Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Burden of Responsibility

For as long as humans have walked the Earth, it is certain that there have been many who would prefer to not shoulder responsibility for all of their actions. As a matter of fact, it isn't a stretch of the imagination that everyone reading this essay and everyone not reading it, and the person who wrote it, have all tried to hide or run from their own sin at some time or another. It's the human condition, like it or not, and whether or not you think it started in the Garden of Eden is irrelevant.

I was recently treated to a video featuring Bart Ehrman, and he was presented to me as a person who is quite well versed in the Bible, and yet no longer a card carrying believer. While Ehrman's anti-suffering apologetic runs on just shy of an hour in the video, I can much more quickly address the errors in his approach.

"How the Bible Explains Suffering with Bart Ehrman."

Ehrman's objections are much older than Ehrman, and greater minds than his have addressed the "problem" with far more "satisfying" results.

Ehrman even mentions "twelve line emails" he's received that explain the problem of suffering, but conveniently leaves them out of his talk as his preferred approach is to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the God in the Bible by pointing at starving mothers and babies and saying, "See here? This is a problem!"

Ehrman starts with the the question of theodicy, and the tired logical problem of 1) God is all powerful, 2) God is all loving 3) There is suffering, therefore there has to exist contradiction in there somewhere.

Ehrman proceeds to politely dismiss the reasonable and learned explanations from other self-proclaimed experts via his all-purpose filter of how "satisfying" (or not satisfying) a solution is.

"These traditions were taken quite seriously by many people in ancient Israel..."

Ehrman refers to Biblical texts as "traditions" as opposed to merely referencing them. For example the historical activities that manifested as 400 years of slavery, the birth of a savior Moses, the performing of ten miracles by Moses, the drowning of the pursuing Egyptian soldiers, the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai and the reward of the Promised Land... this is referred to as an "Exodus Tradition," thus already casting it as storytelling instead of history.

"The Prophetic Answer"

Ehrman points out an example of the prophets' explanation of suffering in the book of Amos. The level of sarcasm while Ehrman reads the verses is palpable. This is a man who is clearly bitter and resentful of something he finds "unsatisfying."

The idea that a loving God would not hurt anyone is a very attractive idea, especially in the 21st century, where developed nations are full of individuals who just want to do their own thing, and would rather not be made to feel like they are lacking an acceptable moral compass. People tend to avoid anything that contradicts the ethos of the modern: "If it feels good and doesn't hurt anyone, what's wrong with it?"

The problem with that approach is it makes many assumptions about life that the Bible sharply contradicts, and this creates conflict in the minds of those who think they want what's best for humanity and the Earth, but upon closer scrutiny, they just seek freedom from responsibility to the God that gave them life.

Like it or not, right there at 20:22 in the video, Ehrman recites the Biblical answer to suffering: "Why is it that Israel is suffering? Because God wants them to turn back to Him, they refuse, and so the punishment continues."

Ehrman disdains the so-called Prophetic Answer with several minutes of dismissive enumeration, including a deliberately controversial anecdote of a mother who believed her 12 year old daughter died of a brain tumor because the mother promised God she would quit smoking and hadn't followed through.

His examples to demonstrate his objection are delivered with vehemence that underscores his agenda, and are: Adam and Eve are told not to eat the fruit, they eat the fruit, they get punished; the whole world becomes wicked, and God destroys everyone but Noah and his family. Sin, punish, sin, punish, sin, punish.

Ehrman continues:

"One might ask whether this is acceptable at all as an understanding of why people suffer. In our own context, for example. Is it really true that suffering comes because God is punishing people?"

When Ehrman utters the phrase "in our own context," he commits the same mistake that all those who scoff at "Bronze Age Sheep Herders" make: that somehow humanity then and humanity now are fundamentally different. I'll save you some time...they're not.

"Is this really true? Is it true that every five seconds a child dies of starvation because God's trying to punish somebody? Or that every minute twenty five people die from drinking unclean drinking water?"

"Every hour in our world, seven hundred people die of malaria. Is this because God's punishing people? Is this why tsunamis hit the Indian Ocean and kill three hundred thousand people overnight? Or why a holocaust happens that kills six million Jews? Or a purging in Cambodia that kills two million Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge?"

With the possible exception of the tsunami, all Ehrman's examples are of human evil, which falls under the column of personal responsibility to our fellow human beings. Therefore questioning why they happen is pointless in a world where we make it however we want it to be. Perhaps the tsunami and other devastating natural disasters are a reaction to widespread inhumanity? Oh no! That's just too big of a pink elephant in the room for most of us to consider.

In a universe with a God and an afterlife, death can be more merciful than life when the evil of human beings exceeds an acceptable degree. Ultimately we are clay, dust. That we have an ability to think and be self-aware is a gift most people take for granted. It does not follow that we automatically qualify to judge our Creator by virtue of our self-awareness.

Ehrman, in his academic, secular and humanist buttressed empowerment, clearly has decided that God does not punish humanity for its widespread and ubiquitous sin. What he should make clear at the beginning of his presentations is that he doesn't believe God exists, therefore anything that doesn't sound good to Ehrman's Benjamin Spock ideology must be primitive, ignorant and wrong.

"The Apocalyptic Response"

Erhman lists the Book of Daniel as the only canonized book in the Old Testament that provides this answer. The other two sources overlap, as he cites the Jewish Apocrypha and the Dead Sea Scrolls, which Ehrman neglects to mention contained portions of that Apocrypha, thereby making the reference redundant.

In apocalyptic view, sin isn't entirely the responsibility of the sinner, but is instigated by the influence of evil cosmic forces.

Ehrman says the Apocalyptic answer "takes evil seriously." He cites a few examples to make his point, which oddly contradict his earlier assertion that personal responsibility to God doesn't take evil seriously by contrast. His first example illustrates my point: he mentions how, through the lens of the Apocalyptic answer, the Holocaust becomes bigger than the individuals who made it happen, thus suffering is caused by something greater than individual sin.

The only problem with that statement is that the same assertion can be made via the Prophetic answer, because God's behavior in terms of punishing human beings could be easily explained by observing that the sin problem itself has much further reaching effects in the universe God created than just the actions of one person on his or her neighbor. Ehrman apparently prefers to view the Prophetic answer as God running around and slapping individuals upside the head for every misstep.

Ehrman suggests that the Apocalyptic answer engenders complacency regarding evil. Basically, the assumption is: if things are going to just get worse, and there's nothing we can do about it, why do anything to fight evil? This is a typical objection not of a person "well-versed" in the Bible, but of an atheist who feeds himself or herself on the myriad spiritual dreck available for anyone seeking to avoid a God who expects more than they are willing to give.

The truth is that fighting the good fight is the least any of us can do. Some are called to do more. If one actually reads the Bible, one finds that both the Prophetic and Apocalyptic answers are supported.

Ehrman makes two strong statements with nothing more than his own opinion for support:

"What's the point of working for justice? Why worry about homelessness and poverty? Why worry about hunger? Why worry about countries that are falling apart and destabilizing? Why worry about any of that, if in fact it's only going to become better when God intervenes. This Apocalyptic view *can* and *has* led to moral complacency, and I think that's a problem."

That's erroneous opinion number one.

Here's erroneous opinion number two, which follows immediately after:

"The other problem is, I think, sort of the obvious problem, is that this view is based on a belief, a false belief, in the imminent end of all things."

The sole example Ehrman gives to back up that second opinion is the false predictions of a charlatan trying to sell doomsday books in 1988 and 1989. Not exactly the most solid guarantee that the world does not have an imminent end, but apparently it's enough for Ehrman.

Ehrman prefers the Ecclesiastical approach, and yet feels the need to sarcastically enlighten everyone that "King Solomon, the 'wisest' man on Earth" was not actually the writer of Ecclesiastes, but a nameless dude a couple of hundred years later. A dude who allegedly found some sort of glory in giving the credit for his clearly exceptional wisdom to a king he never knew.

Ehrman touts Ecclesiastes as a book that encourages us to live life to the fullest, and get whatever we can out of it. He conveniently and completely leaves out the numerous admonitions from Solomon regarding being circumspect with our choices while enjoying our lives. For Ehrman, those warnings are not as important as his embrace of the Y.O.L.O. philosophy.

At the 44:34 mark, Ehrman comes clean and admits he has no answer, thereby making the video up to this point a waste of the viewers time, except perhaps for Ehrman's family members.

He then proceeds to list the many things we could do to make sure the entire world can enjoy life as Solomon suggested, and what he says in the remainder of the video is no different from a Christian call to good works for one's fellow human beings.

The Q and A immediately following Ehrman's presentation, in fact the very first question, exposes the premise from which Ehrman's entire argument is built from: atheism.

Other than the amusing irony of an atheist (who refers to himself as an agnostic to cover unpleasant contingencies) that teaches Biblical history at a University, Ehrman stands as just another example of someone who lost his way and has convinced himself that his eternal destination is not underscored by his guilt, but instead he is released from responsibility to a God he disagrees with by his own declaration that there is no God.

The power of subjectivity cuts both ways.

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