Ehrman’s Problem 10: Special Pleading

This is my last post on Ehrman’s errors regarding his understanding of the classical view of suffering—that God punishes people for their sins. Here I will focus on what he calls “unfortunate historical realities.”

Ehrman complains that the “predictions of future success and happiness” promised Israel if they obeyed “never did come to fulfillment” (89). This comment surprises me since Israel, under the reigns of David and Solomon, did know tremendous success. The trouble, however, even under the reigns of David and Solomon, was that both kings sinned in ways which interrupted that happiness (David committed adultery and murder, and Solomon started worshipping other gods). Also, once Israel divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, there was never a righteous king in the northern tribes so we wouldn’t expect them to know much success. However, under reformer kings like Josiah, the southern kingdom of Judah did experience times of blessing. The trouble was that the righteous behavior in the southern kingdom never lasted long. Further, even though the king might be righteous, that didn’t mean that most of the people were righteous. In short, the northern kingdom never obeyed God’s laws and the southern kingdom did so only sporadically, so we wouldn’t expect either of them to know what Ehrman terms “utopia” (89).

Related to the above, Ehrman complains that (89):

Despite returns to God, despite godly rulers, despite attempts to be the people of God, Israel continued to experience famine, drought, pestilence, war, and destruction. Just on the military front, after the nation was overrun by the Assyrians, there came Babylonians. After them came the Persians. And then the Greeks. Then the Egyptians. Then the Syrians. And then the Romans. One after another, the great empires of the world overwhelmed and absorbed tiny Israel, leading to one political setback, one military defeat, or social nightmare after another. In no small measure, that is why the classical prophetic answer to the problem of suffering came to seem empty and dissatisfying to so many later authors of ancient Israel (Job, Ecclesiastes, Daniel, and so on, as we will see).

This is bizarre. He’s implying that the authors of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Daniel regarded as “empty” and “dissatisfying” that at least some suffering is the result of God punishing the wicked. Not! These books don’t tell us that! It is true that a lesson from Job is that sometimes the righteous may suffer for reasons other than sin, but that is true of the classical view as a whole, and Job also affirms the classical view. For example, Elihu, the voice of reason (he was not one of Job’s “friends” who were later rebuked) said, “So listen to me, you men of understanding. Far be it from God to do evil, from the Almighty to do wrong. He repays a man for what he has done; he brings upon him what his conduct deserves” (Job 34:10-11; see also v. 26-27; 36:8-12). That’s the classical view and it is interesting to note that Ehrman never quotes one word of Elihu’s speech.

Ecclesiastes 2:26 tells us, “For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God.” Also, consider the book’s last two verses (12:13-14): “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”1 This is also the classical view, but Ehrman doesn’t mention the book’s conclusion. I ask you, dear reader, does that sound like Solomon had given up on the belief that at least some suffering is the result of God’s punishing sin?

Daniel absolutely, positively affirms that the horrors that happened to Judah under Babylon were the result of Judah’s sin. The entire 9th chapter of Daniel is about that. Consider Daniel 9:16: “O Lord, according to all your righteous acts, let your anger and your wrath turn away from your city Jerusalem, your holy hill, because for our sins, and for the iniquities of our fathers, Jerusalem and your people have become a byword among all who are around us.” No wonder that Ehrman never even references a single verse of Daniel to support his contention. The careful reader of Ehrman’s book, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Daniel will quickly conclude that Ehrman is guilty of special pleading.2

Ehrman concludes his discussion that the classical view cannot account for all suffering so “There must be other answers” (90). But, this is another weird problem with Ehrman’s problem project. When he concludes that a particular answer cannot solve all of the types of problems presented, then he rules it out as being even part of the explanation. But why should that be? Why can’t one answer solve some of the problems and another answer solve further problems and so on?

Ehrman’s problem is that since he doesn’t believe that the Bible is a unified whole (contrary to conservative Christians), he therefore takes each answer individually and regards it as unconnected to any other answers the Bible gives as to why God allows suffering. Thus he comes to the “classical view” and declares that since it doesn’t answer all the problems that arise, then the answer must lie elsewhere.

But as I said, Christians regard the entire Bible as containing God’s truth and so we hold that one of the reasons people suffer, at least some of the time, is because of sin. But that’s not the only reason people suffer. Christians doing theodicy recognize multiple problems of evil that require multiple answers. As theologian John Feinberg put it, “There is in fact no such thing as the problem of evil, for at best, the expression ‘the problem of evil’ stands for a host of distinct problems that confront theologies….”3 Thus Ehrman errs again.

I’ll conclude this series on Ehrman’s “classical view” by pointing out two things. First, sin must be punished. If the God of the Bible does exist, then He can no longer tolerate rebels than a country can tolerate terrorists. If skeptics don’t understand this, it is because they fail to understand the seriousness of sin and that little sins left unchecked always, always, always lead to devastation and heartbreak.

Second, as we consider this God who punishes sin, let us remember that the God the Bible isn’t a God who stands far off and simply afflicts sinners. Rather, God allowed His Son to be tortured to death to pay the penalty for human sin. Skeptics may not like it that God punishes sin—they especially don’t like that He will eternally punish the eternally unrepentant—but everyone should remember that His Son Jesus paid for our sins by His death on the cross and that everyone who turns to Him can be saved from The Ultimate Punishment. If you don’t like hell, then trust that Jesus’ death on the cross paid the penalty for your sins and you can live forever.

  1. See also 5:6. []
  2. The fallacy of special pleading occurs when someone only quotes evidence in his favor and ignores contrary evidence. []
  3. John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil, rev. ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 19 ff. Emphasis his. []
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