Wrestling with God

Last Modified: June 1, 2009

The following presentation was delivered by Dr. Jan Garrett May 31, 2009, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green Kentucky.

The idea of religious experience as wrestling with God goes back to the Book of Genesis (32:24-31). Jacob, the grandson of the patriarch Abraham, encounters an angel, presumably sent by God, and wrestles with him. In this encounter Jacob receives a wrenched hip socket. The angel renames him Israel, which means striving with God.1 This shows that even the earliest authors of Hebrew sacred history were aware of how difficult it is to stay in a painless relationship with God. We are wrestling with God still--at least with the idea of God--in some cases, the very word "God."

The initial focus of my talk is a new book by Bart Ehrman, which is called God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question.2 This book is in part a story of Ehrman's own evolution from a devout evangelical Christian to a theological agnostic. On the way he became a leading New Testament scholar and historian of early Christianity (he's often seen on History Channel programs about Jesus and early Christianity and in DVD lecture series produced by The Teaching Company). Ehrman gradually became convinced that it is impossible to square the existence of a loving God with the actual extent of suffering of innocent people.

God's Problem as Ehrman defines it is akin to what is called the problem of theodicy. It may be formulated like this: "the undoubted existence of innocent suffering poses" the following dilemma: "we cannot believe in both God's omnipotence and God's mercy."3 But the word theodicy contains the root dikÍ, which means justice, and another version of the problem is whether the existence of innocent suffering is compatible with divine justice.

The early Rabbis struggled with this cluster of problems. There is "a cryptic Talmudic story concerning [four Jewish] Sages of the second century [C.E.] who entered the Pardes-the 'Orchard'… [where] they struggled with [this] problem…. One died, one went mad, one lost his faith; and only one-Rabbi Akiva-entered and exited in peace." For Abraham Heschel, the great Jewish theologian who died in 1971, the "message is clear: confrontation with this religious problem can destroy life. It can drive one mad. It can destroy faith. Perhaps only a…belief.… [such as Rabbi Akiva] had can enable one to struggle and emerge in peace."4 More about Rabbi Akiva later.

I'm going to attempt four things, first, to examine Ehrman's account on its own terms; second, to share reflections on this issue from early rabbinical sources [and the great medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides]5 ; third, to look at what I take to be some religious liberal responses; and finally to offer my own reflections on these issues.

I. Ehrman

Bart Ehrman takes a close look at the Bible's attempts to deal with what he calls "God's problem," the fact that there is so much apparently pointless suffering in the universe, especially for humans, while the Bible insists that God is both very powerful and a loving parent, concerned for the well-being of humanity. Ehrman contends that the Bible presents several different and mutually contradictory solutions to the problem, and fails to provide an adequate answer. Let's consider what Ehrman claims to find in the Bible.

Ehrman assumes the common view that feeling good is good and physical and mental suffering is bad. He does not deny the value of justice but assumes that a God who is a loving parent would want to minimize suffering. Ehrman devotes many pages to historical and recent cases of suffering-on the personal scale and massive social scale, for instance, the two World Wars, the Holocaust (pp. 22-25), other cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing, and the AIDS epidemic. Such things persuade most people capable of compassion that the God problem is an acute one. Ehrman does not want to sweep the facts under the rug or to explain them away.

1. The first Biblical solution, which Ehrman calls the Dominant Classical Prophetic View, invokes retributive justice. Humans (or the Children of Israel) have sinned-departed from the convenant they have with God that requires them to follow His commandments--and God is punishing them. One of the ways He does this is by "turning away" from them and letting their enemies attack them. He does so because He wants them to repent and return to His ways, at which time He will take them under His wing again.

2. But if we are not convinced that people are suffering because of their wickedness, there is another explanation: The wickedness of others. Suffering is caused not always by God but by other human beings using their own free will. Thus, the Pharoah hardened his [own] heart and refused to let the Israelites go.) Free will is so important to the universe that it should not have been sacrificed to prevent suffering from occurring.

3. The third perspective appears occasionally in the Hebrew Scriptures close to the Christian era and in Christian authors: Sometimes the innocent suffer because of Satan and his allies. But they will ultimately be defeated. Sometimes, according to this view, it is not that people have turned away from God that brings suffering down upon them (as punishment) but their comparative loyalty to God, which stirs God's enemies to attack them and do them harm. Of course, according to Scripture, the enemies will not always have the upper hand. We'll come back to this soon.

4. Several explanations refer to God's plan, what we can call Instrumental Reasoning. (Instrumental Reasoning concerns the choice of means to produce a desired end.) On this general account, suffering is for the greater human good, i.e., in the long run. There are various versions of this.

Version A. Repentence and Reconciliation. Through suffering humans will learn their lesson, repent, and return to God's ways, and things will be fine for His people.

Version B. Erasing demerits. Suffering is a sacrifice for sins that will produce atonement-reconciliation with God. Note: this suffering can be vicarious, that is, the persons who suffer can atone for the sins of others. (Vicarious suffering is already found in the Hebrew Scriptures, but it becomes central in Christianity as early as St. Paul's writings about Jesus.)

Version C. Making the Highway Straight. Suffering somehow paves the way for the Messiah or the Second Coming of Christ, and salvation of the believers. (Book of Daniel, Book of Revelation, the Left Behind novels.)

Version D. Suffering caused by one party to a second party produces benefit to a third party. According to St. Paul and other New Testament authors, Jesus and early Christianity were "rejected" by "the Jews," but this act was to benefit gentiles. It must have been part of God's plan that Apostles like Paul would take the Gospel to the gentiles and they would convert in great numbers before the Jews did.

Version E. Suffering confirms Salvation. It enables the believer to participate in Christ's agony by undergoing treatment similar to what he received at his persecutors' hands. This is for the believer a confirmation that he is among God's chosen who will eventually experience an elevation similar to that of Christ. (In Paul's Letters, he appears to hold this view.)

But maybe God's ways are just too deep for mortals. This view is found in books of Ecclesiastes and Job, both parts of the Jewish Bible.

5. As Ehrman interprets Ecclesiastes, what it tells us is that this life is it. Life has no cosmic meaning, and it's a waste of time to fret over the fact. God gives us good things and we should enjoy them while we have them. There is no universal pattern to the bad things; in any case, they are not from God. (Ehrman, 195) But Ehrman is wrong. Ecclesiastes says,

consider God's doing! Who can straighten what He has twisted? So in a time of good fortune [good things], enjoy the good fortune, and in a time of misfortune [bad things], reflect: The one no less than the other was God's doing. (Ecclesiastes 7:13)
6. The Book of Job, likely composed between 550 and 350 BC, contains different perspectives. According to Ehrman (but not the great Jewish theologian Moses Maimonides), their opposition is not resolved.

Job has the structure of a drama. How is the scene set in Job? The Satan, one of God's angels, approaches God in His heavenly court. Satan says that Job, in whose righteousness God is well-pleased, is just doing what comes easy: Job's faith in God's justice has not really been tested by serious bad luck. God gives The Satan the green light to destroy Job's possessions and family. Satan does, but Job refuses to curse God. Next, the Satan asks and receives permission to afflict Job's own body with all sorts of painful diseases. The scene is thus set for the dialogue that occupies the central part of the book of Job.

Job still refuses to curse God, but now he demands an explanation from God, although God is not obviously present at this point: If God is just, how can the suffering of righteous people such as Job himself be justified?

Apart from God, Job, and The Satan, who figures only in the Prologue, there are four other characters in the drama. Three of them are supposedly Job's friends and are usually referred to as his comforters.

Both Job and his comforters agree that suffering comes from God. God himself does not deny it.7

According to Ehrman, Job's comforters take the classical prophetic perspective mentioned earlier. Job must have sinned and his afflictions are punishment. Job should repent and return to God's ways. Ehrman says that all three comforters present essentially the same view. (We'll see shortly that actually their views differ a bit.)

Job himself insists repeatedly: I have not sinned; the record shows (and God knows) I have been righteous. I do not deserve to be punished by God.

God Himself, speaking from the Whirlwind, has the last word: My ways are ultimately unintelligible to you. I am responsible for the workings of the entire universe and operate on such a lofty plane that you cannot comprehend it.

[8 II. Maimonides

Ehrman treats the three comforters as having the same view, but Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher and theologian of the 12th century, notes distinctions between them. In his Guide for the Perplexed, he says that the Book of Job discusses the problem so well that all possible theories of divine justice are mentioned in it.9

The three friends who try to "comfort" Job are Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. (For convenience's sake, let's call them Tom, Dick, and Harry.) Tom (Eliphaz) "holds that the fate of Job was in accordance with strict justice. Job was guilty of sins for which he deserved his fate."(Job 22:5) Tom adds that "[Job's] upright actions and his good ways [may] not be so perfect that no punishment should be inflicted upon him." (See Job 4:18)

Dick (Bildad) "… defends … the theory of reward and compensation," telling Job "that if he is innocent and without sin, his terrible misfortunes will be the source of great reward…and will prove a boon to him as the cause of great bliss" in the future. (8:6-8) Maimonides understands this as referring to the future world, after bodily resurrection. But Maimonides' interpretation probably reflects Rabbinical Judaism rather than the Biblical perspective of the author of Job.

Harry (Zophar), the third comforter, "holds that the Divine Will is the source of everything that happens: no further cause can be sought for [God's] His actions, and it cannot be asked why He has done this and why He has not done that." Harry tells Job: "…Know … that God exact[s] of [you] less than [your] iniquity deserve[s]. Can [you] by searching find out God? can [you] find out the Almighty unto perfection."10

As noted earlier, God, in his final speech from the Whirlwind, tells Job that His divine ways are ultimately unintelligible to a mere human because God operates on a level that mere humans cannot comprehend. Apart from the eloquence of his speech, God's answer is similar to Harry's except that He does not think, as Harry does, that Job must have been a bad person. In fact God rebukes Job's comforters and says "You have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job [has]." Why does He say this? After all, Job had complained that God does not reward the good and the bad in accord with strict justice-a view contrary not only to Rabbinical Judaism but to the main thread of the Hebrew Scriptures. Maimonides explains that

God is justified in saying this because Job has abandoned his first very erroneous opinion-that God does not reward the good and the bad in accord with justice--and himself proved that it was an error. [This erroneous opinion] is [one] which suggests itself as plausible at first thought, especially in the minds of those who meet with mishaps, well knowing that they have not merited them through sins. This is admitted by all, and therefore this opinion was assigned to Job [by the author of the Book of Job].

But [, Maimonides continues, Job] is represented [as holding] this view only so long as he was without wisdom, and knew God only by tradition, in the same manner as religious people generally know Him…. So long as Job's knowledge of God was based on tradition…and not on [theological inquiry], he believed that …imaginary good[s] [such] as…health, riches, and children, [were] the utmost that men can attain…. This is also the meaning of his words: "I have heard of [You] by the hearing of the ear; but now [my] eye [sees] You. Wherefore I abhor myself and repent because of dust and ashes. (62: 5-6)11

Because of this last utterance, which Maimonides thinks implies insight, God later said of Job that he "has spoken of me the thing that is right"; Job's friends had not done so. Maimonides' point is that strict justice does not require that conventionally good behavior be rewarded by lesser goods such as health, wealth, and progeny; what is needed is true virtue, which occurs only with wisdom. Wisdom includes a grasp of the distinction between wisdom itself and lesser goods. It enables the wise to understand how God actually rewards the wise because wisdom all by itself is more precious than any other good. Those who succeed at being conventionally virtuous but lack wisdom will mistakenly regard as true goods things like offspring, material possessions, and physical health.12

Maimonides' solution, which is logically consistent, might be criticized for philosophical elitism, since it implies that only those who understand values in a special philosophical way are truly virtuous. Most believers will probably not find it satisfying. ] 13

III. The Rabbinical Solution(s)

Jacob Neusner14 recounts the way in which Rabbinical Judaism deals with the problem concerning the justice of God. Justice is understood as returning measure for measure: great evil produces great punishment; good deeds produce rewards. The Rabbis held that in many cases rewards for the good deeds of the righteous would come not in this life but in the "world to come," understood as a return to Eden in which redeemed humanity would live in peace under the wing of God. This doctrine required a belief in the resurrection (given that human cannot partake in the world to come without a body).

Rabbinical Judaism differs from the natural reading of most books of the Hebrew Scriptures, also known as the Old Testament, on one important point. 15 Read as historical documents, only the most recent of these books clearly express belief in an afterlife. These are books like Daniel, the present version likely finished as late as 164 BC. In the earlier books rewards were typically expected for righteous living and obedience to God. If rewards were delayed they would come either in liberation of the community from oppression or prosperity of individuals in conventional terms.

The Rabbis realized, however, that, taken at face value, the Hebrew Scriptures failed to solve the problem of suffering in the presence of a just, powerful and loving God. Citing prophetic writings predicting the Messiah, the reconciliation of Israel with God, and the return to Eden or the Promised Land, the Rabbis argued that the Scriptures actually referred to the afterlife and the resurrection. They even argued that the Scriptures spoke of God healing the stinking, decayed body after its resurrection from the grave.

These teachings of resurrection and the world to come became articles of faith for Rabbinical Judaism. (So it was not enough to affirm the unity and justice of God, to follow the Ten Commandments and the many other specific laws. Rather, to be a good Rabbinical Jew, now one had to believe in resurrection and the world to come.)

Rabbinical theology is quite consistent. But my guess is that it would not persuade Ehrman or many Unitarian Universalists. The doctrine of individual immortality sounds like an empirical doctrine. Short of death, however, we have no way of confirming it, whether or not it includes the resurrection of the body. Not believing in disembodied souls, the rabbis defended as Biblical the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

The Rabbis' response to what Ehrman calls God's Problem was actually a bit more sophisticated than the previous summary suggests. In fact, rival Rabbinic schools developed opposite approaches to this issue in the second century C.E. Rabbi Ishmael bar Elisha and his followers emphasized God's transcendence. God is so superior to us as to be essentially separated from our realm of action, feeling and change. Ishmael's school is the source of a description of God as exhibiting a "majestic muteness" in relation to human affliction.16 Divine silence shows "with brutal clarity just how high above [us] God dwells."17 This is very close to the position God takes in the book of Job.

The rival school of R. Akiva bar Joseph stresses the presence of God with us and our suffering. If the God of R. Ishmael is an "unmoved mover," the God of R. Akiva is "the most moved mover." Our sufferings are more than the immediate pain they represent. They store up merit for the righteous in the "world to come." God participates in the suffering of the world and we, by our own suffering, stand in solidarity with Him. We are to thank God for the afflictions as well as their opposites. Akiva does not "value suffering for itself but only as a means …toward the close bond between [God's people] and God… This is not masochism but a way of feeling oneself a part of a whole [with] an ultimate and encompassing unity." 18 The Akivan approach, it is said, "posits a different level of awareness that reveals problems of theodicy [like those that worry Ehrman] to be pseudo-problems." 19

Akiva's attitude not only has biblical precedent, we even find a version of it in recent theology close to home. Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution20 , is a powerful public speaker who has spoken on Darwinism and Spirituality at many UU venues, including the 2006 General Assembly. Dowd writes:

We can now understand that a 'God's eye view of the world' is not merely the …transcendent perspective of the view from above or beyond nature. If God is truly omnipresent and immanent (as traditional theologies have claimed and the evolution story suggests), then a God's eye view of the world must also include the subjective experience of every creature. .. For me, God is thus not only Love but also Infinite Compassion. God feels the pain and suffering of all creatures-from the inside. Those who think they can love God and trash the environment, or oppress others, must be blind, utterly, to the immanence and omnipresence of the divine.

IV. UU Reactions to These Issues

Originally most Unitarians were monotheists and believed in God the Father as much as their non-unitarian Christian contemporaries. That is, after all, what it meant to be a Unitarian. But like their Universalist counterparts-until 1961 Universalists and Unitarians were separate denominations-Unitarians were sharply critical of the Calvinist doctrines of inherited sinfulness and the predestination of a few people to salvation while most would be damned. Universalists were so averse to the doctrine of predestination of most people to Hell that before long they gave up the notion of Hell altogether, even for vicious people who were originally believed in need of a period of correction before they could be reconciled with God. Meanwhile, members of both denominations came increasingly under the influence of modern science. Personal immortality is in sharp tension with basic principles of physics and biology. It probably can be preserved only if we assume a parallel metaphysical universe, beyond the reach of science, which operates on a radically different set of laws from the universe we know through science. Yet once personal immortality is abandoned or no longer taken seriously, it's almost impossible to maintain a robust notion of a God of justice. Add to this the problem that some UU's have with the notion that the afterlife includes Hell: it reminds them of conservative religious moralists who try to use the fear of Hell to enforce their strict father notions of morality upon people.

V. Questions for UU's Today

Can we avoid what Ehrman calls God's problem: "how can we reconcile the fact of immense apparently unmerited suffering with the existence of a powerful yet just and loving God?" One not so noble option is denial, or self-deception, about the extent to which relatively innocent people suffer. The author of Job and the classical Jewish rabbis get credit for facing squarely the fact that they do. Ehrman should get credit for this too.

Self-deception about such things is a temptation that religious liberals face because it fits easily with a picture of God as a warm and fuzzy Nurturant Parent. Yet it is noteworthy that most of us appreciate the perspective of liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez, James Cone, and even the famous Rev. Wright, who forcefully articulate precisely the robust idea of a God of justice from which religious liberals often shy away. We sing with gusto "Lift Up Your Voice and Sing," although it implies a stricter conception of God's justice than we are comfortable with in more prosaic moments.

Perhaps, however, the more robust notion of God, while not making us more comfortable, is an important counterpart of our ethics. Monotheism need not be about a cosmic tyrant telling rational beings what to do for the sheer pleasure of ordering them about, but about a voice that reaches us from the heights and depths of nature, maybe even from beyond the world of space and time, stressing the significance of justice, righteousness, and mercy.

If God is just, then it stands to reason that He or She would not merely suggest but command justice. Commands are not like instructions to computers; they can be addressed to free agents, but the responsibility for right action still falls squarely upon those free agents. If God does not exist and is not just, then doing the right thing is a task for humans without there being any stable authority behind it. Defining what is righteous and what is not becomes a merely human task, subject to the same pressures as the political process. Is it satisfactory to permit elites who monopolize societal power, likely motivated by their not-so-enlightened self-interest, to decide the future without considering that they may be wrong? While affirming democratic procedures over undemocratic ones, we should not forget that majorities too are not free from corruption and self-deception.

Can we understand that a minority can be right about justice, even against the powerful and political majorities manipulated by the corporate and political elites? Can we avoid permitting voices of protest to be marginalized by those who are morally lazy or complicit with evil, who are prone to say, "that's only your opinion, and who are you anyway to say?" Conviction that there is a just deity who cares about whether Her children are righteous might provide desperately needed backbone for those who are wrestling with injustice more effectively than a fuzzy sentimental deity who merely loves His children. With such a conviction a person can say "I may be wrong, but, on the other hand, I may be in basic correspondence on this matter with the Source of the Universe."

1. "That same night Jacob arose, and taking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. And a man [later recognized to be an angel] wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When the man saw that he had not prevailed against [Jacob], he wrenched Jacob's hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then [the angel] said, 'let me go, for dawn is breaking.' But [Jacob] answered, 'I will not let you go, unless you bless me.' Said the [angel], 'what is your name?' He replied, 'Jacob.' Said [the angel], 'Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.' Jacob asked, 'Pray tell me your name.' But he said, 'Do not ask my name!' And he took leave of him there." (Berlin and Brettler 2004, modified.) Moses Maimonides interprets this as taking place within a prophetic vision (Maimonides 1956, 237).

2. Ehrman 2008.

3. Heschel 2008, 105 (translator's intro. to chapter 6).

4. Ibid.

5. This bracketed phrase was deleted from the talk actually delivered.

6. According to Ehrman this puts the Book of Job at odds with Ecclesiastes. But again see Ecclesiastes 7:13.

7. If Ecclesiastes differs from the view maintained by Job himself throughout most of the Book, it may be in Ecclesiastes' rejection of "too much reasoning" [7.29]; "the secret of what happens is elusive and deep, deep down; who can discover it?" Eccl. 7.24)

8. This bracketed section was not included in the talk as delivered.

9. Maimonides 1956, p. 301; the following treatment is from Maimonides.

10. There is another speaker in Job, Elihu, who is critical of the reasoning of Job's three friends. It strikes readers like Ehrman as odd, then, that he repeats the arguments of the others. But, as Maimonides points out, Elihu does introduce a new idea. The new idea is that sometimes, when a man approaches death, an angel intervenes on his behalf and prays for him, and sometimes the patient rises from his illness and recovers.

God speaks time and again-
Though man does not perceive it-
In a dream, a night vision,
When deep sleep falls on men,
While they slumber on their beds.
Then He opens men's understanding,
And by disciplining them leaves His signature
To turn man away from an action,
To suppress pride in man.
He spares him from the Pit,
His person, from perishing by the sword.
He is reproved by pains on his bed,
And the trembling in his bones is constant …
His life [verges] on death.
If he has a representative,
One advocate against a thousand
To declare the man's uprightness,
Then He [God] has mercy on him and decrees,
"Redeem him from descending to the Pit,
For I have obtained his ransom…"
He prays to God and is accepted by Him;
He enters His presence with shouts of joy,
For He requites a man for his righteousness. (Job 33:14-26, JSB 1548-49)

Apparently this means that the angel-advocate shows God the uprightness of the dying man, so God relents. Whereas Satan, in the opening scene, suggests to God that Job was not really righteous, this angel seems to play an opposite role: he is an advocate on behalf of a reformed sinner.

11. Maimonides 1956, 300-301; note: at Gen. 18:27 Abraham says of himself, "I who am but dust and ashes." This echoes Gen. 2:7 where we are told that "God formed man from the dust of the earth" and man came alive only when God "blew into his nostrils the breath of life."

12. Of course, in the Book of Job, God restores material possessions, progeny, and physical health to Job (the author's concession to conventional thinking?).

13. But it shouldn't be surprising. Maimonides is indebted not just to the prior Jewish tradition but also to the philosophy of Aristotle, who identified true happiness with understanding divine things so far as human intellect can. (See also Maimonides 1956, III.xviii)

14. Neusner 2001; Neusner 1999.

15. It is also known as the Jewish Bible or Tanakh. See The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford University Press).

16. Heschel 2008, 127-128 (translator's intro. to chapter 7).

17. Heschel 2008, 128.

18. Ibid.

19. Heschel 2008, 129.

20. Dowd 2007, 97.


Berlin, A. and M. Z. Brettler, eds., 2004. The Jewish Study Bible [JSB]. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dowd, Michael, 2007, Thank God for Evolution. San Francisco: Council Oak Books.

Ehrman, Bart D., 2008. God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer. HarperCollins Publishers. Paperback edition published in April 2009.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua, 2008. Heavenly Torah, As Refracted Through the Generations. Ed. and trans. Gordon Tucker. New York: Continuum.

Maimonides, Moses, 1956. The Guide for the Perplexed. Trans. M. Friedlšnder. New York: Dover Publications.

Neusner, Jacob, 2001. Recovering Judaism: The Universal Dimension of Judaism. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Neusner, Jacob, 1999. The Theology of the Oral Torah: Revealing the Justice of God. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.