127: Conversation with best-selling author Bart Ehrman on “God’s Problem”

ther stories about best-selling author Bart Ehrman’s most provocative book, “God’s Problem,” may focus on whether he truly  has lost his Christian faith over the “problem” that he explores in his red-hot new book.
    But, from my perspective, that question misses the major significance of his book.
    It’s easy to forget that, over many centuries, world leaders have redefined the central challenges of each eras in light of the Bible. Thomas Jefferson, William Wilberforce and John Wesley all wrestled with the defining issue of slavery in light of the Bible’s frustrating lack of a clear condemnation of the practice. A century ago, Albert Schweitzer declared that the real problem was the need to find a “historical Jesus.” And, to this day, other leaders say the defining issue of creation (both in terms of the world’s history and its future) is tangled up with the ambiguous biblical record.

    What much of the coverage of Bart’s new book fails to fully recognize is that, in this book — like Schweitzer’s in 1906 or Wilberforce’s writings a century before that — he is throwing down a gauntlet before the world’s 2 billion Christians. He is saying: In our age, the defining issue is the suffering of billions. And, like other great writers before him, he is saying: And our biblical record is not much help to us at the moment.
    He has made this historical moment even more provocative by adding to the well-reasoned biblical critique in his new book a personal declaration. He’s saying: I started as a fundamentalist, became an evangelical, still feel somewhat drawn toward mainstream Protestantism — but, around this essential crisis in our new century, I’m now done with faith!
    Headlines and angry online comments about Bart on this latter, personal point completely miss the historical importance of his basic challenge to Christians and non-Christians alike.
    Think of Bart’s new book as the challenging Bible-study component to Jim Wallis’ socially and politically prophetic books like “God’s Politics” and his new “The Great Awakening.” Don’t misunderstand this comment. A gulf exists between Ehrman and Wallis. They’re certainly not members of the same church. But like Jefferson, Wilberforce and Wesley, they’re grappling with the titanic issue of the day.

    In the midst of his hectic international schedule (details about upcoming tour dates appear at the end of today’s story), I caught up with Bart via telephone in a hotel room somewhere. Here are highlights of our Conversation …

    DAVID: This is a strange conversation, because I should be asking you how good it feels to be red-hot in Amazon’s online listings of new books, stacked up prominently on tables in bookstores and ranked high on the New York Times best-seller list! Normally, a celebration would be in order. But I was checking online comments about you and your book. Of course, many people are praising your book. But there are plenty of barbs being thrown your way.
    Here’s one from Amazon. The writer says: “God doesn’t have a problem, Bart! You are having a problem in  understanding God’s holiness.”
    So, how do you stand the heat?
    BART: Well, you know most of the Amazon responses like that one you just read look like they’re by people who haven’t read the book, so it’s a little hard to take them too seriously.
    But the thing is the book seems to be hitting a nerve and some people really appreciate that — and other people, for one reason or another, really find that it’s causing problems for them.
    DAVID: Your marketing folks at Harper Collins mention the phrase “new atheists” in trying to distinguish your voice in press releases. You have said you’ve lost your Christian faith, but your book describes you as an agnostic — you’re not an atheist, right? That’s not your personal position these days.
    BART: No, I’m not. They use that phrase in trying to differentiate me from people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. They’re seen as “new atheists” and Harper wants people to know that I’m up to something quite different from them.

    DAVID: In the book, here’s how you describe the point that you finally reached: “I realized that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life. In particular, 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.”
    In the book, you carefully explore the Bible’s many and often conflicting responses to suffering. And, in terms of suffering in the world today, you talk about everything from the Holocaust to AIDS in Africa to natural disasters.
    One of the crystalline moments of personal change that you describe in the book is a Christmas Eve service you attended in which all the hopes expressed in the service seemed so inadequate and contradictory with what you see in the world.
    BART: The Christmas Eve service kind of encapsulated a lot for me. This wasn’t the first time I had thought about it. I had been thinking about these issues for many years. But it was kind of a paradigmatic moment for me. There are a lot of times when I just scratch my head and wonder: How can one affirm the belief in a god with this kind of thing going on — or that kind of thing going on?
    But with that Christmas Eve service it was such a quiet moment that it struck me anew how this world is in such a sad state that I wish there was a god intervening and alleviating suffering in this world. But it became quite plain to me that doesn’t make sense.

    DAVID: You write about many problems — from the Bible’s conflicting answers about suffering to modern devastations around the world. Was any one of them, in particular, the sort of deal breaker for you?
    BART: There are just so many deal breakers.

    I mention in the book is one thing that initially got to me. It was this mudslide in Colombia in the 1980s where this volcano erupted and it created a mud slide that wiped out several villages and killed 30,000 people in a matter of minutes. They drowned in hot mud. I remember when that happened it was right at the point at which I was starting to think about the problem of suffering and how one explains this world.
    The thing about this volcano is that it’s a different kind of problem than thinking about something like the Holocaust. The Holocaust is deeply disturbing to everyone, but a lot of people I meet don’t find that it challenges their view of god very much because they can explain that, because of free will, humans can do evil things to other human beings. They say that the Holocaust is a prime example of that –- humans doing evil — but it doesn’t challenge their view of god. And, for many years, it didn’t challenge mine.
    But, when you read about something like this mud slide, it just doesn’t make any sense that there is so much suffering in this world through no one’s will. It doesn’t seem as though there is any necessary explanation for something like this mud slide.
    It’s things like this that really call into question what kind of world this is. Is there a god in control of it or not?

    DAVID: Let me ask you a question straight out: Are you prone to chronic depression? Reading some of the lines in your book about darkness swallowing up light — and your conclusion that some of these things that once were so dear to you don’t make sense any more — it sounds a bit like depression.
    I’ve never read anywhere that you struggle with depression — but straight out: Is this an issue in your life?
    BART: No, not at all. Actually, I’m a very cheerful guy who laughs a lot. That may sound funny as I say it — but, no, I’ve given this a lot of thought and a lot of work. And, no: No depression.
    DAVID: As people read your book and ponder these questions, I don’t want to leave any easy “outs” in the conversation, so I wanted to pose that question. It’s obvious in reading your book that you’ve devoted a lot of effort to this work. It feels to me as though you’re redefining the central problem of our age in light of scriptures. There are others who have taken this kind of prophetic stance in the past. I’m thinking of Jefferson and Wilberforce on slavery, for example.
    You’re saying the problem we should be wrestling with in our age is not so many other issues that seem to be driving religious debates these days. You’re saying, the real problem we need to struggle with is suffering.
    BART: Yes, I’m arguing that this absolutely needs to be what we’re focusing on and what we’re concerned about. The thing that struck me when I first started working on the problem of suffering is that this was the problem all the biblical authors were struggling with, too!
    I never had to search hard to find this issue, because all the authors in the Bible are struggling with this question. In the history of Israel, when they’re overthrown by a foreign power, the biblical authors and the prophets would struggle with this.
    This is the problem of our age, too — but it is a problem that runs throughout the Bible. It’s not unique to our age.

    DAVID: As a journalist, I’ve worked in various parts of the world. I’ve been to the Middle East, to Eastern Europe just after the revolutions had swept through around 1990, to a number of Asian countries, even to Bangladesh during a period when there was violence in the streets.
    I keep writing to our readers about this problem that, as Americans, we really cannot see the world as clearly as we think we’re seeing it. Here in the U.S., we’re so removed from the kind of devastating suffering that people in other parts of the world see with great regularity. Yes, we’ve had hurricanes and school shootings and so on — but most of us don’t see dead bodies on a regular basis as people in other regions do.
    BART: That’s very true. In America, we’re so far removed from even the basic processes of life and death. We’re so far removed from death issues that we don’t even bother with the deaths of the animals that we eat. We don’t have to kill animals anymore to feed the family. We buy our food freshly packaged in the grocery store.
    The whole process of life and death is very much removed from us. Most of us may have experienced the birth of a child or two or three — and that’s kind of it for major life-and-death experiences until our parents die. We’re not constantly confronted with issues like that and, while we may occasionally read about natural disasters, most of us simply don’t have any experience with that kind of thing.
    DAVID: I’m not trying to beat on this issue unduly, but I’ve talked about this problem with so many people. I’m thinking of someone like Tony Campolo, who talks about these issues very much in the way you describe them here. We think that, as Americans, we’re besieged with problems — but we really don’t have a clue about the magnitude of the world’s suffering.
    Am I harping on this? Your book indicates that we should be talking more about this, right?
    BART: Yes. Yes. Yes. You’re right to harp on this because it’s a very real issue. We haven’t experienced war in America in more than a century. Wars always happen overseas. And wars never hit home, unless you happen to be a parent of an unfortunate soldier who gets killed. But we’ve never experienced building-to-building fighting here and people dying around us like people do in so many parts of the world.

    DAVID: One of the points you make in your book is that, in light of people who do experience such agonizing devastation, then it becomes incredibly cruel to turn to sections of the Bible that say suffering is a result of god’s punishment.
    BART: Yes. It’s in page after page in the Hebrew Bible where you’ll find prophets who have this view. The Torah has this view. A good chunk of the Hebrew Bible and parts of the New Testament, as well, view suffering as god’s punishment on us.
    I remember doing this radio interview. We were talking with a pastor who said he’d had a situation in his church where a middle-aged woman’s 12-year-old daughter died of a brain tumor and she told the pastor that this had happened because she’d once promised God that she would quit smoking. Then she hadn’t quit smoking — and this is why her daughter died.
    That kind of thinking is so wrong on so many levels that I think we all have to face this.

    DAVID: Then, there’s this equally troubling argument that you write about related to apocalyptic thinking. There’s this hope in a lot of the Bible that people’s suffering today doesn’t matter so much because, in the end …
    BART: In the end, in the New Testament, the predominant idea is not that god punishes, but that god is ultimately going to triumph. Now there is suffering, we’re told, because there are evil forces in the world causing harm, but in the end god will vindicate himself and will overthrow the forces of evil. When he does that, god will humble the exalted and exalt the humbled. There’s a price to be paid in the end in this argument and god can become someone who wreaks vengeance on bad behavior again.
    Then, there’s the question: If god is going to do something about suffering in the end — then, why wait? Why doesn’t god do something about it now? This apocalyptic scenario has led a lot of people into a passive reaction to pain and suffering in the world. There’s this idea that god’s going to intervene, so there’s not much for us to do right now.

    DAVID: And, in some cases, people actually seem to be taking some pleasure in this idea, right? I mean, all those fans of the “Left Behind” series seem to be enjoying the idea that people “in the know” will get a free pass at some point.
    BART: Well, historically this kind of apocalyptic appeal was attractive to people who were downtrodden and oppressed. This material was written to give these people hope historically.
    What’s happened in America is that this material has caught on with people who are not downtrodden and oppressed. There’s this kind of expectation that finally god is going to intervene; it’s going to happen very soon; and it’s a triumphalism embraced by people who were never oppressed for the most part — and it’s become almost perverse.
    There’s an extremely vindictive and gleeful thinking behind some of this. And, it’s not new. This kind of writing appeared throughout history — this idea that the saints in heaven will experience the pleasure of watching sinners roast in hell.
    You wonder, though, how that’s supposed to work exactly. If we’re to be concerned for the suffering, then how could we possibly delight in the suffering of someone else for all eternity. With the “Left Behind” thing going on, there are at least some people salivating at the idea of the tribulation coming because they won’t be here in the world to experience suffering.
    They don’t want to suffer — but they sure like to read about it affecting other people.

    DAVID: There is also a positive side to this timeless message. The hope that so many find in god runs from ancient times — I’m thinking of Mary’s song in the gospel of Luke — to modern times. I just had a Conversation With Robert Short, the author of “The Gospel According to Peanuts,” who tells me that even though he is in his 70s now, he wants to spend all his remaining time emphasizing the hopefulness and joy we can find in god.
    BART: There is a very positive message in the original Christian apocalyptic message. It says there’s evil in the world, but evil is not going to have the last word. God is going to have the last word. Not even death is the end of the story for us because god has the last say and good and justice will triumph in the end.
    And, the social response to that should not be complacency, just sitting back and waiting for what god’s going to do next, when he intervenes. The message of Jesus is that god is going to bring in the kingdom of god. That’s what the gospels are all about.
    Jesus tries to teach us what this kingdom will be like. He shows us things about the kingdom. He says that there won’t be illness or disease there, so Jesus heals the sick. And he says there won’t be devils or demons there, so Jesus casts out demons. He says there won’t be any death there, so Jesus raises the dead. The mission of Jesus is all about getting ready for the kingdom that’s coming in to the world.

    DAVID: You know, I’ve said in a couple of different pieces that I’ve written about your new book, including our review of it, that people shouldn’t get hung up with the issue of Bart Ehrman losing his faith. I mean, it’s a major turning point in your life — and you share it with us honestly to emphasize the importance of these issues — but it’s not the major news flash about this book.
    BART: I’m an agnostic now. I’m done with the trappings of organized religion. But I really don’t want my personal beliefs to be the message of this book. There’s so much pain and suffering in the world today that my own loss of faith is irrelevant in the face of that. The reason I talk about my loss of faith is to show why I wanted to write about this. It’s to say this is a very important issue for me personally.
    But I’m not interested in making other people agnostic. I spent a weekend speaking to churches in the Denver area and I was struck how honest and open people are in churches to talk about these things. They’re not all that far away from what I’m saying. They understand these issues should involve everybody.
    DAVID: I love the fact that the final lines of your book seem to echo Ecclesiastes. But let me ask you about that. You’ve got one short chapter in the middle of your book about Ecclesiastes — the scholar at the end of his rope who writes this haunting poetry that people have remembered for thousands of years.
    Am I correct that the final passage in your book was meant to echo these themes?
    BART: Yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking.
    DAVID: It closes so beautifully, I think, with your reprise of Ecclesiastes.
    BART: Yes. I think Ecclesiastes is an under-read book these days. It’s a hard book to read, because it seems to contradict itself all over the place within the book.
    A lot of Bible scholars think that the reason there are all these contrasts and contradictions in Ecclesiastes is that a later editor came along and couldn’t stomach what he found there. So, he added some things and changed a few things to make some of it seem more hopeful.
    But the heart of Ecclesiastes is where I am. Life is fleeing and short and we should grab, in life, all that we can and live to the fullest. That doesn’t mean we should be self-centered hedonists. No. What we must do is help other people live life to its fullest, as well.
    Our response to suffering should be that we’ll take action to help others, because we all should be able to live lives of fulfillment and happiness.

(AND SO ENDS our Conversation.)
    BART EHRMAN is on the road, these days. His publisher reports that three upcoming public appearances are confirmed: March 21 at Regulator Books in Durham, North Carolina; March 30 at Trinity Church in Boston; and April 3 at the Barnes and Noble in New Orleans.
    CLICK ON the cover of Bart’s book above to jump to our review of it. Plus, while you’re there, you can buy a copy via Amazon, if you wish.

    NOTE to our eagle-eyed readers about the style of today’s Conversation With Bart Ehrman: The whole concept of god is called into question in Bart’s new book. In some cases, we’re talking about ideas concerning deity in general, or the nature of a good or a bad god. Many of the references are speculative about the nature of gods. So, in today’s Conversation, we lower-cased the word “god” to make it clear that this is an urgent dialogue about how we should consider the nature of deity.

    We would love to hear what you think! In the online version of this story, click on the “Comment” link at the end of the story. Or — we always welcome emails to ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.

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