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

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

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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