I just discovered today that Bart Ehrman has a new blog (which may be old news, but it is new to me). If you are not familiar with Ehrman, he is a NT Prof at UNC-Chapel Hill, specialist in early Christian texts, former evangelical, outspoken critics of evangelical Christianity, and author of many bestselling books. Ehrman promises quite a few interesting things on this blog: to present his latest ideas, interact with reviewers and critics, and to continue discussions that have begun in his public debates. All that sounds great. But, here’s the catch: you have to pay to join the site. Of course, the blog makes it very clear that none of this money will go to Ehrman himself; it will all be given to philanthropy; as a “humanitarian effort” to stop poverty.
Now certainly this is to be commended. I would agree wholeheartedly with the need to stop human poverty. And I applaud Ehrman for this move. However, I must admit that there is an deep irony here that needs to be observed. It is odd to look at a webpage where the main image on the screen is flipping back and forth between (a) a call to moral responsibility in stopping poverty, and (b) an advertisement for a book that challenges the existence of God based on the problem of evil (God’s Problem). If there is no God, or at least no way to know what he is like (Ehrman claims to be an agnostic), then on what grounds to morals exist? Why should we even care about our fellow human beings? Christians have long-standing reasons for caring for humanity, one of which is that each human is made in the image of their creator. But it is the existence of this very God that all of Ehrman’s books are designed to challenge.
I raised these very same issues at the conclusion of my review of Ehrman’s book, Jesus Interrupted. They are relevant for our discussion, so I include them here:
While on the one hand Ehrman wants to insist that everyone gets to decide truth for themselves, on the other hand he turns around and makes numerous (and even dogmatic) moral claims throughout the book. Indeed, one of his primary objections against the Bible is that it does not measure up morally. He offers a moral objection to the destruction of Jericho saying it is “unworthy of God” (10). He offers moral objections to the doctrine of hell by declaring it would make God a “never-dying eternal divine Nazi” (276). He makes moral objections to Paul’s teaching on women and homosexuality saying that there are other views (presumably his own) that are morally “superior” and “better” (280). And on and on he goes. These are strong words by Ehrman–sweeping declarations about the way God (and the Bible) ought to be.
And by this point the reader begins to wonder: Where does Ehrman get these moral norms? How does he know that some doctrines of the Bible are morally superior to others? Where does he get the idea that something like hell would be morally reprehensible? How does he know what is “worthy” of God? What standard is he using? Incredibly, Ehrman makes these grand moral claims in the very book where he insists that everyone gets to decide truth for themselves and therefore should not be making grand moral claims. Which one is it? It takes a good bit of audacity to chide evangelicals for using scripture as grounds for absolute moral norms, and then to turn around and offer your own absolute moral norms smuggled in through the back door. At least Evangelicals have coherent grounds for making moral truth claims–after all, the Bible purports to be the very words of God–but what grounds does Ehrman have, as an agnostic, for making such moral truth claims? Apparently he wants us to accept these claims on his own authority.
Now I suppose Ehrman could back off at this point and say, “Oh I don’t really mean there are moral norms in the universe, I am just saying the God of the Bible personally offends me.” But, this response has its own problems: (i) If all Ehrman is saying is that he does not personally like the God of the Bible, then that has no bearing on the truth of the Bible or on whether the God of the Bible exists (or on much of anything). Things are not true or false, or right or wrong, depending on whether they happen to fit one’s personal preferences. Not liking something is not an argument. For Ehrman’s moral objection against the Bible to work there actually has to be some universal moral norm that the Bible has violated. He has to be able to show that God ought to be one way, and ought not to be another. But, the problem is that he has just spent his entire book destroying the one thing that could provide that norm–the Bible itself. (ii) If Ehrman wants to suggest all the moral claims in the book (and presumably moral claims everywhere) are just private opinion, then the end of the book becomes incoherent and contradictory when he exhorts the reader to “fight oppression” and “work for justice” and “to insist on peace” (283). If everyone creates their own moral universe, then why should the reader care about any of these things? Moreover, what is the definition of “oppression”? And how do we define “justice”? Ehrman’s concluding moral applications sound so reasonable, but his own book has just undermined any foundation for them.
Once again, I commend Ehrman’s desire to help the poor. And I hope he succeeds. But, I would suggest that he needs the Christian worldview to have a reason for doing so. Ironically, then, he must presuppose the existence of the very God he has spent his entire career arguing against.