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Tom Chaney: Just Live With It

Of Writers And Their Books: Just Live With It is a review of God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question -- Why We Suffer by Bart D. Ehrman. This column first appeared 16 March 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: A Matter of Honor

By Tom Chaney

Just Live With It

A great many reasons caused me to be selling books in 2008 and not beating the drum ecclesiastic in some Baptist pulpit. One of those reasons is typified by a play I saw in 1959 in New York City.

Christopher Plummer was playing J.B. in Archibald MacLeish's play of the same name. The title character is based on the biblical Job in the book by that name. Four of us had set out for Canada and New York after a summer working in the Everyman Players production of "The Book of Job" in Pineville [Kentucky].

One cannot be immersed in the story of Job, his trials and arguments for half a hundred performances and not be sensitive to the philosophical issues involved when good, innocent folks suffer.

"Where is God?" One wishes to ask. "What can He be thinking of, if he is good and all powerful yet permits suffering to exist in his perfect world?"

J.B. sums it up in the searing lines, "If God is God, he is not good. If God is good, he is not God. Take the even, take the odd. I would not sleep here if I could."

Now comes a most interesting and significant book on the subject of suffering from the pen of Bart D. Ehrman, Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Professor Ehrman is a leading authority on the early Christian church and the life of Jesus. His latest book is God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question -- Why We Suffer [Harper, 2008].

Ehrman discusses theodicy -- from two Greek words: theos meaning 'God' and dike meaning 'justice.' Three contradictory assertions are involved. God is all powerful therefore he is able to do whatever he wants (and can therefore remove suffering). God is all loving therefore wants the best for people (and therefore does not want them to suffer). People suffer. How, then, can we speak of a just God?

There is no problem with the justification of suffering if it is only visited on those who violate God's law or go against his will.

But Ehrman notes that the massive suffering in the world has always been visited universally. Biblical answers don't make sense of the Black Death, of the flu epidemic of 1918, the ravishing with AIDS of children in third world countries.

He provides an excellent analysis of the suffering of Job in the Old Testament. That book is divided into two parts. The prose account at its beginning and end encloses the poetic argument of Job's friends and his answer.

In the prologue God and his assistants are sitting about in heaven discussing the merits of Job as God's perfect servant. One of the assistants, Satan, observes that well might Job be the perfect man since God had favored him above all others. God gives Satan permission to destroy him utterly, save for his life. He loses his wealth, his family, and his health. His wife turns on him advising him to "Curse God and die!"

His friends come to comfort and stay to blame. "You must have done evil," they say. Job maintains his integrity and his innocence calling upon God to answer the cause of his suffering.

God does not answer him directly. To do so would reveal God as the cause of the suffering. Rather he says, in effect, "Just who do you think you are to question me? What do you know?"

Overwhelmed by the majesty, if not the logic, of God, Job relents from his protestations of innocence, and in the prose epilogue he is restored many times over to his former state.

Ehrman also looks at the book of Ecclesiastes, the teacher, which seems to say that life is essentially meaningless. Eat, drink, and take joy in life where you can, says the teacher. Existence itself is painful. There is no divine answer to suffering. It happens -- deal with it. Relieve it in others where you can.

Ehrman concludes this excellent study by opining that "A lot of this world doesn't make sense. Sometimes there is no justice. A lot of bad things happen. But life also brings good things. The solution to life is to enjoy it while we can, because it is fleeting.... And so we should enjoy life to the fullest, as much as we can, as long as we can. That's what the author of Ecclesiastes thinks, and I agree."

Life "should be a source of joy and dreams -- joy of living for the moment and dreams of trying to make the world a better place, both for ourselves and for others in it.... [I]t's a gift and will not be with us for long."

Professor Ehrman, like others, has been led to reject Christianity and its more facile answers in favor of an active agnosticism -- never the arrogance of the atheist or that of the blind believer.

As one critic has said, "No one has so eloquently told the history of the biblical God's absences and traditional excuses as Ehrman."

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-03-17 06:15:37
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