III. The characteristics of the Bible
The physical universe cannot tell us about the power that caused its beginning, only that there was one. Living things cannot tell us about their designer, only that there was one. Is the “power” personal? A designer surely is. Are they the same? We cannot be sure, based on our own logic alone. Science cannot tell us about the designer(s). If he/she/they want us to know more, or establish a relationship, then he (shall we settle for a single generic pronoun for simplicity?) must take the initiative to communicate verbally. This would give us much more specific and personal information about himself and his plans and requirements for our relationship with him. How would he do this? That is hard to say; we are not entitled to give him orders. He could arrange the stars in a message, but in which part of the sky, and which language? It could, of course, be translated for those who could not read it, but for them it would feel very second-hand. He could appear directly to everyone, or some selected few, but that would be quite subjective, and easily counterfeited by both human and supernatural abilities. A written form would be most objective, and permanent from generation to generation. Again, a language must be chosen, but it could be translated into others, and printed so that everyone could hold it in their own hands and read it first-hand. A written revelation would need to contain many unique characteristics to distinguish it clearly from the countless other excellent (and not so excellent) books in the world, which are written by wise and helpful (or malicious) people but are not a revelation from our maker. Is there such a book? It is worth at least considering the possibility, and looking for a likely candidate.
There are a number of books claiming to be exactly that: The Koran, the Book of Mormon, perhaps the vast library of Hindu and Buddhist “scriptures,” although their entire concept of deity and truth is very diffuse. And of course there is the Bible. I will focus on it, because I know of no other book that begins to compare with its credentials to claim the title of “God’s Word.” See also further reasons in sec. A. When you have finished reading the following, you are of course free to make any comparisons you wish with any other book. The advocates of the Koran and Book of Mormon also attempt to present a convincing case. A detailed response is beyond the scope of this book, but is readily available in other books.
The Bible says its source is God, and He says He is also the power that began the universe and the designer of living things. He says the Bible is His letter to us, and that there is no other such letter, telling us about Himself and about our own origin and purpose. The reason we believe there is only one God, and only one Bible, is not merely that the writers, or modern-day believers, say there should only be one God and one such message from Him, or think their religion is better than others’. It is because we believe God has said so Himself. This section explains why we believe that.
If this conclusion is valid, then it further narrows our choice of religious faith. We have already left atheism and agnosticism behind, as unable to account for the origin and characteristics of the universe and living things. If there really is a verbal communication from a spiritual being, it puts the final nail in the coffin of these two religious options. It also is incompatible with the impersonal deity/universe of pantheism. It makes most animist deities either fictitious or impostors, either way an impediment in our relationship with a higher deity. Even deism’s absentee Creator cannot be reconciled with a God Who is still acting and speaking in our world.
Chapters 4 and 5 considered the Bible’s outlook on science. This section is the scientific outlook on the Bible. To do this, we must collect all the objective facts about the Bible: its contents, history, andpreservation. Then, to explain these facts we must propose a theory which is consistent, simple, reasonable, etc.
This discussion leads to the conclusion that the Bible is a supernatural book, which the human writers could not possibly have written using only their own talents and resources. There must have been a supernatural power behind them guiding their writing process in some way. This is a scientific conclusion, which is never an absolute proof. At best it can only be beyond reasonable doubt, producing overwhelming improbabilities comparable to those encountered in the discussion of evolution. Also, science cannot tell us what, or who, the source of the Bible is. So this approach alone is not sufficient basis to make a commitment of faith in the God of the Bible, but only an important confirmation of a decision or desire to make such a commitment. On the other hand, the lack of absoluteness of scientific conclusions, including this one, is not an excuse to reject or ignore it. Every decision we make in this life is based on this kind of reasoning.
It is not necessary to know all these facts in order to believe. Most Christians do not know most of them, nor feel they need to. For people who are interested in the reasons for faith in the Bible as God’s word, they are important. They are available for those who need them. See the discussion of step 3 in the steps to faith, ch. 3, III.
Many other explanations for the Bible’s origin, besides a supernatural power, have been proposed during the past 2000 years. But all such explanations contain incredible exceptions to normal human behavior, overwhelming improbabilities, etc. The reason many people believe such theories anyway is that they are unwilling to believe that the Bible is from a supernatural source, and these other theories are the only alternative.
We must use our minds to study these facts and conclusions, and to understand the Bible’s contents. Then we must use faith to trust and obey the God of the Bible. This is Biblical faith, not blind faith or superstition. We are not able to produce this faith by ourselves. The Bible tells us God will give it to us, if we are willing to receive it. He will also help us to understand more and more of the Bible, if we pray and ask Him to. Review ch. 3.
Many things in the Bible are beyond our ability to understand completely, but nothing is against our understanding; the Bible does not say black is white, up is down, the earth is flat, or anything else about history or science which we can prove is in fact not true. If it contained such statements, they would destroy its credibility. See topics E, F below.
It is true that many, but not all, Christians are narrow-minded, bigoted, prejudiced against other cultures, imperialistic, unloving, and in many ways disobeying the Bible’s commands. But this does not prove theBible’s teaching is untrue. If Christians were all like this, that would be reason to doubt the Bible’s teaching that God loves us and can change us to be more like Him. But Christians are not all like this, though of course no one is perfect (more about Christians’ character in sec. N).
Believing the Bible does not mean believing everything a missionary or pastor says or writes. It does not mean becoming completely like them, especially if they are from a foreign country. Countries outside the West must be reminded that Jesus Christ was not an American, and the Bible is not a Western book. He lived in Asia, and the cultural background of the Bible is much closer to the East than to the West.
The facts about the Bible can be listed under 15 topics. The 15th one is listed separately, as the fourth way we know that the God of the Bible exists: the experience of believers. In most of these topics, the Bible is unique among the world’s “holy books.”
In logic there are necessary and sufficient conditions for the truth of a conclusion. Necessary means that if the condition is not meant, the conclusion is certainly false, but if the conclusion is met, the conclusion only may be true but is not certain. Sufficient means that if the condition is met the conclusion is certainly true. How should we classify the following topics about the Bible?
These topics do not all directly prove the Bible is God’s word. Some are almost sufficient, very strongly suggesting that conclusion, and difficult to account for in any other way. But a really sufficient proof exists only in the abstract world of logic, not in the complexity of the real world. Some of the topics are only necessary, not sufficient; their being true does not prove the Bible is from God, but if they were untrue, that would prove the Bible is not from God. Some of them do not directly prove anything either way, but indirectly make it difficult for any other explanation to succeed. We will wait until the end to decide our conclusion about the source of the Bible.
There is a large number of books which discuss the information about the Bible that leads to the conclusion that it is from God. Some of them are listed at the end of ch. 5. Perhaps among the best for the average non-technical reader are:
Evidence that Demands a Verdict, by Josh McDowell, originally written in 1972 and 1975, and later republished.
Evidence for Faith, edited by John W. Montgomery.
There are many books specifically about the origin and accuracy of the Bible. Here are a few of the best:
A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, Revised, Gleason L. Archer. Chicago: Moody Press, 1964, 1974
Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Gleason L. Archer. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982
Is the New Testament Reliable? Paul Barnett. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity. ISBN 0-8308-1834-0
The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? F. F. Bruce. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 5th ed. 1960, later Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity. ISBN 0-87784-691-X. A classic; progress in research since it was written has only strengthened the conclusions.
Scripture and Truth, D. A. Carson, John D. Woodbridge, ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1983. ISBN 0-85111-571-3
A Survey of the New Testament, Robert H. Gundry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970
The New Bible Commentary: Revised, ed. D. Guthrie, J. A. Motyer, A. M. Stibbs, D. J. Wiseman. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970. Also London: InterVarsity Press
Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible, R. Laird Harris. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1957
More Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell. Campus Crusade, 1975
Can Archaeology Prove the New Testament? Ralph O. Muncaster. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 2000. ISBN 0-7369-0367-4. A very small book with a thorough summary and lots of references.
A brief summary of the Bible
For those readers who are not already familiar with the contents of the Bible, I provide a very brief summary. Many details are mentioned where relevant below. The Bible consists of two major parts, the Old Testament and the New Testament. The distinction is simply that the Old Testament was written before Jesus Christ, and the New was written after. The Old Testament contains 39 books, the New Testament 27, for a total of 66. The Old Testament constitutes about 4/5 of the thickness of a Bible. The Bible is actually a library in a single volume, not intended to be read consecutively from beginning to end. The Old Testament gives much background that makes the New Testament comprehensible, and the New Testament gives much explanation that makes the Old Testament meaningful. Comprehension of the parts grows with familiarity with the whole.
The Old Testament has as one of its major themes that God will one day send a very special person, called in Hebrew “Messiah,” which means an anointed one. This person will rule the whole world based in the nation of Israel, and bring blessing to the entire world. The New Testament says that Jesus Christ was this promised Messiah, fulfilling part of the prophecies by providing salvation through His death and resurrection, and will return again to complete the fulfillment.
The Old Testament begins with the five books of Moses, who the Bible says lived around 1400 BC. These books record events from creation to the end of his life, including the Exodus from Egypt. The following books from Joshua to Esther continue the history of the nation through many ups and downs, ending about 400 BC during the Persian Empire. Next come the books of wisdom, from Job to Song of Solomon. The remainder is the prophets, divided into major and minor according to the volume of their writings. The position of prophet came into existence at the beginning of the monarchy under Saul and then David around 1000 BC. Not all the prophets mentioned in the historical books left writings.
The New Testament also begins with historical books, recording the life of Christ in the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Then follows The Acts of the Apostles, which was originally written together with Luke, and was separated off in the second century as the church began collecting the gospels into a unit. Acts continues the history to around AD 60, first focusing on the early church in Jerusalem, then on the ministry of the Apostle Paul. These five books are about half of the New Testament. The second half is mostly epistles, many written by Paul to various churches and individuals, a few by James, Peter, and John. The author of Hebrews is unknown. The last book is the Revelation, by John, with much symbolism representing the future up to the end of the world and final judgment. The New Testament was entirely written between AD 40 and 100, so its writers can all be considered contemporary.
The very fact that the Bible has human writers is often cited as a reason not to believe it is God’s word; how could it be both a human and a divine book? I do not follow the logic of this question. What else could it be like? What other means could God use to give us a book? Do these people mean that they would only accept it if a meteorite from outer space landed somewhere, and lo and behold it broke open and revealed a book inside it? Some details of how the Bible can be both human and divine, through inspiration, were discussed earlier in ch. 5, I, F.
A. The Bible writers’ claims
It is a simple fact that the Bible writers claim to give us the only accurate revelation from the one real, personal God. Old Testament prophets often said, “Thus says the Lord,” “The word of the Lord came to me,” etc. Jesus quoted parts of the Old Testament, and referred to all of it, as “scripture.” Jesus told the Apostles that the Holy Spirit would teach them, thus authorizing in advance their writing of the New Testament. Paul said God gave him his teaching, and Peter referred to Paul’s epistles as scripture. This by itself is not sufficient reason to believe their claim. But this is a fact that we must include when we try to explain the origin of the Bible.
This fact narrows the range of possible explanations. It rules out politely respecting the Bible as one “good book” among many others. The world is full of good books that we can admire, appreciate, and benefit from, and still partly accept and partly reject. But when someone claims to give us a message from God, we have a hot potato on our hands.
Our options in handling this hot potato can be analyzed under three choices, as shown in this diagram. All proposed theories of the origin of the Bible, and there have been many, must fall into one of these options. The Bible writers claimed to have a message from God; this claim was either true or false. If it was false, then either the writers knew it was false or they believed (mistakenly) that is was true. So the writers were either prophets and apostles, or liars, or lunatics. Such claims rule out considering them ordinary thinkers with whom we can respectfully disagree. That does not appear on the chart.
This does not guarantee that the transmission of the text is flawless (sec K), that translation is perfect (which is impossible), nor that our understanding now is always correct (also impossible). But at least our confidence that the original meaning was correct greatly reduces the variables we must, or may, consider in determining what is truth. Liberal theologians have performed the experiment of abandoning this restriction, and the result is unrestrained speculation.
The Koran, the Book of Mormon, and many other books claim to add to the Bible’s revelation, or make corrections. Hindu and Buddhist holy books claim to give religious truth, but do not claim to be the only ones.
Conservative Christians do not accept any of these other books. The reason we do not accept anything else as an addition to the Bible is not that we believe God lost His voice 1900 years ago, nor that He could not have spoken elsewhere. The problem is that all other books we have seen which claim to be such an addition have teachings that are contradictory to the Bible’s teachings (including those in Deuteronomy and Revelation, discussed in the next paragraphs), have errors and contradictions, and do not have the kind of evidence of God’s power that the Bible has.
Moses, the first Bible writer, predicted that there would be many more prophets sent by God, but also that there would be many false prophets. He gave criteria for distinguishing true from false, in Deut. 13:1-3; 18:21,22. The basic requirement is that predictions must be fulfilled; any failure is fatal to his claims to be a prophet. But even if predictions are fulfilled and he can produce other miraculous signs, if he portrays a different God from that of Moses, he still is false. The Bible contains all the writings of which we are aware that fulfill these criteria.
Some Christians quote Revelation 22:18, 19, at the end of the Bible, which says no one can add to or take from “this book.” They say that “this book” means the entire Bible, and therefore that the Bible is finished. We cannot prove that it means this. Some people who advocate acceptance of something else (for instance, Mormons) interpret this verse as referring only to the Book of Revelation, and this cannot be proven false, though there is written evidence that a student of the Apostle John, the author of Revelation, said that John taught him that this verse referred to the entire Bible and meant that there would be no more. But even John’s opinion is not necessarily authoritative. On the other hand, there are similar warnings given by Moses nearly 1500 years earlier, in Deut. 4:2; 12:32, and obviously there was much more added to the Bible after that. So the principle is that God can add to His Word, but mankind dare not do so. And what God adds will not contradict what He has said before.
Be that as it may, there is nothing in the Bible that leads us to expect or need more to follow our present New Testament. The Old Testament constantly predicts more to come, but the New Testament does not. In many places it refers to Jesus as the final step in God’s plan of salvation, and it tells us to hold on to the things we have been taught about Him, but nowhere does it tell us to watch for more teaching revealed through apostles or prophets yet to come. The Son of God Himself is a tough act to follow. For example, Jude 3; Hebrews 1:1, 2; Matthew 21:33-46; I Timothy 6:20; II Timothy 1:13. The basic revelation is complete. As for personal specific direction, we now have the Holy Spirit within us.
This point is not necessary, let alone sufficient, for faith in the Bible as God’s Word. A divine message need not directly state its claims. For example, not every book in the Bible makes such claims. The name of God is not even mentioned in the book of Esther, and no direct claims of revelation are made in the historical books of the Bible. But where they do occur, such claims are simply a fact that must be included in our conclusion.
B. The Bible’s concept of God and His standardsSome philosophers, and some religions, hope to make room for acceptance of their own different concepts by claiming that to say anything definite about God is to limit Him. But this is itself a very definite statement about God, which limits His ability to possess definite characteristics, or at least to tell us about them. Their God is mute, speechless. These philosophers are excluding the possibility that God Himself has spoken, in the Bible or elsewhere. But that is merely an assumption, for which they give no basis.
The Bible writers say that God told them He is infinite, holy, just, loving, merciful, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, unique, eternal, self-existent, and many more things. Everything was created by Him. Humor is rarely mentioned in theology books, but it must also be an attribute of God. There is humor throughout the Bible, once you begin to notice it. Our sense of humor could only have come from our Creator. He must have a sense of humor; He made people.
The God of the Bible is perfectly loving, wise, and powerful. All three are necessary to give us peace of heart. If God has wisdom and power but not love, we could only fear Him but not trust that He is doing what is best for us. This is the way we often feel about big leaders in business and government, and unfortunately the way some small children feel about their parents. If He has love and power but not wisdom, we could only appreciate His good intentions but not trust that He really understands us and knows what is best for us. This is the best we can hope for from our friends, parents, employers, officials, etc., and the way they feel about us. If He has love and wisdom but not power, we again could appreciate His good intentions but not be sure He can always carry them out. This is also the way we and those around us often feel about each other. But the God of the Bible possesses all three, and so is perfectly suited to our needs. Does any god of any other religion even dare claim to be perfectly wise, loving, and powerful?
If we want to please the God of the Bible solely on the basis of our own efforts and attainments, His standards are very high. We must be absolutely pure and perfect, as He is. The only passing grade on His examination is 100%. 99% is not perfect, which is total failure. If we fail to please Him, He has total power to do with us whatever He wishes. This places an impossible challenge in the way of the viewpoints discussed in ch. 4, II, A and B, which assume that a certain standard, far short of perfection, should be “good enough.”
This makes us confused and uncomfortable. This God is loving and merciful, but also unapproachable, uncontrollable, in fact frightening. A theory of the origin of the Bible must explain why the writers produced such a unique, unpopular teaching. It certainly was not what any other religion had ever taught, what they liked to think, or what they hoped others would accept. Many of the writers suffered martyrdom for spreading their teachings. Yet their message survived, and in later centuries the Jews added these prophets’ writings to their Bible, which is the Old Testament of our Bible.
This point is not sufficient to prove the Bible is God’s Word, nor even directly necessary. But it is unique among the world’s religions, and difficult to explain in any other way. We would at least expect a true revelation to be unique; if it only duplicates ideas already common, then a revelation is unnecessary.
C. The Bible’s concept of human nature and salvationReview ch. 3, II, B and C; V, F; and ch. 4, II, B, and IV, about Adam and Eve, sin, salvation, and human nature. This is one of the Bible’s basic themes, and relates to many different questions.
Fortunately, the Bible does not end on the hopeless note of the previous section, but provides an alternative. The Bible tells us we can be accepted by this powerful, holy God. It tells us He still loves us. But it also tells us that before we can become acceptable to Him and experience His love, we must admit that we are sinful and accept His plan.
The Bible says we cannot make ourselves good enough to be acceptable to God. We are “dead in sin” (Ephesians 2:1). What can a dead person do? Our grade on His examination is 0. We do many things that He commands us not to do, we do not do what He commands us to do, and even our “good” actions come from wrong motives that reject Him. When we demonstrate love and kindness, it is only because we feel like it, not because God commands it.
Most people dig in their heels at this point. “What do you mean I’m a sinner? I’m not perfect, but I’m not so bad. I haven’t murdered anyone, or robbed a bank.” In many cultures, the only concept of sin is violation of the law that gets caught. So if you are smart enough, you are guiltless.
God’s first and greatest commandment is to love Him totally (Matthew 22:37, 38, where Jesus quotes Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 6:5). We do not love Him at all, let alone totally (Romans 3:10-18, all quotes from several Old-Testament prophets). So we all have broken the greatest command, which is the greatest sin. So much for comparing ourselves with others and feeling safe because their sins are bigger than ours.
We are born this way; this is what theologians call “original sin.” We have a sinful nature. Soon after we are born, before we can talk or walk, we begin to demonstrate this nature when we behave selfishly and angrily. The only reason small children do not kill each other and adults is that they are not strong enough. They do not need to be taught to act this way. As we grow up we continue to hurt others, steal or damage their possessions, and lie. These are sinful actions, the result of our sinful nature. We do not become sinners because we commit sinful actions. We commit sinful actions because we already are sinners. A duck is not a duck because it quacks; it quacks because it is a duck. We cannot blame our circumstances for our misbehavior. A sinless nature would not produce sinful actions no matter what the circumstances. Pressure only squeezes out what is already inside.
If we are born this way, then is it fair for God to punish us for being this way? This is not what God punishes us for. What God asks us to do is admit we have this problem, and need His help. If we refuse to admit it and to accept His help, then we are responsible for that choice and the consequences.
It is amazing that people even dare question God’s justice. This only became common in the 20th century. Earlier people were concerned about how they could prepare to face God’s judgment, but now they expect God to prepare to face their judgment!
Even if we could reform ourselves so that we would never sin again (we can’t), this is already too late. What is already past cannot be redone. What can we do about our past sins? Can good actions pay for bad ones? Stopping at a red light fifty times does not mean it is all right not to stop forty-nine times. If you tell a policeman that, he will laugh, but that is exactly what most people tell God. (see ch. 4, II, B)
If we try to pay for our sins, what can we pay? No amount of money, or work, or suffering, is enough. Any sin is a personal insult to almighty God. The punishment is death, both physical death and eternal separation from God. God’s holiness demands that this punishment be done, but His love wishes to forgive us and restore our broken relationship with Him. How can He do both at once?
He did it by sending His own Son to the world to become a human being, Jesus Christ. Jesus had no sin of His own, and so He was able to pay the penalty for our sins in our place. This is a mystery beyond our understanding, but we still can accept it. And He not only died; He rose from the dead, proving He was God’s Son and completing His victory over sin and its consequences. The Bible says that because He rose, we can have a new nature, or a new life, and can become able to be the kind of person God wants us to be. Eternal life begins now. We do not have to wait until after death to receive it. This also is a mystery.
As long as we are in this life, we still have a lot of old sinful habits in our mind, which are opposed to the behavior God commands, and it is a constant battle to resist and replace these habits (Romans 8:7, 8; Galatians 5:17). The Bible does not say we will ever become perfect in this life, but it tells us that God’s power is greater than anything else, and we are able to keep making progress in this battle.
This means that God does not change His actions in order please our wishes, but changes our wishes to agree with His actions. Some people object that this is a loss of our freedom. Why? God does not force this on anyone against their will; He only does it for believers, and believing means wanting and requesting this change. We are not even able to make ourselves willing to accept God’s will, but we can choose to ask Him to make us willing. As long as this is what we have chosen, and we are content, receiving what we wish, isn’t that freedom and peace? Does any other method succeed, or have any hope of success?
Many people complain that when God makes us His servants, or even children, in order to increase His glory, we are being exploited and not free. Once again, if it is what we choose, it is freedom. This is a problem only in our modern democratic age, where we are taught to expect to be independent and self-centered. When kings were highly respected, it was a privilege to be the king’s servant, especially a good king’s. Perhaps those generations understood something that we have lost. Heaven is not a democracy, but a kingdom. God is good. He treats His servants and children very well. It is a privilege, a benefit, not exploitation, to be even the lowest servant of this kind of God. Perhaps hell is democratic.
We no longer honor kings. But we accord near-divine esteem to sports and entertainment superstars, in reward for their ability to perform some outstanding feats of agility, or dexterity in manipulating balls of various sizes and shapes, or ability to duplicate the sounds of being carsick in a dishpan demolition derby. Many of them behave in ways that not long ago would have been considered foolish at best, in fact immoral and decadent. In return for such ability and behavior, endow them with global fame and wealth beyond the dreams of any king. Maybe we were better off when we accorded our devotion to kings. Some of them at least made some positive contribution to society. But neither kings nor superstars are really worthy of our worship. The God of the Bible is.
When a believer dies, he or she finally is released from sinful habits and influences, and goes to be with God in heaven forever after. (John 14:3; II Corinthians 5:6-9; Philippians 1:21-24) I do not know whether our assurance of spending eternity in heaven means we will become unable to sin, or able to be sure we will never choose to sin. Either way, it is a wonderful hope to look forward to. No other religion dares to even dream of anything like it.
Why do we have the opportunity of forgiveness and restoration, but as far as the Bible tells us angels who rebelled can only await certain condemnation? The Bible does not tell us why. Perhaps it is because they chose to depart from the direct presence of God. But Adam and Eve knew Him closely too. Whatever the reason, we certainly should treasure our privilege.
A person who still has only the old nature cannot live with God, but must be separated from God forever. This is the purpose of hell. Review ch. 4, II, B and IV, B.
We can be sure right now whether we have this new nature. The requirement is simply to admit we need it, and tell God we want it. God promises that He will hear us and accept us. All we need to do is believe that Jesus can save us, confess our sins and repent, commit ourselves completely to Him, and trust and obey Him. We may or may not feel anything unusual at that moment. Some people have strong and wonderful feelings, some have none. I didn’t. The Bible does not promise anything about feelings. But we can believe it is true even if we don’t feel it. Our certainty is based on God’s love and promise and Jesus’ actions, not on our own ability, behavior, or feelings. We cannot get 100% on God’s examination, but Jesus did, and God will put His grade on our report card if we ask Him to.
Sometimes people object to this, saying “This is too simple, too cheap. This means that no matter what our behavior has been, we just need to say a few words and we can escape punishment and get an entrance ticket to heaven.” This objection in itself is correct. If salvation was like this, it would be unreasonable, but they have misunderstood the Bible’s meaning. See the explanation of the meaning of “believe,” in ch. 3. It is a sincere change of heart, not mere magic words. We say faith is simple, which means that we do not have to first do many things or difficult things, such as reform ourselves to become deserving of God’s acceptance. The Bible’s message is that we cannot do so, and that thinking we can is putting the cart before the horse. All we can do is believe first, and then God Himself takes responsibility to begin changing us, as we cooperate with Him.
We do not like to hear this. Most people become angry when they hear it. Their anger proves that the Bible writers did not naturally invent and teach this concept, nor expect others to like it either.
Our theory of the origin of the Bible must explain why those writers believed and wrote such unpopular and unusual things. If we say that it was natural for them to do so, then why are all other religions different?
This point, like B, is neither necessary nor sufficient, but very significant, in deciding whether the Bible is God’s Word.
D. The Bible’s internal unityThe Bible was written by at least 30 writers over a period of 1500 years (sec. J). These writers were farmers, shepherds, kings, priests, musicians, etc. Some were highly educated in Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, or Israel; others were uneducated. They wrote history, poetry, and sermons. Each writer added his unique new aspects to the Bible. They did not simply repeat what had been written before. Some may not even have been familiar with all the earlier writings. Yet their writings fit together, all consistently presenting the same God and teachings.1. Contents
It is not possible to prove the Bible has no contradictions. Conservative Christians believe that the Bible was free of errors when it was written. This belief is not mere blind faith or bigotry. We believe this because the Bible claims this for itself, and because we have found overwhelming reason to believe it is God’s word, so it is possible that it is free of error. It has survived every attempt in 2000 years to prove it has errors. This is the subject of section 2.
Were the writers prophets, liars, or lunatics? (see section A above) Most of them throughout the Old Testament lived at different times, and so could not possibly work together with other writers to avoid contradictions. Many of them died for their teachings, and were known for their conviction and courage. So the writers do not seem to be liars or lunatics, which only leaves prophets and apostles as the reasonable explanation.
Many people challenge the assertion of the Bible’s internal unity. They say that the Bible is not consistent, but is full of contradictions. The Bible is undeniably a large, complex book. If the Bible were so simple that there were no problems, then we could not believe it is God’s message to us. Of course God’s thoughts are beyond our ability to completely understand. We must admit that there are many places where we are not sure about the Bible’s meaning. No one completely understands the Bible.2. Questions
But inability to completely understand is not the same as complete inability to understand. There are many important teachings in the Bible which are clear beyond any doubt about their meaning: about God, the human race, salvation, and Jesus Christ.
In places where there are several possible interpretations, some people always choose the ones that produce contradictions. But in every case I have seen, there are other interpretations that are at least as reasonable, usually more so, and do not produce contradictions. So I ask why those people want to choose the interpretations that make the Bible look inconsistent.
Even if we accepted all the contradictions that some people think they find in the Bible, we still could ask why there are so few, and why they are such small details. Even in the hands of its worst critics, the Bible ends up looking far better than any collection of philosophers’ writings could possibly be. Can we find any other collection of writing of more than 30 ancient teachers, whose ideas fit together in this way? The philosophers of Greece, or of China, had many different ideas. A collection of their writings would be just that: a collection of different ideas, not a consistent whole like the Bible.
In studying the problems of the meaning of the Bible, the method we must use is called “grammatico-historical interpretation.” This is simple common sense, the same way we interpret any other written or spoken communication, ancient or modern. It includes understanding the context, the original language, cultural and historical background, and figures of speech.
We often talk about “literal interpretation,” but that does not mean stupid interpretation. It means we believe that the original meaning of the writers is correct, instead of trying to guess some sort of hidden “real meaning” behind what they said. Those who practice this kind of guessing can guess anything they want to, and in fact people have suggested every imaginable (and unimaginable!) idea as the Bible’s “real meaning.” This is the basic principle of what is called “liberal Christianity.” It also was a common practice in the Middle Ages, when theologians assumed there were several levels of meaning in every passage.
For us who understand neither Hebrew nor Greek, we must carefully read the best translations we can find, and compare them with each other. We must learn what we can from reference books written by scholars who are experts on original languages, culture, history, and archaeology. But we must not become over-dependent on them, and must distinguish solid information from mere opinion. We are still responsible to study the Bible and form our own understanding of it, depending on the Holy Spirit’s guidance. We must be careful to find “plain Scripture and plenty of it” before we dare say with confidence “The Bible says..... “
Conservative Christians are not unaware of questions or unwilling to consider them. Problems are discussed honestly and carefully by conservative Bible scholars in countless articles in theological journals, as well as many books. I believe they more than adequately answer the criticisms of skeptical scholars, pointing out their unjustified assumptions and misuse of facts. I have read some of the basics, but cannot claim to have studied this topic deeply, nor to retain the details of what I have read. One life is too short. Many of the books listed at the end of ch. 5 discuss questions related to this topic. Most of the books listed at the beginning of this chapter, sec. III, are at least partly devoted to this subject.
This is the field of “higher criticism.” “Lower criticism” is the technical term for analysis of the content and meaning of the text; this is criticism in the technical sense, not in the combative sense. Higher criticism is the attempt to determine how the text came to be what it is. It began in 18th-century intellectual European circles, and is a long story which is discussed in some of the books listed above.3. The Documentary Hypothesis
Many scholars have claimed to find in the Old Testament a progressive development from an early Hebrew tribal religion, worshipping a local god, practicing racial prejudice and vengeance, to a later development of monotheism and high ethical standards. They also find the products of a political power struggle between the monarchy and the priests. But in order to “find” this development process, they have to cut up the Old Testament into hundreds of pieces and put the pieces back together differently to fit their theory and “reconstruct” the assumed original documents. This is called the “documentary hypothesis,” developed in the 18th and 19th century. It claims that the five books of Moses were actually written centuries after Moses, by an editor using at least four different documents, virtually all of which were not written when they claim to be, and are politely referred to as “pious forgeries.” The four documents are called J, E, D, and P, representing Jehovah, Elohim, Deuteronomy, and Priestly. The rest of the Old Testament is subjected to similar explanation.
There is no conclusive evidence that any of the Old Testament was not written when it claims to be. Some experts claim there is such evidence. They claim that there are some words which were not in use at the traditional date of writing, but indicate a later date. Such arguments are at best inconclusive, and in many cases they prove to be false as research continues.
Many Bible-believing scholars have studied and replied to this theory in detail. Its starting assumption is the rejection of genuine divine revelation and miraculous events. The theory itself is based on historical and literary assumptions which were proven wrong before the end of the 19th century, and the different scholars who proposed it continuously disagreed and pointed out the contradictions in each other’s theories. While it is true that a society and religion develop with time, and that any society has power struggles, the specific details of the documentary hypothesis are pure imagination. But the theory still lives on anyway, because it is the only alternative to accepting the Bible’s authority as God’s Word.
One major example of apparent contradictions is in the four Gospels, which record many of the same events and teachings of Jesus. This is the “synoptic problem,” applying mostly to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John contains mostly different material, except for the week of the Crucifixion. We cannot prove that the gospel records are mistaken, nor that they are not. The gospel accounts are too different to be the result of deliberate cooperation by the authors in order to deceive us, but too similar to be the result of separate imagination or deceit. If they had tried to lie, they would have avoided so many apparent differences in their stories. And they would not have written a story in which they themselves are often portrayed as mistaken and failing. Also, the writers were all willing to die for the story they told. The only reasonable explanation is that the four gospels are honest, accurate eyewitness records. This is also discussed in sec. H on the record of Jesus’ life.4. The Four Gospels
Another big example of apparent contradiction is between the (assumed) Old Testament Jewish local tribal God of ethnic war, sacrifice, and killing, and the New Testament God of love and forgiveness for the whole world. This is a serious misunderstanding of the Bible. Most people who make this statement have not actually read the Bible. Scholars who choose this viewpoint are distorting the facts.5. The Old Testament and the New Testament
Why did God choose the Jews, (or Hebrews, or Israelites) as His “chosen people”? The Jews assumed, as we would have in their position, that it must mean they were especially capable and deserving, and that He loved only them. Skeptical scholars assume that the Jews made up the idea that they were God’s chosen people. But this is not the Bible’s explanation. It did not mean He loved others less. Beginning from their first ancestor Abraham, God promised to bless the whole world through them. When they had become a nation and Moses led them out of Egypt, He told them He did not choose them because they were great (they were not), but because He loved them (Deut. 7:7), so that what He did for them would show His power not theirs. He could not have done that through a great and strong nation, for instance China.
Was it a privilege to be the chosen people? It was a special opportunity, but also a burden. They had many laws and duties. Their failure was recorded in detail in the Bible for the whole world to read ever since, and it brought them especially severe punishment. Do we really envy that?
The Old Testament records many times when God punished people and nations for disobeying His laws. After Israel became a nation, He instructed them to destroy several other nations who disobeyed Him. But He was impartial in His justice; Israel had no special privileges. When Israel similarly disobeyed Him, He brought other nations to punish them. In fact, because their privileges were greater, their sin was more serious, and their punishment needed to be a lesson to the watching world. But the messages of the prophets are full of calls for repentance and offers of forgiveness. God did not punish His people until He sent them many prophets for many generations. Are we that patient?
There is something perversely contradictory in the simultaneous complaints that God does not seem to do enough to restrain the evil practices in this world, and also that He is unjust or unloving when He does deal retribution to some perpetrators of evil. Perhaps the complaint is specifically centered on the means He used to deal the retribution, but even on this point it seems that there is an objection to every possible means. If impersonal “natural events” are involved, that is called unjust, and if human agents are involved, that too is unjust!
The specific case of the Canaanites deserves discussion. The people of Canaan, whom God told the Israelites to destroy, had been there for centuries. In the time of Abraham, around 2000 BC, the city of Salem had a king named Melchizedek, who was a priest of God to whom Abraham offered a tithe (Genesis 14:18-20). God told Abraham that his descendants would one day possess that land, but not yet because “the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” (Genesis 15:16) When Joshua and the Israelite army entered the land 500 years later, there were no more priest-kings, and the religion of the people involved many practices that are horrible and embarrassing to even think about. They included much sexual immorality and perversion, and cruel human sacrifices. One religion used a hollow metal statue, with a fire inside it to make it red-hot, and a living baby was placed in its hands to be burned to death. The child’s own mother was forced to do this. Various other means of excruciating human sacrifice were practiced, which we need not describe here in further detail. It is no wonder that God eliminated such people. A God of love and justice must do something about such evil practices!
On the level of nations, the status of the Old-Testament Israelites as God’s chosen people was by definition a unique case not transferable to any other ethnic group or conflict. Unfortunately some Europeans and Americans from the 18th to early 20th centuries took it as just such a precedent, with tragic results for other people with whom they came in contact, especially the native people of Africa and America. The New Testament church, unlike Old-Testament Israel, is not a political or ethnic entity, and the commands and promises given to it are spiritual and eternal. This is not an inconsistency, but a process God planned from the beginning, predicted throughout the Old Testament, though few Israelites grasped it. The status of war is not clearly stated in the New Testament, and is a moral dilemma in a depraved world, with which each individual must deal on a case-by-case basis as he understands the issues and God’s guidance. Both blatant imperialism and radical pacifism seem to me to have no Biblical basis, but that leaves a broad gray area in between.
Of course, most people consider the Israelite invasion of Canaan as just that, an invasion, ruthless territorial expansion at others’ expense, like the infamous “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans in the 1990s and tribal conflicts in Africa. It is assumed that the Israelites just projected their warlike ambitions onto their tribal deity, ashas happened in countless other cases, and were not carrying out a command from the one true God as they claimed to be doing. That is a remarkable claim on the part of the Israelites, and we rightfully require remarkable evidence before accepting it. That is a larger issue, to which this entire chapter is devoted. There is remarkable evidence.
As for the New Testament, does it only talk about God as loving and forgiving? No. It talks much more about hell than about heaven. Jesus talked sternly about the errors of the Jewish religious leaders, and the judgment they would receive from God. The New Testament ends with the Revelation, which predicts the end of the world with global catastrophes, final judgment, and eternal hell-fire.
In conclusion, the God of the Old Testament is the same as the God of the New Testament; there is no basis here for claiming inconsistency in the Bible. God loves us, and gives us many opportunities and reasons to repent and begin trusting and obeying Him, but if we refuse too long He does not wait forever. There is a last chance. To be holy and just, He cannot let sin go unpunished indefinitely. He has the legitimate right, in fact is duty-bound by His own nature, to dispense life and death to individuals and nations, by whatever means He chooses.
Our theory of the origin of the Bible must explain how this collection of writings has such consistency. It is impossible to give an airtight proof of consistency, and even if possible it would not be an airtight sufficient evidence that the Bible is God’s Word. But it is certainly necessary; a revelation that is contradictory is worthless. Within the limitations of the real world the Bible’s consistency is very impressive, somewhere between necessary and sufficient. The only reasonable, simple explanation is that there was a superhuman source behind the human authors.
E. The Bible’s historical accuracyThe Bible is full of historical details. There is a widespread impression that the Bible contains many historical errors, and therefore is untrustworthy. This is an unnecessary obstacle to faith, and in fact the Bible’s historical accuracy is an evidence in support of faith in its message.
Many Christians have tried to separate the Bible’s religious teachings from its historical record. They claim to be trying to protect the Bible, so that in case many of the stories are proven untrue we can still believe what it teaches. They profess to be well-intentioned, and we can only accept that profession. In the case of some liberal theologians, though, I can’t help suspecting that they do see clearly the destructive conclusion to which this leads, and which they quite cheerfully advocate.
Most of the Bible’s teaching is based on, and inseparable from, historical events which are interpreted as acts of God. Also, if it is not reliable about earthly events that we can check on, how can we trust it about spiritual and heavenly truths that we cannot check on? If God did not really do what the Bible says He did in the past, can we be sure He can do anything now? So those who try to “protect” the Bible in this way have actually destroyed it, making it irrelevant because its God is impotent. Opponents of Christian faith see this clearly enough, and claim to find historical errors in the Bible and then use these as reasons to reject its teaching.
Direct and indirect evidenceWe have direct evidence of only a few of the major events and people recorded in the Bible: wars, kings, construction and destruction of cities. What is most important is indirect evidence. Historians and archaeologists have been able to learn much about the background details of the stories in the Bible: when cities were and were not inhabited, existence and political structure of nations and empires, what names of people and places were used when, range and means of travel and trade, items of trade, coins, style and material of construction of houses and other buildings, clothing, food, technology, social customs, laws, etc.
In a court trial, an eyewitness’s testimony stands or falls with the accuracy of background details which can be checked independently: time of day, weather, clothing, nearby objects and events, etc. If these all agree with what is known to be true, then his testimony is very convincing about what cannot be known otherwise, which is the reason the eyewitness is called to testify in the first place. But if these details are mistaken, his testimony is rejected.
If the Bible writers invented their stories, they could not possibly anticipate, or even care, what things we could discover by research several thousand years later. If they wrote down legends which had been transmitted orally through many generations, such legends cannot retain all the kinds of correct details listed above.
Historians one or two hundred years ago said that the Bible is full of historical errors. But further research has proved the Bible is right and the historians were wrong. Bible reference books give many such examples.
The Bible contains thousands of historical details which can easily be proven right or wrong by modern research. We can imagine many such details being proven wrong. But there is not one proven error yet. It is of course impossible to prove every historical detail in the Bible.
A theory of the origin of the Bible must explain this amazing accuracy. The only simple, reasonable theory is that the writers recorded true events, with God’s guidance to prevent mistakes.
This point is, like consistency, somewhere between
necessary and sufficient.