Last night I attended the Annual Awards Banquet for the Religious Studies Department at the University of Kansas. Following the banquet was the annual lecture. Dr. Bart Ehrman is a Lawrence native who is now the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. Dr. Ehrman’s lecture, delivered at the Plymouth Congregational Church, was part of a multiple day visit as part of the Theologian in Residence program, which is sponsored by a vast number of organizations. Baker University, Washburn University, and the KU Department of Religious Studies, along with various churches and campus ministries have teamed together to fund this program and bring distinguished voices in religious studies to speak as part of this program.
Dr. Ehrman’s lecture drew from material presented in his latest book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer. Ehrman’s talk was informative. He was at times humorous, at times insightful, and without doubt passionate about his research and his findings. His book covers (at least) seven perspectives on suffering which he has found in the Old and New Testament Scriptures, though his lecture only touched on two of those perspectives (prophetic and apocalyptic). He concluded with his own alternative perspective (a third way to look at it), largely based on his reading of the book of Ecclesiastes. He informed the audience that his book has garnered a large response from readers. He has received hundreds of emails informing him of the answer to the problem of suffering–according to Ehrman, most of these responses sum up the answer in twelve lines or less. He is thankful for the feedback, though dismisses such simplistic answers.
Ehrman triangulates the problem of suffering by identifying three maxims within the Judeo-Christian tradition that are difficult to reconcile with one another. They are:
- God is all powerful.
- God is all loving.
- There is suffering.
If God is all powerful and God is all loving, why is there suffering? Herein lies the problem. Many commentators, theologians, and scholars have debated this question. In fact, every human being has thought about this. Thus the strong reactions from Ehrman’s readers.
The two perspectives he chronicled in his lecture he labeled the Prophetic and the Apocalyptic response. Though this simplifies his presentation, according to the Prophetic Response, suffering comes about as the result of God’s decision to punish human beings for some violation of the divine will. He quoted Amos at length, “because I have known you (Israel) from all the nations of the earth, therefore I will punish you” (Amos 3:2; 4:6-12). People have acted against God’s will, therefore God punishes them and causes them to suffer in hopes they will change their behavior.
The second perspective is the Apocalyptic response. There will be a final judgement, a resurrection, and a time in which God will set right all that appears wrong–justice will eventually be done. The apocalyptic message is one of hope that grapples seriously with the problem of suffering. Ehrman notes how in the Gospels, the Pauline corpus, and in the book of Revelation there are elements of this perspective. During his lecture he noted that from the time of Paul through very recent times there have been heralds announcing that the world will soon end and this apocalyptic scenario will be fulfilled–and all of them have been wrong. Ehrman believes that both Jesus and Paul held that the world was about to end, and that has proven false.
Ehrman’s third way is based on his interpretation of the book of Ecclessiastes. Basically, Ehrman understands the teacher to present life as transient, so we should essentially enjoy food, drink, family life, and work while we can. This life is all we have. Ehrman goes a step further by saying that because this life is all we have and we live in a chaotic world where suffering is part of reality, we should do all we can to minimize the suffering of others. We should volunteer more. Care about our communities more. Be more generous. Of course, one would ask where the motivation for such philanthropy would come from.
Ehrman told a bit of his own story during the evening. He grew up as part of Christian communities in Lawrence. He began in Plymouth Congregational Church and eventually moved into fundamentalist Christianity. He attended Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. He obtained his Ph.D. from Princeton. After struggling with the problem of suffering in the world, he lost his faith. He is now an agnostic, and was open in sharing this with the audience.
Ehrman’s presentation was followed by a question and answer session. He was generous with those in attendance.
The problem of suffering (evil) will always be a good topic upon which to reflect and publish. Though I would disagree with Ehrman’s conclusions (and some of his presuppositions that lead to those conclusions), I appreciated his presentation and the manner in which he engaged the audience.
Last night was good. I enjoyed being around my colleagues, and being in Lawrence to listen in on some dialogue. I fundamentally disagree with Ehrman concerning the resurrection, the existence of God, the person of Jesus Christ, and I’m sure many other things, but it was good. Food for thought. For those that know me, this should come as no surprise.
Questions, thoughts, responses?
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