Ehrman’s Problem 13—Spanking the Strawman… again

Chapter five of Bart Ehrman’s book, God’s Problem, is entitled “The Mystery of the Greater Good: Redemptive Suffering.” In it Ehrman writes, “Sometimes, for some biblical authors, suffering has a positive aspect to it. Sometimes God brings good out of evil, a good that would not have been possible if the evil had not existed. In this understanding, suffering can sometimes be redemptive” (131).

Ehrman’s right that sometimes suffering does have a redemptive purpose. In fact, he talks about how his getting Hepatitis A one summer when he was a teen led to boredom, which spurred him on to do research for the debate team, which got him “hooked” on research, which contributed to his team’s winning the state debating championship. This led to his career in academia: “I can’t describe how happy I am that I got hepatitis. Sometimes something good can come out of suffering” (155).

So Ehrman rightly recognizes that sometimes suffering benefits us. But, of course, Ehrman takes issue with this explanation. As we have before, let’s begin with his spanking this chapter’s strawman. Ehrman writes, “I know there are people who argue that recognizing the pain in the world can make us nobler human beings but, frankly, I find this view offensive and repulsive” (156). Later in the same paragraph he writes that although it is true that his own personal past suffering may help him enjoy things presently, but (156):

It is a completely different thing to say that I better enjoy the good things in life because I see other people without them. To think that other people suffer horrible diseases so that I can appreciate my good health is atrocious; to say that other people starve so that I can appreciate good food is completely egocentric and cold-hearted; to say that I enjoy life so much more now that I see people all around me dying is the self-centered raving of an adult who hasn’t matured beyond childhood.

That does sound icky, doesn’t it? But who are these egocentric, cold-hearted, self-centered, juveniles who say they enjoy life’s luxuries more because others are disease-ridden, starving, and dying? I’ve never heard a Christian say that. In fact, I can hardly imagine a Christian even thinking that. Ehrman references no Scriptures or responsible Christians who might endorse such notions.1

Further, at least for me and every Christian I’ve ever met, enjoyment of a sauce-slathered bacon-cheeseburger (I’d like mine with onion rings, thank you!) is actually diminished at the thought that there are starving people; certainly not enhanced by it.

In short, Ehrman again spanks the strawman!

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn important lessons from the suffering of others. We’ll look at that next.

  1. Of course, one might always find some tiny minority of people, somewhere, who believe almost anything, but at the very most this would be a minority position to the extreme. []
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14 Responses to Ehrman’s Problem 13—Spanking the Strawman… again

  1. DagoodS says:

    Dr. Jones,

    I quite agree with your assessment regarding strawperson arguments. Often, when confronted with statements like, “Skeptics claim…” or “Atheists say…” I ask for a citation where I can see these skeptics and atheists making such claims. (Alas, I am generally informed it is something the person heard, yet remarkably they cannot find a single skeptic or atheist ever making such a claim in writing.)

    Your point with Dr. Ehrman would be valid if Christians did not make such claims. (I read the quoted portion as hyperbolic taking the statements to the extreme.) So I did minimal research. If Christians DO make these types of claims, this is not a strawperson argument; if they do not, your criticism is valid.

    Into Google I typed (without the quotes, of course) “Christian pain makes us appreciate,” which generated an astounding 79,000,000 hits! The first cite talks of death, war and disease being means to appreciate their lack. The third is responding to this very problem and partly uses the defense one appreciates heaven more because of the pain here.

    Not all the hits are directly related, of course, but this was only one (1) search when I could have performed multiple such searches and generated many millions more hits.

    It would seem, then, Dr. Ehrman is correct, this IS a claim being made by at least some Christians, and therefore appropriate to respond. (I see you qualified it by saying “no reasonable Christian” but this is a “no true Scotsman” fallacy of its own, as I am sure you can see.)

    While it may not be a view held by you or your social circle…it IS held by a number of Christians. Should you grant some charity and understand due to Christianity’s numerous divergent views, Dr. Ehrman may write in response to some views not held by every single Christian? Or do you think he is required to ONLY respond to Dr. Jones’ particular theology?

    • clayjones says:

      Hi Dagood,
      Your search terms were inadequate. I used your exact search terms in Google. The first return was “The pain of losing a loved one makes us appreciate the ones that are left.” I think that’s true. Second: “Pain can make us doubt God.” True again. Third: “Sometimes we have pain and suffering in order to make us stronger Christians” and “Pain and Suffering exists to help us appreciate the joys of heaven.” Both true.

      But let’s get very specific. Here’s one example of what Ehrman wrote, “other people starve so that I can appreciate good food.” That’s a strawman.

  2. DagoodS says:

    Dr. Jones,

    I realized my singular search would not cover ALL the bases. Try Google “Thank God for Food when others are hungry.” 20,000,000 hits. (Again, not all of them salient.) Still came across quite a few hits expressing the sentiment “others starve so that I can appreciate good food.”

    I guess I am not seeing the strawperson when cursory searches on-topic come back with 70 Million and 20 Million on-line hits (excluding how many times it is orally being stated) and more extensive searching would come up with even more.

    *shrug* If you still think so, not much I can do about it, eh?

    • clayjones says:

      Yes, Dagood, there is a prayer that was written by someone long ago that I could find exactly five on Google. As I mention in my blog, you will find people who call themselves Christians (I’m not saying whether they are Christians or not, I’m just saying that not everyone who calls themselves a Christian is one). But this is still a minority position to the extreme. The search terms you are using are still to broad to make 70 million or 20 million meaningful. I typed atheist child rape into Google and got 5,280,000! Since there are probably 50 times more Christians in the world than there are atheists then that might make 250 million returns if there were as many atheists as Christians.

      I have much more to say about this but I’m supposed to leave in six minutes for a busy day and I’m going out of town tomorrow so it will have to wait.

      • Brian says:

        I am leery of people putting Google as being paramount for research. I feel the Bible has all the answers we seek. You are correct on Google Dr. Jones and I also feel that Google searches usually lead us on rabbit trails! Nice article Dr. Jones!

    • tkjaros says:

      Dagood,

      If Ehrman thinks that such thoughts like, ‘Other people suffer so I don’t have to’ are necessarily Christian, then he’s mistaken. They aren’t necessarily Christian. And thus, we avoid the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy.

    • DagoodS says:

      tkjaros,

      1 Peter 2:21, 3:18 & 4:21. Eph. 5:25. While I cannot find such a quote from Dr. Ehrman, arguably there is a Christian principle that a person (Jesus) suffered so others (the Elect) did not have to. *shrug* But maybe “true Christians” do not hold Ephesians and 1 Peter to be theopneustos.

      • tkjaros says:

        Dagood, thanks for the reply. Two points.

        First, I think you’ve missed how the term ‘necessarily’ applies here. Things like “other people suffer horrible diseases so that I can appreciate my good health is atrocious; to say that other people starve so that I can appreciate good food is completely egocentric and cold-hearted” are, indeed, not necessarily Christian. These ideas are not inevitably or true in all cases, Christian. Regarding the atonement, some determinist theologians believe that the atonement was necessarily an event to occur. However, they are mistaken. Rather, the atonement was a contingent event based upon God’s free-will decision.

        Second, Ehrman doesn’t appear to be saying anything about self-willed self-sacrifice. Rather he appears to be talking about other people’s natural misfortunes, such as, being born in Sudan or being born to a working class Chinese family. Kind of like a socialist, close-system of wealth that must be shared, there are winners and there are losers.
        So, I think you are correct that “arguably there is a Christian principle that a person (Jesus) suffered so others (the Elect) did not have to,” however, it comes with a conditional statement of being self-willed (which Ehrman doesn’t address). If we want Ehrman’s thoughts, we’d have to ask him what he thinks of people who self-sacrifice.

  3. hiero5ant says:

    Everyone agrees that even if the FWD is successful, a separate explanation is required for suffering brought about by natural evil. It is hardly a strawman to point out this simple fact of logic.

    Just so, even if my suffering and misfortune is finely-tuned to produce just the right salutary soul-building effect I require (by definition, then, everyone deserves every misfortune they endure), my own injuries and losses are only a portion of what brings me grief. I cannot be happy when my childhood friend is undergoing an agonizing divorce, when car bombs are hitting funeral processions in Iraq, when tens of millions of people in the world’s most advanced country lack access to health care. And so the profferer of the soul-building theology must either admit that a separate explanation is required, or bite the bullet and endorse precisely the “strawman” their own argument entails.

  4. DagoodS says:

    Dr. Jones,

    Not sure how you only came up with just five (5). I scrolled through page after page on that Google search, seeing it again and again from multiple different sites. Was every Google hit an exact response—no. (The ways of Google searching.) But quite a few. I will let the lurkers decide for themselves, if they desire to go through the exercise. (The reason I listed my precise method.)

    Dr. Jones: I typed atheist child rape into Google and got 5,280,000!

    Uh…..okay……? And if I had made some claim about strawperson arguments, atheists, children, and rape that would certainly be something I would need to take into consideration. (Indeed the first hit is about Dan Barker discussing child rape.) It would seem the 5,000,000 hits would dispute my strawperson claim, eh?

    Likewise, don’t the 70 Million and 20 Million (again, lurkers are free to do this or any other search on their own) militate against Dr. Ehrman making a strawperson claim?

    Your blog entry claims, “I’ve never heard a Christian say that.” Now I have demonstrated quite a few, from a variety of positions who claim such things. You indicate it is only a minority (as you stated in your blog) and unreasonable Christians. But this unreasonable minority IS making the claim. While Dr. Ehrman may not be responding to YOUR particular belief; he IS responding to a belief—a belief you seem to now admit is out there. Therefore, it is not a strawperson argument.

    Again, if you can’t see it, I don’t know of any way to make it more clear.

    • clayjones says:

      Hi Dagood,

      Regarding the Google thing, my point is that you can’t just put some search terms into Google and then make the case that this is a well represented view. There are, after all, over a billion people who self-identify as being Christians so you are going to find Google returns for lots of different things. If I attacked atheists as because a few supported NAMBLA wouldn’t you think I was attacking a strawman? (I hope it is a few, don’t you?).

      But moving on from Google searches, there’s a lot more to say about this. That prayer doesn’t say “I enjoy my food more because others are starving” (Lucy made a similar point). The prayer doesn’t say that. Being thankful that I have avoided a plight that others have suffered absolutely is not the same thing.

      Utimately of course, the real point is what the Bible says about this. After all, Ehrman’s book is about how the Bible fails to answer the question as to why we suffer and the Bible doesn’t teach that I should enjoy my food more because I see others starving. So, back to NAMBLA, David Thorstad was a founding member of NAMBLA and was, as you probably know, an avowed atheist. But I would consider it a strawman to attack atheists with NAMBLA just because Thorstad was an atheist (although, I think it could be used as an example of how rejecting a transcendant morality can lead to thinking it okay to have sex with little kids).

      So, again, the biggest point is that the Bible doesn’t teach this and Ehrman quotes no verses to support it. Anyone who calls themselves Christians who hold this view do it without the Bible’s support and Ehrman’s book is about what the Bible teaches (assuming we are to believe the title of the book).

  5. Lucy says:

    It is a completely different thing to say that I better enjoy the good things in life because I see other people without them. To think that other people suffer horrible diseases so that I can appreciate my good health is atrocious; to say that other people starve so that I can appreciate good food is completely egocentric and cold-hearted; to say that I enjoy life so much more now that I see people all around me dying is the self-centered raving of an adult who hasn’t matured beyond childhood.

    To say “John X starved to death so that I can enjoy my dinner” is NOT the same thing as saying “I really appreciated that I have food when I saw John X starve because he didn’t have any”.

    If it were the same thing we would lay flowers on John X’s grave, hold memorial services for him, in short, treat his SACRIFICE with the merit it would deserve.

    The fact that Ehrman confuses sacrifice with comparative gratitude in his own quote is dishonest, and obviously leads people astray.

    That said, I am not aware of any exhortations to comparative gratitude in the Bible, on the contrary Christians are instructed to “Give Thanks in all things” (Eph 5:20) which of course means when we are starving to death, (http://www.persecution.org/2011/08/15/somali-islamists-prevent-starved-christians-from-receiving-food-aid/) we still give thanks to God. When we have great riches, we are to count them as nothing (Acts 20:24, Luke 18:18-23) and still give thanks to God. We are admonished in fact, that “to whom much has been given, much will be required” (Luke chapter 12).

    I suspect comparative gratitude is an integral element of human nature (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_compassionate_instinct/), that, if it manifests with love (as one might expect from a Christian) will result in generosity as the grateful give to the less fortunate and try to assist in some way.
    When it manifests with guilt, you get government promoted “giving back” programs. When it manifests with evil you get Communism.

    How it manifests in Ehrman is likely tied to his interpretation.

  6. DagoodS says:

    Dr. Jones,

    Did Dr. Ehrman indicate this was a biblical view without citing scripture? (I can only review pgs. 151-152 & 155-156) In that instance (and I would have to see the quote) I would agree with your strawperson argument. If Dr. Ehrman claims the Bible says something it does not (or that could be drawn from it by interpretation) it would be a strawperson.

    But what I see in this blog entry quote is “Dr. Ehrman: I know there are people who argue that recognizing the pain in this world can make us nobler human beings…” It would seem this IS True—there ARE such people. Again, a Google search generated numerous instances of such.

    Now you may argue it is a “minority position to the extreme,” or they are “unreasonable” or it is not a “well-represented view”…but even in doing so, aren’t you agreeing with Dr. Ehrman there are people who argue this view?

    Therefore, Dr. Ehrman’s argument may be only addressed the minority, it may not be the most persuasive…it may not be a lot of things…but how can it be a strawperson if there are people—self-identified Christians—who make such claims?

    In a more over-arching theme, I am looking for a little charity here. I have lost count how many times I address a certain doctrine and I am informed by one set of Christians—“Oh, that isn’t TRUE Christianity” and if I ignore it the next time, I am informed by another set of Christians, “You failed to address the TRUE doctrine.”

    Sure, this isn’t your view. It may not be a majority position. But there are SOME Christians who hold to it and Dr. Ehrman…in addressing a variety of positions…touches upon a response. It puzzles me why you would care if he is responding to a minority position you do not hold. And where you apparently agree with his assessment of it!

    Think of the disagreements amongst Christians—you guys can’t even agree on the age of the universe by a factor so different, it is the same as the difference between the length of a car and the entire width of the Continental United States! If I dare address origins, I am sure to offend someone for not talking “true Christianity”—to be accused of “strawman”—unless I address everything from theistic evolution to YEC and every position between!

    You guys disagree over election, communion, marriage, divorce, pastoral requirements, inerrancy, interpretation, application, translations…the list goes on and on. And if we skeptics dare to attempt to address any position, we are sure to be accused of not addressing “true Christianity” by some. Or Strawperson by others.

    Dr. Jones Being thankful that I have avoided a plight that others have suffered absolutely is not the same thing.

    *shrug* I see this as a distinction without a difference. Who are you thankful to? The God who is the ultimate author of suffering. What are your appreciate of? That you are not suffering like others are. In essence this is appreciating what you have as a direct result of observing others who are suffering. You can phrase it how you will…I am just telling you how it comes across to us. Remember, this is a justification for why a God allows or causes suffering. To say “I am thankful” without recognizing the who or why or what for seems to avoid the very problem being raised.

  7. You have hit the proverbial nail on the head. The difference that contains the repulsiveness in the idea that “they suffer so I can enjoy” and the death of Christ is that His death was precisely for that purpose, and by His own volition. My appreciation for what I have in the light of what others do not is a kind of side effect of their lack, certainly not the purpose of it. The biblical admonition is to suffer with those who suffer, and rejoice with those who rejoice. The notion of just feeling lucky is more in line with the naturalist world view, which reasonably leads only to winners and losers in a universe that doesn’t know or care.

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