by Bart D. Ehrman
New York: HarperCollins, 2008 294 pp.
Reviewed by John Merrill
Bart Ehrman’s latest book will be troubling to many readers: He takes on the difficult question of how to reconcile the existence of terrible human suffering with the belief in an all-powerful and benevolent God. Ehrman comes at this question from the perspective of what the Bible says about suffering, and for this task his qualifications are indisputable. He is a recognized expert on Biblical texts, a distinguished professor at the University of North Carolina, a widely published author and a sometime contributor to BAS publications and study programs. So it is not through any deficiency of exposition or interpretation that his latest offering will be troubling, but rather because of the emotionally wrenching and in some ways unanswerable—as Ehrman himself acknowledges—nature of the question.
Ehrman begins by explaining how the first five books of the Bible—the Pentateuch—emphasize repeatedly that the people of Israel were the chosen people of God, who was all-powerful and would grant his chosen people security and prosperity in exchange for their (exclusive) devotion to him. How then were the Israelites to explain adversity, which often visited in quite terrible forms—famine, disease, poverty and military disaster? The consistent answer to this vexing question, Ehrman demonstrates, was that suffering was God’s retribution for the Israelites’ transgressions. Again and again, whether in the stories of Genesis and Exodus, the admonitions of Deuteronomy, the revelations of the 15 prophets or the historical narratives of Kings and Chronicles, the lesson of the Hebrew Bible is clear and indelible: Suffering is God’s punishment for sin.
In response to this belief, the Israelites evolved a complex system of plant and animal sacrifice as a way of atoning for sin and, thereby, averting punishment. But at times their transgressions were too great to avoid God’s wrath. The sack of Jerusalem, destruction of the Temple and exile of leading citizens by Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian army in 586 B.C.E. were seen as God-caused cataclysms. But the Babylonian exile provided another insight as well: Suffering itself could atone for prior transgression (see the so-called “second” Isaiah, Chapters 40–45). This would become a central theme for subsequent Christian interpreters. Meanwhile, following the return from Babylonian exile (537 B.C.E.), the routine of atoning sacrifice must have seemed to be having its desired effect, as the Jews experienced several centuries of comparative peace and prosperity under the leadership of high priests (see, for example, Sirach 50:1–24).
But in the early second century B.C.E., disaster struck again. Encouraged by a segment of the Jewish aristocracy, the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes deposed the high priest Onias III, invaded Judea, and imposed a draconian regime that proscribed traditional forms of worship. In response, pious Jews revolted under the leadership of the Maccabean clan. The Maccabeans established a dynasty of their own, but it was to be short-lived and characterized by recurring civil war, with atrocities committed on both sides. Ultimately the Roman army imposed peace, but at the price of Jewish sovereignty and with King Herod the Great, who many Jews considered illegitimate.
How then were pious Jews, who had endeavored to live in complete righteousness, to account for this series of disasters? The answer, Ehrman explains, was apocalypticism. To paraphrase his detailed summary, apocalypticism holds that the suffering of seeming innocents is caused not by God, but by the presence of evil forces in the world. God tolerates evil in the present, for reasons known only to him. But in the end, God will purge the world of evil, establish his eternal kingdom, reward the righteous and punish the unrighteous.
The first appearance of apocalypticism in the Bible occurs in the Book of Daniel, but it emerges fully formed in the New Testament (see Mark 13; Matthew 24; Luke 12; Revelation). As Ehrman has previously written,1 he considers John the Baptist, Jesus and the apostle Paul to be confirmed apocalypticists. All three preached that the forces of evil had been given license in the present, but that God would ultimately intervene in a cataclysmic act of judgment. Most important, the forecast day of reckoning was imminent. The notion that the time of judgment was coming soon, specifically within the lifetime of their listeners, was a key element of both Jesus’ and Paul’s message.
And this, for Ehrman, is where the Bible fails to provide a satisfactory answer to the problem of suffering. The final judgment anticipated by John, Jesus and Paul conspicuously did not arrive. Not in their lifetimes, nor of their listeners, nor ever. Moreover, Jesus’ own sacrifice, which was initially thought to atone for all sin, did not prevent the continuation of human suffering. Instead, suffering persisted through the centuries and still endures—some by natural disaster and disease, some by acts of horrible atrocities by humans upon other humans. The victims are too often children and other innocents for whom the notion of punishment for sinfulness is not credible.
There are various explanations for the contradiction Ehrman sees between the Biblical text and observed reality. Suffering, some advise, is God’s way of testing our faith or of building our character. But he finds these explanations inadequate to account for horrors such as the Holocaust, the 1918 influenza epidemic or the tsunami deaths. To the extent that Ehrman finds any Biblical answer at all to the problem of suffering, it comes from the Book of Job, which maintains that suffering is a mystery. Ehrman also agrees with the author of Ecclesiastes, who says, in effect, that there is much about life we can’t know, so we must make the best of what we have.
Ehrman’s conclusion is reminiscent of what author and respected evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould observed about suffering, specifically of the kind caused by human predation. Gould noted that humans may have some genetic predisposition to violence—perhaps the “evil” in the world imagined by the apocalypticists. But equally, Gould wrote, humans have the ability to choose otherwise. They can, if they decide, make peace instead of war. They have the capacity to mitigate or even prevent suffering caused by natural disasters. For Ehrman as well, if the Bible does not explain why we suffer, humans must do what they can, on their own, to deal with suffering.