For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18).
Very recently—because his name came up in something I was reading—I found myself contemplating (what I consider to be) the tragic figure of Bart Ehrman. For those of you who don’t recognize his name, Bart Denton Ehrman is a highly-regarded scholar whose work focuses on textual criticism of the New Testament, questions about the historical Jesus, and the development of early Christianity. He has written or edited some 30 or so books, including five New York Times bestsellers.
Why do I consider him a tragic figure? Because—although he was once a kind of leading light in Christian circles—Ehrman ultimately rejected Christianity altogether.
Ehrman began his career with impeccably evangelical credentials (he is an alumnus of both the Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College). Then he earned both an M.Div. and a Ph.D. at Princeton Seminary. Sometime after that, the wheels came off his Christian faith. As Ehrman explained it in 2008:
About nine or ten years ago I came to realize that I simply no longer believed the Christian message. A large part of my movement away from the faith was driven by my concern for suffering. I simply no longer could hold to the view—which I took to be essential to Christian faith—that God was active in the world, that he answered prayer, that he intervened on behalf of his faithful, that he brought salvation in the past and that in the future … he would set to rights all that was wrong … We live in a world in which a child dies every five seconds of starvation. Every five seconds. Every minute there are twenty-five people who die because they do not have clean water to drink. Every hour 700 people die of malaria. Where is God in all this? We live in a world in which earthquakes in the Himalayas kill 50,000 people and leave 3 million without shelter in the face of oncoming winter. We live in a world where a hurricane destroys New Orleans. Where a tsunami kills 300,000 people in one fell swoop. Where millions of children are born with horrible birth defects. And where is God? To say that he eventually will make right all that is wrong seems to me, now, to be pure wishful thinking. 1
Yes. The problem of pain. “Theodical angst,” as someone has called it. How can a good God allow evil and suffering in the world? That’s a legitimate question which, sooner or later, confronts every person of faith. And it’s one for which I, at least, have never found a satisfying answer, over more than 20 years of pastoral ministry. Bad things do happen to good people. And in the face of misfortune, I am often left wondering—along with Bart Ehrman—“Where is God in all this?”
Like I said, I’ve never found a satisfying answer. Yet I still believe in God and in God’s goodness. And as I ponder the reason for that, I refer back to my reflections in some of my earlier posts. 2
Essentially, I believe because my own previous direct experiences of the Divine compel me to do so. God has shown up in my life in ways that are both profound and—for me—utterly convincing. I simply do not any longer have the option of doubt—at least not when it comes to the existence of a personal God. It occurs to me that what I possess in this regard is not really faith; it is concrete certainty.
Statements like I’ve just made drive skeptics crazy. And it’s easy to understand why. Such statements are completely unverifiable. Encounters with God experienced by an individual—and then later reported by the same individual—cannot be proven by the scientific method. They fall into the realm of “subjective reality.” From the inside, they appear absolutely concrete—but from the outside … Well, they just sound crazy. And when it comes to the “problem of pain,” they don’t really offer much insight. But perhaps this is where faith comes in: I am certain of God’s existence; I have faith in his goodness, based on my subjective experience of him.
Trouble is, the vast majority of people—including most professing Christians—never have anything like this kind of convincing subjective experience. Clearly, Bart Ehrman never had one. Left with only the tools of scholarship—logic, textual criticism, and the cold rationality of critical thinking—he found himself unable to remain in the company of those who enthusiastically claim for themselves Paul’s epithet: “We are fools for Christ” (1 Cor. 4:10). Ehrman’s “agnosticism leaning toward atheism” is not a surprising thing. He could hardly have arrived at a different conclusion. I get that.
Even so, I continue to be amazed by the fact that—even in our secular scientific age—so many of us continue to profess some kind of religious faith. Not that long ago, a survey by Carleton University and the Association for Canadian Studies found 30% of Canadians polled agreed with the statement “I know God really exists and I have no doubts.”3 That’s way more than I would have guessed!
And in the United States—according to another recent survey—only about 3 percent of Americans describe themselves as “atheist.”4
What does all this mean? I’m not sure. Studies like these rarely ask people what kind of God they do or do not believe in. But it seems clear that—even if organized religion is on its way out—God refuses to leave us.
Whatever sort of faith … or certainty … or doubt we may have … it looks like the Almighty is in this for the long haul.