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Bart Ehrman, Questioning Religion on Why We Suffer

Religious studies professor Bart D. Ehrman joins Fresh Air to discuss human suffering as it is addressed in the Bible. If there is an all-powerful and loving God, he asks, why do human beings suffer?

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Transcript

DATE February 19, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Bart Ehrman on his new book, "God's Problem," and his
difficulty resolving belief in God with the actuality of suffering
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

"If there is an all powerful and loving God in this world, why is there so
much excruciating pain and unspeakable suffering?" That's the first sentence
of Bart Ehrman's new book, "God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our
Most Important Question--Why We Suffer." The book is part biblical
scholarship, examining how the Old and New Testaments explain suffering, and
part memoir, confiding how the question of suffering lead Ehrman to question
his faith and eventually give up being a Christian. He had been a member of
Youth for Christ, trained for the ministry at the Moody Bible Institute and
earned his doctorate in New Testament studies from Princeton Theological
Seminary.

Ehrman's earlier books include the best seller "Misquoting Jesus," which
challenged a literal interpretation of the New Testament by examining how it
was altered in its early history by the scribes who handwrote each copy and in
the process made intentional or unintentional changes. Ehrman is a
distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North
Carolina Chapel Hill.

Bart Ehrman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Since you say that the question of
suffering led you to religion and led you finally away from religion, let me
start by asking you why the question of suffering helped lead you to religion
in the first place.

Mr. BART EHRMAN: Well, when I was young, I was concerned probably more about
my suffering than anything else--not that I was particularly suffering as a
young person, but I was concerned about things like the afterlife, what
happens to a person when he or she dies. And, in large part because of my
concerns about the afterlife and suffering eternal torment, I became a born
again Christian when I was in high school. And by doing that, I felt that I
had ensured that, in fact, I would have a happily ever after. And so to that
extent, suffering affected me. Although always, from the time I was young, I
was concerned about suffering in the world and wondered a little bit about how
one could explain that.

GROSS: How did suffering finally lead you away from religion?

Mr. EHRMAN: Well, after my born again experience, I became very committed as
an evangelical Christian. I suppose for a number of years, I was a
fundamentalist, went off to a fundamentalist Bible college, and then to an
evangelical college to complete my college education. I ended up going to a
theological seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary, and was trained as a
minister there.

And over time, my theological views started changing away from the evangelical
camp toward a more kind of liberal form of Christianity. But as I thought
more about the world and tried to puzzle out how this world could be in the
state it is, I was increasingly concerned about the problem of suffering and
how one can explain that there's suffering in the world if the world is
supposedly controlled by a loving and powerful God. And it was the old
problem that people have wrestled with for centuries. If God's all powerful,
he can obviously prevent suffering. And if he's loving, then he wants to
prevent suffering. And yet there's suffering. Eventually this problem, which
goes by the technical name theodicy, this problem of theodicy eventually got
to me, and I came to realize I really couldn't answer this problem. Even
though I knew what the standard answers were. I knew what people said about
it, but these answers were no longer satisfactory to me, and I eventually
decided that I could no longer believe in an all powerful, loving God.

GROSS: What are the standard answers that became unsatisfactory for you?

Mr. EHRMAN: Well, the main answer that people give today when I tell them
that I'm working on this book or working on this problem, the main answer
people tend to give me is that the reason there's suffering in the world is
because of free will, that God wanted people to be able to worship him, but to
worship him they have to be loving on their own without being forced to so
that we're not programmed as robots, we're free human beings. But since we're
free to do good and to love God, we're also free to do evil. And so it is
possible to hurt another human being because we have free will, and that can
explain thinks like the Holocaust or Idi Amin or Pol Pot in Cambodia or just
one person acting badly toward another.

And for a long time, I thought that was basically a satisfactory answer, that
the reason they're suffering is because of free will. But there are...

GROSS: What do you no longer find that satisfactory?

Mr. EHRMAN: Well, I think it's absolutely true that people can do harm to
other people. There's no doubt about that, and that horrible disasters like
the Holocaust can be explained on that basis. But free will can't explain a
lot of other things. It doesn't explain, for example, why every five seconds
in our world a child dies of starvation. Nobody's choosing to make this child
die of starvation. This happens every five seconds. Or it can't explain a
tsunami that hits Southeast Asia and kills 300,000 people. So natural
disasters simply can't be explained on the basis of free will, and so there
need to be some other kinds of explanations.

GROSS: I think another kind of typical answer you hear to the question, `how
can there be suffering in a world where God exists?' is, well, we can't
understand his ways. I mean, suffering exists, and we may be incapable of
understanding why, but he has a reason.

Mr. EHRMAN: Yes, that is a common answer, and I think for a long time that
was the answer that I held onto. The problem with it is that if you say that
it's all a mystery and we can't understand it, then in effect we're saying
that there is no answer. And so one is left hanging. I mean, if God is in
control of this world and he loves people in it, then why he would allow
people to starve to death or to die of malaria or to die in a tsunami, it is
absolutely beyond our ability to understand, but then why should we think in
the first place that there is a God who's all powerful and in control of this
world who's loving? Because, in fact, it looks like all the evidence points
to the contrary.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bart Ehrman, and he's a
distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North
Carolina Chapel Hill, and his new book is called "God's Problem: How the
Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer."

Now, in your book, you examine various ways the Bible answers the question why
do we suffer. So let's start with what you describe as the classical view of
suffering. What is that view?

Mr. EHRMAN: Yes, well, the view that's found out through most of the Bible,
especially through most of the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament, is
the view that the reason people suffer is because God is punishing them for
their sins. The assumption behind this is that God is powerful; he's in
control of this world and everything in it; and he's loving, he wants the best
things for his people; but the problem is his people have gone against his
will, and so he creates suffering for them in order to make them wake up and
repent and turn back to do his will. This is an answer for suffering that you
find throughout all of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, for example, Isaiah
and Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos and so forth. They all said this, page after page
after page, that the reason the people of Israel were suffering is because
they had done things wrong and God was punishing them as a result.

And this is a view that people still have today. So when something bad
happens to someone and they say something like, `What did I do to deserve
this?' well, then, they're buying into this idea that they've done something
that justifies their suffering. And so this is the classical understanding of
why there's suffering in the world.

GROSS: And another example from the Old Testament you give for this is in
Proverbs, the Lord's curses on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the
abode of the righteous. So what's your problem with this point of view, that
we're blessed for things we do that are good and punished for the things that
we do that are wrong or sinful?

Mr. EHRMAN: Well, I think the problem that I have with it is the problem
with some of the other biblical authors had with it, which is that when you
look around the world, it just doesn't seem to be true. The people who are
righteous aren't the ones who are doing particularly well, as a rule, and
those who are unrighteous aren't necessarily suffering as a result. And so
the problem of `why is it that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer'
can't really be solved by this particular point of view, that suffering comes
as a result of disobedience.

GROSS: OK. Another biblical view of suffering is that suffering is
redemptive. Give us a biblical example of that.

Mr. EHRMAN: Well, we get it both in the Hebrew Bible and in the New
Testament. In the Hebrew Bible, there's this terrific story in the book of
Genesis of Joseph, who is one of the 12 sons of Jacob who incurs his brothers'
jealousy and they end up--quite jealous indeed--they sell him to slavery, and
he becomes a slave in Egypt. And God is working behind the scenes so that the
reason Joseph, as it turns out, has gone into slavery in Egypt is because God
is going to use him in order to save the chosen people. At the end of the
book of Genesis, Joseph has risen in power and become the right hand man of
Pharaoh. And as his right hand man, he's able to solve problems that the
country's facing, especially problem of a worldwide famine. And his brothers,
not knowing who he is, come to him for help for relief of famine in their
land, and he's able to save them from their suffering. And they're nervous
about it because they realize they sold him into slavery so many years
earlier. But he tells them not to worry about it because they meant it as an
evil deed to him, but God meant it for good. And so God has redemptive
purposes working behind the scenes in order to bring about the salvation of
his people, in this case, the deliverance from a worldwide famine.

This point of view is especially dominant, though, in the New Testament. The
entire point of the Gospels and of the apostle Paul is that somebody had to
suffer for the sake of others, that these authors portrayed Jesus' crucifixion
not as a miscarriage of justice or as a very bad thing that happened to Jesus
because other people are exercising their free will, they portray it as a
redemptive act, that by suffering Jesus was able to pay the penalty for other
people's sin and thereby bring about salvation. And so throughout the New
Testament we get this very strong message that suffering can be redemptive.

GROSS: So what's your problem with this?

Mr. EHRMAN: Well, I think it's absolutely true that, in many cases, there
are instances when our own suffering brings about something good for us. I
mean, there's often a silver lining behind the clouds, so to say. But a lot
of the times, I don't think suffering is redemptive at all, and that I think
it can be rather cold-hearted to say that suffering is always redemptive. The
middle age couple whose child gets killed in a car accident on the way to the
prom, there's nothing redemptive about that. Massive starvation in our world
today, there's nothing redemptive about it. So I think that this can explain
some kinds of suffering, and it can make us hopeful when we ourselves are
suffering, that maybe something good will come out of it, but in the end it
really doesn't explain the suffering in the world, in my opinion.

GROSS: And I want to point out something that you mention in your book, which
is that you understand how suffering can be redemptive. You had hepatitis as
a child, you were sidelined from life for a while, and that lead you to books,
which lead you to scholarship, which led you to your life.

Mr. EHRMAN: Yeah, well, that's absolutely true. I mean, I think all of us
have had some kind of experience where suffering has ended up as something
good. In my case, when I was 16 years old I was playing baseball in Kansas,
and in the middle of the season, I got hepatitis, which effectively ended my
baseball career, but it turned out to be a good thing because, since I
couldn't go outside or do anything, and since I was bored to tears watching
TV, I decided to devote myself to the next year's debate topic--I was a
debater on the high school debate team--and I got really into that. And I
started working harder and harder. And ever since then, as it turns out, I've
been a bit of a workaholic when it comes to books and studying, so that if I
had not gotten hepatitis, in fact, I never would have become a scholar. And
my life would have been very, very different. And so I've always been
extremely grateful that I got hepatitis because it's made me what I am.

GROSS: My guest is religion scholar Bart Ehrman, author of the new book,
"God's Problem." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Bart Ehrman, author of the new book, "God's Problem: How
the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer." He's a
distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North
Carolina Chapel Hill.

Well, let's continue to look at what the Bible has to say about suffering, and
let's get to the book of Job. I mean, the name Job is just about synonymous
with suffering. There's lots of different interpretations of the Job story,
but you say--and I didn't know this--that the version of Job that we're
familiar with is based on stories by two different authors, and that there are
a lot of contradictions between what those two authors have to say.

Mr. EHRMAN: Yeah, that's exactly right. Most people reading Job don't
realize that. Most people who read Job, I think, probably simply read the
first two chapters and the last chapter, because it's a very long book, and
the story of Job that people are familiar with are from the very beginning,
very end: the story of Job as a patient sufferer who is rewarded for God for
remaining faithful despite his suffering.

What scholars have long recognized, though, is that the story that is at the
beginning and the end of the book is quite different from what you find in the
middle of the book. The vast majority of the book from chapter three all the
way up to chapter 42, in fact, is not a story about Job. It's a set of poems
in which Job and his three so-called friends have debates about why there's
suffering in the world. Scholars have long recognized that these poems with
Job and his three friends come from a different author from the story at the
beginning and the end. One reason for thinking that is that they're actually
different genres. One is a narrative, a story; the other is poetry.

But also the portrayal of Job is very different, depending on whether you're
reading the story or reading the poems. In the story that everybody knows,
Job is completely patient and refuses to curse God. In the poems, Job is
anything but patient. He's impatient, he's demanding, he wants a
confrontation with God, he insists on his innocence in the face of God, and he
demands that God appear to him. At the end of these poems, God does appear to
him and completely wows him into submission. This is a different Job from the
very patient sufferer who is unwilling to say anything against God at the
beginning and the end of this story. And I think that their views of
suffering in fact are quite different from one another.

GROSS: What are the differences?

Mr. EHRMAN: In the story about Job, at the beginning and end of the book,
God is praising Job before the heavenly counsel. The idea seems to be that
God has a group of sort of demigods around him, one of whom is named Ha-satan.
It's translated as "Satan," but this Ha-satan isn't the devil of later Jewish
and Christian imagination. He's actually sort of the adversary. The word
Ha-satan in Hebrew literally means adversary. And so I guess you could call
him the devil's advocate. He's the one who says to God, `Well, yeah, Job is
righteous, but it's just because you've given everything. Look, he's got all
his cattle and he's got this great family, and he's extremely wealthy. So of
course he's righteous because he gets everything out of it.' And God says,
`No, no, no. He's not righteous for that reason. He's righteous because he
knows that it's right to be righteous.'

And Satan says, `In fact, take away everything and he'll curse you to your
face.' So God tells Satan to go ahead and do that and Satan takes away
everything from Job, destroys all of his cattle and has his servants taken
away, kills his 10 children, and Job still, despite that, refuses to curse
God.

God then tells Satan that, `See, he's still righteous.' And the Satan says to
God, `Well, it's because you haven't allowed me to hurt him. Cause some pain
for him physically, and he'll curse you.' Well, God tells him to do that, and
Satan comes down and inflicts Job with terrible boils all over his body. And
so he's a bloody mess, and he's scraping his boils with a piece of pottery.
His wife says, `Curse God and die.' And Job says that `if we receive good from
God, we should also receive what is evil.' And he refused to curse God for any
wrongdoing.

And then the poems intervene. And at the end, we're told that God is pleased
with Job, and for the way he's acted he gives him back twice as many cattle
has he had before, and sheep and camels, and he increases his wealth even
more, and he has 10 more children born to him, and he lives to be an old man,
ripe of age and he dies.

So that's the story of Job in the beginning and the end, and the point of
suffering in this case is that suffering is a test from God to see whether you
are righteous because you get something out of it, or if you have a
disinterested righteousness, that you're faithful to God no matter what
happens to you.

GROSS: How does that compare with what the poems in between the beginning and
end of the Job story have to say about suffering?

Mr. EHRMAN: Well, I think personally that the poems are far more interesting
because Job is more interesting. And the poems begin with Job cursing the day
of his birth and wishing he had never been born. And his three friends, who
have come to him, turn out to be not very friendly. In turn, each one of them
explains to Job that the reason he's suffering is because he'd done something
evil and God is punishing him for it. So in other words, they have the
classical view, the view of the prophets, that the reason there's suffering is
because people do things wrong. But Job refuses to admit it. He says that he
knows that he's blameless and upright and he hasn't done anything to deserve
this. And one after the other, the friends keep coming at him, saying, no, he
really deserves it. He needs to repent for his sins. And Job keeps saying
that he's blameless before God.

And at one point, finally, Job demands God to appear to him so that he can
explain to God that he's blameless and take a stand on his own innocence and
his own integrity. And then at the end of these poems, God actually does show
up. But instead of explaining to Job why it is that this is happening to him,
God instead overwhelms Job and silences him with his almighty power, and he
asks Job, `Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?' You know,
`Who are you to accuse me of wrongdoing? You're a mere mortal and I'm God
almighty.' And, in effect, what God does is he squishes Job with his thumb,
since God is almighty and Job is just a peon, and Job then, despite the fact
that he's blameless and innocent, repents in dust and ashes before the
almighty power of God.

So this is a--it's a very powerful, moving set of poems, these chapters in the
middle of Job, but one comes away wondering, well, what then is the answer to
suffering? It's not that it's a test, because the test is in the story part
of Job and not in the poems, and Job was innocent. And so he suffers anyway,
and when he demands that God asks--when he asks God to explain himself, why
he's allowing him to suffer, God refuses to answer. And so the answer to Job
seems to be that there is no answer and that you shouldn't even ask, that by
asking God why this is happening to you, you're in fact infringing on God's
omnipotent rights.

GROSS: Bart Ehrman will talk more about how the Bible explains suffering in
the second half of the show. His new book is called "God's Problem." I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with biblical scholar Bart Ehrman.
His new book is called "God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most
Important Question--Why We Suffer." It examines how the Old and New Testaments
explain suffering and describes how the question of suffering led Ehrman to
become a Christian and ultimately to become an agnostic. Ehrman is a
distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North
Carolina Chapel Hill, and he's the author of several books, including the best
seller "Misquoting Jesus."

So in continuing our look at how the Bible tries to answer the question about
why is there suffering, let's look at what you describe as the apocalyptic
view of evil.

Mr. EHRMAN: Yeah, well, this, in some ways, is the most powerful explanation
of evil in the world, and for many people it's the most satisfying. The
apocalyptic view appeared late in the history of the Hebrew Bible, the Old
Testament, but it becomes a point of view that's very popular in the New
Testament. In fact, I argue in the book--this isn't just something I came up
with but that Jesus himself held to some sort of apocalyptic view, as did his
follower the apostle Paul, as did the author of the book of Revelation. In
fact, most of the New Testament subscribed to this particular point of view.

This view maintains, taking a stand against the prophetic point of view that
you suffer because of your sin, this apocalyptic view argues that, in fact,
God is not causing your suffering, he's not punishing you for your sins. The
reason that they're suffering is because there are forces of evil in the
world, and these cosmic forces are what are causing the suffering, that for
some mysterious, unknown reason, God has relinquished control of his world to
the forces of evil, the devil, the demons, disease and despair and death. And
these forces are creating havoc on the earth. But, according to this
apocalyptic world view, God was soon going to intervene in history and
overthrow the forces of evil and bring in a good kingdom on earth where
there'd be no more pain, no more misery, no more suffering. There'd be a
utopian-like existence.

These apocalypticists who held this point of view moreover thought that this
coming end of this evil age was imminent. It's right around the corner. It's
going to happen very soon. So that if people will just hold on to their faith
just a little while longer God will intervene and destroy the forces of evil
and exalt all those who have been oppressed in this world and take down all
those who are in power and bring in his good kingdom on earth.

GROSS: And there's the concept of the return of the messiah in the Old and
the New Testament.

Mr. EHRMAN: That's right. I mean, this--how is this good kingdom going to
come? Well, in many Jewish writings and in much of the New Testament it's
going to come by God sending a savior figure from heaven who's going to
destroy these forces of evil and set up his kingdom. And so this would be a
messianic, a messiah-like figure who would bring in the end. Jesus himself
told his disciples that there would be someone called the "son of man" who was
going to come on the clouds of heaven in the presence of God's holy angels,
and he told them that this mighty appearance of the kingdom of God was going
to happen before some of them tasted death, so that this would happen within
the disciples' lifetime. Whereas he says elsewhere "this generation," he says
to his disciples, "this generation will not pass away before all these things
take place." So Jesus himself seems to have anticipated that this end of the
evil age was imminent, right around the corner.

GROSS: Well, a lot of people still believe this. Why did you stop believing
it?

Mr. EHRMAN: Well, it is interesting that every generation of Christians has
thought that it was the last generation. If you go to a Christian bookstore
today and just look on the shelves, they all have a section on prophecy and
you'll find book after book after book about people saying that the old
prophecies are coming true in our own age. And they'll have instance after
instance of prophecy being fulfilled by contemporary events. The thing is you
could have gone into those same bookstores 10 years ago and found similar
books relating to what was happening 10 years ago and 20 years ago and 30
years ago, 40 years ago. And, in fact, every generation has thought that what
was happening in its own day showed that the end was imminent. Well, after a
while, I started realizing that, you know, people have always been saying this
and it's never happened. The one thing that everyone has had in common who
said that it's going to happen right away is that every one of them has been
wrong. And it just seems to me that probably everyone who's saying it today
is also wrong.

GROSS: Now, the biblical view of suffering that you're most comfortable with,
that you find most satisfying, is in Ecclesiastes. Would you describe it for
us?

Mr. EHRMAN: Yeah, the--you know, my students at Chapel Hill don't believe me
when I tell them that I believe in the Bible, given how I teach my class from
a historical point of view. But in fact I do believe in the Bible. I believe
in the book of Ecclesiastes, which is a wonderful book of wisdom in the Hebrew
Bible, the Christian Old Testament. The author of Ecclesiastes--it's a
complicated book in a lot of ways, but his overarching theme is that
everything in life is transient. He uses the word "vanity," gets translated
into English as vanity. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. This word vanity
is actually a Hebrew word, hebel, which means--it's the kind of word you use
to describe mist that's around for a little while and then disappears. And
that's what our life is. Our life is here for a little while and then it
disappears.

And so you have to ask what really matters. I mean, everything in our life is
going to disappear when we die. And so why should we try and get wealthy?
We're going to die and somebody else will inherit our money and then they're
going to die. And, you know, you strive for pleasure, but what's the point?
I mean, at the end you're going to die and feel nothing. You strive for great
wisdom. Well, what's the point? You're going to die, and so your wisdom is
going to die with you. Everything and everybody is going to cease to exist.
And that ought to affect how you live your life.

Now, the author of Ecclesiastes did not become suicidal when he came to this
conclusion, as some people think he should have. In fact, quite the contrary.
His view was that this life is all we have, and since it's all we have we
should live it to the utmost. We should get everything we can out of life and
enjoy life as much as we can. We should eat and drink and enjoy our work and
have good friends and live life to its fullest because this is all there is.

GROSS: And that's your view, that live life to its fullest, but also you say
your view is, you know, help people as much as you can, do good as much as you
can because this is all there is.

Mr. EHRMAN: That's right. I think that we should all live life to its
fullest. But there are so many people in the world who are suffering so
horribly that we can't really enjoy these things without doing our best to
help others who are in need. One needs to have a life that's devoted to the
service of others and not simply a self-centered life. So I think we should
all live life to its fullest as much as we can, but we also ought to work in
order to relieve the suffering of others so that they too can live life to its
fullest.

GROSS: You know, you say in your book "God's Suffering," that you left
Christianity and you no longer consider yourself a Christian largely because
of this question of suffering, that you found nothing in the Bible that really
explained why suffering exists. And that Ecclesiastes doesn't explain why
suffering exists, it just explains--it just describes how to live in the face
of it.

Mr. EHRMAN: That's right, yeah.

GROSS: So like was there a kind of revelatory moment, was there like a moment
that became the dividing line between you being and not being a Christian?
Like some kind of revelation, some kind of experience that you had where you
thought, `OK, it's over now'?

Mr. EHRMAN: For me it was a very long process that actually began in the
mid-1980s when I was teaching at Rutgers University. I was asked to teach a
class called "The Problem of Suffering in the Biblical Traditions." This was
when I first started thinking seriously about the problem of suffering because
I had to teach it to this class. And I had a good class. They were smart
kids who were interesting. They tended to be sort of white, middle-,
upper-class kids from New Jersey. And I found it difficult in this class to
get the students to understand that there was a problem of suffering. They
didn't see what the problem was. And so this was during one of the Ethiopian
famines in the '80s, and I remember I used to resort to bringing pictures from
The New York Times in of women who were starving to death with children at
their breasts also starving to death and pointing these out to the students
and saying look, this is a problem. How does one explain this?

This started me thinking, and I spent 20 years thinking about it, and over
time I became less and less satisfied with any answers that I could find in
the Bible or in the writings of modern philosophers or in modern religious
thinkers. I finally came to a point where I came to realize that it's an
unanswerable question, why there's suffering if there's a good God who's in
control of this world.

GROSS: My guest is religion scholar Bart Ehrman, author of the new book
"God's Problem." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Bart Ehrman, author of the new book "God's Problem: How
the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer." He's a
distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North
Carolina Chapel Hill.

You point out one of the paradoxes of suffering and the question `why is there
suffering if there is a, you know, a just God?' You're talking about your
experience in which you turned away from religion. You left Christianity
because you felt that nothing in Christianity could really adequately explain
how suffering on an individual and mass level could exist in the face of God.
But on the other hand, a lot of people, when they are suffering, find such
comfort in God. And a lot of people who are suffering discover God or turn to
God then in part because it's a way to live with suffering, to believe in
something larger than yourself, to believe that there's some kind of larger
reason for the world, that you fit into it in some larger way. And would you
talk about that a little bit, why you think that so many people turn to God or
find faith at just the moment where you think faith should be falling apart.

Mr. EHRMAN: Well, that's absolutely true. And I don't want to minimize this
at all because, in fact, many people who are suffering find great solace in
their faith, and many people turn to God precisely when they're suffering
because they generally want to think that there must be some meaning behind
this. And they're hopeful that, in fact, there is meaning behind it. And I
don't want to undercut that at all. And I certainly don't want to, you know,
try and convince people that they should become agnostics the way that I
became an agnostic. But for me personally the fact that somebody finds solace
in their suffering by having faith is not--that still doesn't deal for me with
the problem, which is why they're suffering in the first place. And I, you
know, despite knowing all the answers that people typically give, I simply
don't think there is a good answer to it, that if there's a good God who could
stop somebody from suffering, why God doesn't do it.

GROSS: Well, that leads me to another question. Did you ever consider a
different religion or a different type of Christianity that wasn't about an
interventive God who you communicated with directly and who you petitioned for
things through prayer? Do you know what I mean?

Mr. EHRMAN: Yeah. Yeah, I certainly did consider other religions and have
thought a lot about other religions. And, you know, a lot of religions
actually deal with suffering better than, in my opinion, the traditional
Christianity does. I think it's very hard for me to imagine myself becoming
enthusiastic about joining any particular religion because I think all
religions have fundamental problems with them. I have a lot of friends who
point out to me that Buddhism, for example, is a religion that handles
suffering in a very different way from the way that the Christian religion
deals with suffering. And I have no doubt that that's absolutely true. But I
think in my head, what I imagine is that there's either a God or there's not a
God, and that's just the way I'm kind of hard-wired, I think. And my
conclusion has been that if there is a God, he certainly is not the God of the
Christian tradition who is all powerful and over this world and intervening in
this world periodically to help people. I think that if there is a God, God
is so far beyond anything that we can imagine that we literally cannot imagine
him.

GROSS: Since you spent much of your life as a committed evangelical
Christian, as a student, as a professor, I'm wondering, like, have you found
any kind of substitute for providing some of the things that religion once
provided you? And that includes answers to certain questions, a way of
comprehending your place in the world. I'm sure prayer had a big part in your
life...

Mr. EHRMAN: Yes.

GROSS: ...either a meditative kind of prayer or a more conversational or
questioning kind of prayer, but what has replaced all of that?

Mr. EHRMAN: Well, that's an excellent question because I think that those
who argue that everyone should become atheists, as many of our more recent
atheist authors have argued, or even people like me who are agnostic and think
that agnosticism is better, in many ways, to organized religion. I think that
one needs to put something in the place of what's being taken away. In my
case, in part, my Christianity was a way of understanding the world and I felt
very comfortable thinking that I had the solution to life's problems as an
evangelical Christian. That became problematic for me because I looked
around, realized I didn't seem to have any of the answers to the state of the
world. I think today I do what I did as a Christian, which is I continue to
seek out what the truth is. I try to understand this world as best I can.

One thing that I miss from being in organized religion, of course, is the kind
of fellowship that you have with other people who are like-minded. But you
can have fellowship with other like-minded people without being religious.
And so I think friendships and family are even more important to me than they
were before. I think one thing religion provided for me was a sense of what
was going to happen in the afterlife; I was very concerned about that. And
now I simply don't believe in an afterlife. That was a very disturbing
thought for me for a long time, but it's increasingly less of a disturbing
thought. There was an ancient philosopher who didn't believe in the afterlife
who said that we weren't upset prior to coming into existence and we won't be
upset after going out of existence, so we don't need to worry about it because
it's not something that you can control and it's not something that needs to
be a fearsome prospect because we simply won't exist anymore.

GROSS: You say in your book that there are times when you have doubts and you
worry maybe you're wrong, maybe there really is a God. What do you worry
about when you have those doubts?

Mr. EHRMAN: When I was an evangelical Christian, of course, I believed that,
in order to be right with God you needed to believe in Christ, and if you
believed in Christ you would have a happy life afterwards in heaven. And that
if you did not believe in Christ you would roast in hell forever. This was
deeply drummed into me and became very much a part of my emotional framework
for year after year. So when I first became an agnostic, that was the one
thing that really bothered me the most. What if I'm wrong? That's not a
happy prospect at all.

I've come to think that if there is a God in the world, which I tend to think
there's not, but if there is, that surely God is not more cruel than any human
being who's ever lived. And there's no human being who's ever lived who has
subjected eternal torment on anyone else. And so I simply can't believe that
even if there is a God that one needs to worry about roasting in hell forever.
I think that this is--this was a doctrine that was invented by the early
Christians, in part in order to convert people, but that in fact it's just a
human invention, that it doesn't correspond to anything like a reality.

GROSS: My guest is religion scholar Bart Ehrman, author of the new book
"God's Problem." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Bart Ehrman, author of the new book "God's Problem: How
the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer." Ehrman
is a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North
Carolina Chapel Hill.

How long ago did you stop being a Christian, did you say, `OK, hey, I'm not in
the process of thinking about this, I've thought it through and I'm no longer
a Christian'?

Mr. EHRMAN: The event that I remember most clearly was actually, I was in a
church--toward the end of my life as a Christian I had returned to the
Episcopal church, which I liked very much for its liturgy and its worship,
since it wasn't based on Christian doctrines, which I'd come to doubt, but was
based on the worship of God, which I appreciated both personally and
aesthetically. But even in the Episcopal church they say the creed, and I
remember one day in church, one Sunday morning, saying the creed and realizing
that in the entire creed--you know, "we believe in one God, the father
almighty, maker of heaven and earth, etc.--that the only thing in the creed
that I could any longer say was "he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was dead
and was buried." And that was all I could say because the rest of it I simply
didn't believe.

And I think it was at that point that I realized I really needed to stop going
to church because I no longer believed the things that people in church
believed, and I felt like I was being dishonest going to church. And that, in
fact, in ways it was kind of a slap in the face of the other people who were
there for me to be present with them. And so that's when I stopped going to
church. And that was probably 10 or 11 years ago, but I wasn't an agnostic
yet. I still believed that there was a God in the world. And I'd say it was
maybe six, seven or eight years ago when I finally just admitted, largely
because of this problem of suffering that I've been talking about, that I
simply didn't believe that there was a God of any sort. So it's not that I'm
affirming and absolutely stating there is no God--I don't know if there's a
God--but if there is a God, he certainly is not the God that I grew up to
worship in the Christian tradition.

GROSS: Did it take a while before you felt you could talk about this with
other people, talk about your loss of faith?

Mr. EHRMAN: Well, you know, I'm in a bizarre situation because I'm a
professor at a state university. And in a state university, there's naturally
a separation of church and state that's constitutional. And so my beliefs
have never been part of my public discourse about religion because in my
public discourse about religion I'm simply a professor of New Testament and
early Christianity, where my personal beliefs don't enter into the equation.
I teach the New Testament and early Christianity from a historical
perspective. And so I'd never had much of an occasion to tell anybody sort of
what I believed.

And my colleagues--this sounds strange to people who aren't in this world, but
my colleges in the Department of Religious Studies, I've been in this
department for 19 years and, to the best of my knowledge, I've never, ever had
a discussion about personal religion with any one of them because it's simply
something we don't talk about. We don't talk about our personal religious
beliefs. We talk about the study of religion. And we have people who study
Hinduism and Islam and Buddhism and Judaism and Christianity and all sorts of
things. And we talk about what we study, but we don't talk about our personal
beliefs.

And so I really didn't have much of a context to talk about my personal
beliefs, except among friends and family. And these are all good friends and
family and so I had no difficulty at all telling them what I was thinking.
The biggest problem I had, I think, actually, was with my family, not that I
live with but my family at home. My mom is a good evangelical Christian and
my siblings are strong Christians, and I think they had difficulty
understanding this kind of movement in my life away from Christianity, which
made it difficult in some ways to have conversations with them about things
that both of us find very important, but on which we take different sides.

GROSS: Back when you were an evangelical Christian, did you think of yourself
as having a personal relationship with God? And if so, can you describe a
little bit what that meant to you and what kind of conversations, so to speak,
you'd have with the God that you believed in?

Mr. EHRMAN: I absolutely thought I had a personal relationship with God.
When I was 16 and had a born again experience I asked Jesus into my heart and
I felt that Jesus was inside of me and the Holy Spirit, and I prayed to God
constantly. I mean, I would literally spend hours in prayer on my knees, and
would talk to God throughout the day. We were on a first name basis, and so I
absolutely felt close with God.

And, you know, looking back on that, you know, I think there are probably some
psychological explanations for it that I haven't gotten to the bottom of yet.
Part of it is, you know, there's a kind of--now, looking back, I think that
there's a kind of arrogance involved with that thinking that I have sort of a
direct pipeline to the creator of the universe. And so it put me in a sort of
a superior spiritual position to most of the human beings on the planet. And
so that strikes me now as being terrifically arrogant. At the time, of
course, I didn't see it was arrogant. I just thought it was true, that I had
this relationship and other people could, as well.

GROSS: You know, earlier in our conversation we talked about the classical
view of suffering as described in the Bible, which is that you suffer because
of your sins and you were rewarded for your good deeds. If one were to apply
that to your life right now, you'd have to say that, you know, you've become a
really successful author. "Misquoting Jesus" was on the best seller list. It
surely wouldn't surprise me if your new book "God's Problem" winds up there,
too. You've been teaching, you know, for a long time. You're a distinguished
professor of religion at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. So,
you know, but you'd have to say that what you've been most rewarded for
recently is challenging the inerrancy of the Bible, challenging the fact that
the Bible was written by people who were directly hearing God's voice in some
way. I mean, you're saying this is history, it's disputed, you know, that
there were different versions of the same stories in the Bible because it's
told by different people. You're no longer religious. So you'd have to say,
looking at your success now, that you were being rewarded for challenging the
very existence of God.

Mr. EHRMAN: That's right. Yes, that's right. I must be doing something
right. That would be the irony, I guess. There are passages in the Bible
that come out and say that it is the righteous who are rewarded and it's the
wicked who are punished. I mean, I think anybody who would look at my life
would say that's obviously not true. I mean, it's not that I'm wicked. In
fact, I would say that I'm probably more moral now than I was when I was a
church-going Christian. I don't see that there's a correlation between being
a church-going Christian and being a moral person. I know a lot of people who
are agnostic, in fact, who give tremendous amounts to try and solve the world
problems, both of themselves and of their resources. So I think you're
absolutely right. This older view that it's the righteous who prosper and the
wicked who suffer simply doesn't get born out empirically.

GROSS: Bart Ehrman, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

Mr. EHRMAN: Well, it's been my pleasure. Thank you for very much.

GROSS: Bart Ehrman is the author of the new book "God's Problem: How the
Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer."

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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