My experience is that the vast majority of Evangelical Christians will tell you that they would stake their life on the belief that the Bible is the Word of God, but very few could present a cogent argument to support their claim. Over the years, I’ve had questions about things in the Bible that didn’t seem to quite jibe with a book that was divinely authored. I’ve yet to meet (or read) a Christian that had an answer that maintained the inerrancy and verbal inspiration of the Scriptures and still made sense.
Here are the biggest issues that make me question the Bible’s divine authorship.
Evangelicals have frequently touted the Bible as being 100% scientifically accurate in every regard. As proof, they offer a statement written by Job who said that God hangs the earth upon nothing and another written by Isaiah who says figuratively that the Lord sits on the circle of the earth. “See!” they say. “The Bible talked about a round earth when everyone else thought it was flat!” Except that the prevailing cosmological view of the ancients was of an earth that is flat (disc-shaped, actually) and geocentric. Moses, David, Ezekiel, Job, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Zechariah, and Micah seemed to hold this view. Several refer to the ends of the earth or the foundation of the earth. Now it could be argued that this is figurative language because “ends of the earth” is a phrase sometimes used today, and “foundations” could ambiguously refer to the center of the spheroid. Figurative or not, the language doesn’t bother me, because when you understand what the author is trying to convey, the figurative language helps underscore the magnitude of his idea. However, the most likely explanation is that the authors were describing something according to their worldview. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t make sense to attribute the authorship to an all-knowing God, or to pretend that the words mean something the author did not intend because we have to cover up errors in order to prop up a case for divine authorship.
One scientific error that is not ambiguous is the belief in the firmament which was the presumed dome that fit like a lid on the earth and kept the heavenly ocean from flooding the earth. This is included in the Genesis creation account, and reaffirmed later when we read in the story of the worldwide flood that the “windows of heaven were opened.” The objection has been raised that the word “firmament” is figurative language describing the sky and any claim to the contrary is simply an assumption. Yet, it is clear from the context that the author is describing a physical thing, so the word is not purely figurative. Given what we know about the cosmological view of the ancients, the context of the passage, and the language of the early translators, the text as a whole makes more sense when the word firmament is taken to mean what it actually means. Those that maintain that this can’t possibly be the case, say so only because of the presumption that God authored Genesis and couldn’t make an error and wouldn’t be deceptive. An important step in understanding the Bible is to understand what the author was trying to convey. Was the Genesis creation account a scientific account of creation, a historical account as some would argue, or was it something else? I think the author intended the Genesis creation account as a polemic to contrast the Creator with the mythological gods of the Egyptians, Canaanites, and Babylonians.
In any case, it doesn’t make sense that God would author a book and deliberately induce error. Every attempt to explain away these scientific errors is based upon the assumption of divine authorship.
Inerrancy proponents maintain (because they have to) that there are absolutely no contradictions in Scripture. This is not an intellectually honest approach to the biblical anthology, for the argument is based upon an assumption of divine authorship rather than evidence. Some alleged discrepancies are extremely minor such as slight variations between Gospel accounts regarding the number of people who appear in a story. These discrepancies are easily explained and, in my mind, don’t damage the credibility of the account. There are, however, a few major discrepancies that I find to be extremely troubling. These are too glaring to be ignored and too egregious to be glossed over. One of the three reasons that atheists give for their rejection of God is the absurd portrayal of God by Christians, and they are absolutely right to reject that portrayal. If only for this reason, Christians should take a very careful look at these discrepancies that damage the credibility of the Christian worldview.
1. The violent God of the Old Testament and the non-violent Son of God in the New Testament
By far, the biggest contradiction in the biblical anthology, is the gross disparity between the psychopathic, genocidal God of the old testament, and the non-violent Son of God in the new. Volumes have been written on this issue, and there’s not much new that I can add to the conversation. There are, however, a few things that are relevant to this discussion. Usually, this disparity is simply dismissed with the admonition that “God can do whatever He wants, and we have no right to question His methods.” Sure, God is the Ultimate Being. He can do whatever He wants. If He wanted, He could treat humans like insects under a magnifying glass, performing experiments on us and tormenting us for amusement. He could; but He doesn’t, because He isn’t like that. God is a relational God who created the human race so He could share His love and be loved in return. So when I read ancient texts in which people claim a divine imperative to brutally annihilate others, I cannot confidently say that those texts were written verbatim by God.
Some crazy theories have been concocted to explain these discrepancies. These theories ascribe to God a character that is entirely inconsistent with the preponderance of the teaching of biblical authors and is entirely inconsistent with the conscience that God instilled in the spirit of man who is created in the image of God. The presupposition that “every verse is equally inspired and true” results in the compulsory skewing of one’s conclusion and forces one to generate theories to explain the discrepancies rather than looking at the evidence. Once you remove the presupposition, you have the ability to take an honest look at the problem.
How do you reconcile “love your enemies” with “thou shalt not kill—unless one is a homosexual, or an adulterer, or one who picks up sticks or lights a fire on Saturday, or is a gluttonous drunkard who disobeys his parents, or is a woman who is found not to be a virgin on her wedding night, or is a child born in the land of Canaan which was promised to Israel? How do you reconcile “if your enemy is hungry, feed him,” with “kill everyone, even the women and children”?
The contrast between the God portrayed in the Old Testament and the Son of God in the New are so diametrically opposed to each other that they cannot be reconciled, in my opinion. I’ve tried to conjure up different perspectives in order to make the two characterizations mesh with each other, and nothing works. I speculated that perhaps death isn’t the worst thing that could happen. Fair enough. Then why Jesus’ emphasis on non-violence? I speculated that perhaps God was taking a utilitarian approach to mankind—you know, the greatest good for the greatest number. Kill a few to spare many. Perhaps. But why couldn’t the omniscient God who was clever enough to invent astrophysics, quantum mechanics, and molecular biology figure out a solution that didn’t involve human genocide? Or if death of an entire people group were necessary, why would he not use disease or natural disasters to bring it about rather than instructing “His chosen people” to slaughter women and children?
This is the primary reason that I would be lying if I said that I’m absolutely convinced that God authored these passages.
2. Permitting the gross mistreatment of women
Perhaps more could be said on this topic, but one of the most egregious illustrations is given by the author of Deuteronomy (Moses, presumably), who imposed the death penalty for those who kidnapped fellow Israelites, but permitted Hebrew men to kidnap “beautiful” women from the indigenous people that they conquered, have sex with them, and then kick them out if they were not found to be “satisfactory.” The one merciful caveat was that the man was not allowed to sell the woman for money. The trend throughout the Bible when the topic is relations between men and women, is that women are to be treated gently, respected, and cared for; and this instruction doesn’t fit with the rest of the picture. I cannot fathom anyone defending this action for any reason—“the culture of the times” be damned. Yet, there are those who will attempt to do so because “it’s in the Bible, so God must have said it for a reason.” To me, this is unconscionable—not because I want to mold God into an image I can tolerate, but because everything I understand about God indicates that treating women in this fashion is loathsome. It’s a tough sell to say that God forced Moses to write this instruction.
3. Prayers for revenge
Sprinkled throughout the Old Testament are various prayers for revenge. Consider the following (all quotes are from the New English Translation):
O daughter Babylon, soon to be devastated!
How blessed will be the one who repays you for what you dished out to us!
How blessed will be the one who grabs your babies and smashes them on a rock! -Psalm 137
As a demonstration of your loyal love, destroy my enemies!
Annihilate all who threaten my life, for I am your servant. -Psalm 143
The godly will rejoice when they see vengeance carried out;
they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. -Psalm 58
May his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow!…
May no one show him kindness! May no one have compassion on his fatherless children! -Psalm 109
So let their children die of starvation.
Let them be cut down by the sword.
Let their wives lose their husbands and children. Let the older men die of disease
and the younger men die by the sword in battle.
Let cries of terror be heard in their houses when you send bands of raiders unexpectedly to plunder them….
Do not pardon their crimes! Do not ignore their sins as though you had erased them!
Let them be brought down in defeat before you!
Deal with them while you are still angry! -Jeremiah 18
In light of the crystal-clear teaching and example of Jesus, these passages beg the question, “Did God really force somebody to write that?” Because that doesn’t sound right.
4. The discontinuity between the law and the prophets on the issue of sacrifice
The law demanded sacrifice upon sacrifice. The prophets contradict this.
For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’ – Jeremiah 7 (ESV)
To what purpose [is] the multitude of your sacrifices to me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats. When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination to me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot endure; [it is] iniquity, even the solemn meeting. -Isaiah 1 (Webster)
Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? -Micah 6 (KJV)
For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. -Hosea 6 (KJV)
The disparity between the law and the prophets on this issue is pretty clear and deserves careful scrutiny–not just to determine the nature of biblical authorship, but to better understand the nature of God.
Now, moving beyond the discrepancies, here’s a more academic question: Why is the book of Esther considered to be authored by God? Even if we stipulate that it is a factual history, which I have no reason to doubt, why is it considered to be Holy Scripture? Is it because even though there is no mention of God, there is an implication that Jews might have prayed during three days of fasting? Although it is a history of the Jewish people, I can’t find a solid reason why we consider that portion of Jewish history to be divinely authored, as opposed to portions of the records of, say, Josephus.
I’ve often heard the criticism that those that question these issues, do so simply because they want to define God according to their own desires. This is not the case. I’m not questioning these acts of genocide and cruelty because I don’t want to believe in a God that makes rules. I’m questioning them because I don’t think that these things are morally right—that they are completely antithetical to the nature and desires of God. Now, I don’t have a comprehensive explanation for the contradictions listed above. Nor can I explain every act of violence that is attributed to God in the biblical anthology. I don’t know why Jesus is portrayed as ultra-barbaric in the book of Revelation, nor can I explain things like the seemingly capricious deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. But I have enough misgivings about the divine authorship of the biblical anthology, that I can’t confidently state that I believe that the Bible is the verbally inspired, inerrant Word of God.
In light of the above issues, I find it disingenuous to rely on theories to explain away the contradictions in order to preserve the Evangelical narrative. These theories become assumptions that “validate” their originator’s worldview. The lack of supporting evidence drives Christians to dogmatically hold to their assumptions, with blind faith superseding reason. I’m admittedly a pretty simple guy, but I can’t see how one can honestly look at some of these things and state adamantly that they were authored by God. The argument is simply lacking in evidence.
In Part VI, I’ll conclude this series by spotlighting some of the implications of viewing the Bible as the verbally inspired Word of God and offering my thoughts as to what the Bible is and how it should be used.