What to say when someone says the Bible can't be trusted
"Did God really say...?"
"Show me the evidence for God and I will believe" is the claim of the unbeliever, quickly backed up with, "there is/can be no evidence which cannot be explained by science". Last week we showed that far from science providing evidence against God, it points to him.
We also saw that Christians believe that God reveals himself in nature (which is subject to scientific investigation) but that that is not enough. At best it would leave us where some apologists too often do; mildly theistic/deistic. We end up with the Unmoved Mover, the Uncaused Cause, or the Unknowable Mind – useful for a philosophy course, but useless for life. 'May the Force be with you', might work as a movie sound bite, but it's not really the life-changing dynamic that Christianity claims to be. So if God wants us to know him then surely he would reveal himself? Indeed.
My favourite response from last week was the atheist who tweeted: "If I were God I would make my existence obvious to all and would make it crystal clear what to do to be saved." Bingo. Spot on. That is precisely what God has done. He has made his existence obvious to all and he has made it crystal clear what to do to be saved. God's revelation? God's answer? Jesus Christ. "In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word" (Hebrews 1:1-3, NIV).
But that just puts back the question – how do we know Jesus? Well, we have good news. We have the gospel. In fact, we have the four Gospels. And in them we are told of a Christ who says that the whole Old Testament concerns himself (Luke 24:27) and who appoints 12 Apostles (and Paul, 'out of season') who go on to write the rest of the New Testament. The key to understanding the Bible is that it is about Jesus. It is not primarily a book of morals, or a science text, or a collection of myths and fairy stories. It is the revelation of Jesus Christ. I love what Erasmus, the sixteenth-century scholar and Reformer, wrote: "the Bible will give Christ to you, in an intimacy so close that he would be less visible to you if he stood before your eyes".
The devil is the Father of lies and so wants people to avoid the truth. His greatest concern is to keep people in darkness and prevent them coming into light. Given that Jesus is the light and that the word of God is light, it is no surprise that the devil's greatest tactic is to darken, diffuse and cause us to doubt its trustworthiness. "Did God really say?" was the first temptation. And it continues to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks to Christian faith. Let's consider five of the objections.
1. "The Bible was written by a bunch of illiterate desert goat herders." This is one of my favourites! Usually said by those chronological snobs who have never read the Bible and who have suspended their normal capacity for rational thought. How could illiterate people have written the Psalms, the magnificent poem of Job and the extraordinary thoughts of John chapter 1?
2. "The Bible was written centuries after the events described in it." This is usually said by those who have little knowledge of ancient history or textual criticism. There are existent today more than five thousand manuscripts with parts of the New Testament in them from the first four centuries – some as early as the 1st. The manuscript evidence for the NT is many times stronger than for any other ancient document. I would strongly recommend reading FF Bruce The New Testament Documents, Are They Reliable? And Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.
In similar vein there are those who claim that the Bible is not unique, it's just a rehash of Greek/Roman/Egyptian myths and legends. I suppose it's not surprising that in the age of Wikipedia and Atheist memes, every Tom, Dick and Henrietta is an expert in the mythology of the ancient gods! The only way to deal with this is a) historical fact and b) humour. A great example of the latter is that from our friends at Lutheran Satire who deal wonderfully with the myth that the myth of Horus is the source of the Gospels.
3. "The Bible was only decided on at the Council of Nicaea in 325 BC and lots of other 'gospels' which spoke of women as apostles, Jesus as married and President Obama as the prophesied Messiah were removed." (OK... I made that last one up, but then other people just made up the first two as well so I thought I would join in the fun!). The people who believe this are not only those who take their sources from their atheist friend's blogs, but who have also actually read a book. Sadly, that book is the Da Vinci Code, which is to a history of the early Church as Star Trek is to a history of the Universe. Nicaea mainly dealt with the heresy of Arius who denied the divinity of Christ. It did not decide on the books of the Bible.
4. "The Bible is too difficult to understand and anyway it's not relevant for today." This is usually said by those who remember the Bible being read in a soporific voice by a dull as dishwater vicar in a school assembly or RE class!
The Bible is an extraordinary book. In some places it's remarkably clear and easy to understand, and yet there is also a depth which means that you can read it 1,000 times and still be finding new things within it. It really is the living and enduring Word of God. As for relevance, it is incredible how relevant the Bible actually is. I teach it every Sunday, often to people who know very little about it, and the most common comments I get are, "Wow, I didn't know there was so much in the Bible," (and not just because of the length of the sermons!) and "it's incredible how relevant the Bible is to me and to our society today". Ironically, it's when those in the Church doubt that the Bible is adequate for today and then try to make relevant that it very quickly becomes an irrelevant reflection of their culture and prejudices, rather than the ever fresh revelation of God. Those of us who are Christians need to realise that if we add to the Bible (legalism) or take away from the Bible (liberalism), we are in effect pointing people away from the Christ we profess to follow.
5. "The Bible can't be evidence for itself." This, too, seems profound until you stop and think about it. It's a bit like saying my wife cannot be evidence for herself. The Bible is evidence for itself. The four Gospels were not myths made up centuries after the events. They are historical accounts, telling us the story of Jesus and bringing us his life. Some scoffers seem to want YouTube clips of Jesus walking on water before they will accept any evidence! They demand that we have documented histories from the period that clearly prove the existence and miracles of Jesus. In a lecture at Cambridge I spoke about the testimony to Christ of the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian, Tacitus. I was challenged in some of my statements by a man who really seemed to know what he was talking about. Because he did. He was a professor from the University of Jerusalem who specialised in ancient history and manuscripts. He pointed out that a Jewish peasant called Jesus was highly unlikely to feature in any history written by the cultural winners and elites of that time. The Bible is the best and most reliable evidence we have for Jesus.
But what about all the other 'Holy Books'? Don't they all claim the same thing, and should we not treat them all the same way? Actually many of them don't, and yes we should treat them all the same way – at least in this. Read them. Think about them. Compare them. It's astonishing how many people will say that the Bible and the Qur'an are effectively the same, who have read neither.
The truth is, however, that we do need the Spirit to work in our lives. I love what the Westminster Confession of Faith says about the necessity of the work of Spirit in order for us to understand:
1:V. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.
I guess the question to ask is: what does the Bible mean to you? For me, it is not an academic book yet is stretches my mind and makes me think unlike anything else I have ever read. It is not a self-help book yet it has been a greater help to me than anything else I know. It is not a religious book and yet it has led me to God. It is not a political book and yet it has shown me why our world is in such a mess. It is not a book of morals and yet it has helped me tot clarify right and wrong. In other words, the Bible is my food, meat and drink. I do not read, study or preach it as a 'professional' just doing my job. It is the Word of God. Through it, God speaks not only to me, but also to his Church and indeed to the whole world. People are "born again... through the living and enduring word of God" (1 Peter 1:23).
I once challenged a vociferous young atheist in Brighton, who told me that the Bible was all rubbish. Have you read it? No. Why not try? A month later he wrote to me. He had done it all wrong. He started at Genesis chapter 1, used the King James Version and had made it to chapter 38. But his response astonished me. "It scares me", he declared, "it's beginning to make sense"! It's a very simple challenge. Ask people to read the Word of God, help them with one to one Gospel studies, and take them to church to hear the Word of God being proclaimed and explained. God's word will never return to him empty. It is, after all, the word that brings life. God really did say. He really did speak. He still does. And as he speaks his word, it brings forth life.
This week's recommended book: An oldie but goldie – JI Packer – Fundamentalism and the Word of God.
David Robertson is the moderator of the Free Church of Scotland and director of Solas CPC, Dundee.