Bart Ehrman on Suffering in the Bible: A Critical Review

by Scott F. Sanborn

In this book, Bart Ehrman explains how he gradually left his Evangelical Christian faith and became an Agnostic. It largely began when he had to teach a course on suffering. After this, he did not find most of the biblical answers satisfactory. Instead, he found them morally repulsive. He goes on to discuss what he believes the various biblical answers to suffering are, some of them mutually exclusive.

However, we hope to show that his account of morality and his overall approach to the biblical views of suffering are not satisfactory. And as to his personal narrative, his sense of the injustice about the biblical answers flows from the Semi-Pelagian perspective of his Evangelical days, a sense fully answered by the Augustinian view of sin and salvation. In Bart Ehrman, we find a scholar who has been instrumental in reinforcing a bias against Christianity already found in the culture, but whose final reasons for leaving it are unsatisfactory and do not do justice to the message of the New Testament.

Dr. Ehrman discusses six views of suffering that he believes are found in the Bible. He further argues that some of these are mutually exclusive. There is no surprise here, coming as it does from a higher critic who regularly argues that the Bible contains many contradictions. For the sake of space, we will not here summarize in detail Dr. Ehrman’s six views of suffering, but lay them out one by one as we examine them. However, they are essentially the views that suffering either arises: (1) as a punishment from God; (2) from people who abuse others; (3) for redemptive purposes; (4) as a test from God; (5) that we cannot know why there is suffering in the world; and (6) the apocalyptic answer to suffering.

Before laying out Ehrman’s views on suffering, we consider one minor point for those who are sympathetic to Ehrman and consider him a great historian. We admit that Ehrman is broadly educated; however, we believe his prejudices against Christianity can lead him to faulty conclusions. For instance, he claims that Paul held to a four-story universe and believed that the world was flat. Putting aside the question of Paul’s divine inspiration, how can a historian of the ancient world make such a bold claim? It is a fable that people in the time of Columbus believed that the world was flat. They knew that the world was round. Among other things, the ancient Greeks recognized that, as ships approached land, their masts appeared in the horizon before their hulls. This was one indication that the world was round. The ancient Greeks had even calculated the circumference of the globe with a fair degree of accuracy. Thus, educated people during the fifteenth century knew that India was much farther around the globe than Columbus realized. This knowledge was available to educated people in the Roman Empire such as Paul. Being well educated in Jerusalem, Paul’s education would not have been restricted to a set of narrow Jewish concerns isolated from the broader educated world. It is well known that the rabbis were influenced by Greco-Roman rhetoric and there is no reason to question their awareness of other well known facts of the period. Ehrman’s assertion that Paul believed the world was flat seems to us a rhetorical appeal to modern readers who are not aware of these facts. It is less than honest historical reporting.

Suffering as Punishment for Sin

Now we look at Dr. Ehrman’s six views of suffering. First, Dr. Ehrman lays out the biblical view that suffering is punishment for sin. To put it more precisely, this is the view that human suffering is the expression of God’s just punishment of sinners. Dr. Ehrman presents this view as if it were only one of several views, even though he believes it is quite characteristic of many biblical writers. We, on the other hand, believe that it is the universal assumption of all biblical writers, even those who express other aspects of revelation, explaining why the people of God suffer. But we will see how this is the case when we look at the other views presented by Ehrman.

One of Ehrman’s main objections to this biblical view is that he finds it “morally” repulsive. But we must ask “how can Dr. Ehrman justify his moral revulsion against the biblical view that suffering is God’s punishment for sin?” Dr. Ehrman is an agnostic, and he does not give us any reason why morality exists. So therefore, how can he reasonably be morally repulsed by the Bible? How can he answer the claim that Fyodor Dostoyevsky puts into the mouth of his main character Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment that if there is no God, there is no morality? If we are simply the random results of a chance universe, why is there any injustice in suffering at all? Is not suffering, on this account, simply the natural occurrence of the struggle for existence? So where is the moral problem of suffering in his worldview? And on what ground can Ehrman be morally repulsed when one being causes another to suffer.

The only way to coherently raise the problem of suffering is within a theistic framework. Only if there is a just divine being who controls the world can we rightly ask, “Why is there suffering?” That is, only if God always deals justly with human beings and suffering is not natural to them can we ask, “Why do humans suffer?” Only then does this apparent problem of evil arise.

But Dr. Ehrman may say, “That is precisely the point. I am morally repelled by a worldview (the Christian-theistic one) that has such an apparent problem of evil and tries to answer it by saying that suffering is God’s just punishment for sin.” However, if Dr. Ehrman makes such a claim then his own worldview must have a basis for making moral claims (justifying its moral revulsion). In addition, his worldview must also contain a reason for believing that human suffering is an evil. For if it is not an evil then Dr. Ehrman has no justification for being morally repulsed by the way in which another worldview seeks to deal with it. For example, if you are morally repulsed by the way a thief seeks to justify theft, it is only because you yourself (at some level) have a just reason for believing that stealing is wrong. So if Dr. Ehrman is morally repulsed by the Christian-theistic notion that suffering is the just punishment of God, he can only do so because he (at some level) has a just reason for believing that suffering is wrong.

However, Dr. Ehrman’s agnostic worldview cannot articulate a just reason for believing that suffering is wrong. For only if there is a sovereign God who controls the universe and must keep his creatures from suffering when it is just to do so is suffering wrong. In an agnostic worldview controlled by chance, it is simply a random occurrence, but not an evil. And only in a theistic worldview is there any justification for morality (and thus moral claims, such as moral revulsion) at all.

As Dostoyevsky recognized, without God there is no morality. For if there is no ultimate standard for right and wrong, how can we claim that something is truly right rather than wrong? How do the concepts of right and wrong have any true ultimate meaning in a universe that in the final analysis is governed by chance? Dr. Ehrman provides us no reasonable explanation for answering this problem and therefore of justifying his “moral” revulsion to Christianity’s claim that suffering is God’s just punishment of sin. His claim is mere sentimental posturing aimed at inculcating this same sentiment in his readers.

This is the case not only with Dr. Ehrman’s appeal to the suffering of children, but also with respect to the Jewish Holocaust. The Jewish Holocaust and the killing fields of Cambodia, together with the millions murdered by Mao and Stalin (which he does not mention), are atrocities of the twentieth century carried out by mad-men who will bear the judgment of God. But they are moral atrocities only within a theistic worldview. And it is precisely the denigration of this worldview that produced the men and women who carried out these murderous actions. Thus, Dr. Ehrman, as one of many in our day who promote Agnosticism, may be helping sow the seeds for the next set of mass murders in times to come.

If the problem of evil or suffering only makes sense within a theistic framework, then we may ask, “Does the Bible present a coherent view of sin and suffering?” And we believe that it does. The New Testament teaches that all human beings are by nature sinners and rebels against God (Rom. 3:10-18). The modern world cannot accept this, saying that people are not really that bad. However, the mass murders of the 20th century should give us pause, showing the evils that lurk within the human heart—evils that are ready to be unleashed when people are liberated from the restraints of society (think Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness).

Those who believe this is too gloomy a view of human nature fail to look beyond the way we are cordial to most people in most circumstances. They fail to see that sin is first of all sin against God, our failure and refusal to worship the God who made us and gives us all good things. If anyone neglected their spouse and treated that person as if he or she did not exist, we would say they hate that person. How much more is it the case with God—the God in whom we live and move and have our existence? If we do not thank and worship him, is it not because we hate him, as Paul said (Rom. 1:30)? God has made himself so plain to us, and though we perceive him, we refuse to acknowledge him (Rom. 1:18-32).

This helps explain why sin deserves suffering, even eternal punishment. It deserves eternal punishment because this God who we rebel against is an eternal being—a being with no beginning or end. As such, God is outside of time and (apart from Christ) sees all your sins continuously for eternity. That is, since he does not move with the flow of time, all of time is continually before him. Just as you look at a landscape and see all the events in the curvature of space simultaneously, so God looks at the line of history and sees all the events in the curvature of time simultaneously. They are constantly before his view. Any sin that you commit against him is constantly before his view for all eternity. As such, he must judge you for it as long as both you and he have existence. That is, he must judge it eternally.

This biblical view is connected to God’s own holy nature. Sin is at the very least the attempt to ignore God and thus do away with him. It is the desire to kill him. This of course can never succeed. However, God cannot invite a heart with such a disposition into union with his heart. For when one unites his heart with another heart their hearts possess the same purpose. Thus, if God were to unite his heart with one who desired to kill him, he would now desire to kill himself. However, this is impossible. God is unchangeable. He is also eternal and can never die. If he were to desire to kill himself this would result in self-annihilation, which is impossible for an eternal being. Thus, God can never even desire this. As such, God cannot invite a heart which desires to kill him into union with his heart. He must reject it. Such a heart cannot continue to receive the goodness of God’s presence; instead, it must receive the opposite, which is his wrath. This is his just sentence against all those who wish to extinguish him.

According to Paul, this is the case now (Rom. 1:32; 3:9-19) after the fall of human beings in Adam (Rom. 5: 18, 19). And it is exemplified in every human heart through continual experience. For he continually neglects and thereby rejects the worship of the God who has created and sustains him. And since people know deep down that this requires God’s justice, their disdain for him is further exemplified in their hatred of the God who is just and who requires eternal and just recompense for sin.

Dr. Ehrman seems not to have grasped this even during his Evangelical days. For at that time, he thought of the many children who suffered as “innocent” sufferers. We admit that many children who suffer at the hands of powerful regimes are innocent of committing crimes for which those governments could justly execute them. That is, they are innocent of murder or treason in society. And we deplore their unjust mistreatment and slaughter. However, they are not innocent of sinning against God. They do not worship God even to the degree that their underdeveloped capacities might allow. The selfishness of many an infant in its cradle is familiar to mothers worldwide. How much more do they fail to have a sense of reliance on the divine goodness? For this God can justly inflict them with suffering and death, whether at the hand of other humans or natural disasters.

This is connected to the union of these children with Adam, who fell and rebelled against God. All suffering for those in Adam is a foretaste of God’s final wrath and just punishment of sin. This union with Adam is also something that is not appreciated in our modern egalitarian society. It is thought that no one should die for the sin of another. That is, no one should die because of their connection with anyone else. However, this is not the experience of people worldwide. In wars throughout the centuries people have died because they are connected to other people in a city or nation. A nation may go to war as the result of one person or a counsel of leaders, a decision over which many people in the country had no direct control. And this may mean their death. So also with the children who starve in foreign countries; children that Ehrman points to, believing them to be examples that cannot be explained by Scripture. These children die partially as a result of where they live, what families they are connected to and perhaps how well their parents provide for them in a time of few resources. We suffer the results of being connected to others. And so this is the case with respect to the connection of the whole human race with Adam. We are joined to him and thus suffer the consequences of his fall and rebellion against God. We deserve the just punishment of sin as a result of his sin and judgment (Rom. 5:12-21).

Some may object that while this union of people together in suffering is the case in the world around us, it ought not to be the case with a just God. Here of course, we might ask in return how justice really exists in an Agnostic universe. And if it cannot, on what basis do Agnostics define what is just? How can they tell us what God ought to do to be just? How can they say it is unjust for God to judge us in Adam?

Nonetheless, theologians like Jonathan Edwards (i.e., see his Original Sin) have shown that what God has done fits with the sense of justice he has given us, even when we reject its source in him. The common objection against our guilt in Adam rests on the assumption that we were not there in Adam and thus cannot be held accountable for his sin. However, Edwards (for one) has shown that this was not the case. According to Edwards, for the apostle Paul, we were so united to Adam in his one act of rebellion that we ourselves truly sinned in him. We refer readers to his treatment for a further examination of the reasoning behind this claim.

 Dr. Ehrman rejects this biblical view of suffering—that suffering is God’s punishment for sin. But he can only do so because even as a professing Christian he probably did not accept the Pauline view that no one is innocent in the sight of God. We are all rebels against him. The Semi-Pelagianism (i.e., Arminianism) of his Evangelical views most likely kept Ehrman from grasping this Pauline teaching. However, Paul (rightly understood) presents a coherent view of sin and suffering. And it is only within a theistic worldview (such as we have in Paul) that suffering needs to be explained. For only in that framework do we need to ask the question, if God is just (and as such cannot justly cause the truly innocent to suffer) why is there suffering? However, within Atheism and Ehrman’s Agnosticism, this is not a question to be answered because within these worldviews a just God either does not exist or plays no central role. And without a just God in your worldview, you have no ultimate ground for universal justice. As such, Ehrman has no moral ground on which to stand in his criticisms of Adolph Hitler, Pol Pot or the Bible. We do not put the Bible in the same category as the former two mad-men (far from it!), but on Ehrman’s system, he has no moral ground for differentiating them or criticizing any of them. He has no moral ground at all.

 Evil is Caused by Evil People Who Abuse Others

Ehrman discusses several other biblical answers to the problem of suffering (as he sees it) and rejects all but one of them. In our opinion he wrongly treats them mostly as isolated views that are not fully integrated with one another. While we admit that different biblical authors may have different emphases, we believe these views are more synthetically and organically related than Ehrman admits. Thus, part of our discussion will involve briefly highlighting their interdependence.

Ehrman considers the biblical view that evil is caused by evil people who abuse others. While he does believe that some biblical authors have more than one view of suffering, he generally considers this view as distinct from the view that suffering is the punishment of sin. He does not see how the two views are integrated. However, Reformed theologians have rightly deduced from the Scriptures that God executes his judgment on the wicked through the wicked deeds of others.

Admittedly, Ehrman is here dealing with a subject that, when rightly understood, deals with the abuse of God’s people by the ungodly. And it is here especially that the Scriptures make it plain that God tests his people through the wicked intentions of the ungodly. We find this from Moses to Paul, as Paul quotes Ex. 9: 6 with respect to Pharaoh—“I raised you up for this very purpose, to demonstrate my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Rom. 9:17).

However, one may object to our critique, noting that Ehrman deals with this subject under the next two categories of suffering. But that is part of our point. These categories are not as neatly divided as Ehrman suggests.

God Works in Suffering to Achieve Redemptive Purposes

This leads us to Ehrman’s next category—that God works in suffering to achieve redemptive purposes. Here he highlights the stories of Joseph and Jesus. For Joseph, a primary text is Genesis 50:20: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (cf. Gen. 50:5, 7-8). Ehrman sharply distinguishes the aspect of redemptive suffering found in this verse from his above category—that evil results from the evil intensions of others. However, anyone can observe in this passage, that Joseph puts them both together. This verse says God had a purpose in the suffering, but it also makes it clear that Joseph’s brothers had an evil intention. This fits with Ehrman’s previous category as well.

Most notably, Ehrman makes Jesus’ sufferings just one aspect of this category, that suffering has a redemptive purpose. He does not believe that all of Scripture speaks of Christ. And as we shall see, he specifically denies that the prophets spoke of any time beyond their own. Fitting with this view, he also implicitly denies that the biblical narratives speak of the future. Thus, he does not see the story of Jesus in the story Joseph as he is abused by his brothers, sold into slavery, wrongly abused, suffers in the depth of the pit, and is raised to reign and give food to the nations.

As a result, when he comes to Jesus, Ehrman simply treats him as one more example of suffering that achieves a redemptive purpose. However, the New Testament makes it very clear that all things in the old anticipated and looked forward to Christ (cf. Lk. 24:27; 1 Cor. 10:4). All the promises of God are yes and amen in him (2 Cor. 1:20). This is crucial because Christ’s sufferings are not simply one more example of redemptive suffering. They are the only sufferings that were truly redemptive. It is only the benefits of Christ’s sufferings that were administered to the suffering saints of the Old Testament in the midst of their sufferings. Joseph’s sufferings were not redemptive.

We sinners deserve eternal punishment for our sins against God, the only eternal being. Only Christ can bear this eternal wrath because he was also eternal God. We deserve to be in hell forever and ever. If Christ were merely a perfect man and paid our penalty, he would have to suffer punishment forever and ever and never leave it. But even then there would never come a point at which our punishment was fully satisfied. So we could never come to heaven.

Only if Christ is eternal God, can he bear eternal wrath in a moment of time and satisfy it completely. Thus, no one else’s suffering was truly redemptive. That is, it was not the ground of redemption. But God so united Old Testament saints with Christ to come that they truly experienced Christ’s sufferings and redemption in their sufferings. However, they never experienced them in a way that their sufferings became the ground of salvation for themselves or others. In Joseph’s case, God simply united Joseph to Christ in such a way that he became the instrumental means of delivering God’s people from famine. But Christ’s sufferings alone were the ground of their deliverance, even from famine. Ehrman undermines this by making Christ’s sufferings simply one subcategory of the broader category of redemptive suffering.

Ehrman’s failure to see the foundational nature of Christ’s redemptive suffering plays into his failure to make union with Christ a central or even subsidiary category of suffering in Scripture.[2] However, for the New Testament writers, all the sufferings of saints recorded in the Old Testament anticipate, lay hold of and foretell Christ’s sufferings to come. Likewise, all the saints of the New Testament era possess Christ’s life in their sufferings. And so they lay hold of Christ’s sufferings in their own sufferings. In other words, they are united to Christ in their sufferings. We will expand on this toward the end of our review when we critique Ehrman’s view of Paul’s eschatology.

 Job: Suffering as a Test from God

Next we turn to Dr. Ehrman’s fourth biblical teaching on suffering. That is, suffering is a test from God to see if his people will remain faithful to him even when it does not pay to do so. He sees this in the story section of Job, which he calls a folktale. This language of “folktale” just underscores Ehrman’s higher critical cards again, and shows that he cannot do justice to the redemptive historical character of revelation and its organically unfolding nature.

Once again, we believe that this teaching of suffering in Job is artificially separated from the others. While we admit that one biblical author may give greater emphasis to the aspect of testing and one to providential care (perhaps with Joseph), these biblical authors nowhere reveal that they intend to pit one of these perspectives over against the other, and in some cases their interrelationships are apparent. In the book of Job, we see God’s ultimate control over all the proceedings. They are under his oversight. And for the writer it would seem that God must have a purpose for this whole ordeal—a purpose to which he is directing it. For in the book, God essentially asks Job if he can fathom his divine mind (Job 38). He cannot, for God has an infinite mind that no man can comprehend. There is a divine purpose for everything that God has created and so God has a divine purpose in the sufferings of Job. He is not simply testing Job to see if something might result, but he is sovereign over all things and thus directs them to an end. The book also presupposes the “other” biblical view that suffering results from sin. And it does this even though it undercuts mistaken conclusions of what this may mean in the suffering of God’s people.

Following Dr. Ehrman’s claim that there are different and contradictory views of suffering in the Bible, he also believes that the Book of Job presents two entirely different (read “incompatible”) views of suffering. He does this based on a higher critical claim that the narrative sections of the book of Job (sometimes referred to as the “frame story”) were written by a different author (or authors) than the poetry sections of the book. He believes that the frame story teaches that suffering is a test from God to see if his people will remain faithful to him even when it does not pay to do so. However, he believes that the poetry claims that there is no answer to suffering. That is, God does not reveal this information to creatures like us. Thus, we will deal here with Dr. Ehrman’s claim that, first, the frame story and the poetry come from different hands; and secondly the frame story and the poetry have different answers to suffering.

First we deal with the claim that the story and poetry sections are distinct sources. Higher critics like Dr. Ehrman often claim that they are carrying out a scientific analysis of the Bible. However, the claim to dissect the book of Job into its narrative and poetic components and the claim that these come from different authorial hands is highly unproven and therefore unscientific. It is very reasonable for an author to write narrative sections of his work and poetry sections for that same work. As such they come from his one authorial hand. To claim that they come from different hands is simply a hypothesis—an unproven hypothesis. The scientific method, as it has been developed from Francis Bacon to the present, begins with observations. Based on these observations a scientist draws a hypothesis. However, the process is not supposed to end there. After a hypothesis is made, the scientist is then called upon to look for other evidence to either prove or disprove her hypothesis. Only when that hypothesis is further substantiated by other evidence does it become a theory. And only after a theory has been further substantiated by continuous evidence can it be called a scientific law. Karl Popper has added to that (in partial correction of his positivist scientific colleagues) the notion of falsifiability, believing that no theory can call itself scientific which is non-falsifiable—that is, that has no criterion by whereby it might be falsified. These higher critical theories which differentiate the narrative and poetic sections of Job are unscientific since they treat something that is merely a hypothesis as if it had the strength of a scientific theory. All that these scholars have essentially done is make some observations and draw the hypothesis that the narrative sections of the book of Job come from a different authorial hand than the poetic sections. But they cannot acquire enough further evidence to substantiate this claim; in fact, they have none. Therefore, their view does not even arise to the degree of probability found in a scientific theory. And if we were to apply Popper’s criterion, they certainly have not given us a principle by which their theory could be falsified. But even without a criterion of falsifiability, their claims are merely conjectural hypotheses.

Then what they do is add another hypothesis upon hypothesis. And this is what we have with Dr. Ehrman: he piles hypothesis upon hypothesis, assuming the previous hypothesis to have the strength of a scientific theory or law. But the house has no real foundation, as it is founded upon weak and dubious evidence. Such higher critical theories lack so little evidence that critics of this kind come up with numerous theories that merely seem to fit their fancy. Someone has even argued that there is an initial core story behind the actual narrative sections of Job, which he thinks he can ferret out at least to some degree.[3]

Thus, Ehrman has scanty evidence to prove his position for distinguishing the poetic from the narrative sections of Job. In addition we can point to elements that make this theory problematic. First, while there are some who have claimed that the narrative sections of the book of Job can stand by themselves as a complete story, we find this claim questionable. First, if the narrative sections of the book of Job (Job 1-2; 42:7-17) are to be considered a whole story, they are missing much of what usually constitutes a complete story. For instance, there is no real second act in this story. Most dramas (curtain or no curtain) can be divided into a three-act structure, the second act being the longest of the three. The first act includes an inciting incident such as we find in Job 1:13-19, in which messengers come to Job telling him of the tragic events that have befallen him and his house. It is only after the inciting incident in most dramas that we begin act two. However, sometimes there is a series of inciting incidents in act one, which may be represented in the book of Job by the second incident, in which he is given sore boils (2:7-8). With the arrival of his three friends (Job 2:11-13), we may have the transition from act one to act two. During act two, most dramas have some stages of opposition and conflict, which then bring their character to his or her lowest point or highest point, if it is a tragedy. We may call this the point just prior to the dramatic turnaround in which the character then has a reversal of fortunes, leading us into act three and the final climax. This is similar to Aristotle’s rising and falling action, the dramatic turnaround being similar to the peak or hinge that separates the rising action from the falling action. If the narrative sections of Job (chapters 1-2 and 42:7-17) are one complete narrative, there really is no second act; in fact there is no dramatic turnaround or point of transition from the rising to the falling action. Instead, we are simply left with the results of Job’s dramatic turnaround in Job 42:7-17, results which place us in act three. Thus we have no complete story in the narrative sections of Job. It is missing act two in its entirety.

On the other hand, if both the poetic and narrative sections of Job were composed as one complete literary unit, these problems disappear. Admittedly, the poetry is not narrative prose. However, the poetry continues the story and has narrative elements in it. That is, narrative history is behind the poetry in the poetic sections. And Job’s friends continue the temptations of Satan for Job to give up his faith in God. The conflict between Job and his three friends can be seen as a set of three stages of opposition and conflict in which Job progressively wins the argument against them. After three sets of speeches and responses, Job’s friends cannot answer him. In this way, Job may be seen to come to his highest point in this stage of the drama. However, from the point of view of the book, his highest point at this stage is also a point that is low in comparison to the transformation that will occur for him with the speeches of Elihu and the appearance and Word of God himself.

Some, of course, have denied the originality of Elihu’s speeches, noting a difference in the poetic style from that of Job and his three friends. However, as Mark Twain once pointed out in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, it is to the advantage of an author to give his characters unique speech in order to distinguish them from one another. There is no reason to believe this is not the case with Elihu, whose poetry, while perhaps inferior in style, may either represent his youth or be contrasted with his superior wisdom. As William Henry Green pointed out, Elihu’s speech puts before Job his sin of pride.[4] In this way he sets up God’s speech in the whirlwind. Elihu makes arguments that will prepare the way for God’s appearance, while God (who need not submit to the bar of man’s justice) simply need appear and make his case. In addition, we might note here the connection of the Elihu speech to the frame story. If Elihu brings before Job his pride, then this is likely a development of the story that is already implicit in the narrative sections of Job 1-2. Shimon Bar-Efrat has pointed out an implicit distinction between sinning with the lips and sinning with the heart in the book of Job. In Job 1:5, Job presents offerings for his children after the feast in case they have sinned in their hearts, whereas Job 2:10 states, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” Bar-Efrat believes that this may indicate that Job may have sinned in his heart at this point (2:10), though he had not sinned with his lips. If so, we have an indication of Job’s pride, which then is rebuked by Elihu in the poetic section of the book, thereby connecting the narrative and poetic sections of the book.

In addition, the Elihu speeches (Job 32-37) and God’s speeches (Job 38-41) provide the context for the transition from the rising to the falling action in a dramatic narrative. That is, we have room here for a dramatic turnaround in which Job comes to understand his true need and is transformed. This may take place in stages, but it nonetheless happens in this section, providing a transition from the second to the third acts in a dramatic narrative. We begin to see this when Job does not answer Elihu’s first speech (33:32-33). Job had previously responded to his three friends and had won his case with them. Now he is silent before the speech of Elihu. At the end of Elihu’s speeches, Job is also silent and does not speak (Job 37: 24). Instead, God appears in the whirlwind (Job 38:1), and Job’s first response is, “Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to you? I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40:4). Thus Job is silenced and here we find the transition in the life of Job. We seem to be observing a dramatic turnaround or the peak of a rising and falling action which may be occurring in stages. It appears to find its culmination in Job 42:1-6, where Job repents. Or this may simply be a further transformation of Job occurring in act three of our drama. Nonetheless, however we may see this transformation take place; it is the poetic section which has provided this transition. Without the poetry, it does not exist.

In addition, if the narrative section of Job is supposedly a complete narrative, we run into some serious difficulties. Job 2:11-13 tell us of Job’s three friends sitting around him in silence. They say nothing and do nothing at the conclusion of this narrative section. If this is the case, then why does God speak to them in Job 42:7-9, rebuking them? For if this is where the narrative section picks up, they have said nothing, whereas Job 42:7 states, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” Here the Lord is not rebuking them for complete silence, but for their fallacious speech, which they have not spoken, if 42:7 follows directly after 2:13. Therefore the poetic section is necessary to this narrative and its cogency. Job 42:8-9 continues on this assumption. Nor does Job 42:10 make any sense without the intervening poetry, for there the Lord restores the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends. However, if they had not sinned by their speech, there would have been no reason for him to pray for them. And this intercessory prayer is part of the Lord’s restoring of Job and his fortunes. On Ehrman’s higher critical views then, Job 42:7-10 could not have been part of the original narrative either. It would have had to begin with 42:11. However, if this is the case, once again we have no complete narrative. For then, Job 2:13, in which Job sits down with his friends is simply followed by Job having his fortunes restored with all his brothers and sisters coming to be with him. There is no explanation for the dramatic transition that must have taken place between these passages. Thus we conclude that this view—in which the narrative sections come from a hand different than that of the poetic sections—is strained and dubious.

This makes Dr. Ehrman’s claim that the frame story and the poetry have different answers to suffering just as problematic. He claims that from the frame story we learn that the righteous sufferer will be recompensed, while from the poetic section we learn that there is no answer to suffering. Thus, once again, he claims that they have two different answers to suffering.

We have indicated the dubious nature of the separation of the narrative from the poetic sections of the book and this alone should suffice to undermine his position. However, we will also consider the nature of the answers to suffering given in these sections of the book and see that they are compatible. First, we consider the narrative prose sections of Job. It is true, Job is tested here by God. And he is tested as to whether he will bless God in the midst of much of earthly suffering. And the blessing of God is not without blessing to his servants. Job does not seem to believe that his life in God is completely without blessing when he says to his wife, “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity” (Job 2:10). And the narrative prose does not leave him without hope. It gives him a reward (Job 42). In accordance with his patriarchal status during the patriarchal age, there is every reason to believe that his recompense is an anticipation of the eschatological blessings to come. That is, the narrative implicitly teaches that in the world to come those who trust in their God will receive life in the flesh and everlasting blessings. This accords with Abraham, who was promised that he would be heir of the world, i.e., the world to come (Rom. 4:13).

The poetry sections of the book also suggest an eschatological orientation. Part of Job’s struggle against his three friends involves the temptation to deny the general integrity of his faith (by grace) and thereby his hope. In this he succeeds, culminating in his confession in Job 19:26: “in my flesh I shall see God”. Job’s sin is that at the very least he comes close to questioning God’s justice and does not justify God. This reveals his pride and his failure to bless and trust God as he ought. But he is right not to accuse himself in the manner his friends suggest he should and thereby deny that God is his Lord. He lays hold of his eschatological hope (even if weakly at times in the earlier chapters) and this accords with his reward in the concluding narrative prose section of the book (Job 42:7-17).

In accordance with this, the poetry sections also lead Job to trust in his God as the one who cares for him, loves him and does all things for his good. As William Henry Green has pointed out, God’s speech is not simply an answer of sheer power. It is not one in which God simply indicates to Job that he must submit to the Almighty since he is more powerful than Job. If this were God’s answer, it would not be contrary to Job’s earlier thoughts, in which Job considered God’s treatment of him arbitrary, i.e., an arbitrary exertion of his power. Instead, according to Green, God shows forth in the whirlwind his full attributes, by which Job should trust in God’s purpose in his suffering.[5]

This theme fits together with the implicit result of trusting God found in the narrative epilogue of the book. Pride is contrasted to trusting God, as Elihu spoke against pride in Job 35:12-13 when he said, “There they cry out, but He does not answer because of the pride of evil men; surely God will not listen to an empty cry, nor will the Almighty regard it.” But for Elihu, God will listen to the humble, to those who trust in him. And for Elihu this implicitly has an eschatological orientation when he looks at the suffering Job and states, “He pays a man according to his work…the Almighty will not pervert justice” (Job 34:11-12). And so, as Job is humbled in 40:3-5 and then once again in 42:1-6, he repents in dust and ashes (Job 42:6). He humbles himself and now trusts in the Lord. This humility is seen once again in the narrative section in 42:9 where Job implicitly gives a sacrifice and offering for his three friends, despite the fact that they have violently abused him with their words. He has humbled himself. He has come to a greater trust in the Lord and thus the Lord restores his fortunes. As a result, the poetry and the narrative fit together with this theme of humbling men’s pride. Job is now humbled to trust in his God even more so, laying greater hold on his God and the eschatological life to come.

Next, we give an example of a scholar with higher critical sympathies who implicitly disagrees with Dr. Ehrman’s approach to the book of Job. Robert Alter, who claims to accept the view that there are different literary strata within the book, nonetheless claims that the view that God’s speech provides no answer is shortsighted.[6] That is, Alter claims that the view that God provides no answer to suffering or implies that there is no answer is shortsighted. In fact, as we have seen, this is Ehrman’s view. By implication, Alter is contending that Ehrman’s view is shortsighted. To prove his case, Alter shows numerous connections between God’s speech in the whirlwind and Job’s first piece of poetry in the book. Through these connections, Dr. Alter shows that God’s speech in the whirlwind answers Job’s objections in his first piece of poetry. The poetry does not provide the answer that Job expected, but it is an answer. Thus the poetry does not teach that there is no answer to suffering, rather it provides its own answer.

According to Alter, the wonders of God’s work in nature give Job a larger perspective beyond himself and perhaps of his own sense of unfairness. Thus it provides an answer to Job by opening up his horizons. Alter’s work, in showing the connections between the whirlwind speech and the first bit of Job’s poetry, shows us that indeed the whirlwind speech is God’s response to Job’s cries, though one that is fully in accordance with God’s own glorious nature and shows forth the wonders of his attributes as Job’s Lord.

We might also ask ourselves whether God’s speech in the whirlwind displays the new creation. Certainly it is the appearance of God Himself, which is a foretaste of his eschatological appearance at the end of the ages. Thus, it implicitly reveals his eschatological glory—the glory of the age to come. Thus, we might wonder if God’s revelation of his power over creation and the display of his multiple and wondrous attributes in the creation reveals the fact that he is able (and perhaps willing) to bring a new creation—one in which those attributes will be displayed in their fullness.

In fact, God’s speech in the whirlwind, in which he speaks of his power over nature, may reveal redemption as the means of that new creation. Some have suggested that his description of Behemoth (the hippopotamus) and Leviathan (the crocodile) may be allusions to more than these natural beasts. They may even speak of the great enemy of God’s people, Satan himself. One indication that in fact Leviathan may be more than a simple crocodile is both his allusion earlier in the book and also the questions that are asked with respect to him (Job 41:1-7). For instance, when the author says, “Can you draw out Leviathan with a fish hook?” God is implying that you cannot. Verse 2 states, “Can you put a rope in his nose, or pierce his jaw with a hook?” Here it seems that God is implying you cannot. Yet this is precisely how the Egyptians used to capture crocodiles. So perhaps God is saying, “The creature I am talking about cannot be captured in such a way;” that is, “the true Leviathan cannot be so captured, but I have control over him, and I will deliver you from his hand.” Even if this is not the case, the eschatological appearance of God (Job 38-42) indicates God’s display of the new creation to come. And in this way, we are drawn to Job 42:10-17 in which Job’s restoration is an anticipation of the world to come—life before the throne of God for his suffering servant. In this way, we are led ahead to the true servant, to whom Job was united, namely Christ Jesus, the Lord who suffered the abuse of men and the loss of all things, and yet—giving up himself a sacrifice for his abusers, and praying for them—was in his resurrection restored to life everlasting in the presence of God, given a true and everlasting family and a glorious household, in which he would live out all his days for eternity.

This is Job’s—the book of Job’s—true answer to the problem of suffering. That is, at the very least, it is an eschatological answer no matter how imperfectly we may understand it. Thus, the poetry and the narrative provide the same answer, not merely a horizontal, philosophical answer, but a transcendent, eternal, eschatological one. They are in complete harmony in Christ Jesus.

Understanding Suffering is Beyond Mere Mortals

Ehrman tries to make a fifth category of suffering distinct from the others. And the dialogue sections of Job fall under this category. Ehrman claims that according to the fifth view, we cannot know why there is suffering in the world—either (1) because God chooses not to reveal this information to creatures like ourselves (Job’s poetry) or (2) because it is beyond mere mortals (Ecclesiastes). We have already critiqued Ehrman’s views on Job’s poetry. Thus, we turn briefly to Ecclesiastes.

Ehrman also takes a higher critical approach to the book of Ecclesiastes (no surprise), assuming that the author did not look beyond the horizon of his own day. On this view, Ecclesiastes has no eschatology. It does not look to the future. And thus its writer can see no resolution to suffering. He is ignorant of its purpose, if it has any at all. Ehrman finds himself identifying with this view of suffering more than any other. However, this view is more a matter of Ehrman reading his own views onto Ecclesiastes in the same way that the questers read themselves back onto the “historical” Jesus.

We admit that to the common observer, at first glance, Ecclesiastes seems more gloomy or reticent than other works. But as we see it, it must be read in its redemptive-historical context. In this context, Solomon (denied to be the writer by higher critics) looks back at his life and the decline of the kingdom during that time. That is, the book must be read with the background of Deuteronomy in mind, among other things. Solomon recognizes more fully than before the vanity of the Deuteronomic blessings of the land. He sees the unraveling of those blessings in the decline of the monarchy that is before him. These provisional blessings are vanity compared to the eternal God. And thus he ends the book with an eschatological note: “fear God and keep his commandments”. This is not vanity. And if it is not vanity, it has a vector that leads beyond the vain and fleeting. It has an eschatological orientation. In it, Solomon is lead to the eschatological kingdom of heaven—a kingdom whose blessings are not vain, but eternal in Christ Jesus, the true and everlasting king.

With this eschatological orientation, Solomon sheds light on the nature of the vanity of life in this fleeting world and thus on the nature of suffering, which involves the diminution of its fleeting blessings. This author is not ignorant of the causes of suffering. Instead, he suggests its nature in relationship to vain things and contrasts it ultimately to the world to come. Ehrman cannot appeal to Ecclesiastes for his own Agnostic view of God, future glory and the nature of suffering. Ecclesiastes is fully in line with the other biblical writers and is part of the chain of the unfolding revelation of suffering in Christ from the old to the new era. This fits with what that we saw Paul developing in 2 Corinthians 4, as he viewed suffering in light of the progressive movement from the old to the new covenant.

 The Apocalyptic View of Suffering

Finally, Ehrman presents the apocalyptic view of suffering. In his opinion, this means that God does not bring disasters, but his cosmic enemies do. However, by presenting the matter this way, he suggests that biblical authors expressing the apocalyptic view do not hold to the other biblical views Ehrman articulates. That is, the apocalyptic writers do not believe that suffering is God’s punishment for sin (Ehrman’s first view), nor that God works suffering to achieve his purposes (view 3) or to test his people (view 4). That is, this way of putting the apocalyptic view seems to suggest that it is at odds with any view that asserts that God is behind suffering in some way.

However, we must object to this way of formulating the apocalyptic view of suffering. Certainly apocalypticism deals with cosmic battles and thus the forces set against God’s people. But even here it is not opposed to the view that God brings suffering. In fact, apocalypticism often teaches this very thing. For instance, in the book of Revelation, John describes the bowls of God’s wrath which bring suffering—the sores on the ungodly, etc. (Rev. 6:1-12). In biblical apocalypticism, God’s enemies do bring suffering, but they do so ultimately because God executes his wrath through them. And God is just to use his enemies in this way, for this is his just punishment upon them for their own sins.

Ehrman even states that Paul held to the apocalyptic view as he formulates it. That is, for Ehrman, Paul believed that God does not bring disasters, only God’s enemies do so. However, this does not fit with the whole picture we have of the apostle. Who can forget Paul’s words, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23)? Undoubtedly this means that God judges people with death because they have earned and deserve it for their sins.

Without question, Paul has an eschatological view of the gospel, but it is precisely this eschatological view that leads to his belief that God will judge the ungodly (Rom. 2:6; 1:32). And their present suffering is a foretaste of God’s wrath insofar as “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Rom. 1:18).

For Paul, clearly God does bring disasters. These disasters are his just punishment of the wicked. And as we have seen, Paul believed the Christians suffer in union with Christ. Thus, he would have agreed with the writer to the Hebrews that God brings suffering to his people as judicial chastisement, not as punishment (Heb. 12:4-13). This is because Christ has borne their punishment.

In connection with Ehrman’s formulation of the apocalyptic view, we should note his higher critical approach to prophecy. He does not believe in it. That is, he claims that the prophets were only looking to events in their own times. Isaiah was looking merely to events in the immediate life of Israel, not to those in the distant future. Thus, Ehrman denies all prophetic references to Christ.

He puts it provocatively, saying that the prophets were not star gazers. They were not looking to present day events taking place in our newspapers. He regards this view as self-centered. We acknowledge, against Dispensationalism, that the OT prophets were not giving rigid one-to-one descriptions of events in our own time. But they were looking ahead to Christ to come and to the eschatological kingdom he would bring. And thus, insofar as this semi-eschatological age in general is a fulfillment of the prophetic promises, they prophesied about us in Christ. However, they prophesied about us only insofar as we are caught up in Christ’s redemptive drama. The glory of God in Christ is the final end of their prophecy, not the socio-political events of the present time.

We believe it is actually Ehrman who attributes a self-centered view to the prophets rather than one that is God-centered, looking to the ultimate plan and consummate glory of God. For he states that the prophets merely looked to the calendar of their own newspapers (if we may put it that way). And he goes on to add that their prophetic projections of Israel’s restoration were not fulfilled. We, on the contrary, believe with the New Testament writers that they were fulfilled in Christ. They were fulfilled in his life, death, resurrection and present reign at the right hand of the Father. And they shall find their consummate fulfillment upon his return with eternal glory. Ehrman, by restricting the prophecies to the newspaper reports of the prophet’s own day reduces them to the same man-centered horizontal scheme as those Dispensationalists he criticizes, who focus on present day news reports. But he is worse than they, for at least they see an element of fulfillment in Christ where he sees none.

The test case that Ehrman presents for prophecy is the book of Daniel. Ehrman believes it is of a late date, that of the second century B.C. Thus, for Ehrman, Daniel cannot have written it in the sixth century B. C. The upshot of this critical view is that the events Daniel describes are not prophecy. For Ehrman, they describe events that had already taken place when the book was written. So the book does not present prophecy of future events, for this would require supernatural revelation, and Ehrman does not want this.

Thus, what are Ehrman’s arguments for a late date for Daniel? First, Ehrman claims (following many higher critics) that both the Hebrew and the Aramaic of the book could not have been written in the sixth century B.C. However, this does not deal adequately with all the evidence. Kenneth A. Kitchen has made a compellingly argument from original documents that the Aramaic of Daniel could have been written in the sixth century B.C. Also, comparing Daniel’s grammatical constructions of Aramaic to those of the sixth and second centuries, he has shown that the book was more likely written in the sixth century.[7] Alongside him, W. J. Martin has given evidence to seriously question the view that the Hebrew of Daniel could only have arisen after the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.[8] All in all, the language of Daniel points more to the sixth than the second century B.C., right in line with Daniel’s presence in Babylon.

Second, Ehrman believes that Daniel speaks only of Antiochus Epiphanes and not of a little horn beyond him. Since he takes a second century B.C. date for the book, he can claim that it does not prophesy about anything beyond the writer’s contemporaries. We have already noted the evidence for the early date of the book. But here we also note that even on the assumptions of the late date, this view of restricting Daniel’s prophecy to Antiochus Epiphanes cannot stand. Daniel also prophesies of another ruler to come after Antiochus Epiphanes, namely the Anti-Christ.

This is seen in the difference between Daniel’s vision in Dan. 8:23-25 and that in 7:24-25. Dan. 8:23-25 speaks of someone who arises from Greece, the third kingdom. This is Antiochus Epiphanes. But 7:24-25 speaks of someone who arises from a fourth kingdom (Dan. 7:23). This cannot be Greece and thus cannot be Antiochus Epiphanes. He is interpreted by Paul to be the Anti-Christ (2 Thess. 2:3-4).

Finally (and this brings us back to the theme of suffering), Ehrman believes that the book of Daniel presents a different view of suffering from the earlier prophets. He believes that Daniel’s view of suffering fits more with the intertestamental apocalyptic writers than the early prophets of the Hebrew Bible.

What are the differences he notes? They are six in nature. At least half of them are developed from Ehrman’s approach to apocalypticism which we have already questioned, namely, that God does not bring disasters. Each of Ehrman’s professed differences is associated with a question. The first question is, “Why do people suffer?” Amos claims that people are suffering because they have violated his will and he is punishing them. Daniel teaches that people suffer because of evil forces in the world (the beasts)—the forces opposed to God and those who side with him (Dan. 7).

While Daniel certainly presents a different aspect of the multifaceted jewel of revelation than Amos, we believe that Ehrman has wrongly pitted these two against one another as if they hold mutually exclusive views. This especially can be seen in Ehrman’s neglect of Daniel 9. That chapter clearly teaches that Israel has suffered and gone into exile because of her sins. “Indeed all Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, not obeying your voice; so the curse has been poured out on us, along with the oath which is written in the law of Moses the servant of God, for we have sinned against him” (Dan. 9:11). Daniel clearly teaches (like Amos) that God’s people are suffering because they have violated his law and he is chastening them.

This passage also melts away Ehrman’s next three differences. He believes that for Amos, God causes suffering, but for Daniel only the forces opposed to God cause suffering. However, Daniel 9 teaches that God also inflicts suffering. Ehrman believes that in Amos the people are at fault for suffering because they have sinned, but in Daniel the forces aligned against God persecute God’s people. Again we do not deny that in Daniel the persecution of the saints is revealed in a way not found in Amos. However, Daniel and Amos cannot thereby be pitted against one another since Daniel also teaches that the people are at fault for their suffering as a result of their sins.

Ehrman’s fourth difference is in answer to the question, “What causes suffering?” According to Ehrman, Amos teaches that it is caused by the sinful activity of God’s people, but Daniel claims it is caused by the upright behavior of those who side with God. However, once again this neglects Daniel 9 in which God’s people also suffer in exile because of their sin.

Since we have clearly seen that the differences between Daniel and Amos above are simply different nuances that are mutually compatible, there is every reason to believe that Ehrman’s last two differences may also have this nature. And this we believe to be the case. His fifth difference answers the question, “How will suffering end?” Amos answers, “When God’s people repent;” and Daniel answers, “When God destroys the forces opposed to him and sets up his kingdom”. Again, there are differences of emphasis between Amos and Daniel and organic development in Daniel. But we ask, “Why are these conceptions mutually incompatible?” When God destroys those opposed to his people, they will repent. No problem here.

Finally, Ehrman’s sixth difference answers the question, “When will it end?” As Ehrman sees it, for Amos it will end in an undisclosed future time, but for Daniel it will end soon, when God intervenes. However, once again, there is no incompatibility here. Even if Ehrman’s general outline is correct, Amos might not disclose the nearness of the future while Daniel expands on this same future, saying that it will come soon, when God intervenes. Again, we do not deny the different historical differences between the time and locations of Amos and Daniel. However, we reject the inference (even if not explicitly stated) that these are incompatible differences and differences of such a nature that they indicate that Daniel is a second century document. Daniel organically unfolds the prophetic revelation in a way that Amos does not, but the two are connected by an organic continuity that cannot be artificially severed.

Finally, having dealt with some of Ehrman’s views on OT prophecy and eschatology we turn to his views on NT eschatology. This can be divided into two overall claims. The first is the higher critical view that the NT authors believed that Christ would return in their own lifetimes. The second follows from this, namely that most of the NT authors looked only for a future eschatology on the vertical horizon of history. They did not believe that Christ’s resurrection into heaven was a foretaste of the world to come. That is, for Ehrman most NT authors did not believe that the eschaton was possessed by Christ and his church now as a transcendent reality, i.e., above in the heavenly places.

First, Ehrman claims that Paul and John believed that Christ would come soon, but these apostles were wrong. Ehrman’s astonishing proof-text for Paul is 1 Thess. 4:15: “that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord shall not precede those who have fallen asleep”. Ehrman takes Paul to mean that he as an individual will be among the “we” who will be alive when Christ has come. However, this is clearly a wooden way to take the passage linguistically. If Paul’s “we” must include himself individually, by similar logic it must include every individual designated within the category of “we”. And the Thessalonians are all addressed as “we”; “we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:18). Thus, on this logic it must include every one of the Thessalonians. However, Paul’s use of the phrase “we who are still alive” hypothetically distinguishes it from “we” who have died, implying that “we” may not include all those he is addressing or even Paul himself.

Going further, “the dead” are the dead “in Christ” which are all Christians who are dead in Christ. Thus by way of mirror opposition, the “we” must include all those alive in Christ, not just the Thessalonians. Thus, if Paul is saying that we who are alive and left means I Paul will be alive and left, then Paul is saying that all we Christians who might hear my words will be alive and left. However, this is absurd. Clearly the “we” is not used in 1 Thess. 4:15 without qualification. Paul limits a category within the “we”. He speaks of a subcategory within the broader category of “we”, namely, “we who are alive and left”, as suggested above. This no more indicates that Paul (as an individual within the broader category of “we”) will be alive and left than anyone else within the broader category of “we” will be alive and left. It simply indicates that some within the Christian communion will be alive and left when Christ returns.

If Paul never claimed that he would be alive when Christ returns what shall we say regarding the hope of the NT authors that Christ will come back soon? To this we say, with Geerhardus Vos, that NT authors saw themselves so much in terms of their present position in the heavenly places that they saw heaven as their primary abode.[9] This was the heavenly eschatological abode of eternity, the same abode that (from this eternal perspective) was coming soon. If you are presently living in the heavenly arena to which you are also looking forward, it is right at the door. This is how the early Christians viewed themselves. As such, they saw Christ’s return as harkening soon. The longed for consummation was at the door and it continues to be such for all who live from the same point of view as the NT authors.

This brings us to a consideration of Ehrman’s view that the NT authors only believed in a horizontal eschatology and that they reverted to a vertical eschatology when Christ did not come soon on the horizontal plane of history. Interestingly, Ehrman takes a pre-millennial interpretation of the book of Revelation. Thus, this must color his understanding of the author’s (not the apostle John, on his view) horizontal eschatology. Ehrman believes that this transition from the horizontal to the vertical view of eschatology takes place in the NT itself, John (in his gospel) holding to the vertical view.

However, we believe the amillennial interpretation of Revelation 20 does greater justice to the passage. It is consistent with the other NT authors, who universally teach that the new heavens and new earth arise directly after the next (second) coming of Christ (e.g., Matt. 25:31, 34, 41; 2 Pet. 3:3-4, 7, 10-13) and that the resurrection of the just and unjust occur simultaneously (John 5:29; Acts 24:15). The next event on the eschatological calendar is the future resurrection day in which the dead will be raised forever (1 Cor. 15:51-55) and the wicked judged forever (1 Thess. 5:2-7 with 2 Thess. 1:5-10). The pre-tribulation rapture view (admittedly not held by Ehrman) claims falsely that a secret rapture occurs in Paul in 1 Thess. 4:13-18. But this is falsified by the fact that in the following verses (1 Thess. 5:2-7), it is clear that this is the same day in which destruction (the eternal destruction of 2 Thess. 1:9) comes on the ungodly as a thief. Everywhere else in the NT then the new heavens and earth follow right after Christ’s next return.

Some have argued that there is progressive revelation from Paul to John, revealing only to John that there will be a millennial kingdom just as there was progressive revelation from the OT apostles, revealing only to the NT apostles that there would be a distinction between the first and second coming of Christ. But this is fallacious because progressive revelation revealing new epochs (such as a millennial kingdom) are always preceded by significant redemptive historical events. Thus between the OT prophets and the NT apostles we have the death and resurrection of Christ. This newly disclosed period between Christ’s first and second coming interpret and explain that event and its significance. We have no such event (even of a remotely similar character between the death of Peter and Paul and that of John’s revelation on the island of Patmos). Thus, there is no objective redemptive historical event which requires a millennial kingdom as Christ’s death and resurrection into heaven required this new era between his two advents. There is no ground for this kind of progressive revelation and it cannot be used to explain the supposed fact that to John was now revealed a millennial kingdom of which Paul and Peter knew nothing.

The clincher in Rev. 20 itself is the fact that the end of Rev. 19 (the Battle of Armageddon) and the end of Rev. 20 (the battle of Gog and Magog) are described in Ezek. 38-39 as the same event. Rev. 19:17-18, 21 clearly pick up the language of Ezek. 39:17-20, implying that Rev. 19’s battle of Armageddon is the same as the battle of Gog and Magog (Ezek. 38:2-3, 18; 39:1). Therefore, the battle of Armageddon in Rev. 19 is the same as the battle of Gog and Magog in Rev. 20: 8-9. We must conclude that after the end of Rev. 19, Rev. 20 goes back, re-describing history before the battle of Armageddon and then describing the battle once again in Rev. 20:8-9. As a result, Rev. 20:1-6 does not describe a thousand year reign between Christ’s next return and the new heavens and new earth. It describes events that are now occurring. And we believe it describes the present heavenly reign of those who have died in the Lord. This is just one indication that the book of Revelation teaches a transcendent eschatology.

For clear indications that Paul taught a transcendent eschatology, we could point to his description of the Jerusalem above (Gal. 4:26), the transcendent city of God in heaven to which the saints are now united as an anticipation of the age to come. And we could articulate its connection to the rest of the teaching of Galatians which contrasts this heavenly perspective to the earthly perspective of the Judaizers. We could also discuss the justification of God’s name in Romans—how he has justified his name by eternally cursing his people’s sins in Christ and thereby bringing them into a heavenly inheritance of the Spirit. None of his people can be snatched from this inheritance as they were taken from the inheritance of Israel’s land of old, thereby bringing shame to God’s name. Thus this transcendent eschatology so protects God’s people and glorifies his name forever among the nations. But we will confine ourselves to these sketches of Paul’s transcendent eschatology in Galatians and Romans and focus more attention on its display in 2 Corinthians. This will also give us a greater glimpse into his view of suffering.

2 Corinthians reveals Paul’s transcendent eschatology as it teaches the union of Christ’s apostles and the church with Christ’s sufferings. That is, because the eschatological glory of Christ is found in the church as she suffers the loss of the things of this world, this glory must transcend the world. For Paul, this glory is a transcendent eschatology. It is a present transcendent eschatology as well as a future eschatology. We find this in 2 Cor. 4:7 where Paul states, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of power may be of God and not of ourselves.” This glory possessed in us is the glory of Christ’s resurrection life discussed in chapter 3 (v. 18). It is a glory in earthen vessels. That is, we possess Christ’s glory in our sufferings as we are “afflicted in every way”, “perplexed”, and “persecuted” (2 Cor. 4:8-9). But since we possess the life of the resurrected Christ, we are “not crushed”, “not despairing”, and “not forsaken” (2 Cor. 4:8-9). Thus, this must be a glory that transcends the world. By being semi-eschatological possessors of the glory to come in Christ, we are united to him in his sufferings. As Paul says in the next verse: “always carrying about in our body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (v. 10). For Paul, union with Christ’s resurrection precedes union with his sufferings. Transcendent eschatology precedes suffering in union with Christ.

In this way, the saints are lifted to heaven in the midst of their sufferings. As Paul says, “We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things that are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).

In this later passage, we additionally get a glimmer into the organic progress of union with Christ in redemptive history, something that is also missing in Ehrman. That is, Paul is here saying that union with Christ in the new covenant possesses greater richness than it did under the old covenant. This can be seen from the fact that 2 Cor. 4 follows after 2 Cor. 3, in which Paul makes a relative contrast between the old covenant and the new covenant administrations of God’s grace. This further emphasizes the transcendent nature of this new covenant semi-eschatological glory, for it surpasses the old covenant glory which was partially embodied in earthly types and shadows.

This also appears in Paul’s commission. Since Paul is united to Christ’s resurrection glory after the historical accomplishment of Christ’s resurrection, Paul possesses a greater fullness of that glory in his ministry than Moses in his old covenant ministry. “For if the ministry of condemnation has glory, much more does the ministry of righteousness abound in glory” (2 Cor. 3:9). And this is also true of Christians living in the age of the new covenant who are “a letter of Christ . . . written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:3).

As we have noted, this transcendent nature of Paul’s eschatology has implications for the union of new covenant saints with Christ’s sufferings. If they possess a greater glory, then they have a sweeter union with Christ in their sufferings than old covenant saints. This is implied in the next chapter. For if union with Christ’s glory is the ground of union with his sufferings, then it follows that when one possesses greater union with Christ’s glory, he or she also possesses greater union with Christ’s sufferings.

In accordance with this, it is fitting that the way Paul speaks of union with Christ’s sufferings (2 Cor. 4:7-8) places him outside of the land of Israel. To the degree that the old covenant was glorious, it set a hedge to protect God’s people from such persecution. But Paul has the greater glory of the new covenant. And it is so much more powerful that it can protect him from harm in the midst of persecution, for it is more fully transcendent and eternal.

Admittedly, there is continuity between the sufferings of old covenant saints and those of the new. And this seems to be implied by Paul’s very use of an illusion to the Old Testament: “Having the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, ‘I believed, therefore I spoke,’ we also believe, therefore also we speak” (2 Cor. 4:13). Even if Paul is implying that he has “the same spirit of faith” as the Corinthians rather than the Psalmist, he is quoting the Psalmist to articulate that faith. Thus, he is showing his essential unity with the Psalmist as well, suggesting that their glory was essentially transcendent, though partially embodied in types and shadows. At the same time, the way Paul speaks of union with Christ’s sufferings (2 Cor. 4:7-8) expresses the fuller semi-eschatological antitheses found in the new covenant era. That is, this redemptive era possesses fuller transcendent glory in Christ, resulting in a greater antithesis to this present age. And this allows the Christian’s loss of this age to involve greater union with Christ than previously. Though the new age is in essential unity with the old, it possesses a greater fullness of that glory—a glory that brings a greater antithesis between this world and the arena of heaven. As a result, Paul can return to this antithesis between heaven and earth again in 2 Cor. 6:8-10. This displays Paul’s transcendent eschatology.

It is in this context that he states, “We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things that are unseen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). Here we have a greater contrast between the seen and the unseen than was found in the old covenant with its visible glory and blessings. Now, under the new age, the blessings of the covenant are more fully unseen and spiritual, more transcendent. Thus the contrast Paul is making finds greater expression in the new covenant, even though it was essentially true for old covenant saints as well. The faith of the old covenant was an identification with the glory it administered (2 Cor. 4:13). And so is the faith of the new. And thus in the new we find a fuller flowering of this faith, one that accords with our greater possession of heavenly glory, even now. As a result, Paul walks by faith not by sight in a greater way than the saints of old. For he possesses a greater degree of eternal glory in union with the risen Christ, the one who will never die again and who forever lives in the invisible arena of glory. Paul’s transcendent eschatology is the foundation for his life of faith and suffering in Christ.

Paul’s discussion expresses an organic progression of redemption from the old to the new. And thus it expresses an organic unfolding of the saints’s subjective appropriation of redemption. The subjective appropriation is in union with the objective progress of redemption and revelation. The ordo salutis is intimately joined to the historia salutis. Both are in Christ.

If we are following Paul, it is the recognition of this organic unfolding that should guide us in interpreting Scripture. It should enlighten our understanding of the various nuances of different biblical authors as they discuss suffering. As the saints possess greater and more transcendent glory, they are drawn more fully from the glories of this world. Thus, they suffer the loss of this world more fully in union with the sufferings of Christ. For Christ laid aside the glories of this world for the glories of heaven, both for himself and his people. Therefore, following in the footsteps of Paul, we should interpret the various nuances of suffering in the Old Testament in light of this organic progression from the old to the new eras. This is the path Paul sets for us. We have only scratched the surface of it here. But it is interesting to note that it is Paul’s transcendent eschatology (with its organic implications and which Ehrman denies) that sets the path for undermining Ehrman’s approach of finding disparate views of suffering in the Bible.

Ehrman’s book is rubbish, especially when compared to the transcendent glory of Christ. These pages are no answer to suffering and do enormous injustice to the Bible’s marvelous teaching concerning it.

It is only as the church reflects upon the glories of the risen Christ that she will assess her suffering and persecution properly. Only as she lays her life in the lap of the Lord Jesus by faith will she find peace in the midst of the storm. For he loves her and has given his life up for her. He has suffered eternal torments for her that her sufferings may now be but a momentary and light affliction by comparison, lightened by the load he bore. And now that glory, which he possesses, which far outweighs them all, will be theirs. And it is even now theirs as he shines his face upon them, as they bask in his eternal glory and love, being lifted up to glory in the midst of their afflictions, that he may lighten their load and carry them in his bosom. Is he not a wondrous Savior?

[1] A review of Bart D. Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer. Harper Collins Publishers, 2008. 294 pp. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-0611-7397-5. $25.95.

[2] Ehrman so fails to see this that he seems to suggest that suffering is redemptive for all people. However, in both the Old and New Testaments those who are not God’s covenant people are under his wrath in their sufferings. They are not under his redemptive care.

[3] Aron Pinker, “The Core Story in the Prologue—Epilogue of the Book of Job.” The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, vol. 6, article 1. Available at http//www.jhsonline.org.

[4] William Henry Green, “The Book of Job.” Biblical Reparatory and Princeton Review 29 (1857): 296.

[5] Ibid., 303.

[6] For the discussion that follows, see Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985) 105-38.

[7] K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (1966) 89-96.

[8] W. J. Martin, “The Hebrew of Daniel,” D. J. Wiseman, ed., Notes on Some Problems in the Book of Daniel (1965) 28-30.

[9] Geerhardus Vos, “The Eschatological Aspect of the Pauline Conception of Spirit,” Biblical and Theological Studies (1912) 209-59. Available online at www.biblicaltheology.org.

Sorry, Comments are Closed.

You'll have to take it up with the author...