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.
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
f i v e The Mystery of the Greater Good:
s i x Does Suffering Make Sense?
The Books of Job and Ecclesiastes
s e v e n God Has the Last Word:
e i g h t More Apocalyptic Views:
God’s Ultimate Triumph over Evil
n i n e Suffering: The Conclusion
About the Author
About the Publisher
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.
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
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?
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.
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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
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
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
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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
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
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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
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
seemed to me at the time, and seems so now, that one of the ways to
see the rich diversity of the scriptural heritage of Jews and Christians was to see how different authors responded to this fundamental question of suffering.
For the class I had students do a lot of reading throughout the
Bible and also assigned several popular books that discuss suffering
in the modern world—for example, Elie Wiesel’s cla