We were listening in to an epic debate between Rock Star Bart “Sparky” Ehrman and N.T. “Tom-Tom” Wright. Their topic: Is the existence of a Christian God compatible with human suffering? (I invented these nicknames out of sheer whimsy, not disrespect. And Ehrman makes clear he’s a historian, not a theologian, so I hereby retire his erroneous Spy-like title.)
Round 1: Sparky says it’s too, too much — God makes no sense in a world such as this. And if he’d been on the 10 bus down Nicollet Mall yesterday morning at 7am, he would not have changed his mind, believe me.
Round 2: Tom-Tom accuses Sparky of making an appeal to emotion. The Biblical story is one of God working out a long-range plan to save a suffering humanity.
Now, Round 3: Sparky will have none of it. Suffering is human and so evokes an emotional response. “In the time that it has taken me to write this response to your posting, there have been something like thirty thousand children who have died in this way — by horribly starving to death — in the world.”
In his previous riposte, Sparky had said a child dies of starvation “every five seconds” — horrifying enough, of course. But unless he’s claiming it took him 100 days to write his post, the math doesn’t work. The point is clear enough.
Sparky also doesn’t buy Tom-Tom’s claim about the Biblical narrative as the story of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God via Abraham and Isaiah and the Cross. (I’ve read some of Wright’s books and, while a lot of rhetorical fun, they aren’t particularly clear to me; Ehrman, on the other hand, is a legendary teacher of undergrads at UNC Chapel Hill and one of the least confusing men on the planet.)
Basically, the prophets explained suffering as God’s punishment for sin. By the end of the pre-Christian period, that explanation seemed weak: thus, apocaltypicism, which explained pain as the work of “God’s cosmic enemies,” such as the Devil and demons. Most modern Christians probably think this way.
But really, says Sparky, Wright hasn’t responded to the issue at hand: Why is there suffering?
Round 4 finds the boys getting to the heart of the matter. Can you wait?