The mansion of the new atheism has many rooms.
The top floor is reserved for scientific types like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. These folks claim religious beliefs can’t bear up to rational scrutiny and that God is a dangerous delusion we need to be done with.
The mansion’s left wing is given over to smash-mouth cranks and provocateurs like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. They carry on all night over there like naughty frat boys, writing open letters to “the Christian nation” about how God is not great and guffawing over the religious equivalent of fart jokes.
Did you hear the one about the atheist who goes out fishing with his believer friend?
The atheist pulls up his net and finds a rock inscribed with the words: “I do not exist. Signed: God.”
The atheist turns to his friend: “What’d I tell you!”
Also in the house, there’s a long, ambient corridor for tortured souls like the brilliant literary critic James Wood, who’ve been driven to unbelief by the problem of “theodicy”—how there could possibly be a good God in charge of a world filled with so much evil. These are the only people in the house worth talking to. They know how high the stakes are.
There’s a noisy backroom packed with God-haters and Church-baiters, ex-Catholics and conspiracy-theorists. These people don’t seem to know The Da Vinci Code was bad fiction. They really believe that Jesus was a phony and that Christianity was cooked up two thousand years ago by celibates with dark motives.
In this backroom is where you’ll find Bart Ehrman holding court. Ehrman’s up from the basement on the basis of his unlikely 2005 bestseller Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (HarperOne).
The mansion basement is where all the spade work of the new atheism gets done. It’s a viral hive of activity down there as professional Bible scholars hunch over the ancient texts, theorizing away the last remnants of their mystery and authority.
The basement floor is littered with parts of the Bible these scholars have deemed to be mythical or never to have happened—Noah’s Ark and Moses parting the Red Sea, all the miracles worked by Jesus, not to mention his virgin birth and resurrection from the dead.
Ehrman, 51, labored for years in this subterranean precinct of anonymous junior professors and wannabe grad students, honing his chops and writing more than a dozen books, mostly for scholars and specialists.
A “Deconversion” Story
The biblical has increasingly become personal for Ehrman.
For a number of years now, he’s been retailing what he calls his “deconversion story”—a prosaic coming-of-age fable about how he lost his religion through his scholarly study of the Bible and his thinking about the problem of innocent suffering in the world.
It’s apparently been quite a tumble for the former born-again “Youth for Christ,” who graduated from the fundamentalist Moody Bible Institute and went on to become a Baptist pastor and an acclaimed Ph.D. graduate of Princeton.
Ehrman’s creed now reads something like this: Jesus was just a charismatic man, not the Son of God made flesh; the Bible is not the Word of God but the flawed work of human scribes; and in the beginning there were “many Christianities,” until that is, the Catholic Church stamped out all the competition—Gnostics, Marcionites, Ebionites and the rest—destroying their scriptures and banishing them as “heretics.”
These views have made Ehrman a kind of American idol for the academic religion set.
Surely the only New Testament scholar to ever appear on Jon Stewart’s Comedy Central show, Professor Bart’s now the go-to guy whenever CNN, the Discovery Channel, or NPR needs a talking head to explain why we shouldn’t believe anything we’ve ever been taught about Jesus or the Bible.
His classes at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill are standing-room only. These days he drives a BMW convertible to work from his home in the country, where he lives with his second wife, Sarah Beckwith, a creative scholar of medieval culture at Duke University.
Ehrman’s publisher, HarperOne, has high hopes for his new book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer.
It arrived earlier this month—just in time for Holy Week and Easter—in an initial press run of 100,000 copies, according to Publisher’s Weekly.
But judging from this latest offering, Professor Bart has already become something of a burnt-out case.
The personal totally eclipses the biblical in this book. God’s Problem is all primal screed. It’s a disturbing and dishonest manifesto against the God of the Bible.
To make his case Ehrman hauls in all the usual suspects—genocide in Cambodia, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, tsunamis, starving babies, birth defects, and of course, the Holocaust.
For a book that’s supposed to be about the Bible, a surprising percentage of God’s Problem is devoted to set pieces on such topics as the Battle of the Bulge, the AIDS pandemic, potable water issues in sub-Saharan Africa, the flu epidemic of 1918, and the scourge of cancer (“It can hit any of us anytime.”). For several pages near the end, Ehrman even reads to us from his local newspaper.
The problems with God’s Problem run deeper than its ripped-from-the-headlines feel.
He begins: “If there is an all-powerful and loving God in this world, why is there so much excruciating pain and unspeakable suffering? The problem has haunted me for a long time.”
Notice the inflationary prose—the unnecessary modifiers for pain and suffering (“excruciating,” “unspeakable”), the appeal to the authority of his own anguish (he’s not disturbed or concerned, but “haunted”).
Ehrman prosecutes his battle against belief through existential yowling and the indiscriminate and overwhelming use of adjectives.
There aren’t realities, there are “gruesome realities.” Sin doesn’t bring judgment, it triggers “horrible judgment.” AIDS isn’t a public health crisis, but a “hellish nightmare for millions.” Jesus doesn’t suffer, he experiences a “horrible passion and death.”
The Holocaust makes Ehrman’s prose run positively purple. It is “the most heinous crime against humanity in the known history of the human race.” Its very mention often necessitates double adjectival deployment (“horrible and bloodcurdling”).
All this “horrible” writing points to the larger problem with God’s Problem—Professor Bart has nothing new to contribute on this subject. On every page we see the signs of a man struggling mightily to pump up his page count, to turn what amounts to an angry op-ed piece into a 275-page next-bestseller.
Theodicy and its Discontents
Theodicy has had its discontents since people first started to think about religion.
Everyone quotes the equation in British philosopher David Hume’s Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion (1779): “Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence, then, evil?”
But the character in Hume’s dialogue was actually summarizing the taunt of Epicurus, an atheist philosopher who lived in Athens about 300 years before Christ.
Whoever said it first, that’s the essence of the problem of evil and innocent suffering.
Ehrman claims to have found in the Bible four conflicting explanations for why we suffer: suffering is God’s punishment for sin (he calls this “the classical view”); we suffer that God might bring good out of evil (the “redemptive” view); those who suffer on earth will find their reward in heaven or at the end of time (the “apocalyptic” view); and suffering is a mystery we can’t explain (the view, he says, of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Bart Ehrman).
But readers looking to Ehrman for a thoughtful sifting and analysis of the biblical evidence will come away feeling short-changed and manipulated.
Many pages of God’s Problem consist of nothing more than long quotes from Scripture interspersed with Professor Bart’s arch asides—mostly of the “gotcha” and “aha” variety.
To wit: “One can hardly read this without thinking of that fierce cartoon with the caption: ‘Beatings will continue until morale improves.’ That indeed is Isaiah’s message.”
Ehrman settles into a lazy rhythm of summoning up texts in order to pronounce judgment upon them. Many of his biblical readings conclude like this: “I find this view offensive and repulsive” or “The problem with this view is not only that it is scandalous and outrageous, but . . .”
Ehrman writes in the bullying, pedantic tone of a man used to holding forth before undergraduates in the rathskeller. Indeed he’s known as one of those cool profs who holds office hours in the campus pub. And this kind of rhetorical gauntlet-downing is no doubt entertaining over a couple of pints. But on the page it makes for a rather thin ale.
God Said to Abraham . . .
Consider Ehrman’s treatment of one of the Bible’s most infamous passages—the story of God’s command that Abraham make a burnt offering of his beloved son Isaac (Gen. 22).
It’s a raw tale that has exercised people from the rabbis and Church fathers to Søren Kierkegaard (Fear and Trembling) and Bob Dylan (“Highway 61 Revisited”).
The Abraham story should be a perfect foil for Ehrman to study. Certainly the biblical author doesn’t shrink from the awfulness of what unfolds in his narrative. Throughout the passage the words “father” and “son” are deliberately repeated, building to the tense climax: “Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘My father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’”
Ehrman, however, boils it all down to a few lines of melodramatic caricature, his indignation frothing into a lather of invective at God’s “horrible directive” (that word “horrible” again!). As always he is keen to stay on message:
“It has all been a test, a horrible test. . . . The point of the story . . . is that . . . whatever God commands must be done, no matter how contrary to his nature (is he or is he not a God of love?), no matter how contrary to his own law (is he opposed to murder—or human sacrifice—or not?), no matter how contrary to every sense of human decency. There have been many people since Abraham’s day who have murdered the innocent . . . . What do we do with such people? We lock them up in prison or execute them. And what do we do with Abraham? We call him a good and faithful servant. I often wonder about this view of suffering.”
That’s the end of the discussion for Ehrman. Another “horrible” has been added to the bill of particulars against God. The reader is expected to share Ehrman’s outrage and incredulity and be ready to move on to his next proof-text.
But is Ehrman right about “the point of the story”?
Certainly he hasn’t demonstrated any point through sustained study of the biblical text. All the reader knows is how the text makes Professor Bart feel. His book, in a curious and unexpected way, is a kind of faith-sharing Bible study—all heart and no head; or maybe just all spleen.
But how are we to read Abraham’s motives and actions, and what are we to make of God’s intent in demanding this sacrifice of him?
The text itself suggests there is far more going on than the attempted murder that Ehrman describes.
A key line is what Abraham tells his servants before climbing the mountain with Isaac: “The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you” (Gen. 22:5).
One explanation is that Abraham is here trying to cover up the terrible deed he is about to commit. But it’s also possible that we have here an expression of Abraham’s faith that God would not require him to take Isaac’s life. We, Abraham is saying—both he and Isaac—we will return from the mountain.
That’s how ancient rabbis interpreted this passage, following leads picked up in Genesis and elsewhere in the Old Testament. That’s also the conclusion reached by the author of the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews. In fact, Hebrews interprets this passage as reflecting Abraham’s belief that God would raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:17–19).
Throughout the New Testament, the story of Abraham and Isaac is presented as a symbolic foreshadowing of God the Father’s offering of his only Son for the life of the world.
God’s praise for Abraham at the end of the story is picked up almost word-for-word by both St. Paul and St. John to describe how God “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (compare the Greek versions of Genesis 22:15; Rom. 8:32; John 3:16).
It remains a shocking text. But even a brief study exposes the insulting inadequacy of Ehrman’s overheated and jejune approach. One could go on multiplying similar examples from God’s Problem.
Ways of Reading
Ehrman likes to give the aura of providing us with the benefits of an objective, scientific, and historical study of the Bible.
He pads the pages of God’s Problem with boilerplate background about Israel’s history, the literary forms of biblical books, the dating of the Gospels, and the like.
But most of what he says about the origins of the Bible is speculative and the conclusions he draws are exaggerated.
Like many of those in the mansion of the new atheism, Ehrman works with a hermeneutic of suspicion—he figures that the Bible reflects the ideology of early Church leaders and that Jesus’ original teachings can only be found by stripping away the veneer of dogma and doctrine that the Church has overlaid on his figure and words.
Aside from anticlerical prejudice, there’s no scholarly basis for this line of interpretation. Nonetheless, on the basis of such “science,” a mansion of mischief has been built.
Ehrman recycles much of this mischief in God’s Problem. He claims, for instance, that the original Gospel writers didn’t believe Jesus was God, alleging those aspects of the Gospels to be much-later additions by Church authorities. He also contends that Jesus and the early Christians believed the end of the world was near and that this outlook colors all of the New Testament’s teachings.
Such conclusions are hardly the scholarly consensus that Ehrman makes them out to be.
In fact, other biblical scholars are making exciting discoveries that have nothing to do with the deconstructive turns of Ehrman and his conferees.
These scholars take a “canonical” or “inner-biblical” approach to interpretation. When you read the Bible this way you notice how much biblical interpretation goes on within the covers of the Bible itself—how passages in later books are always explaining and commenting upon those in earlier ones.
You notice, too, how certain themes keep coming up again and again: God’s creation and his saving plan for history; the Exodus and wilderness wandering of the Jews; God’s covenant as establishing his elect people as his sons and daughters—to name just a few of the more prominent themes.
Ehrman’s work takes no notice of more recent developments in biblical scholarship. Reading him is like entering a scholarly time-warp. It’s always 1978 in there. It’s as if progress in the field ended in the late disco era.
In God’s Problem we see how sterile and unproductive this method can be. By Ehrman’s own admission, his way of reading Scripture can find only contradiction, fragmentation, and doubt—four incompatible explanations of the problem of suffering.
God Cannot Suffer, But . . .
But reading the evidence another way, we find the Bible does answer our most important question.
It’s the answer Christians around the world will hear this week, beginning on Passion Sunday and proceeding through Good Friday and Easter.
There is a beautiful expression from St. Bonaventure (d. 1274)—Impassibilis est Deus, sed non incompassibilis—“God cannot suffer, but he can suffer with.”
The cross of Christ is the Bible’s answer to the problem of evil and innocent suffering. In Jesus God has come to suffer with us and for us. He has entered into his creation to take away the sin of the world and to destroy the final enemy, the ultimate suffering—death.
In the New Testament we see the cross understood in terms of the great themes and moments in the Old Testament—the Passover and Exodus, God’s covenant with Israel, the suffering servant of the prophets, the creation of the world, the sin of Adam.
In the Christian understanding, death and suffering entered the world because of sin. By his act of suffering and redemptive love on the cross, Christ atones for sin and restores creation and the human race to their original vocation. He makes it possible for us to live again as God intended us to live in the beginning—as his sons and daughters, as sharers in his divine nature, destined to enjoy communion with him in a love that never ends.
The redemption of the cross doesn’t protect us from suffering—from floods, famines, or the cruelty and injustice of others.
We remain, even after Christ, frail and finite creatures of flesh and blood, subject to the laws of nature—to sin, sickness, and decay, and to the often vicious exercise of the free will of others, be it individuals or social structures.
What the cross gives us is the divine assurance that nobody ever has to suffer alone or in vain.
Joined to Christ, we can grow in our capacity to love our brothers and sisters with compassion, to share in their sufferings, to see our own trials as a testing, a discipline, a purification. We can learn Christ’s truth that in losing our lives we find them.
The cross tells us that each of us is worthy of the blood of Christ, that each of us can say with St. Paul: “the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
This kind of talk drives Bart Ehrman to distraction.
But a serious Bible study, the only kind worthy of the blood and tears of the world’s suffering innocents, must give some account for this language—which pervades the New Testament and is there presented as the sum of God’s revelation in history and in all the Scriptures.
Ehrman never takes up the challenge. One is surprised too that Ehrman, a renowned expert in early Christianity, isn’t interested in tracing how these beliefs played out in the lives of the first Christians.
It’s actually an amazing story, as the sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, himself an avowed atheist, tells it in his essential, The Rise of Christianity (HarperOne, 1997).
It seems that Christians’ hope in the cross of Christ, in the life of the world to come, made them fearless in combating the evils and injustices of this world.
God showed his love for humanity through what amounted to self-sacrifice; humans were to show their love for God through self-sacrifice for one another. These were unheard of beliefs in the history of world religions and they had a “revolutionary” impact on civilization, Stark acknowledges.
For the first time in history, there was a people whose fundamental beliefs required that they be concerned with the most vulnerable members of society, those categories of suffering people whom no one in history had ever before cared about—the unborn and the newborn; the homeless, the terminally ill, the diseased, and the elderly; widows, orphans, and more.
And the first Christians not only endured the most hideous tortures and executions for their beliefs; they were also willing to suffer and die for their neighbors in the various plagues and epidemics that beset the Roman Empire in its twilight.
It’s revealing perhaps that in all the historical litany of innocent suffering in God’s Problem, Ehrman doesn’t include a single person who suffered explicitly for faith in God—no saints, no martyrs, no ordinary believers. Perhaps we’re to conclude that those who suffer for their faith aren’t innocent but somehow “deserve” to suffer.
For whatever reason, Ehrman shows no interest in the beliefs of those actually do suffer. He presumes to speak for them as he presumes to speak for the Bible. “The reality,” he opines without data, “is that most suffering is not positive, does not have a silver lining, is not good for the body or soul, and leads to wretched and miserable, not positive outcomes.”
The Testament of Bart
Ehrman, for all his talent and training as textual critic, never rises to the task of a biblical study of evil and innocent suffering. Instead, he builds God’s Problem to his own alternative to theodicy. Call it the Testament of Bart.
It goes something like this: There’s only this one life to live, hence we should live life to the fullest, seeking to avoid pain and to pursue the simple joys and pleasures of “living for the moment” and working to make the world a better place for ourselves and others.
He even offers a helpful checklist for how we can make the world a better place. We should fight poverty, genocide, bigotry, racism, discrimination “on the basis of gender or sexual orientation,” and we should stop spending “millions on wars [the U.S.] cannot win to empower regimes that cannot survive.”
Professor Bart claims his philosophy is that espoused in the Book of Ecclesiastes. It wouldn’t do any good to try to convince him he’s wrong.
He seems genuinely unaware that his philosophy is actually based on materialism and consumerism and defines happiness according to a bourgeoisie lifestyle unimaginable for most of the world’s inhabitants: “We should make money and spend money. . . . We should enjoy food and drink. We should eat out and order unhealthy desserts, and we should cook steaks on the grill and drink Bordeaux. . . We should travel . . . ”
His speech continues in this mid-life wish-listing vein for many more lines. These are the last words of God’s Problem.
One wants to be sympathetic to such a sincere cry of the heart. But one can’t help wondering: Is this all there is to life—pursuing a liberal social agenda while eating, drinking, and making merry?
What happens when we suffer, when people do us wrong, when we face persecution or attack for what we believe in, or for no reason at all? What happens when we age and realize that this is all we’ve done with our lives? How would Ehrman’s neo-Epicurean platitudes pull us through?
The problem of the new atheism is the problem of the old atheism. It amounts to the demand that God stand trial, that he justify his ways and means before a jury of his creatures. It’s the protest of reason against the uncertainties and injustices of existence.
Reason tells us that God could have made the world differently—without giving us the possibility to do all the bad things we do to each other, without the possibility of all those things insurance companies used to call “acts of God.”
Reason causes us wonder why God made us with free will, knowing what we would do with it. Why couldn’t his purposes be served by creating us with a little less freedom, or none at all?
And if it’s true that we’re made for heaven, why didn’t God put us there in the first place and let us skip this brief life of testing, pain, and heartache?
These are reasonable questions for which reason alone can give no answers.
What Ehrman and the new atheists forget is that a world without God is not a world without evil or innocent suffering. It’s simply a world in which we face sufferings without hope, without any possibility of justice—in this life or in the next.
As Thomas Carlyle wrote in the 19th century, when doubt darkens into unbelief, the world loses is purpose and becomes a “vast, gloomy, solitary Golgotha and mill of death.”
That’s where the new atheism leaves us.
Ehrman is still a prisoner of his literalist and fundamentalist upbringing. He demands of the Bible things the Bible was never meant to provide—certitude, black and white answers, the absolutes of reason. The Bible wasn’t meant to tell us why people starve in sub-Saharan Africa any more than it was meant to tell us about evolution or the “big bang.”
The Bible is written as St. John said, that we might believe in Christ and that by believing we might have life eternal. It’s a book not only of reason, but of faith.
Faith helps us to see beyond this veil of tears, this gloomy Golgotha of pain and death. It lets us see what angels longed to see, what the human eye has not seen and cannot see—that the suffering of this present time can’t be compared to the glory that will be revealed.
God’s love is stronger than evil, suffering, and death. That’s the Bible’s true answer to our ultimate question.
For now, Professor Bart no longer has ears to hear this answer. That’s not God’s problem. Tragically, it’s his.
David Scott, a Godspy contributing editor, is managing editor of the biblical theology journal, Letter & Spirit, and author of The Catholic Passion, and A Revolution of Love: The Meaning of Mother Teresa, among other books.