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
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."
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."
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
"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: