Editor’s Note: I first heard about today’s essayist in a Washington Post article in 2006, when my own investigation into religion was in full swing. The article was about his then new book Misquoting Jesus. I was fascinated and went right out and bought the book. Soon after that, I heard him speak at the National Cathedral on the same subject and then met him at the American Humanist Association conference where he was receiving an award. Before long, he helped me find seminary professors to participate in the Dennett-LaScola study and joined The Clergy Project as one of the original 52 members. Now he’s allowing me to re-post essays from the public section of his blog, so you’ll be seeing more of his writing here. Thank you, Bart!
By Bart Ehrman
I have been talking about why suffering is a “problem” in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and here I would like to reflect a bit on a point that some commenters have made, that it is a problem if and only if one has a certain conception of God as a being who is all-powerful, loving, and active in the world. Someone who has a different understanding of the divine being – or divine beings – almost certainly won’t have this problem.
I will let others on the blog comment on divine beings in other modern religious traditions, outside of traditional Christianity. But I will say that the pagan world in which Christianity originally began, there were much easier answers to why people suffer if there are powerful deities in the world. The key is that in the ancient world, everyone except Jews acknowledged that there were *lots* of other deities, at all kinds of level and of all sorts of temperament. Some divine beings could be hateful, malicious, and antagonistic. Can’t do much about that. Even with the good ones – if you got them angry, things could go very wrong indeed.
I would argue that even the religion that became Judaism started out with a multiplicity of deities. The constant injunctions in the Hebrew Bible not to worship other gods almost certainly arose precisely because so many Israelites *were* worshiping other gods. Even though the authors of the Bible insisted on the worship of Yahweh, there is little reason to think that that is what was actually happening on the ground.
Moreover, for most of the Hebrew Bible the kind of conception of the divine is henotheistic rather than monotheistic. In the way I’m defining the terms (various scholars define them variously, but this is the normal way), “henotheism” refers to a religious belief that only one God is to be worshiped, while acknowledging that other gods exist. This seems to be the view of most of the authors of the Old Testament.
You see it, for example, already in the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments) where the faithful Israelite is sternly instructed “You shall have no other gods before me.” The commandment is NOT: “You must believe there is only one God.” On the contrary, the commandment presupposes that there are indeed other gods. None of them is to be worshiped by those who worship Yahweh (or does it mean not to be worshiped *more* than Yahweh?).
Eventually this henotheism morphed into a true “monotheism” the belief that there is in fact only one God. The other supposed divine beings are either demons or they don’t exist at all. (If they are demons they are a still *kind* of divine being, but they are so pathetically weak in comparison with God that they don’t so much count as competitors.) You find this view, for example, in what is called 2 Isaiah (a book written in the 6th c. BCE, tacked on to the writings of Isaiah of Jerusalem from the 8th c BCE, and now comprising Isaiah chs. 40-55). God insists that he alone is God, and “there is no other.”
That became the view of Judaism and then, later, Christianity. There are no gods but God. Islam, of course, inherited the view much later. It is within these great monotheistic traditions that the “problem of suffering emerges.” I know that many (most?) Muslims insist that for them suffering is *not* a problem, but I should say that I know myriad Christians who say it is not for them either. Conceptually (even though people have their “solutions”) the problem is a problem for anyone who believes there is only one powerful divine being who loves people and yet those people suffer anguishing and truly horrible pain.
And so a number of commenters have suggested that it is simply better to believe in a different kind of God. Why not simply give up on the idea that God is all powerful? Why not, in fact, adopt a “deistic” conception of God? “Deism” in this context usually denotes the belief that there is indeed a divine power in the universe, who may ultimately be “behind it all,” for example, as the one “who got the ball rolling” but who is not actively involved in the world. So hey, it’s not *his* fault.!One common way of imagining this is to think that God started the universe in some unknown and probably unknowable way – say, 13.8 billion years ago – and then simply let nature take its course. Big bang; rapid expansion; formation of galaxies of stars; development of our solar system; formation of earth; cooling of the planet; emergence of first life; evolution. Then, after those 13.8 billion years are up, just some 200,000 years ago, the appearance of homo sapiens; 190,000 years later, the development of human culture; and so it goes till the invention of the I-phone. Why not?
Suffering, then, is just the way it works, because it’s how nature works. “God” – the one who started the whole thing – has nothing to do with it.
So isn’t this a better more intellectually satisfying view? Why not?
Why not indeed? I can’t actually think of an argument against this view. So for me it would be personally plausible. But – here I’m speaking completely personally – I’ve never seen any reason to believe it. Why appeal to a divine causality for the start of all things when everything else can be explained apart from divine causality? The one and only reason I can think of for someone coming up with any such idea is that they started *out* thinking that there was a God; then they came to realize that that belief is problematic for one reason or another (for example, it can’t explain why most homo sapiens over the course of their 200,000 years have lived in excruciating pain and died badly) and so fallen back on a *different* idea of the deity. But why have any idea of a deity at all?
And what does such a belief give you? Suppose it’s right. Then what? What would it matter? How would it affect a single thing you think, believe, or do? How would it have any effect on your life? I should think that it is in a sense simply a kind of functional atheism. Yes, there is a god out there, but god has absolutely nothing to do with *me*.
So I don’t know why I should want to believe such a thing. I don’t know what logic would suggest it. I don’t know how it explains anything that can’t be explained without it (OK, yes, we can’t explain the Big Bang; but if you posit God as the one who made the Big Bang you have the same problem: you can’t explain God. Ultimately, either way, you can’t explain the First Principle.) I don’t know how it would change my life. I don’t know how it is really much of anything except a faint shadow of the Jewish-Christian belief in God with no basis, necessity, or practical effect. So why believe it?
Again, let me stress, this is just my personal opinion, and it’s not one I insist on. It’s not based on “scholarship.” It’s not a view I push on others. (I’ve never mentioned it before, to my knowledge!) I don’t mind if others have the opposite view, that some such understanding explains our world better than an atheistic one. But I’ve never felt or understood either its emotional attractions or its logical necessity.
Bio: Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.
A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Bart received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-six books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. For more detail, read here.
>>>Photo Credits: By Dan Sears – Dan Sears UNC-Chapel Hill, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41276400