Beliefnet has been featuring an ongoing blog debate between Bart Ehrman and N.T. Wright about theodicy. I always find debates like these a little frustrating, because they create the illusion that an important question like this one can be boiled down to just two positions, when perhaps there are three or four or a dozen takes on the problem. This is certainly how I feel in this case, since I place myself in neither the Wright camp nor the Ehrman camp.
To a certain extent, I am more sympathetic with Ehrman's point of view than I am with Wright's, because I think that Ehrman raises valid points about theodicy that beg for answers. Even if I don't agree with the answers that Ehrman came up with, I think his questions are still important. So I was curious how Wright would respond to these points. Based on this online debate, the answer appears to be that he responds to them by evading them altogether.
Ehrman starts off the discussion by explaining how the problem of suffering led him to ask the question, "Where is God?" Wright responds by almost completely ignoring the whole problem of theodicy, and instead attacking Ehrman's rhetorical style as well as his scholarship. In particular, he accuses Ehrman of engaging in "emotional" arguments by detailing the horrors of evil that exist on the planet--as if that had anything to do with the substance of the problem that Ehrman identifies.
As for Ehrman's scholarship, that discussion might have been interesting if it had addressed the fundamental question that this debate was ostensibly about: how a benign, omnipotent God could allow suffering. No such luck. The closest Wright comes to offering a theodicy is to toss out some vague gobbledygook about how God's call of Abraham represented "the moment when God launches the long-range plan to rescue the world from its misery." This long-range plan, according to Wright, came to its culmination with the resurrection of Jesus. I have no idea how this is supposed to explain away the problem of evil. Are we just going to tell the victims of the the horrors of the world over the past several millenia that they should have just been patient in the midst of their sufferings because God had a "long-range plan" for the world, which of course would not include them because they'd be long dead by the time God got around to fixing things? Barman was correct in his subsequent response to Wright when he wrote
The issue of human suffering is not a logical problem to be solved or some kind of mathematical equation. It is a human problem that requires empathy, sympathy, emotional involvement, and action.By contrast, Wright's "long-range plan" first and foremost ignores the plight of the here and now, ignores the suffering that individuals experience while they experience it, instead offering the platitude of some sort of "long-range plan" for the world as a whole. Individual suffering becomes secondary to the goals of achieving some kind of future world order. But making individual human experiences subservient to a Divine narrative involving the entire planet is not a theology of compassion. Here is where Wright's theodicy seems to be badly off track.
In his response, Ehrman points out another problem with Wright's "long-range plan" argument: it is predicated on a simplistic interpretation of the Bible. Wright treats the Bible
as if it were one continuous narrative written by a single author with one overarching theme (with Abraham as the lynchpin). It is not that, any more than the New Testament, or even the NT Gospel literature, represents one point of view of one author.Regarding the Bible, Wright did offer one valid critique of Ehrman when he wrote, "I did have the sense, frequently, that the form of Christian belief you were rejecting was a particular kind of north American Protestantism which I don’t believe itself did justice to the material." I definitely agree that Ehrman has mistaken the theology of his own evangelical background with Christianity per se, and, as Wright points out, this comes into play in Ehrman's acceptance of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. I think that ultimately this also comes into play in his conception of God, which is what led him to reject religion altogether as the only possible solution to the problem of theodicy.
Later in this debate, Wright then continued to evade the fundamental problem at hand, which became increasingly frustrating, although perhaps not surprising. Wright's argument was essentially that Jesus revealed to us what it means for God to rule the world, and that God ruling the world has nothing to do with ending human suffering through Divine intervention. Wright's answer to the problem of evil is, essentially to say that Jesus was all about challenging our expectations, and that includes our expectations of the logical and moral implications of God's ostensible characteristics of omnipotence and benevolence. In other words, according to Wright, Jesus told us that God doesn't work the way we expect him to, so we should just shut up and stop complaining. He writes:
What ‘we would want God to do’ – to have God measure up to our standards of ‘how a proper, good and powerful God would be running the world’! – seems to be the very thing that Jesus was calling into question.This non-answer is a basic retreat from trying to explain anything away. It just says that this is how God runs the world, and we know this is so because Jesus said so, so get used to it and shut up already. Which, I suppose, is not much different from the non-answer that God gave Job out of the whirlwind. But just as God's answer to Job was unsatisfying, so is Wright's answer to Ehrman.
This is too bad, because Wright tantalizingly hinted at a better approach, when he wrote:
Near the heart of Jesus’ proclamation lies a striking redefinition of power itself, which looks as though it’s pointing in the direction of God’s ‘running of the world’ (if that’s the right phrase) in what you might call a deliberately, almost studiedly, self-abnegating way, running the world through an obedient, and ultimately suffering, human being, with that obedience, and especially that suffering, somehow instrumental in the whole process.Now we are getting somewhere, at least potentially. And yet, although Wright stands on the brink of offering an insightful analysis, he never really makes the leap. The question of what Divine power means indeed, as far as I am concerned, gets to the heart of the question. If we define God in such a way as to suggest that God does not intervene omnipotently in the world to prevent suffering because God is not a supernaturally interventionist being--then the problem would have been solved in one fell swoop. But while Wright hints at that, I don't think he is really going there. He seems instead to be saying that it suits God's purposes to solve the world's problem's through a voluntary decision to do nothing in the face of ongoing evil; instead, he has put into place a long range plan that we cannot fathom but which is revealed via an ongoing narrative in the Bible, starting with Abraham and ending with Jesus--and this plan involves the Divine prerogative not to exercise his power in this way. If this is indeed Wright's argument, then that would suggest that God has the power to eliminate suffering immediately but he has decided not to use it, because Divine wisdom decided it was better to have a "long-range plan".
This is essentially an argument by authority--in this case, the authority of Jesus (as Wright interprets Jesus's message to be.) Since Jesus said that this is how God acts, then Ehrman has no right to complain. But, in fact, even if Jesus's life and message included this sort of theodicy, that hardly serves as a convincing argument to an agnostic like Ehrman of whether this is really a just use of Divine power. Wright offers no explanation of how this decision to not use Divine power to intervene (in accordance with a "long-range plan") is justifiable morally or logically. He lets himself off the hook by saying that he is just echoing what Jesus showed about God's own decision not to intervene in this way.
It is not a solution to the problem of evil; it instead says that you should just ignore the problem altogether and assume that God knows that what he is doing.
Again, I think that all of this would much more easily be solved by simply affirming that God's nature is not that of a supernatural interventionist who has the power to act upon the world from the outside if he/she so decides to, but rather as a creative force that acts through the natural world, through persuasion rather than coercion. Take away the idea of God as omnipotent supernatural interventionist, and the problem of theodicy goes away.