Thursday, April 17, 2008

the problem of suffering (and the problem with making it an argument against God)

I heard a segment on Laura Ingraham's show this morning with some back and forth between Bart Ehrman and N.T. Wright on "the problem of suffering" as it relates to the existence of God and/or His character or competence as God. (I suppose that this was part of a larger conversation, related to Ehrman and Wright's most recent books on atheism and Christianity.)

Ehrman talked about the difficult and seemingly pointless suffering of children. Ingraham made a great point by drawing out an example from her life-- friends with a 13-year old daughter who had a severe form of spina bifida, the sort of life she lived, and her impact on others.

More broadly, the same point undermines the two ways in which suffering is used as an apologetic against God.

Many years ago, my brother Chris made a great point in a seminary paper. (I assume that it wasn't novel, but it was novel to me and quite helpful!) He noted that, in terms of theodicy, we often want God to forcefully, directly, and quickly intervene to stop particular evils or at least to punish them severely-- perhaps by zapping the perpetrator. But as Chris noted, we seem to want God to intervene with respect to the sins of others-- not our own.

Beyond that, the slippery slope argument makes it obvious that there is no clear line where we would want God to intervene in such a manner. And has been often noted, His interventions would interfere with the exercise of our free will.

The same is true in the context of nature-- what the Bible labels as a fallen Creation that "groans". Ehrman argued that God should prevent the suffering of children. But in what contexts? Laura's 13-year old friend? More or less severe? Again, there's no clear line. (Or if God eliminated part of the spectrum, then we would find the remaining part of the spectrum to be troubling.)

Ironically, Ehrman is a fundamentalist in this sense. He is reductionistic in looking at suffering, seeing it as one-dimensional. At minimum, one would hope he would look at it in two dimensions-- as a spectrum. Beyond that, if one looks at it in more than two dimensions-- the bigger picture of what we do with suffering and how suffering can and will be redeemed-- then it is clear that the problem of suffering is quite problematic, but not for the existence or character of God.


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