From Publishers Weekly
In this sometimes provocative, often pedantic memoir of his own attempts to answer the great theological question about the persistence of evil in the world, Ehrman, a UNC–Chapel Hill religion professor, refuses to accept the standard theological answers. Through close readings of every section of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, he discovers that the Bible offers numerous answers that are often contradictory. The prophets think God sends pain and suffering as a punishment for sin and also that human beings who oppress others create such misery; the writers who tell the Jesus story and the Joseph stories think God works through suffering to achieve redemptive purposes; the writers of Job view pain as God's test; and the writers of Job and Ecclesiastes conclude that we simply cannot know why we suffer. In the end, frustrated that the Bible offers such a range of opposing answers, Ehrman gives up on his Christian faith and fashions a peculiarly utilitarian solution to suffering and evil in the world: first, make this life as pleasing to ourselves as we can and then make it pleasing to others. Although Ehrman's readings of the biblical texts are instructive, he fails to convince readers that these are indeed God's problems, and he fails to advance the conversation any further than it's already come. (Mar.)
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The subtitle seems off the mark. Isn’t Why are we here? our most important question? But quibble, quibble. Why is there evil?—a question about the problem of pain so closely related to Why do we suffer? that evangelical Christian–turned agnostic Ehrman operatively seems to prefer it—is indeed one of the Bible’s principal preoccupations. Ehrman rejects three biblical answers to it and approves a fourth before settling on ethical pragmatism (“alleviate suffering wherever possible”), with or without Christianity. The three inadequate answers are that suffering is punishment for sin, that individual suffering is necessary for the greater good, and that suffering presages the imminent triumph of good over evil (as in the perhaps most prevalent understanding of Christ’s Second Coming). Ehrman rejects those positions essentially because they don’t fit the concept of God as loving and omnipotent. He countenances the answer of Ecclesiastes, that suffering is inexplicable, but maintains that it negates God’s omniscience and is perhaps more cogent for nonbelievers. Ehrman’s clarity, simplicity, and congeniality help make this a superb introduction to its subject. --Ray Olson