The existence of an absolute God in the midst of absolute suffering

By Sarah Beth Costello
Oct. 9, 2009

This article was featured as a guest column in the Burlington Times-News

Every five seconds, a child dies from lack of nourishment. More than one billion of the world’s population are starving, according to Bread for the World. The World Bank estimates 500 million of the world’s population live in “absolute poverty.” Human brutality has ended millions of lives from the Rwandan and Sudanese genocides to Hitler’s mass extermination of Jews prior to and during World War II.

Human suffering has prompted scholars, educators and philosophers to explore the age-old question “where is God?” When chaos and calamity occur, the natural inclination is to demand answers for the unprecedented events. For some, suffering is the dominant roadblock preventing them from accepting God.

Bart D. Ehrman is such a man. The professor and department chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina is a self-proclaimed

Dr. Bart Ehrman

Dr. Bart Ehrman

agnostic who vacated his Christian principles after arriving at the conclusion that the existence of suffering discredits the existence of God.

On Oct. 7, Ehrman and Christian apologist and renowned author Dinesh D’Souza engaged in a debate at UNC to address “God and the problem of suffering.” Erhman used emotionally based arguments, such as his background and personal experiences, while D’Souza took a more logic-based approach.

Ehrman and D’Souza agreed that there are two types of suffering: moral evil and natural suffering. Moral evil relates to human inflicted suffering and natural suffering includes uncontrollable catastrophes. Ehrman’s study of the Bible led to his agnosticism because he said while God continually intervened in scriptures, his hand is not evident today.

“I became increasingly disturbed about why God doesn’t do anything [today],” said Ehrman. “If God answers prayer, why doesn’t he?”

Ehrman argued that global suffering –mass genocides, war, disease and poverty– are indicators of a God-free world.

“I gave up my faith,” said Ehrman “Why would God create a world like this? Couldn’t he have created a world that didn’t require [suffering] and the shifting of tectonic plates?”

Yes, God could have created a perfect world, but he chose to create beings with an ability to make their own decisions and follow his commandments voluntarily. C.S. Lewis explained in “Mere Christianity” that God did not create evil, rather evil is a perversion of what is good. Evil and suffering is the result of man’s disobedience.

“Suffering,” said D’Souza, “does not call into question the existence of God, but the nature of God.”

Dinesh D'Souza

If a father disappoints his child, said D’Souza, the child will not say, “I refuse to believe in you.” Instead, the child may question his father’s character, but to immediately discredit his existence would be idiotic and illogical.

“God’s design was not that He would be a cosmic bell-hop, but to create autonomous beings to deal with situations as we should,” said D’Souza.

According to Ehrman’s argument, God can’t exist because suffering is prevalent. So how can we account for the good: a newborn baby, a sunrise, the unexplained healing of a cancer patient? Is it just chance, or is the good that people do just second nature? If God must be good to exist, how can there be any good without him? If our nature is to commit moral evil, our nature cannot be good.

It may seem easier to live life without surrendering to a God who requires sacrifice. Somewhere along the way Ehrman decided life is too hard to commit to an unseen God. But his alternative is a depressing one. Ehrman believes all we have is now. His philosophy is “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die,” and by the way, try and stop world poverty while indulging yourself in lovemaking and beer.

D’Souza said humans are like ants on a construction site with a tiny window into reality. What kind of ant questions the actions of a builder who can see the whole picture? We may never understand suffering in its full context. But I’d rather follow a God of mystery than live an empty and hopeless life without Him.

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