Friday, February 29, 2008

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.

28 comments: said...

I'm not sure I like the word "victory".

I would say the truth prevailed.

Don said...

I sure feel foolish. To just now realize that the age old problems were solved by the Valentians! I can't believe I've been missing out.

___ Deane ___ said...

April wrote:
theodicy is not a problem for Christians UNLESS God is conceived as the ONLY God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, AND all-loving.

That's the bottom line, alright. This point is well illustrated in a short 4-minute satire I discovered recently, in the "Mr Deity" series, called 'Mr. Deity and the Evil'. The short film dramatises the issue of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God setting up the universe before time began.

John Noyce said...

apres your final paragraph:

Once Constantine decided to make 'Christianity' his official state religion then the editorial decisions regarding the corpus of writing that became the Bible were straightforward: the 'do this, dont do that' type letters from bossy Paul (who never met Christ) were much more useful as part of the control mechanisms than the 'look within yourself' advice of Thomas, Valentinian, and others.

The truth was largely lost as a consequence...

Phil Snider said...

The problem isn't that the Valentinians et al didn't have solutions to the issues of theodicy, but that their solutions created other problems which were deemed, at least by the 'orthodox' groups, to create more problems than they solved. It is incomplete to claim that these alternative Christian groups solved problems, if we don't recall that other problems are created.

As for the politics and social issues comment, I don't think this invalidates the 'victors', but rather may suggest that their solutions worked better for a larger number of people. Historically, at least. That makes me wonder if they were not, perhaps, wiser?

Deane said...

Phil: I wonder if your reply includes an equivocation which makes your objection beside the point.

The classical 'problem' of evil is a problem that is internal to certain monotheistic religious systems. As April explained - and as I take it you agree - the Valentinian system does not have such a problem, because it does not subscribe to all the theistic conditions for the problem of evil. That is, the classical problem of evil requires that there is only one God, who is all-powerful (including all-knowing) and all-loving. But for Valentinians, suffering is a problem for God's own self, a problem that involved a second (lesser) Principle beside the 'Most High' being involved in creation. So, the problem of evil which exists for Jewish or Christian religions holding to monotheism and complete divine transcendence does not exist for Valentinian Christians.

By contrast, the 'problem' you refer to is merely the result of an adverse judgment against Valentinians by non-Valentinian Christians. But this is not a 'problem' in the first sense, as a logical problem, that is, a problem within the rules of the game.

So, it is quite beside the point that the Valentinian theodicy "created other problems which were deemed, at least by the 'orthodox' groups to create more problems than they solved". For Valentinian Christians, the problem of evil had been solved within their worldview. And I don't know of any resulting internal problems this created. Do you?

I wonder whether your "more problems than they solved" are only 'problems' when viewed from outsiders, rather than problems that were actually created within the Valentinian system itself as a result of the Valentian solution to the problem of evil?

José Solano said...

Although I find some extraordinarily profound thinking and intuitive-psychological-philosophical insights among the Gnostics, particularly some from the schools of Valentinus and Basilides, the reason they fell into obscurity is really quite simple: The common person couldn’t understand what they were talking about. They were too esoteric, exclusive, elitist. You had to be “enlightened” to get in. We mere ignoramuses ended up who knows where? The masses would certainly not be very attracted to such teachings. This was a problem in “Athens” also.

But the New Testament canon, while having profound insights, could appeal to everyone, peasant and sage alike. It is a religion primarily of repentance, of turning your life around, of right conduct, that is, of Love. And this is also the great emphasis in the revealed religion of Jerusalem. Anyone can do it! It's as simple as
"Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved." And if the person is so mentally handicapped that he can’t then he is as innocent as a child and blessed anyway.

What you find conspicuously lacking in most Gnostic works is any emphasis or even any mention of love. Gilles Quispel, among many others observed this years ago.

This is why the Gnostics faded out and the Orthodox were victorious. It’s because they understood that “Deus Caritas Est.” Thank you Pope Benedict XVI for reminding us. Mysteriously and paradoxically, embedded in suffering is actually the capacity to love.

Jerusalem never spoke more eloquently its distinction from Gnostics and Athens than in 1 Cor. 13.

Deane said...

I agree, José, that a religious group that aims to be an elitist group won't pull the numbers like a religious group that aims for universal conversion.

However, 'love everybody' would never have caught on as a popular religious movement, either. What early proto-orthodox Christianity had in its favour was the requirement to love insiders and hate outsiders. Hatred towards others - heretics, 'Jews' (other Jewish sects), idol-worshiping and fornicating Gentiles - is as much a cohesive and attractive quality for religion-building as is love. Love on its own wouldn't have sold. What really put the fuel into the fire was a sincere hatred of others.

In 1 John, where love is most central, hatred of outsiders is likewise ever-present. Hatred is the other side of the coin to love of one's own.

The ability of Christianities to convert the old Judean hatred of those outside Judea into a hatred of those outside 'spiritual Israel' was a real winner. Man - they universalised nationalism! Now, that's a reason that brings us a little closer to the reasons for proto-orthodox Christianity's popularity and success. Would the Nazis have taken off if they were just being pro-German, and not anti-Semitic as well? I don't think so.

Rodney Stark's 'Rise of Christianity' provides some other reasons if you're interested in what caused the popularity stakes of early Christianity.

José Solano said...

What I have come to realize is that no society, culture or people holds a monopoly on hatred and violence.

It was in vogue for many years, and remains rather popular, to think terrible things about the Spanish Conquistadors because they conquered and did terrible things to the Aztecs, Incas, etc. And they certainly were pretty awful. Then I began to study what objective history, anthropology and archeology has to say about these pre-Colombian civilizations and discovered that the Conquistadors had nothing whatsoever to teach them about hatred, pillage and human slaughter.

The Romans and the Athenians knew something about hatred and violence also and there is no reason at all to imagine that if Gnostics had come to power they would not have been rather similar.

There is often a great difference between a teaching and the way it’s practiced by those who claim to be followers. What I’m focusing on here are teachings and their appeal to the masses. The New Testament teaching is about loving even your enemies. The Gnostic teachings scarcely mention love. I wonder how they might have practiced their teachings had they come into power.

What was that about power corrupts and absolute power . . . ?

But the issue here is the problem of evil and suffering. Though it may not satisfy everyone somehow I see the resolution of the problem intertwined with the question of freedom and of love. Faith allows me to trust God’s wisdom.

Thanks Dr. DeConick for the opportunity to ponder this.

Deane said...

José wrote:
There is often a great difference between a teaching and the way it’s practiced by those who claim to be followers. What I’m focusing on here are teachings and their appeal to the masses. The New Testament teaching is about loving even your enemies.

While Jesus instructed his disciples to 'love your enemies' while on earth, he also confined entire cities to the eternal torment of judgment. You can't have one without the other. While Jesus included some that other Jewish sects would exclude as 'unclean' or 'sinful', (according to the Evangelists) he excluded entire cities based on their response to him.

This is not a matter of failing to practice what he preached. This is a matter of carrying out the new message of exclusion that Jesus preached - a message no longer based on nationalist exclusion, but spiritualised to include a 'spiritual Israel' within Israel. Those followers of Jesus whose writings are preserved in the New Testament also adopted this exclusivity and polemic towards outsiders. For the author of 1 John, those who do not accept the person of Jesus are 'of the devil' and have the 'spirit of error' which confines them to death. For Paul, there is no fellowship to be had between light and darkness, between Christ and Beliar. For the author of Revelation, even Christian prophets who have different interpretations about eating meat sacrificed to idols are labelled 'Jezebels' to be cast aside into hell.

The 'love' of the New Testament writings has an ugly underbelly, and that is hatred towards those not considered outsiders. The earlier temporal, this-worldly exclusion of non-Israel is extended beyond national boundaries and beyond even temporal boundaries to eternity.

The cohesion, commitment and 'brotherhood' this system of love-and-hatred created would no doubt have contributed greatly to the movement's success. That is, hatred, as well as love, was the fuel of early Christianity's popularity.

José Solano said...

Yipes! What an awful misunderstanding and distortion of the New Testament teaching. Too much to address on a blog. But I will agree that the NT does teach there are indeed consequences for our rejection of God. This would stand to reason. I think most of the Gnostics taught the same thing, even the Gospel of Judas.


Deane said...

Again, I see the New Testament as a necessary co-presence of love-of-insiders and hatred-of-outsiders. This 'distortion' is internal to its system of thought, not a misapprehension of its system of thought. It matters not a jot that the hatred is displaced onto a God imagined to act on their behalf at the end of time (the early Christians, unlike the fourth century and later Christians hardly had the power to execute their hatred of others - so displacement was a necessity).

The conviction that 'we are on the side of Truth' has as its necessary consequence 'you are on the side of Error'. This promises the adherent both social success (despite evidence to the contrary) and success over evil forces in the spiritual realm (despite the factual absence of such success). It's a great package.

Such a framework, combined with a sense of universal mission, would have contributed greatly towards early Christianity's solidarity and popular success.

José Solano said...

But the belief in a truth demands a belief in an error/falsehood, even for the absolute relativist or the total anarchist. Even as you communicate now, Deane, you are convinced you are on the side of truth and the New Testament is in error and transmits hatred and evil. The only escape from this obvious human condition of having to differentiate between right from wrong, as I see it, is to fall into the mindless, self-centered and selfish attitude of “who cares? I’ll do whatever I please and not have to reason or justify my actions with anyone.” I don’t think we want to go there. The ethical and courageous person needs to act on his/her judgments of right and wrong.

Deane said...

I agree that the moral judgment of goodness requires a moral judgment of badness. In fact, this is precisely the point I made after you emphasised the 'love' in the New Testment to the exclusion of its 'hate'. That is, while you may emphasise the 'love' aspect of New Testament ethics, it is important to also recognise the ever co-present 'hate' side. Your first comment attempted a contrast between the emphasis on 'love' in proto-orthodox Christianity and the lesser emphasis on 'love' (as you saw it) in Valentinianism. I've just been pointing out that the proto-orthodox Christian hatred is just as much a necessary counterpart of Christian love.

It's this combination of love-of-insiders and hatred-of-outsiders which, in part, made proto-orthodox Christianity into a cohesive, popular religion.

As for your 'tu quoque' argument, it is just a fallacy to say that a person's argument is wrong because they also make the same wrong. The most that would logically follow would be that both the New Testament and I would be wrong. But your point makes a second error. That is, my argument about Christianity's success depending on hatred as much as love is an argument concerning facts. That is, it is an argument concerning the factors which factually contributed towards the success of proto-orthodox versus Valentinian Christianity. I hold to no 'relativism' regarding factual matters. Either the combination of hatred & love was a factor for proto-orthodox Christianity's success, or it was not. By contrast, your focus on ethics and behaving with moral selfishness concerns morality. My primary point was to demonstrate the (real) factuality of hatred in the New Testament writings, not to (morally) condemn them. And in this, there is no 'relativism' involved.

José Solano said...

I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood what I wrote Deane. I haven’t said that your argument is false because you, like most humans, make judgments about what is right and wrong.

I disagree with your position because you have no basis to assume that Christians are any more hateful than anyone else and that their particular expression of love and hate contributed to their success in obtaining power. This really does smack of blatant bigotry.

I further disagree that the New Testament teaches anything other than love and peace whether or not Christians in their sinful state fully practice what the NT teaches. The reason that Christians succeeded is primarily because the NT had a loving and peaceful teaching that required acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and a renunciation of one’s sinful life. As I said, this was clear and comprehensible to the masses and they also observed how so many Christians were willing to sacrifice their lives to follow their teaching of love and peace. What the Gnostics were saying was for the most part incomprehensible to the masses.

Though I disagree with much of what Bart Ehrman says we are in agreement on this point. “One of the problems with religions that stress the importance of the spiritually elite is that they have trouble winning over the (nonelite) masses.” (Ehrman, Lost Christianities)

That the NT taught there were consequences for recalcitrant sinful behavior, something you strangely refer to as an expression of hatred, had no significant bearing on their success as every teaching out there acknowledged consequences for willful disobedience. What made an enormous impact on the masses was to learn of a God who was immediately forgiving of all who repented and confessed their sins. It was and is that simple to be a Christian.

Deane said...

José - While I still read your previous post as describing "right and wrong" in clear moral terms, the point you are now making (about the factual basis for viewing early proto-orthodox Christian hatred towards and polemic against outsiders as a contributing cause of their popular success) goes right to the heart of the question. The way I see it, you can trace 'a history of hate' within proto-orthodoxy right through until fourth century orthodoxy. The polemics of the second-century Apologists, as well as those of the self-appointed 'line of bishops', provide a continuous culture of us-against-them. What I have described as the converse side of proto-Christian love seems to me to be securely testified in history.

No doubt, I would have to examine this cultural-religious phenomenon in much more detail than is possible here - in order to fully defend the idea. But I had to chuckle at the fact that you considered it was sufficient to refer (with minimal support) to proto-orthodox Christian 'love' as a factor in its success, but when I refered to Christian 'hate' with much the same amount of support - that you considered my comment to be "blatant bigotry", but yours to be somewhat self-evident. Perhaps I have pointed to a fact that you had not wished to consider concerning the nature of proto-orthodox Christian 'love'? In any case, the charge of "blatant bigotry" perhaps only illustrates your inability to openly consider the explanation I suggest. By constrast, I am quite open to considering whether it is merely love without any corresponding hate that led to proto-orthodox Christianity's success over other Christianities.

And you are right that we are in agreement about groups that target an elite - they, by definition, will never be popular movements unless they change. Change is, however, something that religion can be particularly good at. Manichaeism changed like a chameleon - and surely it is no coincidence that it was the most popular of the Gnostic Christian religions.

Also, I think your point about proto-orthodox Christianity's emphasis on 'forgiveness' is overstated as a factor in its success. To the contrary, in earliest Christianity, forgiveness of sins factors surprisingly minimally - surprising to somebody acquainted with the emphasis of modern evangelical Christianity, that is. A very traditional Protestant scholar, Everitt Ferguson was forced to conclude from his reading of early proto-orthodox Christianty:

"One gains the definite impression that for many early Christians more important than the promise of forgiveness of sins was the promise of deliverance from demons."
(Demonology, 127)

Ferguson was surprised at the lack of what he considered to be the core 'Christian Gospel' in the first two or three centuries of proto-orthodox Christianity. That is, he was surprised at the lack of importance given to forgiveness of sins.

Rather, the spiritual opposition between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil - together with the mundane opposition of True Christians against other Christians ('heretics'), other Jews ('Jews'), and against idol-worshiping 'Gentiles' - was the central salvific focus. It is this binary intellectual mindset which, as I have argued, provided a remarkable cohesion to the new religion.

José Solano said...

“What early proto-orthodox Christianity had in its favour was the requirement to love insiders and hate outsiders. . . . What really put the fuel into the fire was a sincere hatred of others.”

This is what you said Deane. It is this that comes across as bigotry. You completely confound the sense of pity and compassion, which is at the core of love, with hatred, its exact opposite. The NT teaches us to love our enemies and all those who differ with us. It laments and suffers over the fact that so many reject the Sermon on the Mount and reject our Savior Jesus Christ. It recognizes the end that this rejection brings. It teaches us to extend ourselves, even through persecution, to help the suffering masses both materially and spiritually.

This is New Testament 101. It’s just baffling that anyone could equate anything in the Christian teaching with hatred. I know there have been hateful Christian as there must be hateful Gnostics, Jews, Hindus and atheists. But this hatred is in direct violation of Christian teaching.

Deane said...

You completely confound the sense of pity and compassion, which is at the core of love, with hatred, its exact opposite.

Yes! Early Christian 'love' can only be understood in terms of its necessarily present exact opposite, 'hate'.

The pity and compassion you refer to is matched by the desire for all who don't truly follow Jesus' teaching to meet eternal death or hell, while those 'true Christians' who are humble in this life are expected to be exalted over the outsiders for an infinitely longer time in the next life. This hate is displaced, but should not be imagined to be absent. Hate is displaced (as to its agent) as the prerogative of the highest being acting on behalf of 'true Christians', and (as to time) as an operation which is promised now but deferred until the climax of the age.

The system of love and hate is not a matter of any mispractice by wayward adherents, but is essential to the system itself. No doubt every religion has its own hatreds, but the divide between 'us' and 'them' / 'insider' and 'outsider' in proto-orthodox Christianity is so central as to be a significant factor in its self-understanding, and a contributing factor towards its popular success.

Deane said...

April wrote:
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.

Although José and I have made a 'slight' detour from the point of the original post, I quite agree that the system of theology in proto-orthodox Christianity was not intrinsically better than Valentinian theology. That is, it was not the comparative quality of
proto-orthodox and Valentinian Christian theologies that decided which group 'won'.

However, theology had an indirect influence on the victory. As I see it, the clear line of division between insiders and outsiders in proto-orthodox theology, coupled with its universalising theology, provided one basis for a cohesive and growing religious movement. There are plenty of other factors involved, but as I see it, proto-orthodox Christian theology fed directly into its polemical politics and internal solidarity.

José Solano said...

Ehrman’s conflict with theodicy, with grasping how God as the summum bonum could be a just God in a world filled with both inherent sufferings as natural sickness, pain and death even beyond human culpability in evil acts and injustice is a common, age old problem. The former is really the focus of Buddhism and certain Gnostic schools while the latter is the primary concern of Judeao-Christian teachings focused on acts of will.

Some Gnostic schools resolve the question by simply rejecting an all-good God and replacing Him with an abraxasian-like figure containing both good and evil. (Highly entertaining and thought provoking is Jung’s Septem Sermones ad Mortuos.) But that’s simply saying that good and evil are of the essence of existence and creation and there’s nothing that can be done about it. There are other notions that attempt to reconcile good and evil. Though a response is provided to the question there is no end to evil nor any rationale for its origin and existence.

On the other hand the Judeao-Christian faith has it’s own story, its own explanation for both the origin and termination of all suffering and evil. A good God makes a good world in which he places good people with the freedom to do bad. They do and they fall and bring the world down with them, introducing corruption and death to the world. The summum bonum God sends His Son to Redeem the world which He does and sets a time, known only to Him, for the end of evil and the rewarding of good. It’s so simple a child can understand and accept it though some highly sophisticated adults may have trouble with it.

It is impossible to separate the Christian belief system from the socio-political issues of the times. The synergistic interaction between each other inevitably altered both. Christian teaching was watered down while society was improved, though it was not the watering down that improved society. It was improved because a higher understanding of God’s love was revealed and put into practice even though it was far less so than Jesus wanted.

Daldianus said...

The problem of Evil is indeed the biggest problem for traditional Christianity with their strict definition of God.

It's also the biggest reason why people who don't believe in Christianity, well, don't believe in it!

ps. Oh, and Mr Deity is pure genius!! At least the first ones :)

José Solano said...

“I write this to say again how important it is to remember the ‘others’, the forms of Christianity that did not win the day.” (DeConick)

We are certainly remembering the “others” these days and they have an opportunity now to “win the day,” if they can. I know very few that are accepting their teachings. I used to visit periodically a branch of the Ecclesia Gnostica headed by Bishop Stephen A. Hoeller. What a mish-mash! They used the Nag Hammadi Library as their Bibles, source books from which to teach. I won’t go into the details of its elaborate rituals. The one thing that struck me, aside from its imitation orthodox liturgy, is that there were no families in the congregation, no children. I can’t imagine this kind of a service being attractive to parents wishing to provide their kids authentic and meaningful religious experiences. It seems to mainly attract people fascinated by convoluted pedantry.

Gnostic teachings seem to be more suited to academic inquiry than praxis. They serve as a good tool to create controversy and attack Christian orthodoxy while they remain an essential failure in attracting converts or appealing to the masses. In terms of practice we see today almost exactly the popular response to Gnosticism of 1,800 years ago.

Nevertheless, the controversy created today by the reexamination of Gnostic works and certain academic efforts to introduce them as viable competitors to orthodox Christianity has a confounding and somewhat destabilizing impact on many congregants of established orthodox churches, as it did when these myths were first composed. But, it’s a sort of mixed blessing because by reexamining them in our day, in time, people will gain a better understanding of why they failed 1,800 years ago and see why the New Testament texts were preferred over arcane, esoteric doctrines.

I see Gnostic imagery more as artistic creations, philosophical speculations and psychological insights rather than teachings suitable to practical religion with any claim to historicity. The Afterward by Richard Smith in the revised edition of the Nag Hammadi Library provides an excellent overview of “The Modern Relevance of Gnosticism.” He quotes Anatole France’s revealing insight:

“The God of old is dispossessed of His terrestrial empire, and every thinking being on this globe disdains Him or knows Him not. But what matter that men should be no longer submissive to Ialdabaoth if the Spirit of Ialdabaoth is still in them; if they, like Him, are jealous, violent, quarrelsome, and greedy, and the foes of the arts and of beauty? What matter that they have rejected the ferocious demiurge? It is in ourselves and in ourselves alone that we must attack and destroy Ialdabaoth.”

May God help us in this work.

paulf said...

I heard a frothing anti-gay marriage sermon a few years ago in which the pastor said all sorts of sick and crazy things about gay people (gay weddings would ruin the health care system, and Social Security system, for example). At the end the pastor said that it was a shame that gays didn't understand how much he loved them.

That seems to me to typify the typical Christian attitude toward "love," which in reality is not. If you agree with us (God), you get eternal bliss, if not, then you rot in painful hell forever. God loves those he sentences to such pain, but they "deserve" punishment.

The only thing is, that is not love, even love as beautifully defined in the Bible.

I love my kids, two of whom are teen-agers who sometimes drive me crazy. But no matter what they do, even if it was really bad, I always want them to succeed, to be happy. There is nothing they could do that would make me want to make them suffer. If I did want them to suffer for disobedience, then I really wouldn't love them, I would just reward good behavior.

José Solano said...

There are several eschatological conclusions that can be derived from the Scriptures on the fate of the unrepentant sinner. They range from the thought of eternal torment in hell to complete annihilation to apocatastasis. Some of the greatest Christian thinkers held the latter view.

I realize that the dread of eternal hell has certainly put the fear of hell into the heart of many and that some have therefore rebelled against the essential Christian teaching. Among these are what are sometimes referred to as “recovering Catholics” or what I refer to as “recovering fundamentalists” such as Bart Ehrman.

There is no condemnation whatsoever for having an erroneous eschatological conclusion! The important proclamation is that we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior and make every effort to understand and follow His teaching. My own position leans towards apocatastasis but I do not assert this as infallible doctrine. This allows me to respect a truly sovereign God who does things according to His wisdom and not mine.

I do believe that this fear of eternal damnation often becomes an unconscious excuse to reject Christianity and thereby not have to follow its moral teaching. If the teaching of a never-ending punishment is unacceptable and/or incomprehensible for any concept of theodicy then you simply cannot accept it and that’s that. Your Christian life may yet go on in a saintly manner joining St Clement of Alexandria, St, Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil the Great, St. Athanasius and so many others right to theologians Karl Barth and Emil Brunner.

We must nevertheless leave open the possibility of people eternally rejecting God. What kind of a life would that be?

leppahcetssalc said...

theodicy is not a problem for Christians UNLESS God is conceived as the ONLY God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, AND all-loving.

I too am an undergrad who is in the process of reading Ehrman's new book on suffering. This book indeed polarizes the "Judeo-Christian" God with a God who cannot be all-loving AND all powerful/all-knowing.

When I was reading I kept thinking that forms of mysticism would indeed be helpful when contemplating suffering, rather than writing a book about how the Bible fails to answer the question of suffering...After all, it's about the questions...not the answers.

John said...

I had to leave a comment on this discussion about love/hate in Christianity. I am not a scholar, but I am about 75 percent through reading the New Testament once again, and I am constantly struck by the number of either/or statements in the gospels. It seems that Jesus is always offering eternal bliss on the one hand while threatening eternal torment on the other. Matthew, in particular, has many statements about the fires of Gehenna waiting for Pharisees and unbelievers. Yes, Christianity's message is one of love, but that's not the only message I hear. There's also a profound anger and hatred of those who don't, for whatever reason, join the club. I have always thought that the growth of Christianity came about because it had the ultimate sales pitch: a great product, eternal salvation, a sense of urgency (hurry and convert, because the End is coming soon), and an alternative (the fires of Hell) that would scare the life out of anyone. It's the ultimate carrot and stick.

John said...

One thing I forgot in my last post: the problem of explaining how an all-loving Father God lets people suffer is especially acute for anyone who's a parent. The idea of letting your children suffer ETERNAL torment is so repugnant to a parent as to be absurd. There is nothing that my children could do (and yes, I have teenagers who have sorely tried my patience) that would make me want to see them suffer for all eternity. But perhaps I'm missing something. I recently heard a well-known priest on the EWTN network tell a story that he prayed that God would "kick the butt" of a wayward son whose mother had come to him and asked for help. The priest then said he rejoiced when he found out that the son had been in a serious car accident and was in the hospital. I'm sure a priest with that mindset would have no problem seeing a loving Father God condemning millions of souls to eternal torment because they displeased Him.

Deane said...

I am about 75 percent through reading the New Testament once again, and I am constantly struck by the number of either/or statements in the gospels. It seems that Jesus is always offering eternal bliss on the one hand while threatening eternal torment on the other.

Hi John - thanks for your comment. Of course, I'm with you on this one. For those who aren't compelled to interpret the New Testament through the lens of a Christian teaching which emphasises only God's 'love', it is indeed striking how regularly the message of hate is the other side of the coin in the New Testament.

The idea of letting your children suffer ETERNAL torment is so repugnant to a parent as to be absurd. There is nothing that my children could do (and yes, I have teenagers who have sorely tried my patience) that would make me want to see them suffer for all eternity. But perhaps I'm missing something.

The idea of eternal torment is, I think, the correct interpretation of the Synoptic Gospels and the Revelation of John. I am not convinced by interpretations to the contrary. However, Paul and John don't seem to share the doctrine, only talking about death, not eternal torment - as far as one can tell from their silence on the issue of eternal torment.