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    God’s Problem
    How the Bible Fails to Answer
    Our Most Important Question—
    Why We Suffer
    Bart D. Ehrman

    To Jeff Siker and Judy Siker—Fuzzy and Judes—who
    have had their share, but remain as beacons.

    Contents

    Preface
    o n e Suffering and a Crisis of Faith
    t w o Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God:
    The Classical View of Suffering
    t h r e e More Sin and More Wrath: The Dominance of
    the Classical View of Suffering
    f o u r The Consequences of Sin

    v
    1
    21
    57
    91

    f i v e The Mystery of the Greater Good:
    Redemptive Suffering

    125

    s i x Does Suffering Make Sense?
    The Books of Job and Ecclesiastes

    159

    s e v e n God Has the Last Word:
    Jewish-Christian Apocalypticism

    197

    e i g h t More Apocalyptic Views:
    God’s Ultimate Triumph over Evil

    229

    n i n e Suffering: The Conclusion

    261

    Notes

    279

    Index

    285

    Scripture Index

    291

    About the Author
    Credits
    Cover
    Copyright
    About the Publisher

    Preface

    This book deals with a matter that is very important to me, not just
    professionally but also personally. I have written it for a broad audience of regular readers, not for a narrow audience of specialists
    (who might, I suppose, be considered irregular readers). In view of
    the intended audience, I have kept endnotes and references to a
    sparse minimum. Anyone interested in further, in-depth scholarship can easily find it by looking around a bit. Two excellent places
    to start are James L. Crenshaw’s Defending God: Biblical Responses
    to the Problem of Evil (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005),
    and Antti Laato and Johannes C. de Moor’s Theodicy in the World of
    the Bible (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2003). Both books are fully documented, and the former provides an extensive bibliography.
    I have focused on the biblical “solutions” to the problem of suffering that strike me as the most important. Since the so-called classical
    view dominates the Hebrew Bible and the apocalyptic view dominates the New Testament, I have devoted two chapters to each. A
    single chapter is devoted to each of the other views I discuss.
    Translations of the Hebrew Bible are from the New Revised
    Standard Version; translations of the New Testament are my own.
    Special thanks go to my wife, Sarah Beckwith, Professor of Medieval English at Duke and dialogue partner sans pareille; to Roger
    Freet, Senior Editor at HarperOne, who is tops in his field, and
    who gave the manuscript a thorough and helpful review; and to my
    daughter Kelly, who worked over every line with a keen eye.

    vi

    Preface

    I would like to thank three gracious, generous, and very smart
    people who have read the manuscript for me, asking me to make
    changes, and laughing at my folly for occasionally refusing: Greg
    Goering, my temporary colleague in Hebrew Bible at UNC–Chapel
    Hill; my longtime friend and confidant Julia O’Brien, Hebrew
    Bible scholar at Lancaster Theological Seminary; and one of my
    oldest friends in the field, the Neutestamentler Jeff Siker, at Loyola
    Marymount.
    I have dedicated the book to Jeff and his wife, Judy Siker. I introduced them to each other more than eleven years ago; they fell
    madly in love and have lived happily ever after. I take all the credit.
    They continue to be two of my closest and dearest friends who,
    knowing the most intimate details of my life, still deign to spend
    long evenings with me drinking fine scotch, smoking fine cigars,
    and talking about life, family, friends, work, love, virtues, vices, and
    desires. Does it get any better than that?

    one

    Suffering and a Crisis of Faith

    If there is an all-powerful and loving God in this world, why is there
    so much excruciating pain and unspeakable suffering? The problem
    of suffering has haunted me for a very long time. It was what made
    me begin to think about religion when I was young, and it was what
    led me to question my faith when I was older. Ultimately, it was the
    reason I lost my faith. This book tries to explore some aspects of the
    problem, especially as they are reflected in the Bible, whose authors
    too grappled with the pain and misery in the world.
    To explain why the problem matters so much to me, I need to
    give a bit of personal background. For most of my life I was a
    devout and committed Christian. I was baptized in a Congregational church and reared as an Episcopalian, becoming an altar boy
    when I was twelve and continuing all the way through high school.
    Early in my high school days I started attending a Youth for Christ
    club and had a “born-again” experience—which, looking back,
    seems a bit strange: I had been involved in church, believing in
    Christ, praying to God, confessing my sins, and so on for years.
    What exactly did I need to convert from? I think I was converting
    from hell—I didn’t want to experience eternal torment with the
    poor souls who had not been “saved”; I much preferred the option
    of heaven. In any event, when I became born again it was like
    ratcheting my religion up a notch. I became very serious about my
    faith and chose to go off to a fundamentalist Bible college—Moody
    Bible Institute in Chicago—where I began training for ministry.

    2

    G O D



    S

    P R O B L E M

    I worked hard at learning the Bible—some of it by heart. I could
    quote entire books of the New Testament, verse by verse, from
    memory. When I graduated from Moody with a diploma in Bible
    and Theology (at the time Moody did not offer a B.A. degree), I
    went off to finish my college work at Wheaton, an evangelical
    Christian college in Illinois (also Billy Graham’s alma mater). There
    I learned Greek so that I could read the New Testament in its original language. From there I decided that I wanted to commit my life
    to studying the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, and
    chose to go to Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian
    school whose brilliant faculty included Bruce Metzger, the greatest
    textual scholar in the country. At Princeton I did both a master of
    divinity degree—training to be a minister—and, eventually, a
    Ph.D. in New Testament studies.
    I’m giving this brief synopsis to show that I had solid Christian
    credentials and knew about the Christian faith from the inside
    out—in the years before I lost my faith.
    During my time in college and seminary I was actively involved in
    a number of churches. At home, in Kansas, I had left the Episcopal
    church because, strange as this might sound, I didn’t think it was serious enough about religion (I was pretty hard-core in my evangelical
    phase); instead I went a couple of times a week to a Plymouth Brethren Bible Chapel (among those who really believed!). When I was
    away from home, living in Chicago, I served as the youth pastor of an
    Evangelical Covenant church. During my seminary years in New
    Jersey I attended a conservative Presbyterian church and then an
    American Baptist church. When I graduated from seminary I was
    asked to fill the pulpit in the Baptist church while they looked for a
    full-time minister. And so for a year I was pastor of the Princeton
    Baptist Church, preaching every Sunday morning, holding prayer
    groups and Bible studies, visiting the sick in the hospital, and performing the regular pastoral duties for the community.
    But then, for a variety of reasons that I’ll mention in a moment, I
    started to lose my faith. I now have lost it altogether. I no longer go

    Suffering and a Crisis of Faith

    3

    to church, no longer believe, no longer consider myself a Christian.
    The subject of this book is the reason why.
    In an earlier book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who
    Changed the Bible and Why, I have indicated that my strong commitment to the Bible began to wane the more I studied it. I began to
    realize that rather than being an inerrant revelation from God, inspired in its very words (the view I had at Moody Bible Institute),
    the Bible was a very human book with all the marks of having
    come from human hands: discrepancies, contradictions, errors, and
    different perspectives of different authors living at different times
    in different countries and writing for different reasons to different
    audiences with different needs. But the problems of the Bible are
    not what led me to leave the faith. These problems simply showed
    me that my evangelical beliefs about the Bible could not hold up, in
    my opinion, to critical scrutiny. I continued to be a Christian—a
    completely committed Christian—for many years after I left the
    evangelical fold.
    Eventually, though, I felt compelled to leave Christianity altogether. I did not go easily. On the contrary, I left kicking and
    screaming, wanting desperately to hold on to the faith I had known
    since childhood and had come to know intimately from my teenaged years onward. But I came to a point where I could no longer
    believe. It’s a very long story, but the short version is this: I realized
    that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of
    life. In particular, I could no longer explain how there can be a good
    and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the
    state of things. For many people who inhabit this planet, life is a
    cesspool of misery and suffering. I came to a point where I simply
    could not believe that there is a good and kindly disposed Ruler
    who is in charge of it.
    The problem of suffering became for me the problem of faith.
    After many years of grappling with the problem, trying to explain
    it, thinking through the explanations that others have offered—
    some of them pat answers charming for their simplicity, others

    4

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    S

    P R O B L E M

    highly sophisticated and nuanced reflections of serious philosophers
    and theologians—after thinking about the alleged answers and
    continuing to wrestle with the problem, about nine or ten years ago
    I finally admitted defeat, came to realize that I could no longer believe in the God of my tradition, and acknowledged that I was an
    agnostic: 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. And so I stopped going to church.
    Only on rare occasions do I go to church now, usually when my
    wife, Sarah, very much wants me to go. Sarah is a brilliant intellectual—a distinguished professor of medieval English literature at
    Duke University—and a committed Christian, actively involved in
    the Episcopal church. For her the problems of suffering that I
    wrestle with are not problems. It’s funny how smart and wellmeaning people can see things so differently, even on the most basic
    and important questions in life.
    In any event, the last time I was in church was with Sarah, this
    past Christmas Eve, while visiting her brother Simon (another agnostic) in Saffron Walden, a market town near Cambridge, England. Sarah had wanted to attend the midnight service at the local
    Anglican church, and Simon and I—who both respect her religious
    views—agreed to go with her.
    When I was young I always found the Christmas Eve service to
    be the most meaningful worship experience of the year. The sacred
    hymns and carols, the prayers and praises, the solemn readings
    from Scripture, the silent reflections on this most powerful of
    nights, when the divine Christ came into the world as a human
    infant—I still have a strong emotional attachment to the moment.
    Deep down I am profoundly stirred by the story of God coming
    into the world for the salvation of sinners. And so I was prepared,
    even as one who no longer believes, to find the service on this
    Christmas Eve to be moving and emotional.
    It was emotional, but not in the way I had expected. Hymns were
    sung, the liturgy recited, the sermon delivered. What moved me

    Suffering and a Crisis of Faith

    5

    most, however, was the congregational prayer, which did not come
    from the Book of Common Prayer but was written for the occasion,
    spoken loudly and clearly by a layperson standing in the aisle, his
    voice filling the vast space of the cavernous church around us.
    “You came into the darkness and made a difference,” he said.
    “Come into the darkness again.” This was the refrain of the
    prayer, repeated several times, in a deep and sonorous voice. And
    it brought tears to my eyes as I sat with bowed head, listening and
    thinking. But these were not tears of joy. They were tears of frustration. If God had come into the darkness with the advent of the
    Christ child, bringing salvation to the world, why is the world in
    such a state? Why doesn’t he enter into the darkness again? Where
    is the presence of God in this world of pain and misery? Why is
    the darkness so overwhelming?
    I knew that the very essence of the message of the Bible lay beneath this heartfelt and well-meaning prayer. For the authors of the
    Bible, the God who created this world is a God of love and power
    who intervenes for his faithful to deliver them from their pain and
    sorrow and bring them salvation—not just in the world to come
    but in the world we live in now. This is the God of the patriarchs
    who answered prayer and worked miracles for his people; this is
    the God of the exodus who saved his suffering people from the
    misery of slavery in Egypt; this is the God of Jesus who healed the
    sick, gave sight to the blind, made the lame walk, and fed those
    who were hungry. Where is this God now? If he came into the
    darkness and made a difference, why is there still no difference?
    Why are the sick still wracked with unspeakable pain? Why are
    babies still born with birth defects? Why are young children kidnapped, raped, and murdered? Why are there droughts that leave
    millions starving, suffering horrible and excruciating lives that lead
    to horrible and excruciating deaths? If God intervened to deliver
    the armies of Israel from its enemies, why doesn’t he intervene now
    when the armies of sadistic tyrants savagely attack and destroy
    entire villages, towns, and even countries? If God is at work in the
    darkness, feeding the hungry with the miraculous multiplication of

    6

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    P R O B L E M

    loaves, why is it that one child—a mere child!—dies every five seconds of hunger? Every five seconds.
    “You came into the darkness and you made a difference. Come
    into the darkness again.” Yes, I wanted to affirm this prayer, believe
    this prayer, commit myself to this prayer. But I couldn’t. 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 of 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, the
    destitute migrant farmworkers in our own country, those who were
    homeless and inflicted with mental disease. Nor to mention the
    silent suffering that so many millions of the well-fed and welltended have to experience daily: the pain of children with birth defects, children killed in car accidents, children senselessly taken by
    leukemia; the pain of divorce and broken families; the pain of lost
    jobs, lost income, failed prospects. And where is God?
    Some people think that they know the answers. Or they aren’t
    bothered by the questions. I’m not one of those people. I have been
    thinking intensely about these questions for many, many years. I
    have heard the answers, and even though I once “knew” and was
    satisfied with these answers, I am no longer satisfied.
    I think I know when suffering started to become a “problem” for
    me. It was while I was still a believing Christian—in fact, it was
    when I was pastoring the Princeton Baptist Church in New Jersey.
    It was not the suffering that I observed and tried to deal with in the
    congregation—failed marriages, economic hardship, the suicide of
    a teenage boy—that prompted my questioning, but something that
    took place outside the church, in the academy. At the time, in addition to working in the church, I was writing my Ph.D. dissertation
    and also teaching part time at Rutgers University. (It was a busy

    Suffering and a Crisis of Faith

    7

    time. On top of it all, I was also married with two young children.)
    One of the classes I taught that year was a new one for me. Until
    then, I had mainly taught courses on the Hebrew Bible, the New
    Testament, and the writings of Paul. But I had been asked to teach
    a course called “The Problem of Suffering in the Biblical Traditions.” I welcomed the opportunity because it seemed like an interesting way to approach the Bible: examining the responses given by
    various biblical authors to the question of why there is suffering in
    the world, in particular among the people of God. 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. It