I began this blog almost 4 years ago with a post that included this comment:
“In recent years I have met, mostly on the web but also in person, many believers who struggle with some aspects of their faith that they feel no longer seems right. They don’t have significant doubts about Jesus, but they do have doubts about some of what they have been taught.”
In the subsequent 4 years, many christians have emailed me via this blog, asking questions about their faith. For some it has been some doctrines that didn’t cause them to doubt Jesus, but for some, unanswered questions about the Bible have led them to the edge of the cliff of giving up their faith.
It seems there is a growing crisis of faith in the Bible, and there is more than one way to respond. Which way is right?
Traditional evangelicalism, US style
The most usual evangelical response is to urge christians to hold onto faith in the Bible as the inerrant Word of God.
In this view, God wants us to know the truth with full assurance, so we can live and believe rightly, to his glory. So God caused people through more than a millennia to write down their history, prophecies and revelation of him, and he made sure they made no mistakes and wrote exactly what he wanted said. Thus the Bible is perfect in every way, though of course it doesn’t give answers to lots of questions.
If we have any doubts or if any teachings appear to contradict, we have the intellectual ability to compare scripture with scripture and probably work out the right answer. If we can’t, we nevertheless just have to hold on to the Bible as God’s Word.
What follows from this view
Some things seem to follow quite clearly from this view:
- The Bible is the main reason to believe in God. We don’t need science or history to confirm the Bible, it stands as God’s truth. But this means that if a christian starts to have doubts about the Bible, their whole faith becomes problematic.
- We have to be able to be able to explain every apparent inconsistency if we want to answer sceptics’ questions. We may be happy to have unexplained difficulties, but this won’t satisfy others.
- We will have to accept some hard and difficult teachings. For example, we’ll somehow have to maintain God is loving and he nevertheless commanded terrible killings in the Old Testament. God is good, even if it doesn’t look like it to us.
- If the Bible and science disagree then the science must be wrong. For example, in the case of evolution, scientists may be refusing to accept the truth that God has revealed, or else God has made the world look as if it is old when it isn’t, to “deceive the wise in their craftiness”.
- If we do accept evolution, then a whole lot of other “compromises” will be difficult to avoid, for example:
- DNA and other evidence suggests that humans descended from some other hominoids sometime in the last 200,000 years. There isn’t a clear physical differentiation, though there may be a clear spiritual one.
- Animal predation was occurring before humans, so we cannot account for it by human sin and “the Fall”.
- The DNA evidence suggests there was not a single Adam and Eve.
- If the Adam and Eve story isn’t literal, but mythical, then the doctrines of the Fall and original sin come into question.
The big problem
These consequences create a quandary. Most christians would prefer to keep on believing what they have been taught, but many want answers to their questions which that view doesn’t provide.
This dilemma tears many people in two. They can’t, in honesty, just ignore the apparent inconsistencies and the problems in the Bible, but questioning the inerrancy of the Bible means questioning the very basis of their faith and themselves.
When a person gets to this point, their christian friends often can no longer help them. The doubting christian needs to find good reasons to believe in the Bible, while their faithful christian friend can say little more than “Just keep on believing the Bible is inerrant”.
There has to be a better way
Inerrancy is not a Biblical doctrine, it is a doctrine of faith. While it has been held by some christians (certainly not the majority) throughout the two millennia of christianity, it was only fully formulated by the Catholic church in 1962 and by evangelical Protestants in 1978.
But if it is not a Biblical doctrine, and only a recently formulated doctrine, why should any christian believe it? And why should any christian be required to believe it?
This is not the place to fully discuss the doctrine (I will be doing that later). But I suggest the starting point for christians facing the dilemma I have described is to look at the reasons to believe in God and to follow Jesus without any specific assumption of inerrancy.
If we read the Bible, learn from the experts and pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, where do we end up?
Taking a fresh look at the Bible
Because I have had a number of emails asking me about these matters, I have re-structured this blog as a website with a new home page and a series of pages on key topics which I am gradually adding to.
I hope in this way to make it easier for readers to find suggestions on how to approach some of these difficult topics. If you are one of these people, please check them out.
The first two new pages are about the Bible, and address the following issues:
- If we don’t assume the Bible is the Word of God, why should we believe it at all? There are actually good reasons to believe it tells us important truths about God – see Why believe in the Bible? – though we may believe in it in a different way.
- If we want to follow what the best scholars have found, what should we believe about the New Testament? What we find is much more encouraging than discouraging to faith – see What the scholars tell us about the New Testament.
All this leads me to another way of looking at the Bible.
God created a universe which he knew would lead to the evolution of human beings and civilisations. When the time was right, God began to inject himself into this maelstrom of events and beliefs in subtle ways so that we remain free to choose. One nation, the Jews, responded much more than others, and God revealed his power (through the early Jews), later his ethics (through the prophets), later his love and grace (through Jesus, whose life, death and resurrection are the key moment in history and the means by which we can receive forgiveness), later the freedom he offers (through the Holy Spirit).
The people who received these revelations were inspired by God to write their experiences and revelations down. They recorded what they were learning but their understanding wasn’t always complete. And so we got the Bible. God uses the Bible, interpreted by the Holy Spirit, to reveal truth about him to us (if we don’t allow the Spirit to interpret it we will likely get the message wrong), but he reveals truth through the Spirit in other ways too – through circumstances, through science, through visions and words.
Different Bible, same Jesus
In this picture, the Bible is still an authoritative document, it still reveals truth to us through the grace of the Holy Spirit and it still gives us guidelines on how to follow Jesus in our lives and words. But we are no longer under an obligation to defend every difficulty. Instead we are free to accept what good historians say about it and see this in the context of when it was written.
And we still believe in Jesus, though we will understand him a little differently – a little better in fact.
I will be continuing to explore how we should look at the Bible, and how we should address difficult issues, in the days ahead. Please stay tuned and please join in the discussion.
Photo Credit: Rushay via Compfight cc
Thanks for continuing to write, unkleE. Reading and debating on blogs like Nate’s has left me wondering just how true the things behind my faith actually are. I look forward to continuing to read your posts.
Hi Josh, thanks for the encouragement. I hope you find some good answers and ideas.
They say we are what we eat, and I think that is true for christian belief. If we focus on problems and difficulties, we will likely waver or even give up our belief, but if we focus on arguments for God and on Jesus, we will likely be strengthened in our belief. I don’t think an enquiring person should only read one side of the question (that is why on most of my posts I have references for both sides of the question), but I do think we need to be careful what we read and who we believe.
I have found that many atheists are very selective in who they read and quote. For example, when discussing Jesus, they tend to quote people like Richard Carrier or Freke & Gandy, whose views are quite extreme compared to the mainstream of NT scholarship. This even leads some to accuse non-believers like Bart Ehrman and Maurice Casey of being “apologists” because they don’t support such outrageous fringe viewpoints. They do the same with the OT, quoting the minimalists as if they were the only scholarly view.
The problem isn’t reading such views, but if they falsely give you the impression they are the consensus view of scholars.
There is more to say on this topic. Please feel free to email me (there is a link at the top) if you like to discuss more.
I can vouch for contacting Eric directly… he has always been prompt, humble, charitable and fair.
I highly recommend getting to know him! He is truly wonderful and has become a dear friend and a much needed reference!
Thank you for those very kind words, they give me a lot to live up to!
PS I made the correction in your comment – makes it simpler.
Hi Eric, thanks for continuing the work of illuminating what for many is very opaque. Your site is a wonderful resource for those of us struggling to make sense of these matters. Keep up the good work!
Hi Tad, thanks so much for that encouragement. I have thought and prayed about these things for a long time, read a bit and discussed with a few people, so I’m glad its helpful. Please feel free to comment on or discuss the things you’re interested in.
With the greatest respect it seems to me that your views and comments seem to indicate we should approach religion with a closed mind. No one can dispute that this indeed can lead us to a deep belief in Jesus Christ,but to me, somehow this feels like cheating and leads me to think that by applying this logic to life could lead one in to believing anything,Islam for instance.
Hi Martyn, thanks for your comment, and the respect.
I am interested in the issue you raise – the balance between faith and evidence, between holding onto belief and remaining open to new truths. Some christians almost totally emphasise the faith and holding on, while some sceptics emphasise evidence and an open mind.
I’m definitely in favour of some of each, but of course that still raises the question of how much of each. In this post I based my thoughts on the view that much evidence points to the truth of God and Jesus (though I may not have articulated this clearly), so what do we do about the anomalous bits in the Bible?
I’d be interested to hear a little more of what you think. Thanks.
Unfortunately it is the “Anomalous” parts of the bible that seperates us. Creating around 20 to 30 sects who all claim to be folllowing the word of God.eg Jehovah’s
Witness and their shunning of blood transfusions, Roman Catholics and their position on birth control, etc. I myself am not convinced that all parts of the bible are the word of God, when the contradictions and the anomalies are so obviously of man alone.Why don’t we just stick to preaching what no man or woman, of any faith (or no faith at all) could disagree with, “Peace on earth and goodwill to all men”? A phrase we only hear at Christmas. When we have got that right we can think about the more difficult ( and some would say) more importants issues in the bible, koran, hadith or whatever. At the moment we are like children trying to master calculus before we can even add two numbers together.
Yeah, I’m inclined to agree with much of what you say. I agree there is a human element in the Bible as well as a divine. And I think it is true that we tend to argue about the difficult passages in the Bible rather than obeying the clear ones.
But I think that God wants us to get more from the Bible than peace and goodwill, important as they are.
Would you call yourself a believer or a sceptic?
I consider myself a Christian Atheist. No I am not being funny. I believe in the christain culture, possibly because I was brought up in it. It has often puzzled me why people insist on believing in a theist god ( for which I see little evidence)
instead of a deist. My cynical side tells me that a deist belief would not require the need of an established church and all that goes with it. As an aside,reading your articles tends to make me think you are from the USA. Is that so? Finally have you heard or read the book “God is not great” by the late Christopher Hitchens.
I feel this book sets a very serious challenge to all religious thinkers of all faiths.
Hi Martyn, I am interested in all you say. I agree with some and not other parts (I guess that’s not unusual!).
I agree that the usual “philosophical” arguments for God could just as easily lead to a deistic God as a theistic one, though the Moral argument suggests an ethical God, and the Argument from Reason and the Design Argument suggest God had a rational purpose. But I believe that the historical evidence about Jesus provides the necessary extra evidence for a personal God. How do you see Jesus?
I too am somewhat cynical about the church, in modern rich western countries at any rate. I live in Australia (Sydney), where the church has a different “flavour” to in the US, but it still doesn’t look all that much like a movement started by Jesus. Where do you live?
I haven’t read Hitchens’ book although I have read some stuff by him on the internet, including a debate with WM Craig. What would be your summary of the challenge?
So you live in Australia. Didn’t know they had religion out there (Joking). I reside in the UK although I have travelled and lived in many parts of the world,with the exception of Australia. Alarm bells started ringing when you mention “Reason & Design”. It hints you dismiss evolution. I see Jesus as an historical figure like many other prophets & gods but have not been convinced any have divine providence. My beliefs are in science and the concept of, “What man can conceive, man can achieve”. In science there are questions that may never be answered but in religion there are answers that may never be questioned. To anyone with an open mind the latter is unacceptable. I am quite willing to continue this discourse but you may feel we have exhausted the subject for now. I would just like to say in closing that none of my expressed opinions were intended to divert you from your beliefs.
Hi Martyn, I should have guessed you came from UK, you are more polite than most people who think they might disagree with me!
My mention of Reason and Design was related to theistic arguments based on human reasoning ability and the “fine-tuned” design of the universe, not to evolution (which I accept).
I disagree with you when you say that “In science there are questions that may never be answered but in religion there are answers that may never be questioned.”, for I think it is sometimes the other way round. I have never stopped questioning my christian beliefs, but after 50+ years I still believe, though I have changed some of the content of my belief. It is only some forms of religion that discourage questioning. And I also find that there is an “orthodoxy” in science that cannot be questioned. So people are people, and some question and some don’t.
I am happy to continue our discussion or not, however you would like. I appreciate your kindness in not wanting to divert me from my beliefs, but I am quite robust and am happy to be questioned. I have another larger website for just this purpose (Is there a God?), which you may be interested in.
Just a brief reply. You say there is an orthodoxy in science that can’t be questioned, and you are right. But it is an orthodoxy that demands seeking the facts and thence the truth. You also say that you have never stopped questioning your Christian beliefs. Again I accept that, it is not unusual. However your questions are modified by your belief that the bible is the word of God. My questions are not modified by this belief,or any other religious belief that may distort my judgement.
1. Scientists don’t always seek the facts and thence the truth. They are human like the rest of us. For a start I have examples of deliberate deceit in science. But further, there is an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow questioning. For example, it is an article of faith in evolutionary biology that natural selection is undirected. Now just as no-one on the ID side has come up with an experiment that demonstrates design, I’m not aware of any experiment that demonstrates there is no design. Methodological naturalism is an assumption of science. I don’t have any quarrel with that, but if anyone dares to even suggest there might, just might, be something else other than undirected natural selection, the “science police” quickly pull them into line. Again I can give you examples if you want.
2. Actually, I don’t believe the Bible is the “Word of God”, and whatever belief I do have about the Bible is the end result of my reasoning, not the start. My belief about such matters is determined by what the historians say. So you seem to have misunderstood me there. I would say my belief is as well based on expert conclusions as are your views about science.
Quite a meaty reply to my last comments. Actually, scientists who do not seek the facts, are called charlatans. You are the first christian I have engaged with who does not believe the bible is the word of god. (at least we agree on something)
Others, when pressed, do conceed the book was inspired by god, but can’t quite explain how they verified that. Again with regard to design versus evolution, or undirected natural selection, as you call it, I can only say your views on that,are shared by an incredible minority of the human population, which does include major figures in the religious community. So much so that intelligent design is forbidden to be taught as a stand alone subject in the USA, acknowledged to contain some of the western world’s most religious communities. It reminds me of a discussion i witnessed between a devout Jewish acedemic and his interviewer. His jewish faith told him the world was 6000 years old (actually 5761 at the time of the discussion) and that he believed it. Asked how he could believe that as a scientist and an intelligent man, he said it was in Rabbanic teachings and therfore part of his faith. It was clear to me what he believed in was “the belief” that the world was that age. I tell you this story because I find the same blindess to logic in every religion I have studied. There is this relentness pursuit of detail which they seem to think is neccessary to justify their faith and actions.I hope I am a decent and honest person who cares for his fellow man, I certainly try to be. But I don’t need stories about the parting of the red sea or Noah’s Arc to be that way. In other words Atheists are and can be like other people of religion, we just believe in one less god. I would recommend reading some books by Richard Dawkins who is a an ethologist and evolutionary biologist.
Hi Martyn, you seem to have quite a few misconceptions about me, and about christians generally. It might be best not to assume, though I know that makes things a little more difficult.
1. I believe the Bible is inspired by God (though we would need to define what “inspired” means), just not the “Word of God” (and we’d have to define what that means too). But my main points was that my views on the Bible are part of my conclusion, not my assumptions. I assume nothing about the Bible to start with, and accept what historical scholars say about it. From the conclusions of the scholars I draw a conclusion about Jesus. From that I draw a conclusion about the Bible. If we are going to discuss the Bible, we need to start with what the scholars say.
2. I have made it clear that I accept evolution and I said that ID isn’t scientific. But I said on the same logic anti-ID isn’t scientific either. The question of external design by a supernatural agent is (like many questions in life) not resolvable by science either way.
3. You say “blindess to logic in every religion”, but I am willing to show logically good reasons why I think christian faith is more likely to be true than any other belief or worldview. A summary of my reasons is found in seven pages starting here, or you can try the real brief version.
4. You say “relentless pursuit of detail” but I would say relentless search for truth. 🙂
5. I don’t need stories about the Red Sea or Noah either. It is the historically verifiable stories of Jesus that are important for a christian.
So if we are to discuss further, let’s discuss the evidence I believe and not the assumptions about me that you have made. What do you think?
I have taken all your points on board and the phrase “Well it seems to work for you” comes to mind. Let me give you a possible real life situation of someone seeking the truth. You tell him of your convictions and end up stating that “Jesus was the son of God who was crucified and rose again.” The Iman from the local mosque has listened to this and says “Actually that is not only untrue but in my religion is blasphemy punishable by death.The local Rabbi steps forward….
You see where I am going here? I won’t, even if I could, include all the forty thousand faiths that we are told exist at any one time by religious acedemics.
By this time the poor chap must be thinking “Did God make man or man make God? An interlocutor steps foward and explains ” There is only one creator but the paths to him are many and varied”. He goes on to say it is as if four people from the far ends of the earth agree to meet in the centre of London. Their journeys will be entirely different but their destination the same. I thought this was a great explanation, except for one major flaw. Before each starts his journey they must all agree on where the centre of London is. This is something religion has failed to do and until it does wars and human misery will never end. That is why in my early comments I hinted we should concentrate on what humans can do to unite us before we enter the realms of the supernatural. At the moment it is religion which is tearing us apart. Yes I know you will probably say it’s not religion but man. Thats the excuse the gun lobby in America uses, “Its not the gun that kills people, its people”.
Hi Martyn, there’s a lot on which we agree, but it seems the more we go on the less we are agreeing.
First a minor correction. There are not 40,000 faiths, that is an internet myth. I have researched it and there are about 40,000 different church organisations, 75% of them independent churches in Africa. Saying there are 40,000 faiths is like saying there are 7000 different codes of football in England because there are 7000 different teams.
But more important is your argument here. Are you saying that because there are many different beliefs, none of them can be true? When expressed plainly, it is obviously nonsense. But if you aren’t saying that, I’m sorry, I can’t understand what you ARE saying.
“At the moment it is religion which is tearing us apart.”
I think this is another internet myth. I have researched this too, and we can say at least three things have been found by expert studies:
1. Religion is not a significant cause of wars – 10% is about all. Most wars are caused by competition over land or because of perceived injustices. Likewise, the majority of terrorist attacks are not primarily caused by religion, although the number that are is increasing in recent years.
2. Atheist regimes have killed far more people in the history of the world than religious regimes. I don’t think that religion or lack of it is the main cause of much killing, as noted in #1, but if we’re going to blame religion, then we should blame atheism more.
3. In general, religious people are more prosocial (i.e. the contribute more to society) than average.
So I wonder what your evidence is for saying that religion is tearing us apart? Some religion is tearing some people apart, but other things are far worse, and overall religion is helpful.
I really think you have made statements here that are based on things people say on the internet, but which are not backed up by evidence.
Ah statistics. How does that saying go…There are lies then truths and finally statistics. 40000 different faiths does not imply the same number of gods. When that is taken into account I think the number is halved. As you correctly point out the further we delve into religion the more we disagree. This is only natural as the questions get harder. However I must totally disagree with your statement on atheists regimes causing more wars. I would challenge you to name any war in modern history that if not initiated by religion (and I know by personal experience by living in these countries, eg Yugoslavia) were continued in the name of religion and justified by it. Thats why padres are conscirpted into the armed forces.Not many people realise that Adolf Hitler was a Catholic and supported by the catholic church to no small degree throughout the second world war.There was a joke going round, during the troubles in Northern Ireland. A man was stopped at a road block and asked are you Prodestant or Catholic? He replied I am an Atheist. There was a pause and then asked Prodestant Atheist or Catholic Atheist?
That’s how deep a part religion played in that war. Religion is tearing us apart there is no doubt about that in the minds of many many people. We call people that go to Mosques, Muslims. Do you know what they call us? UNBELIEVERS.
These people are as devout and sincere, as you or, anyone you may know and yet you beliieve religion isn’t tearing us apart? And yes If I ask a question and get thousands of different answers, then I think its only natural to assume that actually nobody knows the real answer. Only foolish pride prevents us from saying “There may be no answer”. All I know as a simple human being is that whatever the number of different religions they cannot all be right,but they can indeed all be wrong. I will end on a more agreeable note. Yes religion is helful to many individuals and I would go as far to say essential, in some cases. Religion in this sense is personal and comforting whether based on fact or fiction. The problems arise when religion breaks out and becomes a business, an organisation, when the race to claim the truth brings out everything bad in the human race.
We started this conversation with you pointing out how religious people can have a closed mind to evidence. But it seems to me that now it is you who is doing that. You have made comments about a number of matters which I have evidence that is contrary to what you are saying. Instead of accepting the evidence as I thought you would, to be consistent, you have offered anecdotes and non-acceptance of evidence.
Just to be clear, let me offer the links:
1. There are NOT 40,000 different denominations or anything like it. There are differences in belief, both major and minor, but much, much less than that sort of number. See How many christian denominations worldwide?.
2. Religion is a relatively minor direct cause of war, though obviously it is a factor in nations that go to war, as are many other factors. See Does religion cause war?. Check out the Bradford Peace Studies research referenced there, and you’ll see that neither WW2, nor the Northern Ireland killings nor the Bosnia conflict rate as religious wars. Sure, the fighting sometimes involved people of different religious belief, but the study found, based on carefully assessed criteria, that the main causes were elsewhere.
3. Likewise studies have found that most terrorism is not primarily religiously motivated. See Does religion cause terrorism?.
4. Finally, in most cases religious beliefs encourage people to be more prosocial – to do more volunteer work in the community, to give more to charity and to be less involved in antisocial behaviour. This atheist site sums up the overall situation: “the data consistently point to a negative association between religiosity and criminal behavior and a positive association between religiosity and prosocial behavior.” There are many qualifying factors, but I can give you references to show in more detail that religious believers generally give significantly more to charity than non-believers, and less likely to exhibit anti-social behaviour, plus results on several other factors. I have scores of references on all this.
So, are you willing to accept what the expert studies have found?
If we can agree on this, I would like to then discuss the more interesting question that you raise at the end of whether and how we may know truth in the area of religion. Thanks.
I feel any dialogue has run it’s course when one is reduced to swopping statistics.
The fact is, with little effort, I could produce statisticts that say the oposite. Just imagine if your faith was based on statistics. I will give you just one. A study in the USA found that states which were considered to hold the most religious views had the highest rate of crime. I spent four years in Serbia during the Bosnia war and I (and many others) will tell you from personal experience that was a religious war without doubt and the animosity is still there. I think any views I have on this and many other aspects of Christian faith are well expressed in a book called “Letter to a Christian Nation” by Sam Harris. I sincerely hope you read it.
Hi Martyn, let’s stop if you think that’s best. But when you say “reduced to swopping statistics” you are talking about good solid evidence. It was your criticism of religious people not having evidence that started this discussion, but now it is you who is disparaging evidence.
There are likely two things wrong with your brief mention of the US study you mention (can’t say for sure unless I see the reference).
1. One I have seen that sounds like the same one was not good science, and I think you can see why just as well as I can. How do we know that the reason why crime is high is because of the religion statistic, or some other statistic such as wealth, or gun ownership, or something else? Reputable studies standardise for all the other factors, but the ones I have seen like you quote haven’t done that. It is likely that wealth is the key, and poverty tends to correlate with both religious belief and crime – but we can only say for sure if the study is properly designed.
2. One study proves little, and it is not really responsible to quote just one. We need to see what all the studies say. I have tried to gather every piece of information I can, but so often people just mention one and think that is enough.
Re Bosnia, that’s not what the experts say, but of course they could be wrong. But the Balkans have been in turmoil on and off for many years, and the cause shave been religious and national and ethnic and perhaps others as well. Again, your personal impression is worthwhile, but no substitute for rigorous analysis.
It is interesting though, don’t you think. If I had suggested I had had a deep personal encounter with God, I reckon you would likely have pointed out to me how subjective that was, and ask me for more rigorous evidence. But when it is the other way round, you prefer the personal experience to rigorous analysis.
Anyway, I’m happy to draw this to a close, but I hope it has encouraged you to look for evidence before you make some of these broad general statements which are actually contrary to the best evidence. Thanks for your courtesy and the opportunity to discuss.
I am so glad you saw the weakness in the statistic that was offered. That was intended and was just to show how unreliable statistics are, for basing the truth on. As it is, evidence is an emotive word which does require a great deal of analysis ie is it something you have witnessed, or is it someones elses account
(of course I am thinking of the bible here) or is it something you can prove?
I leave you with these thoughts: “What can be ascertained without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”. If god made man why did he make so many gods? Of course there is a catch in the last one which I am sure you will see.
I thank you for these past few days of exchanging thoughts it can only ever be good. As the saying goes more jaw jaw less war war.
Yeah, thanks for your time and thoughts. You are welcome to visit again if anything interested you.
Thanks Martyn and Unklee. I enjoyed that.
Thanks Anon, it is nice to know somebody else benefits as well as the participants.