Bart D. Ehrman's latest book is basically an account of two engaging parallel studies. One involves a methodical discussion of the various biblical solutions offered for the perennial question of how an all powerful God can allow evil and suffering to continue unchecked for centuries and still be considered a loving God. The second study, and the one I found most interesting, is of the author’s personal spiritual journey which is woven into the first.*
“What can you, or anyone else, do when you’re confronted with facts (or, at least, with what you take to be facts) that contradict your faith?” This was the question that Bart Ehrman asked of himself as he slowly discovered that the very foundation of his belief system was based on a document that he found was neither inerrant nor infallible. In the face of such a discovery, what does an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian do in order to maintain intellectual honesty and act with personal integrity? In Ehrman’s case he de-converted from Christianity and became an evangelical fundamentalist agnostic.
Fundamentalists believe that definitive answers must be found in the Bible–or they cannot be found at all. They believe that the Bible is a unitary and univocal document; that everything one needs to know about God has been revealed in the words of Scripture. When the literal words of this document are tried in the balance of modern scholarship and human reasoning and found wanting, fundamentalists are faced with a dilemma. Is the God of the Scripture also deficient?
Erdman does not see the scriptures as a gradual unfolding of truth. He does not see the Bible as a document written and rewritten over time as successive generations found comfort in the message of a God who acts in history. He does not understand the Holy Spirit’s work to be a continuing guide to the church. Nor does he recognize that understanding and insight can come from reflection and remembering. For Erhman, spiritual light is stable and fixed; it does not increase with time.
A prime example of this is Erhman’s interpretation of the book of Job. A literary analysis of this book strongly suggests its authorship by two writers at different periods of time. Recognizing this,Ehrman then sees these authors as contradicting one other. The option that the second writer might be explaining, expanding or correcting a previous writer does not even occur to him, because his view of biblical inspiration does not allow this type of creativity.
Any Adventist young person, theology student or serious bible scholar who examines the development and transmission of the biblical canon will be susceptible to the same agnostic conclusions as Ehrman unless they can be inoculated with a hermeneutic that allows for prophets to make mistakes, to grow in their understanding, and to contradict other prophets.
It is said that if one asks the wrong question, one will inevitable get the wrong answer. In Erhman’s case, he went looking for key texts or key passages in the Bible that would answer the question, “Why does God allow suffering?” He wanted a definitive answer, a thus saith the Lord. Not only was he unable to find a satisfactory answer in the Scriptures, he found instead a disturbing picture of an angry punitive God who inflicts pain and suffering on people either directly or via his agents. Adding to his angst at losing an infallible scripture, he is now faced with the distinct possibility that the God of the Bible might be unworthy of worship.
So why does Erhman continue to write? Partly as a catharsis. He had the bejesus scared out of him for years by the doctrine of a literal eternally-burning hell. For him, hell was a physical reality to be avoided at all costs. Being able to jettison his belief in hell fire and his notion of a god who would inflict such torments on human beings has given him the impetus to share his enlightenment and thus save others from the delusions that kept him in fear.
Wistfully, Erhman admits that in his search for the answer to suffering he did find some solutions that held appeal for him–views that he would like to believe. However, his fundamentalist view of Scripture prohibits his endorsement. He seems stuck with a univocal view of Scripture which maintains the ultimate sovereignty of God and saddled with an atonement model previously understood by him to be reality in verity. The questions he asks and his reluctance to accept alternative understandings reveal his inability to shake off these two powerful models.
Rabbi Kushner’s conclusion that God is not all powerful, Erhman confesses, has merit but must be rejected because the very idea that there are some things that God cannot do does not square with his understanding of what the Bible teaches. According to Ehrman, the Bible teaches that God is all powerful. A god who limits his power is not the Biblical God.
The incarnational model as proposed by theologian Arthur McGill is also one that has a strong emotional attraction. McGill suggests that if we want to know what God is really like we need to look at Jesus. There we will find the God who suffers with us. This view Ehrman also finds deficient. For him, God must be the same in all 66 books. To see God in Jesus would seemingly contradict the Old Testament model of God, and one can’t have the Bible at odds with its self. In addition, the God Ehrman has been conditioned to see in Scripture is not a God capable of suffering. For him God must be sovereign over creation, not subject to it.
The very notion that Christ himself was God he understands as a doctrine developed by later church councils and not a belief clearly taught in the New Testament. For him the Bible alone must be the final authority.
In Ehrman’s theological framework the sole purpose of Christ’s coming was to be a sacrificial offering. Christ came to endure the condemnation of God, to take our rightly deserved punishment so that we would not have to suffer God’s wrath, i.e. hellfire. To see Christ’s mission as being demonstrative or revelatory is completely foreign to Erhman’s way of interpreting the Bible.
Ehrman’s study led him to abandon a belief in a vindictive, punishing God; he can no longer accept a scripture that seemingly promotes such a Deity. Yet he yearns for a powerful God who would provide him with answers and for a personal God as compassionate as his own friends.
On a personal level Ehrman rejects solutions to suffering that see God as culpable. The notion of an angry, wrathful God he rightfully finds repugnant. He sees such an understanding as incompatible with human compassion and reason. If God does exist, then surely he should be as compassionate as the mortals he created.
Perhaps not surprisingly it is in the book Ecclesiastes that Ehrman finds his own ethic for living. “So maybe I’m a biblical thinker after all.“ he admits. (pg 276) He believes that humans should love, cultivate friendships and cherish families, relieve suffering, oppose oppression and violence and work to make our world a better place for all to live in. Not knowing all the answers to suffering or God’s ways, he says, should not hinder us from working to alleviate suffering wherever possible. While Bart Erhman may not have found the answer to God’s Problem, I, nevertheless feel he is not far from the kingdom.
* If you would like a comprehensive overview of the first study I would direct you to an excellent review by Julius Nam on his web site, Progressive Adventism.
Post Script for Adventists
It would have been helpful had God given the modern church a first-hand look at how the biblical writers produced their materials. If just such a revelation had occurred, say in the mid to late 19th century, the church would have been prepared to deal with the ensuing explosion of knowledge about this ancient document coming from the new fields of archeology and biblical criticism. Having had the first hand experience of seeing a modern day prophet at work, the church could have better dealt with the questions raised by the plethora of publications of that day such as the Gilgamesh Epic, the Enuman Elish, Hammurabi’s Code, and Julius Wellhausen’s four source theories of the Pentateuch. Perhaps such a revelation would have even allowed for the development of a doctrine of thought inspiration to be in place as a counter the fundamentalist doctrine of verbal inspiration with its notions of inerrancy and infallibility. One can only wish.
Donna J. Haerich writes from St.Altamonte Springs, Florida.
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