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Friday, October 28, 2011

Man's problem: How the Bible answers our most important question- why we suffer

It was my belief then, and continues to be my belief now, that different biblical authors had different solutions to the question of why God’s people suffer: some (such as the prophets) thought that suffering came from God as a punishment for sin; some thought that suffering came from God’s cosmic enemies, who inflicted suffering precisely because people tried to do what was right before God; others thought that suffering came as a test to see if people would remain faithful despite suffering; others said that suffering was a mystery and that it was wrong even to question why God allowed it; still others thought that this world is just an inexplicable mess and that we should "eat, drink, and be merry" while we can. And so on.
- [God's Problem; all citations on this page are from this source], p. 7

I readily admit that a comparison of my academic qualifications with those of Bart Ehrman would probably result in one of the most lop-sided contests in history... and decidedly not in my favor.  I have nowhere the amount of college-level classes in biblical studies.  My knowledge of  Greek and Hebrew is probably not even a tenth of his.  And if I had the impudence to suggest that I was a world-class biblical scholar, I would be met straightaway with men giving  me a style makeover which would include one of those coats with long sleeves that tie up in the back as well as a room with rubber wallpaper.  Thus, it's a bit surprising how he could have missed the most important solution to the problem of suffering- or at least its full implications- in his discussion, one which ties the ones he does mention together. As it so happens, the free will defense [Ehrman's objections to the free will defense will be addressed in a future post] does appear in the Bible, but as a dramatic narrative rather than a philosophical argument.  In the space of the first four chapters of Genesis, the situation goes from a "very good" creation (1:31) and a literal paradise in the Garden of Eden - one without sin, death, or, apparently, suffering- to the first murder.  In perhaps the understatement to end all understatements, something has gone terribly wrong.  In case there's someone out there who hasn't guessed what it was, it was man choosing to sin.  Let's review: first, God, creates a very good creation, gives Adam and Eve the perfect place to live (convenient location, plenty to eat, no long commutes, etc., etc., and, of course, etc.) as well as the perfect boon companion to be the apple (come to think of it, I probably could have phrased this better) of his eye.  Then He tells Adam, "So, man, who I created in My image and gave the gift of life to, which is it going to be?  Do you choose door number one, Eden, this wonderful paradisaical paradise [I never claimed that God had a way with words] where all you have to do is follow the simplest of rules, or do you choose door number two, where you get to do your own thing, but also suffer affliction and death?"  Adam, for those of you who might not be familiar with the story, chose the zonk.  In other words, man rejected paradise for a life of pain and death, which means he (and by "he", I mean "we", since all have sinned) is responsible for their occurrence.  Once more, just to make sure we get some of the pertinent, but often overlooked, details: God is the source of all life, both physical and spiritual.  Since we have sinned, we have therefore cut ourselves off from that source- we have become spiritually dead.  Because it is we who disconnected ourselves from God's love and goodness, God owes us nothing.  Once again, just to make sure everyone is clear on this point:
That He chose to give us life in the first place was a gift of love.  That He chose to offer even one of us a chance at salvation- that He chose not to simply abandon all of us to the spiritual death we deserve by rejecting such a gift- is an act of mercy as well, not obligation.  Thus, from a Christian perspective (which I, obviously, believe to be correct), the question shouldn't be "Why do we suffer?", but "What right do we have to demand that God save us from the consequences of our sins when we freely chose to accept said consequences?".  Yet some, like Ehrman, figure that God, if He exists, is to blame.  He tries to understand why his life has been relatively free of suffering compared to that of Mercei (the father of the Cambodian family Ehrman knew because he helped them learn English after they escaped from the Khmer Rouge  and emigrated to Trenton, New Jersey) when "Mercei wasn’t any more of a sinner than I was" [p. 95], an observation that completely misses the following mark.  It isn't the fault of God that Mercei and his family suffered as much as they did, it's the mercy of God that prevents all of us from suffering the same or worse.  As per the Pogo's famous dictum, "We have met the enemy... and he is us", not God.
Perhaps this is as good a time as any to mention two other points that are often overlooked in the discussion on the "problem of evil/suffering":
  1. if God is omnibenevolent (and therefore wants what is best for us) and omniscient (and therefore knows what is best for us), then whatever he commands truly is what is best for us, however arbitrary such decrees may seem to us. It is His knowledge, rather than His might, that I believe overwhelm Job [see pp. 162 ff.- another topic that will be addressed more in-depth in a future post]; and,
  2. I believe the ultimate rejoinders to the problem of suffering/evil are that the incarnation and the crucifixion. If Jesus was God and lived a sinless life, no one can accuse God of setting up an unattainable standard, an impassable test, by asking us to do the same. More importantly, they show that God didn't didn't sit aloft in Heaven wagging His finger in blame, but came down and not only suffered alongside us, but in a greater measure and more unjust manner than anyone before or since. He solved the problem of suffering and evil that we created.

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