Blogalogue

Blogalogue


N.T. Wright: The Bible Does Answer the Problem–Here’s How

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Thanks, Bart, for a further characteristic (and as you say forceful) response and fresh statement. You’ve taken a few more words this time (I’m delighted to see) and I will happily do the same.
Let me begin by trying to clarify the first two matters which you picked up. I’ll take them in reverse order for a reason which may become clear.


I wasn’t suggesting you left the faith because you had an intellectualized understanding of it. I was wondering whether the argument of your book – there is so much suffering, the Bible doesn’t explain it satisfactorily, I can’t reconcile it with a good and powerful God – was the reason you left the faith, or if not, what was the reason, and how that reason relates to the argument of the book.
From what you now say it sounds to me as though you are saying you used to have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and now you don’t, and that the argument about suffering has as it were reinforced that sense of something that no longer works for you. (Or are you saying the argument precipitated the loss of the relationship? You say that perhaps you ‘left for good reasons’ – were these the reasons in the book? If so, how does that differ from an intellectual argument which reaches a conclusion?) I’m certainly not trying to put words into your mouth or ideas into your head – I am (I trust) too experienced a pastor to suppose I can psychoanalyze even someone who is sitting in the same room and co-operating! – but simply to be sure I’ve heard what you are saying. You do after all talk quite a bit, in the book and in your first posting, about your loss of faith, and I was wanting to be sure I heard what you were saying and how that loss related to the argument about suffering.
This was why (your first point, my second) I was wondering about the force that is added to the case your book is making (or – a sudden thought – was your book not after all ‘making a case,’ but rather ‘expressing an emotion’?) by spending, say, twenty pages describing the Holocaust in detail rather than summarizing it in one or two. I’m still trying to get a handle on the relation between the rhetorical strategy of your book (rubbing your readers’ noses in great detail about the horrors of the world) and the actual substance of the case you’re making. I am not at all saying that numbers don’t matter or wanting to reduce things to cold logic . . .
So to the more substantial points. I think we differ on what might be meant by ‘the biblical view of suffering.’ That phrase is, it now appears, quite ambiguous. You are trying to get at ‘what the Bible says about why suffering happens.’ I argued in my book that the Bible doesn’t actually give us much of an answer to that question – why, to put it sharply, there was a snake in Eden in the first place – and that ‘the biblical view of suffering’ is more about what the creator God is doing about it and/or with it. We may thus in fact be talking more at cross purposes than I had realised.
In other words, I don’t think (for instance) that Amos and the others were writing in order to address the problem of theodicy (‘Why are these bad things happening? It’s because you’ve been wicked!’) but to say, ‘Israel – YHWH has called you to be his holy people, and if you fail at that point, the world is out of joint, and you’ll discover what that means!’ In other words, the prophets were not, by and large, answering our philosophical question, but acting (so they seem to have believed) as mouthpieces for the covenant God. Clearly Job (and Psalm 73 and some other passages) are addressing the philosophical problem more directly, and I agree that the answers there remain puzzling, though I think the real answers there are actually, ‘Here are some reasons why you won’t ever be able fully to understand this in the present life.’ Yes, I puzzle about the ending of Job, but my strategy for puzzling is different from yours, I think. (See my book Scripture and the Authority of God, published in the USA under the wondrous title The Last Word.)
Underneath a lot of this I resonate with a line from Bonhoeffer that has haunted me ever since I heard it as a student: that the primal sin of humanity, as in Genesis 3, is to put the knowledge of good and evil before the knowledge of God. This could just be a shrug of the shoulders (‘Who am I to understand such mysteries?’), but it could and I think should be something more and richer: a recognition that the sort of creatures we are are never going to be in a position to set a moral bar and insist that God – if there is a creator God – jump over it. It is like recognising that the telescope I have, while very good at enabling me to see the moon, Jupiter, Saturn and other glories, won’t ever let me see a black hole, or several other things that the high-energy physicists and astronomers tell me are there. The instrument in question – my creaturely and innately rebellious humanity – can’t pick up the full mysteries of God and the world. Of course, there is continuity between God’s view of good and evil and ours, or it would be chaos come again. But we are never in a position to judge God (if God there be). That’s not a pious platitude, but a rather obvious ontological reality.
But the main thing that the Bible has to offer, I still believe – and no, it isn’t a canon within the canon, but rather the narrative offered by the canon itself! – is the call of Abraham as the one through whom the problem of the human plight will be addressed and resolved, and the long playing out of that call, and the story of Abraham’s descendents, not as the explanation of why there is evil, suffering etc., but as the story of what the creator is now doing about it. I then hold the other themes within that, and I think that is a fair thing for a Jewish or Christian theologian to do. I appreciate that you don’t read the Bible like this, and that’s a larger conversation we might have some time. As I say, I think we need the big stories as well as the little details. And the details – including Amos, the Flood, Revelation – are held within that larger narrative, not isolated nuggets of philosophical statements (‘now I’m going to explain what this suffering is about’).
As I say in the book, once God decides (with the call of Abraham) to work to address the problem of evil through people who are part of the problem as well as part of the solution, there is going to be an awful lot of messiness, which will reach its climax when God not only gets his feet muddy with the mess of the world but his hands bloody with the nails of the world. (But of course, I forgot: you don’t think the NT, or its early parts, believes in the divinity of Jesus, do you? I am genuinely puzzled by that. It seems abundantly clear in Paul, as I and plenty of others have argued in various places.)
This isn’t of course a full answer but a signpost in one direction. And, just as a nudge – are you sure Ecclesiastes doesn’t think there is a future judgment – in other words, a day of reckoning when the creator will sort things out? How do you read those passages (3.17, 12.14) which seem to say there is? And what do you do with the passages (e.g. 2.26, 5.6) where Ecclesiastes seems to share what you see as the ‘prophetic’ perspective, that God makes bad things happen to bad people?
But the real dividing line, still – and you still haven’t addressed it – comes with the resurrection. I do think, and I think the early Christians thought, and I think the evangelists (yes, in their different ways) thought, that the kingdom did come through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Not ‘come’ fully, of course; but, in the usual language, it was radically inaugurated. The myth of the ‘delay of the parousia’ has largely grown up in the modern world to fill the vacuum left when scholars insisted that the resurrection didn’t happen. For the early Christians, God’s new world – the world where God’s writ runs – had already begun, and they were living in it by the power of the Spirit. Things did change. The early Christians did make a difference. (See Rodney Stark’s remarkable book on The Rise of Christianity.) Yes, of course, earthquakes and tsunamis still happen. The NT writers knew that as well as we did, and they went on saying that Jesus was already Lord, not simply that he would become that one day. They weren’t mostly offering, either, an analysis of ‘why evil/suffering happens,’ but they were implementing Jesus’ kingdom-work of challenging evil/suffering in the power of God – not in a sudden all-powerful theocracy, banishing every evil at a stroke, but in their continuing work on the model of Jesus himself and his parables.
So if you’re saying I’m missing things out, I think you are too – and rather important ones. Not only the resurrection, but also (I return to this) Paul’s massive exposition of ‘God’s justice’ in Romans. Romans is much, much bigger than ‘how can sinners find a gracious God.’ It’s ‘how is God seen to be righteous?’, which is perhaps the closest, along with Job, that the Bible gets to a direct address to your question. Interestingly, Paul insists that the answer passes through the story of Abraham and, of course, the story of Jesus and particularly his death and resurrection. I would love to know how you deal with that.
So, to answer your four propositions (noting as you say that propositions aren’t the sum and substance of Christian faith!):
I don’t think much of the Bible is actually addressing the question, ‘Why is there suffering?’, but rather the question, ‘What is God doing about it?’. When cause-and-effect sequences do occur, as in Amos etc., I read them within the prophetic call to Israel and the warnings, proper to humans in general and covenant people in particular, about the consequences of not going with the grain of the creator’s purposes. (If I say to my teenage son, ‘The reason you came off the road is that you were driving too fast round the corner,’ I am pointing out a cause-and-effect sequence which he was apparently ignoring. I’m not saying all your examples are like that but I think some of them may be.)
If we insist on putting things the Bible says into a grid of our own questions, we will often find apparent contradictions. (This, by the way, is part of my answer about the gospels, but that would take a whole book to work out!) If I drive all round the perimeter of a big city, I will see several quite different signs to the city centre. They will say different things, because I am in a different place; but they are in fact all pointing to the same reality. Like all illustrations, that is of course inadequate but it offers a warning against presuming ‘contradiction’ where none exists. (Obvious example: Paul’s ‘negative’ view of the law in Galatians and his ‘positive’ view in Romans. Has he changed his mind? No. It is we who have come to him with our question, ‘Do you have a positive or negative view of the law?’. Paul, however, is wrestling with the complex story of God’s people, not checking boxes in a C17 dogmatic textbook.)
I don’t think the passages you refer to are meant as stand-alone ‘answers to the question.’ Yes, they raise natural problems which I have tried to address in my book, but it won’t do just to say, ‘Well, that was a poor answer,’ and leave it at that.
Well, good that we can agree on this at least! And this is of course at quite a deep level why I left the academy fifteen years ago and have tried, through energising the church more directly, to get exactly this on the agenda. But it leads me to my final question – to press a point I made in our radio interview: Why, granted your view of the world, should we bother? Why not ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die,’ and thank our lucky stars that we can do so? The other side of the coin of ‘the problem of evil’ is, after all, ‘the problem of good’: if there is no God, no good and wise creator, why is there an impulse to justice and mercy so deep within us? Why is there beauty, love, laughter, friendship, joy? How do you then tell the difference between Ecclesiastes and Sartre? The Bible of course has some answers to those questions. But I’d be interested to hear yours.
I guess this may be the end. But perhaps it’s only a semi-colon. Thanks for the dialogue and the stimulus of debate. Frustrating to be so brief, but better than nothing. Thanks for putting up with an incorrigible theologian.
Tom



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Anonymous

posted April 25, 2008 at 12:19 pm


Brilliant and eloquent post. Kudos to Bishop Wright. His final point says it all, and leaves those who deny a Christian worldview yet still want its virtues a deep and pressing question: if agnosticism, or atheism, or whatever else, is true, then why bother with making things right? Let us join with Epicurus and enjoy our own lives.
Perhaps people need to seem concerned so as to justify their Epicurianism in a fading-but-still-Judeo-Christian culture; perhaps people simply haven’t taken a repudiation of Christianity to its logical end for fear of becoming consistent and nihilistic like Friedrich Nietzsche. If “Just because” is the answer, they why do we decide to good and not choose evil, since we could do that “just because” as well.
A hard question, indeed.
Jesus may not provide a philosophical answer to our question, but he does provide a very physical illustration of what he intends to do about it.



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Timbo

posted April 25, 2008 at 5:30 pm


Wright’s final point is merely a restating of the age-old belief that “if god is dead, everything is permitted.” It’s a hollow argument.
When Christianty was at the height of its earthly power — when God was most assuredly very much alive — the church presided over a deeply flawed moral universe. Slavery was permissable; the church burned heretics alive; Jews and other “infidels” were fair game for torture and killing.
The bible hasn’t changed since The Inquisition, yet our moral standards certainly have, and for the better. Clearly, God is not the source of our moral improvement.



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Dale Campbell

posted April 25, 2008 at 6:12 pm


Enjoyed the dialogue…
I very much resonate with the idea that the Bible doesn’t (certainly not systematically) attempt sophisticated and bullet-pointed outlines of ‘why is there evil/suffering’, but indeed, they are more concerned about ‘what is the Creator God doing about it…’
I hope the continuing conversation here will not consist of cheap “so and so ‘won’ because of such and such…” (pro/de)nouncements…
Cheers,
-d-



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Pamm

posted April 25, 2008 at 8:21 pm


Dr. Wright, I’m still confused with how we should look at scripture and figure out how to interpret those confusing items in the Old Testament like God ordering the slaughter of everyone in Jericho (Josh. 6:17 And the city and all that is within it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction.)
I think most people would conclude that that action was highly unjust. But if God commanded this how do we then arrive at the point that it is unjust? Do we just throw that section of scripture out as something added in to justify the action? If so, what else should we throw out?
That may not be one of the questions Dr. Ehrman is raising but it might be consistent with his concerns.



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David C Lewis

posted April 25, 2008 at 8:51 pm


Dear Bishop Wright,
I loved your comment about the snake in Eden. In a lighthearted way, I was trying to draw essentially the same point (though much more eloquently elorated upon by you) into this very heavy conversation.
So, if Paradise was as perfect as we simplistically believe, where did the snake in the garden come from? The best one word answer I’ve ever heard is “Love”, more specifically Agape, which isn’t possible in this life (or any other?) without free will. After all, God is Love. Even that raises more questions than answers, but it works for me. Then we have to wonder what mischief the snake was up to before mankind came onto the scene. CS Lewis alluded to this in The Problem of Pain (how apropos) when he discussed animal suffering. Death was obviously alive and well before Man fell. I don’t believe (do you?) that the whole point of the story is spiritual death. I can never believe, looking into the face of a dead animal as Francis Schaeffer once suggested (and I don’t think he believed that animals had “souls”, did he?), something isn’t amiss that God won’t someday put right for the poor creature (and us).
Your books are brilliantly written and wonderful. Haven’t found the 25% wrong yet. I’m looking hard for it. Maybe just one thing. In Surprised by Hope you talk about the transience built into the good creation. Nothing wrong with a dead leaf. You stop there. Maybe another Book?
Dave Lewis



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Anonymous

posted April 25, 2008 at 9:18 pm


I was always curious as to why the bible states, “He perfects us thru suffering.” I believe you can find this in the 1st chapter of James. I know from personal experience, the people I a have met who have not experienced certain challenges and who have not been seasoned by some level of suffering, can be very uninteresting. Seems like suffering help project us to maturity and development of character. Now, I also noticed if you refuse to learn from suffering you can either become bitter or seemed to get “stuck” in the experience.
Death comes to us all, and “all” death is ordained by God. In Psalm 139…it states he knows the number of our days.
The bible itself doesn’t give a detailed account of why the people in Jericho were ordered to die, but you may be able to do a search to see what their civilization was like (from other sources) to see if they were decadent enough to warrant judgment. I know some of the folks who were ordered to be exterminated from the OT…were pretty corrupt.



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Robert McDowell

posted April 26, 2008 at 7:15 am


Regarding the comments that the church has been part of the problem over the centuries rather than solution, yes, the church has, does, and will continue to get it wrong during different points of history not to mention on a daily and weekly basis! That’s why we always have a prayer of confession where I worship. We need it!
However, just because the church has gotten things wrong (and sometimes in very big ways) does not mean that God has messed up. Actually, the bible is amazingly honest with revealing how God’s people royally mess up time and time again in not living out God’s intentions. So the argument that since the church has messed things up over the centuries, Christianity fails the test, doesn’t measure up.
There are many great examples of where the church has gotten it right which often get ignored in these discussions because we tend to focus on the negative. Quick examples – John Wesley and the Methodists in 18th century England and their transforming work of society. William Wilberforce helping to end the english slave trade. Bonhoeffer mentioned by Dr. Wright above and his brave resistance of the Nazi regime because of his faith. The list goes on and on, not as proof that Christianity is right, but just showing the other side of the coin in this debate.



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Ranger

posted April 26, 2008 at 8:28 am


I’m so thankful (to God and Drs. Ehrman and Wright as well as of course beliefnet, haha) for this fine dialogue between two of the world’s finest scholars in two vastly different fields. For years I have respected Dr. Ehrman as a great textual critic even though I often find myself in a different camp in regards to the final conclusions. I’ve also greatly been nourished in my faith by the exceptional work of Dr. Wright over the years, and think regardless of your views on theology, faith and life that you should consider him a gift to humanity for his encouraging vision of the future and thus his drive to make a difference now.
This discussion shows that at the heart of human existence lies the question, “Where is justice?” or negatively, “Why is injustice such a common occurence in our world?” I believe that there are fine atheists, agnostics and theists of various faiths who are moral. But everyone of them asks the question, “Where is justice?” Some atheists are resolved to say it is a myth, and that any attempts to seek justice are simply attempts to strive against our animalistic instincts. Other atheists and agnostics insist that we seek a form of morality for the greater good of humanity as a whole, and this brings them into the same camp as the theists in asking, “Which vision of humanity is best?”
Of course at this point our presuppositions too often get in the way of clear thinking. A great example would be the various interpretations by Richard Dawkins and Malcom Jeeves (both excellent in their fields) of the exact same neuroscientific data. Of course Dawkins has the presupposition of atheism and Jeeves has the presupposition of theism.
So how do we move beyond presuppositions to a faith, or are our faiths simply a mess of presuppositions that we cannot rise above? As a Christian, I believe the answer is in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and this is the point that Ehrman did not address that Wright kept referring to in the article. Why has the consensus of thought among those who have dedicated their lives to studying and searching for the historical Jesus been that he actually rose from the dead? Of course, there are those who have studied the evidence (which is abundant from two thousand years of research and investigation), and have rejected that Jesus actually rose from the dead. Of course, our culture seeks novelty, so we naturally give attention to the fringe ideas and rarely read the more reasoned responses thus giving the impression at times that current scholarship disagrees with the resurrection when in fact the vast majority of modern New Testament and early Christian scholars hold to the resurrection. Still, those who have rejected a belief in the resurrection often suggest responses that last little more than a generation (if that), and some are simply resolved to answer, “I don’t know what happened, and it was surely some amazing historic event regardless, but people just don’t rise from the dead.” Of course that brings us back to our earlier problem of being so tangled in a presupposition that we cannot deal with the facts at hand. Is this where you are in your analysis? I used to be there as well, as have millions and millions throughout the past two thousand years, and know the questions going through your mind. They are not easy questions, but I believe they have strong answers if you seek them.
For those of you who are struggling with this question of resurrection and why early Christianity happened at all, might I suggest (as did Wright in this article), Rodney Stark’s Rise of Christianity. He is not a Christian, but has no explanation for the birth of the church outside of something abnormal (if not miraculous) occurring to inaugurate it. Furthermore, any New Testament scholar would agree that the finest work on resurrection perspectives, meaning and ultimately the resurrection of Jesus Christ is Bishop Wright’s work “The Resurrection of the Son of God.” This is not a simple work, but a massive 900 pages. For a simpler analysis, might I suggest his more popular works “Simply Christian” or “Surprised by Hope.”



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susan dougherty

posted April 26, 2008 at 11:50 am


After examining many ideas, opinions,attending many bible studies, taking courses, listening to sermons, talking with other Christians, I am convinced that life is so much simpler than we often make it. In Proverbs 3:6 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct thy path.” The instructions are simple, yet we tend to have so many quests and interpretations of everything. It is not what comes up in our life that is the issue (suffering) for example, but that we respond the way God wants us to respond according to His Word. Trusting him, believing and claiming his promises, not doubting His infinite wisdom or trying to come up with “all the answers” in our natural minds. I respect scholars, but I myself know that sometimes the intellectual battles are just spiritual battles in disguise. Lady of Light



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Pamm

posted April 26, 2008 at 2:28 pm


Quote from a previous comment by someone: “The bible itself doesn’t give a detailed account of why the people in Jericho were ordered to die, but you may be able to do a search to see what their civilization was like (from other sources) to see if they were decadent enough to warrant judgment. I know some of the folks who were ordered to be exterminated from the OT…were pretty corrupt.”
I don’t think the problem can be solved by a detailed analysis of whether or not Jericho was particularly corrupt. Using that logic perhaps all of Germany should have been obliterated (man, woman, child, animal) after WWII. Or perhaps Cambodia should have been wiped off the map after the Killing Fields.
The problem I have is why do we conclude that genocide today is always wrong, when God commanded it at Jericho? BTW, I don’t think it is ever just today. I was just raising the question of how do we come to that decision with the background of Joshua before us.
It may not be that the Bible doesn’t give an answer to why there is evil, but how do we use the Bible to determine what is evil and what is good when we have the examples that we would clearly call evil today condoned in O.T. times? For that matter, why is it wrong for us to lie, but Moses was commanded to lie to Pharaoh by God?
I am just confused and am hoping for some answer here.



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David

posted April 26, 2008 at 8:27 pm


Dear Dr. Wright and Ehrman,
I am enjoying reading your interaction, but I am a bit disappointed in the choice of topic for these debate given the nature of your expertise. I see both you as very accomplished historians, and would really like to see you discuss something to that effect.
Perhaps blogging is not the best medium for those kind of discussion, I am not very familiar with the formats for various kinds of discussion.
Anways, enjoyed hearing from both of you and would love to someday hear you two dialogue about early extra-Biblical writings.



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Miguel de Servet

posted April 26, 2008 at 11:11 pm


[Bart Ehrman] Let me … ask if you will agree with me on four of the leading claims of my book God’s Problem.
[N.T. “Tom” Wright] So, to answer your four propositions (noting as you say that propositions aren’t the sum and substance of Christian faith!)
[Miguel de Servet] Let’s see how N.T. Wright’s Replies to Bart Ehrman’s “four the leading claims” are satisfactory.
[BE#1] (1) There are in fact many and varied answers in the Bible to the question of why there is suffering, not one overarching answer common to all the Bible’s authors.
[TW#1] I don’t think much of the Bible is actually addressing the question, ‘Why is there suffering?’, but rather the question, ‘What is God doing about it?’. When cause-and-effect sequences do occur, as in Amos etc., I read them within the prophetic call to Israel and the warnings, proper to humans in general and covenant people in particular, about the consequences of not going with the grain of the creator’s purposes. (If I say to my teenage son, ‘The reason you came off the road is that you were driving too fast round the corner,’ I am pointing out a cause-and-effect sequence which he was apparently ignoring. I’m not saying all your examples are like that but I think some of them may be.)
[MS#1] N.T. Wright’s reply is a very poor one for at least two reasons:
To replace Bart Ehrman’s original question (‘Why is there suffering?’) with another question (‘What is God doing about it?’) is legitimate, but still leaves unanswered the question why in a world created and governed by a Benevolent and Omnipotent God there should be suffering, especially for the righteous, and even more so for the innocent (and I sincerely hope that T.N. Wright would not reply, with Augustine of Tagaste/Hippo that, because of the “original sin”, all mankind, infants included is a massa damnationis which deserves no compassion.)
The example of his “teenage son” and why he “you came off the road” is unsatisfactory, because not only it equates the “mechanism” of moral laws to that of physical laws (viz. automatic “action/reaction”, which is dubious, to say the least, even if Protestants, especially Calvinists, often indulge in the parallel), but leaves unanswered the question why should 100.000 non-expectant people be crushed by an earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 AD, or why 300.000 non-expectant people be crushed by a tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 AD.
[BE#2] (2) Some of these answers stand at odds with one another.
[TW#2] If we insist on putting things the Bible says into a grid of our own questions, we will often find apparent contradictions. (This, by the way, is part of my answer about the gospels, but that would take a whole book to work out!) If I drive all round the perimeter of a big city, I will see several quite different signs to the city centre. They will say different things, because I am in a different place; but they are in fact all pointing to the same reality. Like all illustrations, that is of course inadequate but it offers a warning against presuming ‘contradiction’ where none exists. (Obvious example: Paul’s ‘negative’ view of the law in Galatians and his ‘positive’ view in Romans. Has he changed his mind? No. It is we who have come to him with our question, ‘Do you have a positive or negative view of the law?’. Paul, however, is wrestling with the complex story of God’s people, not checking boxes in a C17 dogmatic textbook.)
[MS#2] That conflicting answers in the Scripture are only apparent is N.T. Wright’s totally non argued claim. That Paul’s view of the Law in Romans is ‘positive’ is dubious, to say the least (e.g. “… no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” – Rom 3:20). It would be interesting to hear N.T. Wright reconcile the affirmation that “not a yod or a tittle of the Law should be disregarded” (in Matthew), with Paul’s claim that the “works if the Law” are not only unnecessary, but even an impediment, in the new dispensation established by Christ’s Death and Resurrection. (in Galatians).
[BE#3] (3) Some of these biblical views (that God starves, drowns, and slaughters people he disapproves of, for example) are not satisfactory answers to why there is suffering in our world.
[TW#3] I don’t think the passages you refer to are meant as stand-alone ‘answers to the question.’ Yes, they raise natural problems which I have tried to address in my book, but it won’t do just to say, ‘Well, that was a poor answer,’ and leave it at that.
[MS#3] Contrary to what N.T. Wright says, IMO the “burden of reconciliation” (viz. of problematic passages with God’s providential and benign purpose) lies on the shoulders of who makes the non-evident claim.
[BE#4] (4) Even if we cannot, in the end, know the reasons for suffering, we can at the least have appropriate responses to it. We ourselves can feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked; we can work to solve problems of poverty; we can give money to agencies finding cures for cancer and AIDS; we can volunteer more often locally; we can give more to international relief efforts. We can, in fact, fulfill the urgent demands implicit in Matthew’s account of the judgment between the sheep and the goats, for “as you have done this to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you have done it unto me.”
[TW#4] Well, good that we can agree on this at least! And this is of course at quite a deep level why I left the academy fifteen years ago and have tried, through energising the church more directly, to get exactly this on the agenda. But it leads me to my final question – to press a point I made in our radio interview: Why, granted your view of the world, should we bother? Why not ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die,’ and thank our lucky stars that we can do so? The other side of the coin of ‘the problem of evil’ is, after all, ‘the problem of good’: if there is no God, no good and wise creator, why is there an impulse to justice and mercy so deep within us? Why is there beauty, love, laughter, friendship, joy? How do you then tell the difference between Ecclesiastes and Sartre? The Bible of course has some answers to those questions. But I’d be interested to hear yours.
[MS#4] N.T. Wright, who quotes Isaiah 22:13 (“Let us eat and drink,” you say, “for tomorrow we die!”) and accosts Ecclesiastes and Sartre, should remember, as a counter-proof of how its is always problematic to try and cover different biblical passages with the same spread-sheet, that in Ecclesiastes we also find the following, certainly not negative image, but clearly parallel to Isaiah 22:13: “Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favours what you do.” (Eccl 9:7)



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Daldianus

posted April 27, 2008 at 11:03 am


Nice analysis again, Miguel!
And it really seems indeed that Bishop Wright is weaseling around the actual question and doesn’t address Mr Ehrman’s valid objections.



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Miguel de Servet

posted April 27, 2008 at 12:54 pm


Hi Daldianus!
I am pleased (and I must add, pleasantly surprised …) especially about your use of the word “again”. Because, while it was quite obvious that you would subscribe to my criticism of the “theological tactics” of Bishop N.T. Wright (quite “priestly” and often quite transparent, really), it was by far less obvious that you would also show appreciation for my comment on the previous post, Bart Ehrman: God’s Kingdom Has Not Come, in which I deploy quite some criticism of the many weak points of the post of Bart Ehrman, who I understand is some sort of “agnostic hero” for you … :)
Mario



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Eric Glover

posted April 27, 2008 at 2:51 pm


“To replace Bart Ehrman’s original question (‘Why is there suffering?’) with another question (‘What is God doing about it?’) is legitimate, but still leaves unanswered the question why in a world created and governed by a Benevolent and Omnipotent God there should be suffering, especially for the righteous, and even more so for the innocent (and I sincerely hope that T.N. Wright would not reply, with Augustine of Tagaste/Hippo that, because of the “original sin”, all mankind, infants included is a massa damnationis which deserves no compassion.)”
(I’m sorry ahead of time if this doesn’t answer to the above quote as well as I would like, I’m a work in progress :).)
I believe the Bible answers the question of suffering clearly in Romans 9. The emphasis of that chapter is not “Gods supremacy over suffering” but “It is not as though the word of God has failed”. However, I believe that it can be gleaned from that chapter–as well as the rest of the Holy Scriptures–that God is the Potter and we are the clay. He does what he wants when he wants and how he wants to the praise and glory of his Sovereign name. If there is suffering, it’s simply because he appointed it and foreordained it. Not according to a mere reaction of what he foresaw but according to his perfect, PRO-ACTIVE planning of all things at all times to all people groups for all eternity to the praise and awesome wonder of his glorious majesty. Our submission to that supremacy must be unequivocally real and we must trust that all his inerrant and infallible attributes are equal beyond measure. God is Love, He is Kindness, His weights and measures are profoundly perfect, His power is limitless, His care and concern for his people is simply staggering, His discipline is from a perfect heart of love and his mighty hand is upholding a planet that he created by his glory for his glory . The amazing thing is that a God this great and huge would send his son to willingly die and pay the penalty for sin so that we can come to him and rely on him and trust him no matter what happens. People can now receive the Holy Spirit who is a great gift to all Gods people. Part of His ministry is to prompt and continue the sanctification of all believers. He is the great comforter and there IS much comforting being done by the outpouring of the Spirit.
I think it’s pretty obvious that we all know how the world is and that there is suffering. But there is also incredible joy and peace that’s flowing steadily from the hand of God. God’s word promises Joy and peace for those who love the Lord but he also tells us that we need to have faith during times of hardships and he promises to provide all that “we”, meaning the universal and local body of believers, need during those times. This is true whether we realize it or not. God’s word is unchanging and his mercies are new every morning. As believers we should be focusing on what he HAS provided for us through all hardship and pain. We have been given the ability to humbly fall at his feet and rest in HIS perfect peace whether it physically and emotionally feels good or not. Resting in Him isn’t always a “feel good” thing. We have peace in Christ through Christ as he dwells in us by faith and this isn’t always an apparent happy feeling or emotional high but it’s the greatest peace I’ve ever experienced by leaning on the everlasting arms!
I know the Bible is Gods love letter to all of us, and it shows us what the hand of providence provides, but it also shows us his undisputable sovereignty and supremacy over all things according to “the council and good pleasure of his will”. I think the true issue is that people don’t like that answer so they presuppose ideas into the scriptures that create a more comfortable biblical atmosphere for them to live within while still grasping and clinging to self-deterministic theology. Accepting what the Bible simply says about who God is, what he does and why is vitally important within a humble walk with God. This is part of trusting him and taking him at his word.
I may never know the exact reasons for everything God does, but I know that his word tells me that his ways are not my ways and that I NEED to trust Him. God loves his children and provides everything they need during trials and tribulations. He provides for us so we can count it all joy when we fall into hardships. I believe the answer to hardship and pain, in the truest sense, is belief in the gospel of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ. I pray that God will continue to move upon the Hearts of all the people of the earth impressing upon them their insatiable need for his awakening power so that they might believe and be saved through the gospels effective call.
I believe all things originate pro-actively from God, creating no conflict within his character as a result. The conflict is created by the people who will not submit themselves wholly and totally to the supremacy of God by accepting that Gods terms are not our terms and that he ordains all things to the council of his good will and pleasure. This is the God I see in the Bible, this is the God I want to serve with my whole heart faithfully forever. This is the God that drives my every heartbeat and upholds me by his limitless power. This is the God I want to serve faithfully for all eternity.



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jack mcabee

posted April 28, 2008 at 5:33 pm


THE BIBLE DOESNT ALWAYS PROVIDE DEFINITE ANSWERS TO OUR QUESTIONS ABOUT LIFE BUT IT DOES PROVIDE SPECIFIC DIRECTIONS TO SALVATION WHICH IS THE IMPORTANT THING. HOWVER THE BIBLE DOES ADDRESS PAIN WHEREBY JESUS HEALS PEOPLE AND EVEN BRINGS THEM BACK TO LIFE.TODAY JESUS/GOD STILL HEALS THE SICK FOR MANY BUT WHY HE DOESNT HEAL EVERYONE AND WHY HE ALLOWS PAIN IS SIMPLY GODS WILL IS NOT THE SAME FOR EVERYONE AND BECAUSE HE GAVE US FREE WILL, ANWERS TO OUR PRAYER MAY NOT BE WHAT WE WANT. ITS LIKE PRAYING THAT A DYING LOVED ONE BE FREE OF PAIN AND ALLOWED TO LIVE. THE ANSWER MAY BE THE PERSON DIES BUT IS FRRE OF PAIN SO OUR PRAYERS WERE ANSWERED BASED ON GODS WILL FOR THAT PERSON.DOES GOD SENT HURRICANES OR DOES HE LET NATURE UNFOLD WHICH MEANS SOME RECEIVE RAIN, SOME TORNADOS AND SOME HURRICANES.HOWEVER WE HAVE TO REMEMBER THAT WHEN THE HURRICANE HITS, THERE ARE SOME DEATHS AND INJURIES BUT THEY ARE FEW IN NUMBERS COMPARED TO THE MANY WHO LIVED AND RECEIVED NO INJURIES. A PARALLEL THOUGHT WOULD BE A SON,DAUGHTER ASK FOR A CAR. THE PARENTS SENT THEM TO DRIVER EDUCATION, TALK TO THEM ABOUT SAFE DRIVING ETC. DRIVING HOME FROM SCHOOL ONE DAY, ANOTHER DRIVER RAN A RED LITE AND HIT THE. THE ONLY WAY THE PARENTS COULD HAVE PREVENTED THE ACCIDENT IS TO REFUSE TO GET THEM A CAR.



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windyblue

posted April 28, 2008 at 6:36 pm


God cares about every aspect of our lives, no matter how big or small.
And the lord wants to be apart of our lives, no matter how big or small.
God cries when we cry, he hurts when we hurt, he laughs when we laugh.
He cares about our pain, joy, happiness, He loves us unconditionally.
No matter what God cares and wants to know and be apart of our lives.
Look at what Jesus did on the cross, dying, naked, beat, spit at, laughed at, bleeding, He was 1/2 dead when they put him on the cross, and he rose again on the third day, he died because he loved us, and for our sins, so we could go to heaven when we die and be with him forever.
Now if one wants to talk about pain I suggest they look at what Jesus went through, none of us could have ever suvived that. So He had the most pain of all, we have nothing compaired to what he went through.



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Mike Taylor

posted April 29, 2008 at 10:49 pm


Like Prof Ehrman, I have stuggled with the problem of suffering. Intellectually and emotionally, it is hard to accept as a reality given the Bible’s descipton of the Lord. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in South America many years ago and witnessed suffering on a regular basis, some of it terrible.
One day while returning home on one of the camionetta buses, I was praying about this, and had what I believe to have been a vision from the Lord. I saw a village on the coast just like the ones where I worked, only, I understood it represented heaven/the world to come. I saw a man there who I had seen on the streets of Quito. He had lived a life like that of Job in Jesus’ parrable – very hard. But in this vision he was now before the Lord and with His people. This man was not full of resentment or anger. Rather, he was content and joyful and blessed the Lord, not just for his current condition but for the hardships he had endured in life.
How could this be? How could this man glorify God for the life he had lived? But he did. The key understanding is not why he suffered. The key is this man accepted that his life involved suffering and he still glorified the Lord regardles of and even because of his suffering. We cannot judge another’s suffering. Only the sufferer can do that and then, often, only from the perspective of the world to come. To paraphrase Paul, the sufferings of this life, even the most horrible, do not compare to what is coming. To realize and accept that suffering is temporary and will be used by the Lord for good, is a challange, especially when applied to the innocent. (Though we are all sinners, I think you understand my meaning.)
I have seen suffering and experienced a little. My “sufferings” have been tiny and if everyone’s were the same as mine it would be an easy task to conclude they are for our good, our maturation. However, we do not have that easy task. Suffering for many is far too severe, too seamingly random to view so lightly. We cannot grasp it. So, just as I require my kids to trust me on issues beyond their ability to judge, I am required to trust the Lord that He knows what He’s doing. But, if Jesus is not raised, “we are the most to be pittied”. And fools. But I firmly believe He is risen. Since He is risen, I have the confident hope that He will make all things new. The risen Lord makes all the difference.



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Bad

posted April 30, 2008 at 7:09 pm


Let’s compare two societies: modern America, and WW2 germany. One is characterized by facism, oppression, and genocide. The other is a democracy where liberty, while not perfect, finds good expression. Or compare an ancient society ravaged by disease and natural disasters, and a modern one in which many of these problems are solved.
If you were in charge of deciding which society you’d have people be born into, which would you choose? And would you be responsible for the choice? If you chose Nazi Germany, would it make any sense for you to argue that you chose it because you respect people’s free choices? If you chose to put people in a society where vast amounts would die in infancy of painful diseases, would it make any sense to appeal to free will. Or even to eventual salvation? The fact that better worlds, better situations, are possible and even actual, seems to make both of those excuses completely moot.
And it seems to me that Wright is avoiding what I think is the thrust of this question. The world, as it is, is not merely one in which there is, sadly, some suffering, and then, happily, some means for salvation. The world has a very particular amount of suffering. And it is each and every last bit of it that would have to be justified, on the margins, in order to excuse a just God of the sort of moral responsiblity we would expect any being in such a position to exercise. We do not merely have hurricanes that cause untold suffering, and suffering serves some purpose, so maybe that’s okay. We have lots of hurricanes and then this additional one that causes even MORE suffering. I can’t see any logical justification for the particular amount of deadly hurricanes. Or for malaria, on top of river blindness. And so on.
An part of the reason I can’t see it is that we’ve experienced times and places with wildly varying amounts of suffering. And, almost universally, those with less seem to have people that are happier, freer, and more loving. We’ve seen lives lived in which someone’s parents were brutually murdered, and then they themselves were so. And then we’ve seen lives that were relatively well adjusted and while not devoid of suffering, are not dominated by it. And again: the latter seems to involve far more opportunity for choice and understanding and love. So why does ANYONE end up in a world in which there is the former? What’s the point, if its self-evident that a life can be perfectly acceptable (even by whatever wacky standards one comes up with that God is trying to achieve) without it?
If you admit at least SOME decisions about the particular nature of the world were God’s (i.e. lets have a planet with lots of deadly and painful disease vs. one where this is less common), then you face these sorts of problems.
And the scary part is that, I think the problem is pretty much unsolvable, EXCEPT by what always seems to happen in the end with theodicy: it ends up basically celebrating suffering in some fashion or another. Which is, frankly, a rather horrifying distance to travel just in order to hold onto a particular theology.



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marilyn

posted May 1, 2008 at 9:02 pm


Many days I doubt God. It’s not just the evil human beings do, as in the Holocaust, for instance — the horror of that suffering — or in Iraq, or in a Haiti where people eat mud because our farm subsidies have put their farmers out of work, but the nature of this world in this universe, itself. I recommend reading Creative Tensions: Essays on Science and Religion by Michael Heller, the cosmologist and priest who just won the Templeton Prize. He sees the freedom of this universe in very big terms, compatible with a totally free God who allows all possibilities, and finds Christians not always careful in their discussions (particularly the theological use of the Big Bang, and discussions of evolution’s natural selection process, but it can go directly to suffering, I think). He focuses on the transcendence rather than immanence of God, however, i.e., God alone is God. NT scholar John Dominic Crossan says the most important question for him is: What is the nature of this God we serve? He answers with Ps. 82: The God who is just and cares for the needy. And, in the NT, Crossan says, the answer is found in the nonviolence of Jesus. In any case, we know what Jesus said: If you feed, clothe, visit, care for the least of these, you’re touching Jesus himself, Jesus who is, in fact, Lord.



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SteveJ.

posted May 2, 2008 at 1:06 pm


Bishop Wright said:
“… not in a sudden all-powerful theocracy, banishing every evil at a stroke, but in their continuing work on the model of Jesus himself and his parables.”
But Bishop Wright, isn’t this exactly what the prophets of the Old Testament expected? Did they not foresee “a sudden all-powerful theocracy, banishing every evil”? If not, then it would be difficult to imagine what language they could have used to convey such an idea.
I’m doubt I’m alone when I admit that these kinds of cavalier dismissals of legitimate questions are a little irritating. It sounds too much like, “Tsk, tsk, how could anyone be so unenlightened as to entertain such crass ideas?” But the tenor of the prophets seems clear enough, even to the great unwashed masses. Spears into pruning hooks. Incense offered in every place. No one hurting anyone else. All tears wiped away from all eyes. That doesn’t sound at all like God was merely planning to dispatch a crew of social workers to raise the standard of living a few notches.
Then Jesus comes on the scene and tells us the long-awaited Kingdom is at hand. In Hebrews, we read, “In a very little while, he who is coming will come and not delay.” John writes, “We know it is the last hour.” Bishop Wright, it’s been 2,000 years and nations are still at war. The tears haven’t all been wiped away by any means. And you call this daunting theological problem the “myth” of “the delayed parousia” — as if it’s a featherweight objection. It isn’t.
And it’s not enough, as some suggest, to say that God comes alongside of us and weeps with us. Suppose a large tree limb fell on you and pinned you to the ground. Would you be satisfied if I crouched beside you and wept? I doubt it. Nor would I consider myself much of a help if I were to do so. No, I would try to free you from the fallen branch. The problem of pain and evil is trying to explain why God does not do this.
In the end, I’ve found a rabbinical retort as the most helpful answer: “Yes, the theist must explain the existence of pain and suffering. But the atheist has to explain the existence of everything else.”



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SteveJ.

posted May 2, 2008 at 1:45 pm


By the way, lest anyone interpret my previous comment as an “attack” on Christianity, I want to make it clear that I still ally myself with liberal Christian faith on a certain level. I simply believe that we theists should cut our losses and admit that the skeptics and atheists have got us on this one. (We’ve got them on other issues.)
At least we get points for intellectual honesty if we admit there are no good solutions to this problem.



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Bill McLellan

posted May 2, 2008 at 5:05 pm


Great discussion! As a life-long Christian and now seminarian, the problem of evil still consumes so much of my emotional and intellectual energy. Here are a couple of thoughts:
1. Maybe the Bible doesn’t address specifically the logical problem of evil (contradictory existence of God and evil) because in a narrative worldview it doesn’t pack as much punch as in a static greek worldview. Evil is an affront to God’s existence, and over time, God will eradicate evil; but their existence at the same time is not a logical contradiction in the sense that it is not a meaningless assertion. Other aspects of the problem of evil, such as why there is so much of it, why God is taking so long, and how God can be seen as faithful to his covenant promises, are much more interesting and troublesome.
2. Maybe the violence in our natures contributes to our difficulty with God’s evident tolerance and patience with evil. If we were God, we say, we would make things right, right now. God seems to be taking much more time, and if the NT is to be trusted, he is depending on much more nonviolent of means than we might chose to “rid the earth of evil.”



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Jacek

posted May 2, 2008 at 11:55 pm


Perhaps the problem is a lot simpler than we imagine. Let’s forget the God of Love premise.Perhaps God is not Love. Perhaps he just keeps us kicking along with little “goodnesses,” so to speak. God could be a cosmic joker who simply doesn’t give a damn about our welfare, except to see us keep plodding on and suffering. What’s the point of stepping on ants if they all simply decide to die?
I’m not saying that God is evil; that is too much of a judgment in terms of good or evil. The history of the world has been a bloodbath and still is. I’m going Reinhold Niebuhr here.
The Bible is no consolation. I gave up on that as Bronze Age folklore a long time ago. The ramblings of goat and sheep herders, trying to make sense of the madness of their world in stifling heat—while drinking wine—is not the text to be studying. I’ve studied a lot of religion in my time, including official big league degrees. But I only do it now out of amusement. I’d like to believe.I guess that is a miracle. But I prefer the wisdom of George Carlin. A priest told him that we were here to serve the poor. His retort: What are poor put here for?
This makes still more sense: Ninety percent of the people in the world are here to remind me that I want to be with the other 10 percent. If you disagree with this, you’re kidding yourself and you know it. Sorry.
Jacek



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Ben

posted May 3, 2008 at 1:31 am


The other side of the coin of ‘the problem of evil’ is, after all, ‘the problem of good’: if there is no God, no good and wise creator, why is there an impulse to justice and mercy so deep within us? Why is there beauty, love, laughter, friendship, joy?
First of all I have an enormous amount of respect for NT Wright as a theologian. My respect has heightened my disappointment in this last word. If he said, as he implies earlier in the same paragraph, that without God we have no reason to bother doing good, he might have a point. Having a justification and motivation for doing good might be a good reason for believing in God where there’s doubt either way. But the existence of ‘good’, in itself, doesn’t prove much. In the atheistic scenario of the world, we evolved by chance, along with beauty (just a name for what we find attractive), love (which developed as a form of social cohesion which increases a group’s chances of survival), friendship (ditto), and joy (a chemical response which happens to be tied to things we need and desire). All of these ‘good’ things can be accounted for without God. The problem of evil is only a problem because it seems, at least at first glance, that an all-knowing, all-loving God is incompatible with the existence of evil.



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Mac

posted May 3, 2008 at 4:35 pm


Why do we have attractions? Why are we driven to survive? Why do we desire things? The very notion of “survival of the fittest” presupposes that there is value in survival. Where did that value come from?



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shsnj

posted May 3, 2008 at 8:13 pm


Why, granted your view of the world, should we bother? Why not ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die,’ and thank our lucky stars that we can do so?
What? Doesn’t Bishop Wright understand the basic concept of human sympathy?



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Mac

posted May 3, 2008 at 10:24 pm


Yes, he does. He’s saying: where does human sympathy come from? Why do we have it in the first place?



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Krikit

posted May 4, 2008 at 7:23 am


Nothing like taking on the BIGGEST QUESTION straight out of the box. I’m a Christian and a scientist. I know that it has taken the universe over 15 billion years to arrive at now; and this earth around 4.5 billion years. For perspective, if you put the entire history just of the earth and compressed it into a twelve-hour period, human beings would arrive in the last 10 or 11 seconds. Just speaking about the living beings on this planet earth, more species have died out than survive (although we are now experience the sixth great extinction event in the history of earth — this time caused BY HUMAN BEINGS, not natural events).
The point being, that in a physical world, all things die. And in all life – human or non-human – there will be suffering and pain. It is, to coin a phrase, a sad “fact of life.” The seed must be broken for the corn to grow. Does a tree suffer from the loss of its leaves at the end of the growing season? Does a mother suffer to bring forth young? Does the ground suffer when the plow breaks it open for the seed? Of course! Change hurts. Growth involves death, loss, pain. LIFE involves death, loss, suffering, and pain.
Maybe the question isn’t “why is there pain and suffering” or even “what does God do about it” (which is not something a “true atheist” would ever ask because in their worldview there is no God to do anything about it so the question is pointless) but rather, “what do WE do about it?” Do we try to lessen the pain of others? Do we let pain rule our lives and dampen our spirits? Do we stand up and say “No, I will not go quietly!” or what? We each have to find our own answer(s) to that question.
What Christianity offers is hope. This is not a hope that there will be no suffering; this is a hope that even in the face of suffering, loss, pain, death … God cares for all creation, so much as to be willing to die to tell us just that! I choose to believe in that hope. But we will still have suffering, loss, pain, and death. Praise God anyway!



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Drewman

posted May 4, 2008 at 12:06 pm


The problem with these discussions is that we come at it from two different sides in the great faith divide. having stood on both and hovered over the chasm more than a few times it appears to me to be a little like this.
FROM FAITH
“I know deep down that this is wrong. However I have faith that God is bigger than I am and is incomprehensible to me. My faith tells me that to doubt God is wrong, therefore I will live with the doubt and continue to believe in a loving God. This is regardless of what i really think. But as I am not God then I must have it wrong. To even entertain the thought that my questions may be valid is to question God. ergo my questions are not valid as God is Good and I am not. Phew what a relief – almost became a raving liberal agnostic there! As for the folk who are asking these difficult questions and especially any christians who have the integrity to ask them they must be evil, I doubt they were even Christians to start with – Grace moment —–Bless them”
WITHOUT FAITH
“What? – you are managing to OK all that ‘suffering’ as God is Good and you are not?”
– You are managing to put all the suffering in the Bible into a large theme in which the personal sufferings of folk serve simply to show how great Gods rescue plan is?
– I just don’t get it…….trying to understand how a God who is apparently a personal saviour can also be a personal tormentor just to show how great and good he is when he chooses to be?
– You know I think I find it only slightly more worrying that God should allow, create and bless suffering than I do that you seem to turn off your brain and integrity to think that thats OK!”
When you come at an issue from these perspectives it should be hardly surprising that there will be no agreement. When you put intellect into the equation as well and allow clever people to get hold of the arguements its a non runner!



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shsnj

posted May 4, 2008 at 2:22 pm


He’s saying: where does human sympathy come from?
Mac, I really didn’t get this at all from the context. Wright seems to be invoking that stale argument, “If orthodox, biblical Christianity isn’t true, there’s no point in doing anything to help fix the world.” The argument is invalid on so many levels — it’s something you’d expect to hear on “The John Ankerberg Show,” not from a scholar of Wright’s caliber.



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shsnj

posted May 4, 2008 at 2:35 pm


My last comment was a little mean. My apologies to Bishop Wright … and John Ankerberg.



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Mike Taylor

posted May 5, 2008 at 7:17 pm


We are like blind fools trying to describe what we think is an elephant, but aren’t sure. Our discussion assumes we understand the full nature of God or our condition. We do not.
The Bible clearly teaches is that suffering has come because of sin and He will not give His full blessing on anything that is less than perfect. The creation has “been frustrated” and “groans”, to use Paul’s words, in the hope of its redemption. For now, however, He will not eliminate suffering any more than He would eliminate Job’s suffering – which is never explained. For His FOLLOWERS He promises suffering in this life.
What is the alternative? Summary judgement. But He does not want to loose even one of His own. So the day of judgement and His return and the end of suffering are delayed. He has the power to eliminate suffering today but that would ultimately be far, far worse than we can imagine. For if he eliminated suffering now He would be condemning those who have NOT YET repented. He is not willing to do that.
But He will, in His time, when all his people have been sealed, eliminate suffering and we will see that all the suffering that has come to be worth it.
Ehrman really wants a comprehensible answer. And that would be great, but for us to understand all the critical issues would be like asking a first grader to understand integral calculus.
As I said before, if the resurection didn’t happen, this is all foolishness to even think about. The reality of the resurection is the key.



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Bad

posted May 6, 2008 at 3:46 pm


Mike Taylor: “We are like blind fools trying to describe what we think is an elephant, but aren’t sure. Our discussion assumes we understand the full nature of God or our condition. We do not.”
Mike, it’s really important that you understand that this claim cuts both ways. The more you defend a theology by claiming that it is inexplicable and obscure, the less certain ALL of the other things you claim about it are so.
In this case, obscuring the issues couldn’t be worse for your position, because it obscures any hope or reason to think that God is good or benevolent in the first place just as surely as it obscures all the arguments you don’t like the outcomes of.
It’s very important for people to realize that they cannot make their arguments or positions any more sound by declaring them to be beyond understanding. If anything, such a tactic is self-defeating.



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Josh

posted May 6, 2008 at 5:13 pm


“The more you defend a theology by claiming that it is inexplicable and obscure, the less certain ALL of the other things you claim about it are so.”
I don’t think Mike is defending the theology so much as pointing out the difficulty in attempting to answer a question that neither side is privvy to. Both sides see the issue, both try to describe it (the elephant) and neither ends up sure since neither has access. To assume that it is a defense of the religious position is to take it a step too far. Surely, it can be used in the opposing manner to equally justify such a view.
It also doesn’t appear to “obscure[s] any hope or reason to think that God is good or benevolent in the first place just as surely as it obscures all the arguments you don’t like the outcomes of.” I doubt most Christians come to the understanding that God is good or benevelent and that’s the point we start at. As a former agnostic turned Christian (at 18), I can say that the assumption often starts quite the other way around, questioning why, if God is there, it seems there is so much contradictory. Of course, having now studied scripture and looking at the “big picture” that Wright talks about, I get a clearer image of a God who exists, even though there is suffering. I understand God quite differently than I did before, and much of that comes from trying to understand scripture from a western mindset, and then learning to understand it from a Hebrew or Israelite mindset.



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JLFuller

posted May 7, 2008 at 7:32 pm


I have often wondered why traditional Christians fret about things they have only marginal control over. Maybe we would be better off fighting the small fights one-on-one rather than attacking huge problems. Maybe we are just here to do the best we can with what we know. Maybe we are here to become something better than what we started out as. We understand the poor are always with us so we won’t change that much. But maybe our efforts to assist others in learning how not to be poor benefits us as much as or more than it benefits the poor. Maybe there was a pre-mortal life where we grew to a point we had to leave and go to a place where we could learn about pain and suffering and sin so we could appreciate what we have in our eternal home. Maybe the war in heaven is still going on here on the earth and we are foot soldiers in it. Maybe as foot soldiers it is our job to fight the good fight that is in front of us today. Maybe that fight is the pain and sin we see around us and maybe this is the adversary attacking God through us. Maybe in the end it is the small victories that count and win the war.



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KVan

posted May 7, 2008 at 11:37 pm


Interesting debate. In the end, I feel like I usually do when taking part in, and reading about, debates like these. What we end up with is a lot of talking past one another. As a fundamentalist-turned-agnostic, much like Ehrman, I continue to feel that people on opposite sides of the debate are operating from within a completely different paradigm. I’m not even sure if a rational or logical debate is possible when people are occupying different world-views. Generally a believer loses his or her faith not because of some logical arguments or even emotional arguments about theodicy, but because the world-view or paradigm the person is in is no longer able to satisfactorily answer the important questions. The very same thing occurs when a non-believer becomes a person of faith. Within our own paradigms we continually work to rationalize all the things we feel strongly about to ensure that we have a cohesive world-view, and what tends to happen is that any debate will be more about apologetics than anything else.
Even in the comments it’s obvious that the Christians, when faced with a challenge, tend to favour the person who is echoing what they already believe, while the atheists and agnostics enjoy the other side of the debate since it speaks to their internal rationalizations.
For myself, I no longer found the world-view of Christianity tenable, not because of the question of suffering, but because I found the it much too narrow to deal with the complicated world in which we live. The problem of suffering, or theodicy, simply helps to enforce the position I now hold. In other words, just like everyone else, these are simply more rationalizations that I favour because it serves as glue to hold my paradigm together.



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exapologist

posted May 8, 2008 at 6:46 pm


I hope you (Ehrman and Wright) camp out on this topic of the apocalyptic problem in the NT, as it makes or breaks the credibility of Christianity. Mainstream NT scholars know that, at least prima facie, Jesus is a false apocalyptic prophet, and that the other NT writers believed and taught the same false claim. Jesus Seminar folks get around the problem by denying the authenticity of the passages (at least for Jesus). Mainstreamers take the natural interpretation of the data and take them as showing Jesus to be a failed apocalyptic prophet, like John the Baptist. Blomberg and Marshall, and those of their ilk, take the intellectually irresponsible route of “divide and conquer” (taking a piecemeal approach of giving different interpretations of the apparent “false prediction” passages), or deny there is a problem at all. But people like Wright tries to take the problem head-on, but claims that while Jesus did herald “the end” in some sense, it was just a heralding of the destruction of the temple, the beginning of a new “deal” with God, the restoration of Israel, etc.
Now if Ehrman will continue to keep the spotlight on the fact that responses of the conservatives to this problems (e.g., Wright, Witherington, Blomberg, etc.) are implausible, then he will have done a great service to the human race of demonstrating the implausibility of Christianity via empirical refutation.
Please keep the debate going on this point, prof. Ehrman!



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Pastor Burnett

posted May 9, 2008 at 1:17 am


Exapologist~ “Mainstream NT scholars know that, at least prima facie, Jesus is a false apocalyptic prophet, and that the other NT writers believed and taught the same false claim.”
This is par for the course:
By the way Bishop…great post and I appreciate the answers you CLEARLY gave. Thanks and God bless.



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exapologist

posted May 9, 2008 at 2:02 am


Hi Pastor Burnett,
I find it odd that you’re not aware of the mainstream view among historical Jesus scholars about who Jesus was. I’m talking about people like Sanders, Vermes, Fredriksen, Allison, Meier — and, of course, Ehrman. Who do you have in mind as mainstream historical Jesus scholars?



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Matthew

posted May 9, 2008 at 2:20 am


Bart, your books on some level is doing a great service however you may not know, that service as it really is. The conflict coming back to you is encouraging to me, in that it has rallied the faithful to give there apology. That, I see, is the good you have brought with your views. However I do see a sadness in your writings.
Hopefully when your done with your work, gods saving grace will rekindle the flame for you. Gods will be done. Intellectualizing is obviously a strong word to swallow. yes god gave us brains to think, however too much of anything can be a bad thing. The path to grace for you is through simplicity. “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.”
Dont let your brain get in the way. Keep it simple. Make yourself as a little child in your views, experiences, outlook, belief and put your mind at rest.
You see evil in the world. Well I say you have the power to do something about it. You cant change the past atrocities but you do have the power to change the evil that you see and come in contact with in the present. If you see hungry people, feed them. If you see the sick, maybe you dont have the faith to heal them, but have the means to push them toward health(financial or informational).Jesus did not solve the world of infirmity’s but had compassion for any suffering he came into contact with(i.e. feeding the 5000, healing the lame, blind, the persecuted, the dead)). He healed those he came in contact with. His good work and message central to the middle east spread through out the world. A tiny mustard seed became a great tree. Good deeds can snowball and is food for the soul.
Why do evil things happen? How do you explain evil things? You know better than to think there is one answer. Ill say this. If there is an evil one, than he is at odds with the good one.
If creating evil causes believers in the faith (formally like yourself) to go from being in the light (believing in the almighty creator) into being contrary to god, then why would the evil one not continue to reek havoc when seeing the reward of his deeds. You are a prime example of how the power of darkness can defeat the faithful (such as the seed that fell on the ground only to be choked out by weeds). Just by creating evil causes more distance from god. People like yourself can be the reward of evil works.
Jesus was not of this world. Heaven is not of this world. Done let the evil of this world consume you. Our reward is after this world. However you cant lose sight of that heavenly prize. “Blessed is he who has not seen and still believes”. In this world you have the power to affect the lives of others. Jesus had the power to affect the lives of others. Look what that good has done. You can help people be well or you can tear people down. The evil workers will afflict people such as job knowing that if they can break such good men of god and succeed, it may too snowball and the harvest be plenty. In the information age how powerful a writer would be (to the forces contrary to god)that was once faithful and is now willing to spread his new found purpose without god.
My brain got in the way and complicated my life too at one point. whether you believe, or not again, may or may not be up to you.
Good luck with yourself and God bless.



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jessa

posted May 9, 2008 at 2:59 am


I know I am relatively young (20 yrs old), but spirituality has always been an interest of mine. Although I grew up in a Christian household and was really active in the church, I wouldn’t say that I’m one now, because I don’t believe certain things that are central to its doctrine. The origin of pain and its purpose in our lives is something that I feel well NEVER go away, and as I read in another response, is something is affected by the way we see things (i know this seems obvious). But one thing I’ve noticed is that when it comes to religious debates in general, everyone wants to be right–even me. It’s hard. I’m not sure how God feels about pain or how to think about it in general. I remember as child fearing a God who at any minute would cause another flood, or destory a city or kill babies. I guess I get annoyed because life is complicated as it is—I don’t like people telling me that I’m wrong because I’m not this faith or that faith or why “everything will work out in the end”, in a way that brushes off people’s pain.



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Mike Taylor

posted May 11, 2008 at 8:47 pm


Brad & Josh,
Thanks for your comments. Josh hit it on the head. We do not have the information to critique the nature of God based on the reality of suffering. That seems to me to be one of the core lessons from Job. (Remember Job’s friends trying to say that Job’s suffering was proof of God’s justice and Job’s sin? – an arguement specifically rejected by God Himself at the end of the book.)
I would add on thing. We should not use this as an excuse to ignore the signficance of what we do know. The resurection is real or Paul, James, Peter, and Jude were all fooled or were liers. I find the later highly unlikely. And the resurection changes everything.



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Bad

posted May 12, 2008 at 10:47 am


I disagree Josh. The clear burden is on the theologian here to explain why the particular sort of suffering we see is consistent with a benevolent God. They are the ones insisting that such a being exists and that it’s existence is consistent with the world as we see it.
It’s not good enough to at that point simply declare it all an impenetrable mystery. That’s both a cop out for the claim that such a god exists in the first place, and morally unjustifiable. If someone walks up to a baby on the street and tries to wring its neck, the proper moral response to object to this or even to attempt to stop it, not to sit back and wonder wistfully if perhaps the man has a good reason that you don’t or might never know, and so withhold judgment or action.
Of course, it’s no wonder that people at this point try to retreat into unintelligibility: all of the attempts to rationalize suffering turn out to be monstrous.



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Bad

posted May 12, 2008 at 11:56 am


“The resurrection is real or Paul, James, Peter, and Jude were all fooled or were liars. I find the later highly unlikely.”
Paul had no direct knowledge of the resurrection, and it isn’t even clear that he treats it as if it were a historical event. And he’s really the only first person source we have on things.
You’ve also, in any case, left out what is by far the most common human occurrence, which happens with great regularity even today: that they were mistaken. How many people experience visions or interpret supernatural events all the time even today, most of which cannot be real? How many more get “telephoned” versions of events that, through no intentional malice, blow things out of proportion or turn rumors into claimed realities?
And yet you want us to believe that back in a far more superstitious age, in which mostly illiterate peoples had little or no concept of rational evidence or understanding of phenomenon around them, that they could not be mistaken or misled as people so obviously are even in a scientific age?
“And the resurrection changes everything.”
How? In what functional manner does it change anything. What are the causal steps? Or are we back to grand mysteries already?



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DavesMojo

posted May 13, 2008 at 4:29 pm


I agree with both sides. Sometimes I have anger that the Bible is too vague, other times I am appalled that we dare to question any being who gives us this amazing marvelous gift of life.
There is no refutation of the Argument from Evil, heck even Jesus on the cross lamented “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Nevertheless, there are things to think about.
1) Our universe follows laws and these laws are often what cause natural evil (something very different from moral evil). A non-believer can lament that the universe should be different but is this non-belief or simply anger that God didn’t create heaven v2.0?
2) Although suffering is horrible it isn’t the only thing – look deeply at yourself and what you are and see the amazing miracle that is your own soul (consciousness), your own existence! If suffering was everything why do those under the most horrible suffering cling desperately to every blessed second of life? Irrespective of belief or non-belief? Not trying to minimize suffering, just inject some additional perspective.
3) If the universe is set up in this manner as the price of freewill, why would God not give us the freedom to choose whether or not we come into existence in this physical universe? Doesn’t it say in the Bible that God knew us before we were born? Are we responsible for our own situation?
4) If we all emulated Jesus, would much of the suffering (including even natural evil suffering?) be alleviated? The Old Testament believes so…Bart does not think so. Do you?
5) God, himself, has shared in our suffering – someone who is without sin, Jesus, our brother in pain. Is it necessary for a Creator to do this? Is it comforting to know we are not alone in our pain?
6) Would a perfectly good God see death as evil or as something else?
Just some thoughts…
Cheers!



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Mike Taylor

posted May 16, 2008 at 5:05 pm


Hey there Bad. Hope all is going for your life. This really isn’t the proper forum for a general defense of Christian faith, but think I’ll add a few comments but won’t be responding after this.
1) Yes, the resurrection does change everything. It was and is the evidence of who Jesus is – the One through whom all things were created and without whom nothting was created that was created, the one through whom all things that exist are maintained in existence – to paraphrase the 4th gospel. The consequeces of that reality are self evident.
2) Who you gonna believe? I understand that a prudent mind generally trusts critically signficant assertions only when they can be rigorously tested. (What a mouthfull of words.) People don’t rise from the dead, so can’t trust my life to this story. Better to live and say Ceasar is Lord. But I have a few problems to sweep out of the way first. a) The story is never presented as a “vision” of Jesus being alive but as someone who would walk and talk and EAT with them as a group. b) There were multiple people present at events (more than 500 at one time, per I Corinthians). Paul saw these witnesses as corrobration of the physical resurrection of Jesus. c) Paul helped persecute those who knew the truth first hand. He knew their steadfast faith in real life. d) Paul and James and Jude weren’t idiots but they were blunt, opinionated and unafraid to make enemies. James and Jude, after all were the brothers of the man who didn’t hesitate to make fun of Herod Antipas. Paul, too, didn’t hesitate to publically call out Peter or name names of people who abandoned the fellowship. But when he talked about the eye witnesses to the resurrected, he points out that most are still alive (ie the story can be corroborated). I find it very difficult to sweep this information away. “Who will believe our story?” asked Isaiah.
3) Finally, as many others over the years have pointed out – the crucifiction and resurrection were not something anyone expected. This seems to be the reason that Paul, James and Jude didn’t accept Jesus at first. Why did they come to believe and, especially, why did Jude remain faithful after his brother James (and many others) had been killed for their faith? Answer (partial): he had known or knew people who knew the truth in first person and remained faithful regardless of the consequences. Also, keep in mind that the gospels don’t elevate the 12 to some special position as THE SUPERFAITHFUL. The gospels paint them as clueless, selfish, weak, scared, unreliable, etc. The whole picture just doesn’t add up as a made up story or as nothing more than a vision (much less an alegory). And, please, don’t try the silly arguement that the resurrection and Jesus’ identity as Lord Almighty was a late creation. The universally accepted Pauline letters, by themselves, refute this assertion.
I don’t expect any of this to change your mind. Many years ago a debate coach told me almost no one is ever convinced by an arguement. But, perhaps, your mind will be opened by the One who knocks at the door.



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Cyndi

posted May 31, 2008 at 10:35 am


I think Jesus Himself is best to explain all these horrors. He told us that in this world we would have great suffering, not to be suprised by it, the servant isn’t greater than the master. What we fail to keep in mind is that while we are here, this is not our destination. We forget that the earth also was cursed after the fall of man. The Prince of this world, rules this world because of it. This brings on and sustains the troubles that affect all of us. (whether we believe or not) For those who once believed and now, due to all the sufferings, have changed their minds about their faith, Jesus told us about the seed that falls on stony ground, that springs up and is full of zeal, but when the sun comes out, it scortches the sprout (faith) and it withers and dies. (the cares of life) We can justify our behaviors to fit our consciences but it will in no way affect the facts of the truth of Jesus’ teachings. Jesus told Harod that His kingdom was not of this world, but in that which is to come. He told us, too that the Kingdom is in our hearts. God Himself created us with eternity in our hearts. There will be absolutely no unbelievers at the time Christ returns. All will confess whether they believed in their lifetimes or not, that Jesus Christ is Lord. I suffer from a very painful and crippling disease and was once asked how I could still praise God, who watches me hurt so bad. I told him that I fully believe that this life is just the journey, not the destination. My afflictions are merely a blip on the radar of eternity.I choose rather to believe the Word, that counsles me, this is not to be compaired to the Glory that awaits me. It reminds me that one day this will be gone, no suffering at all. In Heaven alone no sin is found, there is no sorrow there. (My Homeland) My suffering has made me more compassionate to others and has made opportunity for someone else to develope the servants heart that appeals to God. In such cases, i am the vessel He uses to develope that in another believer. He calls me worthy and fit for the task.
I implore you, O prodical, to reconsider your decision and let the Potter of your soul make you fit for use.



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T.Fowler

posted June 11, 2008 at 7:29 pm


Suffering is a result of sin. This is why we have a saviour Jesus Christ who chose us and gave all people salvation, He knew no sin and died for our sins. If we suffer with christ we will reign with christ. Every time I suffer, I can identify with christ and call on him for help. Suffering keeps us close to the Father.



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Raffi Shahinian

posted October 18, 2008 at 2:39 pm


If anyone wants to hear these two go head to head on the issue, I have an audio link to their debate in San Francisco on 10/16/08 at my site. Check it out.
Grace and Peace,
Raffi



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Philip Bitar

posted December 21, 2008 at 5:21 pm


I just published a book that I’ve been working on for 10 years. The book presents a tightly-integrated, comprehensive theory of reality and human life.
Among the results of my research, I prove that mortality — the possibility of death — is necessary for meaning. The proof is not a theological argument. I summarize the result at
http://www.philipbitar.com/Proofs/Index.php?pageid=Mortality
At the website, this page is obtained in the Proofs menu.



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Mike Nunn

posted January 14, 2010 at 6:49 am


It is often nice to read intellectual discussions on the topics covered but it really comes down to one thing. What am I as an individual comfortable with? There are many of us who tried to believe and found that it did not work. We all are the sum of our experiences and that includes what we read and discuss. There are those of us who find Dr. Ehrman a refreshing oasis in the desert. For me that is enough. I do not need to live a life of fear but rather chose to live as full a life as I can considering the circumstances under which I find myself. I really do not need someone with far less knowledge and experience try to tell me how to live. I realize that that may be a pompous comment but unfortunately it is true. I have known many ministers and except perhaps for some arcane knowledge of the Bible know very little of what is necessary to live a good life.



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John M.

posted March 27, 2010 at 7:15 pm


Bishop Wright’s response to Dr. Ehrman is abismal. The post begins with the title, “The Bible Does Answer the Problem–Here’s How.” However, in the post itself, Bishop Wright claims:
1. That the Bible’s authors aren’t actually concerned to answer the question.
2. Instead of answering the philosophical question at hand, the authors address “what God is doing about evil,” or the hypothetical question about “what will happen if one does evil.”
3. On the rare occasion that the authors DO address the philosophical question at hand, their answers are extremely unsatisfactory; e.g., you won’t ever understand so don’t bother.
I haven’t the foggiest idea how the Bishop can think that these three claims somehow add up in support of what he claims in the title… that the Bible gives a satisfactory answer to the philosophical problem of evil; his claim is not supported by his argument. True to Christian theological form, it is pure abracadabra.
If the Bishop doesn’t have an answer, he should just admit it and stop pretending that he has somehow given a satisfactory answer to Dr. Ehrman’s problem. To do otherwise is just to look stupid and foolish, which the Bishop is not.



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macroman

posted April 28, 2010 at 4:55 am


I wonder what Bishop Wright would say about Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion”, which spent 80 minutes on gory detail, rather than giving us a discrete oblique summary as found in the Gospels. If Gibson made a similar film about the holcaust from the Jewish perspective (hard to imagine I know) Ehrman’s dwelling on suffering would pale into insignificance.



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Pingback: What’s really behind George Zimmerman’s comment, shooting was ‘God’s plan’ | AlanRudnick.org

Chace Erceg

posted November 13, 2012 at 12:10 pm


Chace Marijan Erceg · Harvey Agricultural High School

Hello N.T Wright? I wont go into much detail of who I am or how I got here. I just want to let you know that last year I bought a copy of your third volume of christianity about the resurrection and its definition for the early believers. I read it cover to cover and learnt much much more than expected. It is probably the thickest book I have read in my life (im 27) and took about a month or so to finish it. I also really enjoyed learning what early pagans, philosophers and Jews believed about life after death and their evolving views, since before I read your book, I never read a decent systematic answer and explanation including their own sources on the topic. So I guess I wish to say thank you for writing the book and provoking my mind so much. Even though I am a catholic/quaker (could you think of two diametrically opposed christian sects? I attend mass and meetings) who prays to Christ as my saviour but also believes in reincarnation, I now respect and consider traditional christian eschatology more deeper than I ever have before, and your book helped towards this end.



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