Bart Ehrman, in his book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer, tries to make the case that neither Christians nor the Bible can answer why God, if He were to exist, would allow “the cesspool of misery and suffering” that many people endure. Ehrman says that he was once an evangelical Christian pastor but since he couldn’t reconcile his faith with horrendous evils, “I started to lose my faith, I now have lost it altogether. I no longer go to church, no longer believe, no longer consider myself a Christian. The subject of this book is the reason why.” (2-3)
But Ehrman errs.
I’m going to start responding to his book, beginning with a series on his first chapter, which largely concerns free will.
Throughout God’s Problem, Ehrman is correct when he says that most Christians, if asked why God allows evil, will appeal to free will. And they should! That God would desire to create significantly free creatures does explain much of the evil and suffering that humankind endures and inflicts upon each other. The free will defense, simply stated, is that evil and suffering entered our world because God created beings that could freely choose between good and evil.1 In other words, God wanted to create beings with the ability to truly choose to love or hate, be generous or selfish, be courageous or cowardly, and do good or evil and these things, as potentially wonderful or perilous as they are, can only be possible for creatures with free will. Free will, at its very core, means that we actually can choose between two alternatives; that we can do otherwise. If you can’t do otherwise, then you don’t have free will.2
Ehrman does grant that free will can explain much evil: “Yes, you can explain the political machinations of the competing political forces in Ethiopia (or in Nazi Germany or in Stalin’s Soviet Union or in the Ancient worlds of Israel and Mesopotamia) by claiming that human beings had badly handled the freedom given to them.” (12) Indeed. Much human suffering and evil can be immediately explained by humankind’s free choice to do evil. In fact, if you look at the rest of Ehrman’s chapters, you will see how the free will of created beings underlies the other biblical answers Ehrman discusses.
Ehrman presents five problems with the free will defense. First, he says the free will defense plays only “a very minor role in the biblical tradition.”3 (12, see also 229) Second, he asks, “If suffering is entirely about free will, how can you explain hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and other natural disasters?” (229) Third, he asks, “Why will people know how to exercise free will in heaven if they can’t know how to exercise it on earth?” (12-13) Fourth, he asks why God didn’t give humans “the intelligence they need to exercise” free will properly. (13) Fifth, he complains that if God “intervenes sometimes to counteract free will, why does he not do so more of the time?” (13)
Let us examine Ehrman’s objections one post at a time.
Answering Problem 1: The Free-Will Defense Plays Only a Minor Role in Biblical Tradition
Ehrman says, “In any event, as it turns out—much to the surprise of my students—this standard explanation that God had to give human beings free will and that suffering is the result of people badly exercising it plays only a very minor role in the biblical tradition.” (12) He also says that the free-will argument, though “very popular today, it was not heard nearly so often in biblical times.” (230) Here Ehrman seems to be saying that although we Christians commonly appeal to free will as the major answer to why God allows evil, we are somehow out of step with the Bible since, to Ehrman, the Bible doesn’t give it nearly that emphasis.
Ehrman agrees that “the fact that people are held responsible for their actions—from Adam and Eve, to Cain and Able, to David and Solomon, to Judas and Pilate, to the Antichrist and his minions—shows that the biblical authors had some notion of free will.” (120)4 But only “some notion”? That people could choose to sin or not to sin and would then be held responsible for that choice demands free will’s existence. Ehrman himself spends two chapters developing the concept that he calls “one of the most common [Biblical] explanations” (27) as to why people suffer: God is punishing them for sin. But one of punishment’s major purposes is to motivate people to make different free will choices in the future.
Also, doesn’t every command in the Bible pre-suppose free will? I mean, isn’t any command, whether Biblical or not, basically telling the hearers that they should choose to behave in one way and not another? I would think that Ehrman would agree that the concept was so obvious to the Biblical writers that it would go without saying. It wouldn’t even occur to them that they should bring it up any more than Joshua would think to instruct those that were to march around Jericho that marching could only be accomplished by putting one foot in front of the other. The Bible treats those who sin as if the sin was their choice and always holds them accountable for it. This is the very nature of free will regardless of whether those two words were used together in Scripture. Similarly, Christians consider the doctrine of the Trinity to best represent the teachings of Jesus and his apostles even though neither Jesus nor his apostles ever used the term.
The Bible teaches that moral and natural evil entered our world at the Fall. In Genesis 2:16 we read: “The LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.’”
That’s about free will, right?
- Many works are valuable for a more technical examination of the free will defense. Alvin C. Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974). This is a seminal work on the free will defense but not an easy read. John Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004). This is the best technical book I have read on the problem of evil but many will also find it difficult. Also helpful is Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: OUP, 1998). The book is easier to read and has a great section on the significance of free will. Of course, C. S. Lewis does a great job discussing free will in The Problem of Pain. [↩]
- Some Calvinists define free will differently but that will have to be taken up at another time. [↩]
- Emphasis mine. [↩]
- Emphasis his. [↩]