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Bart’s Problem: why do we suffer?5 min read

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This past week on the radio interview show Fresh Air with Terry Gross, evangelical-scholar-turned-agnostic Bart Erhman talked about his new book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer.

Bart’s rejection of Christianity and the reliability of scripture is threatening and upsetting to many Christians, since he is way more knowledgeable on the Bible than most of us will ever be, and he was schooled at all of the best evangelical schools, including Moody Bible Institute.  But Bad Bart had some interesting things to say.

First, Bart is not anti-faith or anti-Christian – in fact, he still teaches New Testament Studies at Princeton University.  Also, when discussing the biblical view of most subjects, he says little that would contradict traditional evangelical theology.  But what he actually BELIEVES, and his expression of doubt, is significant.

Second, he discusses why he left the faith, and that is, the problem of evil,of theo which simply stated, is:

In light of the reality of suffering, God can not be both all powerful and all good, because if he was, he would eliminate suffering.  So either God is not all powerful (he can’t stop evil), or he is not all good (he won’t stop evil).

The branch of theology that tries to explain the problem of evil is called theodicy, but Bart found the theodical answers insufficient, and finally decided that he did not believe in the biblical God.

The Five Types of Suffering

Lastly, in discussing his book in this excellent interview, he mentioned at least five different types of suffering, biblically speaking, which I thought were instructive:

  1. Punishment: The main Old Testament view of suffering is that, when we obey what is good, we are blessed, but when we do evil, God punishes us for our sins, and that’s why we suffer.  Interestingly, this type of suffering can be broken down into different types, as I outlined in Five Types of Divine Anger.
  2. Testing:  The Bible also gives examples of suffering that are not due to God’s judgment, but due to the fact that God wants to test us.  The classic version of this is the story of Job, who lost his family, riches, and health, though he did nothing wrong.  Job was being tested to see if he would follow God even if God seemed unjust – that is, he would obey Him, not for the blessing or to avoid the curse, but because he was convinced that it was RIGHT.
  3. Redemption: Some suffering may be viewed as necessary for redemption or the saving of others.  The classic OT story of this is the story of Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers.  At the end of the story, though, Joseph ends up being in a position of power, and is able to save his family from famine.  His famous recap of the redemptive principle is found in Genesis 50:20 – “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.”  Of course, the death of Jesus is another type of redemptive suffering, as is OUR suffering in following Christ to bring the gospel to others.
  4. Warfare: The bible teaches that in this age, we are in spiritual warfare with evil spirits.  And in warfare, there are casualties, injuries, and suffering.  Sometimes we suffer because the enemy, Satan, and the forces of this ungodly world system driven by the lusts of the flesh, eyes, and pride, cause us weariness, injury, persecution, and even death, in doing good.
  5. Meaningless:  Some suffering seems pointless.  The death of thousands in a natural disaster, for instance.  Or cancer in a child.  Some suffering just can’t be explained or justified, and we have to decide what to do with this kind of suffering.   

This last type of suffering is the kind that caused Bart to lose his faith.  How are we to respond to this type of apparently meaningless suffering, and how does God respond to us when we question his goodness when we suffer?

In a future post, I will examine the life of Job to get answers to those questions, but here is the short answer for now:

We can, like Bart, see meaningless suffering as evidence that God is not real, or not good or omnipotent, OR we can decide to trust that God is still real, loving, and true, and live with the ambiguity and mystery, and with humility before God’s awesomeness, admit, like Job, that we can not understand all things.

You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.

“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you shall answer me.’

My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.

Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:3-6)