Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bart Ehrman, Meet Frank Tipler

One of the sadder books I have read recently is God's Problem, by Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The book's subtitle summarizes its thesis: "How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question---Why We Suffer."

The book is sad both because of its thesis, and because it chronicles Prof. Ehrman's own loss of faith due to his inability to come up with a satisfactory solution to the so-called "Problem of Evil":
If there is an all-powerful and loving God in this world, why is there so much excruciating pain and unspeakable suffering? The problem of suffering has haunted me for a very long time. It was what made me begin to think about religion when I was young, and it was what led me to question my faith when I was older. Ultimately, it was the reason I lost my faith. . . .

[After summarizing his youth and early years---baptized in a Congregational church and reared as an Episcopalian, became "born again" and attended Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton, where he learned Greek and decided to become a New Testament scholar, went to Princeton Theological Seminary where he obtained both his M. Div. and Ph.D. studying under the renowned Bruce Metzger, and then served as pastor of Princeton Baptist Church before accepting a post at Chapel Hill---he continues:]

But then, for a variety of reasons that I'll mention in a minute, I started to lose my faith. I now have lost it altogether. I no longer go to church, no longer believe, no longer consider myself a Christian. The subject of this book is the reason why.

Professor Ehrman began his career by following in Bruce Metzger's steps as an expert on the Greek manuscript texts that comprise what we know of the New Testament. (One of his 20 previous books is entitled: Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.) And the more he studied those texts, the more his knowledge of their imperfections began to undermine his faith in the Bible as God's Holy Word. But it was not the textual inaccuracies that eventually drove him out of the Church:
. . . I did not go easily. On the contrary, I left kicking and screaming, wanting desperately to hold on to the faith I had known since childhood and had come to know intimately from my teenage years onward. But I came to a point where I could no longer believe. It's a very long story, but the short version is this: I realized that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life. In particular, I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things. For many people who inhabit this planet, life is a cesspool of misery and suffering. I came to a point where I simply could not believe that there is a good and kindly disposed Ruler who is in charge of it.

The problem of suffering became for me the problem of faith. After many years of grappling with the problem, trying to explain it, thinking through the explanations that others have offered---some of them pat answers charming for their simplicity, others highly sophisticated and nuanced reflections of serious philosophers and theologians---after thinking about the alleged answers and wrestling with the problem, about nine or ten years ago I finally admitted defeat, came to realize that I could no longer believe in the God of my tradition, and acknowledged that I was an agnostic: I don't "know" if there is a God; but I think that if there is one, he certainly isn't the one proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, the one who is actively and powerfully involved in this world. And so I stopped going to church.
As you can see, Professor Ehrman has mistitled his book: it should not, I submit, have been called God's Problem, but instead Bart Ehrman's Problem. For the rest of the book is his account of the various solutions, or "theodicies", that have been proposed over the centuries to the Problem of Evil (or Suffering, as he seems to prefer to call it), from the Old Testament to the New, and why in the end he finds them unsatisfactory. He disclaims any intent to undermine anyone else's faith---he simply wants to show why he can no longer believe in God.

In this treatment, the explanation of suffering based on human free will receives short shrift. Although Professor Ehrman acknowledges their existence, he is not interested in the free-will theodicies of the modern philosophers:
I don't know if you've read any of the writings of the modern theodicists, but they are something to behold: precise, philosophically nuanced, deeply thought out, filled with esoteric terminology and finely reasoned explanations for why suffering does not preclude the existence of a divine being of power and love. Frankly, to most of us these writings are not just obtuse, they are disconnected from real life . . . . I tend to agree with scholars like Ken Surin---who is easily as brilliant as any of the theodicists he attacks---that many of the attempts to explain evil can, in the end, be morally repugnant.
Not only is there little in the Bible to support a free-will theodicy, but to Professor Ehrman, no such theodicy can account for the problem of natural evil---the suffering and disasters caused by earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and the like. He obviously has no interest in the most celebrated modern-day free-will defense offered by Professor Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame. (Professor Plantinga does not even rate a mention in Professor Ehrman's book.) Accordingly, one should not turn to Ehrman's book for a comprehensive discussion of the Problem of Evil. He confines himself, instead, to a discussion of the Problem as it is addressed by the authors in the Old and New Testaments. And in that world to which he limits himself, he comes up empty; none of the Bible's approaches to the Problem can satisfy him, or rescue his faith.

Perhaps he simply did not look far enough about him. For Professor Ehrman takes no note of a book, published while he was writing God's Problem, which I make bold to suggest that had he read it and digested it thoroughly, might possibly have helped him recover his faith. The book is The Physics of Christianity, by Frank J. Tipler, Professor of Physics at Tulane University. It is one of the most remarkable books I have ever read, in that it is a synthesis of rigorous, mathematical physics and Christian theology. Professor Tipler not only claims that God exists, but he proves that God must exist if the laws of physics are true---and since we have no rational reason at this point to doubt their truth, then there is equally no rational reason to doubt the existence of God.

(In this respect, Professor Tipler goes Professor Plantinga one better. The latter is known for his three volumes on the subject of "warranted Christian belief", in which he argues that Christianity is rational because it is "warranted," that is, its beliefs can be defended epistemologically without necessarily being proved true. Professor Tipler, on the other hand, demonstrates mathematically that if the laws of physics are true, then God has to exist. And not only does He exist, but the other truths of traditional Christian doctrine, such as the Incarnation, Virgin Birth and Resurrection---and even long-standing stumbling blocks, such as the "problem of Evil" that proved so fatal to Bart Ehrman---have rational explanations in physical laws as well.)

Needless to say, Professor Tipler's book has been ridiculed by the physicists, and ignored by the theologians, who may have found it too daunting (while it can be read by anybody who has taken a basic college course in physics, its mathematical subtleties require a post-graduate level of understanding). The irony here is that the same physicists who have attacked the theological conclusions of the book gave the highest peer praise of all to its mathematics when Professor Tipler published his technical results in a professional journal: the article was selected as one of the twelve best to appear in the entire previous year, out of hundreds of such articles. So there is absolutely nothing wrong with Professor Tipler's mathematics; it is the theological conclusions he draws from the mathematics that have earned him scorn from fellow physicists. He responds to his critics in typical form:
The first Christians really believed that Jesus was the Son of God and that He rose from the dead. They showed they really believed by being willing to die, if necessary, for their convictions. A number of people who have read an earlier version of this book have asked me if I really believe the arguments I am presenting here.

I do. I think of myself as a Physics Fundamentalist, by which I mean that we have to accept as true the consequences of the five fundamental physical laws---quantum mechanics, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, general relativity, quantum cosmology, and the Standard Model [of particle physics]---unless and until an experiment shows these laws to have a limited range of applicability. To date all experiments are consistent with these fundamental laws. Therefore, I believe them. Therefore, I believe their consequences, which I have developed in this book. I will continue to believe in the fundamental laws of physics even if doing so results in my professional death as a physicist. It is not acceptable today for a physicist as physicist to believe in God. But I do; I believe in the Cosmological Singularity, which is God. I have a salary at Tulane some 40 percent lower than the average for a full professor at Tulane as a consequence of my belief. So be it.
Professor Tipler next quotes Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Beneict XVI:
It is the hallmark of the truth to be worth suffering for. In the deepest sense of the word, the evangelist must be a martyr. If he is unwilling to do so, he should not lay his hand to the plow.
He then writes:
The biblical passages at the beginning of this chapter are Jesus' command to spread the word of the truth of Christianity to all nations: the Great Commission. This book is my contribution to spreading the Word.
You may now begin, perhaps, to see why I regret that Bart Ehrman did not have the occasion to meet or read Frank Tipler before publishing his book. The Physics of Christianity is, as I say, one of the most remarkable Christian books I have ever read. In the series of posts which from time to time will follow this one, as I am able, I shall explain why.


  1. Thanks A.S. for a most excellent post.

    I've actually seen Professor Tipler's book in Christian bookstores, but was intimidated by its technical prose. But your review makes me want to wade through it.

    Also, this statement by Tipler makes me think he has a legitimate lawsuit against the university for religious discrimination:

    "I have a salary at Tulane some 40 percent lower than the average for a full professor at Tulane as a consequence of my belief. So be it."

  2. A terrific post! Thanks. Indeed theodicy is not a new theological question and God has given His answer in many ways that people have never observed because, lacking faith, they don't expect God to answer.

    CS Lewis' The Problem of Pain is worth reading. I wouldn't bother with Tipler's book.

    Some readers may be interested in the essay and pertinent George Herbert poem here:

  3. Thank you, Alice Linsley and TU&D, for your comments. I, too, can commend The Problem of Pain for reading; and I had forgotten about George Herbert's poem---thanks for reminding me.

    Unless physics and math are a complete turn-off to you, Alice, I would not dismiss Tipler's book. As I shall hope to show in coming posts, there is something in it to strengthen every Christian's faith---not least of which is his own personal odyssey from agnostic to devout believer.

  4. I will be living in Chapel Hill, or near it, very soon. If ever I meet this fellow, I will hand him a copy of The Doors of the Sea by my brother, David Bentley Hart (I taught the kid everything he knows), assuming I still have one to spare. His big questions were dealt with there.

  5. You've made an interesting post in support of the dynamics of personal faith and belief, which I consider important. And while I have little interest in interfering with people's personal belief systems, I'll point out that what supporters of the faith have yet to accomplish is a credible counter to the abundant historical evidence of biblical fraud.

    In short, history overwhelmingly fails to support the idea that Jesus Christ ever existed as a man. On the other hand, mythological comparison and cultural research provides a very compelling case for the likelihood that Christianity is yet another version of sun worship.

    The typical response to this somewhat devastating evidence (and there's plenty of it) always falls back to "you just gotta have faith". This is increasingly insufficient as our species continues to advance on scientific fronts.

    Anyway nice article. Have a great week.