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A Painful Subject

Two agnostic authors face suffering--and come out at different spots on the faith spectrum.

Controversial biblical scholar Bart Ehrman has a new book out, but this time he's not bent on tackling issues of scriptural discrepancies, as he did in his most (in)famous work, Misquoting Jesus (see Books and Culture's review from 2005). This time, Ehrman founds his agnosticism on the Bible's seemingly equivocal answers to the question, How can a loving God allow terrible things to happen to people?

"I realized I couldn't explain any longer why there could be such pain and misery in the world that was supposedly ruled by an all-powerful and loving God," the religion professor at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told the San Diego Union-Tribune over the weekend. The problem of suffering "put me over the top," says Ehrman. "So, I became an agnostic."

God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question - Why We Suffer (HarperOne) traces Ehrman's change in convictions about God and Scripture based on his inability to reconcile the goodness of God with the suffering of man. Ehrman explores and ultimately disputes the way suffering is handled in biblical accounts: as punishment for wrongdoing (Genesis), as an outcome of others' wrongdoing (throughout the Psalms), as part of redemption (the Gospels), or as part of the mystery of God (Job).

Ehrman finds these varied explanations problematic, as he does chalking the question of theodicy up to something beyond human knowledge: "If you say it's a mystery, then what you're saying is there's no answer." And having no answer is apparently insufficient for Ehrman.

For other agnostics, though, encountering believers who have profound hope and peace despite suffering is enough to at least crack a window open for belief. This is what happened to John Marks, a former 60 Minutes producer who traces his journey into and out of faith in his new spiritual memoir, Reasons to Believe: One Man's Journey Among the Evangelicals and the Faith He Left Behind (Ecco). In a striking interview in this weekend's Boston Globe, Marks tells of a close friendship with an evangelical couple, the McWhinneys, that emerged from Marks's research for his book:

When I first met the McWhinneys, [I thought] they were almost walking caricatures of the evangelical Christian. They believe in the Rapture, that when the end time comes, people will be taken up into the air, and the nonbelievers will be left behind on earth to suffer. There was a cardboard quality, I thought, to their belief.

When I met them the second time, after we'd done the "60 Minutes" piece, they told me about their bipolar son, roughly my age, who had tried to kill himself [and] had disappeared and was believed to be living in a homeless shelter in Dallas and whom they had decided to commit. They spoke with great sorrow. They didn't say he was possessed by the devil. They resented that characterization - and remember, these are Christians who believe there is a living Satan. We agreed I would join them for church [the following] Sunday.

Five hours later, their son walked up the onramp of a highway and was killed by a car. On Sunday, I got in the car, we were having a chat, and then Don suddenly told me their son had been killed. [He said] his son was not gone - he was walking the streets of the heavenly city, and we know from Revelations that that city has walls made of pure jasper - describing this world that, for nonbelievers, is just pure fantasy. I became aware of the way this sense that God is real, that there is this heavenly kingdom - it is not window-dressing. In moments of grief and deep sorrow, people like the McWhinneys do reach for this, and it is the consolation.

While believers may not be able to give a thoroughly coherent reason for why God allows his followers to suffer - and debates about theodicy will likely continue among theologians until Judgment Day - we may at least be able to provide a glimpse into "the peace that passes all understanding" as we respond to crises in our own lives and come out praising the Creator for his unbounded goodness.

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