Editor’s Note: Good question, Bart, especially as Americans are suffering one way or another from the effects of the outgoing Trump presidency. Of course, Ehrman is referring to suffering as it is portrayed in The New Testament, which is his academic specialty. He did a series on the subject on his blog in December 2020. This is the last of the series (reposted with permission), which also serves as a teaser to read the whole series, available to members of his blog. /Linda LaScola, Editor
By Bart Ehrman
I started this thread on the problem of suffering because I wanted to respond to a specific question from a member. My original idea was simply to give the question and then write the response – and do it all in one post. When I started writing it, I realized it wouldn’t be possible, that it would require several posts, and that in fact, it would make the best sense not to give the question in the first post but in the last. Here now is the question I received, and my response.
Faith-wise, why is the problem of suffering a breaking point for you, Bart, but not for Nick Vujicic?
When I first received this question I had an immediate reaction, and started to write a simple email in response, saying only that I had never heard of Nick Vujicic and didn’t know what is views were, and so couldn’t explain why he didn’t think so much suffering in the world should be an obstacle to faith. I do know what lots and lots of people think about it, and none of the answers people provide is satisfying to me personally, but I didn’t know what his views were
But then I thought that I should at least look up Nick Vujicic to see who he was, and it was indeed a bit of a shock. You may have heard of him – as it turns out he is a famous person. And his is indeed a remarkable story.
Vujicic was born in 1982 with tetra-amelia syndrome. He has no arms and legs. His parents were from Yugoslavia, but he was born in Melbourne Australia, and eventually moved to the U.S. He is also a well-known motivational speaker and a Christian evangelist, speaking to large audiences about the goodness of God and the reasons for hope in the face of despair – while he himself is without limbs.
Vujicic is obviously better suited than almost anyone to encourage others in the face of suffering. He admits that he doesn’t know why God allowed him to come into the world the way he did, but he believes that ultimately God has a purpose and he works to help everyone see how God can restore dignity and hope, even in the most trying circumstances imaginable.
And so the question I was asked is: if that works for him – someone who has experienced suffering in the extreme – why doesn’t it work for me, someone who has not.
It is a great question, and I take it very seriously. The simple answer to it is that I don’t really know.
I wish I did have this point of view. I would feel so much better about the world if I thought that everyone who was born and grew up with so many almost inconceivable physical, social, and emotional challenges – life-threatening, often unimaginably painful — could have hope and feel inspired by the goodness of God. I have not had those challenges, at all. My difficulties in life have always been far more mundane and typical for a middle-class guy who grew up in the Midwest. What I do I personally know of suffering in extremis? Nothing. Literally nothing.
How would I react if I lost my arms and legs in an accident? I’ve considered these questions a lot, actually, over the years. I’ve always thought that “Johnny Got His Gun” was one of the most terrifying movies I’ve ever seen. My guess is that I would react the way 99% of people react when that happens: I’d be bitter, hateful, resentful, angry, and suicidal. But maybe not. Maybe something would spark in me and I would see a bright side and work to encourage others. That, of course, is what one would hope. But the reality is that most people don’t go that way.
I would never say that the views of the 99% should be the view taken by Nick Vujicic. It’s amazing he has his view and has had the success he has. I wish everyone else did. But I can’t adopt either his view or theirs simply because they happen to have them. I have to look around the world, see if for myself, and figure out what to make of it. I myself do not think God has a plan for Nick. Or for the thousands of people who will starve to death today, this very day, many of them infants and young children. And the millions, right now, dying of malaria. And from water-born diseases. And from military conflicts, they have no interest in. And cancer. And Covid. And car accidents… Not to mention so many people who, today, will be tortured and soul-crushed and drowned and shot and… And the list goes on forever. For as long as there are humans.
I absolutely love the success stories. If they were what typically happened, I’m pretty sure I would not find suffering to be a problem for belief in a God who loves us and wants the best for us and can help us when we are in need — although if there were even one unresolvable tragedy, I’m sure I would have my doubts. But then it would be easier to say that God had a reason for it. I really don’t think the simple claim that God has a reason can satisfy when we’re talking about many millions of children in agony while they starve to death.
I’d rather not find this kind of suffering to be a problem. But I’m afraid I do. Other people do not feel that way – including those who have dealt with incredible suffering themselves, and I have no argument against them. But I do hope that everyone who ever thinks about the problem at least looks it in the eye and comes to a sensible view about it, one that seems plausible to them only after they’ve taken it seriously. Those who do not take suffering seriously – either because they don’t care (an incredibly common attitude) or because they have a Pollyanna solution to it (also incredibly common)– are the ones most likely not do anything about it. And that only increases the suffering.
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. Bart is also an original member of The Clergy Project. He has given The Rational Doubt Blog permission to repost public blogs from The Bart Ehrman Blog
>>>>>>Photo Credits: By Christliches Medienmagazin pro – Flickr: Nick Vujicic, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16479966