The Problem of Judging God
by Derrick G. Jeter
Since the advent of Jesus Christ there have been obstacles to faith in Him. The first arose almost as soon as He appeared on the public scene—confusion about His identity and the nature of his mission. John, Jesus’s cousin, called Him “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29, 36). But shortly after this great confession, John was facing an executioner’s axe and sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “are You the Expected One [i.e., the Messiah], or shall we look for someone else?” (Matthew 11:3). Shortly before His own death, Jesus took a poll on the popular opinions of His identity: “Who do the people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13). The answers were not promising: John the Baptist (come back from the dead), Elijah or Jeremiah or another one of the prophets (16:14). Most wouldn’t come to the conclusion that Peter did: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16).
People have been confused about Jesus’s identity and mission form the beginning, and the confusion continues today.
The other great obstacle to faith in Christ is the contradiction in the lives of His followers. Put simply: their hypocrisy. If Christians, who claim to have the Holy Spirit of God within their lives, cannot look a whole lot more like the One they follow then why should anyone else bother following Him? This was Friedrich Nietzche’s conclusion when he wrote, “His disciples will have to look more saved if I am to believe in their savior.”1
Confusion about Jesus’s identity and the hypocrisy of His followers are ancient and modern barriers to faith in Christ. But a third great obstacle stands in the way of faith, even shipwrecking some men’s faith, and it is completely modern—the problem of evil. Bart Ehrman, in his book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer, articulates this position well.
Ancient Jews and Christians never questioned whether God existed. They knew he existed. What they wanted to know was how to understand God and how to relate to him, given the state of the world. The question of whether suffering impedes belief in the existence of God is completely modern, a product of the Enlightenment.2
Ehrman begins his book by establishing his bona fides as a (former) Christian evangelical—“I . . . attended a Youth for Christ club and had a ‘born-again’ experience . . . I became very serious about my faith and chose to go off to a fundamentalist Bible college—Moody Bible Institute in Chicago . . . I went off to finish my college work at Wheaton, an evangelical Christian college in Illinois (also Billy Graham’s alma mater) . . . I . . . chose to go to Princeton Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian school whose brilliant faculty included Bruce Metzger, the greatest textual scholar in the country.”3 Ehrman establishes his “Christian” credentials because he what’s to shock the reader that though “most of [his] life [he] was a devout and committed Christian” the thorny problem of evil “was the reason [he] lost [his] faith.”4
Strikingly, however, in his pains to lay out his “devout and committed” Christianity he painfully leaves out one important factor—a statement of faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ehrman provides his Curriculum Vitae, but not a word of his faith commitment to Christ. Throughout the book I couldn’t help but think of John’s warning to his “little children”:
Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not really os us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:18–19).
Ehraman’s book is an attempt to see how the Bible addresses the question of evil and suffering, but as a denier of faith in Christ, I wasn’t surprised that his approach to interpreting the Scriptures was anything but skeptical. As he see it, the Bible provides six answers to suffering:
- Suffering is a result of God punishing sin.
- Suffering is a result of the consequences of another’s sin.
- Suffering is a means for God to bring redemption.
- Suffering is a means to test faithfulness.
- Suffering is a mystery that either God’s hasn’t revealed or we cannot understand.
- Suffering is a result of evil forces opposed to God, which He will amend at the end of time.
Ehrman concludes that none of these “answers” is satisfactory, which is why the Bible fails to answer this important question. Sitting as judge over God, Ehrman bangs his gavel and pronounces God’s guilty, and though His problem has become mankind’s problem, God must answer for His sins. But this sentence of guilt is nonsense, for Ehrman tells us that he abandoned the Christian faith because of problem of evil and suffering and became an agnostic, but toward the end the book he belies his claim to theological ignorance: “there is no God up there, just above the sky, waiting to come ‘down’ here or to take us ‘up’ there.”5 If there is no God “up there” then what does Ehrman have to bellyache about? Who is he passing judgment on, a phantom?
With such a “faith” it is no wonder that Ehrman failed to deal honestly with the one “answer” closest to his own—that there is no answer to the question of evil and suffering, but there is a response: enjoy the life you have and relieve suffering where you find it. He claims this was Solomon’s view (or whoever wrote the book of Ecclesiastes, in Ehrman’s estimation). Life is all vanity, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the few years you have on earth and help others to enjoy their lives. Or has Ehrman wrote: “What we have in the here an now is all that there is. We need to live life to its fullest and help others as well to enjoy the fruits of the land.”6
Solomon, however, wouldn’t agree, at least not to the extent that this was the end of the matter. Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes that life lived under the sun (the oft repeated phrase through the book) was useless, empty, vain, and that the best we could hope for was to enjoy the simple pleasures that life had to offer before we went to the grave. But this was life merely under the sun—merely a horizontal perspective, thinking that “there is no God up there.” Solomon was not so foolish! Solomon went on, in the last chapter of his book, admonishing his readers to remember God (Ecclesiastes 12:1, 6) and finishing with these powerful words: “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (12:13–14).
Somehow Solomon’s conclusion didn’t fit Ehrman’s; or rather Ehrman’s didn’t fit Solomon’s, leading me to conclude that evil and suffering is not God’s problem but Ehrman’s problem, and ours.
- Friedrich Nietzche, quoted in Philip Yancey and Paul Brand, “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made,” In the Likeness of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 47.
- Bart D. Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answers Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 121.
- Ehrman, God’s Problem, 1–2.
- Ehrman, God’s Problem, 1.
- Ehrman, God’s Problem, 259.
- Ehrman, God’s Problem, 278.