Book Plunge: God’s Problem

Is God’s Problem a problem? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

God’s Problem is the work of Bart Ehrman on the problem of evil and why he thinks the Bible does not address the problem. This is not his usual type of work. For one thing, I was surprised to read a book of Ehrman’s where he did not talk about the paper he wrote on Mark 2 in college. Yet on the other hand, Ehrman is stepping outside of his territory.

A usual criticism I have of Ehrman’s books is that you get the sound of one-hand clapping. Ehrman only presents his version of the story. He does not interact with those who disagree. Of course, I do not expect him to argue for what someone like myself would say, but I expect him to argue with it. I expect him to bring up writers like Plantinga and Ganssle and Copan and Zacharias and others and say why it is that they are wrong. He doesn’t.

What do we find? On page 18 he says “There are, of course, numerous books about suffering already. In my opinion, though, many of these books are either intellectually unsatisfying, morally bankrupt, or practically useless.”

Why are they they? Who knows? Which ones are they? We don’t know. We’re just told to simply visit any Christian bookstore. Personally, as one who goes to Christian bookstores frequently, one would be hard-pressed to find these kinds of books that Christians should be reading there. If Ehrman’s dislike is based on what is read in Christian bookstores, then I really do feel his pain.

Yet is it really a convincing way to make a case? Can he really just hope a section like that would deal with Plantinga and others? Would it be a convincing argument if I said “I choose to believe in Christianity because books like Ehrman’s are either intellectually unsatisfying, morally bankrupt, or practically useless.”? Of course not. I need to give a reason.

Now if Ehrman wants to say a lot of these books are not written to help those who are suffering. I agree. So what? A lot of philosophers are not professional counselors. Why should they be? In fact, what is Ehrman’s book doing to help people who suffer? If anything, it would hurt them because one could say he’s taking a great source of comfort that they have and calling it into question. Of course, he has all right to do that, but to do such an action and complain about what others are doing is highly problematic.

In fact, I have no doubt that if Alvin Plantinga, a leading Christian thinker on the problem of evil for those who don’t know, had a mother come to his office whose son died in a car accident, he would not give her a copy of one of his books on the problem of evil. He would listen to her. He would comfort her. He would pray with her. He would read Scripture with her. If he was not qualified in his opinion to do any of those things, he would find someone who was. In fact, aside from praying and reading Scripture, I think Ehrman would do the same thing. We all should.

Throughout the book Ehrman does present challenges to people’s faith. (Once again, how is it supposed to help those struggling with evil to go after their faith in a time of suffering, and yet Ehrman complains about others) These are the usual canards. The gospels are anonymous. Moses did not write the Pentateuch. The gospels contradict. Daniel was written late. Jesus and Paul are failed apocalyptic prophets. Anyone who’s read any of Ehrman’s other works will recognize the recycled arguments. It is not my purpose to deal with those here. It is only to point out again, is this the kind of message that Ehrman wants to give to suffering Christians? Is this the bet time to attack their faith? Of course, he could say he has not written this book to give emotional solace but to address an issue. That’s fine, but then why go after other books for the exact same reason. If anything, at least these books are trying to strengthen someone’s faith when they think they need it most.

Many of Ehrman’s objections also seem simplistic. For instance, on pages 12-13, he asks why there can be free-will in Heaven and everyone does the good, but there can’t be on Earth. My answer I’ve had for that for years is that Heaven is the end result of a lifetime of choices. Earth is the place where you choose who you will serve. When you are in the presence of God, you are locked into whatever choice you made. You can still act freely, but not against that basic lock. Now my answer for the sake of argument could be wrong, but it is an answer.

Ehrman also is not inconsistent with his approach often. For instance, he will say that the prophets knew that not all suffering was the result of sin and God judging the people, yet this is the view he still constantly repeats as theirs. The prophets are usually not speaking about evil as a whole, but about a particular evil and saying that yes, the covenant people are not being faithful to the covenant.

An interesting quote for readers is on page 127 where he says “What if I was right then but wrong now? Will I burn in hell forever? The fear of death gripped me for years, and there are still moments when I wake up at night in a cold sweat.” One can’t help but wonder why in a book on evil Ehrman would want to risk having more people do the same thing.

Ehrman does point out that we could all do more to help deal with evil, and I agree. Yet is that all he wants to say? I see nothing beyond that. He’s of the view that we should still enjoy our lives, and I agree with that. If anyone wants to know why I think evil is the way it is in the world today, look at the church. Evil will prosper where the church fails to be the body of Christ. Interestingly in all these disasters Ehrman talks about, he seems to not notice it’s Christians who are responding. When he talks about how he helped someone who had escaped Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge with his family, he mentions it the was a Lutheran ministry that got them here, but Ehrman doesn’t make the connection. Could it be the Lutherans did what they did because of Christ? Could it be God is operating through the church?

If this is the way God is dealing with the problem of evil, then by going against Christianity, could it be Ehrman is himself contributing to the problem he rails against?

I’d also like to point out that evil is not a defeater for Christian belief. It cannot be the case that the first way of Aquinas is true and that the problem of evil shows that God does not exist. The theistic arguments must still be dealt with. It cannot be that the historical case for the resurrection cannot be established because of evil. The case must be dealt with on its own.

I conclude that Ehrman has not dealt with the problem of evil, but the book I suspect is just another way of going after Christianity. Of course, Ehrman is free to do this, but I do not see why one would want to knock down a system to help deal with evil without putting up any system of one’s own in its place. Ehrman is doing what he says the Christians works he condemns are, except worse. At least those are usually trying to strengthen someone in a view for comfort. Ehrman is instead knocking them down.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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3 Responses to “Book Plunge: God’s Problem”

  1. David Safina Says:

    A. This is a mainstream not an academic publication, Ehrman doesnt need to present all of the classical arguments for and against the problem of evil in a balanced and fair way (if you want this though check out any introductory philosophy of religion textbook ( i recommend William Rowe’s “Philosophy of Religion: an introduction”). But, honestly, Ehrman knows this, and it is more or less an absolute Ontological fact that no one really wants to read philosophy – especially not the hacks like plantinga…(read mackie and flew and especially GE moore if you want to see a philosophical beat down of him).
    And on that note, secondly, Ehrman is right, Plantinga and other are intellectually unsatisfying, but moreso, if you consider Aquinas’ scholasticism and his five ways (quinque viae) intellectually satisfying, then I’m not sure anything is going to be intellectually satisfying for you on the other side of the fence…but if you think the unmoved mover thing is intellectually satisfying, please read Davy Hume…

    B. Also, Ehrman doesn’t need to offer a ‘better solution’, his point is to help people emerge from the delusion of Christian theism, as a first step to evolving out of their world of the problem of evil – and the best way to get people to boot-strap their way to progress is to shake them up to their core. As such, I do take issue with a few of his books that overly simplify the world for the layman audience such as “forged” which makes the strange assumption that we know the intention of the pseudographical writer “liars” -how could we? But, he writes for the layman, and simplifies to that level, and overall, if you have actually read Ehrman’s works and still maintain an evangelical (fundamentalist) theism… I am utterly flabbergasted, and I suggest you give him another shot, it would be good for you :). Also, pick up that Rowe book too and/or a nice reader (Pojman does a really good one)…

    C. Essentially the logical problem of evil is flirting with a classification as a brute fact, and if you reject it based on some lame free-will defense, then no book is going to convince you otherwise. But the bigger challenge inherent in the problem of evil is a problem rooted in the idea of theism. That is, does the clown presented in the Bible adequately reflect those characteristics, that is, when we talk about theism today we arn’t just talking about some greek intellectual notion of a primary cause, causer etc. we are measuring which capital G, god fits the bill, and it doesn’t take more than reading a book or two of the Bible before its strikingly obvious that even if that god exists, he is not even close to the trifecta (omnipotent, omnipresent, omni benevolent) that represents a necessary, absolute, and sufficient conditionality for the existence of the classical theistic god. Now if you want a challenge of the tenants of fundamentalist/evangelical christianity on a biblical critical basis, I think Ehrman does a very decent job with this (but look for my book on the subject in a decade or two 😛 )

  2. apologianick Says:

    A. A. This is a mainstream not an academic publication, Ehrman doesnt need to present all of the classical arguments for and against the problem of evil in a balanced and fair way (if you want this though check out any introductory philosophy of religion textbook ( i recommend William Rowe’s “Philosophy of Religion: an introduction”).

    Reply: Baloney. A work can still be popular and give both sides of the argument. Most Christian works do that, and the ones that don’t I’ve taken to task on the same grounds. Ehrman is simply a popularizer. He’s riding on the ignorance of his audience, particularly new atheists.

    David: But, honestly, Ehrman knows this, and it is more or less an absolute Ontological fact that no one really wants to read philosophy – especially not the hacks like plantinga…(read mackie and flew and especially GE moore if you want to see a philosophical beat down of him).

    Reply: A hack. Yep. The philosophers you’ve cited would not say he’s a hack. It’s largely because of Plantinga that the logical problem of evil is no longer discussed, which is the one that Ehrman lists in his introduction. The emotive problem is discussed, but not the logical one.

    David: And on that note, secondly, Ehrman is right, Plantinga and other are intellectually unsatisfying,

    Reply: Gotta love statements of faith. My contention was that Ehrman did not say why. Your reply “He’s right!” Whew! That settles it! No. Ehrman is intellectually unsatisfying and I can tell you why. Just read my reviews of other books of his.

    David: but moreso, if you consider Aquinas’ scholasticism and his five ways (quinque viae) intellectually satisfying, then I’m not sure anything is going to be intellectually satisfying for you on the other side of the fence…

    Reply: A scholasticism that the Endarkenment thinkers didn’t touch but wanted to think that they had. Is this going to be some of your excellent argumentation such as how you couldn’t even demonstrate an objective basis for morality on Mike’s Facebook page?

    David: but if you think the unmoved mover thing is intellectually satisfying, please read Davy Hume…

    Reply: Sorry, but I’ve read everyone’s favorite racist. If you’re simply talking about Philo’s argument that Richard Dawkins uses in his book, then you don’t have a clue. The argument doesn’t even touch Aquinas’s ontology.

    David: B. Also, Ehrman doesn’t need to offer a ‘better solution’, his point is to help people emerge from the delusion of Christian theism, as a first step to evolving out of their world of the problem of evil

    Reply: Ah. So when someone is in their hardest point of life and it could be Christian theism is all they have to hold on to, Ehrman wants to take that away too. If he wants to take it away, let him give something better in its place. A work like this will provide no emotional solace for someone while he complains that other books on the topic don’t do that.

    David: – and the best way to get people to boot-strap their way to progress is to shake them up to their core.

    Reply: Because that’s exactly what people struggling with suffering need. They need to be shaken up at their core. Please. Never go into counseling.

    David: As such, I do take issue with a few of his books that overly simplify the world for the layman audience such as “forged” which makes the strange assumption that we know the intention of the pseudographical writer “liars” -how could we?

    Reply: We know it by studying their writings, but Forged is a terrible work. He does not deal at all with the secretary hypothesis, even though Romans, an authentically Pauline work, is written by a secretary. For all his talk about computer tests, those same tests say Revelation 4 and 5 is Pauline. Ehrman does not deal with the leading criticisms of his view and for most of his arguments, you can find a reasonable explanation. For instance, Ehrman says a phony would put a a warning against a forger to look authentic. A real writing would do the same thing! Consider how Galen wrote a book on how to recognize books written by Galen!

    David: But, he writes for the layman, and simplifies to that level, and overall, if you have actually read Ehrman’s works and still maintain an evangelical (fundamentalist) theism… I am utterly flabbergasted, and I suggest you give him another shot, it would be good for you 🙂 .

    Reply: Sorry. Not a fundamentalist, unlike new atheists. Ehrman’s works don’t impress because they’re weak. Ehrman was a fundamentalist and he still is. Most of his arguments were dealt with even in the 19th century.

    David: Also, pick up that Rowe book too and/or a nice reader (Pojman does a really good one)…

    Reply: I’d be glad to. I have read Pojman also.

    David: C. Essentially the logical problem of evil is flirting with a classification as a brute fact, and if you reject it based on some lame free-will defense, then no book is going to convince you otherwise.

    Reply: I’ve debated John Loftus on the problem of natural evil. If you want to, you’re free to come to TheologyWeb.com and I’ll start a thread in the Deeper Waters section just for you so you can show me how evil is a defeater for the resurrection. Should be easy dealing with a fundy? Right? (Then again, it hasn’t been so far)

    David: But the bigger challenge inherent in the problem of evil is a problem rooted in the idea of theism. That is, does the clown presented in the Bible adequately reflect those characteristics, that is, when we talk about theism today we arn’t just talking about some greek intellectual notion of a primary cause, causer etc. we are measuring which capital G, god fits the bill, and it doesn’t take more than reading a book or two of the Bible before its strikingly obvious that even if that god exists, he is not even close to the trifecta (omnipotent, omnipresent, omni benevolent) that represents a necessary, absolute, and sufficient conditionality for the existence of the classical theistic god.

    Reply: Okay. Here’s a response. Yes. It’s clear in the Bible He does! Hey. I figured if you’re just going to give a statement of faith and call it an argument, I’ll do the same thing.

    David: Now if you want a challenge of the tenants of fundamentalist/evangelical christianity on a biblical critical basis, I think Ehrman does a very decent job with this (but look for my book on the subject in a decade or two 😛 )

    Reply: By all means tear up fundamenatlism. It was an aberration that never should have seen the light of day. For real argumentation, Ehrman doesn’t deliver.

  3. Book Plunge: Truth Matters | Deeper Waters Says:

    […] is also a section on dealing with the problem of evil since Ehrman makes a case in “God’s Problem” about how the problem of evil is the best evidence against the existence of God. While I do […]

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