Question: What About Problems With The Bible?
Christians make the claim that the Bible, as we know it today, is actually God’s Word written to us. As well, they claim that it’s God’s only word to us. But how did the Bible we know today come to be? This is the third of three articles which look at whether the Bible can be trusted.
First Things First
The Bible we have today is an extremely accurate copy of the original documents. Yet, this is only one aspect of trusting the Bible. If there were specific areas that caused concern for some people, then for them, the Bible would not be trustworthy. So, it is important to look at some common problems people have with the Bible.
The Problem of Inspiration
OK. So we have a reliable copy of the Bible; but to claim that it is inspired by God is another thing altogether.
This problem, which people sometimes have with the Bible, is the problem of inspiration. The word inspired literally means “God-breathed”, and the idea is that God authored the Bible through the people who wrote the words. The writers were in full control of their minds and wills, and would not always have perceived that they were writing down God’s words. Nevertheless, Christians claim that the Bible is indeed the written Word of God.
But a claim like this does not prove that the Bible was inspired by God, any more than a similar claim in the Koran or the Book of Mormon. What evidence is there for the inspiration of the Bible?
What the Bible Says About Itself
First, we can look at what the Bible claims. If it never claimed to be the Word of God, this would be significant. But it does, in many places.
- Jesus said that everything written about him in the Old Testament would be fulfilled.
- Jesus also said that the Scripture cannot be broken.
- Paul, writing after Jesus’ life on earth, said that all Scripture is inspired by God.
- Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers, wrote that no prophecy was an act of human will, but that men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.
This is a great way to show evidence for or against the inspiration of the Bible. If it really is God’s word, then we would expect any detailed predictions about the future to be accurately fulfilled. After all, only God would have the required knowledge to make firm predictions.
And this is where the Bible differs so much from writings such as The Oracles of Nostradamus. Nostradamus made predictions so vague and cryptic that many “fulfillments” would fit. But the Bible makes predictions so clear and detailed that there is no doubt when a prediction is fulfilled.
Here is a very small list of predictions which have been fulfilled.
- Isaiah 7:14 – Jesus would be born of a virgin. This was fulfilled in Matthew 1:18-25.
- Micah 5:2 – Jesus would be born in Bethlehem. This was fulfilled in Luke 2:4-7.
- Zechariah 11:12-13 – The price Jesus would be betrayed for. This was fulfilled in Matthew 26:15.
- Isaiah 53:9 – Jesus would be buried with the rich. This was fulfilled in Matthew 27:57-60.
- Ezekiel 26 – The destruction of Tyre. This prediction says that Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, would besiege and destroy Tyre, and that many nations would come against it. It says that its ruins would be scraped from the site, and thrown into the sea, leaving a bare rock. It says that Tyre would become a place for fishermen to spread their nets, and that the city would never be built again. All these predictions have been remarkably and accurately fulfilled today. The ancient city of Tyre is today a place where fishermen spread their nets.
The Problem of Interpretation
You have your interpretation of the Bible. Some other Christian have their own interpretation. There must be hundreds of interpretations! What makes you think yours is the correct one?
This is the problem of interpretation. In the face of differing opinions about what a particular part of the Bible really means, it can seem impossible to arrive at a consensus among Christians. This gives the impression that the Bible, while being reliable, is not understandable.
Fortunately, within Christendom, there is no disagreement over the foundational truths of Christianity. Christians the world over believe these points:
- God is one God in three persons
- People have been made by God, but are in need of rescuing from sin
- People are unable to rescue themselves from sin; they need someone else to do so
- Jesus, who is fully God and fully human, is God’s solution to the problem of sin
- People are rescued from sin only when they trust in Jesus
- This rescuing from sin happens only by the grace of God
However, among Christians, there may be differing interpretations of parts of the Bible which are not foundational. Normally, different interpretations occur because Christians follow different methods of interpreting! Most (not all) of these “problems” could be avoided by following some common sense principles.
- Find out what a passage (part of the Bible) says before asking what it means.
- When looking at a passage, leave behind preconceived ideas (which everyone has).
- Interpret a passage in light of the immediate and broader context.
- Interpret a passage literally, in its plain sense, unless its plain sense makes no sense.
- Interpret any unclear passages in the light of clear passages.
In any event, the greater problem for most people is not how to understand a part of the Bible, but how to do it. Mark Twain said as much:
Most people are bothered by those passages in Scripture which they cannot understand. The Scripture which troubles me most is the Scripture I do understand.
The Problem of Science and the Bible
But hasn’t science disproved the Bible?
Normally, there are two issues with science and the Bible. The first is evolution, and the second is the apparent incorrect scientific claims the Bible makes. Let’s look at each briefly.
Evolution and the Bible
The Bible is concerned far more with who brought the universe into existence, rather than how. While Christians believe that God made everything, they disagree over how. Did God make everything in 6 literal 24-hour days? Or did God intervene at various points in the process of evolution? However, the big difference is this: either the universe was brought into existence by God, or it was brought into existence by nothing. The latter is a far greater leap of faith.
Evolution, at best, is a theory, and can never explain what did happen. It can only explain what might have happened. Creation by God is also a theory. It is not provable any more than evolution is provable. So the basic point of contention is whether the universe arrived because of God, or because of nothing. Here is what must be believed along with the theory of evolution.
Non-living systems generated life through a combination of time plus chance. Microevolution (changes within species) leads to macroevolution (changes from one species to an entirely different species).
The huge problem with evolution is that it makes the effects (including complexity, life, intelligence, personality) greater than the causes (disorder, non-life, random interactions, impersonal events). Nowhere else have effects ever been observed to be greater than causes.
For this reason, it is a far more believable proposition that a personal God designed a universe with personal beings in it.
Apparent Incorrect Scientific Claims
The Bible is not a science textbook, and makes no scientific claims. The problem comes because people in the Bible describe nature as it appears to them, not in scientific terms. People today do exactly the same thing.
- The Bible talks about the rising of the sun. Of course, the sun does not “rise” and rotate about the earth. Yet, when we talk about sunrise and sunset, neither do we mean that the sun rotates around the earth.
- The Bible talks about the four corners of the earth. Even though the earth is not flat, from the vantage point of any one of us on earth, it appears flat.
The Problem of Ethics in the Bible
What really bothers me about the Bible is its attitude towards genocide, slavery and the problem of suffering.
We have looked at the problem of suffering and evil in a another question, so here we will look at genocide and slavery.
The ethical problem of genocide
In the light of the 6th commandment, “You shall not murder”, this command may seem like an over-reaction from God:
However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them – the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites – as the Lord your God has commanded you.
While this is one of the more troubling sections of the Bible, there are enough factors in the surrounding context, which suggest that perhaps God was not over-reacting. Perhaps no explanation will completely satisfy everyone, but some thoughts may help.
- This command was unique in the history of Israel. When the people heard this, they would not have yawned, turned to one another, and said “Oh…another search and destroy mission…”. More likely, the people would be asking for a repeat of the command, just to confirm what they thought they heard. This was an extremely unusual command, so there must have been special circumstances.
- In fact, the command goes on to say:
Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshipping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord.
These foreign nations were not simply “in the way”; it was possible that they might completely turn Israel away from God. Later in Israel’s history, this comment is made:
The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. They took their daughters in marriage, and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods. The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord; they forgot the Lord their God.
The evil done by the Israelites was the evil done by the surrounding nations. Archaeological finds confirm that these nations were grossly immoral and wicked. Religious male and female prostitution, infant sacrifice, and bestiality were a few of the practices of these nations.
- Rather than a cruel command from a sadistic ruler, this command was far more like the painful command to remove a cancerous growth from the body, so that the body can continue to live.
- There is no violation of the earlier command to not commit murder. Killing in wartime and capital punishment are two examples of taking a life, which are not called murder. This command to destroy the wicked nations is another.
- God never plays favorites. When Israel did turn away from God, he did not sweep their sin under the carpet:
Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals [gods of the Canaanites]. They forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshipped various gods of the people around them. They provoked the Lord to anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. In his anger against Israel, the Lord handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He sold them to their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress.
The ethical problem of slavery
This problem diminishes when a few background facts about slavery in the Bible are known.
- Slavery in the Bible was quite different from the slavery we think of today.
- Slaves were to be treated with dignity and respect.
- If a master violated the basic rights of a slave, or abused a slave, that slave was to be set free.
- If a slave ran away from his master, he was not to be mistreated or even returned.
- Slaves were able to participate in the religious and cultural practices of the day.
- One New Testament writer advised his readers who were slaves to “gain your freedom if you can do so…”
- The issue with slavery in the New Testament was on the heart attitude of both the slave and the master. Slaves were to “obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for God.” Masters were to “provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven”.
The Bible is not, and was not meant to be, a policy document on slavery. When it encounters slavery, it applies principles of justice and mercy. The emphasis is much more on one’s attitude to God.
The Problem of Apparent Contradictions
The Bible is full of contradictions.
Many people make the claim that the Bible is full of contradictions. But normally, when asked for their favorite three, they are hard-pressed to list any. This is because people rarely read the whole Bible before making this sort of claim.
Being the web site of a church, we obviously(!) believe that any apparent contradictions can be resolved. So, we welcome any genuine queries about contradictions in the Bible. Use the form at the bottom of this page to send your concern, and we’ll do our best to honestly look at the issue. We can’t absolutely guarantee to resolve it for you, but we’d love the opportunity to try.
The Problem of Miracles
Most of the Bible, I don’t have a problem with. But when it starts talking about miracles, that’s where I draw the line. Everyone knows that miracles don’t happen!
This paragraph makes clear why some people have a problem with miracles in the Bible:
…a miracle occurs when God steps in to do something beyond what could be accomplished according to the laws of nature as we understand them, and which actually may be in violation of them. Moreover, a miracle is beyond man’s intellectual or scientific ability.
In this technological and scientific age, miracles don’t seem to fit….
Examples of miracles found in the Bible are as follows:
- Jesus fed 5,000 men, as well as their wives and children, from 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish.
- The sea was parted, so that about 1 million Israelites could flee from the Egyptians
- Jesus walked on water
- Jesus came back to life, after being dead for 3 days
All these fit the description above. The laws of nature can’t explain them, and in fact, every one of them violates the laws of nature. More to the point, humans can’t explain them by any intellectual or scientific method.
Perhaps miracles are so hard to stomach for scientists, because they just don’t fit. Science is about making observations, collecting evidence, and interpreting that evidence. It is also about repeatability. Clearly, miracles are not something we can repeat by following a list of detailed instructions.
If we start with a boundary condition that miracles are impossible, we are cheating. The better approach is to make observations. If the evidence fits with a hypothesis, well and good. But if it doesn’t, the evidence is still evidence! The hypothesis is not complete! So, from this perspective, a boundary condition which leaves no room for God is possibly what needs changing.
Basically, if someone has a worldview where God does not exist, then miracles are impossible in that worldview. Nothing will change that. On the other hand, if a worldview includes God who made everything, then miracles are also entirely possible. In recording miracles, the Bible authors were not offering a commentary or analysis of the miracles. They were simply recording them. And as the evidence from reliable witnesses, miracles need not be a problem.
The Bottom Line…
This article is the last of three articles on the reliability of the Bible. In a nutshell, we’ve tried to answer the question “Can the Bible be trusted?” First, we looked at how the Bible became the Bible. Next, we looked for any evidence which supported the claim that the Bible is reliable. And in this article, we worked through some common “problems”, which people often have with the Bible.
What we’ve discovered is that ultimately, the Bible is incredibly reliable. It is not simply a collection of documents written by people. It is no less than the message from God to us.
God can be trusted…
the Bible is his message…
the Bible can be trusted.
But that’s not quite the bottom line.
The bottom line is “Will we hear the message God has spoken to us?”