Bart Ehrman – Dinesh D’Souza debate @ UNC on “the Problem of Evil”

I have to admit that I was not all that pleased with the outcome of the Bart Ehrman-Dinesh D’Souza debate last week. I have enjoyed a number of D’Souza’s writings, and am much more (obviously) in his camp, but don’t feel that he well represented the biblical position on the problem of evil. Ehrman was at his best, raising all the right questions. I found D’Souza’s answers mostly flat, unsatisfying, and not really representative of the biblical/Christian position.

(Parenthetically, I will note that I am not sure why D’Souza was the one chosen for this debate… there are a number of Christian theologians who have written incredible books on the problem of evil. D. A. Carson, William Lane Craig, NT Wright, Tim Keller, John Piper, and Bruce Little (at SEBTS)… just to name a few. I have never heard D’Souza as a “go to” guy for the problem of evil. Ehrman is one of our nation’s leading critics; I’m not sure why he wasn’t matched with someone who has written on the topic).

Ehrman raised a number of questions that went, for the most part, unanswered. Let me BRIEFLY (this is blog, not a book) sketch the beginnings of an answer to some of them, and point you to some resources if you’d like to go deeper.

Why would a good God allow suffering? D’Souza’s answer, for the most part, went back to God using suffering to teach us something. We could never develop virtue (compassion, courage, etc) without danger, pain, and suffering in the world.

This may be partially true, but it ignores the most fundamental reason why suffering exists: OUR COSMIC TREASON AND REJECTION OF GOD.

At one point, Ehrman said, indignantly, “I reject the idea that all this suffering, the holocaust, etc, was necessary just to create virtue in us.” I had to sympathize with Ehrman’s retort! Did God really create tsunamis just to teach us bravery? Was the massacre of thousands of Jewish children, and millions of unborn today, necessary just to make us compassionate? That’s not convincing to me as a reason why a good God would allow evil.

Well, if not, why couldn’t God create a world where suffering didn’t exist?

Quite simply, He did. “Shalom” (peace, harmony) ruled God’s world, our sin brought that crashing down. God is so fundamental to shalom that when we rejected Him and His order, the entire universe literally began to unravel. We rage against the idea that we are rightfully cursed because of our sin, but that is the plain biblical truth, as offensive as it is. We think this bad world is worse than we good people deserve. The Bible flips that on its head: if anything, any goodness in the world is better than we bad people deserve. Our rejection of God deserves ultimate condemnation. The fact that we woke up this morning, and the sun shone on our face, and we had food, friends, and love, is undeserved. God, in HIs mercy, is allowing us a space to repent. If we do not, we will face what we rightfully deserve: eternal suffering.

Jesus said as much in Luke 13:1-5. When asked why certain people died in a natural disaster, and whether the victims were deserving of what happened, Jesus said, “Not at all! In fact, unless you repent, you will all face the same judgment.”

If we suffer because God allows us to have free will, how can there be no suffering in heaven? Do we not have free will there? Ehrman’s question here was an attempt to challenge the assertion that our suffering is the result of our free will. This is not a really well thought out objection, in my opinion. Being free to do something doesn’t mean that we automatically want to do it. As a grown man, I am “free” to eat rat dung or to jump off the Dean Dome in an attempt to fly. Though I am technically “free” to do either (i.e., if I could figure out how to get up on the Dean Dome), I probably will never choose either–so long as I retain my sanity and my good taste.

The Christian doctrine is that those in heaven are indeed free, but have been given a heart redeemed and purified by Christ, so that they would freely choose to avoid wickedness, perversion, injustice and sin because they abhor it like I do rat dung. Because they have been healed, they will not choose the insanity of sin any more than I would chose to jump off the Dean Dome.

Why then, you may ask, did Adam and Eve choose to sin in paradise, and how were they different than the people in heaven? That is a good question. A & E possessed less “sight” than we will have in heaven. They were given enough sight that they could have chosen God, by faith, if they wanted. Sadly, they (we) did not. In heaven, for those whom Jesus has rescued, our eyes will be opened sufficiently and our hearts accordingly changed that we would never choose the filth of sin any more than Ehrman would choose to eat his own children.

What is ironic is that Ehrman’s point–again, that there can be free will without suffering–does not really help his case at all. Even he acknowledges that a lot of suffering does indeed rise out of free will. We all recognize that at times we use our freedom to hurt each other! So, then, how can we eliminate the suffering that arises from free will? There are only 2 options: external control (whereby you take away people’s freedom so that they can’t hurt others) or internal change (whereby they are changed so they wouldn’t want to hurt people). The former answer is the answer of the dictator, attempted in the 20th century by Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao Tse Tung. The latter is the Christian answer, enacted by Jesus Christ 2000 years ago when He died on a cross to purchase our forgiveness and produce a change of heart). These are the only real two solutions–change imposed from the outside, or change beginning on the inside! I’d much prefer Jesus to Stalin on this.

I don’t understand why the cross was the necessary way to save us, and why God doesn’t just go ahead and stop all evil… I would have done it differently! Ehrman never said these exact words, but this is the undertone of much of what he said. Ehrman did say, “If God is good, then He would want purposeless evil to be stopped. If God is all powerful, then He could stop it. That evil exists proves the Christian God could not exist.”
The hidden premise in this is that if there were a purpose in evil, Ehrman could perceive it, and if Ehrman can’t perceive the purpose, then it must not exist. This is an extraordinary faith in his own powers of reasoning! This confidence, imho, is quite unfounded, if not illogical. Don’t get me wrong, Ehrman is brilliant… but just think about it: if God is INFINITE in love, and INFINITE in power, does it now also follow He is INFINITE in wisdom? And if he is INFINITE in wisdom, and the magnitude of His wisdom exceeds ours as the magnitude of His power must exceed ours, does it not follow that there will be many things on earth we can’t understand yet?

You can’t have it both ways, Dr. Ehrman. If God is infinite in love and power, you have to concede He would be infinite in wisdom also. And if He is infinite in wisdom, of course there are things that your finite mind, though comparatively brilliant, cannot yet understand. Think about it: If God is as big as Christian doctrine teaches, and the immensity and complexity of creation demands, that He is, how could we possibly think we would understand all His purposes?

It’s foolish to set ourselves up as the judge of the wisdom of God. That’s like my 2 year old declaring herself the best judge of the political turmoil in Iran. Let’s be temperate and rational about our own brilliance.

Is that unreasonable?

Where was God when the Holocaust was happening? Quite simply, He was on the cross. If the Christian revelation is true, then what was happening on the cross was truly staggering: the only ever truly innocent and perfect One died the most unjust and cruel death of all. Why? He was doing what was necessary to save us. Our sin requires any true salvation to do 2 things: Satisfy justice, and change our hearts to make us love the good. Jesus’ death did both. In His death He satisfied the righteous wrath of God for our sin; in His resurrection He gave us the power of a new life.

Ironically, the best answer for the problem of evil for the night was given by Ehrman himself, when He said that the “historical” Jesus believed that through His Kingdom all wrongs would be put to right. That is exactly true. What Ehrman doesn’t understand, or doesn’t believe, is that our salvation required more than just a change of politics and circumstance. Jesus’ Kingdom was not just a new regime. Jesus’ Kingdom required a heart change and the removal of God’s wrath.

Dr. Ehrman underestimates the damage our sin has caused to us, as well as the majesty of the God that was offended. He underestimates the true “sinfulness of sin”; how truly evil our evil really is. That’s why, I think, He finds the Christian explanation for the cross so offensive.

Dr. Ehrman also believes that history proves that Jesus was mistaken in His hopes that a Kingdom of justice and righteousness would come. Almost 2000 years later, injustice still abounds! So how, Dr. Ehrman contends, could Jesus not be wrong in His hopes? But again, think about the size of God. 2000 years may look like a long time to us, but is it really that long for the Creator of the Universe, light years, black holes and string theory?

The weakest part of Dr. Ehrman’s defense, and one I so wished D’Souza would have gone after, was Ehrman’s very unsatisfying explanation about how he can call certain actions, like the Holocaust, truly evil. Ehrman said something about accountability to each other, but never really spelled out what me meant by that or WHY I need to feel accountable to anyone. If there is no God, then we might be able to say that certain actions are UNHELPFUL for the human race, but we can’t ever say something is truly evil. To say something is morally evil requires that there be a higher good that you compare it to. The moment you say “This ought to be different way,” you have implied a higher standard, or a higher law, than what is. To say that actions are unjust requires that we have a higher law that tells us what justice is.

For all its philosophical wrangling, at the end of the day evolution cannot supply that law. Evolution can only explain what is, not what ought to be. You may say that is unhelpful for humanity to rape and for Hitler to murder the Jews. But that is not how evolution works. Each of us in in competition with others to have our genes replicated in future generations. If survival of the fittest is the predominant law of the universe, then our species is here and our genes are preserved because our genetic ancestors conquered and sometimes murdered their competitors. That’s how survival of the fittest works.

Furthermore, Hitler, and many others, would have disagreed with you about what is “helpful” for the human race. Peter Singer, ethicist at Princeton, says that it is helpful for the human race to eliminate entirely retarded and disabled children from the gene pool. I say that even if you can prove its helpful for the gene pool, the slaughter of a 2 year old mentally challenged child is evil.

If our “morality” is determined simply by what the current majority of people think is helpful for the human race, then we are on shaky ground indeed. Martin Luther King decried the evil of racism by appealing to a law higher than majority opinion. At least for MLK, if there was no God, there would have been no civil rights movement. If there is no Law Giver, there can be no true evil.

At the end of the day, I find blind, atheistic evolution a very unsatisfying answer to my deepest questions. Nothing x nobody = everything? Really? Hitler just died and faces the same future as Mother Theresa? The smothering of a 6 month old by a drunk parent is unhelpful, but not evil? When a parent buries a 4 year old killed in a car wreck, that’s it–life is over altogether?

Dr. Ehrman’s rather facile “kum ba yah” passage from his book that he read at the end of the debate I find VERY unsatisfying. I’ll stick with Nietzsche and Richard Dawkins as MUCH more consistent agnostic/atheists than Dr. Ehrman. They are not afraid to follow their logic to its despairing end.

Again, these are just the beginnings of an answer. I hope I have not been too hard on Mr. D’Souza. I have a great deal of respect for him, and appreciate his time and spirit in coming, as well as his wittiness and brilliance and passion.

I would appeal, however, to the Christian Apologetics Association to choose a more suitable “opponent” when setting up these debates. D’Souza is as smart as Dr. Ehrman, but this is just not the area of his expertise.

For those of you who really want to go deeper in this, I would commend to you Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God or D. A. Carson’s How Long O Lord? for starters.

Here are a few free messages, one by Dr. Tim Keller (pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan) and two 1 2 by yours truly that might also be good to download and listen to. If you’re only going to do one, do Tim Keller’s.

For those of you reading who are/were truly troubled by all this, please know that I or any of the pastors at the Summit Church would love to talk with you about this or anything on your heart…

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  1. Chad   •  

    I have heard this type of criticism from other sources as well. Apparently, D’Sousa’s book has been very well received. He does a masterful job with his argumentation. However, I have heard that his ability to debate is lacking, although I do applaud him for his willingness to engage. At least for the organizers of the event, they should have looked into someone with the same academic license that Dr. Ehrman possesses. I am afraid that this decision may have been made more out of popularity, than out of academic ability.

  2. Jerry   •  

    I agree with Chad. D’Souza is not a trained Theologian (based on the biographical information on his website).

  3. Andy   •  

    Another good book on the topic (among others) is Christopher Wright’s recent book, “The God I Don’t Understand”. He writes as an OT theologian after a long professional career. I recommended to several laypeople in church and they enjoyed his perspective.

  4. Matthew   •  

    Having attended a state school for my undergrad I have seen this sort of thing happen countless times – a well-received skeptic who is a strong debater pitted against someone who has strong convictions but lacks the credentials/skills to hold their own in a serious academic debate.
    I suspect, having read Ehrman and finding numerous problems in his arguments across the board, this may have merely been a platform for him to espouse his arguments while giving the debate the appearance of academic credibility.

  5. mapoulos   •  

    Thanks for the reflection. I skipped out on the debate (I attend NC State) mostly because I didn’t understand the choice of D’Souza. I’ve read one of his books, and definitely enjoyed it, but you’re right: this isn’t his area of expertise. Oh well, hopefully his upcoming debate with Hitchens will go better.

  6. James   •  

    The Bible does not always insist that suffering and evil are a punishment for sin. Job was “blameless” before God. He was upright, and God stated to Satan “still he holdeth fast his integrity, although thou movedst me against him, to destroy him without cause”.

    Without cause, meaning the suffering was undeserved.

    In the end, Job questions God about the reasons for his suffering. God’s reply is basically “you don’t deserve a reason”. Even raising the question is viewed as an affront against Him.

    Yes, Job’s life is partially restored, but at what cost? His family perished. Most of us would not consent to seeing our families ravaged or destroyed so long as we received a new one in the end.

    Again: what was the reason? The point of Job seems precisely that may be no reason at all. God already knew what the status of Job’s heart was (as defined by His omniscience). Did He need to put Job to the test? No. Did Job “deserve” His suffering as defined by the Old Testament parameters for what the worthy offenses were for punishment? No.

  7. Daniel   •  

    It is interesting to note that J. D. Greear suggests that the “weak point” in Dr. Ehrman’s argument on the classic problem of evil is in explaining how we derive the standard for goodness—and, consequently, the recognition of evil itself—if there is no God dictating an absolute morality. This is a common retort to those who would side with Ehrman on his conclusion that God, conceived by Judeo-Christianity as primarily a moral being, cannot exist. However, we must always remember that when engaging the discussion of the so-called “problem of evil”, we are conceding the ground of argumentation to the Judeo-Christian moral interpretation of phenomena; thus to reject the Christian position as unsatisfactory with respect to specific instances of the “evil” based on inherent problems is merely to say that those instances (ex., the Holocaust) would qualify as “evil” FROM THE CHRISTIAN POSITION, if this position is taken seriously. That we may abhor or disagree with such instances on different grounds, or even term them as ‘evil’ based on a colloquial bias, is a different issue.

    Greear suggests that he’ll “stick with Nietzsche and Richard Dawkins as MUCH more consistent agnostic/atheists than Dr. Ehrman. They are not afraid to follow their logic to its despairing end.” This is significant because Nietzsche (who offered an innovative approach to the “good and bad/good and evil” dichotomies in his Genealogy of Morality) was one of the chief critics of the Reich, antisemitism, and the momentum which led to the Holocaust, and yet he would have denied any truth to a notion of these actions as being metaphysically “evil”. Greear’s quote admits that there is an atheistic/agnostic logic that denies the true existence of metaphysical evil, but we cannot approach “the problem of evil” from this vantage point because this logic denies that there is even a problem to start! It would make no sense to engage in a discussion on the problem of evil—or its purported “resolutions”—from the grounds that there exists no all-powerful, morally good creator being who prescribes an absolute morality; from this perspective the “problem” does not come to light. The issue becomes a problem only when all the claims of Judeo-Christianity are taken together as consistent with the claimed character of the biblical God, suggesting a harmony. That Ehrman can decry such instances of “evil” as irreconcilable with such a position is simply to say that, given the arguments, we must find the Judeo-Christian position untenable.

    If we pressed Ehrman to explain whether or not he would label such occurrences as truly evil in an absolute or metaphysical sense, he would then be in a position to step outside of the “game” of debate on the philosophical problem of evil [GIVEN THE JUDEO-CHRISTIAN PREMISES] and give his answer. If the answer were ‘yes’, he would then be in a position to explain how it is that he measures metaphysical goodness and, consequently, evil, if not by an absolute source of morality. If he answered ‘no’, he would then be in a position to explain his moral position on such events, which can be done without recourse to metaphysical absolutism.

    In sum, the game of debate always proceeds from a specific set of premises, and in the debate regarding the (more aptly described) “philosophical problem of evil given the Judeo-Christian position”, the grounds are initially conceded to the Judeo-Christian moral worldview, only then to be argued into the alleged impasse. It makes no sense to rail: “How can YOU call that ‘evil’ when you don’t even believe in absolute goodness”, given that, from the outset, we are dealing in Judeo-Christian definition and terminology.

  8. Chris Armstrong   •  

    Perhaps Dr. Ehrman’s views are pointing out that our conception of God is unnecessarily limited. It seems that we assign to God many of our human frailties – jealousy and anger and the like – we insist on describing the Divine in anthropomorphic terms. Theologian Paul Knitter describes this tendency as something akin to caging a beautiful, tropical bird; we insist on conceptualizing God into a “cage” that we can “understand” instead of relishing the mystery of the infinite Spirit. Knitter seems to understand God as the Spirit that connects us through relationship and love. Paul Tillich spoke of God as being our “ground of being” while pointing to the mystery… In reading your article, I had the feeling you were presenting a false dichotomy: belief in your views or in the views espoused by Dr. Ehrman. The reality is there are still more ways of understanding the problem of evil and God’s response to it.

  9. AyameTan   •  

    Regarding: “…it ignores the most fundamental reason why suffering exists: OUR COSMIC TREASON AND REJECTION OF GOD.”

    Translation: God set us up to fail and is punishing us for what he KNEW we would do (i.e. he’s punishing us for his own mistakes, since he set us up to fail from the get-go.)

    Omnipotence carries with it omniresponsibility.

    And for the record, a temporary sacrifice is not a sacrifice. Jesus doesn’t deserve respect for ‘dying’ for 36 hours.

  10. Ricechild   •  

    God, Our Creator, did not set us up to fail,… He gave us the ‘free-choice’ to fail, knowing that would happen, yet it was worth it for him, because along with that ‘Free-choice’, he also gives the opportunity and choice, to “Choose Him”. Our Free Choice to Love Him, is what he seeks and requires. He will suffer and endure all our selfish desires, and sin, just to receive our Love. That is what makes our love valuable and authentic to him, is the fact that it is ours to give. It is real. The reality is most of us choose to love ourselves, instead of our God, and Creator. Also, for you or me to die for 36 hours, or for any length of time, would maybe come up short of being worthy of respect, but Jesus, on the other hand, He is the savior of all people throughout all history…the shedding of his blood covers them all. They all may not choose him, so that is where they fall short, but his sacrifice was at least big enough to save all those we believe will be in heaven, and it may be enough to save many whom we may not understand why they would end up in Heaven….That is true Love…”Forgive them, for they know not what they do”
    God Bless You, A!

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