Review of Butt/Erhman Debate on Suffering

posted in: Apologetics | 3

debateOn April 4 of this year, the University of North Alabama hosted a debate between Kyle Butt, an author and apologist with Apologetics Press, and Dr. Bart Ehrman, professor of New Testament at the University of North Carolina and a notable, popular author. In the debate, Ehrman affirmed the proposition, “The pain and suffering in the world indicate that the Christian God does not exist,” and Butt denied. The debate is currently available for online viewing (in the video linked here, skip ahead to the 2:40:00 mark to start seeing the debate). The following is my (lengthy) review of the debate’s main speeches.

Butt’s First Speech

Butt did not make a particularly strong opening. He started with a review of bad approaches to suffering, none of which are subscribed to by Ehrman. He followed this with an anecdote about Christian volunteers in a children’s hospital that seemed to be answering another debater, but not anything directly claimed by Ehrman. In fact, if anything, the anecdotal approach occasionally employed by Butt created a weakness that would later be exploited by Ehrman.

For Butt, the bulk of his argument landed on dividing the problem of suffering into a logical and emotional component. In this, Butt is correct. The logical problem of suffering has been largely acknowledged to have failed, and his reference to the work of J.L. Mackey reinforced this point. The problem of suffering as it currently stands is mostly an emotional problem. If even one possibility can be offered or imagined that demonstrates a moral cause or consequence that justifies the existence of suffering, then the logical argument fails. Where Butt hurt himself is when he seems to dismiss the emotional argument as irrelevant, a point to which Ehrman will return powerfully in a later speech.

Dismissing the emotional problem of evil, Butt then offered two logical responses to the philosophical problem of suffering. First, Butt offered an argument that will be familiar to C.S. Lewis fans concerning the existence of justice itself. The complaint about suffering is rooted in the notion that human suffering which could be prevented but is not is unjust. However, as Lewis would explain, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? … If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?”1 If I were to critique Butt here it would only be in that he moved too fluidly between the two components of this argument without really sorting them out. The first point is a negative point, that the argument from suffering requires a term to have meaning (justice) that only has meaning if the conclusion being disproved is in fact true. The second point is different, namely that the sense of justice is a universal human experience and itself requires explanation. That being said, this remains one of the simplest and best rebuttals to the problem of suffering as it is used by skeptics. It is not a solution to the reality of suffering, only a demonstration that the skeptical handling of the problem is itself a major failure.

Butt’s second argument was not quite as strong. He seemed to suggest that the afterlife in some way mitigates or resolves the problem of suffering, that because God offers a life to come, suffering in this life is less important or possibly justifiable. I have a couple of problems with this argument. It sounds a little bit like escapism. It is not so much addressing the problem of evil but rather suggesting that God will eventually take you away from it. How does that address the fact that God allows suffering to happen now? This reasoning does not address at all whether God is just in allowing suffering at this present time. If I allow my son to be abused in my own home, I am not morally justified by responding that he will be better off when he grows up and moves out.

In this same section of his speech, Butt chided Ehrman for his philosophy of enjoying the present life (drinking scotch, eating steak, etc.). I immediately wondered if the book of Ecclesiastes would enter the discussion, and Ehrman would eventually steer in precisely that direction: “So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?” (Ecc. 3:22). For that matter, the New Testament is not particularly favorable toward asceticism: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4). I think Butt was trying to say that Ehrman’s views would leave one with only a hope in this life, but at times I wondered if he didn’t cross over into a sentiment that this life is not meaningful or to be enjoyed at all. Maybe that was just my misunderstanding.

I was also a little bothered by Butt’s dualism, specifically the suggestion that love requires hate, that blessings require suffering. I think it can be argued that there is no such thing as choice without consequence, but I do not think that a Christian can argue that there is not life without death. We seem to hope that the afterlife that Butt is defending is precisely life without death, love without hate, good without evil. Why can’t that exist at this present time? I would have liked to have seen Butt clarify this, but of course time limits do not allow for every point to be honed to perfection.

What Butt did very well in this speech was to frame the problem of suffering from Ehrman’s own words. He showed it to be an emotional problem, rather than a logical one. He showed that skepticism mostly worsens the problem of suffering rather than resolving it.

Ehrman’s First Speech

Ehrman began as he often does with a kind of “agnostic testimony.” He explained why he walked away from evangelical faith and arrived in his current state. If you have read Ehrman before, you are familiar with this story.

What surprised me a little was that Ehrman was the first to launch a real exploration of the biblical texts themselves. Butt had approached the issue from a philosophical point of view, and understandably so. The logical case for the problem of suffering is weak. Ehrman however stuck to his proposition that suffering indicates that the “Christian God” does not exist. He is not interested here in disallowing hypothetical gods. His case was to demonstrate that the issue of God and suffering as presented in the Christian Scriptures is incoherent or unpalatable.

Ehrman offered a summary of how suffering is treated in various biblical texts. The prophets speak of suffering as punishment, Daniel speaks of suffering coming from evil powers or forces, Job’s narrative speaks of suffering from a test that is itself caused or at least allowed by God, and the poetry section of Job speaks of suffering as part of a divine mystery that must never be questioned without consequence. In these abbreviated descriptions, Ehrman was always partially correct. He ignored some of the data in his summary, and Butt would later challenge this. Also, Ehrman presented these as alternate theories of suffering rather than complementary explanations, another point that Butt will emphasize later.

Ehrman correctly asserted that Butt’s answers are tangential to the problem of suffering as Ehrman was framing it. Ehrman was talking about the emotional problem and the biblical explanations, whereas Butt was talking about the philosophical problem. The two were talking past each other.

Ehrman’s strongest section was in juxtaposing the suffering of the innocent with the God of Scripture who intervenes on behalf of the innocent. He describes the 1918 flu epidemic and asks, “Where is the God who responded to the cries of the slaves in Egypt?” The strength of this argument is that it forces the Christian to reconcile his belief in an active, benevolent Creator with the reality of human misery. The weakness of this argument is that Scripture never suggests that God always intervenes, nor does Ehrman offer a compelling moral argument for why God must always intervene. The centerpiece of the Christian narrative is that suffering may have value, a point vindicated in Jesus Christ. If it can be allowed that this is even possibly the case, then Ehrman’s only recourse is to argue that he cannot perceive the value of suffering, rather than that it does not exist. This is exactly what Ehrman’s agnosticism allows him to do.

Ehrman ended with a fine bit of rhetoric that I actually enjoyed. He memorably states: “Question easy answers. … Easy answers are almost certainly wrong.” Here, I wholeheartedly agreed with Ehrman. Especially when it comes to suffering and the justice of God, the Bible conditions us to reject easy answers and understand this to be a difficult question. The book of Job depicts a faithful hero wrestling passionately with that very issue. However, as Butt will point out, Ehrman’s answers are a bit too easy as well.

Butt’s Second Speech

Butt seemed to have missed some of the point of Ehrman’s “easy answer” section, but he correctly responded that atheism is an all too easy answer as well. As C.S. Lewis would often remind us, atheism is too simple by far to explain reality. To say, “there is no god,” does not resolve reality into a suddenly clear image. This, of course, is the advantage of Ehrman’s agnosticism. He doesn’t have to give any answers, theistic or atheistic. He just gets to ask questions and then sit back and enjoy the mayhem (I’ll not include it here, but google Stephen Colbert’s explanation of agnosticism for a fair assessment of its true character).

Next, Butt wisely chose to address the biblical texts. He reframed them as complimentary explanations rather than alternate theories. Punishment accounts for some suffering, not all. Free will accounts for some suffering, not all. And so forth. He acknowledged correctly that there is no singular answer to all of human suffering, so the Bible offers several complimentary depictions. I wish he would have said a little more about redemptive suffering in a broad sense without using more anecdotes, but all in all, Butt’s point here is well made.

Returning to the crux of the matter, Butt next discussed the suffering of the innocent. For Butt, the answer to this issue remained in the doctrine of the afterlife. I will not repeat my comments from above, except to repeat that this has problems built in that Butt either did not choose to address or did not have time to address. The afterlife seems to be a correction of human suffering, but not an explanation of its cause or value. The afterlife may give us hope in suffering, but it does not explain how a just, merciful, powerful God allows it.

Likewise, Butt’s discussion of sin as the only real problem just fed into the powerful speech that Ehrman was about to deliver. By dismissing both the present reality of suffering and the emotional component of the argument, Butt may solve the problem of suffering for robots, but not necessarily for humans.

Ehrman’s Second Speech

Ehrman had saved a few powerful punches for his final speech.

First, he sharply criticizes many of Butt’s anecdotes. Stories about people who survive tragedy only draw attention to people who do not. Stories of people who find meaning of suffering do not explain the cause of suffering.

Next, Ehrman blasts Butt’s reduction of suffering to components in a syllogism. He says, “Suffering cannot be solved by mathematical equations. … It’s your life.” This is the true force of the problem of suffering and the clearest demonstration of Christianity’s weakness to it. I believe that we have vanquished the demon of the philosophical problem, but we still find few words for a grieving mother. We have well explained why it is possible or even probable that a god could exist who allows suffering. We have poorly explained why you should believe in this god as God, or, worse still, love Him. Butt demonstrated that it is rational to believe that God could use suffering as a punishment, but Ehrman asked, “Do you want to believe in a god who punishes people with starvation?”

In response to the afterlife argument, Ehrman responded with the claim that the Hebrew Bible may or may not teach an afterlife. Here again, he is about half correct. The Hebrew Bible does not contain the detailed Christian view of the afterlife. It does contain a notion of continued existence, and Ehrman even conceded some of this. He is correct that Ecclesiastes and Job have a grim view of the afterlife, but he overlooks the data that points to at least a limited view of life after death in even these two books. For example:

For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grow old in the earth, and its stump die in the soil, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put out branches like a young plant. But a man dies and is laid low; man breathes his last, and where is he? As waters fail from a lake and a river wastes away and dries up, so a man lies down and rises not again; till the heavens are no more he will not awake or be roused out of his sleep. Oh that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath be past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me! (Job 14:7-13)

Is this a fully expressed eschatology illuminated by the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth? No, nor should it be, but neither is it a complete dismissal of an afterlife of some kind. Every time I read or listen to Ehrman, I find myself wanting to buy a copy of N.T. Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God2 and donate it to Ehrman’s personal library. His rendition of both Hebrew and Christian eschatology is oversimplified in his argumentation.

I was also disappointed in Ehrman’s discussion of how physiology of the human brain indicates that there is not an afterlife. First, the fact that the physical brain is connected to the human personality is not proof that they are one and the same. Second, Scripture claims that the afterlife is not entered with only a disembodied personality, but a resurrected body.

Finally, Ehrman concluded with a very pleasant appeal for philanthropy and alleviating the suffering that is in the world. I agree, and so did the mostly Christian audience as heard in their applause. The irony is that the audience agreed because of all the reasons that Ehrman rejected. Ehrman offered no reason for  philanthropy in his worldview beyond the vague comment about it improving his own life. If helping others ceased to add value to Ehrman’s life, would he give it up?

Conclusion

A cross-examination followed that I will not be reviewing here. This review is too long already. Both men were limited by time constraints, so please understand that my criticisms and compliments above are all offered from my comfortable office chair without any time restraints whatsoever. Few would have done any better than Kyle in the format determined for the event. He deserves a pat on the back just for attempting to lock horns with the intellectual giant that is Bart Ehrman. We need more discussions like this in the future, and I am glad to see the Churches of Christ playing a part in that arena.

What I can say in conclusion is that Butt was well prepared to address the philosophical problem of suffering, whereas Ehrman was prepared to emphasize the emotional problem. The open issue is whether or not the Christian Scriptures offer a coherent picture of suffering in the light of God’s justice. Ehrman did not convince me that they do not. However, Butt did not do as much as I would like to make that other case, the case that captures the heart and imagination as well as the mind.


  1. C.S. Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 121-123. 

  2. N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003). 

Follow Benjamin Williams:

Pulpit Minister for Glenpool Church of Christ (Glenpool, OK); BS in Astrophysics from University of Oklahoma; MDiv in Ministry from Oklahoma Christian Graduate School of Theology

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3 Responses

  1. Tim Pyles

    Ben, I am way behind on my reading in general and even further behind in my blog reading. Thanks for this excellent review of the debate. I’m so far out of the loop that I was unaware it had taken place. You do a masterful job of summarizing Ehrman’s and Butt’s speeches and offering an objective assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of their stated positions and responses. Thanks for using your critical thinking and writing skills to summarize and evaluate complex concepts in ways that the rest of us can more easily comprehend and process.

    • benpreac

      Thanks Tim! I’m honored to be on your reading list at all!

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