A Case Study: Bart Ehrman, a “Christian” Who Lost His Faith

Chapter 11 of If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil

Why This Chapter?

I’m dedicating an entire chapter to Bart Ehrman and his best-selling book God’s Problem, because, as a self-described “former evangelical Christian,” Ehrman personifies the potential consequences evangelical churches face when they fail to address the problem of evil and suffering. By looking at Ehrman and his book, we can further explore the issue—but with a personal dimension, because we’ll see its impact on the life of a real person.

While I will criticize Ehrman, I should clarify that sometimes I find him likable. He can be overconfident, yet occasionally admits his uncertainties. He avoids the bombastic approach that some atheist—and some Christian—authors display.

Unfortunately, Ehrman’s Christian-to-non-theist testimony gives apparent credibility to his claims, so he functions as a winsome evangelist for atheism. While he says he doesn’t intend to cause believers to lose their faith, it’s easy to wonder why else he would write such a book.

One final point before we begin: 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

God’s Problem documents how a “former Christian” denied his faith because he couldn’t reconcile evil and suffering with God’s goodness.

Ehrman offers a gripping self-introduction to his book:

The problem of suffering has haunted me for a very long time. It was what made me begin to think about religion when I was young, and it was what led me to question my faith when I was older. 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 could quote entire books of the New Testament, verse by verse, from memory.... 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—in the years before I lost my faith.... I served as the youth pastor of an Evangelical Covenant church.... 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. [1]

Man’s Problem with God’s Plan

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 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....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. [2]

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?

We all trust something. When we abandon trust in God’s revelation, we replace it with trust in our own feelings, opinions, and preferences, or those of our friends and teachers—all of which can drift with popular culture, including academic culture.

Ehrman’s story should challenge us to come to the problem of evil and suf­fering with a Christian worldview rooted in a well-informed belief in the reliability and authority of God’s Word. [3] If we vacillate on that conviction, 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 QuestionWhy 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 states unproven premises reflecting his bias, then draws logical conclusions based on his faulty premises.

Ehrman summarizes, often accurately, the biblical teaching. Then he disagrees with it, usually citing no authority beyond his personal opinion. He seems to assume that any rational person would join him in rejecting Scripture’s claims. His faith in his own subjective understanding at times seems breathtaking.

Ehrman uses phrases such as “scholars now believe” as if some universally recognized group of experts passes judgment reliably and unanimously, rather than that a large array of authors start with different presuppositions and reach different conclusions. He would write more truthfully, “The scholars I agree with believe....”

Ehrman states, “If God tortures, maims and murders people just to see how they will react—to see if they will not blame him, when in fact he is to blame—then this does not seem to me to be a God worthy of worship.” [4] But murder is unjustified killing. Where does the Bible speak of God torturing people or killing people without justification? Where does it speak of him doing such things “just to see how they will react”?

If Ehrman began with true premises, he might arrive at valid conclusions. Unfortunately, readers who lack familiarity with the Scriptures will have no way of knowing when his premises are false.

Ehrman identifies with only one biblical book, Ecclesiastes, in determining his worldview; yet he totally ignores that book’s God-related teachings.

Ehrman writes,

I have to admit that at the end of the day, I do have a biblical view of suffering. As it turns out, it is the view put forth in the book of Ecclesiastes. ... A lot of bad things happen. But life also brings good things.... And so we should enjoy life to the fullest, as much as we can, as long as we can. That’s what the author of Ecclesiastes thinks, and I agree. [5]

Yet, forty times Ecclesiastes directly speaks of the God that Ehrman says doesn’t exist. I will summarize what Ecclesiastes says about God, not only for the benefit of its teaching, but to demonstrate the inaccuracy of Ehrman’s claims that this book supports his worldview.

According to Ecclesiastes, God is in Heaven (5:2), he is Creator (12:1) and the Maker of all things (11:5), he gave life to human beings (8:15; 9:9), he bestowed our spiritual nature (3:21; 12:7) and set eternity in our hearts (3:11). God plans the timing of all things, appointing the times for birth, planting, healing, building, joy, searching, keeping, mending, speaking, loving, and enjoying peace (3:1–8). God is sovereign over death, hate, war, and every evil. God providentially controls the sun’s rising and setting, the movements of wind, the flowing of rivers, and the evaporation of water (1:5–7). God is the Shepherd (12:11) who seeks people to fear him and tests us to show us we’re finite (3:14, 18). He gives us opportunity to enjoy food and work (2:24; 3:13; 5:18–20; 9:7). He gives us wisdom, knowledge, and happiness (2:26), and wealth, possessions, and honor (5:19; 6:2).

God hears and despises (5:2). He can be pleased (2:26; 7:26) and angered (5:2–6). He is good (2:24–26; 3:13; 5:18–19; 6:2) and holy (5:1–2). Though he may delay punishment of the wicked, God will surely bring it (8:13). [6]

Ecclesiastes says, “Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see.” These apparently hedonistic words continue immediately with more sobering ones: “But know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment” (11:9).

Ecclesiastes affirms that despite the apparent emptiness of life as viewed without an eternal perspective, the only answer to the meaning of life is to fear and obey the Creator God, preferably before life’s greatest hardships fall (see 12:1–3).

From where does evil come? As The Message words it, Ecclesiastes answers, “God made men and women true and upright; we’re the ones who’ve made a mess of things” (7:29).

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come.... Then man goes to his eternal home... and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (12:1, 5, 7).

When we limit our perspective to the horizons of this world, life is indeed meaningless. But that is not how Ecclesiastes ends. It concludes with an emphatic message that cuts through the apparent meaninglessness and uncertainties of life, right to the heart of our existence:

“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (12:13–14).

Does this sound like the godless worldview Ehrman advocates? Or does it make clear that Ehrman has taken passages out of context to support his unbelief?

Ehrman ignores the richness of the biblical teaching about Heaven and the New Earth.

He states, “The Christian notions of heaven and hell reflect a development of this notion of a resurrection, but it is a notion that has been transformed—transformed because of the failed apocalyptic expectations of Jesus and his earliest followers.” [7]

In nearly three hundred pages, there are but five sentences comprising the book’s one paragraph about Heaven.

As we will see in chapter 28, the biblical teaching of Heaven and the New Earth was not some after-the-fact development by disappointed Christians. Without the teaching of eternal life with God and his people on a resurrected Earth in a redeemed universe, the biblical case for evil being defeated and suffering being redeemed does not stand up.

The climactic teaching of “no more tears, no more crying and no more pain” as well as “no more curse” is the single greatest assurance that God will put an end to evil and suffering while demonstrating that God’s redemptive purposes are worth the cost of temporary suffering.

That Ehrman would make this stunning omission reveals a gaping hole in his understanding of the biblical doctrine of eternal life with God in a resurrected universe, reflected in the ancient books of Job and the prophets as well as the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.

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.” [8] He borrows from Lewis, who said, “I came into Christianity kicking and screaming.” Lewis wrote,

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. [9]

Note the 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?

Ehrman portrays himself as a courageous figure, when in fact he has moved from an academically unpopular viewpoint to a popular one.

At times Ehrman seems to congratulate himself on his courage. He alludes to strained relationships among family and friends as a result of rejecting Christ. No doubt—but he doesn’t address the other side of the story.

On a university campus, how much courage does it take to roll your eyes at and caricature evangelical Christianity? In his professional circles, at least, Ehrman could expect to find far more support for his unbelief than his belief.

One favorable reviewer of Ehrman’s book comments, “I much prefer the beneficent gods of my ancestors, who don’t cause suffering, who don’t pluck people out of existence according to some mysterious plan, who don’t send natural disasters to plague us, a world where cause and effect hold sway, where rivers rise because of natural causes, where twisters are the result of meteorological conditions, not because God ordains them.” [10]

Notice the word “prefer.” This reflects the modern inclination to choose a worldview as you might vote for a candidate on American Idol. The beneficent gods of the reader’s ancestors—which, if understood better, might not seem so beneficent after all—did not make moral demands as far as he knows. The human heart finds it appealing to reject a God who makes claims on our lives and who promises to judge us.

Ehrman never mentions that while people living in relative comfort reject faith in God due to the problem of evil, those subjected to the worst evil and suffering often turn to God.

To his credit, Ehrman acknowledges he’s lived “the good life” and has avoided great suffering. But isn’t it remarkable that from Sudan to China to Cambodia to El Salvador, faith in God grows deepest in places where evil and suffering have been greatest? The great majority of human beings who have ever lived—nearly all of whom faced evil and suffering worse than Ehrman or I have—still believed in God. Were they all primitive and stupid? Ehrman assumes he knows something that they didn’t. But what if they knew something he doesn’t? Just because a belief is modern doesn’t make it true.

While Western atheists turn from belief in God because a tsunami in another part of the world caused great suffering, many brokenhearted survivors of that same tsunami found faith in God. This is one of the great paradoxes of suffering. Those who don’t suffer much think suffering should keep people from God, while many who suffer a great deal turn to God, not from him.

Imagine eavesdropping on a conversation between Ehrman and the very peo­ple whose suffering he uses as an argument for disbelieving in God. After hearing Ehrman’s case, someone says, “You’ve lost your faith because of my suffering? But my faith in God has grown deeper than ever. Why would I turn away from the only one who can comfort me, the only one who has planned eternal life for me, the only one who suffered immeasurably, beyond any of us, so that one day I need suffer no longer?”

You won’t find the strongest Christian churches in the world in affluent America or Europe, where the problem of evil has the most traction. In Sudan, Christians are severely persecuted, raped, tortured, and sold into slavery. Yet many have a vibrant faith in Christ. People living in Garbage Village in Cairo make up one of the largest churches in Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of India’s poor are turning to Christ. Why? Because the caste system and fatalism of Hinduism give them no answers. So they turn to a personal God who loves them and understands suffering. I have interviewed numbers of people who take comfort in knowing that this life is the closest they will ever come to Hell.

As an army of brutal invaders demolished his nation, a man who wrestled with the problem of evil and suffering (on a far deeper level than Bart Ehrman) said this:

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign LORD is my strength. (Habakkuk 3:17–19)

Many Christians who have faced evil and suffering embrace their faith with greater conviction.

While reading Ehrman’s book, I interviewed Scott and Janet Willis. An unskilled truck driver who obtained his license through bribery allowed a large object to drop onto a Milwaukee freeway in front of the Willises’ van. Their gas tank exploded, killing six of their children.

Scott Willis said,

The depth of our pain is indescribable. However, the Bible expresses our feelings that we sorrow, but not as those without hope. What gives us our firm foundation for hope are the words of God found in Scripture.... Ben, Joe, Sam, Hank, Elizabeth and Peter are all with Jesus Christ. We know where they are. Our strength rests in God’s Word. [11]

The Willis family’s story is exactly the kind that Bart Ehrman features as overwhelming evidence for God’s nonexistence. Yet, when I interviewed this couple fourteen years after the tragic event, Janet said, “Today I have a far greater understanding of the goodness of God than I did before the accident.” This might have taken my breath away, had I not already heard it from others who’ve also endured unspeakable suffering.

At the end of our two-hour conversation, Scott Willis said, “I have a stronger view of God’s sovereignty than ever before.”

Scott and Janet did not say that the accident itself strengthened their view of God’s sovereignty. Indeed, Scott’s overwhelming sense of loss initially prompted suicidal thoughts. Rather, their faith grew as they threw themselves upon God for grace to live each day. “I turned to God for strength,” Janet said, “because I had no strength.” She went to the Bible with a hunger for God’s presence, and he met her. “I learned about Him. He made sense when nothing else made sense. If it weren’t for the Lord, I would have lost my sanity.”

Is that denial? Is it wishful thinking? Or is it the real power and transforming grace of God that came in suffering?

Bart Ehrman lost what faith he had because of the sort of unspeakable tragedies that have happened not to him, but to people like Scott and Janet Willis. I asked Scott and Janet, “What would you say to those who reject the Christian faith because they say no plan of God—nothing at all—could possibly be worth the suffering of your children, and your suffering over all these years?”

“Eternity is a long time,” Janet replied. “It will be worth it. Our children’s suffering was brief, and they have the eternal joy of being with God. We and their grandparents have suffered since. But our suffering has been small compared to our children’s joy. Fourteen years is a short time compared to eternity. We’ll be with them there, forever.”

La Rochefoucauld may have best captured the difference between Ehrman’s lost faith and the Willises’ deepened faith: “A great storm puts out a little fire, but it feeds a strong one.”

Ehrman would benefit from spending more time talking with people whose faith increased in the midst of horrific suffering.

If he has spoken with people like the Willises, he never mentions it. Ehrman does cite the Holocaust as evidence that God doesn’t exist. But why did some who lived through the Holocaust come to a radically different conclusion?

Survivor Stories is a powerful hour of interviews with Jews who survived the concentration camps and came to faith in Christ. [12] It completely defies Ehrman’s logic. These people do not deny their suffering; they affirm it. But they simply do not see the reality of evil and suffering as inconsistent with their faith in Christ.

Concentration camp survivor and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl wrote, “The truth is that among those who actually went through the experience of Auschwitz, the number whose religious life was deepened—in spite, not to say because of, this experience—by far exceeds the number of those who gave up their belief.” [13]

Ehrman decries God for not doing enough to diminish suffering, then concludes we shouldn’t hesitate to spend our money on ourselves.

He argues that a good God would never withhold relief that was in his power to give, then comes to a revealing conclusion:

I think we should work hard to make the world—the one we live in—the most pleasing place it can be for ourselves.... We should make money and spend money. The more the better. We should enjoy good food and drink. We should eat out and order unhealthy desserts, and we should cook steaks on the grill and drink Bordeaux.... We should drive nice cars and have nice homes. We should make love, have babies, and raise families. We should do what we can to love life—it’s a gift and it will not be with us for long. [14]

Resisting the urge to ask how life can be a gift if it has no Giver, I quote Ehrman’s final sentences of God’s Problem:

What we have in the here and now is all that there is. We need to live life to its fullest and help others as well to enjoy the fruits of the land.... But just because we don’t have an answer to suffering does not mean that we cannot have a response to it. Our response should be to work to alleviate suffering wherever possible and to live life as well as we can. [15]

Do you see the inconsistency here? If we follow Ehrman’s advice to “drive nice cars and have nice homes” and consume expensive meals and drinks and spend as much as we can—in fact, “the more the better”—then we will not be working to alleviate suffering wherever possible.

What percentage of the royalties from Ehrman’s best-selling book has he earmarked for easing world suffering? If it seems unfair to ask, remember that I am merely applying the standard he expects God to live up to: using all of one’s resources to relieve suffering. Does Ehrman place himself under the same condemnation he places God? Based on the lifestyle he seems to advocate, the answer appears to be no.

Bart Ehrman’s evangelical heritage serves as a warning to Christian families, churches, and schools: we need to carefully address the problem of evil.

Even Christians who do not outright reject their faith may quietly lose confidence and commitment because of their struggle with this issue. Christian students in every university, including Christian ones, face frequent, impassioned arguments against biblical teachings, whether from professors, fellow students, or textbooks. Most Christian students have seldom personally faced the problem of evil and suffering, and in most cases are inadequately prepared to deal with it. Knowing a few Bible stories proves insufficient when facing an issue of the magnitude of evil and suffering.

Churches and small groups can study and discuss a book such as If God Is Good (I recommend others as well). [16] Families can interact with these issues at age-appropriate levels. We should not allow culture or schools to lead the way in shaping our worldview, or our children’s.

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.

If God Is GoodFor more perspectives, see Randy's book If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil.

In this book, Randy Alcorn challenges the logic of disbelief, and brings a fresh, realistic, and thoroughly biblical insight to the issues these important questions raise.

Alcorn offers insights from his conversations with men and women whose lives have been torn apart by suffering, and yet whose faith in God burns brighter than ever. He reveals the big picture of who God is and what God is doing in the world—now and forever. And he equips you to share your faith more clearly and genuinely in this world of pain and fear. 

[1] Bart D. Ehrman, God’s Problem (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 1–3.

[2] Ehrman, God’s Problem, 3.

[3] See Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993) and Timothy Paul Jones, Misquoting Truth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007).

[4] Ehrman, God’s Problem, 188.

[5] Ehrman, God’s Problem, 275.

[6] In this summary, I am indebted to Roy B. Zuck’s excellent article, “God and Man

in Ecclesiastes,” Bibliotheca Sacra 148, no. 589 (January–March 1991): 50–5 1.

[7] Ehrman, God’s Problem, 258.

[8] Ehrman, God’s Problem, 3.

[9] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955), 228–29.

[10] Hrafnkell Haraldsson, “Another Ehrman Slam Dunk,” Amazon.com Customer Review, June 20, 2008.

[11] ABC7, WLS-TV, Chicago, April 7, 1998, news report; Through the Flames book description.

[12] Naomi Rothstein, “Seeing and Believing: A Review of Survivor Stories,” Jews for Jesus, July 1, 2001.

[13] Viktor E. Frankl, The Unconscious God (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975), 16.

[14] Ehrman, God’s Problem, 277.

[15] Ehrman, God’s Problem, 277–78.

[16] I’ve compiled an annotated bibliography of many of the books I have most appreciated in my research on evil and suffering.

Photo by Jude Beck

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries