Beliefnet (“Inspiration. Spirituality. Faith.“) always struck me as a kind of front for conservative political propaganda disguised as interfaith sharing, but it’s actually more benign. At times — as in those glorious days of April, 2008 — it sports a spirited, erudite dialogue on issues deep and wide.
What happened in April, 2008? Why, that’s when Rock Star Theologian Bart Ehrman and Rock Star Bishop N. T. Wright faced off in a religious studies Battle of the Bands over the deepest issue of them all: If there is a God, why is there so much darn suffering?
It’s not a new question, of course: Job faces it, suggesting the earliest Jewish communities had the same debate as Ehrman and Wright. But it’s inspiring to stumble on such a live Christian dialogue between two such well-armed combatants.
These two are about as famous as it’s possible for Christian academics to be these days. Ehrman has appeared on “The Colbert Report” more than once, and Wright is also a strong-selling author who’s probably met a few celebrities. They’re scholars who know the texts backwards (Hebrew is read from right to left – get it?).
But there the similarities end. Ehrman is American; Wright is British. Ehrman was a Southern Evangelical who gradually lost his faith. Wright was an Anglican Bishop, a self-described Calvinist, and very much a believer.
Their debate started with an entry Bart Ehrman contributed to the “Blogalogue: Debates with Spirit” section of Beliefnet titled “How the Problem of Pain Ruined My Faith.” The occasion was the publication of his unapologetic screed, “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer.”
“For most of my life,” Ehrman starts, rather ominously, “I was a devout Christian, believing in God, trusting in Christ for salvation.” At some point in his mid-20s, it seems, his Biblical scholarship led him to reject the evangelicals’ (quite silly) doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture, but he stayed a Christian for 20 more years.
But he had a growing problem with suffering. Where was God in disasters? Where was God in Cambodia and Colombian mud slides and so on. The stats he rattles off are despairing: a child dies of starvation every five seconds; every minute 25 people die because they don’t have clean water; every hour 700 people die of preventable malaria. “Where is God in all this?”
Reflection led him to the more nuanced Christological view that Jesus points the way toward God, showing us that “He is a God who suffers.” That is, basically God’s answer to suffering is to make sure we don’t suffer alone. He doesn’t remove or prevent pain but allows us to soldier through it (unless we die).
Then, some ten years ago, Ehrman realized he “simply no longer believed the Christian message.” He just didn’t believe God answered prayers, intervened and would come again in glory. It’s an intellectual trip he’s on, of course, but it’s one a lot of us can relate to.
[Up Next: a very — ahem — spirited debate ensues …]