God via Abraham and Isaiah and the Cross. (I’ve read some of Wright’s books and, while a lot of rhetorical fun, they aren’t particularly clear to me; Ehrman, on the other hand, is a legendary teacher of undergrads at UNC Chapel Hill and one of the least confusing men on the planet.)

Basically, the prophets explained suffering as God’s punishment for sin. By the end of the pre-Christian period, that explanation seemed weak: thus, apocaltypicism, which explained pain as the work of “God’s cosmic enemies,” such as the Devil and demons. Most modern Christians probably think this way.

But really, says Sparky, Wright hasn’t responded to the issue at hand: Why is there suffering?

Round 4 finds the boys getting to the heart of the matter. Can you wait?

You Just Don’t Understand

Lisbon 1755

You’ll recall last time we heard from Rock Star Theologian Bart Ehrman the moving, logical story of how he lost his faith by pondering suffering. In a world where a child starves to death every five seconds, Ehrman wonders, where is God?

In the other corner, feisty Bishop N. T. “Tom” Wright of the pro-God party has been listening patiently. How does he respond?

“Our culture,” says Wright, “has fallen prey to emotivism, leading people to say ‘I feel’ when they mean ‘I think.'” And how!

His point is that Ehrman’s starving-child statistics are emotional and not rational appeals that are beside the point. Even Southern-style evangelicals and ex-Anglican bishops accept the existence of evil — or Evil.

“There are of course multiple miseries in the world,” says Wright, “and for many (most?) of them it’s impossible to say, ‘There, look, some good came out of it.'”

There was an earthquake in Lisbon on All Saints Day, 1755, that is widely cited as inspiring Enlightenment Deism and agnosticism — a horrifying natural disaster that challenged Christian platitudes about God’s providence. Any faith that can’t make rational peace with such horrors isn’t faith at all.

So basically, Wright accuses Ehrman of trying to shock people of watery faith into agnosticism.

Wright’s second thrust is that Ehrman misreads the Hebrew Bible. It’s not a treadmill of sin and punishment but the story of God’s “long-range plan to rescue the world from its misery.”

And he misreads the New Testament. To Wright, Jesus is the key: the cross and resurrection “was precisely his [i.e., God’s] answer to the question ‘what does it look like when God is running the world.'”

Now, Ehrman will have none of this kind of gentle slap at his scholarship (which Wright calls “out of date”). Their tone turns sharper.

What’s Your Problem?

Rock Star Bart Ehrman

Beliefnet (“Inspiration. Spirituality. Faith.“) always struck me as a kind of front for conservative political propaganda disguised as interfaith sharing, but it’s actually more benign. At times — as in those glorious days of April, 2008 — it sports a spirited, erudite dialogue on issues deep and wide.

What happened in April, 2008? Why, that’s when Rock Star Theologian Bart Ehrman and Rock Star Bishop N. T. Wright faced off in a religious studies Battle of the Bands over the deepest issue of them all: If there is a God, why is there so much darn suffering?

It’s not a new question, of course: Job faces it, suggesting the earliest Jewish communities had the same debate as Ehrman and Wright. But it’s inspiring to stumble on such a live Christian dialogue between two such well-armed combatants.

These two are about as famous as it’s possible for Christian academics to be these days. Ehrman has appeared on “The Colbert Report” more than once, and Wright is also a strong-selling author who’s probably met a few celebrities. They’re scholars who know the texts backwards (Hebrew is read from right to left – get it?).

But there the similarities end. Ehrman is American; Wright is British. Ehrman was a Southern Evangelical who gradually lost his faith. Wright was an Anglican Bishop, a self-described Calvinist, and very much a believer.

Their debate started with an entry Bart Ehrman contributed to the “Blogalogue: Debates with Spirit” section of Beliefnet titled “How the Problem of Pain Ruined My Faith.” The occasion was the publication of his unapologetic screed, “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer.”

“For most of my life,” Ehrman starts, rather ominously, “I was a devout Christian, believing in God, trusting in Christ for salvation.” At some point in his mid-20s, it seems, his Biblical scholarship led him to reject the evangelicals’ (quite silly) doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture, but he stayed a Christian for 20 more years.

But he had a growing problem with suffering. Where was God in disasters? Where was God in Cambodia and Colombian mud slides and so on. The stats he rattles off are despairing: a child dies of starvation every five seconds; every minute 25 people die because they don’t have clean water; every hour 700 people die of preventable malaria. “Where is God in all this?”

Reflection led him to the more nuanced Christological view that Jesus points the way toward God, showing us that “He is a God who suffers.” That is, basically God’s answer to suffering is to make sure we don’t suffer alone. He doesn’t remove or prevent pain but allows us to soldier through it (unless we die).

Then, some ten years ago, Ehrman realized he “simply no longer believed the Christian message.” He just didn’t believe God answered prayers, intervened and would come again in glory. It’s an intellectual trip he’s on, of course, but it’s one a lot of us can relate to.

[Up Next: a very — ahem — spirited debate ensues …]

Theodicy . . .

. . . is a term introduced in the 18th century by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz who shot back at contemporary skeptics by saying the existence of pain, evil, suffering and worse in the world doesn’t prove there is no God.

LeibnizIt’s an old, old question, my friends. And one that we here at TGPDN have decided to hurl ourselves into pell-mell, willy-nilly, balls-out and protoplasmically.

So: Theodicy (n.): the argument that God is not an illusion despite the obvious existence of bad things

We’re right at the heart of it here, I think. Ask an intelligent skeptic – as opposed, say, to a philosophical atheist – why they don’t believe in God, and this is where they’ll start. “What about all those people in Haiti?” asked a charming woman we know. “Would they have lived if they’d just prayed harder?”

Of course not. Right?

As usual, we’re caught up in words. Often people who argue to the death are just using a different dictionary. The classical theodical logic is this: (1) God is (i) all-powerful, (ii) all-good and (iii) all-knowing; (2) Evil exists; therefore (3) God can not exist.

Why? Because he (ii) doesn’t like evil, (iii) knows it’s there, and yet (i) doesn’t stop it. God is a self-contradiction.

We can’t hope to answer this objection here. Plenty of super-smart people, including theological rock star Bart Ehrman, have argued theodicy is religion’s fatal flaw. We content ourselves with a few signal flares.

These are the assumptions of the theodical argument:

  1. God is all good – Is she? Really? Ancient Greeks seem to have had plenty of gods who were not “good” by our definition of the term; were, in fact, assholes.
  2. We know what’s “good” – Building on the above, is it possible something that seems bad to us now is actually good in the long run? (This is what religious types are getting at when they say things like, “Everything happens for a reason.”)
  3. God is omnipotent – Is she really? Before Judaism, religions assumed God had powerful enemies, and many modern Christians, particularly in the U.S., talk about Satan like he’s a true adversary.
  4. God knows all – Near the end of his life Norman Mailer was interviewed by Charlie Rose and he said (paraphrasing): “I think God is overworked — he doesn’t have time to notice a lot things.” Here also, we get into the treacherous geography of whether or not people have free will. If God knows in advance what we will do, is our will free?
  5. People do NOT have free will — Let’s say this: either we have free will or we don’t. If we do, it seems reasonable that we have to be free to do evil or it isn’t free will.
  6. God can be known through our reason.

Point (6) is a big one, the mega-point. Reasoning about God implies God can be reasoned about. As we’ve said, this is a controversy of great age. Kant said no, we can’t extend our senses to the supernatural; Anselm, Liebniz and Descartes offered proofs for God; Rousseau claimed God was a feeling; so did our friend Friedrich Schleiermacher.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (1914 edition) puts it in a humorous way: “Nearly all Protestant theologians who have not yet sunken into atheism follow in Schleiermacher’s footsteps. They generally teach that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated.”