Theology Thursday - The Problem of Evil from 2 Esdras

The book of 2 Esdras is usually grouped with the Old Testament Apocrypha, even though that really isn’t accurate. It’s actually a composite book containing three documents. The largest is a Jewish apocalypse from the late first-century (also known as 4 Esdras), likely written just after the destruction of the temple in the aftermath of the Jewish Wars. It’s book-ended by two, shorter Christians works: the first from the second century and the other from the third century. 

The writer of the Jewish apocolypse wrote from Ezra’s point of view and, in a literary floruish, set the piece in Ezra’s time period in the aftermath of the sack of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon. In reality, the writer used Ezra as a foil to describe his own thoughts on theodicy in the aftermath of the destruction of the second temple, some time soon after 70 A.D. In this excerpt (2 Esdras 7:1-74, from the RSV), an angel talks with Ezra as he ponders God’s goodness:

When I had finished speaking these words, the angel who had been sent to me on the former nights was sent to me again, and he said to me, “Rise, Ezra, and listen to the words that I have come to speak to you.”

I said, “Speak, my lord.”

And he said to me,

“There is a sea set in a wide expanse so that it is broad and vast, but it has an entrance set in a narrow place, so that it is like a river. If any one, then, wishes to reach the sea, to look at it or to navigate it, how can he come to the broad part unless he passes through the narrow part?

Another example: There is a city built and set on a plain, and it is full of all good things; but the entrance to it is narrow and set in a precipitous place, so that there is fire on the right hand and deep water on the left; and there is only one path lying between them, that is, between the fire and the water, so that only one man can walk upon that path. If now that city is given to a man for an inheritance, how will the heir receive his inheritance unless he passes through the danger set before him?”

I said, “He cannot, lord.”

And he said to me,

“So also is Israel’s portion. For I made the world for their sake, and when Adam transgressed my statutes, what had been made was judged. And so the entrances of this world were made narrow and sorrowful and toilsome; they are few and evil, full of dangers and involved in great hardships. But the entrances of the greater world are broad and safe, and really yield the fruit of immortality.

Therefore unless the living pass through the difficult and vain experiences, they can never receive those things that have been reserved for them. But now why are you disturbed, seeing that you are to perish? And why are you moved, seeing that you are mortal? And why have you not considered in your mind what is to come, rather than what is now present?”

Then I answered and said,

“O sovereign Lord, behold, thou hast ordained in thy law that the righteous shall inherit these things, but that the ungodly shall perish. The righteous therefore can endure difficult circumstances while hoping for easier ones; but those who have done wickedly have suffered the difficult circumstances and will not see the easier ones.”

And he said to me,

“You are not a better judge than God, or wiser than the Most High! Let many perish who are now living, rather than that the law of God which is set before them be disregarded! For God strictly commanded those who came into the world, when they came, what they should do to live, and what they should observe to avoid punishment. Nevertheless they were not obedient, and spoke against him;

they devised for themselves vain thoughts, and proposed to themselves wicked frauds;

they even declared that the Most High does not exist,

and they ignored his ways! They scorned his law,

and denied his covenants;

they have been unfaithful to his statutes,

and have not performed his works.

Therefore, Ezra, empty things are for the empty, and full things are for the full. For behold, the time will come, when the signs which I have foretold to you will come to pass, that the city which now is not seen shall appear, and the land which now is hidden shall be disclosed. And every one who has been delivered from the evils that I have foretold shall see my wonders.

For my son the Messiah shall be revealed with those who are with him, and those who remain shall rejoice four hundred years. And after these years my son the Messiah shall die, and all who draw human breath. And the world shall be turned back to primeval silence for seven days, as it was at the first beginnings; so that no one shall be left.

And after seven days the world, which is not yet awake, shall be roused, and that which is corruptible shall perish. And the earth shall give up those who are asleep in it, and the dust those who dwell silently in it; and the chambers shall give up the souls which have been committed to them. And the Most High shall be revealed upon the seat of judgment, and compassion shall pass away, and patience shall be withdrawn; but only judgment shall remain, truth shall stand, and faithfulness shall grow strong.

And recompense shall follow, and the reward shall be manifested; righteous deeds shall awake, and unrighteous deeds shall not sleep. Then the pit of torment shall appear, and opposite it shall be the place of rest; and the furnace of hell shall be disclosed, and opposite it the paradise of delight.

Then the Most High will say to the nations that have been raised from the dead, ‘Look now, and understand whom you have denied, whom you have not served, whose commandments you have despised! Look on this side and on that; here are delight and rest, and there are fire and torments!’

Thus he will speak to them on the day of judgment— a day that has no sun or moon or stars, or cloud or thunder or lightning or wind or water or air, or darkness or evening or morning, or summer or spring or heat or winter or frost or cold or hail or rain or dew, or noon or night, or dawn or shining or brightness or light, but only the splendor of the glory of the Most High, by which all shall see what has been determined for them. For it will last for about a week of years. This is my judgment and its prescribed order; and to you alone have I shown these things.”

I answered and said,

“O sovereign Lord, I said then and I say now: Blessed are those who are alive and keep thy commandments! But what of those for whom I prayed? For who among the living is there that has not sinned, or who among men that has not transgressed thy covenant? And now I see that the world to come will bring delight to few, but torments to many. For an evil heart has grown up in us, which has alienated us from God, and has brought us into corruption and the ways of death, and has shown us the paths of perdition and removed us far from life—and that not just a few of us but almost all who have been created!”

He answered me and said,

“Listen to me, Ezra, and I will instruct you, and will admonish you yet again. For this reason the Most High has made not one world but two. For whereas you have said that the righteous are not many but few, while the ungodly abound, hear the explanation for this. If you have just a few precious stones, will you add to them lead and clay?

I said, “Lord, how could that be?”

And he said to me,

“Not only that, but ask the earth and she will tell you; defer to her, and she will declare it to you. Say to her, ‘You produce gold and silver and brass, and also iron and lead and clay; but silver is more abundant than gold, and brass than silver, and iron than brass, and lead than iron, and clay than lead.’ Judge therefore which things are precious and desirable, those that are abundant or those that are rare?”

I said, “O sovereign Lord, what is plentiful is of less worth, for what is more rare is more precious.”

He answered me and said,

“Weigh within yourself what you have thought, for he who has what is hard to get rejoices more than he who has what is plentiful. So also will be the judgment which I have promised; for I will rejoice over the few who shall be saved, because it is they who have made my glory to prevail now, and through them my name has now been honored. And I will not grieve over the multitude of those who perish; for it is they who are now like a mist, and are similar to a flame and smoke—they are set on fire and burn hotly, and are extinguished.”

I replied and said,

“O earth, what have you brought forth, if the mind is made out of the dust like the other created things! For it would have been better if the dust itself had not been born, so that the mind might not have been made from it. But now the mind grows with us, and therefore we are tormented, because we perish and know it.

Let the human race lament, but let the beasts of the field be glad; let all who have been born lament, but let the four-footed beasts and the flocks rejoice! For it is much better with them than with us; for they do not look for a judgment, nor do they know of any torment or salvation promised to them after death. For what does it profit us that we shall be preserved alive but cruelly tormented?

For all who have been born are involved in iniquities, and are full of sins and burdened with transgressions. And if we were not to come into judgment after death, perhaps it would have been better for us.”

He answered me and said,

“When the Most High made the world and Adam and all who have come from him, he first prepared the judgment and the things that pertain to the judgment. And now understand from your own words, for you have said that the mind grows with us. For this reason, therefore, those who dwell on earth shall be tormented, because though they had understanding they committed iniquity, and though they received the commandments they did not keep them, and though they obtained the law they dealt unfaithfully with what they received.

What, then, will they have to say in the judgment, or how will they answer in the last times? For how long the time is that the Most High has been patient with those who inhabit the world, and not for their sake, but because of the times which he has foreordained!”

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There are 8 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

Thanks, Tyler, for your fine work.   It is always interesting to see how "Jewish" Christianity is.  It is also interesting to note the differences.

"The Midrash Detective"

TylerR's picture


I just finished reading Tobit. It's a Jewish writing, dating from somewhere between 400 - 175 B.C. It's one of the most beautiful works I've ever read, and it'll make any thinking Christian stop dead in his tracks:

  • Classical dispensationalists will have to reckon with a very mature, very non-legalistic approach to the Old Covenant law - written by a Jew, in the period before the Hasmonean Dynasty. 
  • Christians will have to seriously consider the implications for the standard "Jews in Jesus' day were legalistic" mantra. To be sure, some were; certainly the Pharisees were. But, it's always dangerous to generalize an entire people-group with a broad-brush. Tobit shows us that a true strain of Old Covenant teaching (i.e. we serve God and follow the law because we love Him) was alive in well in the period leading up to the Maccabees - and perhaps Jesus' day, too. 

I've been really enjoying working my way through the OT apocrypha during the last few weeks. Tobit is a revolution to me. These are critical texts to help us understand the inter-testamental era, and the immediate post-apostolic era (e.g. 2 Esdras). Like Josephus, but more contemporary, they shouldn't be ignored. Classical dispensationalists, in particular, should blush with shame when they read Tobit. If it doesn't provoke some genuine soul-searching about the hard "law vs. grace" dichotomy that perspective promotes, then something is terribly wrong ... 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Tyler, I am not a classical dispensationalist, as you know, but a progressive dispensationalist.  Still, I would challenge your conclusion that classical dispensationalists would blush at reading these things.

Within ancient Jewish writings, you can find a variety of interpretive paradigms, so we should not be surprised to find some of them replicated within early Christianity.  I have done a lot of work with Jewish backgrounds, mostly in the Talmud and the targums.

From my first book, the Midrash Key:

During the time of Yeshua’s ministry, Israel’s religious beliefs were diverse and sometimes compromised. As the Jerusalem Talmud states, “Israel went into exile only after it became divided into twenty-four sects.”  [source:  Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 29C, quoted by William C. Varner in "Jesus and the Pharisees,"].

If you have ever read Justification and Variegated Nomism (a 2 volume set edited by D.A. Carson, Peter O'Brien and Mark Seifrid), it is very enlightening as to the various views of justification pre-existing within the Judaism of Jesus' day.  There were (and are) certainly some Jews who believed in works salvation, but others (like the Qumran community) who espoused election and justification by grace through faith (my second book, The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash documents some of this).

Some Jews believed that they were righteous in themselves, as Luke 18:9 proves:

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt

I always found the bird dung passage in Tobit amusing!  And yes, there is a lot to be gleaned (when it comes to NT backgrounds) from some of the apocrypha.  That's why in the original KJV it was placed in the middle between the testaments, not as Scripture but as useful.

I am not strong on the apocrypha, but there is some important background there.  In my view. Christianity is Trans-cultural Messianic Judaism. So study away!

"The Midrash Detective"

TylerR's picture



My comment was directed to the strand of classical dispensationalism that pushes a very hard law vs. grace distinction. I've never particularly bought it, the OT doesn't teach it, and the inter-testamental literature doesn't seem definitive. Tobit is a lovely example which flies in the face of the hard discontinuity. It was, as they say, "complicated."

My point is that, if somebody claims the OT was about law and the NT was about grace, they're being very simplistic. Yet, this is what I see in McClain's little booklet on the law and the Christian, and in plenty of dispensationalist writings. I'm just suggesting that (1) reality on the ground was much more complicated than a binary law vs. grace distinction, (2) some groups certainly were legalistic (I've read the Mishnah!), and (3) there seem to be Jews who preserved the essence of the OT law - doing the law because they loved God. Tobit, again, is a good example.

There are dispensationalist scholars out there who, while they'd formally deny Chafer and Scofield's "two ways of salvation" scheme, aren't too far off in practice. Reading the OT apocrypha could challenge some of this thinking. I'd like to see a dispensationalist who sides with McClain's interpretation of the law as a way of life respond to Tobit's depiction. It makes one pause and think. That's why I love reading this stuff.  

Hopefully that makes things a bit clearer. Carson's edited work is on my list to buy this year. I just finished working my through the Apostolic Fathers a few month back, am wrapping up an N.T. Wright book on the NPP, working my way through the OT Apocrypha now, and just started a good book by David deSilva on NT backgrounds. Fun stuff.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Tyler, I am with you.  The idea that the OT taught works salvation, though, is not held by many living dispensationalists.  When you said "classic" dispensationalists, I understood the idea of the traditional (as opposed to progressive) type of dispensationalist in the likeness of Ryrie, Pentecost, Unger, MacArthur, etc.  You were using "classic" in the sense of vintage. Sorry I misunderstood you.

I do know many Christian Church types (Campbellites) who seem to think that OT salvation was by law keeping, but, then again, some of them imply that New Testament salvation is partly by works.

You are reading volumes of material -- you must be very motivated to tackle all these works. Much more than I am.  Justification and Variegated Nomism was about as "high up" as I can read.  With your voracious appetite for these materials, it will probably be not as challenging for you.

Tobit 12:9 (RSV), though, strikes me as a clear case of salvation by works:

For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin. Those who perform deeds of charity and of righteousness will have fulness of life

I see here more often a combination of grace and works, and Paul argues the two cannot co-exist as a basis for justification (Romans 11:6).  The idea that grace is necessary is certainly found in much of the apocrypha, as it is in modern Catholicism and Orthodoxy. But is it sufficient in itself, or does grace strengthen us to do good so that we can contribute toward salvation?  I think, as monergists, we have to say no.  Not so sure these apocryphal books would agree with our monergism and sola gratia.  Some from the Qumran community might, however.


"The Midrash Detective"

TylerR's picture



I've found that many folks use different terms to refer to the different phases of dispensationalism. What I was taught was:

  1. Classical dispensationalism: Scofield, Chafer - i.e. the first systematizers.
  2. Revised dispensationalism: McClain, Walvoord, Pentecost, Unger, etc. The (largely) Dallas guys who moved the discussion forward and rounded off some of the harder edges from Chafer
  3. Progressive: Bock, Blaising, etc.

In my experience, I see remnants of the very hard "law vs. grace" discontinuity in McClain and Houghton, for example. Randy White (i.e. Dispensational Publishing House) is a firm Scofield guy, and goes so far as to teach a different way of salvation under the Old Covenant. He takes the "what was the content of their belief" argument very far.

In my discussions with McCune here on SI, in response to my "Why They Followed the Law" series (see especially the interaction in Part 3), he also took a very hard line. We recently ran Mike Vlach's discussion on Lev 18:5 on the front page; McCune told me he saw passages like that as meaning, "if you don't do this, you die." He'd disagree with Vlach. It's this kind of hard discontinuity I've never been able to buy. Look at our interaction under Part 3 of my article (linked above); the hermeneutical divide is there.

The real context of Galatians is the key. It's a difficult topic, to be sure. I appreciate the work dispensationalists have done on this score. But, I've never bought the hard discontinuity angle. I sketched out why in my series; particularly part 2

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Thanks, Tyler, for enlightening me.  I didn't know there were any folks around who still held to "Classical" dispensationalism.  You have changed my perspective.  Appreciate you educating me on these things!

"The Midrash Detective"

TylerR's picture


I don't know if everyone I listed would own those labels, so I don't want to impugn their positions. Those are just my own observations! And, as far as the reading goes, I have time to read now that I'm not a Pastor!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

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