Easter and the Problem of Evil

By Angelo Matera

Posted 3/24/08 at 7:29 AM


This Easter I waited for the usual Newsweek, Time or U.S. News magazine cover story about “Why Jesus Really Died,” or the “Lost Christianities” the Church has supposedly suppressed in centuries past. Mercifully, I didn’t notice any (I did find a very respectful photo essay on Ireland’s religious orders in Newsweek). Could it be that mainstream media editors have figured that the recent glut of “new atheism” books by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others has made debunking Christianity passé?

Magari! as we Italians say. If only. While the magazines may have been quiet, the books against God keep coming. In GodSpy this week, David Scott deconstructs the most recent one, published at the start of Lent—Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer.

Scott is no ideologue. He acknowledges the seriousness of Ehrman’s charge, as well as those unbelieving writers and critics—like James Wood—who’ve treated the matter with the respect it deserves. The question of why a good and all-powerful God would allow the innocent to suffer is religion’s most vulnerable point. If you’re a Christian and you aren’t troubled at least a bit by the problem of suffering, there’s something wrong.

It’s impossible to dismiss someone who can’t believe in God because of the suffering they’ve personally experienced or witnessed. The most well-known example may be the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, author of the spiritual memoir, Night. And then there is the example of Jesus Christ himself. In his book, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton provocatively said that when Christ on the cross asked “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”, “God seemed for an instant to be an atheist”.

What these examples have in common is experience. Faith isn’t tested by abstractions, but by life. The “new atheists” base their arguments against the God of the Bible on science and logic, but that’s never been the issue. The best statement I’ve ever read expressing this truth is by Eamon Duffy, from the opening of his moving essay “When Belief Fails”:

…belief in that God is not now or and never has been a matter of a collection of opinions and ideas about how the world started or how it works; it is not rooted in bad physics. The saints and theologians and simple believers of the past cannot be dismissed as a bunch of flat-earthers, whose God is some sort of discredited spiritual technology. Belief in God is now what it always has been, a matter of trust and reliance in the hopefulness and goodness of reality, and our place in it. Knowledge as such hardly affects it, and cannot in itself hinder or help it. Ask yourself; who will find it harder to believe in a loving and caring creator – a secure Western scientist in search of explanations in a well-funded laboratory, or a peasant woman in Ethiopia whose children have starved to death before her eyes? The things which make belief in God difficult are not the inventions of our age, but the perennial tragedy and brokenness of human existence.

Which brings us to Ehrman. A former evangelical Christian who “after many years of grappling with the problem” of suffering, lost his faith, Ehrman is now an agnostic. In a recent interview, he says, with certainty, “I don’t ‘know’ if there is a God; but I think that if there is one, he certainly isn’t the one proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, the one who is actively and powerfully involved in this world.”

Does Ehrman back up his case, either with good theology, or convincing existential examples, or both? Find out by reading David Scott’s in-depth review of God’s Problem.