“How can God be good if there’s so much suffering in the world?” This is an age old question that’s caused much conversation over the years – and we want to add to it. This week we start a mini 2-week series with Dr. Andreas Köstenberger. The purpose of these two weeks is to take popular skeptical and atheistic assertions that seemingly “debunk” God, the Bible, and Jesus, and see if they’re legit. This week we tackle the issue of God and suffering, as well as the question “Who picked the New Testament books, and where’d they come from?”
Who's our guest?
Dr. Andreas Köstenberger
Dr. Andreas Köstenberger (Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is Senior Research Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology and Director of Ph.D. Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the Founder and President of Biblical Foundations, an organization devoted to encouraging a return to the biblical foundations in the home, the church, and society. He has also authored, edited, or translated over twenty books.
With me today is Andreas Köstenberger. Andreas is Senior Research Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He’s also written just a host of books, including … I mean, when you look up some of these books that he’s written, Greek helps, commentaries, different theological teachings on different subjects, and so on.
Anyways, it’s just a great joy to have you with us today.
Great to be with you, Isaac. Thanks for having me.
For sure. Before we sort of jump into this two-week series, kind of based around a book that you wrote, which we’ll get into in a moment, I’d first love just to hear a bit of your story. Looking on Wikipedia, I saw that you weren’t born in North America, so there’s some story there. Why don’t you just take some time and share with us a little bit about who you are.
Absolutely. I was born in Vienna, Austria, and I grew up Roman Catholic, but like so many of my friends, in high school and college, I was pretty much moving as far away from religion as possible. Religion or Christianity was probably the last thing I would have looked to for answers in those years. Yet, I felt empty inside, I saw broken relationships all around me, and I was looking for answers in the arts and philosophy and various pursuits, intellectual and otherwise … Even existentialism, and then yet, my heart was still empty.
And so, one weekend, I boarded a train to Venice just to get away, and providentially met an American opera student who read some portions of Scripture from actually the book of Galatians, Chapter 5 on the fruit of the Spirit and our sinful nature … And somehow, Scripture triggered a longing in my heart to know God.
So, when I came back to Vienna, I got myself a Bible, and I read through it. So, I took the kind of pent up hunger for God’s word, and it took me several months to realize that I didn’t just need God to help me live a better life or become a better person, but that I was a sinner who needed the salvation that Christ had to offer by dying on the cross for my sins.
And so, coming at this from a Roman Catholic background, it was not as easy to understand that I could have a personal, direct relationship with God and Christ, and yet by God’s grace, I eventually understood that there’s nothing I needed to do. Christ had already done everything for me, and so I had just a marvelous understanding of grace. And once I received Christ, I told all my family, my friends about my new discovery, and then many of them were either not interested or said, “Well, it can’t be that simple, you know, you got to do something to earn God’s favour.”
So, in any case, I’ve never been the same. I sold an apartment I’d inherited, I came to seminary to the United States, and felt a strong call to the ministry, and ended up earning my Ph.D., then taught, first in Canada, then in the United States, New Testament. I love the gospel of John, in particular, and very grateful for God to really transform my life. Those who knew me before I became a Christian would tell you that I’m certainly not the person I used to be before I accepted Christ.
Yeah. That’s so good. Thank you for sharing that. I think it’s so fascinating too, to hear different stories of testimonies of God’s salvation with people, and the fact that you’re on this train, and this American person that was in opera … It’s just so interesting to hear that that was the starting point, the seed that was planted to such a life as yours, so, fascinating.
In 2014, let’s jump in here Andreas, in 2014, you along with a couple other authors and teachers, Darrell Bock and Josh Chatraw, wrote a book called Truth Matters: Confident Faith in a Confusing World. And it was sort of a simpler overview of another book you guys wrote together called, ‘Truth in a Culture of Doubt.’ So, after going through the majority of the book, I can kind of summarize it this way, and I’d like to get your thoughts on this, Andreas. But, this is what I kind of felt after I read it.
When it comes to skeptical statements about the lack of good evidence of maybe God, Christianity, or about the Bible … You only need to dig just a little deeper to find that their statements are really quite … maybe unscholarly. What are your thoughts on me saying that?
Well, I think, you know, those of us who have a high view of Scripture, who believe that the Bible speaks truth and is God’s Word, often are presented as naïve and not very scholarly or intellectual. And yet, my coauthors and I would argue that believing in Christ and Christianity, there’s solid evidence for matters such as the resurrection of Christ, or the truthfulness of Christianity, creation, the Bible and its truthfulness, and so forth.
And so, what we’re pointing out in our book is essentially that those who teach in a university setting and who claim to be more intellectually sophisticated and scholarly, often don’t believe because there’s not sufficient evidence, but just because of some deep-seated skepticism on their part.
And so, we open our book with an introduction, which we call Skepticism 101, just for people to understand there’s a difference between doubt and skepticism. And doubt, I think, can lead to faith, but skepticism is doubt hardened to the point that whatever he touches turns into unbelief. And so, we found it’s very hard to dislodge a skeptic, because a skeptic has basically decided not to believe, no matter what the evidence.
Yeah. That’s so good. So, you’ve organized this book, you and your fellow co-authors. You’ve organized this book into these sort of six sections that debunk some commonly held notions of this inability to trust in the Bible or the historical Jesus on different parts of Orthodox Christianity. And this is mostly for listeners, but you bring up this guy named Bart Ehrman, which you’ve just said. And you sort of base these six skeptical statements around his own statements that are quite popular through different books and different talks that he’s given. So, for those unfamiliar with Bart, can you just give us a little backstory on him? Very brief, because I think it’s actually interesting for listeners to know that, obviously, he used to be a Christian and so on.
Absolutely. He started out conservative. I think he went to Moody Bible College, which is a conservative Bible college in the Chicago area, and then went to Wheaton, I believe, for college, and later to Princeton University. At that point, he started doubting the reliability of Scripture, and it ended up being a slippery slope, to the point that he now would call himself an agnostic who doesn’t even necessarily believe that there is a God at all. And this field is Text Criticism, which is a fairly technical profession that has to do with the transmission of the text of Scripture and whether or not it can be trusted, but he really has evolved into a person who writes books on all types of subjects … Probably the most important one being one called God’s Problem, where he deals with suffering.
And there, he reveals that his real problem with God and with Jesus and with the Bible is not the text of Scripture at all, but it’s really all the incredible suffering that we witness in this world, and that makes it hard for him to believe that if God’s there, then why does he not care and do something about all this mess on earth.
Yeah. That’s so good. This is a perfect segue, because let’s get started into some of these different skeptical notions and things like that. For the remaining time in this episode, and then next week as well, we’re going to be looking at these things.
And I’ll quote from Ehrman, and then Andreas will unpack that a bit, and then we’ll just have a conversation about it. So, let’s start this. This is a quote that is quoted right at the beginning of chapter two of Andreas’ book, ‘Truth Matters.’ And it’s a quote from Bart, and it says this: “The God I once believed in was a God who was active in the world. He saved Israelites from slavery, He sent Jesus for the salvation of the world, He answered prayer, He intervened on behalf of His people when they were in desperate need, He was actively involved in my life, but I can’t believe in that God anymore, because from what I now see around the world, He doesn’t intervene.”
So, this whole problem with suffering, how have you thought through this?
Well, it’s kind of interesting because we hesitated to start our book that way because in some ways, that’s the hardest chapter, and you don’t want to start a book turning people away just because the issue of suffering, clearly, is a complex one. There’s simply no easy answer, but we became convinced that for people like Bart Ehrman, and many college students, that is really the foundational issue. So, we decided, even though it’s maybe the hardest chapter in the book, that’s the proper place to start.
That said, I don’t think there is a one-word answer to the question, why does God not intervene with all the suffering on earth? But, there are answers, we believe. And I think the place to start is that we tend to blame others for all our problems, including God.
But, the Bible says that we made a mess on earth, not God. Bible calls that the fall, when the first man and woman rebelled against God, and as we all know too well from mistakes we’ve made, when we sin, there will be consequences. And in the case of the fall, there were consequences in our relationship with God, broken relationships with other people, in need reconciliation, and even on the physical universe.
So, someone will ask, well then, why did God create us if he knew we would make such a mess? A lot of conversations I’ve had with people, that’s the obvious question. And as a parent, I would say, well, then if you’re a parent, why did you decide to have children? Because you know, you probably knew, or at least you should have known that they’d make a mess, right, once in a while. And I think the answer is, because you believed that it was still worth it. And so, I think God created us even though he knew we’d mess up because for some reason, amazingly, he still believed that it was worth it.
What’s kind of interesting though too, is that this subject, in all the different six subjects you talk about in the book, is really different than all the rest, because the other ones deal a little bit more with … almost in a sense historical, scientific, kind of reliability, manuscripts, things like that, which we’ll get into, but this is more of a moral kind of issue. And a lot of young adults are struggling with believing in God because, how could he let all these bad things happen? But as you say in the book and you talk about, isn’t it sort of a moral… I mean, you’re kind of going in circles-
Yeah. You really put yourself in the position of judge in a way, and you decide what’s fair and what’s unfair, and somehow, you and others you know, you look at them just as victims. And I think the truth is, as we talk about in our book, there’s not one reason why people suffer, or why suffering occurs. There’s at least five or six that you could think of right off the top of your head, such as, in some cases, you simply suffer because, you know, you made a mistake. Maybe you drove too fast and you lost control of your car. You got into an accident. You basically, you need to accept responsibility, and if your car is totaled, well, the reason was, you drove too fast.
In other cases, we may be the victims of somebody else making a bad decision, and then there may be hurricanes and natural disasters. It’s sometimes hard to know,where’s God in all of this? So, in other words, my point is, there’s not a monolithic way to answer the question why does suffering occur in a specific instance. So, we need to be open to decide on a case by case basis.
And the fact is, there’s a certain mystery to suffering. In some cases, we will not know for certain why a tragedy happens, but the way I look at it, what a great opportunity to speak about the central message of the Bible, which is the cross, where God, in Jesus Christ, accepted responsibility for our sin when he sent Jesus to die for us, which is a supreme act of love and self sacrifice. This is incredible news that we call grace.
So, I think rather than blame God for problems that we’re ultimately responsible for, we should be deeply grateful for the solution that God provided, and for his grace and for his love. Certainly that’s what I discovered, as I told you, when I met that witness on the train and then read the Bible, I just was overwhelmed by God’s grace and his love for me Christ.
That’s so good. And to tag onto that, you quote in the book, “The real mystery is not that we suffer, the mystery is that he’s ever let us enjoy any blessing at all. The simple pleasure of a smile, a laugh, a walk in the grass, the strength for an afternoon workout, the warmth of family and friends,” and so on.
It’s really incredible to think of his grace, and that’s sort of almost unfair because … I kind of want you to touch on this … I think for a lot of young adults, this idea that, do bad things happen to good people? the Bible’s answer is, they don’t. And that’s pretty radical for a lot of young adults who don’t really believe in maybe the doctrine of original sin or anything like that.
That is a little bit tricky for people to understand that we are already born in sin. As David says in one of the Psalms, “In sin my mother conceived me.” So that, to us, it may not appear fair that when the first people sinned, somehow sin was passed on and spread to all of humanity. But, in the end, the cross is not fair either. And so I think ultimately we sin because we’re sinners, and so we need to accept that we’re born … Just like we’re born into a certain family, certain parents, certain culture, race, gender, and so forth, we’re also born with this sinful nature.
And so what the Bible says is that we need to be reconciled to God. So, when I was a college student, I like to think of myself as some sort of a neutral observer who just kind of sat back and watched the world go by, and then I realized, no, I had sin in my heart and I needed God to help me address that problem. I couldn’t just sit back and just watch everyone else. I was called to respond to what God had done for me in Christ.
That’s so good. For the remaining of this episode here, Andreas, I think we can go through one more, and then we’ll finish this up.
So, the next one’s a little bit more… Again, I just want to say this to listeners and to Andreas as well – we’re definitely just scratching the surface of these big subjects that obviously there’s way more research and things that have been done, but we just want to give a … sort of a quick scrape of some of these things to get your mind thinking.
So, the next notion is this. It’s more about the biblical books, and I know for one friend of mine, that was one of the issues that made them go down the slippery slope until they don’t call themselves a Christian anymore. It was this idea that men just picked the books that they wanted from the Bible, the 66, or the 27 New Testament books, sometime in the third or fourth century, and that’s the inerrant Word of God. These ones that man picked.
So, in this, Bart Ehrman quotes this: “What if the New Testament contained not Jesus’ sermon on the mount, but the gnostic teachings Jesus delivered to his disciples after his resurrection. What if it contained not the letters of Paul and Peter, but the letters of Ptolemy and Barnabas. What if it contained not the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but the gospels of Thomas, Philip, Mary, and Nicodemus.” So, in him saying this, Andreas, he’s giving the impression that there were a host of these books floating around, letters and things like that, and that we just sort of compiled the ones that we wanted. How would you address this?
Yes, again, it’s another skeptical question, and it is born out of this distrust toward believers, saying that in the end, truth is merely a function of sociology if you will, that it was only a matter of ecclesiastical power of the Roman Church in the third or fourth century, that basically decided certain books conformed to their preferred beliefs, and then they elevated to biblical status, as opposed to certain books inherently bearing the mark of divine inspiration.
So, I just want to point out that even someone like Bart Ehrman or other critical scholars who claim to be neutral, like I did before I became a Christian … who claim to be dispassionate observers. When you ask Bart Ehrman, he says, “I’m just a historian.” Well, and I’m saying, well, but what are your presuppositions? What is your ideology that you bring to the table? And I would say it’s very important to realize that we all have those presuppositions. So, that’s why it’s important for us … Okay, well if we’re historians, let’s look at the historical evidence.
And in Truth Matters, we talk about things, such as canonical lists. We have the Muratorian Canon, which is dated to around 180 AD, very early, which has a list of canonical books, and guess what? It only includes … When he talked about the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There’s no word about any gnostic gospels, such as the gospel of Thomas at all.
You also have the church fathers quoting only from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as scripture. Irenaeus who also flourished in the late second century, around 180, said, it’s just as natural to have four gospels as it is to have the four corners of the earth or the four winds. And again, his point was, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were already cited upon as alone worthy of being included in the New Testament.
I think the root fallacy in the argument of Bart Ehrman is that just because words such as canon or orthodoxy were not coined until a little bit later in early church history, like second/third century, the notion of canon or the notion of orthodoxy were absent from the early decades of the Christian Church, and I would say that’s manifestly false.
Bart Ehrman, he wrote a book, Lost Christianities, and another book, Lost Scriptures. And so, when you look at the table of contents of Lost Scriptures, for example, I think he dug up 17 gospels. That’s all, 17. Not 80 or 150, 17. And if you go through them one by one, they fall by the wayside one after the other. There’s the secret gospel of Mark, which almost certainly is a hoax that’s been amassed as having been written only maybe 50 years ago.
There’s infancy gospels that only speculate about the gaps in the biblical records, just wondering what it was like when Jesus played in the sandbox with some of his fellow toddlers. Clearly apocryphal. There’s other gospels, like the gospel of Thomas … The gospel of Thomas should really not be called a gospel. It’s a misnomer because it is actually a sayings gospel. It just has 114 sayings of Jesus, so I think people need to understand that. There’s really no serious rival to the four biblical gospels, and I think the main thing, and I conclude with this… only Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written in the first century. All the rival gospels were written in the second or later centuries. So there’s a very important gap, and that gap is important because only Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John include eyewitness testimony that goes back directly to the apostles, the 12, the inner circle of Jesus’ followers.
That’s very, very helpful. Thank you so much, Andreas. And as Andreas said, in the book, they sort of list out some of these other books that were in circulation, and they sort of give a quick little summary of them to really help the reader, to really help you see that they are a lot different than let’s say the synoptic gospels and John and things like that. But, we’re going to have to wrap this up for this week. Thank you so much, Andreas. If you want to hear more, definitely pick up Truth Matters: Confident Faith in a Confusing World. It’s very good. It’s also short, so if you’re busy with school, and maybe you’re just married and maybe having children. Who knows where you’re at in life. It’s a short book, so I definitely encourage you to pick that up.
Also, BiblicalFoundations.org is just a great resource library that Andreas has started, so you can find that online for lots of different theological helps and classes and things like that. I’ll put all the links to the book and the sites and all that kind of stuff up on the episode page. But anyways, thank you so much, Andreas, I look forward to hearing from you next week.
Absolutely. Great to be with you.