The Bible holds an essential place in Christian faith. The Bible claims to be—and the Church has recognized it as—the Word of God. The Church through the ages has acknowledged this status by referring to the Bible as its canon, which means that the Bible is the written standard for its faith and practice. These are extraordinary claims to make about a collection of ancient literature, and many people in today’s society have great difficulty understanding why Christians would put their beliefs and behavior under the authority of the Bible. I can think of five common objections that I have heard over the years:
- The Bible is full of contradictions and discrepancies.
- The Bible is full of violence, genocide, prejudice, and injustice, often commanded by God—and it’s been used by Christians to justify more violence and oppression.
- The Bible’s descriptions of nature and natural history are hopelessly at odds with science.
- The Bible was written by ancient and primitive people, and has no value to modern people anymore.
- Christians can’t even agree on what it’s saying, so who cares if it’s true or not.
Having thought about these issues over the years that I have been a biblical scholar, I would like to offer the following responses to these objections.
1. It is full of contradictions and discrepancies
It’s not very hard to convince someone that the Bible is full of contradictions—that is, if they don’t know the Bible very well. All you have to do is cite Proverbs, where the author tells us not to “answer (26:4)—or is it, “answer a fool according to his folly” (26:5). Or maybe point out that Matthew places the “Sermon on the Mount,” on a mountain (Matt. 5:1), while Luke says Jesus spoke on a “level place” (Luke 6:17). Is Abijah a good king (2 Chronicles 13) or a bad one (1 Kings 15:1-8)? Were humans created last (Gen. 1:1-2:4a) or first (Gen. 2:4b-25)? Of course, these are just samples from countless others that people like to bring up.
A little digging, however, will show that proverbs aren’t written to give us universally valid principles (“I would always answer a fool according to his folly”), but rather they are true only when applied at the right situation. Depending on the “fool” you are talking to, you have to determine which proverb is relevant to the situation.
The Gospels are not meant to be simply factual reports, but bring out the theological significance of real events for their intended contemporary audience. So Matthew places Jesus’ sermon on a mountain in order to bring out a connection all his original Jewish Christian readers would recognize immediately. Namely, Jesus speaking on a mountain about the law would remind them how God gave Moses the law on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-24): Luke, written primarily for Hellenistic Christians, would not pick up on that connection so readily.
The same is true concerning the account of Abijah in Kings and Chronicles. These aren’t just collections of data about a king named Abijah. The two histories are using the history of Israel and Judah to answer questions relevant to their time. The author of Kings writes to those who survived the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians to explain why they are in exile. They and their kings broke God’s law and suffer the consequences. Chronicles, on the other hand, was written to the post-exilic community and, among other matters, is interested in choosing events in the life of their kings that show their devotion to God.
As for the two accounts of creation: While they both are interested in telling us who created everything, neither are interested in telling us how he did it. Neither one is telling us the actual sequence of creation, but describes creation in figurative language. We can turn to science and ask the questions how God did it.
As I’ve demonstrated, supposed “tensions and contradictions” in the Bible are usually cases where someone misunderstands the genre and purpose of a certain passage, or is measuring the Bible by an inappropriate standard. In my forty-plus years as a professional biblical scholar, I have yet to hear such a claim that really sticks once I do a little digging. I suggest that others do as well.
2. It is full of violence, genocide, prejudice, and injustice, often commanded by God—and it’s been used by Christians to justify more violence and oppression
Yes, the Bible is full of prejudice, violence, attempted genocide, and injustice. The Bible, after all, gives us the brutal truth about sinful human beings.
Of course, people who bring this charge against the Bible don’t have these instances of human violence and injustice in mind, but rather they are thinking of those many stories where God brought violence on people either directly or through the agency of his followers. Think of the flood story (Genesis 6-9), the killing of the Egyptian soldiers at the Red Sea (Exodus 14-15), or the Conquest (Joshua 1-12). But, while it is hard to get our 21st century Western minds around it, these are stories of justice, bad people receiving the judgment that they deserve. God brings the Flood against violent humanity (Gen. 6:11-12); he closes the Red Sea against Egyptian soldiers who were trying to kill the Israelites, and he commands Joshua to fight the Canaanites because their sin had reached “its full measure” (Gen. 15:16).
It’s only people who live in relatively peaceful circumstances who have the luxury of being “turned off” by such stories. The hard truth of the Bible is that people who reject God and harm other people will eventually receive punishment for them. That’s also the message of the New Testament, in the teaching behind heaven and hell.
The divine violence of the Bible is part of God’s battle against evil. And this battle develops as time goes on. When Jesus comes, he actually heightens and intensifies the battle so that it is now directly toward the spiritual powers and authorities, and these enemies are defeated not by killing but by his dying on the cross, where he “triumphs” over them (Col. 2:15).
For this reason, Jesus’ followers, Christians, must realize that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12). This battle is won with spiritual (truth, righteousness, peace, faith, the word of God), not physical weapons. Any use of violence today to further or even defend the gospel is sinful.
Even so, this move from physical to spiritual warfare in the Old Testament does not carry with it a critique or rejection of what went on the in the Old Testament. As a matter of fact, the warfare against evil humans and dark spiritual powers come together in the picture the Bible gives us of the final judgment (for instance, in Rev. 19:11-21).
That said, I have to admit that there are matters in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, that I too find hard to understand. In particular, Moses’ instruction that Israel was not to leave alive “anything that breathes” (Deut. 20:16) is difficult for me to wrap my mind around, particularly when Joshua implements this after the battle of Jericho, when the Israelites “utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey with the edge of the sword” (Joshua 6:21). Perhaps, as some scholars suggest, “man and woman, young and old” is just a way of saying “everyone there,” but there were no young people actually there—but why mention the young if they weren’t included? Perhaps, as others suggest, Jericho at this time is a military garrison with few, if any, children, but even if one child died, it is still troubling. Perhaps—and this view is most likely, in my opinion—Canaanite culture was so thoroughly corrupt that it needed to be totally eradicated.
In the final analysis, I find myself, like Job at the end of the book of Job, bowing before God in spite of his unexplained suffering. For others, the picture of God killing or allowing the death particularly of non-combatants will continue to be an obstacle, but I believe we should resist the temptation to explain it away.
3. Its descriptions of nature and natural history are hopelessly at odds with science
The Bible is not at odds with science in its descriptions of nature and natural history. Biblical truth and scientific truth will never conflict as a matter of principle because, as past theologians have told us, God has given us two books to reveal who he is, namely the book of nature and the Bible. While these two books will never truly come into conflict, our interpretations of one or the other, or both, may be wrong, which brings the appearance of conflict. At this point, we need to remember the wise words of Pope John Paul II, “Science can purify our religion; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”
Genesis 1-2, the main biblical account of cosmic and human origins, describes these events using figurative language, which should be obvious to all readers and has been obvious to most through the ages. Church fathers like Origen and Augustine recognized that real days with evenings and mornings must have a sun, moon, and stars. Thus the days of Genesis 1—where the sun doesn’t appear until the fourth day—must not be real days. When Genesis 2:7 describes the formation of the first man as God blowing on dust, that too is figurative language. After all, does God have lungs?
So we don’t need science to tell us that Genesis 1-2, while vitally interested in the question of who created everything—God!—is not at all interested in how he created everything. Thus, we can turn to God’s other book—nature—to answer that question. And through the tools of science, we see that natural history is best understood as a long, slow process of cosmic and biological evolution, leading to the creation of human beings. This presents no real threat to the teaching of the Bible.
4. It was written by ancient and primitive people, and has no value to modern people anymore
The Bible was written by ancient people, to be sure. The earliest writings come from the second half of the second millennium BC and the most recent parts from around 300 BC. That’s a long time ago. The New Testament is more recent, but even those books were written almost 2000 years ago. They were written in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek by people who were culturally different from us. Indeed, we often misunderstand the message of the Bible if we don’t remember our temporal and cultural distance from those who wrote it. But it’s one thing to say the Bible was written by ancient people and another thing to say that they were written by primitive people. Even without taking into account the claim that these authors speak on behalf of God, such a charge would be the height of our own cultural arrogance. Yes, ancient people did not have computers, cell phones, video games, or even electricity or cars, neither did Shakespeare or Plato, and would we also say that these writers are too ancient to say anything true or meaningful? We have made remarkable advances in our understanding of natural world since biblical times, and the biblical authors often reflect their ancient worldview (that, say, the world was flat and perhaps at the center of the cosmos). But the Bible does not intend to teach us about cosmology, and the faulty cosmology that it assumes does not affect its intended message.
Others believe that the Bible is primitive in its understanding of the supernatural. Dying people are miraculously healed, the dead are brought to life, and the sea opens up to allow the Israelites to escape the Egyptians. But perhaps the modern view of the cosmos as materialistic here is the mistaken one. The Bible is God’s revelation of a dimension that escapes our empirical perception.
Jews and Christians value the Bible much more than any other literature, ancient or modern, since we recognize that God speaks to us through the human authors of the Bible (the Hebrew part to the Jews and the Old and New Testaments to Christians). In other words, while the books of the Bible were not written to us, they were written for us and have continuing relevance for us today.
5. Christians can’t even agree on what it’s saying, so who cares if it’s true or not
Christians often come to different conclusions on what the Bible teaches on a whole host of subjects. All we have to do is drive down the street and see a Baptist Church on one corner, then a Lutheran Church on another, then a Catholic Church, a Presbyterian Church, and on and on to come to the conclusion that there isn’t one, but a host of different Christian messages.
Christians disagree on many things, such as as how to interpret Genesis 1-2, how to understand the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of humans, what happens during communion, when someone should be baptized, how the gifts of the Spirit manifest themselves in us, when Christ is going to return, and on and on. Such differences may lead some people to conclude that if Christians can’t agree on what the Bible teaches, then why bother with it all.
But such a conclusion misses a very critical point. In the midst of all the disagreements on secondary matters (that some Christians unfortunately treat as more important than they are), nearly all Christians actually agree on the most important matters. What are these matters? Well, if you want to know what all Christians agree on take a look at the Apostles’ Creed . Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Catholic, and many more Churches all affirm the Apostles’ Creed. Christians also stand united in the clear teaching that the Bible tells us that we were created by God, that we are sinners who need a savior, and that this savior is Jesus Christ, God’s son, who died on a cross and was raised from death in power. As the Westminster Confession of Faith (a Christian creed written in the seventeenth century) puts it, these are the things that “are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation,” and these matters are clear because they “are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”
Let me end by saying that it is never wrong to voice one’s questions about the Bible, and these questions are natural ones to ask. I have asked them myself over the years, but they have driven me to a deeper study of the Bible. As I have studied further, I have come to a deeper respect for the Bible as the Word of God and my study continues. My hope for others would be that these questions could be catalysts to more interaction with the Bible and not become an excuse for dismissing the Bible.