Friday, April 16, 2010

Michael Brown vs. Bart Ehrman Debate: The Problem of Suffering MP3 Audio

Dr. Michael Brown and Dr. Bart Ehrman debate the topic: Does the Bible Provide an Adequate Answer to the Problem of Suffering? at Ohio State University on April 15, 2010. More information about this debate can be found at the debate website.

Full Debate MP3 Audio here. (2 hr 10 min)


For some books dealing with the problem of suffering:

The Problem of Pain - C.S. Lewis
The Many Faces of Evil - John Feinberg
When God Weeps - Joni Eareckson Tada & Steven Estes
The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World - William Dembski


G. Kyle Essary said...

This might be long, since it's my commentary on the debate:

(Part 1)
This was a very, very good example of how to debate against Ehrman and win rather handily. Ehrman will make a largely existential case around some data. Brown makes a largely existential response around some data. The introductions were long enough to really make a case, and since Brown went first, his outstanding introduction set the tone for the night.

Brown started out with the very serious suffering of his wife and told the story through personal experience (as well as great biblical knowledge). The personal experiences help undercut Ehrman, who always tells the issues through a personal narrative. His focus on the Christian right to protest (from Job, the psalms, etc.) against evil was wonderful and something that the philosophical type debaters usually miss out on.

Ehrman did exactly as he does in debates of any sort. He started with a question to point out to everyone that he is in the minority view, made a joke and then started quoting passages that seem to contradict (I don't think comparing the topic to suffering due to UNC having a bad season worked all too well...Brown talks about the death of a brother-in-law, suffering wife, etc. and Ehrman talks about Duke winning the NCAA?). He was as passionate as usual, but didn't seem as angry as he did against Evans (which helps immensely). He quoted passages for about 13 minutes, and then speed quoted some stats of world suffering. He tied it all back into his personal story saying that he came to a point where he couldn't buy the Biblical answers anymore.

Surprisingly, he went outside of his normal tactics and asked the very good question in the context of the Exodus and cross, "If God is a God who intervenes, why doesn't He intervene?"

Here is the key...Michael Brown responded with personal stories that once again undercut all that Ehrman had said to that point. He shared the stories of holocaust survivors, people in true torment who are searching through the Scriptures and made the very real point that God is existentially working in the lives of those who survive such tragedy. I really enjoyed the illustration that Bart takes apart a watch and then complains that it doesn't work.

Brown's response got Ehrman thrown completely off. His rebuttal of trying to call Brown a hypocrit who talks about suffering, but "lives well" just as Ehrman lives well showed that he was losing. When you move to personal attacks, you have admitted defeat. At this point, Ehrman went right back into a continuation of his opening statement as if Brown hadn't responded at all. He started quoted more biblical texts and offering his commentary on them and suggesting that they were contradictory. He then talks about how he is personally offended that Brown tells him that he has no hope and meaning sans belief in God. So what was his answer for why he has hope and finds "life far more meaningful?" Basically he said, "well, that's what I believe." Stating a belief doesn't justify it of course. He did give the hint that you have to make life meaningful since there is no afterlife in his basically meaning only means a subjective construct. Now is where a philosopher would have caught Ehrman.

Brian said...

Thanks for that overview, G. Kyle.

G. Kyle Essary said...

(Part 2)
Ehrman began the Q&A by presenting two passages that he sees as clearly contradictory...but Brown, knowing the OT better than Ehrman was able to turn it around and give an exceptional answer based on a fully canonical understanding versus one or two verses (out of context). Ehrman wouldn't take this and wanted a simple "yes" or "no." This is an example of Bart's black and white only mentality that so many critical interpreters of him have pointed out.

Brown made Ehrman get specific on his claim of making meaning and hope in our world by giving asking how Ehrman would respond to people in intense suffering. Ehrman suggested that you sit with them and suffer alongside them without giving easy answers. This was wonderful pastoral advice...but in his worldview you have to ask, "Why do that?" Why suffer with those who suffer instead of trying to make the most of your ever shortening number of days. Ehrman criticizes Brown's response to his answer by saying that Brown only gives them "cheap hope"(!). Ehrman got on his heels and had to fall back on a personal story that didn't connect (but was an attempt to connect Brown's answer with really cheap hope).

Ehrman goes back to asking about God's judgments as found in Amos and asked the very good question about whether or not God still does these things. Brown knowing the OT narrative is able to answer biblically and then says that he sees no problem with God judging since he is just and criticizes Ehrman for implying that judgment isn't a valuable category. He then showed the value of God's justice in contemporary situations. This was a very interesting response. He points out that Amos was written to a theocracy and there is no theocracy today...Ehrman agrees with most of what Brown said...he then points out that God's punishments in Amos (intended for teaching them) are too strong. Brown responds by pointing out the crimes of Amos that needed judgment and how they are so much larger than personal situations.

In the final question, Brown wanted Ehrman to explain his understanding of evil and how we can improve (from a secular perspective). He asked, "Is your answer simply that 'people should do better,'" basically Ehrman wasn't able to respond and tried to answer the questions back on God's character ala, "Why didn't God turn Hitler around?" and "You are arrogant to think that your personal theological views are the only ones that can make people good." His final argument was that Western civilzation has been evil and invoking God hasn't helped...therefore, we need to do all that we can. Once again though, he never says why anyone should follow his subjective plan.

G. Kyle Essary said...

In round two of the Q&A, Ehrman asks Brown why God would punish people eternally for temporal crimes (btw, I think this is the best question to ask in regards to eternal punishment). Brown argues for a final judgment, how there will be multitudes saved (from Scripture) and basically argues from the Bible that annihilationism may be true, and how you must look at the canonical picture and not merely verses out of context. Hell will be "the opposite of life, the forfeiture of life forever" according to Brown. Brown undercuts Ehrman's point by trying to make apocalyptic literature literal (you interpret poetry as poetry, narrative as narrative, etc.).

Michael Brown gets arrogant in the last question to point out his personal piety, but turns it on Ehrman to ask how he can complain against God while living such an extravagant life, "My students have given up a ton to serve in ministry around the world. What impact does your teaching have on your life?" This question was really personal, and Ehrman's answer is really personal. He said he gives away "enormous amounts of money," not to ministry, but to fighting poverty, homelessness and hunger. He asks back, "How much is enough?" Once again though, Ehrman doesn't give a solid reason "why" he gives so much outside of personal emotions concerning suffering people. But in his worldview, why live like this? Bart never says.

The standard Q&A at the end was only interesting in that the first question was unclear and they had to "interpret" the question. Also, most of the questions were personal which continued the personal discussions of this debate.

Someone asked Ehrman why atheists presuppose good and evil to hold evil against God, and admitted that he couldn't give a definition apart from his subjective view, but that "anything that works for the good of people is good, and anything that works toward their hard is evil." Once again though, he didn't give any reasons for these beliefs that are critical to his attacks on Christianity. Cornelius van Til once gave the illustration of a child having to climb up into her father's lap in order to slap him in the face. This is a great example. Ehrman borrows his enculturated Christian morality to judge God. His critique somewhat relies on the truth of the thing he's critiquing.

Anyways, this was a good debate that I think Michael Brown won handily. This was much better than most Ehrman debates.

G. Kyle Essary said...

There was one more good question when someone pressed Ehrman to give a foundation for morality apart from God to which Ehrman did not respond, but simply asked how it was possible to base it on God.

Ehrman did state that he finds Christianity to be good for society even if its not true, something I'm sure his Christian wife (a brilliant medievalist) would appreciate him saying.

Bart's conclusion was standard Ehrman. Brown's conclusion was pretty standard as well.

Gabriel Pagel said...

Thanks for this post. I watched the debate and posted a review on my blog.

John Sfifer said...

What do you guys think about Bart's comments that there is no afterlife during the debate (which supported with scripture)?

G. Kyle Essary said...

Good question. I would go about answering his question in a number of ways. Let's take a look at Ecclesiastes 9:5, which is probably the strongest verse in the OT that some will use to argue against an afterlife:

1. The first question to ask is does interpreting this passage as opposed to an afterlife make sense in light of the rest of Ecclesiastes? It doesn't as other passages clearly presuppose an afterlife of sorts (Ecc. 6:6 says all "go" to the same place referring to Sheol,, Ecc. 3:17 talks of God judging everyone and in light of the rest of the book this judgment must be post-life, same as 12:14 and 9:7 speaks of man's spirit returning to God). It would be nearly impossible to make a definitive case that the author of Ecclesiastes does not believe in an afterlife...and impossible to make the case that Ecclesiastes argues against an afterlife.

2. Does the argument make sense in the light of other Scripture in the OT? Hardly. There are plenty of afterlife discussions and passages in the OT.

3. A common response (which I heard back in my undergrad) was that later editors of Ecclesiastes added the passages presupposing an afterlife. The response to this speculation should be, "And what evidence do you have for this claim?" Are there any linguistic reasons to make this argument? No. Are there any manuscripts that suggest these changes were made? No. Are there any traditions (from rabbis or anyone else) that suggest these changes have been made? No. In other words, it's mere speculation to add to an already speculative argument.

4. But let's say the passage was clearly not just presupposing a lack of belief in an afterlife, but arguing against it. Let's say Ecclesiastes 9:5 said, "but the dead know nothing, because they are no more, since their is no life after death." What would that prove? At best, it would prove that one author in the OT didn't believe in the afterlife. It may cause us to question the inspiration of Ecclesiastes in light of other books, or question whether or not Ecclesiastes is inerrant. Even then, it would be difficult to make the point, because inerrancy assumes progressive revelation, so maybe God simply hadn't revealed the afterlife at this point...he surely did in Jesus' resurrection.

winteryknight said...

Thanks for the summaries, Kyle and Gabriel. They convinced me to listen to this debate.

The Seeking Disciple said...

I too thought that Dr. Brown did a great job. He presented a strong case for the goodness of God in the midst of a world of sin. Further, Dr. Brown debated Ehrman with much grace and compassion despite his disagreements with Ehrman. Good job Dr. Brown!

cwieand said...

I thought Brown's responses were full of false dichotomies and I created the following video response.

Anonymous said...

It is truly unbelievable for Dr.Brown to quote C.S.Lewis to justify and explain the existence of evil in the world...

Chrisna said...

I've been very interested in debates recently. I have to say that this is one of the best debates I have heard so far. Dr. Brown made an excellent case (few people could have done better).
What made this debate worth listening to (imo) is that almost every time Dr. Brown talked, he ended with something uplifting and hopeful. This is really wonderful to hear in a debate. It strongly reminds me of the New Testament letters, where the writers end their letters in similar uplifting ways.
I wish there were more debates like these.

Scott F said...

I am not sure anyone "wins" these debates. I think the supports of Drs Brown and Ehrman came away satisfied. Their approaches to the Bible were so radically different - comparing verses vs staying at 20,000 feet - that they largely talked past each other. I thought Dr Ehrman sounded a bit abrasive at times which could have been an edge he displays when he was fired up or simply signs of a strained voice. I, as an atheist, was somewhat annoyed by Dr Brown's use of the preaching style in a debate format. He seemed to pound the audience with the Good News as the answer to every question. As an apologist, I suppose that is to expected and perfectly acceptable to portions of the audience.

Perhaps the greatest problem with this debate is the fact that "Adequate" is hardly an objective position to defend or attack.

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