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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Philosophical problems with "God's Problem"

It’s funny how smart and well-meaning people can see things so differently, even on the most basic and important questions in life.
[God's Problem: all citations, unless otherwise noted, are from this source], p. 4
"The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold."  So wrote Aristotle in the fourth century B.C.  Sixteen centuries later Thomas Aquinas echoed this observation.  Paraphrasing it, he said in effect that little errors in the beginning lead to serious consequences in the end.
[10], p. xiii
 While I don't often agree with Ehrman, the first quote above represents one of the rare occurrences where I do (his criticism of "prosperity theology" on pp. 130-131 would be another, but I digress).  Thus, I would like to make it clear here that it is not his intelligence that I am questioning, but the starting points he uses to reach his conclusions.

1) Fails to show that the authors of the Bible intended their solutions as applicable to all cases of suffering.  Proverbs, for example,"differ from laws in that they offer observations and general rules about how life usually works and are not intended as absolute commands," are not "sure-fire promises or guarantees [but rather] point to a general principle, which if applied consistently to our lives, will save us from unnecessary pain and suffering",  and do "not consist of general rules that usually hold...."  However, nowhere in his representation of the Book of Proverbs ("a collection of wise sayings that, if followed, will purportedly lead to a good and happy life"; p. 62, is typical) does he mention such a disclaimer.
2) Even though he "stress[es] that the prophets themselves never state this [suffering as punishment from God] as a universal principle, as a way of explaining every instance of suffering[,]" he appears to undermine such a statement in the next paragraph by referring to people who, over the centuries, have done so.  Misuse of scripture, however, does not determine what the Bible actually teaches.
3) The great irony of this is that when the "suffering as punishment as God" solution is presented as universal (the "friend's" poetic dialogue with Job), Ehrman credits them with "defend[ing] God" and claims that "[w]hat the friends said that offended God cannot be known" [p. 167].  To anyone who looks at their arguments (condensed: "Job must be guilty of some hidden sin because he's suffering and all [= universal] suffering comes from God as punishment for sin"), sure it can.  Adding to the irony: he admits that "this view appears to be rejected by the narrator" of the poetic dialogues (p. 172), while failing to see why it is rejected!
4) Equating failure to give an explanation (or at least one that Ehrman can understand) with "there is no answer" (p. 19, as well as other places).  It may be that we are incapable of fully comprehending (however partially we may do so, enough that we should be able to trust God) God's reasons for allowing suffering until some future time (perhaps after death).
5) Assuming that different or varied answers must necessarily be contradictory (p. 15 as well as other places).  Some of the answers may be if both are meant to be applied universally, but he must first show that the authors intended to do so.

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