Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Bart Truman Show

Remember the opening scene in the Truman Show? Unbeknownst to him, Truman Burbank has been living his entire life on a sound stage. It’s only when a stage light falls from the illusory sky that he begins to suspect that something may be amiss in Seahaven.

Bart Ehrman is one of those autistic individuals who discovers the existence of evil when he wakes up one morning at the age of 30 or 40. He then writes a book to share his novel finding with the rest of the world.

Did Ehrman never watch the evening news when he was growing up? Did he live in Seahaven all those years?

Ehrman tells us that at Moody Bible Institute “I worked hard at learning the Bible—some of it by heart. I could quote entire books of the New Testament, verse by verse, from memory,” God’s Problem (HarperOne 2008), 2.

A few pages later, he says, “For the authors of the Bible, the God who created this world is a God of love and power who intervenes for his faithful to deliver them from their pain and sorrow—not just in the world to come but in the world we live in now. This is the God of the patriarchs who answered prayer and worked miracles for his people; this is the God of the exodus who saved his suffering people from the misery of slavery in Egypt; this is the God of Jesus who healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, made the lame walk, and fed those who were hungry. Where is this God now?…If God intervened to deliver the armies of Israel from its enemies, why doesn’t he intervene now when the armies of sadistic tyrants savagely and destroy entire villages, towns, and even countries” (5).

Didn’t Ehrman, back when he was committing entire books to the Bible, ever notice that God doesn’t always deliver his people from pain and suffering? Yes, he delivered the Exodus generation. But what about generations enslaved before the Exodus? What about the Assyrian deportation, the Babylonian Exile, and the Roman occupation.

Yes, Jesus healed many people. But he didn’t heal everyone. He didn’t heal every Jew, much less every heathen. And what about all the sick people who lived and suffered and died before his advent? Did Ehrman never notice the Biblical refrain, “How Long, O Lord?”

And that’s not merely an OT refrain. That’s also a NT refrain. The Apocalypse ends on that refrain.

Ehrman is manufacturing an artificial tension between the past and the present. Scripture never fostered the false expectation that God’s people will be immune to pain and suffering. Much less that God will spare every unbeliever from pain and suffering.

But since he brings it up, let’s take the case of the Exodus. For one thing, this event was preceded by the ten plagues. God inflicted pain and suffering on the Egyptians to deliver his people from bondage. Some suffered more so that others would suffer less.

In addition, the Exodus was a very disruptive event. An event that resulted in massive dislocation.

Most of us have seen science fiction films or TV shows in which a lover travels back in time in to save his beloved—in a hitech version of Orpheus. He preempts her untimely demise by changing the future. But he succeeds at a cost. In saving this one life, he erases the lives of millions or billions. By changing their future, they have no future. They never existed.

Suppose God had delivered his people just a generation earlier. One result is that many men and women would pair off with different men and women. Massive dislocation has an appreciable impact on mating patterns. You meet and marry different people.

Just consider the impact if all the immigrants who came to America remained in the old country. Pretty soon you’d end up with a different set of people—just like those science fiction scenarios in which a future race is wiped out by one man’s intervention.

Now, I’m not saying that this is good or bad. Those who didn’t make the cut are no more or less deserving than those who take their place. But it’s a tradeoff. There are winners and losers. Whatever generation is the Exodus generation has a domino effect on the next generation—whether you move if forward or backward in time. If God intervened as frequently as Ehrman thinks he should have, Ehrman wouldn’t even exist—or his sympathetic readers.

“Why are babies still born with birth defects? (5)”

Well, if a baby was born without a birth defect, would it be the same baby? To some extent we’re the product of our experience. Our socialization.

Take someone born blind or deaf. He’d likely receive far more attention from his parents and siblings. People who go out of their way to be nice to him. If he were normal, like the next guy, they’d ignore him.

Most of us have also seen science fiction films or TV shows in which a time-traveler is trapped in the past or the future. He was planning to explore the past or the future, but something went wrong and now he can’t get back. For the first few months or years he desperately misses all the folks he left behind. He spends all his waking hours figuring out how to return to his own time.

But, eventually, he resigns himself to his fate. He makes a life for himself. Gets married. Has kids. Makes friends. He may still feel a tinge of homesickness every now and then, but he’s made the adjustment. Made his peace. Found contentment and happiness.

Then, one day, he discovers how to get back. This is what he wanted more than anything. But now he can’t bring himself to part with his newfound life and friends and family.

Suppose Ehrman had a child who was born blind or deaf. Would he regret having had that child? Would he be sorry that his wife didn’t abort the baby?

Maybe he would. Historically, Christians have valued the disabled in a way that unbelievers have not.

“Where is God now? If he came into the darkness and made a difference, why is there still no difference?” (5).

In fact, the Christian faith has made a world of difference in those parts of the world where it’s taken hold. Ehrman’s problem is that he takes the difference for granted, because he’s a beneficiary of the difference it’s made. He didn’t grow up in a heathen home.

At the same time, the first coming of Christ was never meant to change everything overnight. Here is a man who’s memorized entire books of the Bible, yet he doesn’t know the difference between the first coming of Christ and the second coming of Christ. This is not heaven on earth. That awaits the Parousia.

And it’s rather silly to complain that Christianity hasn’t made more difference in the lives of those who repudiate Christianity.

“If people do bad things because God ordains them to do them, why are they held responsible?” (120).

That’s a good philosophical question. But Ehrman acts as if he’s the first person to pose it. It’s been asked and answered many times before.

“Roasting in hell was, for me, not a metaphor but a physical reality” (127).

“Hell” is a physical reality, but “roasting” in hell is a metaphor.

“I came to believe that there is not a God who is intent on roasting innocent children and others in hell because they didn’t happen to accept a certain religious creed” (128).

I often don’t know if Ehrman misrepresents the Christian faith because he’s an apostate, or if he’s an apostate because he misrepresents the Christian faith.

Christian theology never took the position that God damns the innocent. Moreover, rejecting “a certain religious creed” is not a precondition of damnation. Generic sin will suffice.

“The serpent is not said to be Satan, by the way: that’s a later interpretation. This is a real snake. With legs” (64).

Ehrman says tht he “chose to go off to a fundamentalist Bible college—Moody Bible Institute” (1), and he’s been rebelling against his fundamentalist education ever since. That’s his frame of reference.

He continues to interpret the Bible as a fundamentalist. The only difference is that he no longer believes it.

Take the example of the serpent. When you use an English word to translate a Hebrew word, the English word will have its own connotations. But the Hebrew word has a different set of connotations. As one commentator points out:

“A more directly sinister nuance may be seen in Heb. nahas if it is to be connected with the verb nahas, ‘to practice divination, observe signs’ (Gen 30:27; 44:5,16; Lev 19:26; Deut 18:10)…The related noun nahas means “divination” (Num 23:23; 24:1). Near Eastern divination formulae frequently include procedures involving a serpent,” V. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 1-17, 187.

Several things to keep in mind:

i) All these references come from the Pentateuch, and the Pentateuch is a literary unit, so this is germane to the usage in Gen 3:1. Cf. J. Currid, Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament (Baker 1997), chap. 8.

ii) Hence, the word doesn’t only mean “snake.” It’s associated with other words which connote cursing or hexing of fortunetelling. And in the “folk etymology” of Scripture, this probably means that we are to treat the name of the “serpent” as a pun.

iii) This play on words also dovetails with ANE ophiolatry and ophiomancy. This is a world with snake-gods. Pharaoh’s uraeus is a snake-god, and the confrontation between Moses and Egyptian magicians, changing a staff into a snake, and vice versa, was a direct challenge to Egyptian theology. Cf. J. Currid, Exodus: Chapters 1-18, 161.

Ehrman also alludes to the curse. But as another commentator explains,

“Serpents are often the object of curses in the ancient world, and the curse in verse 14 follows somewhat predictable patterns…Some spells enjoin the serpent to crawl on its belly (keep its face on the path). This is in contrast to raising its head up to strike. The serpent on its belly is nonthreatening while the one reared up is protecting or attacking,” J. Walton, Genesis, 224-25.

Once again, we back in the world of ophiolatry and ophiomancy. Snakes stood for numinous beings, the way idols stood for gods and goddesses:
“In the ancient world the serpent became an integral part of religion. Sacred snakes and serpent gods were considered not only forces of death but also forces of life and fertility. In Egypt good snakes and bad snakes guarded sanctuaries and the mortuary temples, as the paintings in the tombs display. The pharaoh himself wore the image of the sacred cobra on his headdress. And in Canaan incense burners and other cultic implements were decorated with serpents, evening the Israelite period, indicating that many Israelites got caught up in the veneration of the serpent,” A. Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory (Kregel 2006), 110.

Finally, the Pentateuch has many angelophanies. So the identification of the serpent in Gen 3 with a fallen angel was not a reinterpretation of the text. The original text always had subtextual associations linking it with something above and beyond herpetology.

Since we are stepping back into a culture other than our own, we need to be sensitive to this cultural code language. Ehrman is tone-deaf to these textual and intertextual clues. That’s because he wants to make fun of it rather than understand it.

“We don’t even have to grapple with the animals we eat—heaven forbid that we should actually have to observe the butcher cutting up the meat, let alone watch the poor beast get killed, the way our grandparents did” (198).

Why is a man who believes in naturalistic evolution so squeamish about steak and lobster?

Ehrman is schizophrenic about what he demands from a theodicy. On the one hand, he tells us that “other books are morally dubious, in my opinion—especially those written by intellectual theologians or philosophers who wrestle with the question of evil in the abstract, trying to provide an intellectually satisfying answer to the question of theodicy” (18). On the other hand, he tells us that “in this book I’ve looked at a range of the biblical answers, and most of them, in my opinion, are simply not satisfying intellectually or morally” (74).

Naturally he brings up the Holocaust. Like every other atheistic book on the problem of evil, he stuffs it full of every cliché-ridden example he can Google, as if he needs to educate the reader on these well-known events.

Now, there’s no doubt that the Holocaust was a paradigm of evil. Yet there’s a sense in which human mortality is a serial Holocaust.

That’s why these examples don’t have much effect on me. Ehrman is trying to manipulate my emotions, but it doesn’t work.

We expect people to die of “natural causes,” so that doesn’t make the headlines. But if an airplane crashes into a mountain, killing everyone on board, that makes headlines. When a lot of people die all at once, that’s newsworth.

Yet, if the airplane hadn’t hit the mountain, everyone one board would have died sooner or later. A hundred years later, every passenger would still be dead, just as dead, whether by “natural causes” or pilot error. Dead is dead—whether it takes the form of a serial Holocaust or a concomitant Holocaust. A distributive Holocaust or a collective Holocaust.

In a sense, it’s even worse when people die one at a time, one after another, rather than all at once. For they leave grieving survivors behind. And that’s something we all live with. Whenever we bury a loved one, that’s a Holocaust in miniature. And it adds up.

Does this trivialize the Holocaust? No. Rather, we trivialize death by natural causes.

And let’s be brutally frank for a moment. We don’t feel the same way about the death of a stranger that we do about someone we know and love.

More to the point, Ehrman’s whole book, if true, is predicated on a falsehood. Why should we care about the pain and suffering of others? Why is empathy a virtue?

From the standpoint of evolutionary ethics, natural selection has programmed us to feel compassionate about our own kind because altruism confers a survival advantage on the species. But that’s it. A form of biological brainwashing.

Natural selection programmed us to care for Cro-Magnon, but not for Neanderthal. Neanderthal was our rival. The enemy. The way a lion will kill the cubs of rival lion.

But now that we’ve evolved to the point that we’re aware of our evolutionary conditioning, we’re aware of the fact that social morality is an illusion. It’s a way to perpetuate the human race. And yet the perpetuity of the human race is just a surd event in a surd universe. We reproduce because we can. We perpetuate the lifecycle like replaceable cogs on the treadmill of life. The machine can repair itself. Yet the machine serves no purpose. It’s like a gas station in a ghost town.

That’s what Bart Ehrman’s worldview will buy you, adjusted for inflation. And the hyperinflation rate which atheism exacts on morality is ruinous.

Ehrman asks, “What else could I do? What can you, or anyone else, do when you’re confronted with facts (or, at least, with what you take to be facts) that contradict your faith” (126).

The fact of evil is not a fact that contradicts my faith. To the contrary, my faith is predicated on the fact of evil. How could Ehrman commit the Bible to heart, but miss that fact—writ large on the pages of Scripture?

But Ehrman’s problem is that he is now confronted by facts without values. In leaving the faith behind, he hasn’t left the facts behind. The strident facts of pain and suffering remain. But they lose their moral dimension. Ehrman’s world is a world of surfaces. Sense data. Nerve endings.

But there’s no moral meaning behind the superficialities of pain and suffering. Matter is the only dimension. A one-dimensional world. Matter rearranging itself. That’s the meaning of life and death.

There is no tragedy in Ehrman’s skin-deep world. Just the illusion of tragedy programmed into us by natural selection.

Ehrman has some residual awareness of what his apostasy cost him:

“Another aspect of the pain I felt when I eventually became an agnostic is even more germane to this question of suffering. It involves another deeply rooted attitude that I have and simply can’t get rid of…I don’t have anyone to express my gratitude to. This is a void deep inside me, a void of wanting someone to thank, and I don’t see any plausible way of filling it” (128).

However, he tries to extinguish this religious ember with the following rationalization:

“By saying grace, wasn’t I in fact charging God with negligence, or favoritism?” (129).

Ehrman doesn’t know the difference between justice and mercy. How could he memorize so much of the Bible, and never register the difference?

The fact that God is merciful to me rather than you is not a reason for me to be thankless. Rather, it’s a reason for me to be humble.

The only Biblical answer he agrees with is the answer offered by Ecclesiastes. Unfortunately, this involves him in a fundamental misreading of the text. He fails to appreciate the allusions to the Fall in Ecclesiastes. He also fails to appreciate Solomon’s distinction between empirical appearances and eschatological judgment. The final judgment lies in the future, which is unobservable—at present. So we tend to judge by appearances—which are pretty indiscriminate.

Sometimes Ehrman turns his guns on liberal theodicies:

“For Kushner, God is not the one who causes our personal tragedies. Nor does he even ‘permit’ them when he could otherwise prevent them. There are simply somethings that God cannot do…but for a biblical scholar like me, I have to admit that it still seems problematic. Most of the Bible’s authors are completely unequivocal about the power of God. It is not limited. God knows all things and can do all things. That’s why he is God. To say that he can’t cure cancer, or eliminate birth defects, or control hurricanes, or prevent nuclear holocaust is to say that he’s not really God—at least not the God of the Bible and of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Believing in a God who stands beside me in my suffering, but who cannot actually do much about it, makes God a lot like my mother or my kindly next-door neighbor, but it doesn’t make him a lot like GOD” (272).

Here he reads the Bible with a candor of a Calvinist since, as an unbeliever, he has nothing to lose. But he concludes his book with a Pepsi Generation bromide.

So, unlike Truman Burbank, Bart Ehrman never left the set of Seahaven. Like most apostates, he merely transfers his Christian idealism to another cause. He changes his voter registration from Republican to Democrat. Puts a “Visualize World Peace” sticker on the back bumper of his Volvo. Has fewer kids and more cats. Eats organic food. Volunteers to chair the neighborhood recycling committee. Buys a solar-powered basket rotator. Or carbon offsets. And kills time.


  1. The arguments of the "NEW" atheists are so old! Can't these people come up with something new? Don't they know that many of the top-notch atheists (if there are any) see these guys as the low-hanging fruit? Anyway, good review.

    To anyone who's interested, William Edgar gave a good lecture on the problem of evil a while back:

  2. Wow, great post!
    Thanks Saint, for the link.

  3. Steve said:

    "In fact, the Christian faith has made a world of difference in those parts of the world where it’s taken hold."

    Some examples:

  4. Great Post Steve! Well-argued and convincing.

    Bart Ehrman, please come to a saving faith in Christ.