When I first saw God's Problem last year, I e-mailed Dr. Ehrman some comments before even reading the book. I finished the book some time ago, and have been considering how to respond. I think a "discussion" is more appropriate than a review.
The foremost superstition in the US, and perhaps elsewhere, is the belief that everything is pre-ordained. I have become very sensitive to this in the last 15 years, although I have no evidence that the belief was more or less prevalent in the past than it is today. It's just that I have noticed it everywhere I look. You can see it in common expressions such as "It was meant to be," "Everything happens for a reason," "It will turn out all right," "It's part of God's plan," and so on.
One example is Brian Boitano, when he fell multiple times in the Olympic figure skating competition in 1994. Interviewed after the fiasco, he said something like, "It's OK, it just means there is something better in store for me." Really? So failure just means more success in the future? Then why not fail on purpose, thus ensuring future success? Or perhaps it's not a general rule, it's just a rule for Brian Boitano and a privileged few. But in Boitano's case, he was wrong-there was nothing in his future that eclipsed the success of a gold medal. Contrary to his wishful thinking, he did not go on to win greater glory.
Another example is the Mel Gibson/Joaquin Phoenix movie "Signs." Mel's beloved wife is crushed against a tree in an auto accident and dies a horrible death. Her last words are "Swing away," which makes no sense at the time. When the aliens appear and are about to do nasty things to her son, Mel remembers her words, gets his trusty baseball bat down from the wall, and "swings away" at the alien, rescuing his son. So his wife's horrible death is justified because it led to the salvation of her son. So good came out of evil, so evil is justified. Really? And in the middle of the movie Mel and Joaquin have a conversation explicitly setting up the argument of the movie: either you're a godless atheist or you believe things happen for a reason. No reasonable third option.
A final example is on the news every night. A tornado sweeps through a town, and the lucky survivor says "It was the hand of God...if it had gone 50 feet further to the right we'd all be dead." Never mind that because it DIDN'T go 50 feet to the right, it killed other innocent people. Don't they count? God helped you survive at the cost of killing others? Does that make sense?
A sub-set of this nonsense is the theory of "attraction." Sort of like Peter Pan's pixie dust, if you only think good thoughts, good things will happen. Funny, no matter how hard I wish, I don't win the lottery. But SOMEONE does--thus apparently proving this unbelievably muddle-headed theory.
Dr. Ehrman obviously has thought about the issue of evil a lot, but in my opinion he makes several wrong turns:
1) Throughout the book he refers to an "active God," who seems to be a version of the Old Testament God who interferes with the operation of natural laws (= miracles) constantly (parting the Red Sea, physical cures, etc.).
2) The emphasis throughout is on the Old Testament (story of Job, etc.).
3) Adam and Eve do not put in an appearance until something like page 63, if I remember correctly.
4) Most of his effort concentrates on knocking down straw men (why did God allow the Holocaust?) rather than tackling the real issue (evil that has no connection to man, but is a result of purely natural forces-tornadoes, lightning, floods).
Why does God have to be an "active" God? Is this how you imagine God, creating the universe 14.5 billion years ago, and then having to tinker with it daily because either a) He didn't get it quite right to begin with or b) He keeps changing His mind or c) Aunt Martha prayed He would send her money to buy a new air conditioner, and so He intervened in the workings of the world to help Aunt Martha (or Brian Boitano, or Mel Gibson's character in Signs, or the tornado survivor) out. The alternative to this view is NOT atheism (although that's one option), it's simply to believe in a God who does NOT tinker with the universe constantly. The "tinkering" God is no God at all, in my opinion, and to take this position is ludicrous. It denigrates God and demeans His power.
What is wrong with a God who created the universe, created a set of natural laws, and then sat back and watched things play out according to those laws? Natural laws of course include built-in randomness (quantum physics, random mutations, chaos theory, etc.). Yes, God is omniscient, but does knowledge of what will happen in the future mean approval of the future? Haven't you ever seen an auto accident where you knew they were going to crash before the instant it happened? "God's plan" might be for you to get to Heaven, but I can't believe it includes things like getting a promotion, winning the lottery, or getting sick from eating too much pizza. God may know about those things, but I can't believe He's all that concerned about them.
Leibnitz said, "This is the best of all possible worlds." Maybe, maybe not. Voltaire mocked him in "Candide." We are not really in a position to judge: and this is where I agree with Ehrman that, in the end, we have to fall back on this being a mystery beyond our comprehension. And the Bible backs this up:
Isaiah 55, 8-9 "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."
And there are numerous other examples where the Apostles came to some logical conclusion, but Jesus had to say, "Whoa, you missed the point here." (loose translation!) (And to those who have a very literal interpretation of the Bible-and to some degree this includes Dr. Ehrman--let me say that you have your work cut out for you defending that position. Is Jesus giving a technical, scientific gardening lesson when he talks about olive trees, mustard seeds, and wheat and weeds, or is he simply trying to make a larger allegorical point? By taking everything literally are you not missing that point, just like the Apostles did sometimes? You could analyze the story of Job forever, but isn't the point simply that you should put God first? It may be a long-winded way to say it, but that's what it boils down to.)
Islam in fact carries the "tinkering" God to its logical conclusion in what is termed "Islamic occasionalism," a concept formulated by al-Ghazali in the 12th century and adopted into mainstream Islamic Sunni theology through al-`Ashari. The universe is being continuously created by God; every atom, every sub-atomic particle, is being re-created every nano-second. So when you shoot an arrow at a man, it is God who guides the arrow to its target by re-creating it in different positions (including hitting the man). Or, in a wonderfully modern version of this, see a PBS special (2005 or 2006?) on suicide bombers. They interviewed bombers in Israeli prisons who either got cold feet or whose bombs failed to detonate. One particular bomber had Islamic occasionalism down cold: "It is not me that kills the people. God decides who will live and who will die." Of course, this position eliminates causality from the world in favor of a capricious God who may or may not decide to turn on the light when you flip the switch. (This has implications for dealing with the Middle East that apparently went over the heads of policy makers in 2002-2003: "Saddam, if you do X, we will do Y." But of course if Islamic occasionalism is part of your mind-set, causality flies out the window, and you rely on God's will.)
Believing in a God who does not "tinker" with the universe does not rule out the possibility of miracles, it just sees them as extraordinary events, not daily events. And many of the "miracles" of the past may well have been perfectly natural occurrences (parting of the Red Sea = tidal or atmospheric effects, etc.). Again, attributing natural causes to SOME miracles does NOT mean there could not be or never have been any miracles at all.
And, back to the issue of "the best of all possible worlds": While we can certainly think that a world without tornados and hurricanes might be "better," we cannot believe (like Gnostics and Manichaeans) that the world is evil. That is heresy. After each day of creation in Genesis God looked at what he has done and pronounced it good. And that is one of the main points: Yes, God created the universe, that's point 1. But point 2 is that it's good.
This whole issue could also be framed as a discussion about the immanence vs. the transcendence of God. At various times in history, certain groups have emphasized the immanence of God over His transcendence. (The "God is my co-pilot" school of thought.) This may be a false dichotomy, since of course God is both simultaneously. But certainly people have emphasized one aspect over the other throughout history. Does Brian Boitano perform a double axel better because he believes God is guiding his skates, or do would he perform better if he believed it was up to him to get the job done and he practiced a lot? An interesting question...certainly you would be apt to take more risks if you believed God was on your side (and would intervene to help you out).
Another issue is the common belief that God is restricted to direct actions only. God created the universe by issuing a direct order, "Let there be light," rather than creating a set of laws that, over time, would bring the universe into being. And of course "Let there be man" vs. evolution. Is God less of a creator because He designed an almost infinitely complex system that would, over the course of billions of years, result in man? In terms of the issue of evil, it means God stretches out his hand to move that nasty tornado away from Aunt Martha's house and into Billy Bob's. I find a far more satisfactory explanation in the formation of earth over billions of years, the formation of the atmosphere, the random (although science is finding that "random" is less random than previously thought) movement of moisture and air, etc. etc. resulting in the destruction of Billy Bob's house. I am not denying God's part in all this, I am simply making his actions indirect. To restrict God to direct actions only is, logically, imposing an unwarranted (and logically impossible since God is all powerful by definition) limitation on God. Those who limit God in this way are, paradoxically, those who profess to be most "Christian."
What about God sparing Martha's house at the expense of Billy Bob's in the tornado? Or Mel Gibson's son rather than his wife in "Signs"? Jesus had this covered:
Luke 13, 1-5: "There were present at that season some that told him of the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galileans were sinners above all the Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Silo'am fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish."
Now amazingly (to me), comments on these verses are few and far between. Yes, yes, the point Jesus was making is that "Hey, you think bad things happened to those people? You'd better repent or the same or worse will happen to you." OK, that's out of the way. But the other message is ignored, and even Jesus pretty much takes it for granted: "Hey, stuff happens. It's not because people deserve it, it's just the luck of the draw." This would have eliminated the need for several chapters of Dr. Ehrman's book.
And that, of course, is the problem with focusing on the Old Testament. Bad things happened to you then because God caused it, directly. And you deserved it. But that's NOT the message of the New Testament. And all those unpleasant Old Testament stories are really NOT about this or that bad thing happening to so and so, they all are trying to make a larger point: usually simply that God is all powerful, or God is beyond man's control.
As for Adam and Eve, isn't it a perfectly logical position to take that sin entered the world, and along with it a lot of bad stuff like death, sickness, and work? So man is responsible for any evil he commits. That leaves God on the hook for only natural disasters, sickness, etc. (Why wasn't this in chapter 1, rather than page 63?) So how to explain what's left (natural disasters, sickness, etc.)? Ultimately, it's a mystery (see Isaiah, above), and any other explanation begs the question. But here's a possible answer: What if God created this complex set of natural laws where actions were constantly being triggered by random events. Being all powerful, of course God COULD work it all out and determine how everything in the future turned out (see Laplace's Demon who calculated everything and thus is able to determine the future). But what if He didn't want to? Would you prefer to know what your Christmas presents were as they were bought, or wait until Christmas morning and be surprised? Attributing human motivation is dangerous, but what if? What if God wants to be surprised how it all turns out?
So, to sum up: God works indirectly, through natural laws. Sometimes these laws have bad effects (tornados, hurricanes, sickness). Nature works in random ways (i.e., it's not God smiting you--and it's certainly not "meant to be"). Why did God create the universe this way rather than another (without the bad stuff)? We don't know, and we can't know. But we do know the world is a good place, and God is not intentionally singling out people to make them suffer. And believing that God works indirectly through the laws of nature eliminates the "Why me?" factor. Of course, yes, it begs the question because ultimately you have to go back to God creating the laws...but is it NECESSARY to believe that He knew the results when He created the universe?