More than 2 billion people identify as christians, and most of these believe the Bible is a special book that reveals God to them. Why do they believe this? And why should we believe it?
Reasons to believe?
People believe the Bible for many different reasons:
- Many people grow up in a christian culture or family, and never question the Bible – their life seems to work just fine when they follow the Bible.
- Some believe the Bible because they trust someone else – perhaps their pastor or priest, the tradition of their church, or an expert whose book they read – and that is enough for them.
- Others pray to Jesus for healing or help, receive that grace, and so trust Jesus with their life – and the Bible is simply part of that package.
- Some people check out the Bible, decide to give christianity a try, and if they find it “works”, they take that as evidence of its truth.
- The Holy Spirit may convince people of the truth of the Bible, directly, or via one of the above.
But not everyone thinks this way. Some people cannot believe in the Bible for these reasons, they need more evidence.
If this is you, this page is for you.
Reasons to doubt
It has to be admitted that there are some difficulties with believing the Bible. Author Greg Boyd has said:
“The historical accuracy of some biblical stories are questioned by many scholars, and it’s hard to deny that the Bible contains some apparent contradictions and some material that seems to fly in the face of modern science.”
If we are going to believe the Bible, we will need to address these problems – either understand why they are not problems or understand how they don’t prevent us believing the Bible and following its teachings.
Where to start?
Jesus is the centre of a christian’s beliefs, so the starting point must be to decide if we can trust what the Bible says about Jesus. If we can’t, then the rest of the Bible hardly matters. But if we can, then what we believe about Jesus will help us determine what we should believe about the rest of the Bible.
Sources of information
To decide if we can believe in Jesus, three sources of information are important:
- The New Testament. It should go without saying that it is important we read it ourselves, without the blinkers of christian or sceptical assumptions, and ponder the meaning, to see for ourselves what it says.
- The best historical scholars. There is no end to the books and websites about Jesus, so we need to be selective. We won’t get reliable and impartial information from anyone who doesn’t have expertise in New Testament history, or from anyone who has a strong christian or sceptical agenda. We must begin with the consensus of the most respected scholars – all the scholars I quote below are in this category.
- The Holy Spirit. Whether we believe or not, it doesn’t make sense to read a book which claims to be a revelation of God without inviting God to show us the truth personally.
Why believe in Jesus?
1. The New Testament gives useful historical information about Jesus
The secular scholars are quite clear – the New Testament is a useful historical source. That doesn’t mean they think it is without problems or errors, but they do believe it gives us a good picture of Jesus, his life and teachings.
“Historical reconstruction is never absolutely certain, and in the case of Jesus it is sometimes highly uncertain. Despite this, we have a good idea of the main lines of his ministry and his message. We know who he was, what he did, what he taught, and why he died. ….. the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.”
“I don’t think there’s any serious historian who doubts the existence of Jesus …. We have more evidence for Jesus than we have for almost anybody from his time period.”
“Research in the historical Jesus has taken several positive steps in recent years. …. the persistent trend in recent years is to see the Gospels as essentially reliable, especially when properly understood, and to view the historical Jesus in terms much closer to Christianity’s traditional understanding”
2. The scholars conclude certain facts about Jesus are historical
While there are doubts and disagreements about whether some stories and teachings are historical, historians generally accept the following:
- Jesus was born about 3-5 BCE, he lived in Nazareth in his childhood, and was baptised by John the Baptist in the Jordan River.
- He had 12 disciples (it was common for a rabbi or teacher to have disciples).
- He associated with outcasts (this was uncommon for a Rabbi in his day, because of Jewish purity laws).
- Jesus was known as a healer and exorcist. EP Sanders: “I think we can be fairly certain that initially Jesus’ fame came as a result of healing, especially exorcism.” G Stanton: “Few doubt that Jesus possessed unusual gifts as a healer, though of course varied explanations are offered.” Maurice Casey believed they were effected by natural healing, but NT Wright believes they were signs of God at work.
- He was an itinerant teacher, characteristically using parables. Most scholars agree “the kingdom of God” was Jesus’ main message. Many conclude that Jesus believed he was the “Messiah” (God’s chosen king or agent), inaugurating the Kingdom of God.
- Welcoming “sinners” was part of Jesus’ teaching and he claimed to be able to forgive people’s sins. M Grant: “Jesus introduced a very singular innovation. For he also claimed that he himself could forgive sins.”
- Jesus predicted his death and resurrection (M Casey), and he believed his death would be redemptive. M Grant: “Jesus lived his last days, and died, in the belief that his death was destined to save the human race.” M Casey: “He believed that his death would fulfil the will of God for the redemption of his people Israel.”
- Conflict with the religious establishment led in his death. Following a final meal with his friends, Jesus was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities then executed by the Roman Governor, Pilate.
- His followers believed he was raised from the dead. Most scholars believe that Jesus’ tomb was really empty and/or that his disciples “saw” him (in what sense is uncertain) after his death. E P Sanders: “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.”
This provides a solid basis for deciding what we believe about Jesus.
3. There are many things the scholars don’t say
There are three main areas where the scholars believe parts of the gospels are not historical:
- Most scholars conclude that many or all aspects of the stories of Jesus’ birth are doubtful historically. They say this because the stories don’t mesh together and there is no other confirmation of them.
- Many scholars believe John’s gospel contains a historical core but this is overlaid by a reflection by John on his beliefs about Jesus, making it difficult to know what is historical and what isn’t.
- There are numerous teachings and incidents for which the historical evidence is uncertain and which some scholars question, and a few which most scholars question. These doubts don’t change our view of Jesus very much because generally there are other similar sayings and incidents which are seen as historical.
Most scholars don’t pass judgment on whether Jesus really performed miracles and was really resurrected. They generally ascertain the most likely historical facts (as outlined above) but say that whether we can believe they actually occurred is a matter of belief and not history.
Scholars disagree on whether Jesus implicitly or explicitly claimed to be the “son of God”, but most agree that our own beliefs on this are also a matter of faith and not history.
4. We have to decide what we believe
There are arguments for and against believing in the resurrection and in Jesus being the son of God. We need to consider how consistent we find the picture of Jesus, and what other explanations we believe are possible to explain the historical evidence.
But the historical evidence can only take us so far – in the end it is a personal choice whether we believe these things about Jesus. Our choice will be influenced by whether we can believe God exists (for a summary of reasons to believe God exists, see Why believe?). If he doesn’t, then it is hard to see how Jesus could heal and be resurrected. But if God exists, then these things are at least possible.
This where it is important to read the gospels and ask ourselves whether we believe Jesus was telling the truth, whether we can believe he performed the miracles, and whether we are willing to trust him and follow him.
If we choose to believe him ….
If we decide that the evidence adds up and Jesus really was the son of God, then certain conclusions about the Bible follow.
We will be more willing to trust the New Testament where the historians are uncertain.
If Jesus was the son of God, we will be willing to believe in his miracles and resurrection and in his authority to speak on God’s behalf. We will be willing to trust that while the New Testament is a book written by ordinary people, God nevertheless ensured that it gives us a correct understanding of Jesus.
Even problematic passages like the birth narratives can be seen as telling us something true about Jesus despite the historical difficulties, and we will be willing to withhold judgment on passages we don’t understand.
More importantly, we will begin to take seriously what Jesus and his apostles said, and try to follow their teachings and example.
It will change how we view the Old Testament too.
The biggest difficulties in the Bible are in the Old Testament. Believing in Jesus should change how we view the Old Testament in two ways:
- The Old Testament books were Jesus’ scriptures. We will respect them as such, for they explain much about the culture he grew up in and how he saw his mission.
- We don’t need to be too worried about the difficulties in the Old Testament. The reasons for believing in Jesus I have outlined here have nothing to do with the Old Testament, so problems with the Old Testament don’t threaten them. We are free to investigate what the scholars say, form our beliefs about it accordingly, and continue to read it as Jesus’ scriptures.
Where to from here?
I hope this brief outline, and the references, show you that the New Testament gives a sufficiently reliable portrayal of Jesus for believing in him to be a rational thing to do, based on the evidence, and that this gives us confidence to believe the Bible is a revelation from God, despite any problems we may see. That is my conclusion, but the choice is up to you.
If you are convinced, you may wish to keep reading in this series on the Bible – perhaps start with pages outlining what the scholars can tell us about the Old Testament and New Testament.
Great post! The historical Jesus has always been an interest of mine, it’s pretty cool to think we can be quite certain about many of his life details. When you refer to the Old Testament scriptures and their problematic texts (especially with how the rather violent portrayals of God) isn’t Jesus affirming those portrayals of God as himself when he says in John 14:9 “If you have seen the father, you have seen me?”
Thanks Abdul, this relates to the question you asked elsewhere.
In my view, Jesus doesn’t always affirm the Old Testament portrayals of God, but rather corrects them or modifies them to make them complete. If we can’t imagine Jesus ordering the killing of the Amalekites, then I don’t see how we can think that God did that.
I think some christians, in their zeal to uphold the Bible, end up demeaning God. I would rather do the opposite and uphold God’s character even if that means accepting a different view of the Bible.
What do you think?