The Problem of Suffering

These days, the resources produced by Fixed Point Foundation are literally being used all over the world…

 

A businessman in Berlin, Germany listening to a Latimer House Luncheon he downloaded from iTunes; atheist groups in Australia and the United States sponsoring public viewings of our films (no kidding); a church in Edinburgh, Scotland hosting a community-wide event to watch and discuss a Fixed Point debate; students all over the country accessing articles on our website to assist them in defending their faith; a translation of another film presented on a campus in Sao Paulo, Brazil; and major Fixed Point events being streamed – of all places – on prominent atheist websites.  These things have become commonplace.

As a consequence of all of this, we get inquiries from around the world.  Some are crackpots or critics who heard us somewhere or who saw one of our events and want to let us know how idiotic they think we are.  Others have had their lives changed by the Gospel and wish to express their gratitude (I admit that I never grow tired of these).  And still others are seeking answers to life’s great questions.

Last fall, I got one of the latter.  Written by a fellow from Canada, he related how he was raised a Christian, married a Christian woman, and how Christ had served as the foundation for his life and marriage – until now.  You see, recently he had read atheist/agnostic critics of Christianity like Christopher Hitchens and Bart Ehrman.  This two-punch combination – the former who argues that Christianity is a purveyor of hatred and violence and the latter a man reputed to be a biblical scholar who maintains that the Bible is neither reliable nor true – served to demolish a vulnerable faith.  His email was a plea for help.

“Have I based my whole life on a lie?” he asked.  This crisis in belief was, he said, destroying his marriage, too.  He and his wife now fought a lot.  She was distressed by the depth of his questioning and doubt, and he by her unwillingness to accept this change of heart and mind.

The timing of this particular email could not have been more providential.  Shortly thereafter, Fixed Point sponsored and I moderated a debate between Dinesh D’Souza and Bart Ehrman at the University of North Carolina.  D’Souza is a fellow of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University and bestselling author of What’s So Great About Christianity.  Ehrman, an agnostic, is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at UNC.  Before this debate, we had received a number of complaints from UNC students who had taken Ehrman’s class.  According to some, he was a bully in the classroom who took great pride in demolishing whatever faith his students had.  They wanted to see someone push back a bit.  We set out to do just that, but in a free, fair, and open exchange of ideas.

The debate focused on Ehrman’s book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer.  I had first become aware of this book while wandering through a Birmingham bookstore with my friend Gilbert Lennox.  Picking up the book he said to me, “There’s an issue you should focus on.”  As a pastor, he had undoubtedly encountered many people who struggled with this very question.  I noted the comment, but didn’t see anything coming of the idea.  Little did I know that God would lead us to address that issue precisely.

Ehrman, who seems to be the biblical scholar of choice for the likes of CNN and NPR, is a bestselling author whose influence has been particularly pernicious because he claims to be a former evangelical Christian who rejected it all.  Educated at Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton, he then pursued a Ph.D. in theology at Princeton University.  There, it seems, he encountered someone like himself who tore down what he supposedly believed.  It was, he says, the issue of suffering that led him to reject belief in the God of the Bible.

So how did the debate go?  First of all, as is so typical of our events these days, Memorial Hall was packed to overflowing.  So many students turned out that we had to simulcast the debate into an adjacent building.  Ehrman seemed to rely heavily on emotional arguments: What about the Holocaust?  Children in Darfur?  Injustice?  Dinesh did a good job of countering these arguments by pointing out that rather than rejecting belief in God, perhaps the fact of suffering should lead us to an entirely different line of questioning.  Is God’s purpose our comfort or does He have something else in mind?  I was reminded of the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s remark, “The meaning of earthly existence lies, not as we have grown used to thinking, that is, in prospering, but in the development of the soul.”  Besides, asked D’Souza, who was ultimately responsible for the horrors of the Holocaust and Darfur?  God or man? (The audio of this debate is available here.)

As moderator, it is not my job to be without opinion on the issues, but to be fair, to keep both debaters on message, and to not become a third personality on the stage.  Like a sporting match, people should remember the game, not the referees.  I think I was able to achieve that.  The debate over, however, I felt no such need to hold back my own views.  On stage, Ehrman was not what the student reports had led me to expect.  He was likable and even effusive in his praise of D’Souza and of believers in the audience.  He did not, he said, seek to undermine the beliefs of anyone, but to strengthen them by challenging them to think about it more critically.
After the debate, however, an altogether different Ehrman surfaced.

We rented an elegant room at the Carolina Inn for the post-debate reception.  The purpose of these affairs is to thank all parties involved, to permit members of the media access to the debaters, and to bring an otherwise combative evening to a pleasant conclusion.  As students and staff milled about the room and filled their plates and glasses, Ehrman and I continued a discussion that began on the walk over to the hotel from Memorial Hall.

“Do you believe that someone must believe in Jesus Christ in order to be saved?” he asked between sips of wine.

The debate had been more philosophical than theological.  Ehrman seemed to want to make it more the latter than the former, so I thought I would take him up on it.

“Yes,” I said, munching on a celery stick.  “‘Faith comes from hearing and hearing by the word of Christ’ – Romans 10:17.”

“What about babies dying in infancy?” he asked.  The question felt like a trap.  I took the bait.

“I think that God claims them,” I was matter-of-fact.

“What is your evidence for that?  You have just said that they must believe in Christ!”

The discussion had started pleasant enough, but it was escalating into a post-debate debate.  My staff, sitting at a nearby table, grew silent as they listened intently.  Meanwhile, Ehrman’s publisher, his son, and a friend walked up to join their champion.

“Mark 9 suggests that they already believe in Him,” I began. “‘But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and drowned in the sea.’ This indicates to me that God has some sort of plan for them.”

Ehrman sneered.  “But what about the ones who weren’t there!  What about others?  What about the three-year-old Somali?” he asked, growing visibly irritated.  His associates chimed in their own questions, which amounted to little more than variants on the same theme.  I was feeling outnumbered.

“Professor, I don’t know what being Somali has to do with it, I am trying to give a biblical answer to your question and would hope that you, a biblical scholar, would appreciate that.”  I countered.  “As for those who weren’t there, do you really think that Jesus was saying, ‘if you cause one of these – that is, one of those who are here right now – to sin, that you will be punished.  But as for other children, well, you can do whatever you want to them’?  Come on, professor, that is absurd biblical interpretation.”

“You mean to tell me that you believe,” he was mocking now, “that God saves the Chinese baby who has never heard of Jesus!”  Again, his friends poured contempt on my answers as Ehrman refilled his wine glass.

“Your questions are entirely hypothetical,” I continued.  “And, again, I ask, what does being Chinese or Somali have to do with it?  Your arguments are emotional, not biblical.  Didn’t David indicate that he would see his child in the afterlife?”[1]

He chuckled condescendingly.  “Some biblical authors didn’t even believe in an afterlife.  That is not the biblical answer!”  Ehrman was angry now.  “The author of Ecclesiastes had it right.  It is all in vain.

“Well, now, professor, that is an entirely different discussion,” I pressed.  “That depends on how we understand the author of Ecclesiastes and his intentions.  And yours is hardly the historic interpretation.”

Erhman shook his head vigorously.  “The fact that the Bible gives so many different answers to the question of why people suffer is an implicit admission that none of them are valid!”  His palms turned up in despair, he looked to his son and publisher for acknowledgment that he was correct and I was, well, not so much.

“Bart, the logic of that just doesn’t make sense!”  I was dismissive.  “It’s like saying, ‘because some say that there are a variety of ways to get a flat tire, none of them are valid.’  But the fact is, there are any number of reasons for flat tires – nails, manufacturer defects, potholes – you name it.  So it is with suffering.  It can be caused by a natural disaster, other people, be self-inflicted …”

Ehrman, nonplussed, was momentarily silent.

“I think it was Bart’s point,” his publisher put in, swirling the wine in his glass thoughtfully, “that the Bible offers no answer to suffering that is necessary or satisfying.”  The man seemed sincere.

“I completely disagree,” I said, warming to my subject.  “We ‘weep with those who weep’ …”[2]

“That’s just my point!” the publisher said.  “Human empathy does not require the Bible!”  There was a cacophony of protests at this point from Ehrman, his son, and his friend.  They talked over one another and with such fervor that it was all I could do to respond to any of them.

“I was not finished,” I said, holding my hands up and leaning back slightly as if defending myself.  “I know people who have really suffered and they would find Bart’s answers completely empty.  The Bible’s answer, while not always satisfying at an intellectual level – that is, we cannot always see why a given thing has happened to us or to others – does offer hope.  Hope that we will see our loved ones again; and hope that there is a God who knows our pain and who cares for us.”

I was thinking of my friend Rick Burgess here, and the immeasurable grief that he and his family had suffered when their two-year-old son drowned in a backyard swimming pool.  It was their faith in Christ that had sustained them.

“That doesn’t make it true!”  Ehrman heaped scorn on this answer.  “The tooth fairy may give us comfort, but it isn’t true!”

“I grant you that the truth of it is a separate question, but we were debating the Bible’s answer to this problem, and I think it provides something your worldview lacks utterly.  And didn’t you say that you weren’t out to destroy the faith of others?”  I pulled my notes from the breast pocket of my suit coat.  “Yes, I wrote that down during the debate right here.  You seemed to have reversed course …”

Ehrman threw up his hands, put his wine glass down, and stormed out of the room.[3]

Perhaps that exchange gives you a bit of flavor for the evening and the man’s views.  The question of suffering is, without question, a difficult issue for anyone to answer and I had expected Ehrman to have a theologically sophisticated reason for why the Bible’s answers were inadequate.  But that is not what I got.  Instead, he seemed to be justifying his unbelief by exploiting what he thought to be a weakness in God’s philosophical armor.

POSTSCRIPT

To be perfectly honest, I find these encounters tense and unpleasant.  I often come away feeling bruised.  When I sense that a discussion is going in toward the spiritual, I pray for wisdom and hope that the Holy Spirit will provide me with the right things to say.  It is not a question of winning the argument.  It is a question of faithfulness.  In a world where tolerance is accepted as a virtue, defending the Name of Christ is often deemed “intolerant” and “unloving.”  To such objections, I ask this: Do you defend your favorite football team?  Do you defend your political convictions?  Would you defend your wife or children were someone to criticize them publicly?  How much more are we to defend the Gospel against those who pervert the Way of Truth!

Jesus and the Apostles modeled the importance of this for us.  Jesus said, “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves!”[4]  Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul wrote, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God …”[5]  And, perhaps most quoted of all, there are the words of the Apostle Peter:  “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.  Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  But do this with gentleness and respect …”[6]

There is also a very practical element to this.  When we take a stand for the Gospel, those Christians who see us are encouraged.  They see that rational answers can be given for the “intellectual” objections raised against their faith.  Most of all, they understand that the Bible has not failed them, that it is relevant, and that the God who stands behind it is real and active.  Some 1,600 students attended the debate that night at the University of North Carolina.  Many were persuaded of the truth of Christianity.  And still more were encouraged by the discussion at the reception.  And in the end, that is what we are called to do:  to proclaim and defend the Gospel.  It is not within our power to make any believe it.  That we must leave to the work of the Holy Spirit.

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[1] II Samuel 12:23
[2] Romans 12:14
[3] To his credit, he later apologized.
[4] Matthew 23:15
[5] II Corinthians 10:5
[6] I Peter 3:15

© Copyright 2010 Larry A. Taunton