Response to Michael Brown vs. Bart Ehrman: The problem of suffering

Full Audio Michael Brown vs. Bart Erhman: Suffering “The Great Debate”

Click here for debate video

I recently attended a debate between Bart Ehrman and Michael Brown at Ohio State University on the problem of suffering. Bart Ehrman is a New Testament scholar and bestselling author who teaches at the University of North Carolina and Michael Brown is a Messianic Jewish apologist.

There are a few things I would like to address in response to this debate and the problem of suffering. I would also like to suggest an additional response to suffering.

First let me say, as a non-theist myself and someone that appreciates Ehrman’s work, I agree with the general thrust of his arguments. No the Bible does not have an adequate answer to suffering and yes, indeed the various answers provided in the Bible conflict. As Ehrman often chimes, the Bible’s answer “depends on what text you look at.”

Dr. Ehrman actually advocates Qohelet’s, the author of Ecclesiastes, philosophy of life. Enjoy life while you can because it will not last. Indeed there is merit in this view.

Still, I was struck by one particular question in the debate that warrants a more robust response than either provided by Ehrman or Brown.

At one point (1:14:20), Brown asks Ehrman, “What would you say to a man dying of terminal cancer, a woman who lost her child, and someone living in poverty about suffering? ”

Ehrman advocates not offering easy answers, reducing suffering when possible, and just being with those who are suffering.

Brown explains that he can offer the hope of eternal life and resolution of suffering in the age to come. Death is not the end for the dying man. The woman will see her daughter again in the world to come. Poverty will one day be cured by the Messiah.

Ehrman’s response: “You give them cheap hope Michael.” Though out the debate Brown continued to ask what hope Ehrman gave and questioned his hedonistic approach as an adequate response to suffering.

Ehrman advocates reducing suffering when possible, not giving easy answers, and being with people in their time of grief. And this is indeed good advice but I believe there is a further response that can be given to suffering that does not require a belief in the afterlife.

This response comes not from the Bible but from another tradition of the ancient world, Stoicism. The idea is that there is great valor in facing suffering. One can courageously endure it even when one can’t change it. Yes, even when the world is not made right by and by.

Marcus Aurelius the Stoic emperor of Rome says the following about life:

And, to say all in a word, everything which belongs to the body is a stream, and what belongs to the soul is a dream and vapour, and life is warfare and a stranger’s sojourn, and after-fame is oblivion (The Meditations).

Marcus Aurelius did not believe in an afterlife and yet he advocates facing life’s difficulties and living virtuously not because everything will be made right. Not because one will inherit eternal life but because it is the noble thing to do.

Another Stoic Epictetus, a former slave, says the following:

“What then ought a man to say to himself at each hardship that befalls him? “It is for this that I kept training, it was to meet this that I used to practice” (Discourses volume II).

What shall I say to the man dying of terminal cancer posed by Brown? My response is that man can first of all strive to enjoy as much as he can while he is well enough to do so (Erhman, Qohelet) but he can also be courageous in facing his fate (Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus). Indeed there is honor in facing death and suffering nobly.

And to the woman who has lost a child? Epictetus teaches that we should understand the nature of a thing. It is in the nature of a cup to break. It is in the nature of humans to die. We often expect that our loved ones will or should not die, but this expectation is unrealistic. We are all prone to become sick and to die. We all lose loved ones to illness and death but as the Stoics teach we can also face this suffering. We are not alone in this experience either. This is part of the human experience.

To those living in poverty, the Stoics teach that being rich or poor is an external something outside of our control. As such it is something that has to be accepted. Still, we are defined not by the external condition but how we endure and face it. One can bravely face poverty. Meanwhile those of us who do have the power to decrease poverty must act to do something about it.

A wise man once said that the best way to face life’s difficulties is to be “a hedonist when you can be and a stoic when you have be.” It is the pairing of these two philosophies that allows us to existentially face life’s inevitable difficulties and live well without recourse to a world to come. We don’t need Michael Browns cheap hope, but we do need more than just Qohelet’s hedonism.


The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

The Discourses of Epictetus

Ancient and Modern World on Youtube


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10 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The one philosophy that deals most sensibly and honestly with suffering is Buddhism, specifically Theravada Buddhism. No god required, no life after death, and in fact, no soul or true everlasting self: impermanence is the way of the world whether we want to accept that fact or not. Lead an ethical life of moderation not to gain imaginary rewards after death, but because it benefits you and others. As Buddha found, life is fundamentally unsatisfactory and suffering is unavoidable. Your attitude and behavior are all you can control. Change what you can but accept what you can’t.

    • Dana, Thanks for mentioning Buddhism. I was very tempted to mention it but decided to focus on Stoicism in this post in order to keep the video shorter. I’m actually planning a post specifically on Buddhism down the road which is one reason I didn’t mention it. This was more of a debate response and not a full discussion of the problem of suffering.

      In short I think Buddhism is the other tradition that can most help us with suffering. Buddhism and Stoicism are often approaching the problem in similar ways for example Epictetus’ comment about knowing the nature of the a thing.. really is an acknowledgment of impermanence. That said they both have there own unique teachings which are worth addressing. Be sure to subscribe and chime in on that future conversation.

  2. I like the advice Greg Koukl, when he advises that what we believe is important because reality has a way of brusing when we get it wrong. Thus, we may suffer because we arrive at the wrong conclusion. Thus, before engaging in nobel suffering, consider that we might avoid some suffering if we understand what is true and not true. As a believer in God, it is easy to see how Ehrman causes needless suffering when hope is available. It seems to me that hope of eternal life is not comforting only if you don’t believe eternal life is possible.

    I don’t know the basis of your lack of faith in God. Therefore, I can’t comment upon what causes you to have no faith. What I can comment on is Ehrman’s unbelief, does not equate to any hope. When Ehrman speaks about the Bible, Ehrman is like a man who is handling a rifle, but does not believe in the power of guns.

    But Scripture is true. Consider, 1 Corinthians 1:18 –
    “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. “(NIV)

    • As a philosopher, I too think what we believe is important. I just don’t think that Christianity gets you any closer to the truth.

      Christianity presents a personal God that allows immense unjust suffering in our world. Who wants to worship such an being?

      How do you know the Bible is true? Who said?

      • Just a friendly question as I’ve passed by your discussion (this is a bit dated, I know). As one who has studied quite a bit of philosophy myself, where do you think Plato would end up in your hedonist/stoicism thesis, and what do you think of his position? Thanks.

  3. Good grief! Michael Brown’s compassion has been slaughtered by his dogma, and he doesn’t even realise this.

  4. I know I’m coming in late on this, but I like what you have to say about stoicism, and I especially like the advice about being a hedonist when you can be and a stoic when you have to be! What seems right to me about your response is that (a) it admits the possibility of a good life, a life well lived, even in the face of suffering, while (b) not thereby giving to suffering–if I understand you aright–an instrumental value (something that is character-building for instance). I always find there to be something unpalatable, if not downright obscene, about such views, be they theological (as in the Irenaean theodicy) or secular. They attempt to draw the sting of suffering, to say that it’s all alright really, and not meaningless at all. That just seems to trivialise people’s real experience of suffering.

    Stoicism, it seems to me, doesn’t try to draw the sting at all. It says “Look, here is the brute fact of suffering. It’s horrible, and it has no explanation or justification. It is virtuous to face up to it in its true character.” Understood properly, it seems to me, there is no justification here, not even an attempt to say “Well, at least suffering has a certain instrumental value, in so far as it gives us the ability to develop the stoic virtue of abiding with it”. If we were to say that, we’d be offering ourselves a sop again, and undermining the very virtue we are purporting to promote.

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  6. My presupposition is that the scriptures are the word of God. I know that you do not hold this view. If God is god, then in some sense he has ordained all that has occurred, yes, even the evil acts of men. Sorry, if you do not like this God.

    • Your very own bible portrays your god as a being not to be trusted.

      1 Kings 22:23
      Now, therefore, behold, the Lord hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of these thy prophets, and the Lord hath spoken evil concerning thee.

      2 Chronicles 18:22
      Now therefore, behold, the Lord hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of these thy prophets.

      Jeremiah 4:10
      Ah, Lord GOD! surely thou hast greatly deceived this people.

      Jeremiah 20:7
      O Lord, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived.

      Ezekiel 14:9
      And if a prophet be deceived when he hath spoken a thing, I the Lord have deceived that prophet.

      2 Thessalonians 2:11
      For this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie.

      A god like that would sooner send all of his creations to hell than to heaven.

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