Bart Ehrman on God’s Problem

Bart Ehrman has a new book out titled God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer. I have not yet read this book, but I note it here because I just listened to an interview with Ehrman in which he talks extensively about the book and his reasons for leaving the Christian faith. You can listen to the interview by pushing the play button below or by visiting NPR’s website.

[audio:http://podcastdownload.npr.org/anon.npr-podcasts/podcast/13/19186602/npr_19186602.mp3]

I won’t give a point-by-point analysis of this interview, but I do have a couple of reactions that I will write here.

1. First, grief. It’s not a happy thing to listen to a man who has so resolutely turned away from the faith. In his earlier book Misquoting Jesus (which I reviewed here), Ehrman talks about how his skepticism about the Bible contributed to his leaving the faith. In God’s Problem, Ehrman says that it was in fact the problem of evil that pushed him over the edge. He writes,

“Eventually, though, I felt compelled to leave Christianity altogether. I did not go easily. On the contrary, I left kicking and screaming, wanting desperately to hold on to the faith I had known since childhood and had come to know intimately from my teenaged years onward. But I came to a point where I could no longer believe. It’s a very long story, but the short version is this: I realized that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life. In particular, I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things. For many people who inhabit this planet, life is a cesspool of misery and suffering. I came to a point where I simply could not believe that there is a good and kindly disposed Ruler who is in charge of it.”

What makes it even sadder is that Ehrman embraces his unbelief with eyes wide open. He knows Christianity’s and the Bible’s answers to the problem of evil. He simply rejects them and says that he does not find them at all compelling.

2. Second, surprise. I’m not surprised by his skepticism, but by the clarity with which he speaks of the Christianity he rejects. In one part of the interview, he describes the apostle Paul’s teaching on redemptive suffering. Ehrman says that Christ’s death in Paul’s eyes constituted redemptive suffering in which Christ received the punishment for sin upon Himself. It was fascinating to hear Ehrman talk about Paul’s view of the cross because Ehrman pretty much takes a penal substitutionary (PS) view of the atonement in Paul. Obviously, he doesn’t agree with the PS view, but he nevertheless recognizes that this is what Paul taught.

I have noticed that often times some of the most liberal scholars are the ones most willing to take traditional/conservative readings of scripture. I wonder if the reason for this is that the most liberal scholars don’t believe in the authority of scripture so they don’t mind coming to exegetical conclusions that are non-PC. Since there’s nothing at all normative about the Scriptures, it’s okay to take Paul at face-value and then reject what he teaches. For those who do not care even to tip their hat to biblical authority, there’s no motive really for making Paul or the other biblical writers conform to modern sensitivities (e.g., aversion to the wrath of God, patriarchy). So they don’t.

In any case, I note the book and the interview because a lot of people read Ehrman’s work. His last blockbuster book made deep inroads into the popular culture, and I’m betting this one will too. Many will come away feeling emboldened and confirmed in their unbelief. Every thoughtful Christian will grieve about and pray for Ehrman and those influenced by his book. They will also want to be ready to give an answer (1 Peter 3:15).

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P.S. For a better account of the problem of evil, I recommend John Piper’s NPR interview from 2005. You can download it from the Desiring God website or listen to it below.

[audio:http://www.desiringgod.org/download.php?file=/media/audio/interviews/20050110_npr_interview_edited.mp3]

By John Piper. © Desiring God. Website: desiringGod.org

17 Responses to Bart Ehrman on God’s Problem

  1. Doug February 22, 2008 at 9:27 am #

    Good post Denny. Agree with you that many have read and are being influenced by Ehrman’s works. fyi- James White is scheduled to debate Ehrman next year, 1-21-09, in Ft Lauderdale, FL.

    Thanks for the post. 🙂

  2. Nick February 22, 2008 at 10:07 am #

    William Lane Craig in his debate with Kai Nielson on the problem of evil:

    http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5295

    ————————–

    I’d also recommend his Q & A answer, found here:

    http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5949

  3. Paul February 22, 2008 at 10:18 am #

    So, Denny, here’s a question?

    While it’s easy to blow off a Sam Harris or a Richard Dawkins, who are both such blowhards (like me!) that it’s easy to tune them out, how do you respond to a guy like this?

  4. Lance February 22, 2008 at 11:08 am #

    A couple of thoughts, shooting from the hip:

    1. It seems that Ehrman wants a God that he can fully comprehend.

    2. Perhaps a better title would have been “The Christian God’s Problem,” for the subtitle refers to the Bible, not other works of religious faith, such as the Koran.

    3. I’m not sure that any Christian can adequately explain the mysteries of an infinite God, but we should be able explain why we have hope in the midst of such mysteries (as you ref’d 1 Pet. 3:15).

    In other words, I’m assuming Ehrman is no better off in discerning the mysteries of suffering than he was when he professed Christ. Therefore, he’s worse off than those of us who have hope in the midst of mystery.

  5. Brett February 22, 2008 at 1:34 pm #

    I find Ehrman’s case very odd. He was not hurt by anyone in the church, he did not have disasters happen to him or his family, and yet he still believes this way. He’s very knowledgeable and well-studied as evidenced from his interview. It breaks my heart that he has come these conclusions.

    He brings up great questions, questions that we should all wrestle with and seek to answer. Questions that our answers won’t be satisfactory for with many people. To simply say “God is sovereign” honestly just doesn’t cut it. To simply say “It’s because of human freedom” doesn’t cut it for most people as well.

    Thanks for posting this Denny. This will surely be a book that many people read that will be a stumbling block to their faith. I pray we are all prepared to deal with it.

  6. Lucas Knisely February 22, 2008 at 2:34 pm #

    Brett,

    I’m pleading with you to make things right. I wish I had another way to contact you, but your name isn’t clickable.

    If you objectively look at this recap (its 3 parts):
    http://www.dennyburk.com/?p=1380#comment-31323

    I hope you can see how wrongly you treated me. I hate to keep doing this on Denny’s site, but I really sincerely feel that you crossed the line. And the incident I’m talking about happened after many insults and attacks that I did my best to ignore.

  7. Benjamin A February 22, 2008 at 4:54 pm #

    Lucas,

    Just trying to help here. Looking over all the recap stuff I would agree that Brett was very direct and personal in his remarks toward you.

    However, in the last post of his directed at you, as far as I can tell, from your own recap, from the D.A. Carson/Rob Bell article, comment #63, Brett’s last words were these-

    “Please forgive me for any wrong I have done to you or offense I have been. I realize I have spoken some out of anger and some out of pride. However, because you keep continuing to respond to me in the manner you do, I will not acknowledge any more of your posts. Blessings”

    If I’m correct, it seems as if he has asked for your forgiveness for all that he said.

    Maybe it’s time to accept his apology and move on graciously.

  8. Lucas Knisely February 22, 2008 at 5:31 pm #

    Ben,

    So I can cuss you out and then apologize in the same entry and that makes it okay?

    The entry that you copied his “apology” from is the one where he viciously attacks me. Not to mention his apology concludes with placing blame on me for why he won’t “acknowledge” my posts anymore. As you clearly saw from the run down I gave, I didn’t do anything to warrant being ignored or attacked. Unless he wants to ignore people that actually engage him. Which contradicts they very act of posting in the first place.

    Please, let Brett take care of this.

  9. Steve Hayes February 22, 2008 at 6:54 pm #

    Lucas,

    What’s your point? What are you hoping to accomplish? Are you trying to force Brett into an apology?

    I’m really not trying to be mean here, but this seems a bit junior high to me. Brett’s got some issues with you, and I certainly don’t blame you for being bothered by that, but I’m not sure that being upset is a good reason to stalk someone into apologizing to you. You’ve stated your issue, and now it’s up to Brett to either respond or ignore. His response is not up to you.

    Look, dude, some people just get their buttons pushed, and they’re not ready to deal with things. That’s up to them. Why continue to push this? Besides, who cares if someone says something negative about you on a blog? It’s a blog!!

  10. Lucas Knisely February 22, 2008 at 9:21 pm #

    As Christians, unity is of the utmost importance, regardless of the venue. Be it a blog, the grocery store, or a church.

    Brett didn’t hurt my feelings, he accused me of being the type of person that drives people away from Christianity. I’ve proven, with very little effort, that he is the one causing dissension and disunity among Christians. He is the one who created a negative image of the way Christians interact. My aim is not to “force an apology”, as you insinuate. My aim is to mend what has been broken, and it is my duty to pursue Brett as much as possible.

    This isn’t about my feelings getting hurt, because honestly, I’ve been doing the online discussion thing for a long time, and Brett’s comment didn’t hurt. If he hurt my feelings I would’ve confronted him a lot earlier than I did.

    I am, however, sick of seeing Christians rip each other limb from limb because it’s “just a blog”. Your very reason for me to just “let it go” is probably, in part, the cause of Brett’s hostility. Oh, its just a blog and nobody knows who I am, I’ll be rude, uncharitable, and insult anyone who disagrees with me.

    And if he wasn’t basically anonymous, I would contact him via his website or his email address.

    Trust me, I enjoy Denny’s blog and have been coming here for a long time. I’m torn between letting it go more for Denny’s sake than my own or anyone else’s.

  11. Jesica February 23, 2008 at 2:06 am #

    Lucas,

    Please don’t read this whole post as being directed toward you…it’s just some things that have been pressing mightily on my heart for several days, and I think I’m supposed to share now..

    I didn’t read the discussion that you posted, but I find it interesting that we’re on the same page regarding what to do with this blog.

    I love coming here to read Denny’s thought provoking entries, but am seriously grieved as I watch how some in the body of Christ interact with one another.

    I’ve been asking myself, “How might a lost person perceive Christ through the words that some “brothers” sling at each other here, all in the name of theology?”

    It’s heart breaking…and I bet God finds it to be even more distressing than I do!

    Just a few days ago, I deleted the link on my own blog, to this one, because there are a lot of unbelievers who read my blog, and I didn’t want them to see these comments and find that Christians treat each other much the same way that their lost friends treat them.

    I don’t want them to see yet one more way that the church looks like the world.

    Denny, I do appreciate and love your heart for the Lord, and the way that you reason through the events of our world with us, spurring us to look at the world through the lense of Scripture.

    In this, you remind me of Paul and how he did the same in Acts 17 with the Jews in the synagogues…he too was encouraging dialogue in order for people to learn and believe.

    That’s why I come here each day…I can overlook the ugly comments, but I don’t think some of the readers of my blog can.

    And this part isn’t directed to you, Denny…

    My brothers and sisters, we’d do well to remember that a Christian can be “right” all day long, but if he acts without love in his “rightness” it’s all for naught. And not only that, it’s horridly irritating to those who hear him.

    I’ve been guilty of this very thing myself, which is why I suppose I’m keenly aware of it. Just this week I called my pastors from 7 years ago to ask forgiveness for the pain that I brought to the body there, when I was a new believer and so focused on my own “rightness” instead of God’s righteousness.

    Aren’t we told to esteem one another more highly than ourselves?

    And, when wronged, we can learn alot from David’s example in 1 Samuel 23. When the men of Keilah were about to surrender David into Saul’s hands, IMMEDIATELY after he had been used of God to deliver THEM from the Philistines, David did not retaliate.

    He had just destroyed their enemies, for goodness sake! He could have waged war on them, too, once he heard they were going to betray him.

    But he didn’t. He sought the Lord and then fled the scene.

    I think it’s ok to flee the scene when we’re betrayed, and leave the details up to the Lord.

    We’re supposed to be about our Father’s business…there’s a lost world out there that needs Messiah, and a whole lot of sheep in our churches and communities who need His Word.

    Let’s labor to that end…

    In His Great Love,
    Jesica

  12. jeff miller February 24, 2008 at 6:50 am #

    That was the best Bible Study I have heard on NPR. Of course there were problems with the commentary but still…NPR! Sorry again to hear of Bart Ehrman’s present bias and his lost fidelity to Jesus, the Messiah. From Israel’s perspective we know the real issue is not “God’s Problem…” but “Man’s Problem, How men fail to see the most important Question– How Long will God Suffer with Illegitimate Man.”

    In his book “the Politics of Jesus” John Yoder pointed out how a Christian’s true discipleship can be undermined when we attempt to use religion as an “effective” way of moving history rathar than as a way of being faithful to Jesus no matter where we are at in History.

    Similarly, Bart Ehrman has difficulty truly understanding the whole of what God has revealed to the saints (even with his knowledge of the information) when he stands on the ground of an academic cultures questions about suffering, rathar than standing on the groung of fidelity to God through Jesus Christ.

    I Hope Bart’s mother and sister press on in Jesus.

  13. Ken February 26, 2008 at 12:37 pm #

    Hmmm. The book I’d really like to see is “Bart Ehrman’s Problem,” authored by God.

    Oh, wait. I think it’s already out under the title “The Epistle to the Romans.” Part of a multivolume work.

  14. Mason Beecroft February 26, 2008 at 1:35 pm #

    For what it is worth, I would recommend “The Theology of the Cross” by Gerhard Forde for a concise, accessible meditation on how to respond to “Theologians of Glory” like Bart Ehrman. Forde’s book is actually a commentary on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation of 1518, which gets to the heart of the Reformation debate on how we understand God’s disposition toward a sinful humanity.
    Pax et Bonum,
    Mason

  15. Mason Beecroft February 26, 2008 at 1:37 pm #

    Sorry, but the official title of the book is “On Being a Theologian of the Cross” by Forde. Shoot from the hip and you are bound to make mistakes- liturgists and “worship leaders” take note!

  16. John February 28, 2008 at 9:50 am #

    Thanks for posting this Denny. My friends and I actually were just talking about his bashing the bible the other day (my friend had one of his books for assigned reading in a class), but we had no idea about this; very sobering, very sad.

  17. Roy March 1, 2008 at 1:09 pm #

    I was glad to see your post on the NPR interview with Dr. Ehrman. Bart Ehrman did successfully destroy freewill as a viable explanation for the problem of evil, but the closest he came to a biblical view of the problem of evil was when e mentioned Job 38.

    The Trinity Foundation publishes an essay on the problem of evil (written in the 1960’s by Gordon Clark) They also have an article (from 1996 I think) posted on their web site.

    http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=141

    I have yet to read the book “God’s Problem” but in the interview, Dr. Ehrman never lays a glove on the Theodicy articulated in these essays. I agree with you that the problem of evil will make it to the man on the street. It is my hope that Dr. Ehrman’s treatment will make most of the typical evangelical answers untenable, and in response the church will become more biblical, and more culturally effective.

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