From February 2008:
Last week I went with a friend to a twenty-something’s church service. Aside from some fun little tidbits of idolatry (one of those posters of “In God We Trust” superimposed over an American flag), the message that the speaker brought was actually a great call to Christians to address suffering in a compassionate, Christlike way. There was a mention, though, of something that has bothered me ever since.
The speaker’s response to how an all-powerful, loving God can co-exist with an evil, pain-filled world (theodicy) was that God works under a different framework than we do. He then promptly moved on to continue his talk. I know that theodicy is an extremely difficult issue, so of course I wasn’t expecting him to solve thousands of years of theological brainbuster-ing in a 30-minute talk. I guess what bothers me is many Christians’ lack of willingness to press further toward a different response. I just can’t say, “It’s all a mystery and God has his reasons, his own standard,” and move on. I’m sorry, but that has to be a twisted standard and I’m not sure about following a god like that. Frankly, the problem of suffering is a serious challenge to my faith.
On Tuesday's “Fresh Air” on NPR, Bart Ehrman, chair of the religious studies department at UNC Chapel Hill, addressed theodicy. His religious credentials include degrees from Moody, Wheaton, and Princeton Theological Seminary. He was a member of Youth for Christ and a pastor. The question of suffering, however, eventually led him to become an agnostic. He includes a description of his emigration from Christianity in his new book, God’s Problem:
In an earlier book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, I have indicated that my strong commitment to the Bible began to wane the more I studied it. I began to realize that rather than being an inerrant revelation from God, inspired in its very words (the view I had at Moody Bible Institute), the Bible was a very human book with all the marks of having come from human hands: discrepancies, contradictions, errors, and different perspectives of different authors living at different times in different countries and writing for different reasons to different audiences with different needs. But the problems of the Bible are not what led me to leave the faith. These problems simply showed me that my evangelical beliefs about the Bible could not hold up, in my opinion, to critical scrutiny. I continued to be a Christian—a completely committed Christian—for many years after I left the evangelical fold.
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.
Usually “free will” is given as a response to theodicy, but for Ehrman, that is not enough. He wants to know why, every five seconds, a child dies of hunger. Nobody’s choosing to make this child die of starvation. And can natural disasters fall under the category of free will? Ehrman discusses classical explanations for theodicy: suffering is a punishment for our sins, it’s a test of faith, it’s redemptive (something good will come out of it). The interview also includes Ehrman’s explanation of the book of Job as a compilation of two different genres by two authors.
A few quotes from the interview:
“If there is a God, he certainly is not the God of the Christian tradition who is all-powerful and over this world and intervening in this world periodically to help people. I think that if there is a God, God is so far beyond anything that we can imagine that we literally cannot imagine him.”
His thoughts on hell: “If there is a God in the world […], then surely God is not more cruel than any human being who’s ever lived. And there’s no human being who’s ever lived who’s subjected eternal torment on anyone else.” Ehrman believes hell was a doctrine invented by the early Christians mainly to convert people.
His interview made me wonder if we have put so many strictures on who God is that we’ve created this problem ourselves. I wonder if our Western epistemological categories have twisted the meaning of all-powerful and all-knowing? Or maybe I need to visit the Sudanese congregation over in Wheaton, or spend more time with other Christians who are still so after much suffering...