How “Former Christian” Bart Ehrman’s Testimony Should Encourage Us to Grapple Biblically with the Problem of Evil and Suffering
In my last blog post, I shared a video about Vaneetha, a woman with a faith-filled response to the incredible suffering she’s experienced in life. Today, in contrast, I’m sharing some excerpts from a chapter of my book If God Is Good that focused on Bart Ehrman and his best-selling book God’s Problem, which documents how a “former Christian” denied his faith because he couldn’t reconcile evil and suffering with God’s goodness.
That Bart Ehrman was a “devout and committed Christian” is his claim, not mine. What isn’t debatable is that he once was part of the evangelical subculture. Unfortunately, Ehrman’s Christian-to-non-theist testimony gives apparent credibility to his claims, so he functions as a winsome evangelist for atheism.
Ehrman offers a gripping self-introduction to his book:
The problem of suffering has haunted me for a very long time. …Ultimately, it was the reason I lost my faith.
For most of my life I was a devout and committed Christian.... Early in my high school days I started attending a Youth for Christ club and had a “born-again” experience.... When I became born again it was like ratcheting my religion up a notch. I became very serious about my faith and chose to go off to a fundamentalist Bible college—Moody Bible Institute in Chicago—where I began training for ministry.
…I went off to finish my college work at Wheaton. There I learned Greek.... At Princeton I did both a master of divinity degree— training to be a minister—and, eventually, a Ph.D. in New Testament studies.
I had solid Christian credentials and knew about the Christian faith from the inside out… But then... I started to lose my faith. I now have lost it altogether. I no longer go to church, no longer believe, no longer consider myself a Christian. The subject of this book is the reason why.
Ehrman lost faith in Scripture before losing faith in God.
Ehrman refers to his earlier book, Misquoting Jesus, to say his belief in the Bible’s truthfulness diminished the more he studied it. He decided it was not God’s inerrant revelation but “a very human book with all the marks of having come from human hands: Discrepancies, contradictions, errors, and different perspectives.” Nonetheless, he writes,
I continued to be a Christian—a completely committed Christian—for many years after I left the evangelical fold. Eventually, though, I felt compelled to leave Christianity altogether. ....I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things. For many people who inhabit this planet, life is a cesspool of misery and suffering. I came to a point where I simply could not believe that there is a good and kindly disposed Ruler who is in charge of it.
Ehrman emphasizes that even after coming to believe that parts of the Bible were untrue, he kept his faith. He seems to want the reader to suppose that disbelieving Scripture did not contribute to his loss of faith. But how could it do otherwise? Once we call some parts of the Bible false, on what basis do we judge other parts true? If we vacillate on the reliability of the Scriptures, we will first reinterpret the Bible, then outright reject it.
Ehrman argues that the answers given in the Bible are not only unsatisfying, but contradictory.
Most of God’s Problem consists of Ehrman’s critical examination of Scripture. He writes, “Given... that God had chosen the people of Israel to be in a special relationship with him—what were ancient Israelite thinkers to suppose when things did not go as planned or expected?... How were they to explain the fact that the people of God suffered from famine, drought, and pestilence?”
Ehrman surveys answers to these questions, including human free will; God’s anger at disobedient people; suffering as being redemptive; evil and suffering existing so God can make good out of them; suffering as encouraging humility and undermining pride; suffering as testing faith; evil and suffering as the work of Satan, which Christ will overcome in his return; and suffering and evil as a mystery.
Oddly, he thinks that because the Bible’s answers vary, this makes them contradictory. The idea that they supplement one another doesn’t seem to occur to him.
While Ehrman finds it troubling that the Bible approaches the issue in different ways, I find it reassuring. No single reason gives a sufficient explanation, but different threads of biblical insight, woven together, form a durable fabric.
I find the book’s subtitle ironic: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. The problem is not that the Bible fails to answer it; Ehrman himself documents that it offers multiple answers. He simply doesn’t believe them.
Ehrman summarizes, often accurately, the biblical teaching. Then he disagrees with it, usually citing no authority beyond his personal opinion. His faith in his own subjective understanding at times seems breathtaking.
Bart Ehrman’s case appears persuasive because of what he leaves out.
Bart Ehrman has become an atheist poster boy, presenting himself as a reverse C. S. Lewis, compelled by intellectual honesty to abandon his faith.
Just as Christians elevate the testimonies of former atheists who have come to Christ, so atheists elevate Ehrman. He writes, “I did not go easily. On the contrary, I left kicking and screaming, wanting desperately to hold on to the faith I had known since childhood.” He borrows from Lewis, who said, “I came into Christianity kicking and screaming.”
Lewis wrote in Surprised by Joy,
You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.
There’s a significant difference between Lewis and Ehrman. Ehrman speaks of his former faith largely in terms of a young person attending churches, schools, and events, and adopting certain religious practices. That his Christianity could withstand neither academic questioning of Scripture nor the realization that this world teems with terrible evil and suffering suggests that he had never embraced a deeply rooted biblical worldview in the first place.
Lewis, by contrast, had come to his atheism as an adult, having seen the horrors of the trenches in World War I, and rejected the trappings of Christianity he’d seen as a child and adolescent. Years later, in his conversion to Christ, he turned away from atheism, even though doing so was particularly difficult in the academic culture of Oxford, where Bible-believing professors could be subjected to condescension and ridicule.
I’m convinced that many Christians, younger and older, have faiths very similar to that which Ehrman abandoned—on the verge of being persuaded to jettison their weak faiths by college professors utilizing Ehrman’s kinds of arguments.
In light of the great number of young people who reject their faith as college students or young adults, we need to ask ourselves two questions: What are we doing to help nominally Christian young people come to a true faith in Christ? And what are we doing to help youthful genuine Christians go deeper in exploring Scripture, learning sound theology, and developing a truly Christian world-view, not a superficial one that’s likely to collapse in the face of suffering?
The book’s presumptuous title is off-center; the problem of evil is man’s problem with God, not God’s problem.
While God suffers with his children, he does not struggle with his attributes and decisions. He knows what will be worth it in the end. He knows how His goodness, omnipotence, and wisdom fit with evil and suffering. It would be more accurate if Bart Ehrman titled his book My Problem.
The problem of evil and suffering is not God’s problem. It is Bart Ehrman’s problem... and yours, and mine.
God asks Job, “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!... Who has a claim against me that I must pay?” (Job 40:2; 41:11). God has not asked us to give Him a performance review so that He may do a better job the next time He creates a universe or devises a redemptive plan. Rather, He promises that at the judgment he will give us a review.
When we stand before God, we will either thank Him for the justifying work of Christ, or we will face the problem of trying to justify ourselves on some other basis.
That will be the real problem.