Bart D. Ehrman’s God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer

[1] Bart Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and one of the most prolific New Testament scholars today, publishing seven books in the last five years alone. Among his more popularly written books is now God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer (2008).

[2] Although readers may disagree with Ehrman’s assessments and conclusion, they will benefit from being invited to think seriously and honestly about not only the Bible’s views on suffering, but also about how they will live with the reality of both the Bible’s plurality of “answers” to the question and of suffering itself in their own lives. According to Ehrman, while the Bible has much to say about human suffering, it fails to tell us exactly why we endure this part of the human experience. After an introductory chapter in which Ehrman shares his story of how the question of suffering led to a crisis of faith for him, he leads the reader into the many and varied ways Bart D. Ehrman’s God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer by Mark W. Bartuschthe Bible attempts to answer the question of human suffering. Ehrman surveys five “answers” in seven chapters, concluding each chapter with an assessment, and closes his investigation with the statement that none is “intellectually or morally” satisfying.1 In a final chapter Ehrman reveals which biblical “answer” to suffering provides the most reasonable response to the problem for him.

[3] Ehrman writes about the problem of suffering as a deeply personal one that led him first to question what he believed, then to abandon the Christian faith altogether. Raised in the Episcopal Church, he moved into evangelical circles while an undergraduate at the Moody Bible Institute (Chicago) and Wheaton College. His interest in the Bible took him to Princeton Seminary where he completed both professional and academic degrees. His academic credentials are unimpeachable.

[4] But he indicates that his religious commitment to the Bible faded the more he studied it. In time, he abandoned the doctrinaire position of the Christian communities of which he was a part, including such notions as the Bible as the inerrant, infallible, verbally inspired word of God. He discovered that his evangelical beliefs were not only challenged by the academic study of the Bible; they simply could not stand. At the same time, Ehrman insists that his changing ideas about the Bible alone did not result in his “crisis of faith” and departure from the Christian faith. Even more problematic for him was the nagging problem of suffering. With age and maturity, he realized that he could “no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life.” To the point, he writes: “I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with the world, given the state of things…. The problem of suffering became for me the problem of faith.”2 This is where, for Ehrman, the problem of suffering became God’s problem: “I… came to realize that I could no longer believe in the God of my tradition, and acknowledged that I was an agnostic: I don’t ‘know’ if there is a God….”3 And if there is a God, Ehrman finds it unlikely that this God bears any resemblance to the God of the Jewish and Christian traditions with which he was acquainted.

[5] Ehrman wrote this book to help people, especially religious people, who really and honestly struggle with the question and the experience of suffering out of the framework of faith. Suffering is not a theoretical or philosophical problem that can be satisfactorily debated in some detached or disembodied manner. Ehrman has little time for philosophers and theologians who are content to address the problem of evil and suffering in the abstract, removed from the very real experience of suffering that afflicts our lives and our world.

[6] The author is clear that it is not his intention to convert people away from what they believe or to destroy faith. That is, he is not looking to make agnostics of all his readers. His journey out of the Christian faith was difficult and painful for him (he writes as one familiar — from the inside — with the Christian tradition, and in several places writes positively of the Church and the Christian faith which he wishes still worked for him), and I do not get the impression that he wishes that experience on anyone else. I take him at his word.

[7] Ehrman begins with the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament). In two chapters Ehrman investigates what appears to be the dominant view of suffering not only in the Bible but also at the Christian tradition. He identifies this as “the classical view of suffering,” whose fundamental premise is that God is responsible for the suffering human beings experience. To the point: suffering comes as God’s punishment for human disobedience (sin). The standard for ancient Israel’s life in the world is the covenant God made with them at Mt. Sinai. Beginning with the settlement period, Israel’s life in the land is evaluated on the basis of the nation’s faithfulness to the Law of God. Obedience led to prosperity, military victory and all good things. But disobedience led directly to famine, sickness, a failed economy, and military defeat (including exile). This view also appears in prophetic writings from these centuries during which Israel (and Judah) lived in the land.

[8] In chapter 2, Ehrman focuses especially on the eighth-century prophets of Israel Amos and Hosea (also Isaiah and Jeremiah in Judah) as interpreters of ancient Israel’s national sufferings. For them, suffering was the result of disobeying God in their (social) relationships with one another (Amos) and in their (religious) relationship with God (Hosea). In assessing the view of these prophets, I think Ehrman is right to conclude that the prophets were not suggesting that this “sin-punishment” scheme in “the classical view” was the only, or universal, answer to human suffering. It did, however, fit their particular historical context. In chapter 3, Ehrman goes back to examine the ancestral history in the book of Genesis, the Pentateuch, and the former prophets (Joshua – 2 Kings), and gives special attention to the compendium of blessings and curses in Deuteronomy 28. What he discovers is that this “classical view” of human suffering is not limited to the voices of a handful of radical critics on the fringes of society (prophets) but is found virtually everywhere in the Bible. In fact, even such varied texts as Deuteronomy and Proverbs share the worldview that while obedience to God and righteousness lead to blessing, disobedience leads to tragedy and suffering.

[9] But does such a simple model really hold true? Of course not, Ehrman concludes. There are wicked people who prosper and righteous ones who suffer. Ehrman began his investigation of the “classical view” of suffering with the horrors of the Holocaust; he argues that all biblical responses to suffering must be weighed in light of this horror. He asks: do we really want to say that such suffering comes as punishment from God? Or what about tsunami deaths, earthquake victims, cancer or AIDS sufferers, and victims of genocide? Ehrman concludes that many people today find this “classical view” unsatisfying, “simplistic, repugnant, backward, or just dead-wrong,” and that there must be another answer to the problem of human suffering.4 In fact, according to Ehrman, there are several other answers also in the pages of the Bible.

[10] Suffering comes not only as punishment resulting from sin against God. In “The Consequences of Sin” (chapter 4), Ehrman considers those biblical texts that suggest that suffering comes not from God as punishment but at the hands of other people. Suffering, accordingly, results from the mistreatment of human beings by other human beings; other sinners cause our grief. For example, there are many passages concerning social transgressions in the writings of the prophets where the people of Israel or Judah — often the wealthy and powerful — are admonished for their affliction of innocent victims such as the poor, the needy, and the widow (e.g., Amos 2:6–7; 4:1). God is not to blame, at least not directly; in the Bible, there seems to be something more horrible about sin when it is committed against others and causes the suffering of others. Ehrman suggests that the biblical writers operated with some notion of human free will. While God is, ultimately, sovereign in the world, in certain texts it is human free will that is responsible for the suffering people endure at the hands of others.

[11] While in some biblical texts human suffering may have its origins in God’s direct response to human disobedience, and in others suffering is the result of “man’s inhumanity to man,” at still other times the Bible portrays suffering as inexplicable. Ehrman takes up this idea in his chapter “The Mystery of the Greater Good: Redemptive Suffering.” The point is that regardless of the “why” of human suffering (or even when there is no answer to the “why”), some passages demonstrate that God is able to bring good out of evil. Such biblical stories as Joseph and his brothers (preservation in the time of famine; Genesis), David and Bathsheba (and Solomon; 2 Samuel), Jesus’ passion and death that brings salvation, and the Jews’ rejection of Jesus that leads to the Gentiles’ reception of the gospel that leads, in turn, to Israel’s jealousy and eventual union with the Christ — all of these are cited as evidence of this peculiar divine work. While Ehrman is willing to entertain the possibility that perhaps, on occasion, there may be positive effects of human suffering, he rightly argues that on the basis of those exceptions one cannot make the universal claim that all suffering is redemptive, that it always serves a greater good. He writes: “The reality is that most suffering is not positive…. I simply do not believe that ‘Whatever does not kill us only makes us stronger.’… I especially, and most vehemently, reject the idea that someone else’s suffering is designed to help us.”5

[12] That some suffering is inexplicable, then, leads logically to the next chapter in which Ehrman considers the evidence in the books of Job and Ecclesiates, texts in which the answer to the question of human suffering is that there is no answer. While the prose narrative that opens the book of Job shows his suffering to be the result of a wager between YHWH and the Satan, all that befalls Job happens, nevertheless, “for no reason.” A test of faith? But why must others, such as Job’s children and livestock, suffer when God tests someone’s faith? If readers are puzzled by the “answer” suggested in the story of Job, the poetic dialogues that comprise the majority of the book leave the reader completely perplexed. There one finds no answer to the question of human suffering. Job’s friends mistakenly propose any number of solutions which have mostly to do with the well-worn “classical view of suffering.” Job himself, having searched his life, cannot figure out the reason for his own innocent suffering. More puzzling still is when YHWH finally arrives in the climactic theophany and yet gives no answer. God does not explain to Job why he is suffering. Perhaps “wisdom,” the voice of maturity and experience, teaches us that we should not look for an answer to this question of ours since some things in this life are mysteries, defying explanation — and we should distrust anyone who would venture to give an easy answer to the question “why we suffer.”

[13] Ecclesiastes represents what is Ehrman’s preferred biblical response to the question of human suffering.6 Qoheleth, the Teacher, searched out the world and discovered that everything is hevel (vanity, fleeting) — good, evil; justice, injustice; pain, pleasure; misery and joy. Nothing is absolute, eternal; everything is ephemeral, even suffering. Ehrman writes: “Despite all our attempts, suffering sometimes defies explanation…. [This view] differs from Job in that for Ecclesiastes God is not responsible for the pain in the first place. For Job, God inflicts pain and suffering but refuses to say why…. I find the Teacher’s view much more amenable. Here too there is, ultimately, no divine answer to why we suffer. But suffering doesn’t come from the Almighty.”7

[14] Balancing the two chapters at the beginning of God’s Problem that deal with the “classical view” of human suffering are two chapters near the end that address apocalypticism’s answer to the question. He shows that apocalyptic literature arose from within communities of people who, we might suppose, had considered the previous chapters of God’s Problem but were dissatisfied with the traditional answers to the problem of human suffering. Their experience of suffering not for sinfulness, or as a result of the sins of others, but rather on account of their righteousness and faithfulness to God, is what led some Jewish thinkers and writers beginning in the second century BCE to imagine a different answer to this existential problem. For apocalypticists, while God is ultimately in control of the world, for unknown reasons God has handed over control of the world to cosmic forces of evil. This is why the righteous and the faithful suffer terribly. But it is the conviction of these writers that the current state of the world would not last forever. In fact, these apocalypticists believed that the reign of evil in the world to bring suffering upon the righteous was about to be destroyed by the immanent advent of God to establish God’s reign of justice and peace.

[15] But what happens when the coming of the kingdom of God is delayed 200 years? Two thousand years? When the righteous continue to suffer at the hands of unrighteous forces? In this case, the place of vindication shifts from the present to the future, from this life to the afterlife. Ehrman sides with those who see in the delay of the apocalyptic inbreaking of the kingdom of God the origins of heaven and hell as places of reward and punishment, respectively. While Ehrman is sympathetic to some features of the apocalyptic answer to the question of human suffering, he finally sets it aside because of its heavy mythological emphasis and because all adherents of this view down through the ages have been wrong. He also thinks that the apocalyptic idea that God will soon intervene to set things right leads to religious and social complacency, that is, to the belief that there is no need to deal with issues of injustice or suffering since ultimately — and soon — God will take care of everything.

[16] In his concluding chapter, Ehrman makes brief mention of the theology of the cross, how in Christ God himself suffered. But he quickly argues that such an understanding of God is a minority position in the Bible and reaffirms his fundamental view that suffering is, finally, a mystery. In the end, Ehrman prefers to understand human and other suffering in the world in terms of the book of Ecclesiastes: there is much that we do not know and cannot know about life in this world; much of what goes on around us makes no sense; justice does not always prevail. He ends with an ethical thrust: “In any event, the idea that this life is all there is should not be an occasion for despair and despondency, but just the contrary. It should be a source of joy and dreams — joy of living for the moment and dreams of trying to make the world a better place, both for ourselves and for others in it.”8 While readers may not, finally, share Ehrman’s view of Ecclesiastes, namely, that this life is all there is and we should just enjoy it to the fullest, his ideas about how we are called to live now, in this world, are worthy of close attention. In the footsteps of Qoheleth, Ehrman calls us to love life as best we can, acknowledging that life — even with inexplicable sufferings — “is a gift” given to us to enjoy for but a short time. Christians, perhaps more clearly than Ehrman, could go on to praise and pray to the one who is the Giver.

[17] There is much to commend in God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer; it deserves a wide reading and serious discussion. While Ehrman comes to his own conclusions, it is understandable that many readers will either disagree with him and/or come, finally, to some different conclusions. The Bible itself, as he demonstrates, is a reservoir of any number of answers to the question of human suffering.

[18] Ehrman limits his study chiefly to what the Bible has to offer us as answers to the question of human suffering. Missing, regrettably, is any serious examination of the Psalms of lament or complaint, in which one hears the voice of faith in the midst of suffering attributed to God, to others, and/or to the psalmist’s own failings. While such psalms are not intended necessarily to explain the suffering of any specific individual or community, they do demonstrate that the faithful do not turn away from God in such moments in life; not all the faithful settle for simple, pious answers, or become agnostics or atheists. Ehrman gives only a passing nod to some theological constructions from within the Christian tradition; as an agnostic he does not find them meaningful and sticks to the Bible. This may, in part, be due to his evangelical experience with the Bible in the Church, where “theology” may have simply been equated with the Bible, typically literally or fundamentalistically interpreted.

[19] But are all the answers to all our questions to be found in the Bible? It is not always evident that Ehrman has maintained the distinction between the views of the authors of the biblical texts and God; I think that he is sometimes in danger of collapsing the one into the other, of equating the biblical text with God. Lost, then, is the critically important understanding that the biblical texts reflect the interests, concerns, biases and agendas of their human authors. Said another way, Ehrman does not always account for the social location of the biblical authors who wrote from a position of power in the biblical world.

[20] As valuable, then, as I think Ehrman’s book is, in the end I do not think it is sufficient on its own. In my own work with undergraduate students where I teach, I bring alongside texts such as Ehrman’s Douglas John Hall’s God and Human Suffering. He contends that the Jewish and Christian theological traditions make two principal affirmations (in a paradox) with respect to the human condition: 1) suffering is real; and 2) suffering is “not the last word about the human condition and therefore it need not and must not become our preoccupation.”9 Hall’s simple thesis is that God is concerned with suffering and does something about it. On the one hand, suffering is genuine, and not something to be minimized or trivialized or answered hastily with ready-made and shallow (even religiously so) solutions. On the other hand, these religious traditions affirm such a very real and enduring presence of “God with us” so as to command our attention and hold our trust.

[21] Early on in his book, Hall argues that there are some forms of suffering — even death and grief — that are part of God’s good creation, that belong to the human condition according to God’s purposes. Our experience of struggle and of certain sufferings contributes to our becoming fully human. Still, this is not to say that all suffering is essential to human becoming. To be sure, much suffering is harmful and the consequence of sin. Hall distinguishes between “suffering as becoming” and suffering that “ceases to serve life.”10 Nevertheless, at the heart of the Christian tradition is the conviction that there is an end (telos) of existence — human and creational — that transcends suffering. For Christians, that end is met in the suffering of the Christ, in whom we believe that there is not merely an answer to the question of human suffering, but an “Answerer.” Hall and others find this Answerer not in Ecclesiastes (Ehrman), but present in the book of Job and, indeed, beyond the pages of the Bible altogether at work in “the crucified God.”


1. Bart D. Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer (New York: HarperOne, 2008) 274.

2. Ehrman, God’s Problem, 3.

3. Ibid., 4.

4. Ibid., 27.

5. Ibid., 155–156.

6. Ibid., 194–195, 276.

7. Ibid., 195.

8. Ibid., 276.

9. Douglas John Hall, God & Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986) 19.

10. Hall, God and Human Suffering, 64.

Mark W. Bartusch

Mark W. Bartusch is Associate Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University.