Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

N. T. Wright & Bart Ehrman debate some Theodicy

Posted by NT Wrong on April 24, 2008

Currently, N. T. Wright and Bart Ehrman are engaged in an on-line debate on the hoary question of suffering, divine justice and theodicy.

You can read their debate here.

Ehrman begins by giving a run down of different types of suffering in the world. Part of his conclusion is that the Bible tries several different, mutually contradictory answers to the problem. None of these really work, but many of them continue to influence the contemporary theodicy debate:

“As it turns out, my various wrestlings with the problem have led me, even as an agnostic, back to the Bible, to see how different biblical authors wrestle with this, the greatest of all human questions. The result is my recent book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer. My contention is that many of the authors of the Bible are wrestling with just this question: why do people (especially the people of God) suffer? The biblical answers are striking at times for their simplicity and power (suffering comes as a punishment from God for sin; suffering is a test of faith; suffering is created by cosmic powers aligned against God and his people; suffering is a huge mystery and we have no right to question why it happens; suffering is redemptive and is the means by which God brings salvation; and so on). Some of these answers are at odds with one another (is it God or his cosmic enemies who are creating havoc on earth?), yet many of them continue to inform religious thinkers today.”
– Bart Ehrman, the Ehrman v Wright Debate, “Is Our Pain God’s Problem?

N. T. Wright’s first response complains that all the suffering Ehrman describes sounds so obviously indefensible, that Ehrman has the rhetorical edge on him. It’s an unusual ploy, when you’re trying to argue against the problem of evil, to admit that your opponent has a great deal of material that he can adduce as evidence for inexplicable suffering. But he gives it a go, anyway. So Wright complains for a while about the emotive effects of Ehrman’s argument. Why is it that those who complain loudest about ‘rhetoric’ are the most silver-tongued avoiders of substantial issues (he asked rhetorically)?

Wright ends his complaint with the water-muddying accusation that Ehrman didn’t become an agnostic because of the insurmountable evidence and logic of the ‘problem of evil’, but for some shady undeclared ulterior motive:

“… might it not seem that the shift in your own position which you have described is a shift which came about, not because of logical argument, but because of other (unspecified) factors, with the problem of suffering providing a kind of intellectual backdrop to a journey whose main energy was supplied from elsewhere?”
– N. T. Wright, the Ehrman v Wright Debate, “Is Our Pain God’s Problem?

In other words, all agnostics must be very sinful to even raise the problem of suffering. They probably just hate God! Or, to adopt the old “No True Scotsman” argument: they were never really truly Christians in the first place when they claim to have ‘deconverted’ … Obviously the logic and evidence of the ‘problem of evil’ could have nothing to do with it.

In the second half of Wright’s first reply to Ehrman, he complains that Ehrman isn’t up with the most recent scholarship … particularly the most recent scholarship on Paul … particularly the recent scholarship by N. T. Wright on Paul:

“you never factored in the way in which the gospels offer themselves as the climax of precisely that Abraham-rooted story of Israel-as-God’s-answer-to-the-problem. Jesus’ inauguration of God’s Kingdom (and the culmination of that kingdom-inauguration in the cross and resurrection), as I have argued elsewhere, was precisely his answer to the question ‘what does it look like when God is running the world’ – the very question of your whole book”
– N. T. Wright, the Ehrman v Wright Debate, “Is Our Pain God’s Problem?

Unfortunately, Wright’s perspective on Paul is itself something that “recent scholarship” has consigned to the curiosity cabinet of late-twentieth-century Pauline biblical scholarship.

But more substantially problematic is the fact that Wright’s “Israel-as-God’s-answer-to-the-problem” comes a little bit late in time for the prior billions of years of needless suffering. And it’s not so much the timing that’s wrong, as the fact that God created humankind by a process that necessitated most of that suffering. That is, humankind only ever came about as a result of millions of years of suffering, extinctions, and brutality. In other words, Christ needed to be much more than the New Adam. Christ needed to be the ‘new’ Big Bang.

We’ll see how the debate pans out.

4 Responses to “N. T. Wright & Bart Ehrman debate some Theodicy”

  1. Antonio Jerez said

    Bless you! Wish I had found out about this wonderful guy named NT Wrong a long time ago. But now that I have found him I will never let you go.
    I was just in the midst of a discussion about the supposed imcompability of Darwinism and theism on Chris Heard´s blog when some of your words fell like manna on my eyes. Take a look at Higgaion and more specifically on a thread named “Not EXPELLED, just playing hookey”.

  2. ntwrong said

    And bless you, Antonio!

    I took a look at Chris Heard’s blog, and saw your discussions. That James chap is a bit intense. I think he was trying to argue that no animals suffer, only humans. He clearly hasn’t read his Bible:

    “The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek Yahweh lack no good thing.”
    – Psalm 34.10

  3. Antonio Jerez said

    Yeh, James is actually the kind of people I was referring to when I said that reading too much philosophy can make your mind go soft. See my latest answer to James on Higgaion. I am trying to defend both you and me against James´ strawmen arguments. Maybe you can jump into the discussion yourself’


  4. Antonio Jerez said

    Damn, it! I hadn´t seen until today that you had jumped into the debate on Higgaion. You must be an angel! Wish that I could pluck biblical quotes out of the air like you. I haven´t laughed so much in a long time. Yes, and as you can see from my latest comments to James I have decided to follow the advice of the Jewish scribe who came up with the words of wisdom you referred to in Priverbs.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: