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The problem of theodicy—why bad things happen to good people—predates Christianity. Writing around 300 b.c., the Greek philosopher Epicurus framed the problem this way: God is believed by most people to be infinite in his power and also in his goodness and compassion. Now evil exists in the world and seems always to have existed. If God is unable to remove evil, he lacks omnipotence. If God is able to remove evil but doesn't, he lacks goodness and compassion. So clearly the all-powerful, compassionate God that most people pray to does not exist.

This old critique has been revived by Bart Ehrman in God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. Theologians over the centuries have responded to questions about the existence of evil by pointing out that man, not God, is the author of moral evil. Evil in this view refers to the bad things that people do to each other. Moral evil is the necessary price that God pays for granting humans moral autonomy.

Yet while human freedom may account for moral evil, it cannot account for natural evil, or more accurately, natural suffering. Ehrman's book is full of examples, to which we can add recent tragedies such as the earthquake in China last spring and the 2004 tsunami that killed tens of thousands in Southeast Asia.

Christian apologists such as C. S. Lewis have attempted to account for natural disasters by showing how they draw people together, or how they provide moral instruction to the survivors, or how they turn our eyes to God. Ehrman asks, but couldn't God have found better ways to achieve these worthy objectives? Rejecting as implausible and offensive the usual responses to innocent suffering, Ehrman has stopped calling himself ...

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May 2009

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