Yesterday evening, Gordon College hosted a forum on the subject of “Theodicy, God, and Suffering.” The two participants were esteemed New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and conservative apologist Dinesh D’Souza. I did not know about D’Souza before I attended the debate, but I did know about Ehrman. In addition to the latter’s prominence as a skeptical New Testament scholar, he also testifies to having left his Christian faith behind while in graduate school precisely because of the problem of suffering. Even as neither of these men are specialists on the question at issue, Ehrman’s person and life story were enough of a draw for me to set aside my evening to attend. For all it was built up to be in my own mind, the experience was disappointing to say the least. After nearly an hour of anxious squirming in my pew (my continued apologies to anyone around me who was distracted by this) I finally got up the nerve to leave early. A testament to the magnitude of my discomfort can be found in this: sitting in the third row of a very large chapel, my sudden premature departure was definitely for all to see. I wish I had sat in the back.
Ehrman’s critique of the standard Christian approach to the problem was exceedingly disappointing, especially considering his training as an exegete. Exegesis is quite decidedly what he did very little of in analyzing his texts of choice. His first argument was about the Bible, by which he really meant the Old Testament, as he didn’t come to the New Testament at all (a point about which I will have something to say in a bit, as it touches on the heart of my critique of the entire evening). For Ehrman, the pertinent texts blatantly “contradict” each other on the way they handle suffering. Unfortunately, he failed to deal with the fundamental distinction of genre, and how that effects the way individual works handle the question. Indeed, the multivalent nature of the biblical (sorry, “Old Testament’s”) witness on the question directly addresses the nuanced manner in which the whole of the biblical corpus handles this complex issue. His next appeal was to the futility of the argument from “free-will.” The argument goes like this: if people are free, the option exists for them to choose evil. Unfortunately, the Bible’s understanding of the problem is not that humanity is “free,” (a point about which he was quite right in pointing out), but that humanity is in a state of “sin” (a counterpoint he failed to mention). Sin is a complex phenomenon that at its core is about humanity as a collective whole throwing off the sovereignty of their rightful Lord and attempting to run the show for itself. This, of course, touches on the questions of human responsibility vis-à-vis God and the nature of humanity’s creation mandate both before and after the Fall, but “free will” and “sin” are not interchangeable ideas. “Sin” is the biblical definition of the problem, not “free will,” and any theologian worth his or her weight in paper (to say nothing of gold) knows the magnitude of the difference. Finally, Ehrman appealed to the problem of natural disasters. Once again, failure to turn to the New Testament is part of his problem; the authority Jesus exercises over the elements as Son of Man illustrates the kind of authority over the created realms that humanity forfeited by cutting itself off from God. In that sense, even the suffering caused by natural disasters can be seen as a consequence of human rebellion, even as human beings don’t “will” hurricanes or earthquakes. Ehram’s argument is easily handled by any seminary student.
The shocker of the evening was D’Souza’s response. Ehrman basically handed the evening to his opponent, who could have easily appealed to any number of the biblical passages that Ehrman either woefully under-interpreted or completely ignored. Instead, D’Souza avoided revelation altogether, choosing instead to take the tack of following the evidences of “natural revelation” to construct his argument, perhaps out of deference to an opponent who did not share his assumptions about revelation. Unfortunately, Christians cannot successfully make a “Christian” response to the problem of suffering without appealing to God’s self-revelation of himself in history. To attempt to do so is to play right into any skeptic’s hands. On the latter’s terms, the world is clearly very screwed up and human suffering seems quite blatantly to lack any kind of meaning. The universe simply trudges forward, blind and deaf to the heart cries of millions of suffering human beings on a small backwater planet orbiting a small backwater star in a small backwater galaxy. While it is important for Christians to meet their unbelieving interlocutors where they are (as Paul did on Mars Hill in Athens), eventually you have to return to revelation (again, as Paul did on Mars Hill in Athens). D’Souza’s appeals to the audacity of “questioning God” (a point with no biblical support whatsoever, as Job, Moses, the Psalmists, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Jesus, and Paul amply testify), the implications of “human free-will” (if he had listened to Ehrman he would have known that the Bible never addresses the problem this way), and the anthropic principle (which failed fundamentally to deal with the root philosophical problem; could not have God designed a life-sustaining world without the devastating side-effects of some natural phenomena for the very life they purport to make possible?) were, quite frankly, lack luster at best and downright embarrassing for centuries of Christian exegetes and theologians who’ve addressed this problem at worst.
After their initial presentations, the debate continued with questions posed between the two of them. Ehrman preceded to mop the floor with D’Souza’s prevarications, back-tracking, and continued responses which (quite bafflingly for a man of his education) failed to address the philosophical root of the problem. Ehrman, for his own part, resorted to emotional appeals about the sheer magnitude of human suffering (the Holocaust of course made multiple appearances at this point), dismissed “intellectualizing” the problem (against which D’Souza scored his only point of the evening with, “that’s why we’re having a debate!”), and touted the importance of just “sitting beside” people who suffer (where he once again grossly misinterpreted the Book of Job). It was at this point that I walked out.
My problem with this evening is not just in the stuff of my critiques of individual propositions cited above. Those, to be sure, were quite frustrating, particularly as D’Souza more or less had the debate handed to him an a silver-platter of inaccurately interpreted Scripture. No, my problem with the night’s proceedings was with the stark contrast between the content of both men’s presentations on the one hand, and the symbolism of what Paul calls the “wisdom of God” hanging over their heads (quite literally) the entire time on the other. That is to say, in this chapel where a large wooden cross adorned the back wall above and behind both men, neither one of them ever mentioned the Cross of Jesus Christ in their handling of the problem of human suffering. I must restate this point as its baldness categorizes the whole evening for me: neither man mentioned Jesus OR his Cross ONCE. Literally once. This strikes me as a profound failure to address God’s own solution to the problem in the revelation of Jesus Christ. God demonstrates his awareness of the problem in this: he takes on the messy sufferings of the human race to his own person and, dying as we die, vanquished them utterly. While we yet live in an age where the full actualization of that victory is not yet clearly manifest, Christians live with a profound hope fundamentally associated with what happened next: God Incarnate did not stay dead, but conquered quite literally the hell out of human death by busting open his dank dark tomb that first Easter morning. The Cross and Empty Tomb constitute the only viable Christian response to the problem of human suffering because they are, in the last analysis, God’s own response to the problem. That is quite simply this: God sees our suffering and he is bothered by it; he demonstrates that bother by taking on human nature to conquer our suffering; he conquers it by dying rejected and destitute in our place; and he provides the hope of our deliverance from the same by mocking the crap out of his own tomb. As much as the world cannot understand the wisdom of this turn of events, so much has God humbled the wise and cast down the mighty from their seats. But if we stop to reflect on this revelation (for which the vast beauty of nature, for all its pedagogical value, could never prepare us), what could be a more profound tack on the question of suffering than that God suffers humanity’s suffering in humanity’s own flesh, taken upon himself once and for all? Talk about “sitting beside” someone as they suffer, Dr. Ehrman!
Ehrman misappropriated the Old Testament by failing to see its fulfillment in the Cross of Jesus. D’Souza mocked the magnitude of human suffering by failing to account for the wisdom of God on the cross which the world dismisses as foolishness. The former neglected his own pedigree as a New Testament scholar by failing to address God’s new testament in the cursed tree of Jesus Christ. The latter neglected the reality that the Cross is utter foolishness to the world by sticking only to the world’s kind of arguments. Both missed the train out of suffering station by a margin so wide that the universe itself would fail to fill it. Our God answers the problem of human suffering with this: he gets on a Cross and, stricken and forsaken, cries out “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me!” There can be no other response but to look up to Calvary, especially as we suffer the unjust and dehumanizing trials of this age, and worship.