Erhman on Suffering

One of my undergraduate students this week asked me about the problem of suffering in relation to Bart Ehrman's newest book, saying that although Ehrman does not try to convert his reader to agnosticism, that my student now realizes that the challenges theodicy poses to Christianity are enormous.

For those of us who study these materials this is not a new problem. In fact it goes back to the first century in Christian literature. And we know that the problem was actually solved by many groups of Christians in the early second century. Look at the Valentinians. They argued that suffering is part of God's own experience as he-she developed self-consciousness. It is part of God's nature, and resulted in the creation of this world through a lesser (although not evil) creator god (whom Jesus actually saves in the end!). So the descent of the redeemer is about God joining humans in our suffering in order to alleviate it through the redemptive plan that he put into place, an alleviation that will happen at the end of time as we know it.

I say this because theodicy is not a problem for Christians UNLESS God is conceived as the ONLY God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, AND all-loving. If your religious system allows for polytheism like Marcionite Christianity which has the good merciful God who intervenes in a world not his own run by an just and wrathful God named Yahweh - no problem. If your religious system allows for a God whose right hand is good and whose left hand is evil as some forms of Judaism promoted - no problem. If your religious system allows for karma as Buddhism and Hinduism - no problem. Or, as in the case of the Valentinian Christians, if suffering is in God's nature, and there are lesser beings who become responsible for creation, then theodicy is no problem.

I write this to say again how important it is to remember the "others", the forms of Christianity that did not win the day. They did not lose the day because they didn't have solutions to age old problems. In fact, these forms of Christianity developed to SOLVE these age old problems. In the end, it was not theology that distinguished the Apostolic church and gave them the upper hand. The more I study the problem, the clearer it becomes to me that the reasons for victory had more to do with politics and social issues than anything else.