More Ehrman: God’s Problem: why do we suffer?

Bart Ehrman’s been on Unbelievable again, this time talking about the Problem of Evil: if God is good and all-powerful, why is there so much suffering in the world? His opposite number this time was Richard Swinburne, a Christian philosopher. Both of them have written books on the subject. I’ve read Ehrman’s God’s Problem but not Swinburne’s Providence and the Problem of Evil.

The programme consisted of them both trying to get the arguments from their books into an hour long discussion. There’s an MP3 of the programme available on Premier’s site. If you get annoyed with people posting links to audio and video without summaries, you could read my notes, below the cut, or skip to the conclusion.

<lj-cut text=”What was said”>Free will

Ehrman mentions Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book When bad things happen to good people (summarised here), in which Kushner says God is not all-powerful. Swinburne points out that being all-powerful doesn’t include being able to do something logically contradictory. His argument is that there are good states which can’t occur without allowing for the possibility of suffering. For example, you can’t give people free choice (a good thing) to people without allowing them to chose evil. Responsibility for others is a good, but we can’t really be responsible for them unless their well-being depends on our actions. God, as our creator, has the right to allow us to experience suffering if it’s ultimately for our own good.

Ehrman responds that free will doesn’t explain why many people suffer and don’t receive benefit from it. A child dies of starvation every 5 seconds, and it’s hard to argue that the child benefits from it. Christians think there will be no suffering in heaven, and yet there will, presumably, be free will in heaven. Hence there is no logical inconsistency between free will and the absence of suffering.

Natural evil

Justin Brierley (the presenter) mentions natural disasters. Swinburne says that if the only suffering we experienced was from other people, some of us would barely suffer at all. He thinks this would in some ways be a bad thing. Natural evils (earthquakes, hurricanes, droughts) allow us opportunities to practice being cheerful in the face of suffering, to make significant decisions, and to help others. Making good choices improves our character. Deciding the kind of person we’re to be is a good, but only serious situations allow those choices.

Ehrman is unconvinced by this. The 700 children who starved to death in the course of the programme did not have the choice to be cheerful about it, nor does it seem right to excuse the suffering of others (the starving) by saying it gives us an opportunity to make moral choices.

The Holocaust

Swinburne talks of soldiers who die in just wars. We regard it as a good thing for them that they give up their lives for the good of others (to save their country from tyranny, say). The starving children are starving because our governments aren’t doing enough about it, and neither are we as individuals, but Swinburne seems to be arguing that the starving children or murdered Jews (he explicitly mentions the Holocaust at this point) give something good to others, just as the soldiers who die defending their country do. The good here is the opportunity for people to make decisions that matter. Swinburne realises this sounds callous, but thinks we have to step back from our emotional response to the problem.

Ehrman thinks the Swinburne’s cool detached approach to the Holocaust isn’t good enough.

What The Bible Says

The programme moves on to the Bible’s attitude to suffering. As he does in God’s problem, Ehrman says that the Bible doesn’t tend to give modern philosophically based answers, but its authors have a range of answers of their own. The prophets in the Hebrew Bible often say that suffering is punishment for Israel’s sins. In some places, suffering is caused by the actions of other people (the closest the Bible gets to the free will argument, though it doesn’t ever mention the argument explicitly). In other places, suffering is redemptive, so that people suffer to bring salvation (Jesus in the NT). Some Biblical authors attribute suffering to supernatural powers who work against God, and believe God will sort the baddies out at the end of time. Others (one of the authors of Job) think that it’s wrong to even question God about this. Finally, Ecclesiastes (summarised by scribb1e here) says that life, including suffering, just doesn’t make sense sometimes, so we may as well be happy as best we can.

Justin Brierley quotes Ehrman’s God’s Problem, where Ehrman describes sitting in a church near Cambridge (he has family locally) in a Christmas service, being moved by the intecessory prayers for God to come into the darkness. Ehrman says that the story of Jesus is that God does intervene, but looking around the world, this doesn’t seem to make a difference now.

Swinburne agrees that the Bible has a number of different answers to why people suffer, because there are number of reasons that God might allow suffering. He adds some that Ehrman hasn’t mentioned: Hebrews 12 talks suffering as character formation, John 9 talks of a man born blind so that Jesus could show something by healing him.

Ehrman thinks that some of the understandings in the Bible contradict each other, for example, the apocalyptic understanding where suffering is caused by the powers of darkness disagrees with the prophetic understanding where suffering is caused by God. Swinburne says that apocalyptic teaching says that the powers of evil are ultimately allowed by God. He talks about how God suffered himself in the person of Jesus.

Ehrman says that Swinburne’s views are not the views of the Biblical authors, but rather theological views derived from the Bible (Ehrman sounds a bit evangelical here, arguing with Swinburne’s view that the church has authority over the Bible). The earliest Christians believed that God would soon bring an end to suffering, with the return of Jesus. Jesus didn’t arrive, what arrived was the church. These days, God is inert. Swinburne doesn’t quite disagree with Ehrman’s assertion on when early Christians expected the world to end (because he’s presumably not an inerrantist), but starts to go into the standard rationalisations on this point when Brierley asks for a summing up from each of them.

Summing up

Ehrman agrees with Brierley that the Bible isn’t trying to come up with a philosophical explanation of suffering, but that the authors have various answers to what God’s doing about it. Ehrman thinks the most important thing is that we should do something about it.

Swinburne says we are privileged to be allowed to do something about suffering. He says a world without suffering would be a world without resonsibility for each other. There’s a hurried digression about free will in heaven, and parable about how it’s better to suffer for the greater good than to live a live of bliss.

Stiff upper lips

Swinburne’s theodicy is that of the public school games master, telling the boys that cross-country runs, cold showers and being made to play rugby against the masters will build character, however unpleasant these things are at the time. By contrast, in God’s problem, Ehrman tells us he has his students read Elie Wiesel’s Night. Ehrman’s book quotes Primo Levi’s Auschwitz Report, as well as the memoirs of Rudolf Hoss, written shortly before he was hanged by the Poles near the crematorium of the death camp over which he presided. In the face of sort of thing, Swinburne sounds like Pangloss (5 points to anyone who can write an “Objection: What about Nazis?” verse expounding Swinburnism: the lyrics to the existing ones about snakes and war are here, so you can get the metre).

Still, we ought to be careful of using the Holocaust as a sort of trump card in these debates, because it seems disrespectful of the dead, and also because it can be used as a tactic to imply that anyone who disagrees with you is automatically a bad person, which is the sort of thing that Christians might do, dammit (holding to a doctrine of total depravity is a big help with that sort of thing). So, what of Swinburne’s argument?

Why is this blog called “GCU Dancer on the Midway”, anyway?

I’ve mostly been ignoring Saunt Eliezer’s recent stuff on Fun Theory over at Overcoming Bias because it triggers my (badly evidenced and probably irrational) “transhumanism: phooey” reaction, but as he says, “if you can’t say how God could have better created the world without sliding into an antiseptic Wellsian Utopia, you can’t carry Epicurus’s argument“.

Luckily, I’ve had this argument before, and chose the Culture over my present existence. I think Swinburne is partly right, in that eliminating all possible causes of suffering actually does more harm than good. After all, one of those causes is other people making their choices, and other people who can make their own choices are interesting, even if the choices can lead to us ending up wearing the diaper (scroll down) from time to time. But why allow those choices to actually kill and maim people? Why aren’t there angels acting as slap drones? (Saunt Eliezer thinks there are problems with the Culture, but they also apply to Christianity. I’m sure he’ll tell us the right answer soon 🙂

There’s not much point getting angry with a fictional character, but on the off-chance we encounter God on judgement day, we ought to say that he could have done better.

21 Comments on "More Ehrman: God’s Problem: why do we suffer?"

  1. I generally find Eliezer to be semi-coherent. I’ve been reading his screeds on the subject, and he still seems to believe there’s a “right” answer to moral/aesthetic decisions… Oh, and his description of happiness in “Continuous Improvement” makes me wonder if he’s ever actually _been_ happy and paid attention.


    1. I often find his stuff a bit long and lacking in a definite conclusion. I’d say he needed better editing, but his asides are sometimes better than whatever it was the piece was notionally about. There’s also the problem that you have to keep up with his private terminology, although he links back to old articles, there’s a lot to keep in your head.

      Still, he’s a clever guy and I usually get something out of reading his stuff, even if it isn’t always what he was aiming at.


  2. I’m not convinced by Banks’ utopia. Life in the Culture seems to me to be culture-free, pointless, artificial and frivolous. But it’s easy to see ways the world could be a little bit better, without being a utopia of any kind. How about no malaria?

    There’s not much point getting angry with a fictional character, but on the off-chance we encounter God on judgement day, we ought to say that he could have done better.

    On the other hand, why not make your own judgement day?


    1. People in the Culture seem to do art, music, board games and other good stuff. Plus, spaceships with funny names. What makes life pointless?


  3. 5 points to anyone who can write an “Objection: What about Nazis?” verse expounding Swinburnism

    OK, here goes. The second stanza is about another of Swinburne’s extraordinary arguments, which from your summary he appears to have been wise enough not to air in this discussion: that natural evil (tsunamis, forest fires, poisonous plants, etc.) benefits us by showing ways in which people can be hurt, and thereby giving us more opportunity to refrain (deliberately) from doing so. If you find it incredible that a sane and intelligent person could propose such a thing, take a look at the chapter called “Natural evil and the possibility of knowledge” in “Providence and the problem of evil”. Anyway:

    What about Nazis?

    The Nazis did abuse the Jews,
    But let this not yourselves confuse
    Since their distress
    Made others guess
    The need to act with virtue!
    (Does that not quite convert you?)

    Without the evils of this world
    I’d not have learned to hurt you
    Without which, I’d have had no chance
    To make the ethical advance
    Of choosing not to do so!

    Now, on to Jean-Jacques Rousseau!


  4. Suffering lets people look after each other.

    No, a starving person will steal from the dead, steal food from children, or eat corpses. All documented in the Siege of Leningrad for example.

    Suffering often makes decent people into barbarians.


    1. Aha, but Swinburne isn’t claiming that people always behave well in the face of suffering, merely that they have the choice to do so, and that people seeing them suffer have the choice to help. Both the choice and the possible good behaviour/helping are good things, says he.

      I don’t think I’d disagree that these things are good things, but it would be better not to have so many of the situations in which people need help, ISTM.


  5. ‘Swinburne’s theodicy is that of the public school games master, telling the boys that cross-country runs, cold showers and being made to play rugby against the masters will build character, however unpleasant these things are at the time.’

    Suffering is character-forming, turning a character from a bad character to a good character.

    Yes, God despises cry-babies who break down sobbing when they are told they have terminal cancer.

    God admires people with character, people who keep a stiff upper lip in the face of personal tragedy.

    Those kinds of people are just plain better people than those who find their suffering unbearable and sink into despair. Those people lack character.


  6. Presumably God does not cure people of blindness, because he wants guide dogs to learn obedience, and to be able to help their owners cross the road.

    Some blind people learn to be independent, depriving guide dogs of the change to have their character formed, and depriving us of the chance to help these blind people and do good.

    I think these independent , blind people should have their legs broken, so the rest of us have a chance to help them.


  7. People considering listening to the “Unbelievable” programme may wish to note that the actual discussion with Ehrman and Swinburne starts about 25 minutes in. I had the distinct impression that Swinburne got more time to explain his position than Ehrman did for his, and (not that it matters much) I thought the language the presenter used about what the two of them said was rather tendentious.

    I wonder what fraction of listeners to Premier Christian Radio would get more than 10% through “Providence and the problem of evil”, which the presenter plugged alongside Ehrman’s book. It’s not all that dense, as philosophy books go, but still…


    1. I agree it would have been nice if Swinburne had let Ehrman get a word in edgeways (he even talked over Ehrman at one point, which seemed rude). I didn’t notice Brierley being biased: what did you have in mind? It seemed to me that Ehrman got more time in the previous programme, and did better as a result, even though the opposition was stronger.

      Is Swinburne’s book worth reading? I was slightly worried I’d done him an injustice in this posting, since I’ve read Ehrman’s book but not his.

      I’m not sure Premier’s listenership are much for philosophy. When stevencarrwork was on there, most of the callers (both theist and atheist) were struggling to keep up with what the discussion was about. I’m glad they changed the format to give the guests more uninterrupted time.


      1. I don’t remember any specific examples of tendentious talk from Brierley, I’m afraid, but the general impression he gave was that on the one hand there was Richard Swinburne, offering clever philosophical proofs that suffering isn’t an insoluble problem for theists, and on the other there was Ehrman, venting his feelings that it is one.

        Swinburne’s book has some clever things in it, but I think his argument depends far too much on some … counterintuitive … ideas about what is good and how good it is. E.g., he really truly does argue that the Holocaust was on balance a good thing because it gave people opportunities to choose to help Jews, and was a good thing even for the massacred Jews and their families because it gave them the hugely valuable role of giving other people the opportunity to help or harm them. And he really truly does argue that a good reason for the existence of natural evils is that they provide a way for us to realise that we can harm one another, and show us some ways of doing it.

        When saying things like this in the “Unbelievable” discussion, he seemed anxious to defend himself from the accusation of callousness. (Perhaps Peter Atkin’s “May you burn in hell” — see TGD, somewhere near the start — still rankles.) I don’t know how much it’s a matter of callousness and how much of carefully maintained philosophical detachment (and I wonder whether too much of the latter in an indefensible cause can do anything but lead to the former), but it seems to me that obvious wrongness is at least as appropriate a charge as callousness, and he offers no argument against that; just his bizarre intuitions against everyone else’s. In the book he makes some show of defending his claims, but it still ultimately comes down to a whole lot of pronouncements about what is truly valuable.

        You can borrow my copy of “Providence and the problem of evil” if you like. I shan’t be offended if you don’t get far through it before getting bored, annoyed, or whatever.


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