Ehrman’s Problem 19: Begging the Question

Now we turn to Ehrman’s fuller critique of the apocalyptic solution. He writes, “For apocalypticists, cosmic forces of evil were loose in the world, and these evil forces were aligned against the righteous people of God, bringing pain and misery down upon their heads, making them suffer because they sided with God. But this state of affairs would not last forever” (205). Later he writes, “For the Jesus of our earliest Gospels, those who are suffering in the present world can expect that in the world to come they will be rewarded and given places of prominence. Those who are causing pain and suffering, on the other hand, can expect to be punished” (223).

Indeed this is one of the Bible’s major answers to why we suffer and what God is going to do about it.

It is interesting that Ehrman likes a lot about the apocalyptic answer: “I must say that there are aspects of this apocalyptic vision that I find very powerful and attractive” (258). He is right that “This is a view that takes evil seriously” (258).

Also, Ehrman’s correct that “the apocalyptic view takes into account the horrendous sufferings experienced by people who fall prey to natural disasters,” and he mentions hurricanes, earthquakes, mudslides, and tsunamis as examples (259).

Further, Ehrman is correct here (259):

It is also a view that gives hope to those experiencing suffering that otherwise seems too much to handle, suffering that seems to be completely nonredemptive, suffering that tears not just at the body but at the very core of our emotional and mental existence. The hope provided by the apocalyptic view is the hope in ultimate goodness. It says that even though evil is on the ascendancy now, its days are numbered…. Death is not the end of the story; the future Kingdom of God is the end of the story.

It is important to emphasize what Ehrman has just admitted. He finds this reason for why God allows suffering to be “powerful and moving,” he says it “takes evil seriously,” and it “takes into account the horrendous sufferings experienced by people who fall prey to natural disasters.” In other words, this view, all by itself, answers much of why we suffer.

But he says he must reject it (and this appears to be his major reason) because “the apocalyptic view is based on mythological ideas I simply cannot accept” (259). What can’t Ehrman accept? He tells us: “there is no God up there, just above the sky, waiting to come ‘down’ here or take us ‘up’ there” (259).1

Wait. What?

Do you, dear reader, already see the fatal flaw in this Ehrman argument?

Consider that Ehrman opened chapter one of his book with this: “If there is an all-powerful and loving God in this world, why is there so much excruciating pain and unspeakable suffering?” He says this “led me to question my faith when I was older. Ultimately, it was the reason I lost my faith” (1). Here Ehrman says he lost his faith that the God of the Bible exists because of suffering. That’s it, right? But now, 258 pages later, Ehrman disallows one of the Bible’s major reasons for why we suffer because he says the God of the Bible doesn’t exist. Well, which is it? Ehrman can’t have it both ways. Nobody can. When he says he doesn’t believe in the God of the Bible because the Bible can’t answer why we suffer, but then he says that the Bible can’t answer why we suffer because he doesn’t believe in the God of the Bible, he commits the fallacy of circular reasoning (or begging the question). Like a terrier chasing his tail, Ehrman has assumed what he wants to prove.

But there’s another problem. Ehrman said that his reason for leaving Christianity was because the Bible couldn’t answer why we suffer. But if Ehrman had already decided that the apocalyptic answer was false because he knew that the God the Bible didn’t exist, then Ehrman left Christianity for reasons other than he claimed.

Further, Ehrman entitled his book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. And if the apocalyptic answer has great explanatory power, as Ehrman says it does, then it is one of the Bible’s answers regardless of whether Ehrman thinks it should be disqualified because of his pre-commitment to other beliefs. Do you see what I mean?

In sum, the apocalyptic answer—that there are cosmic forces who enable all kinds of suffering but will be put in their proper place at the Judgment where God will punish the wicked but reward the righteous—is another one of the Bible’s major reasons as to why we suffer.

  1. Of course, Ehrman’s characterization of God being “just above the sky” isn’t the Bible’s characterization. Rather, the Bible reveals an omnipresent God: “If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” (Psalm 139:8). []
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6 Responses to Ehrman’s Problem 19: Begging the Question

  1. Michael A-Duku says:

    Good analysis! God bless!!

  2. hiero5ant says:

    “But he says he must reject it (and this appears to be his major reason) because ‘the apocalyptic view is based on mythological ideas I simply cannot accept’ (259).”

    Fortunately, we are not left in the dark as to what his reasoning is, because he explains it at length over the three paragraphs that follow: the 100% failure rate of apocalyptic prophecies. He even throws in the disempowering quietism and complacency these views tend to have when people abandon attempts to make life better in the here-and-now in favor of an indefinitely postponed promise of future restitution. This rather belies your crude strawman of him “begging the question”.

    I hate to say it, but just as with your egregious quote-mines of Dawkins, after a few decades of reading this stuff I’ve learned that when an apologist quotes a prominent skeptic seeming to make an egregious logical error or damning “admission” that all the evidence is against them, or of having ulterior emotional motives, dollars to donuts the quotation is inaccurate — surgically inaccurate. This appears to be a trope in the genre as obligatory as sound-up scares in cheap horror, or meet-cutes in romcoms.

    • clayjones says:

      Hi Andrew,

      Please tell me exactly, precisely how I misquoted Dawkins or Ehrman?

      Thanks!

      Clay

      • hiero5ant says:

        Was my post all that unclear? You presented Ehrman as making an egregiously bad circular argument (no god because of suffering, explanations for suffering fail because no god) when 1) what he was clearly denying was NT apocalypticism, not gods per se and 2) as you acknowledge in #20 in this series, he supplies independent arguments for this rejection, external to the truth of theism.

        I can grant that there may be some small amount of subjectivity in evaluating what “appears” to be the author’s “major reason” (your emphasis). But readers who come to this post, with its selective omission of the succeeding passages, and don’t proceed to #20 or have the book on hand themselves, will surely come away with the impression that Ehrman is some philosophical buffoon, given to obvious question-begging arguments in his desperate attempt to presumably rationalize his hard-partying lifestyle or whatever.

        The relevant criterion here is, if you were Ehrman, would you accept that this post is an accurate statement of your argument? Not, would you think the reasons for rejecting apocalypticism are irrefutable, but simply would you accept that the text as it stands is best described as committing an egregious and transparent logical fallacy?

        As for Dawkins, yikes, where to begin? Would you prefer a response here, or under the original post, or in some third location? Whatever works for you.

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