Bart Ehrman’s latest book will be troubling to many readers: He takes on the difficult question of how to reconcile the existence of terrible human suffering with the belief in an all-powerful and benevolent God. Ehrman comes at this question from the perspective of what the Bible says about suffering, and for this task his qualifications are indisputable. He is a recognized expert on Biblical texts, a distinguished professor at the University of North Carolina, a widely published author and a sometime contributor to BAS publications and study programs. So it is not through any deficiency of exposition or interpretation that his latest offering will be troubling, but rather because of the emotionally wrenching and in some ways unanswerable—as Ehrman himself acknowledges—nature of the question.
Ehrman begins by explaining how the first five books of the Bible—the Pentateuch—emphasize repeatedly that the people of Israel were the chosen people of God, who was all-powerful and would grant his chosen people security and prosperity in exchange for their (exclusive) devotion to him. How then were the Israelites to explain adversity, which often visited in quite terrible forms—famine, disease, poverty and military disaster? The consistent answer to this vexing question, Ehrman demonstrates, was that suffering was God’s retribution for the Israelites’ transgressions. Again and again, whether in the stories of Genesis and Exodus, the admonitions of Deuteronomy, the revelations of the 15 prophets or the historical narratives of Kings and Chronicles, the lesson of the Hebrew Bible is clear and indelible: Suffering is God’s punishment for sin.