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.
- 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. [↩]