This is a rerun from Feb. 2007
This was the first question posed to me by my friend Nicholas during our conversation about Christianity. He posted it at his blog last week. I’m posting it here for archival purposes. Here is my response:
First, let me thank you for this unique opportunity. In our world of sound bites and bumper sticker arguments it is so refreshing to be able to just lay out a set of beliefs in the marketplace of ideas and have a serious and respectful dialogue. I have learned a lot from you about how to have graceful and charitable conversations. I know you’ve studied the Bible before, but I’ll try to address your questions as if responding to someone who hasn’t.
First, a little background: I grew up with a terrific set of Christian parents who have always lived out their faith in teaching and in service to others. Other than my college years, I have always gone to church . . . but let’s just say I wasn’t paying real close attention for the first 28 years or so. I was quite the skeptic. I think it is important to note this because I and many others didn’t come to faith through brainwashing from parents, schools or churches. We did so after initially rejecting and rebelling and later examining the evidence for ourselves. That doesn’t make us right, and that isn’t the only way people become followers of Christ. But it does counter the pervasive myth that we always believed these things or that we accepted them blindly. I didn’t become a believer overnight; it was something I wrestled with for a long time.
You asked a profoundly important question. The Bible claims that Jesus is God and that He is the only way to forgiveness of your sins and to eternal life. The Bible claims to speak for God over 2,000 times, so if it isn’t his Word then it has a staggering amount of lies and wouldn’t be worth picking up. That doesn’t mean it is true, just that it matters a great deal if it is true or not.
On to your questions. Here’s the short version: When I examined the evidence for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and for the authority of the Bible I found it to be extremely compelling. The Bible has credible authors with eyewitness accounts, claims that were falsifiable, accurate prophecies, complete support from archeological finds, robust copying processes that ensured we know what the originals said and plenty of accurate one-time translations from the original languages to our language. I found solid answers to every difficult passage I cared to investigate. I also noted the positive, dramatic transformations the Bible has had on people and cultures who take it seriously, as well as the tremendous impact it has had in my life.
I found other holy books to be lacking in some way, such as historical mistakes or clear contradictions to what we know to be true. I also found their accumulation processes to be less reliable (i.e., allegedly transmitted to one person over a short period of time). They also contain major differences that can’t be reconciled with the Bible.
To those who haven’t read the Bible, my suggestion is to just dive in. The Gospel of John is a good place to start. Find someone to read it with or join a Bible study. Get a “study Bible” that has explanatory footnotes. Keep asking tough questions. I read it all the way through 10 years ago and it was life changing. At a minimum you will have read the most popular book of all time and will have a better understanding of Christianity.
Here’s the longer version . . .
Assuming one believes there is a God, as most people do (we may want to get into separate lines of reasoning for that), then the question is whether He has revealed himself to us. If the God of the universe wanted to reveal himself to us, I don’t see it as a big stretch for him to communicate to humans and guide them to write and preserve what He wanted us to know.
Since we have multiple “holy books,” how do we determine if any are correct? One thing that makes it easier is that they all have essential claims that are mutually exclusive (at least relative to Christianity). By that I mean that they could all be false, but Christianity and another religion can’t both be true at the same time. Some simple examples: Hinduism teaches reincarnation, while the Bible teachers that we die once and after that we face judgment (Hebrews 9:7). So in a logical universe these both can’t be true. Jews claim that Jesus is not the Messiah and Christianity claims that He is. Since Jesus was either the Messiah or He wasn’t, at least one of these has to be false. I can provide examples on essential beliefs for other faiths as well.
As you point out, various religions claim that their god revealed himself to them. And many people have a lot of psychological confidence that their faith is the true one. But what really counts is how these claims hold up to testing. Can I prove the Bible to be 100.0000% true to everyone’s satisfaction? No. But is that the way people live their lives? Technically speaking, I can’t prove that aliens didn’t come here from another planet and create human life. But that doesn’t mean there is any reason to hold that view.
You can look at the historical claims in the Bible. These claims were from the earliest days of Christianity. They were made in the public square, where anyone could challenge their veracity. One of the things many people don’t realize about the Bible is that there isn’t a single example of one human forcing another to believe or even saying “just believe.” Check out the Book of Acts, which chronicles the first 30 years of the church. There are thirteen presentations of the Gospel and they all rely on fact and reason.
My reasons for trusting the Bible to be the Word of God are both objective (based on facts and reasoning) and subjective (based on personal experience). Whole series of books are written on objective reasons that the Bible is reliable and the Word of God, so I can only touch on a couple examples here. I’ll list some resources at the end for those interested in learning more.
The manuscript evidence for the Bible is very strong. Most accounts are either from eye witnesses or from interviews with eye witnesses. Most of the books were written within a short time of the actual events, so they were less likely to have legendary characteristics. There are thousands of ancient manuscripts located throughout the world that are closely dated to the events they describe. These are far superior in quality and quantity relative to other ancient documents that are readily accepted as fact. The Dead Sea Scrolls are a great example, as they were written before Christ and discovered in the 20th century.
There are many myths about how the Bible has allegedly been changed and translated many times over the centuries. The original texts were indeed copied many times but the process was very exacting. And virtually every Bible you will ever pick up has only been translated once, from the original language (Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek) into what you hold in your hands. As the Dead Sea scrolls, which contain the Old Testament, and roughly 5,000 partial and full New Testament copies attest, less than 1% of the text has been changed during the copying process. None of the changes (mainly spelling errors and such) impact church doctrine. For example, they all say, “Love your enemy.” Only the original writings are claimed to be inspired. Otherwise, any skeptic could deliberately mistranslate something and claim that the writings weren’t inspired.
Archeology is the Bible’s best friend. We are constantly getting more and more archeological proof of what is recorded in the Bible, and there has yet to be a finding disproving something in the Bible. Some people used to mock the Bible because it mentioned peoples like the Hittites or individuals such as Pontius Pilate that didn’t have any archeological evidence about them at the time. Then the evidence was discovered. This has happened again and again.
I’m not a prophecy expert, but I do know that there are many examples of specific and general prophecies described in the Bible that came true (including dozens about Jesus). My favorite is from Daniel 8, where Alexander the Great’s reign, death and the fact that his kingdom would be split into four pieces was predicted 200 years before the fact: Daniel 8:21-22 The shaggy goat is the king of Greece, and the large horn between his eyes is the first king. The four horns that replaced the one that was broken off represent four kingdoms that will emerge from his nation but will not have the same power. Greece was not a world power when this prediction was made. Who can predict what will happen in world events next week, let alone to identify something that specific that far ahead of time?
One thing that I find persuasive is how authentic Bible writers appear. Legendary stories typically read like . . . well . . . legendary stories. But the Bible writers are painfully honest, often noting how they doubted and misunderstood Jesus. They come across as anything but heroes. After they did something wrong I wonder if they thought, “This is going to be in the Bible, isn’t it?” (Just kidding).
I also find the transformed lives of believers to be evidence of the reliability of the Biblical accounts. Consider the Apostles who abandoned Jesus at the crucifixion (including Peter, who denied him three times). If Jesus stayed dead, then what would possibly motivate them to come out of hiding, steal his body from the Roman guards (an extremely implausible scenario) and publicly claim that he had risen from the dead? All of them were brutally murdered for their faith (except John, who was exiled to an island). All they had to do was “admit” the lie and they would have been freed. People will die for what they think is the truth, but I don’t know of martyrs who will die for what they know to be a lie.
If someone has tough questions about the Bible, they are in good company. The Bible welcomes critical examination of the evidence. Consider the story of “doubting” Thomas in John 20:24-31. He asked for evidence and got it. Also consider 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (Test everything. Hold on to the good.) and Acts 17:11 (Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.) And of course, the First Commandment is to love God with our heart, soul and mind. The Bible lays out evidence from beginning to end and never says, “Just believe.”
While there is a lot of additional evidence one could point to, I think it is important to let the Bible speak for itself. What is the best way to let a caged lion protect itself? Let it out of the cage! I believe Hebrews 4:12: For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. I encourage people to read it with an open mind. If they go in as confirmed atheists and are just looking for difficult passages, they’ll find plenty. But don’t fear: No one can make you believe. Even if you accepted as truth that Jesus is God, He rose from the dead and is the one way to salvation and forgiveness of sins that still doesn’t make you a Christian. It is putting your faith in him that matters.
Another reason is that the way the world is described in the Bible seems to mirror reality. I think the way Jesus described the world is the way it really is.
What about other holy books? I won’t cover every holy book, but I’ll touch on the Quran and the Book of Mormon as examples.
Why don’t I believe the Quran is the word of God? In short, because I think it has some rather large, verifiable mistakes. For example, it claims that Jesus didn’t die on the cross and that it was a body double instead. There is simply no evidence outside these “revelations” to Mohammad to corroborate this. Even the secular references to Jesus and the records of Flavius Josephus (a famous Jewish historian) and others note that Jesus died on the cross.
Most importantly, Muslims say they believe the Old and New Testaments except they claim they have been corrupted by Jews and Christians. But the process of textual criticism (used to determine the original or most authoritative version of texts) crushes that theory. As noted above, the Dead Sea Scrolls alone show that the Old Testament was uncorrupted over a 2,000 year period, and we have terrific evidence of what the original New Testament documents said as well.
Why don’t I believe the Book of Mormon is the word of God? Again, we have one person with an alleged revelation that is unsupported by history. It appears that some of his claims have even been proven false by DNA evidence. The golden plates he allegedly saw with the writings on them were supposedly taken up to heaven (which is possible, I suppose, but rather interesting considering that the whole Bible has zero examples of an object being taken to heaven).
Mormons claim to believe in the Bible as well. But in Galatians 1:8 the Apostle Paul says “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” So if the book of Mormon teaches the same Gospel as the Bible then their new book is redundant and unnecessary. If it is a different Gospel, then by their own criteria it is false.
They also make some rather bold, unsupported claims such as that we lived in a completely different state (i.e., non-human) before choosing to come to earth, after which we forgot our previous state.
Hopefully this is just stating the obvious, but just because I believe the Bible to be the true Word of God and other holy books to be false doesn’t mean I don’t have friends and employees who are Muslim, Mormon, New Age, Hindu, atheist, agnostic, etc. I pray that one day they will trust Jesus as their Lord and Savior and receive forgiveness for their sins and obtain eternal life in Heaven. I welcome opportunities to discuss spiritual matters, but I don’t force anything on them.
If you want to know more:
- Online overview of the Bible – lots of good Q&A and information
- God Wrote a Book by James MacDonald – easy to read introduction to the Bible
- General Introduction to the Bible by Norm Geisler – a not-so-easy to read introduction to the Bible
- The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus by Lee Strobel
- Bible overview – tips on how to read the Bible plus other Bible related topics
- Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry – lots of basic information on Christianity and the Bible
- Bible Study Blog – I cover a chapter or so every other day. All are welcome.
- Stand to Reason
- Please Convince Me