Theologians: Why Does God Allow Suffering?

Two highly respected theologians recently began a debate on why God would allow so much suffering in the world if He is good and all-powerful.

Bart Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of God's Problem, and N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham for the Church of England and author of Evil and the Justice of God began their "Blogalogue" on last week.

"Suffering increasingly became a problem for me and my faith," confessed Ehrman, who was an evangelical Christian most of his life but is now an agnostic. "How can one explain all the pain and misery in the world if God – the creator and redeemer of all – is sovereign over it, exercising his will both on the grand scheme and in the daily workings of our lives?"

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Ehrman went on in his first blog to question why God didn't stop starvation, droughts, or answer the prayers of Holocaust victims.

"If God is concerned to answer my little prayers about my daily life, why didn't he answer my and others' big prayers when millions were being slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, when a mudslide killed 30,000 Columbians in their sleep, in a matter of minutes, when disasters of all kinds caused by humans and by nature happened in the world?" the distinguished religious studies professor asked.

N.T. Wright, the Christian representative, responded, saying Ehrman is appealing too much to emotions.

"You spend a good deal of time in the book, and even in your brief posting, detailing some of these horrors, as though to remind readers of what (surely?) all intelligent people know already," Wright responded.

"You're not implying, are you, that people (like me, for instance) who still hold to Christian faith are somehow failing to notice these horrors, or to reflect soberly and deeply on them?"

Wright compared his own books, Evil and the Justice of God and Surprised by Hope, with Ehrman's book on how they explain the call of Abraham. Wright explains that the call of Abraham is the moment when "God launches the long-range plan to rescue the world from its misery," as compared to Ehrman who sees it as a calling for Abraham to have a special relationship with God.

"In other words, I read the story of Israel as a whole (not merely in its individual parts, which by themselves, taken out of that context, might be reduced to 'Israel sinned; God punished them,' etc.,) as the story of theodicy-in-practice: 'this is the narrative through whose outworking the creator God will eventually put all things to rights,'" wrote the English theologian.

In his latest blog, the Bishop of Durham added to his argument, pointing out that during Jesus' time it also did not appear like God was in control. Jews believed if the messiah came then it would mean victory for Israel against her enemies and new levels of purity attained.

"In the same way, it doesn't look like what we would want (God abolishing disease, war, hatred, natural disaster, etc. at a stroke)," Wright noted.

The all-powerful and all-loving God allowed his son Jesus to be crucified, which is not what is commonly associated with the idea of power, he highlighted.

"Near the heart of Jesus' proclamation lies a striking redefinition of power itself, which looks as though it's pointing in the direction of God's 'running of the world' (if that's the right phrase) in what you might call a deliberately, almost studiedly, self-abnegating way, running the world through an obedient, and ultimately suffering, human being, with that obedience, and especially that suffering, somehow instrumental in the whole process," Wright contends.

"What 'we would want God to do' – to have God measure up to our standards of 'how a proper, good and powerful God would be running the world!' – seems to be the very thing that Jesus was calling into question."

The two theologians are expected to post their last comments this week in the six-part series.

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