Tears of the Devil

A Critique of

God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question

– Why We Suffer

by Moses Mikheyev in for Snyder Bible, Summer 2009

 

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Much has been written on the subject of suffering; why we suffer has been asked by regular man God's Problem, says Ehrman.and scholar alike. Some, I guess, felt as if the question has been answered, while others have abandoned their faith due to the lack of an answer. I myself decided to read the arguments produced by people that felt as if no answer existed, particularly after reading Bart D. Ehrman’s God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question- Why We Suffer. The title of the book itself suggests that God has a problem if He allows suffering.

            After reading books as these, I debated with myself some of the matters and came to a conclusion that a lot of people ask God why we suffer for improper reasons. Bart Ehrman, for example, left his faith after being a pastor and biblical scholar. He now believes that there may be a God, but it is surely not the God of the Bible (Ehrman 4). He says, in my own paraphrase, that when he eats a meal he cannot thank God for the food when he knows that at that same instant God is allowing someone else to die from hunger (Ehrman 129).

            Why thank God when there is no one out there to honestly and whole heartedly thank? I mean, thank God for the food that he gives me while someone else is starving? Thank God that I, the not-so-good-one, eat while innocent children starve??  

            During a Christmas Eve service Ehrman was confronted with a prayer that led him to “reason” with God:

“The darkness is too deep, the suffering too intense, the divine absence too palpable. During the time that it took for this Christmas Eve service to conclude, more than 700 children in the world would have died from 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. Nor the innocent victims caught up in the human trade industry, nor those suffering throughout the world from grinding poverty…and where is God? (Ehrman 6).

 

            While writing all of these things, I believe, Ehrman has come to the question of suffering with pre-conceived ideas. He clearly states, in my opinion, that other authors are more idiotic/naïve/stupid than himself; they are, in his own words, “people who prefer easy answers” (Ehrman 18). Since when have we decided that only the “hard answers” are the “correct” answers? This is, again in my opinion, a pre-conceived idea that the “answer” to life’s “most important question” must be “hard”. I respect many of Ehrman’s statements (it is a well thought out book), but I refuse to accept arrogance over truth.

            Honestly though, Ehrman asks really good questions. But I must admit that the Bible does answer some of the questions of why we suffer (if taken within their own context); it is Bart Ehrman who ignores it (and, I dare say, finds it “unsatisfying”); maybe because it is he who takes satisfaction in dissatisfaction.

            I will produce my side of the argument, not for the sake of argument, but for the sake of providing evidence that Ehrman takes the Bible and uses the books message out of context (I am not blaming Ehrman totally, for we all have our own perspectives, but this happens to be mine; that he takes some things out of context and focuses on the evil, which he exaggerates, at times, too much).

            Freewill

            According to early Christian teaching, the majority, if not all, of Christians taught that man suffers because of his own choices. Justin Martyr (160 A.D.) wrote regarding freewill- what the early Christians believed- the following:

Neither do we maintain that it is by fate that men do what they do, or suffer what they suffer. Rather, we maintain that each man acts rightly or sins by his free choice…Since God in the beginning made the race of angels and men with free will, they will justly suffer in eternal fire the punishment of whatever sins they have committed (Justin Martyr).

            To be blunt, there were a lot more “early Christians” who embraced “freewill”, for example; Tertullian, Origen, Hippolytus, Tatian, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus.

Since man has freewill, and God has given every man a choice, it is not God’s fault if a man chooses murder over reconciliation. Now if the murdered person’s family “suffers” it is because man has chosen evil over good, not because God “allowed” it. God has given man free will from the very beginning. In the very first book of the Bible, Genesis, God told man that he may not eat from a particular tree. It was a little while later and man ate from the tree (Genesis 2:15-3:24). Now, why didn’t God stop the man from eating? Because God is neither a ventriloquist nor a puppet master. If God absolutely and totally controlled mankind, mankind would cease to exist. If that were the case it would not be “mankind” but “Godkind”. According to Ehrman (at least he left me with such a notion), God must interfere with humans on a minute basis. He must “control” each and everyone. If anyone even planned on evil they should be shot on the spot. This is Ehreman’s vision of a “utopia” where no one suffered (and, of course, Ehrman wants God to control nature so that earthquakes won’t happen, and, possibly, rivers should ‘instantly’ drain if a child is drowning!).

But even with “Ehrman’s God” we would run into serious problems. Because if such a God existed we would all be dead. Why? Because we all have sinned in some ways. If we have sinned, then we probably have “hurt” somebody. And if we have “hurt” somebody than we have helped create a “suffering world”. If we have created a “suffering world”, than we should cease to exist, because, according to Ehrman, God should not allow suffering. And if God does not allow suffering than He must kill us (because we have made someone suffer). Of course, we would all be dead in a matter of hours (or is it minutes?), because we probably did tell someone something that was “mean” and unkind. If that is the case, than we have helped add to this worldly “suffering”. And if we have made someone suffer then…I don’t know Ehrman, you tell me.

Another point that some people refuse to point out is the stupidity and stubbornness of humanity. Let us take for example a man that is about to jump off of a cliff. Next to him is a person trying to prevent him from dying. The man does not listen and so ends up dead. Now, before he “fully” dies he must suffer, let us say, a few minutes or hours. Now, in these times of self-inflicted sorrow does the bystander that offered “help” turn to God and scream out, “Why could you not stop him?” No! After reading Elie Wiesel’s famous book Night, told in my own words, you do have a brief part of the story which speaks about a person who ran through the city yelling to people that when the Germans come it will be Hell. The people did not listen. And so when the Germans came they were all rounded up and taken to Hell (concentration camps).This can be a perfect example for us. The people had the chance of listening and fleeing but they refused. God cannot be blamed for the sins of humans. Who knows, maybe the “crazy” screaming pessimistic man was a prophet of God. Who knows?

With all of this rambling I don’t know if I got the point across. Since I do want to get the point across I would like to use a very familiar biblical representation of God, which should, I think, make more sense.

            God: The Father

            If, according to the Old and New Testaments, God is a father, then he must act as an average father acts (Sirach 51:10, Mark 11:25).

            Now, how does a father treat his children (generally speaking here)? He, at first, may almost “control” his children in the early days of youth; laying down “rules” and what not. Later, the father lets the children make their own decision. Do the children make mistakes? Yes. Does the father “kill” them? Certainly not. If the father was to control his children all of their days (which is fairly impossible), then their uniqueness would cease to exist, which, in turn, would make their identity cease to exist; which essentially leads to the father being the father and child. If the father controls the child to such an extent, then the child is no longer its own being but a clone.

            I don’t think that such a father would be called a father. He would be called a puppet master. God is not a puppet master. He allows man to make his own decisions. If a person eats junk food all of his life and eventually dies from cancer, does he blame God? Does he say, “Oh God, why am I suffering?” No!

            God gave us free will. If you understand this then you will understand suffering. And yes, good people do suffer. Sometimes not because of what they’ve done, but because a fellow human decided to do evil, not that God “allowed” the evil, but that He “allowed” the person to make his own decision, that is, whether to commit it or not.

            After presenting some of my “ideas” I want to present multiple verses from the Holy Scriptures that clearly say that man has free will.

            Letting the Scriptures Speak for Themselves

            “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you may live, loving the Lord, obeying him... (Deuteronomy 30:19,20 NRSV).

            God can say it no clearer, “I have given you a choice, to kill or not to kill; to do good or to do evil. Do good.”  Why is it so hard for intelligent people to understand such simple statements?

            “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8 NRSV).

There are a multitude of verses that can be quoted; but that would require too much space, and, since I like to be blunt and rather brief, I would rather you use a bible dictionary and search under “free will”.

Suffering: Revisited

Suffering is a vast subject and all of its points cannot be carefully examined; there are many forms that probably exist of which we haven’t heard of. Anyhow, I would like to present fairly basic explanations that have existed for centuries, which we all are rather familiar with; suffering because of sin, suffering due to being “tested” by the devil (whom God “allows” to “test”), suffering due to God, and the suffering in which we all will “go to heaven” for. These forms of suffering can all be basically outlined and described, yet with others not so (which I will later discuss).

Suffering Due to Sin

We all know that a sinner suffers for his own sins; that is why we place people in prison for rape, murder and theft. Now, we all know that if such “evil” humans were to be released many would commit the sin (crime) again. This is why we like to hold some “serious” offenders in prison for a long time. Since even irreligious human beings have understood the concept of punishment for sin then it is definitely nothing new for Judeo-Christian people. We also generally know that punishment does help (if I told a drug dealer that his eyes would be cut out the moment he sold more drugs, he most likely would never deal again).

Sometimes God punishes us for our sins in order so that we may understand what is good for us. This “punishment” is essentially a “good” thing. I love Machiavelli’s famous statement, which is, essentially, Christianity defined in a nutshell; “The ends justify the means”. Truly a lot of things in life can fall into being later defined as “good”, even though at a particular time they were viewed as “bad”.

For example, a man may commit a sin, let us say, adultery. And God allows the woman to become pregnant. In a matter of months the sin, physically and literally, keeps increasing until it gives birth to its “knowledge”, that is, the arrival and knowledge of the deed previously done. Upon the child’s birth (which looks, unfortunately, like its father) the man’s wife is very grieved. The man feels greatly disturbed at his wife’s pain and never commits the sin again. Years later the wife finds forgiveness in her heart (which, unfortunately, doesn’t happen often) and the man considers himself happy and actually thanks God that He put an end to his stupidity.

Now, in this illustration, we need to examine who suffered. First, the husband suffered because of the pain his wife had to go through. Second, the woman who got pregnant probably suffered also. Thirdly, the child would probably also suffer the loss of a father in his/her life. And fourthly the wife of the adulterer probably greatly suffered (I would assume she suffered more than anyone else).

So, we have painted ourselves a perfect picture of suffering. Now, we do have to say, that, since the man’s evil was revealed, he never committed it again. What if this “suffering” was never allowed? What if God didn’t allow the woman to become pregnant? What if the man committed even worse acts of sin upon discovering his new found “freedom” (that is no prostitute getting pregnant and no knowledge of sin whatsoever by anyone else including his wife)?

These are deep questions that have to be answered.

God clearly says that a greater evil makes a lesser evil look good (Ezekiel 16: 45-52). Thus, if our God is good, while allowing free will, then maybe when we humans commit sin God only tries to fix our mistakes and allow as little suffering as possible (thus, by allowing the lesser evil, God is “good”; He has withheld the greater evil).

I believe that if we view God as a holy and righteous and caring God then we will view God as the “problem solver” rather than “The Problem”. In the end, that is what it really comes down to. We humans commit crime and then watch God help us, and, upon Him finishing, we blame God for anything that was left of our mess. We leave God with the mess in His hands and blame Him. Sorry, but that happens quite often.

Suffering That Leads to a Greater Good

I would like to use an illustration that may paint a brighter picture for that “explanation” to unexplainable suffering.

 A woman has breast cancer and so is in need of chemotherapy. She goes to the doctor and asks him to describe the whole process of chemotherapy (which he does). Later on, as the cancer gets worse, she allows herself to be injected with foreign material and other “cruel” matter. Now, we know that she may be cured of her cancer (that is a big maybe) after being injected with the medicine. Now, if a person allows themselves the nightmares of chemotherapy (hair loss, weight loss, nausea, and etcetera) for ‘maybe’ a chance at life again, then why can’t God lead us through suffering that we, at a particular moment, cannot understand??

The reason why we allow ourselves to “suffer” is because we believe that the “ends will justify the means”. We believe that we will be “saved”. We believe that maybe one more night of horror may be our entrance to paradise. Yes, humans do “allow” suffering when they know in what it might result in. It is my belief that we believe that, in the end, this suffering will be justified.

On the other hand, we view God as horrible when He allows suffering. Is it because of the suffering? Or is it because of our lack of knowledge for why we suffer?

I think we humans are not too afraid of suffering. For example, a woman who has given birth will most likely have sex again and want to get pregnant! It is amazing, but it happens. Even though she knows that labor will be painful. Why? Because the suffering is justifiable. 

The labor pains will be soon forgotten upon the arrival of a child. Yes, the father will be singing Creed’s song With Arms Wide Open.

I believe that if our suffering is “explained” we will not view it as really bad. If a horrible and arrogant person is humbled through a “suffering” experience, maybe people will actually like his personality after the pain. Maybe it will bring everyone joy. Maybe.

Basically, I am saying that humans are not so scared of suffering when it can be explained or justified. Suffering is only viewed as “horrible” when it cannot be understood. In this lies the heart of suffering. Upon knowing the truth you shall be set free. Truly, truth (knowledge) will “make you free” (John 8:32 NRSV)!!

Suffering Because of a ‘Test’

This rather idiotic suffering arises from God “testing” us. I believe this is probably the worst suffering that we may try to “explain”. I, personally, don’t enjoy the biblical book of Job; I find it almost detestable. It is primarily from this book that we have the basic idea of why God tests us. We do have references throughout the Old Testament, for example, Abraham and Isaac, but for the most part we obtain our “knowledge” of God testing us from the book of Job (Genesis 22:1).

Since I don’t enjoy the book of Job much (maybe later in life I will), I want to focus on the “test” that God put Abraham to when asking him to sacrifice his only son.

According to the book Genesis, written by Moses about 1350 B.C., Abraham had a conversation with God in which he asked God why he had no children. God took Abraham outside and told him to look at the stars. Abraham, looking at the stars, was told to count them (if he could). God then said that Abraham would have as much descendents as there were stars.

What I find fairly interesting is that God began this discussion with Abraham only after Abraham did good unto the ‘king of Sodom’ (Genesis 14: 17 NRSV). Abraham gave the king of Sodom all of the possessions he had ‘rescued’ (i.e. the men and the goods) without keeping any for himself. Only after being so generous does God come to Abraham in a “vision” (Genesis 15:1 NRSV). Also, Abraham gives one-tenth of his possessions to the King Melchizedek (who is most likely Jesus the Messiah pre-incarnate).

The whole story is fairly vague and Genesis chapters 14-16 seem to have something lacking in them.  From the story, as I read it in Greek and other translations, it appears that Abraham was, to some extent, a military commander who helped the ‘king of Sodom’ rebel against other kings, who, unfortunately, won. The other kings drove the ‘king of Sodom’ and his allies away and took a lot of their possessions with Abrahams nephew Lot.  Now Abraham, upon hearing that Lot was taken captive, took 318 men and chased after the King Chedorlaomer and his allies (the king who fought against the king of Sodom). Abraham took all of the possessions back and returned home with the possessions and Lot. The king of Sodom came to meet him and asked that Abraham only give him his men (which he also rescued). Abraham said that he will give not just his men back but also all of the possessions.

After some time that this promise was made, Sarah (Abrahams wife), made Abraham have sex with her Egyptian slave-girl in order so that Abraham could have an heir (Sarah apparently did not believe that God would allow herself to conceive). Abraham chose to listen to Sarah and had sex with the slave-girl. She conceived and after some time she took pride that her son (the slave girls) would be the heir of all of Abraham’s possessions, so she started treating her mistress Sarah with contempt. Sarah, on the other hand, put her through something horrible in which the slave-girl ran away from home.

Anyways, the point is that the slave-girl bore a son when Abraham was 86 years old. Now, 13 years later, God again appears to Abraham and tells him that Sarah will conceive and have a child, and, specifically through Sarah, will he become the “ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5 NRSV).

Fortunately Abraham believes. Even though 13 or even more years have passed since God made a promise- Abraham still believes.

Here are the specific words God tells Abraham:

“As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her. Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child? And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael [the slave-girl’s son] might live in your sight!” God said, “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him” (Genesis 17: 15-19 NRSV).

Notice that God specifically tell Abraham that Isaac will have children, and, that specifically through Isaac, will nations arise.

Years later God tells Abraham to sacrifice his very son, his only true legitimate son. Now, do you think Abraham honestly believes that God will have him sacrifice his son Isaac, through whom, as God said, nations will arise? No!

Abraham knows that God will never destroy Isaac. He might sacrifice him but he will surely resurrect him and bring him back to life, because, “I will make a great nation of him” was still ringing in Abraham’s head.

Thus, as some skeptics have criticized, God never asked Abraham to sacrifice his son in the sense that he will be killed. He only was testing him, and Abraham, I am sure, knew that no harm would be done.

According to Flavius Josephus, Abraham told Isaac that God, if this is really his will, just wants to take Isaac directly into heaven without any natural death, through this sacrifice (Antiquities of the Jews 50). And also, according to the Old Testament, Abraham said that “God himself will provide” (Genesis 22: 8 NRSV), which is foreshadowing the fact that Isaac will not be killed.

The reason I needed to explain the story of Abraham and Isaac is because many skeptics of the Holy Scriptures have used this tale as an excuse that God is “evil” and wants the blood of other beings while Himself saying that human sacrifice is a sin (Genesis 9:6, 2 Chronicles 33:6). God in no way wants the sacrifice of a human; He himself forbids it from the very beginning.

“If God allows us to “suffer” in order to “test” us then He must be evil.” This is how many skeptics respond. But I have shown you that God did not cause Abraham to “suffer”. He would have if He told Abraham to sacrifice his son without telling him that through his son Isaac he would have offspring. Nevertheless, since God told Abraham everything from the beginning he most likely never worried, but only trusted God that he would either resurrect his son (if the sacrifice did go through), or, he would provide something other to sacrifice (as I previously mentioned).

Now, concerning the suffering of Job and the replies made by God and Job’s friends I will say that they have to be examined in light of the time period and they have to be understood in light of the beliefs held about God back then. Also, the benefit of the doubt must always go to the author of an ancient work; some things may not be fully understood, for example, if a thousand years later someone were to find a writing that said that a certain woman fell in love with a “cool” man, the translators may assume that she fell in love with a rather “cold hearted” person. Yet, on the contrary, we know that “cool” today means something absolutely contrary to what it may have meant a hundred years ago or what it will mean a hundred years later. Thus things written in an ancient book, like the Holy Scriptures, must always be understood to be somewhat confusing and “lost in translation”.

The book of Job, I believe, may be such a book; full of metaphors and poetry that may never be fully understood, and, if something sounds strange, we should rather pass it off and just hold on to whatever good we get out of it.
            In conclusion, on this suffering due to God testing us, we must all agree that we will all be refined as gold is refined. All tested as gold is tested (1 Peter 1:7, Zechariah 13:9). With this in mind I wanted to say that God, many times, gives us something beforehand that will justify His actions later; as is the case with Abraham and God telling him that Isaac, specifically, will have offspring. I believe that sometimes we suffer because even gold “suffers” when being refined. And why is it being refined?? So that only, in the end, it will be better and more precious.

            Suffering Because of the Devil

            I guess that some will argue that God does not test but that the devil tests (as is found in the book of Job). This argument is, well, not as absurd as one would think. God “allows” the devil to test somebody and both get the credit. The way that this makes sense for me will be shown in the following illustration.

            A woman is seeking an abortion. She goes to a doctor to get it. One observer writes that the woman “killed” the child, while another writes that the doctor was the murderer. Now, a third source tells us that the devil moved the doctor to kill the baby; which means that the doctor is not to blame but the devil. And, moreover, a fourth source says that God, giving the devil “permission”, is the one to blame.

            Who is to be believed when asking, “Who killed the child?”

            You see, many people have their own perspectives. And, fortunately, when understanding the context, we know that all are saying, to some extent, the “truth”. So it is with the Holy Scriptures, we sometimes think things are contradictory, but they are not.

            Anyways, back to the argument, the devil sometimes asks God to test us. It is essentially not the devil testing us, but God. The devil made a suggestion, and God just decided that it was a “good” suggestion. So, in the end, it is really God who is testing us.

            A good example of different perspectives of whether it was God or the devil is found in the Holy Scriptures. The book of 2 Samuel says that the “Lord” moved David to count his army (for the sake of pride), while the book of 1 Chronicles says that “Satan” moved David to number his military (2 Samuel 24: 1, 1 Chronicles 21:1).

            So who moved David?? Was it Satan or the Lord??

            It was probably a matter of perspective. One author saw God allow Satan to move David, while the other only focused on Satan. Thus, Satan (the adversary) probably found something in David that was evil, something like pride. And Satan just did what David would have done anyways. He planted the thought and David cultivated it. God gave us free will, and David chose pride over humility.

            I want to take this one step further. I want say that, in the end, sometimes the devil, or the evil side of humanity, suggests something bad, and we are the ones who activate it. Someone may jokingly tell you to go kill someone, but you probably wouldn’t. Likewise, the devil may suggest something, but it is you who act on it.

            Suffering from Natural Disasters

            Skeptics like Ehrman believe that God is essentially evil because he allows people to die in natural disasters. What I find fascinating is that Ehrman takes the Holy Scriptures and twists them to make themselves appear more horrible than they really are. He doesn’t want to accept the fact that, when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (with the other surrounding cities), He couldn’t even find 10 righteous humans in it (Genesis 18: 32)!! It is no wonder that He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.

            The reason that, I believe, Ehrman finds problems with explanations like these is that he doesn’t believe that Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t have 10 righteous people. He finds it difficult to believe; so he says that God is evil, because he is sure that God probably killed some that were righteous in the cities.

            What about the innocent children that die from famine in Africa?? I don’t think I have an answer for that. It’s probably not found in the Holy Scriptures (who said that the Bible had all of the answers?? may have been Ehrman’s pre-conceived opinions, but surely such a statement as ‘The Book of the Answers to Suffering’ is found nowhere in the Bible), but it may. I can suggest that, in the end, something good may come out. But I also want to include the fact that a lot of Africans are involved in witchcraft (so some of them can be biblically condemned) and some tribes practice homosexuality (also condemned in the Holy Scriptures, and also contributes to HIV/AIDS; thank you very much Ehrman, but statistics/studies only prove that many homosexuals, if not all, will die from AIDS in their lifetime).

            The Conclusion to a Never Ending Discussion

            What can I say in the end? Can I say that I have somehow defined everything and have answered all of the questions?? No, I can’t. And that is not even the point. The point was for me to produce some maybe new ideas and some old. I wasn’t trying to write out a book that will repeat itself twenty times (sort of like Ehrman’s book). I wasn’t trying to say that my writing even compares to Ehrman’s God’s Problem. That would be beyond the point. I wasn’t even going to say that I feel satisfied; because I honestly don’t. But I would like to say that even books like Ehrman’s don’t do much justice to suffering. After reading it you have an exaggerated view of suffering (with all of the “good explanations” sort of in the “shadows”). And after reading this writing I expect a majority to think that I gave them an answer, but, as Ehrman implies, the people who don’t want the easy answer, look elsewhere.

            I would like to conclude by saying that maybe there shouldn’t be an “answer” to suffering. Maybe it’s like the four primary colors; we have them and nobody asks why there aren’t five instead of four. We have suffering, we do it, we live through it (some die), and all I can say is, “Heck, this is life. Expect death.” Let us be realistic and cut all of the lies we are fed. Life has hardships and it is in comparison to the bad that we get what we call “good”. If there were no rainy days, you wouldn’t appreciate the sunny days.

 Maybe we should make suffering a god. That would bring tears to the devils eyes. Suffering is, after all, his weapon of choice.

 

 

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