Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ehrman vs. Brown in Columbus, OH

Michael Brown and Bart Ehrman debated the problem of evil at the Ohio State University in April of 2010. The audio is available from Brian Auten as an mp3.

One of the best features of this debate is that it is narrowly focused on a particular topic, which prevents a certain degree of vagueness and Gish-galloping.

Brown basically makes the case that suffering is not a problem because any given instance of suffering is instrumental to some greater good, whether that would be human free will, personal repentance, or else some unknown and unknowable divine purpose. He also defends a traditional approach to Christian scripture (e.g. he takes the Book of Job as a single narrative contra the conclusions of textual analyses) and makes the case that human sin is really the ultimate problem on Earth, leading to privation, starvation, and natural disasters and epidemics as well. He makes about as strong a case as possible, given the material that he has to work from.

Ehrman leads with the idea that the Bible is not unified in its treatment of major theological issues, including the problem of evil. He starts with the view found in Amos (and the prophets generally) that collective suffering is the result of a collective failure to follow God's commands, and exposes the collegiate audience to a few choice verses which they probably never endured in their Sunday School lessons. He goes on the outline the view of suffering found in the Book of Job, which is essentially that suffering is a test of character, and that one should never question "acts of God" understood here in the sense the phrase is usually used in insurance policies. He also points out the view of the apocalyptic books that suffering is the direct result of evil spiritual forces acting in the world. He finally makes the point that God sometimes directly intervenes to prevent human suffering, according to the Biblical accounts.

On rebuttal, both speakers go at each other with an unusual degree of unaffected passion, which makes for interesting listening. At times, this part gets painfully personal.

Overall, both speakers to a fine job of making their respective cases, but do not expect an in-depth presentation or rebuttal of the various philsophical theodicies, such as Hick's soul-making theodicy or Plantinga's assertion that it may be logically impossible to actualize a world with moral good but without moral evil. Instead, the speakers focus on real-world problems and scriptural (rather than theological) answers to those problems.

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