Theologians have grappled with the issue of why God allows evil and suffering in the world since the book of Job--and likely before. Beliefnet is hosting a very interesting debate/dialogue on the problem between Bart Ehman and N.T. Wright. Ehrman is James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the author of God's Problem , which argues that the Bible fails to answer the problem of suffering. Wright is the Bishop of Durham for the Church of England and has written Evil and the Justice of God.
Ehrman begins by explaining how the problem of suffering caused a loss of faith:
Suffering increasingly became a problem for me and my faith. How can one explain all the pain and misery in the world if God—the creator and redeemer of all—is sovereign over it, exercising his will both on the grand scheme and in the daily workings of our lives? Why, I asked, is there such rampant starvation in the world? Why are there droughts, epidemics, hurricanes, and earthquakes? If God answers prayer, why didn't he answer the prayers of the faithful Jews during the Holocaust? Or of the faithful Christians who also suffered torment and death at the hands of the Nazis? If God is concerned to answer my little prayers about my daily life, why didn't he answer my and others’ big prayers when millions were being slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, when a mudslide killed 30,000 Columbians in their sleep, in a matter of minutes, when disasters of all kinds caused by humans and by nature happened in the world?
. . .
About nine or ten years ago I came to realize that I simply no longer believed the Christian message. A large part of my movement away from the faith was driven by my concern for suffering. I simply no longer could hold to the view—which I took to be essential to Christian faith—that God was active in the world, that he answered prayer, that he intervened on behalf of his faithful, that he brought salvation in the past and that in the future, eventually in the coming eschaton, he would set to rights all that was wrong, that he would vindicate his name and his people and bring in a good kingdom (either at our deaths or here on earth in a future utopian existence).
N.T. Wright responded:
In a sense, you simply bring us back to where western Europe found itself after the Lisbon earthquake on All Saints Day 1755. Up to then some had said, ‘Look at the world, think about it, and you’ll see that God exists and that Christianity is true.’ The earthquake was a wake-up call to casual western religion, and precipitated the whole Enlightenment revolution, first towards a detached Deism and then into agnosticism or atheism. Have you done anything other than recapitulate that moment? And, if you haven’t, I guess I want to ask: were you not aware, earlier, of the scale of evil in the world – the Holocaust, the dying babies, the inexplicable ‘natural’ disasters, and so on? You’re not implying, are you, that people (like me, for instance) who still hold to Christian faith are somehow failing to notice these horrors, or to reflect soberly and deeply on them? And if, as you say, your book (and your blog posting) do not actually constitute an argument against Christian faith (‘If you reflect on these issues you’ll see that the Christian claim is incredible’), might it not seem that the shift in your own position which you have described is a shift which came about, not because of logical argument, but because of other (unspecified) factors, with the problem of suffering providing a kind of intellectual backdrop to a journey whose main energy was supplied from elsewhere? I’m not saying the arguments are unimportant. But I’m trying to understand what you’re saying when you deny that they constitute an appeal to anyone else to follow your journey.
The second large, general point concerns your handling, and description, of the Bible and Christian faith. I want to take issue with your analysis of the biblical material. This is where I must refer to my own treatment of the same problem in Evil and the Justice of God, which forms part of the groundwork for my new book Surprised by Hope. I don’t know if you’ve read either of them, but in the former I give a very different account from you of the Old Testament material, seeing the call of Abraham not (as on your p. 66) as God simply calling Abraham ‘to be in a special relationship with him’ but as the moment when God launches the long-range plan to rescue the world from its misery. In other words, I read the story of Israel as a whole (not merely in its individual parts, which by themselves, taken out of that context, might be reduced to ‘Israel sinned; God punished them’, etc.,) as the story of theodicy-in-practice: ‘this is the narrative through whose outworking the creator God will eventually put all things to rights.’ Hence the promises of Isaiah 11 and so forth.
The dialogue continues. Read it all here.