Not long after I became a Christian I started asking questions. I was 16 and naturally curious. I had questions about the Bible, questions about Jesus, questions about Church History, questions about ethics and how Christians should live. It didn’t take long to wear out the patience of my small church community. It started with an innocent question about The Rapture: “Ok, so we are waiting for Jesus to come back, right? But when he comes he puts on the brakes somewhere in the clouds and raptures all the Christians up for 7 years, then comes back for a thousand years before peacing out again while Satan let’s all Hell loose for one last hurrah? How many times does Jesus come back?!” Let’s just say the question was not received (or likely given) well.
“Just believe,” I was told. “Don’t question it.” But I couldn’t help thinking that God gave us the Bible so we could know him and have answers to at least some of my questions.
So off I went to college with a WWJD bracelet on my wrist and a Third Day band poster for my wall, eager to find someone who would entertain my questions. “I’ll major in Religion,” I thought to myself. “Four years of Bible studies. This is going to be great!” So I went to Religion 101 with Dr. Wise who announced on the first day of class, “This is not Sunday School. We are here to destroy your faith.” Oops…I just made a tiny, big mistake.
For the next four years I majored in the academic study of the Bible with many professors who didn’t share my view that the Bible is the Word of God. Through that process, however, I came to understand that there are many good reasons to believe the Bible, and I vowed to myself that if I ever became a pastor, I would try to give honest answers to honest questions.
A decade and a half later, I still believe that the Bible is the God’s Word through human hands. And I believe the church can and should do better to help people navigate the waters of faith and doubt. “Just believe” doesn’t work. It just forces us to sweep our questions under the rug and pretend they don’t exist. So here is my attempt to help give some honest, albeit incomplete, answers to some honest questions. I’ve put them in the form of objections.
1. We can’t trust the gospels because they contradict each other and they were probably written by people wanting to consolidate power—either the disciples or their followers.
In Old Testament law, a testimony needed to stand on the basis of two or three witnesses to be accepted in court. I think the fact that we have four gospels actually aids our belief, rather than impeding it. Each writer wrote to a different audience with a different purpose. These audiences and purposes shaped the way they told the story.
Some of the apparent contradictions can be easily reconciled once you accept that the gospel writers were theologians interpreting the Incarnation just as much as they were historians reporting it. And they were writing a selective biography of Jesus—a gospel—not an exhaustive biography of everything he ever did or said.
For example, let’s look at the words of Christ. Jesus was an itinerant rabbi. This means that he gave a lot of sermons in a lot of places. Luke and Matthew have slightly different version of the Sermon on the Mount, so which did Jesus actually say? Well, chances are he said both. He probably gave multiple sermons on multiple mountains; he probably gave a sermon on the hill, on the plain, by the lake, etc. But each writer is emphasizing different parts of Jesus’ message.
We also have ancient biographies that show us how the gospel writers used language much like their contemporaries. For example, there is a literary technique called “spotlighting” where the author zooms in on a person to emphasize a certain thing, while neglecting other details or characters in the story. We see this in the gospel testimonies of the resurrection. Matthew and Mark say there was one angel at the tomb, but Luke and John two angels. It could be that Matthew and Mark were spotlighting the angel that was speaking.
We also have to consider that the gospels are full of eyewitnesses and they were all written during the lives of these eyewitnesses. For example, consider this testimony from Mark’s gospel: “And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.”
These names are like ancient footnotes. You could go find Simon (or Alexander and Rufus!) and ask him if that happened or not. It would only take one lie for a gospel to be refuted, but instead we have the gospels spreading and being regarded as trustworthy. Plus, Paul tells us that there were 500 eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ. These Christian claims were easily refutable, but they were not refuted. The body of Christ was not produced; the eyewitnesses did not contradict the stories in the gospels but presumably confirmed them according to Luke 1:1-4.
But maybe the strongest argument for the veracity of the gospels is the church itself. Could a group of 11 fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots pull off the biggest, longest con in human history? If they hid his body and faked the resurrection, would they have risked their lives for a lie? Would they have been able to fake a story this big, with this many eyewitnesses and easily refutable details? And if they did, would they tell the story in such a way as to make themselves look like cowards, liars, and betrayers who fought over power and doubted their own Savior? Would they make women, whose testimony was not admissible in court in their day, the first to witness the resurrection in all four gospels?
It seems highly unlikely. In fact, it may take more faith to doubt the gospels than to believe them. And if we trust their story, we have to come to grips with Jesus and his claims.
2. The Church chose the books to be included in the Bible, so they only chose the ones that said what they wanted to believe…that means the Bible is not God’s Word, but the Church’s Word.
It’s undeniable that there is a relationship between the Church and the Bible. We don’t believe that the letters and books of the New Testament simply fell from heaven or were discovered buried in an Egyptian tomb. The New Testament was written by Christians—human beings with intellect and personal style and memory. But the Church recognized these books and writings to be inspired by the Holy Spirit.
As early as the second century we see Church Fathers like Ignatius of Antioch, Origen of Alexandria, Clement of Rome, Polycarp and others using the books of the New Testament to do theology. They treated these books differently than others and that’s one of the reasons why the Church recognized that this collection of books as we have them today was authoritative. It wasn’t just a handful of disciples in a room going through which books got in and which got left out. In a world before the internet they recognized that Christians in Africa, in Asia, in Europe, in Palestine—all over the known world—were using the same 27 books for doing theology and reading aloud in worship in addition to the books of the Old Testament. In fact, that’s how they came to be seen as “the New Testament.”
In 367AD, a theologian named Athanasius sent around a list of all the books he was using and said, “This is what I’ve got—what do you have?” That letter became known as the Easter Letter because he sent it during Easter. It contains the same list (in nearly the same order even) as our New Testament today. Churches all over the world agreed that they were using the same list. So the Church didn’t choose the books to go in the New Testament, they recognized which books were in there. Admittedly, that is a mysterious and somewhat subtle distinction, but I think it illustrates the relationship between the Church and the Bible.
3. The Bible is culturally regressive and outdated.
I think this is actually one of the most prominent objections to the Bible—it’s not intellectual, it’s intuitive. And that makes it a hard one to answer. This objection is also more appealing than others because it gives us moral authority over the Bible instead of the other way around. In fact, I think a lot of Christians use the objection when it comes to things they find disagreeable in the Bible.
Remember the story of Thomas Jefferson’s bible? He literally took out everything he disagreed with and kept the rest. Maybe we are still doing the same thing—keeping the inspirational quotes or promises to prosper while leaving behind the parts about sacrifice, suffering, dying to self, persecution, etc.
Here are a couple of things to consider when you come across a passage that you find hard to believe:
1. Consider that you may be interpreting it wrong. The Bible may not be saying what you think it’s saying. For example, you will find people who claim that the Bible commends slavery. In fact, you will even find Christians using the Bible to support slavery in American history. But in fact, the Bible condemns the type of slavery we saw in the Americas and only tolerates the Roman type of slavery that is more like voluntary indentured servitude. Even then, it counsels against it and advises us to live freely.
2. Consider that you may be wrong. I appreciate the way Pastor Tim Keller explains this. He claims that we need a Bible that we disagree with from time to time. If we never disagree with the Bible, maybe we’ve just pulled the Ol’ Jefferson trick and cut out or ignored the rest. Every healthy relationship has conflict. Otherwise, one person is just a robot like a Stepford Wife who is incapable of disagreeing. Have we made the Bible into a Stepford God? Or do we have a real relationship which wrestles with things that are hard for us to believe and even sometimes condemn us?
Whenever the Bible offends us we should pause and take time to study it, wrestle with it, and examine ourselves. I have found that the Bible is incredibly radical and culturally subversive in every age.
I have given most of my adult life to studying this book we call the Bible. It is not without it’s mysteries, difficulties, and unanswered questions. But there are good reasons to trust it and perhaps best of all is the incredibly beautiful narrative it presents. It tells the story of a loving, holy, joyful God who created a world that reflected his glory and human beings who were made in his image with dignity and respect. It tells the story of that world becoming cursed and broken by sin and God’s plan to redeem it. It tells us that the Storyteller wrote himself into the story to rescue his creation and he will someday return to make it the way it should be. That narrative makes the most sense of the world I live in with all it’s beauty, pain, loss, and longing. Does it make sense to you?
Posted on May 30, 2017
by Ethos Presbyterian