God’s Problem: A Book Review of Bart Ehrman’s Problem

Paul Derengowski, ThM


Early in 2008 another book in a long list of what appears to be an orchestrated effort by those of the atheistic/agnostic faith was published, except this time it was written by a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.  The professor, Bart Ehrman, has become one of the darlings of liberal voices in contemporary times, who seek to not only discredit the Bible, but now God as well.  In his latest effort he monotonously exploits human suffering into a misguided diatribe that he assumes proves that God does not exist, and that alleviation of human suffering apart from God is possible.

Ehrman’s book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We suffer, is nine chapters in length, covering 278 pages.  Given its plethora of quoted biblical passages covering both the Old and New Testaments, one is almost of the impression that Ehrman is conducting a bible survey class, in text, for the reader.  Yet, what he really wants the reader to understand is his reason for apostatizing from the Christian faith.

You see, Bart Ehrman is not your typical atheist or agnostic.  Bart Ehrman was educated at three fairly respected Christian institutions (Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, and Princeton University), and somewhere along the line managed to “lose [his] faith” mainly because he could not reconcile what he knew about God and the Bible with human suffering.

Therefore, this book is his personal expression of his lost faith.  And while he claims that he is not interested in “destroying anyone’s faith or deconverting people from their religion,” it seems quite clear that that is exactly what he is hoping to do by repetitively raising the same questions over and over throughout his book.

Add to that his rather lame “solution” to human suffering, which is to distance oneself from Gods’ existence, concede that this life is all there is (so enjoy it while you can), redistribute the financial wealth of the world (“I’m not calling for a Marxist revolution”—even though that is exactly what redistribution of the wealth entails), and then for whatever reason, work hard to make the world as “the most pleasing place it can be for ourselves,” and one has the making of a book, that if followed to the letter could only result in more human suffering and pain, except on a greater scale.

Chapter 1 is Bart Ehrman’s testimony where he shares his journey both through the Christian faith, and subsequent exit out of it.  A one-time committed Christian, educated in a Christian environment, who then taught religious studies at Rutgers University and pastored in New Jersey, Ehrman could not reconcile the everyday human suffering with the God and Jesus of the Bible who repeatedly alleviated suffering.  “If God had come into the darkness with the advent of the Christ child, bringing salvation to the world,” writes Ehrman, “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?”  As will be seen, to Ehrman there is no rational explanation to these questions, and since he has thought it all out, one might as well spend their time addressing the problem of evil with the less infinitely perfect and intellectually deprived than to address Mr. Ehrman.

In Chapter 2 Ehrman begins to wrestle with some of the classical explanations for human suffering, starting with an emotional illustration of what he perceives as “the most heinous crime against humanity in the known history of the human race”: the Holocaust of Nazi Germany.  How could God allow his chosen people to suffer, much less under the conditions which saw six millions Jews systematically exterminated in the most inhumane ways?  It is here that Ehrman begins his Old Testament survey of the subject of human disobedience and suffering.  Israel, as God’s chosen people, repeatedly disobeyed God’s commands and was subsequently punished for their actions.  Although Ehrman is correct, and does a fair job of explicating several OT prophets who had prophesied of Israel’s demise due to her waywardness, what he erroneously decides to do is mix-and-match the sinful actions of ancient Israel, and God’s consequent punishment, with other examples of human suffering that are the product of being under the universal curse of sin brought on the by the fall of humanity.  This is a repeated error throughout his book.  In other words, while Israel certainly suffered for her disobedience, not all suffering is a result of the same activity.  Yet, all suffering falls under the broad category of the curse of God stemming from the Fall of Man.

Chapter 3 continues the OT survey of human suffering, this time including passages from Genesis, the Pentateuch, and the Book of Isaiah.  Also included is a brief criticism of the Christian doctrine of the atonement.  What I found intriguing in this chapter is another repeated falsehood that Ehrman wishes the reader to accept, and that is simply that what was written in the Bible was to stay with the biblical people.  According to him, “The prophets and other biblical writers, of course, were not stating a general religious principle that was to be accepted as true for all times and places.  They were speaking to a specific time and place.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Not only did God’s proclamation to Adam and Eve, that they would “surely die,” should they choose to disobey God, come to pass, the “general religious principle” has extended to every human being since.  Why?  Because all men have been imbued with the same sin nature that Adam passed on to his progeny; every human being since Adam has died because of that sin.  Moreover, the apostle Paul, in reference to past events of the nation of Israel—and by implication the nations that came into contact with her—tells us, “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor. 10:11 cf. 10:6; Rom. 4:23).  So, there are general principles that can be learned and applied by observing the actions and behaviors of those who have preceded us, by simply paying attention to the details in the Bible.  To state otherwise is to render the Bible meaningless, which is probably more in line with what Ehrman wants to say, but he dares not to.  Besides, it is a lot tougher to keep the supply of “fine scotch” and “smoking fine cigars” rolling in by being brutally honest and digging a ditch, than by being covertly hypocritical and playing the part of a religious professor.

Chapter 4 rehashes more of what Ehrman already discussed in chapter 3 by examining more of what the OT prophets had to say about the reasons and consequences for sin, along with a rather convoluted complaint about the lack of detail in the New Testament involving Jesus’ crucifixion.  Ehrman finds the apparent paucity of information “surprising,” only to turn around and provide ample details himself.  He concludes the chapter by wrestling with the “free-will defense” for the presence of evil, which once again, because he has chosen to mix-and-match different scenarios, he disregards the explanation as “morally repugnant.”  In the end, “the philosophical problem called theodicy is insoluble…The pain done to human beings by human beings is not caused by a superhuman entity.”  While technically correct, he is right for the wrongs reasons, simply because of his eclectic approach which mixes all the occasions for human suffering together.  The “morally repugnant” irony of this chapter is his suggestion that human beings “need to intervene ourselves and do what we can to stop the oppression, torture, and murder.”  As I wrote in the margin of his book, in response to his “solution,” “Why?  Why help stop anything when there is no objective reason for doing so?”  God has obviously been kicked out of Ehrman’s picture, so what makes his judgment any better than anyone else’s when it comes to judging right from wrong, good from evil?  Who’s to say that Ehrman is not “evil” for even suggesting that certain forms of behavior are more “morally repugnant” than others?  The fact of the matter is, without an objective standard for determining good and evil, or right or wrong, there cannot be an objective basis for exalting or overcoming one’s subjective opinion about either.  Ehrman has decided that the only objective standard, namely God himself, is a non-viable option.  Therefore, his suggestion is hypocritical, arrogant, and meaningless at best.

Chapter 5 begins with more of Ehrman’s rationale of why he “deconverted.”  Apparently he just could not accept God’s grace as the answer to human redemption, so he rejected it.  This turns out to be the theme behind the rest of the chapter 5.  A curious oddity crops up on page 128 where he admits that since his rejection of God’s involvement via his grace in the affairs of human activity, Ehrman now has this wonderful life, but no one to thank for it.  He wrote, “The problem is this: I have such a fantastic life that I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for it; I am fortunate beyond words.  But I don’t have anyone to express my gratitude to.  This is a void deep inside me, a void of wanting someone to thank, and I don’t see any plausible way of filling it.”  Really?  Why not just thank yourself, Bart?  After all, God is gone.  You’re now your own little god.  So, just have a few more beers, watch a little basketball, and thank yourself for all your hard-earned efforts.  Maybe that will help alleviate the “pain” and “suffering,” while further assisting you to churn out another misguided book in the future where you can mock God, his Book, and those who don’t have any trouble whatsoever of acknowledging God’s goodness and grace amid fallen humanity.  Anyway, the remainder of chapter 5 is simply more of Ehrman’s calloused criticism of God’s plan of redemption found in the New Testament, which he staunchly rejects.

In Chapter 6 Ehrman returns to the Old Testament for another round of criticizing the biblical narrative and what it has to say about sin’s contribution to human suffering, except this time he makes a mockery out of the Book of Job by calling it a folktale, and by making Satan out to be an office rather than a person.  Hence, Satan is “the Satan,” which he mistranslates nearly two dozen times throughout the chapter to make his feeble point that this is “the Adversary,” but not the devil himself.  From this Ehrman proceeds to discount the authenticity of the Job narrative (big surprise), and then calls into question the integrity of God, asserting that his treatment of Job’s challenge in chapters 38-41 for an answer was simply a “cop-out.”  Ehrman asks, “Isn’t this explanation of God’s justice, at the end of the day, simply a cop-out, a refusal to think hard about the disasters and evils in the world as having any meaning whatsoever?”

Perhaps the day Ehrman stands before God, to give an account of himself, God can ask him why he thought God was copping-out, given Ehrman’s “cop-out” for bailing on the Christian faith in the first place.  Ehrman, though, is not quite finished, for he then turns to the Book of Ecclesiastes; one of his “favorite books” in the Bible.  The reason he considers it one of his favorites is that he feels that its message resonates with his overall worldview in regard to suffering, and that is that there is no rationale for suffering.  Life is supposedly meaningless; everyone dies in the end, and that’s it!  But, as is Ehrman is characteristic, he misrepresents another biblical author by assuming that Solomon (the writer of Ecclesiastes) thought that life was meaningless.  Granted, Solomon believed that life was without meaning, yet only insofar as God was removed from the picture, or the very thing that Ehrman and his friends advocate.  Otherwise, as Solomon resolves after 11 chapters of criticizing a life without God in its midst, he wrote, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no delight in them.’”  Then Solomon writes, “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.”  The King James Version renders the last phrase, “for this is the whole duty of man.”  So, it is quite obvious that if Ecclesiastes is one of Bart Ehrman’s favorite biblical books, it is only because he has picked and choosed what he wanted to read from it, while rejecting the rest, in a futile attempt to misrepresent what God was really saying.

Chapters 7 and 8 deal with the future of suffering and God’s judgment upon sin and the wicked.  In the chapters Ehrman simply demonstrates his disdain for Bible prophecy and “apocalypticists,” and then proceeds to conclude that there really isn’t any rationale for suffering all over again.  Frankly, these are two chapters that he could have left out of the book and the book would have turned out the same: monotonous.  That said, though, there are a couple of inane conclusions that he draws which demonstrate just how misguided he is.  On page 216 he wrote, “It was ancient Jewish apocalypticists who invented the Judeo-Christian devil.”

Actually, if Ehrman wasn’t so hasty to distort the biblical text, then he would have realized that the devil has been around since the inception of creation, and was present at the temptation of Eve in the Garden, as well as in the testing of Job.  Second, on the same page Ehrman falsely concludes, “For some unknown reason, God has relinquished control of this world to the forces of evil—for the time being.  Pain, misery, anguish, suffering, and death are the result.”  Again, if Ehrman wasn’t so intent on promoting such nonsense, he would have written that God is completely sovereign, and that what evil and suffering is seen in the world is a direct result of man’s fall into sin, and that the whole of creation is under a curse.  That doesn’t mean that every instance of suffering is the direct result of someone sinning, but that sin’s curse is upon all, and that only by the grace of God creation itself does not totally self-destruct.  Third, similar to a previous statement where Ehrman believes that the Bible is not relevant to those apart from the immediate audience for whom it was written, he writes on page 247, “But the sad reality is that I don’t think the book of Revelation—or any other book of the Bible—was written with us in mind.  It was written for people living in the author’s own day.”  Actually, what is sad is that Ehrman failed, amid his entire Bible quoting exploits, to include Revelation 1:3, which states, “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near.”

So, if the Book of Revelation was not written with us in mind, as well as for those in John’s immediate audience, then why would God include such a statement?  Last, but certainly not least, we see Ehrman contradicting his previous admission to be an agnostic by writing on page 259, “But there is no God up there, just above the sky, waiting to come ‘down’ here or to take us ‘up’ there.”  Here Ehrman, in his arrogance, moves from the realm of stating that he was an agnostic (p. 17) to the realm of admitting that he is really an atheist.  Of course, there is nothing evil about portraying oneself to be one thing, when in reality you’re something else, is there?  Now, just what was Mr. Ehrman complaining about?

Ehrman’s last chapter deals with a concluding statement about evil and suffering.  He spends quite a bit of space wrestling with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Rabbi Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People.   The former he lauds portions of, while the latter he seems to differ with to a certain degree.  What impressed him with Dostoevsky’s novel is the overall rejection by one character (Ivan) in response to the idea that one day God will not only punish, but remedy, the evils that have taken place down through the course of history.  Perhaps the reason why Ivan resounds with Ehrman is simply because regardless of what occurs in the future neither wants anything to do with God.  In their minds, suffering and evil stem from total nonsense, and God can do nothing to rectify what has happened to the point of justifying the allowance of evil to occur in the first place.  Ehrman’s reaction to Kushner is slightly different in that Kushner argued that God was simply not omnipotent to begin with, and hence could not control all the evil that happened in the world.  Kushner used Job as his example.  While Ehrman disagreed with Kushner’s interpretation of Job, Ehrman finally conceded that if there was a God (which we saw earlier is not the case), then God was not omnipotent, which he now finds to be a “powerful view” (although not all-“powerful).

That said, however, Ehrman manages to demonstrate his usual arrogance in this chapter, like before, coupled with another dose of contradictory conclusions.  His arrogance stands out on page 263 when he states, “It is a little surprising to me, though, that so many people have such a simple understanding of suffering and want to share it with me as if I hadn’t heard or thought of that one before.”  While it may be true that Ehrman has heard it all before, it is quite evident that he is not listening.  A point of contradiction is found on page 271 where he states, “I’m not nearly as concerned as I used to be about having the ‘correct’ interpretation of the Bible.  I’ve seen a lot over the past two decades, and biblical interpretation no longer strikes me as the biggest concern on the face of the planet.”  Really?  Is that why Ehrman keeps pumping out books demeaning the Bible and its contents, because he’s not concerned with biblical interpretation like he used to be?

A second contradiction, which involves a blatant misrepresentation, is his comment that, “the view that Jesus was himself God is not a view shared by most of the writers of the New Testament.  It is, in fact, a theological view that developed rather late in the early Christian movement: it is not to be found, for example, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, or Luke—let alone in the teachings of the historical man Jesus” (273).  Is that why Matthew records early on in reference to Jesus’ birth that, “‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated mean, ‘God with us’” (Matt. 1:23)?  Is it also why Mark would relay to his readers that Jesus, as the Son of Man, could do only that which God could do, and was to forgive sins (Mk. 2:7-10)?  Is that why Luke would use the expression “Son of Man,” which denoted Jesus deity, more than a third of the total number of times among the Synoptic Gospels; second only to Matthew?  And when one factors in John’s gospel, which is the most theological book among the gospels in terms of identifying Jesus as God, along with the letters of Paul—all of which preceded the Gospels by about 15 years, and where he repeatedly alludes to Jesus’ standing in the tri-unity of the godhead—and James, Peter, and Jude, all of whom address Jesus as Lord, it becomes quite clear that Ehrman has misspoken.  Jesus was God to all of them, and they arrived at their conclusions relatively early, not late.

Ehrman’s wraps up his book by offering this tidbit of insight: “In my opinion, this life is all there is,” which he falsely concludes is the opinion of the biblical writer of Ecclesiastes.  If one could only believe what Ehrman was saying, then there would be no problem.  But, it is because Ehrman has expended so much energy wasting valuable time and resources to write these kinds of books that one could say, I’m sorry, but I don’t believe you, because I know you don’t believe it yourself.  Mr. Ehrman knows, as well as I do, that there is more to life than just the here and now.  His actions, if nothing else, prove it.  For if this life was all there was, and I was in his shoes, I wouldn’t waste one moment of time quibbling over a book I didn’t believe, and then tell people I wasn’t trying to persuade them.  Moreover, I wouldn’t give one whit of a concern for anyone else, much less their suffering.  I would do as Ehrman suggests, and that is eat, drink, and be merry, for as long as I could, because after that, I’m dead, and then who really cares?  Nobody!

So, Mr Ehrman can opine all he wants that this life is it, but down deep, the only person he is fooling is himself.  And the only way he can be truly convincing is for him to stop what he is doing, and get on living the hedonistic lifestyle consistently that he contradictorily promotes.  But, he is not going to do that, because he knows that none of it is true.  It’s just too bad that he would rather live a hypocritical lie, than admit he is totally wrong, and live the truth.


God’s Problem is really Bart Ehrman’s problem.  What he has produced in this book is nothing “new under the sun” (a “favorite” expression found in Ecclesiastes) given that it has been repeated time and again by those who think they can outsmart God by starting with an abject denial of what God has revealed about himself, about mankind, and what would occur should mankind ever turn his back on God.  God said that “dying, you will surely die,” meaning that there would be a total separation between God and man, physically and spiritually, should man ever go his own, and sin against God.  The horrible displays of separation from God have haunted mankind ever since Adam made that choice.  Yet, we have the Bart Ehrman’s of the world, which are nothing “new under the sun” either, who are whining and complaining about God’s forewarned judgment on the one hand, while rejecting God’s revelation that “all things work together for the good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”  They whine because they believe that all the atrocities in the world are too harsh.  God should do something about them, to stop them before they ever occur.  What they regularly and willingly fail to realize is that amid all the atrocities God is merciful in preventing them to extend to their extreme end.  For if God did not intervene, then all of mankind would self-destruct almost immediately.  In other words, those promoting the idea that evil’s presence in the world discounts the reality of God’s existence are as shallow in their understanding of the devastating results of sin and suffering as they are about who God is.

Therefore, probably the best way to describe Ehrman’s book is as stated before: repetitively monotonous.  Sure, if one has not read the Bible in a while, he copiously quotes from it, and that might be a slight benefit for the biblically uninformed.  But, beyond that Ehrman presents nothing to prove that God has a problem explaining both the origin and continued presence of sin and evil in the world.  Moreover, God does not have a problem explaining his judgment upon sin and evil, and its eventual total eradication.

Ehrman’s problem, though, is his unwillingness to either read in context just what God has revealed, much less deductively conclude that every disease, murder, catastrophe, or whatever of an unsavory condition, event, person, or thing, falls under the curse that came with man’s rebellion against God back in the Garden of Eden.  God never planned for Adam to sin, but when he did, God set forth to redeem creation, in His own way, on His own schedule, and for His own purposes.  That’s the message that Bart Ehrman, and those like him, do not want to include in their arrogant atheistic diatribes.  Instead they want people to look to them for answers and solutions to suffering and evil.  Pathetically, however, their only solution is that there really isn’t one, since this life is all there is, and one might as well eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we all die.

This, once again, returns to just how pointless this book, and others like it, truly is.  In fact, it is because of the very hedonistic philosophy of life that the Bart Ehrman’s are promoting as the solution to sin and evil that sin and evil were first introduced into the world in the first place, along with all its subsequent calamities.  But, one will be most likely hard-pressed to find any follow-up books and/or articles written by the Bart Ehrman’s, admitting that they have contributed to the very thing that they’re complaining about.  Because in the mind of atheistic rebel—and in Bart Ehrman’s case, a Christian apostate as well—it is always best to blame someone else for an apparent evil, rather than oneself.  It’s God’s Problem, not theirs, in other words.

Yet, such irrationalizing only serves to show that the real problem lies in the sinful human condition.  Maybe one day, before it’s too late, Bart Ehrman will put down his “fine scotch” and “fine cigars” and realize that.  Until then, I’m sure that we’ll see more of the same coming from persons like him, offering no legitimate explanation or solution to the presence of evil, while denying what God has said (cf. Gen. 3:1), or blaming Him for everything.