The Problem of Evil



The innocent reader might suppose the 'problem of evil' addresses finite man's offense against an infinite being and looks for ways to propitiate the offended deity. To the contrary, the 'problem of evil' is a complaint by man against God:




  • “Theodicy, in other words, refers to the problem of how God can be 'just' or 'righteous' given the fact there is so much suffering in the world that he allegedly created and is sovereign over.
  • “...This problem involves three assertions that all appear to be true, but if true appear to contradict one another. The assertions are these:
  • “God is all powerful.
  • “God is all loving.
  • “There is suffering.
  • “How can all three be true at once?”
  • (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 8).



Atheist Answer Ingratitude
Nemesis Christian Answer
Entitlement Brevity of Life
Potter and the Clay Flat Earth
River in Egypt Siddhartha Gautama
The Donkey and the Straw Catch-22
Bible Contradictions Ethiopian Famine
Pass Through the Fire Hired Razor
Not to Worry Beauty for Ashes


Atheist Answer

What is the atheist's answer to the problem of evil? What words of comfort has the atheist to offer the crippled child?:

'Tough luck, kid; you drew the short straw in this life, and there is no other.'

The atheist, mute when it comes time for words of comfort, mocks the Christian for seeking consolation, which he derides as "a security blanket, a thumb to suck, a skirt to hold." (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, p. 20). Nor let the atheist say, suffering is a school of virtues otherwise unobtainable, like sympathy, compassion, fortitude and patience, so that good can come from evil; these are not his virtues. Here is an asymmetrical argument where one side offers no answer, but criticizes the answer offered by the other side as imperfect: incapable of being followed out to the final case, it not yet being revealed why this individual had to suffer. So we are weighing two alternatives: one equalling zero, the other alleged to fall short of perfect completeness.

Ingratitude

The insurance companies call events like floods, hurricanes and tsunamis 'acts of God,' and so they are. But they are not the only acts of God. Mourners grieving over those whose lives were cut short by the tsunami should reflect that every day those victims walked in the sunshine was a gift from God. Why imagine that God took away something these people owned? They only had their lives on loan; their tenancy here was never more than temporary. They've gone on to their reward. Were they the owners, they might restore their own lives after having had them taken away by another. But how can they do that, when,

"See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god with me: I kill, and I make alive; I wound, and I heal: neither is there any that can deliver out of my hand." (Deuteronomy 32:39).

The mourners at the funeral might find it more fitting to thank God for the time they had in the company of the deceased, rather than to rail against Him for 'murdering' the decedent as does Dr. Ehrman:

"Anyone else who destroyed all your property, physically mauled you, and murdered your children...would be liable to the most severe punishment that justice could mete out. But God is evidently above justice..." (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem, p. 168).
"What kind of father is he if he maims, wounds, dismembers, tortures, torments, and kills his children -- all in the interest of keeping discipline?" (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 264).



  • “There is a noise when Justice is being dragged in the way where those who devour bribes and give sentence with crooked judgments, take her.  And she, wrapped in mist, follows to the city and haunts of the people, weeping, and bringing mischief to men, even to such as have driven her forth in that they did not deal straightly with her.


  • “But they who give straight judgments to strangers and to the men of the land, and go not aside from what is just, their city flourishes, and the people prosper in it: Peace, the nurse of children, is abroad in their land, and all-seeing Zeus never decrees cruel war against them.  Neither famine nor disaster ever haunt men who do true justice; but light-heartedly they tend the fields which are all their care.  The earth bears them victual in plenty, and on the mountains the oak bears acorns upon the top and bees in the midst.  Their woolly sheep are laden with fleeces; their women bear children like their parents.  They flourish continually with good things, and do not travel on ships, for the grain-giving earth bears them fruit.


  • “But for those who practice violence and cruel deeds far-seeing Zeus, the son of Kronos, ordains a punishment.  Often even a whole city suffers for a bad man who sins and devises presumptuous deeds, and the son of Kronos lays great troubles upon the people, famine and plague together, so that the men perish away, and their women do not bear children, and their houses become few, through the contriving of Olympian Zeus.  And again, at another time, the son of Kronos either destroys their wide army, or their walls, or else makes an end of their ships on the sea.”

  • (Hesiod, Works and Days).




Nemesis

The Greek pagans did not understand much about God, but they understood that bad things happen to bad people: "Unjust deeds, as a general thing, carry in their train a retribution which exacts appropriate punishments of the wrongdoers." (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Fragments of Book X, 16.2). The pagans of the East understood as much also, and defined their concept of 'karma,' retributive justice which operates even in this life. The Bible says,

"Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolleth a stone, it will return upon him." (Proverbs 26:27).

Even aside from the covenant into which God entered into with the children of Israel, with its curses and blessings which the nation took willingly upon itself, there is a providential governance of the world which evens the balances. This is a matter of observation to all the world's peoples. It is not the case that bad things happen to each and every bad person, nor that good things happen to each and every good person. Nor is it the case, contra the Beatitudes, that this world's way of valuing people is the right one. Avenging Justice sometimes slumbers: Josef Stalin died peacefully in his bed, not before a firing squad. Nevertheless there is a general rule, that if you dig a pit, you will fall into it. Experience validates this rule.

A general rule can be true even in the face of counter-examples. For instance, during the first tuberculosis epidemic it was noticed that fewer people got the disease from their house-mates if they lived in bright, airy spaces. Now that this disease is staging a comeback, this rule has been again noticed ("Ventilation and some sunshine could go a long way to reduce tuberculosis risks...", 'Let sunshine in to fight tuberculosis, WHO says,' Reuters, March 24, 2009).

To be sure there are many counter-examples, people who contracted the disease even though their living space is bright and well-ventilated. Thus one is not entitled to conjecture, 'If someone got tuberculosis, that person must live in a poorly ventilated space.' Nevertheless it is true for the most part that, owing to the fragility of the disease-causing organism, letting in light and air is a powerful way to fight this disease. This is valuable information to know.

It is also valuable to know that, even in this life, treating others well is sound policy, although it is not for this reason that Christians are to do so. There are dissenters from the consensus of mankind on this point:

"Suffering is not only senseless, it is also random, capricious, and unevenly distributed." (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p.61).

Some people attribute this widespread perception among mankind to an agenda on the part of property-owners, who spread this myth to promote self-interest. But it is not a myth, not altogether, as even those who find themselves on the outside of this general rule must reflect. People who chortled that they got away with a crime have discovered that something, even within their own psyche, is working to bring it to light. As the pagans realized, the mills of the gods grind slow, but they grind exceedingly fine.

Atheists complain, "Theists, it would seem, do not let any phenomena count against the claim that God loves us." (There is a God, Anthony Flew, p. 43). But they want everything and only good things to happen to everyone; this is what they count as 'love.' Even punishment is not always meant for harm: "For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth." (Hebrews 12:6).




Christian Answer

"No tears in Heaven, no sorrows given,
All will be glory in that land;
There'll be no sadness, all will be gladness,
When we shall join that happy band.

"No tears in Heaven fair, no tears, no tears up there,
Sorrow and pain will all have flown;
No tears in Heaven fair, no tears, no tears up there,
No tears in Heaven will be known." (Robert S. Arnold).

Christians are confident that:

"And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28).

Thought it may not now be apparent how circumstances fit together in forming God's design, we can trust that they do. This confidence rests upon specific promises given by God to this community. Because Christians know the character of the One who promises, they can rest upon His promises. Though Dr. Ehrman finds it obscene to suppose that God might discriminate on the basis of religion, such is actually rather common in the Bible.





Entitlement

When people in this country became concerned about the poor housing conditions of some of their fellow citizens, they designed various public housing programs to respond to this need. But in no time at all, the constituency who received this blessing came to see public housing as a right to which they were entitled. This is very common with any kind of welfare benefit.

A similar mentality is found among the atheists and agnostics. They rail against God, on grounds that every single human being upon this planet is entitled to...what? 75 years? 85 years? 1,500 years? of life. If someone's life here below did not last that long, the atheists protest that this innocent victim was cheated. But human beings who imagine God is in their debt are mistaken. God is holy:

"Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity..." (Habakkuk 1:13).

The same cannot be said of us:




Totentanz


Bart Ehrman asserts that everyone in the world has the "right" to enjoy life just as much as he does:

"...trying to see good in such evils is to deprive evil of its character...It robs other people of their dignity and their right to enjoy life every bit as much as we do." (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' pp. 156-157).

This sets the bar very high indeed, as Dr. Ehrman is a wealthy man who makes a good living attacking Christianity.

Up

Brevity of Life

The people who are attending the funeral for the tsunami victims may find it more profitable to reflect upon the brevity and uncertainty of life.

"The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever." (Isaiah 40:6-8).

This life, distressed by sufferings, is a brief interlude entering into eternity. The mourners might take the occasion to reflect upon their prospects for happiness in the life to come.

From the standpoint of the atheist, this life is all there is, and its conclusion, the irrevocable dying of the light. But death is not the worst thing than can happen to a person, nor is death loss for the believer:

"Quarrel not with death's rude hand. It pulls to pieces this frail tabernacle, that, on the day when mortal shall assume immortality, mercy may raise for me from its wreck, 'a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.'" (Thomas Guthrie, The Gospel in Ezekiel, Kindle location 1940).
Up


Dance of Death


Potter and the Clay

Bart Ehrman accuses God of murder, torture, and genocide:

"If he does something wrong, then he is culpable by the very standards of judgment that he has given us as sentient human beings. And murdering babies, starving masses, and allowing -- or causing -- genocides are wrong." (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' pp. 275-276).

It is not apparent that God is properly judged by the same standard He gave us. We do not accuse the property-owner of theft, because He is the owner. Given that God gives life to all who enjoy that gift, when He withdraws it and takes back what is His own, He is not committing 'murder.'

There is a limitation to the project of putting God in the dock:



  • “The word which came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying: 'Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause you to hear My words.' Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something at the wheel. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter; so he made it again into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make.
    “Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying: 'O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?' says the LORD. 'Look, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel!'”
  • (Jeremiah 18:1-6).


  • “Surely you have things turned around!
    Shall the potter be esteemed as the clay;
    For shall the thing made say of him who made it,
    'He did not make me'?
    Or shall the thing formed say of him who formed it,
    'He has no understanding'?”
  • (Isaiah 29:16).




Dance of Death


There are some situations that cannot be understood until we reach the other side of Jordan. Those who truly care to know should avoid railing as do the atheists and agnostics, as this piles wrong upon wrong. Two clay vessels do not stand to each other in the same relation as they stand to the potter. Dr. Ehrman goes so far as to accuse God of stealing stuff:

"One might wonder what 'wrongdoing' God could possibly do, if robbery, destruction of property, and murder are not wrong." (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 166).

What sense does it make to accuse God of "robbery?":

"For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills." (Psalm 50:10).

Flat Earth

According to our resident genius, Paul was a flat-earther. How do we know? Because he says the Lord will descend:

"For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).

Then we will be caught up: though there is no preposition 'up' in the original. This is proof of flat-earth thinking, because otherwise would he not have said, 'except for those inhabitants of Australia who are in the Lord, who will go down and around.' Relative to whom? Here are his insights into this matter:

"That's how Paul thought -- completely like an ancient person who didn't realize that this world is round..." (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 244)

Never mind that NASA personnel use the words 'up' and 'down' to similar effect, without introducing qualifications subsequent to the rotundity and rotation of the earth. Was Paul a flat-earther? And is that in fact what 'ancient persons' believed, as our author alleges? In fact, the dominant scientific astronomy of Paul's day, the Ptolemaic system, featured a round earth:




Paul, in his strolls around Athens and other cities inspecting the statuary, would have seen the world system represented by a sphere. Was he a skeptic or a believer? He doesn't say enough to make the judgment. He is not an enthusiast like the gnostics who talk about "seven heavens" and populate the various features of the Ptolemaic system with elevator-attendant gods, nor does he say anything diagnostic of flat-earthism.

The Ptolemaic system was not a myth, it was a complex scientific hypothesis with very high predictive value. Copernicus' system excelled it in simplicity, not predictive prowess. The only astronomic observation which adherents of the Copernican system could throw in the faces of the scholastic astronomers was the apparent size of Venus, which does not vary as widely as it should in Ptolemy's world-system, though even this is subject to dispute.

River in Egypt

Why did Cleopatra go into therapy?
Because she was Queen of de Nile.

Bart Ehrman perceives human suffering as random and capricious. But sometimes it almost looks, not random and capricious, but laser targeted. Dr. Ehrman hastens to drive the thought out of the reader's mind:

"It is not only homophobic and hateful but also inaccurate and unhelpful to blame this epidemic on sexual preference or promiscuity. Unsafe practices might spread the disease -- but why is there a disease in the first place? Are those who suffer the unspeakable emotional and physical agonies of AIDS more sinful and worthy of punishment than the rest of us?" (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 162).

Certainly it's true that the one prayer no one should ever want to pray is, 'O Lord, give me what I deserve.' But blaming God for AIDS overlooks some simple realities: if people lived the way God instructed them to live, there would be no AIDS. If sexual activity were confined to monogamous marriage, as God intended, then few people would find occasion to exchange bodily fluids with total strangers. It is difficult, therefore, to see where humanity acquires the moral standing to condemn God for AIDS.

This is a constant in these complaints, that the complainants are sure God can have nothing on them, nor can they stop railing against others, perhaps for being "homophobic and hateful." God they condemn when He judges, because they have themselves assumed His robe and judgment seat:

"Amongst miseries wherein the soul is so fast bound and included, that it scarce can breathe, men still find space to be wicked, and amongst all their perils, are judging others, and never themselves. You are angered at God's anger, as if a bad life deserved that any good should come to it, as if all that happens were not less and lighter than your sins." (Cyprian, Treatise VIII, An Address to Demetrianus, Chapter 4).

Siddhartha Gautama

According to Bart Ehrman, the Bible offers several different answers to the question, 'Why is there suffering?' But strictly speaking, the Bible never asks that question (look it up). Who did ask the question? Siddhartha Gautama, known to his fans as the Buddha. The question as phrased addresses a psychological reality. 'Suffering' is a perception held by sentient beings. So phrasing the question leads to the next question, 'How to avoid suffering?' It turns out that, by convincing oneself that the world and the suffering it entails is an illusion, this perception can be dimmed. Whether this is useful advice or not depends on whether convincing oneself that the world is an illusion makes it so.

The Bible does not ask the question, 'Why is there suffering?' A better Bible question might be, 'Is suffering deserved?' or 'Why do the righteous sometimes suffer, and the wicked sometimes prosper?'

The Donkey and the Straw

Understanding that the Bible does not ask the question, 'Why is there suffering,' and that forcing the Bible to answer a question it does not ask is to pound round pegs into square holes, let us nevertheless blunder onwards. Is the procedure followed the correct one?

To give an example: Suppose, upon the collapse and bankruptcy of Widgets, Inc., I stroll through the factory floor and check the boxes on my checklist that seem applicable, determining that:

The collapse of Widgets, Inc. was owing to:
a.) Excessive debt;
b.) Low employee morale;
c.) Poor quality product; and
d.) Cyclical collapse of demand.

A plausible tale, because there may well be businesses which have failed owing to one of these factors in isolation. What I am asserting is this: Several years ago during the boom times, management borrowed to finance expansion, leaving the business over-leveraged; owing to miserable working conditions, the employees resent their employer and their productivity is low; the widgets are crummy; and the recent recession led to a precipitous drop in the demand for widgets. This is what dragged Widgets, Inc. down to its doom, I say.

Dr. Ehrman rebuts my assertion thus: a.) Excessive debt cannot have caused the collapse of Widgets, Inc., because companies can fail without being over-leveraged. b.) Low employee morale cannot be the reason why Widgets, Inc. failed, because some companies fail which have high employee morale. c.) Poor product quality is not an intellectually satisfying answer either, because some businesses succeed by offering the public low quality wares. d.) Cyclical demand collapse cannot be the explanation, because some businesses collapse during the boom years.

Is this a satisfactory rebuttal? No, because there is no necessity that there be one cause for business failure which is applicable to each and every case. There is likewise no necessity for one cause for all 'suffering.' According to the Bible, it was because of disobedience that Israel fell to Assyria and Judah fell to Babylon, and according to the Bible, the man was born blind for the glory of God:

"And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." (John 9:2-3).

It does not follow that, because the man was born blind to show the glory of God, Israel also fell to display the glory of God rather than because of disobedience as stated. It can be questioned whether these events even belong in the same category, though both would fall within Dr. Ehrman's category of 'suffering.' One does not then run down the checked list of potential causes for business failure and evaluate each factor according to its suitability in explaining all bankruptcy. This is not the procedure to follow in evaluating complex causation.

It might even be the case that Widgets, Inc. would not have failed had not all the listed causes been present together. Readers may be reminded of the conundrum of the donkey and the straw. Pick up each straw and place it on the donkey's back to test his capacity; he bears it easily. Pick up the bundle and throw it on him; will he bear it easily, or stagger?

Catch-22

Bart Ehrman urges decent minded people to "intervene" to stop the suffering which is caused, for example, by "people who exploit the workers in the world:"

"Since human beings misbehave and hurt others out of their free will...then we need to intervene ourselves and do what we can to stop the oppression, torture, and murder -- whether here at home or in developing countries, where the atrocities are both more blatant and less restricted -- and so do what we can to help those who are subject to these abuses of human freedom." (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem, pp. 122-123).

No doubt this involves, in the case of Darfur, to which Dr. Ehrman cries "never again" (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 277), military action against the militias who burn villages. No doubt people will get killed. But wait a minute: didn't the prior two chapters consist of a diatribe against God for doing precisely this: intervening to stay the hands of the wicked! Dr. Ehrman understands that Moses' law sought to protect those exploited: "They were laws designed to ensure that the poor were not oppressed, that the needy were not overlooked, that the weak were not exploited." (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 54). When God enforces His law, however, it is "scandalous and outrageous" (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 55). Why is it "scandalous and outrageous" when God punishes the wicked, but beneficial and necessary when we do it?

Bible Contradictions

Bart Ehrman's schtick is Bible contradictions; that's what he contributes to the flood tide of atheist and agnostic literature lately put out by the publishing industry. As per usual, he perceives a Bible contradiction here:



  • “And we are still left with the problem of suffering: why is it here?
  • “In this book I've looked at a range of the biblical answers, and most of them, in my opinion, are simply not satisfying intellectually or morally. (It is important to recall that these are different explanations for why there is suffering; some of these explanations contradict others.)


  • (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 274).




This author customarily sees difference as 'contradiction,' when more is required for that diagnosis. What is the scale of the inquiry: a nation or an individual? What is the scope: is eternity in view, or this life? Have the parties freely agreed to a covenant assigning mutual obligations, or are they in a state of nature?

Most egregiously he inserts the question, 'why is there suffering?' in the mouths of Bible authors who are not asking that question. The prophets and historians of Israel do not ask 'why is there suffering?' Rather, they ask, 'Has God held up His side of the covenant?'

Moses instructed the children of Israel that, when they entered into the land, they were to call down the blessings and curses of the law onto their own heads:

"And Moses commanded the people on the same day, saying, 'These shall stand on Mount Gerizim to bless the people, when you have crossed over the Jordan: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin; and these shall stand on Mount Ebal to curse: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. And the Levites shall speak with a loud voice and say to all the men of Israel: "Cursed is the one who makes a carved or molded image, an abomination to the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and sets it up in secret."’"
“And all the people shall answer and say, ‘Amen!’" (Deuteronomy 27:11-14)

Deuteronomy Chapter 28 lays out the blessings and curses attached to the law. The children of Israel did as Moses instructed:

"Then all Israel, with their elders and officers and judges, stood on either side of the ark before the priests, the Levites, who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD, the stranger as well as he who was born among them. Half of them were in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded before, that they should bless the people of Israel. And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessings and the cursings, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, with the women, the little ones, and the strangers who were living among them." (Joshua 8:33-35).

They voluntarily drew down the curses of Deuteronomy 28 upon themselves. It might have seemed to the people an easy way to get a free blessing, because the law is not onerous. But this venture was a failure. The lesson to be drawn is that mankind needs a redeemer, a lesson that was drawn by the apocalypticists...whose writings Dr. Ehrman counts as yet another 'different explanation.'

The non-negotiable demand of those who find fault with God in this matter of suffering is that God cannot ever will that any bad thing should ever happen to anybody: "A new Christology will banish from Christian faith the blasphemy that God wills the suffering of God's beloved ones, and the inhuman idea that anyone's death can be the fulfillment of a plan of God's." (James Carroll, Constantine's Sword, p. 587). We know that marriage is a covenant:

“Yet you say, 'For what reason?' Because the Lord has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant.” (Malachi 2:14).

We marry for better or for worse, the two yoking together their fortunes. In a similar way, the people of the covenant surrendered in consenting to its terms any native right they may have had to be treated as individuals; now, they share in the disasters of the nation, as set forth in Deuteronomy 28, whether they personally participated in the wrong-doing that precipitated them or not. The history books of the Bible show the out-working of the law-covenant, and in the process reveal humanity's need for grace. There is simply no way of reconciling the demand for good things for all persons at all times even with simple justice, much less with the covenant into which the people of God voluntarily entered. This does not show 'God's Problem,' rather it shows the problem some people have with God. Should God enter into a covenant, and then renege on its terms?





Even the atheists themselves are not immune at all times to the intimation that, if God is just, He cannot only and always shower down good things on everybody's head:

"For how should He punish the inhabitants of the earth, if their iniquity deserve it not? How should the earth disclose our blood, if it should not be unjustly spilled?"

(John Knox, Homily on Isaiah 26:13-21, The Great Orators of the Reformation Era (Kindle Locations 1902-1903). Gideon House Books.)

Is showering down lollipops and candy canes, from the sky, justice, or something that falls short of justice? Does the universal promise of justice, which Sigmund Freud claims does not exist, really exist after all? Should it not exist? Is the world the atheists claim to want, where always and only good things are showered down equally upon vicious predators as on their innocent victims, really the best world we can imagine? Or do they even want that?:



  • “It seems not to be true that there is a power in the universe which watches over the well-being of every individual with parental care and brings all his concerns to a happy ending. On the contrary, the destinies of man are incompatible with a universal principle of benevolence or with – what is to some degree contradictory – a universal principle of justice. Earthquakes, floods and fires do not differentiate between the good and devout man and the sinner and unbeliever. And, even if we leave inanimate nature out of account and consider the destinies of individual men in so far as they depend on their relations with others of their own kind, it is by no means the rule that virtue is rewarded and wickedness punished, but it happens often enough that the violent, the crafty and the unprincipled seize the desirable goods of the earth for themselves, while the pious go empty away. Dark, unfeeling and unloving powers determine human destiny; the system of rewards and punishments, which, according to religion, governs the world, seems to have no existence.”
  • (Sigmund Freud: Lecture XXXV, A Philosophy of Life).





So the atheists blame God when the wicked suffer, but they also blame God because the wicked do not suffer. This should give some insight into the atheist system.

Ethiopian Famine

Bart Ehrman shows remarkably little curiosity about an event which was supposedly central in his life. One of his several differing accounts of how he was purportedly dragged "kicking and screaming" out of the Christian fold centers around this event, which killed a million people during the 1980's.

This Ethiopian famine was not caused by "massive drought" as he claims (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 10), though the Ethiopian government of the day, a military junta called the Derg, did succeed in convincing the international media of this, and even successfully concealed from them an ongoing Civil War. There was no "massive drought." This was not a natural disaster. The Derg took power from a senescent emperor Haile Selassie. As in the Russian empire when the Bolsheviks seized power, the Ethiopian population was primarily rural. In a political evolution eerily reminiscent of the collectivization of Soviet agriculture which also caused a population-depleting famine, the Marxist Derg simultaneously sought to bring in its vision of a socialist utopia by reorganizing agriculture along a collectivist state farm model, sought to quell civil disorder in the country-side by relocating rural inhabitants, and to top it all off, sought to keep food prices low in order to buy off angry urban mobs and thus secure its own political survival. This great leap forward dragged along with it the same human tragedy it caused everywhere else: famine.

This had happened before. When the Bolsheviks sent out requisitioning squads to take grain by force from the peasants (the peasants are happy to sell the stuff at the market but Bolsheviks do not like free markets) to feed the urban masses, the peasants fought back:

"In one village of Samara province, where the food brigade had robbed and murdered several villagers, the peasants exacted a savage revenge. One night in November, they decapitated the twelve members of the brigade as they slept in the party offices and placed their heads on poles at the village entrance as a gruesome warning to other brigades. Three weeks later the Red Army bombarded the village with artillery and, when all the villagers had fled to the woods, burned it down." ('A People's Tragedy, The Russian Revolution,' by Orlando Figes, p. 620).

This is what happens when socialism comes to the countryside. The next thing that happens is famine.

Readers curious to watch this process unfold in the world today can look at Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, a potentially wealthy country which this autocratic Marxist dictator has managed to run into a ditch. The problem is, first of all, the Communist government's dream of a country-side dotted with huge state-run socialist farms is not any dream the rural populace holds for its own future; there is both active and passive non-compliance with the government's dictates. "'The bands find it very easy to enlist supporters. The slogan "Kill the Communists! Smash the Collective Farms!" is very popular among the most backward and downtrodden strata of the peasantry.'" (Party report, quoted p. 755, Orlando Figes, 'A People's Tragedy.) But secondly, even if there were perfect compliance, this economic model does not work. State-sponsored socialism has been tried in backward, rural societies like China and industrialized societies like East Germany. It has never worked anywhere. But empty store shelves mean different things to different consumers. When East European consumers set out to buy a car or a TV set and came home empty-handed, they felt frustrated. But when people set off to market to buy the goods the farmer produces and find the market-place bare, they die.

Though Bart Ehrman is aware of the misery Marxism has caused in the world, in Cambodia for example, he is not angry at the Marxists. He doesn't rail against the damage Marxism has caused Africa, though it has done massive harm. Marxist governments have crippled the economies of those African nations which have suffered under this form of government. The utilitarian ethics which consoles the conscience of the Marxist-Leninist appeal to him. Even where it has not held power, this seductive ideology has fueled most of the insurrectionist movements which have spilled so much blood on the African continent. Man's inhumanity to man is a conundrum for this author. He can't make up his mind whether to rail against God for not immediately punishing the wicked, which buys them time to inflict suffering upon others...or to rail against God for punishing the wicked, which causes them to suffer. Whatever he wants, he does not want a law covenant. He wants God, by miraculous intervention, to stay the hands of the wicked, so that they can only flap their hands uselessly without inflicting harm. They are not then to be punished, because punishment causes people to suffer. He is angry mostly when people 'change the subject' and want to investigate the causes of the events which supposedly concern him; this is to 'let God off the hook.'

It is certainly true that everything which happens in the world is within God's permissive will at minimum. God allowed the Derg to take power, and he allowed them to destroy Ethiopian agriculture. Why He allowed these things to befall this ancient civilization I can't say, not being a prophet. But it is unclear what Bart Ehrman wants done. In the natural order of things, state sponsored socialism does not work. Does Dr. Ehrman expect God to work a continual loaves-and-fishes miracle, and rain down an abundance of grain and other agricultural produce upon the stalwart Ethiopian heroes of socialist production, posing heroically upon their tractors (which probably don't have any gasoline in the tank because the Ministry of Gasoline can't supply any)? What would come from that? To convince people that socialism actually does work, when in fact it does not? To encourage the adoption of this dysfunctional economic model, so as to require an ever-escalating loaves-and-fishes miracle to feed more and more mouths attached to hands shackled and held from productive labor by a way of organizing production that doesn't get it done?

Supposing God did succeed in convincing the people of Ethiopia that their Marxist-Leninist masters really did know how to run a farm economy. What further blessings would they receive from the Derg? Human rights abuses, which are common to this form of government? In Ethiopia, the Derg gave the people the 'Red Terror,' where dead bodies kept turning up along the road-side. Owing to the religious views of their founders, Marxist-Leninists often employ the school system to 'educate' young people into believing there is no God. In much the same way as the State of North Carolina finances Dr. Ehrman's teaching the young people enrolled in that state university to disbelieve the Bible, Communist regimes expend tax revenues to teach atheism, which is represented as the scientific, up-to-date viewpoint.

Back in the hey-day of Method Acting, actors used to ask, 'What's my motivation?' God's motivation in making Marxism-Leninism 'work' is left somewhat unclear, though what is clear is that Bart Ehrman is greatly indignant that He didn't when given the opportunity. He directs and expends so much indignation upwards, he has none left for the Marxists and their seductive, but dysfunctional, ideology.





Pass Through the Fire

God dispossessed the people living in the land of promise, not to make room for Israel, but in judgment against their religion:

"When thou art come into the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination...For all that do these things are an abomination unto the LORD: and because of these abominations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee. Thou shalt be perfect with the LORD thy God." (Deuteronomy 18:9-13).
"And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD....Defile not ye yourselves in any of these things: for in all these the nations are defiled which I cast out before you: And the land is defiled: therefore I do visit the iniquity thereof upon it, and the land itself vomiteth out her inhabitants." (Leviticus 18:21-25).

God had already judged these people and found them wanting:

"Speak not thou in thine heart, after that the LORD thy God hath cast them out from before thee, saying, For my righteousness the LORD hath brought me in to possess this land: but for the wickedness of these nations the LORD doth drive them out from before thee. Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that he may perform the word which the LORD sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." (Deuteronomy 9:4-5).

What does it mean for children to "pass through the fire?" Infant sacrifice. These people incinerated their own children to gain the favor of their 'gods.' A similar practice was followed in what is now Lebanon. The helpless infant was placed in the arms of a metal statue representing the 'god,' as the priests stoked the fire. The screaming child was incinerated in the arms of the super-heated metal statue.

If parents were to do this today in some jurisdictions in the United States, they would face the death penalty. Those who helped them, the priests who provided the statue and the killing field, would be labelled their co-conspirators. This is not entirely because we are uncivilized. Though undoubtedly the child-murdering parents would suffer as the effects of lethal injection take hold, they would never suffer as did their incinerated child.

But why kill the children? Why not leave the children, whose innocent suffering of wrong brought on this judgment in the first place, to be brought up by God-fearing foster parents? It would be no mercy to their parents to raise these children to perceive their own parents as monsters hated by God, but surely the children have a right to their own life. But how could this have been secured without perpetuating this wicked regime?


The Bible
Human Initiative
Ancient Historians
Archaeology
The Problem of Evil
Child Sacrifice Today
Justice
Last Stand
Binding of Isaac
Infidels' Indictment
Rahab



Ridding the land of this practice of 'passing through the fire' is God's own testimony as to why He gave this command. What is clear is that this child-sacrificing culture was so hateful to Him that He wanted it extirpated, root and branch. It was not, and proved a snare to Israel. Each survivor of a lost culture is, not an ongoing cultural revival in fact, but the potential constituency for a cultural revival. Look at the case of the Nation of Islam. They wanted to be Muslims, not because their parents had taught them this religion; Elijah's Muhammad's father was a Baptist preacher. Rather, they believed some of their ancestors may have been Muslims. So, although the Islam of the Moorish Science Temple owed more to the Shriners than to the Koran, they revived Islam in America. It ended as a new thing, because Elijah Muhammad's struggle to understand the revelations of Allah, Wallace D. Fard, led away from the Koran not toward it. But survivors of an ancient culture are likelier than others to show a sympathetic interest in that culture. God did not want a revival. None but an atheist would cheer one on.

God judges the nations of the earth, lifting one up and casting another down; and how will the Judge of all the earth He accomplish His daily business if the Bart Ehrmans of the world scold Him for presuming to judge in any case? Some seek to 'excuse' Him by attributing disasters to chance, but Moses Maimonides offers a tendentious interpretation of Leviticus 26:21, which isolates ascribing Divine judgments to chance as itself a punishable offense: "In this sense we must understand the passage, 'If ye walk  with me by chance' (Lev. xxvi. 21): i.e., if I bring troubles upon you for punishment, and you consider them as mere accidents, I will again send you some of these accidents as you call them, but a more serious and troublesome character. This is expressed in the words: 'If ye walk with me by chance: then I will walk with you also in the fury of chance' (ibid. vers. 27, 28)." (Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, p. 379).

When God's judgment falls on entire civilizations, some stand aghast: "That Omnipotence which has called the world with all its living creatures into one animated being, especially reveals Himself in the desolation of great pestilences." (Justus Friedrich Carl Hecker, The Black Death, p. 3). How can judgments so vast in scope originate anywhere but at the throne? Others sputter indignantly. How dare God judge anyone? But if God cannot judge civilizations, how will He judge all of humanity? Just as God judged the ancient Canaanites and the verdict went against them, so will millions stand before Jesus' judgment seat and be cast out into outer darkness. This to many atheists is more than can be tolerated; but what, realistically, do they propose to do about it?:


Lake of Fire Worm Dieth Not
Lazarus I'm Not Going
The Face of God Dark Fire
Wheat and Chaff Vengeance is Mine
Wheat and Tares Old Testament
God's Will Gandhi in Hell
Hell in the Koran Infinite Loss
Do Unto Others



The 'Problem of Evil' starts out with concern over the sufferings of people who are stipulated as being innocent: flood and earthquake victims. The Bible reader may wonder, who are all these innocent people and where do they come from? We aren't them. But the discussion inexorably creeps over toward indignation over the suffering of those whom God has judged guilty, not innocent, like the ancient child-murdering Canaanites. The atheists, it turns out, do not grant God the authority to judge His creation, nor concede His competence to judge fairly. Will the atheists allow God to judge no one, not even Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot? Do they really want to make the claim that no one should ever suffer, not even a parent who is slow-roasting his own child, looking up at him with wide-eyed wonder?

Hired Razor

Everything in life has a purpose, even the incorrigibly wicked, the allowance of whose continued existence might otherwise find little to recommend it:

"The Lord has made all for Himself, Yes, even the wicked for the day of doom." (Proverbs 16:4).

It may be that God has a purpose even for these, that is, in working out His judgements. Thus wicked men like the kings of Babylon and Assyria find their place in the present scheme of things:

"In the same day the Lord will shave with a hired razor, with those from beyond the River, with the king of Assyria, the head and the hair of the legs, and will also remove the beard." (Isaiah 7:20).

Usually the premise which the 'Problem of Evil' takes as its starting point is the maxim that all people deserve only good things always. But God does not assent to this premise. Even wicked men can be put to good use:

"But all this was done through the above-mentioned, because of the rule that the chastisement for sin is dealt out through a sinner, and this was explained by Papus and Lulianus his brother to Trajan their prosecutor." (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume VIII, Tract Ebel Rabbathi, Chapter VIII, L, Kindle location 35844).

Not to Worry

Early in Bart Ehrman's book 'God's Problem,' the concerned reader may fear Dr. Ehrman is going to join Gautama Buddha in renouncing the world, or even to end it all in despair. He shares with us that concerned readers send him e-mail hoping to shore up his trembling and flagging spirits. What alarms these good folk are passages like,

"For many people who inhabit this planet, life is a cesspool of misery and suffering." (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 3).
"During the time that it took for this Christmas Eve service to conclude, more than 700 children in the world would have died of hunger; 250 others from drinking unsafe water; and nearly 300 other people from malaria. Not to mention the ones who had been raped, mutilated, tortured, dismembered, and murdered." (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 6).
"If God takes care of his children, why are thousands of people destroyed by natural disasters every year? Why does the majority of the earth's population suffer in abject poverty?" (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 126).
"I came to think that there is not a God who is actively involved with this world of pain and misery -- if he is, why doesn't he do something about it?" (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 128).

"This world of pain and misery?" "Life is a cesspool of misery and suffering?" To be sure, no one living on this earth escapes without suffering pain from injury or disease; how else does one exit this life? No one can stay here for long without losing loved ones. But for most of us, is it actually all that bad? Some people, afflicted by disease, live lives of constant pain; but most, even in third world conditions, do not, and even enjoy the occasional afternoon in the sunshine. There is joy as well as pain in this life; God sends his rain on strangers as well as children. Even to the pagans who did not know Him, God showered down His blessings: "He gives to all life, breath, and all things." (Acts 17:25). And if we have it as bad as Dr. Ehrman portrays, with all the stability and security of human life even under third world conditions, what about the animals? Taking this jaundiced view forces one to admire the courage and manliness of the stalwart zebra, who wakes up and goes out to forage in the grasslands without knowing whether today is the day the lion gets him! And he shows this remarkable fortitude all without belly-aching or blaming anyone.

But not to worry, keep reading: it turns out after all that Bart Ehrman does not lose any sleep over the starving children in Africa. He assures us that, "I'm actually very cheerful, with a good sense of humor, a zest for life..." (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 263). And indeed, why should he?:

"We should make money and spend money. The more the better. We should enjoy good food and drink...We should drive nice cars and have nice homes." (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 277).

The "we" who are to do these things presumably do not include the starving children of Africa, for whom he proposes that "the wealth could be redistributed" (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 276), though the Derg already tried that. His advice is perhaps a better fit for those people who, like Dr. Ehrman, make good money writing books attacking Christianity.

This sudden transformation is familiar to Christians who dispute with atheists. After listening to much weeping over the poor, the Christian is surprised to watch the atheist at the end tip-toe away from 'What about the starving children in Africa?' with 'What about them? Let the government take care of them.' After all, the 'problem of evil' is not a problem for the atheist, for whom humanity are just talking animals. But for the Christian, who has proclaimed that God is love (1 John 4:8), how to reconcile this comforting thought with a world in which there is suffering?:

"If there is an all-powerful and loving God in this world, why is there so much excruciating pain and unspeakable suffering?" (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 1).

Fair enough. Suffering is the believer's problem, not the atheist's. But after all, the poor of the third world cannot just be dragged on-stage to display their misery and then be summarily booted off when we are done with them. What about them? Is the atheist going to drop everything and fly over to Africa to serve as a medical missionary? Where is the atheist King who has said, "Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (Matthew 25:40)?

God proclaimed a law code which gives extraordinary protection to the poor. The Biblical crime of 'oppressing the poor' means, not what we might consider to be 'oppressing the poor,' but failing to live up to the very high demands of the Mosaic law which requires assisting the poor. God then acted throughout history to vindicate the poor, punishing their oppressors:

"And what has Judah done that makes it worthy of such judgment? They have robbed the poor, not cared for the needy, not tended to the widows and the orphans in distress." (Bart Ehrman, 'God's Problem,' p. 50).

This Bart Ehrman cannot abide. He cannot make up his mind which disgusts him more: God vindicating the poor by punishing their oppressors, or the sufferings of the poor at the hands of their oppressors. What exactly he wants is unclear. He hates the disease and despises the remedy. Evidently he wants God to provide manna from heaven for the poor, and at the same time to just stop bothering the people who oppress them.

But this is not how God set it up. Should atheists and agnostics like Bart Ehrman succeed in covering Moses and Jesus with so much ridicule that no one listens to them any more, who will remain to command the recalcitrant to help the poor? It is remarkable that Bart Ehrman never once sees a link between criminalizing failure to care for the poor and making provision for the poor, but once that link is broken, what will restore it? God's efforts in this field have not been altogether unavailing. Much of the reason why we don't see sick people expiring on the streets in the developed world is that the Christian folk who lived in these parts of the world thought God would judge them harshly if they saw Him suffering and did nothing. For this, the atheists will substitute what?

Can Satan in his pride ever have imagined a bolder, more diabolical plan, to eclipse the brightness of God with his own resplendent evil, than these men, who imagine that human evil is capable of snuffing out God's very existence?:

"When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?" (Bertrand Russell, Why I am not a Christian, Kindle location 97).

Notice that, to this atheist, the mere existence of wicked men, racists, fascists and the like, nullifies the existence of God. The fact that wicked men exist, and they do, is proof positive that there is no God! If we put our shoulders to the wheel, puff ourselves out and think the wickedest thoughts of which we are capable, no doubt we can put Him out of business! Of course, no matter how wicked we make ourselves, our feeble little fists cannot reach up to the heavens. Incidentally, when it comes to harming the innocent, Bertrand Russell's own communists eclipse the racists and the fascists; you can ask the Ethiopians how benevolent the Marxists actually prove themselves to be when they come to exercise power:




Josef Stalin, who murdered millions of human beings, died peacefully in bed at the age of 73, dying of a stroke. Or so it seemed: it is often pointed out there were several in his circle with motive, means and opportunity to do away with him, and you can precipitate a stroke by inducing someone to consume a blood-thinner like warfarin. Nevertheless there are admittedly loose ends of divine justice remaining to be tied up, because not all accounts are squared in this life. And so it will be:




Beauty for Ashes

It seems that in some cases God may allow undeserved suffering in order to bring good out of evil, to elicit some moral or spiritual virtue not otherwise obtainable. Jesus is the ultimate example of innocent suffering, because unlike us, He truly did not deserve that anything bad should befall Him:

"Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared; though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him; called of God an high priest after the order of Melchisedec." (Hebrews 5:7-10).

We as believers therefore imitate Christ when we suffer unmerited wrong:

"For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed." (1 Peter 2:19-24).

While this is counter-intuitive to our way of thinking, God's word says, "For it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well doing, than for evil doing." (1 Peter 3:17). It is said, "But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings (1 Peter 4:13), that we should learn patience and fortitude in this school. In any event, it seems anomalous to accuse Christianity of having no answer to offer for human suffering, when we worship a God who died on the cross. It must at least be possible for something positive to come out of grief and sorrow, if what we believe is true. It is after all the teaching of scripture that suffering may have positive value, though it is characteristic of Buddhism and such teachings that it does not:

"And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us." (Romans 5:3-5).

"My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing." (James 1:2-4).

For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning." (Psalm 30:5)



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