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Why is there suffering in the world?

Bart Denton Ehrman, born on 10/5/55, a PhD American New Testament scholar and author or editor of several dozen very popular, fascinating, and informative books, began life as a fundamentalist Christian, became a minister, and preached in churches. But he gave up Christianity and became an agnostic because of his disgust over the inexplicable evil that exists in this world that kills millions, including innocent babes.

In “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer our most Important Question – Why We Suffer,” he describes the many widely different biblical proposed solutions. He includes quotes from the sources, analyses of them, and shows how each fails logically, and is unsatisfactory. It is an excellent book, easy to read and understand.

He tells us that the study of the problem of suffering in the world began before history started and was called theodicy by the great intellectual Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in the 17th century, a word used today. The problem is that we believe God is all powerful and all loving. Yet he is allowing suffering, which we are unable to understand. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus put the problem this way.

Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent.

Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing? Whence then evil?

Fyodor Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov has one brother say to the other that the suffering in the world is so bad that if in the end God showed that it all served some greater, nobler purpose, it still would not be enough for him to justify and forgive it.

Ehrman tells us some of the views why suffering exists:

  • The ancient biblical prophets explained that society is plagued with suffering as punishment because of their bad behavior. The prophets seemed to ignore the suffering of very young children that did no wrong, the holocaust, the famines, tzunames, and more.
  • Another explanation is that all will be made right in the afterlife, a view not given by the prophets.
  • Suffering prompts people to atone for their sins.
  • Pain can lead to the building of character.
  • God is not responsible for suffering. He did not want to create robots so he gave people free will and they are misusing it and are the creators of pain for themselves and others.
  • Lots of suffering is the result of the laws of nature which we can and should learn to control.
  • Evil people cause harm to others. We need to learn to love our neighbors as ourselves.
  • According to Daniel 7, suffering comes to God’s people because of evil forces in the world that are opposed to God. They bring the suffering. But, according to this apocalyptic view, the end will come very soon when God intervenes in history to overthrow the forces of evil.
  • Suffering can sometimes bring redemption. God plagued the ancient Egyptians in the days of Moses leading to the exodus from slavery.
  • Since the time of Augustine who invented the notion of original sin, many Christians are convinced they suffer today because Adam and Eve ate an apple which they were told not to do.
  • Good can come out of pain; Jesus, according to Christian theology, suffered on the cross to absolve people of guilt.
  • The book of Job, probably composed by two authors gives two possibilities. One is that suffering is a test to see if the inflicted person will deny God because of his pain. Job whose ten sons were killed and he himself inflicted with pain and Abraham who was told to sacrifice his son are examples.
  • The other idea, the one that takes up most of the book of Job and the book of Ecclesiastes and the book Candide by Voltaire, and other books, is that there may be a good reason for suffering but the frailties of the human mind cannot grasp it. We should simply do our very best to enjoy what we can while we can.

This final idea is the view of Bart D. Ehrman.

In summary, we should realize that the Bible has a wide range of answers to the problem of suffering. There is no single obvious answer. Ehrman concludes his book with this advice:

In the end, we may not have ultimate solutions to life’s problems. We may not know the why’s and wherefore’s. But just because we don’t have an answer to suffering does not mean that we cannot have a response to it. Our response should be to work to alleviate suffering wherever possible and to live life as well as we can.

This is good advice.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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