When tornadoes ripped across the country a few weeks ago killing 52 people, 33 lives were lost in Tennessee. On the evening television news a grandmother reflected on the horrible death of her infant grandchild by saying, ” I guess it was God’s way to wake up my other grandson. God took one in order to get the attention of the other.”
Grappling with suffering is a permanent part of the human condition. And we’ve not yet come up with a satisfying answer. The grieving grandmother’s explanation is wholly unsatisfying but it could be interpreted as a form of substitutionary sacrifice for which there are biblical precedents. But this only points to the hard reality that we don’t have an answer to the question: Why suffering?
Bart D. Erhmann tackles the problem of suffering, the Bible’s multiple views of suffering and how our relationship to God is affected by suffering in a new book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question–Why we Suffer.
Ehrmann asks if God is all-powerful why does God not intervene to prevent suffering–the Holocaust, cancer, a teenager’s death in an auto accident, a baby with a fatal birth defect–the list of pain goes on and on. Does God will this pain for us? What have we done to deserve it? Why do those who live exemplary lives of faithfulness suffer as capriciously as those who disregard any form of ethical behavior?
There have been many attempts to explain and Ehrman reviews most of them. But the questions point to a conundrum, “If God is all-powerful why doesn’t God do something about it, and if God is not all-powerful, is God GOD?”
A biblical scholar and former Baptist pastor, Ehrmann became agnostic as he reflected upon the problem of suffering. He isn’t out to destroy faith. He doesn’t attack believers or belief. But he raises important questions that come from the blood and gut hardships of daily living that lead him to more questions than certitude about God.
Writing with a scholar’s knowledge of the Bible, and with appreciation for it, his questions are sharp and relevant in a way that is more earth-bound than the abstract theological constructions of evil in the academy. These can be so far removed from real life they seem antiseptic if not sterile.
There is real pain here on the streets where we walk. At points in life we all come up against terrible suffering. We lose someone we love. We see a friend struck down by disease, or we are stricken ourselves. We read, or worse we see, children blown to bits in Iraq or innocent people slaughtered in genocide as in Cambodia and Rwanda, or we see people die the slow agonizing death of starvation in a food-rich, abundant world. Tsunamis, death-dealing drought, riots in Kenya, car bombers in Baghdad and snipers in Palestine–you know the news.
I’ve watched babies die from hunger in Ethiopia, talked with mothers in Palestine whose innocent sons were shot for no reason, walked through the killing fields and smelled rotting flesh in Cambodia, seen the remains of a child blown apart by a landmine, and lost a son to a genetic disease. The suffering is beyond words, sometimes beyond human capacity to absorb.
The perennial question is “Why?” Does God cause suffering? If not, why does God allow it to happen? Why not intervene to prevent it? If God does intervene as some claim, why not with everyone?
Ehrmann says the Bible offers many answers, some in conflict with others. For him none is adequate to explain the human pain that results. From Ecclesiates to Job the range of explanations is as wide as the causes are disparate.
The lack of an answer led Ehrmann to surrender his evangelical faith in a God who was active and engaged. He isn’t embittered by loss of faith, but the space in his life once filled by God is now filled with questions and disbelief. He writes that he wishes it were not so but the reality of human suffering makes a return to past faith unlikely.
However, Ehrmann facilitates something important. As we wrestle with why people suffer, the on-going dialogue with the biblical writers and can help us come to deeper reflection of our own thoughts, the nature of the the questions and of faith. The biblical Word is as much a conversation as a collection of answers and those who put their thoughts and stories to papyrus scrolls were as deeply human and caught up in this suffering as we.
However, unlike Ehrmann, I believe this dialogue invites a presence that is beyond human. It transcends time and space, and I believe it can lead us to experience the holy. This is not the same as believing in interventions by God. It is, however, to believe that we are lifted in some way beyond ourselves and into a presence, or state of mind, that is beyond finitude. Some call this God.
So I don’t come to the same conclusion as Ehrmann that God does not exist and this life is all we have, but I respect that his conclusion is genuine and thoughtfully reached.
I do share his view that given the realities with which we live, suffering demands a response. Knowing that other human beings suffer, places upon us a responsibility to make life as fruitful and meaningful as possible for everyone. That means reducing poverty, preventing diseases, alleviating suffering and bringing hope to a world devoid of hope. (p. 276)
In the words of that great theologian Kris Kristofferson, it means helping each other make it through the night. Ehrmann is correct when he writes that children really don’t need to die of malaria, bigotry need not go unchallenged, and we don’t have to sit idly by as genocide is perpetrated. (pp. 276-7) We can do better.
But this makes it difficult for me to accede to Erhmann’s call to hope which is based solely on the good intentions and deeds of humankind, and the belief that this life is all we’ve got. It’s not because I don’t wish it to be true, but precisely for the same reason he finds belief in God to be misplaced–the evidence is that humanity dashes hope and decency with depressing regularity. How can I hope given this sordid record of failure?
It’s too easy a jump from “this life is all we have so don’t despair, make the most it” to believing that we will actually do it when people are murdering babies, slaughtering each other wholesale and bombing the bejeebers out of each other. Yes, we could do better but, I mean, given the historical record how dare I hope we will? That takes a leap of faith, too.
Never the less, I agree with Ehrmann’s basic affirmation that despite suffering life is good. Well, as he said, it’s good if you’re not where the bombs drop, the drought hits, the bullets are flying and the water can be drunk safely. For a relative few it’s good. And we few should work hard at making the world a more pleasing place for ourselves as well as for others. Jesus and Torah both put it in different language but make the same point. Love God and love others as you want to be loved. (Mark 12:28,31; Deut. 6:4; Lev. 19:18) I recognize Jesus’ call to servanthood is considerably different than the call to live large and celebrate, and that’s a significant difference.
So, too, is the sentiment captured in a statement attributed to John Wesley, but disputed by Wesleyan scholars. Whether he said it or not, it’s worth considering:
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.
It does not answer the question why we suffer. But it does answer another. Given that we do suffer, if we are to make sense of life, why not do our best to help each other through it?