Do we know the Bible is true?

Readers, I try to be a good sport. A while ago I asked cartoonist Wes Molebash about his Christian faith, and he sent me to an essay by apologist Gregory Koukl for a better answer than he felt he could provide himself. So I read that essay and responded in great detail as to why I did not find it even close to sufficient at “defending the Bible’s authority.” Recently, commenter Jorge Alvarado pointed me to an article on ChristianAnswers.net and told me that this was “a good place” to start understanding why the Bible is a true, authoritative text. So, now, let’s take a deep breath and see if this article makes any good points backed up by any reasonable evidence, which might add up to sufficient reason to believe in Christianity.

The article is neck-deep in unfair mischaracterization right from the start.

There have been hundreds of books written on the subject of the evidences of the divine inspiration of the Bible, and these evidences are many and varied. Most people today, unfortunately, have not read any of these books. In fact, few have even read the Bible itself! Thus, many people tend to go along with the popular delusion that the Bible is full of mistakes and is no longer relevant to our modern world.

The Bible is the best-selling book of all time, ahead of the Qur’an and Mao’s Little Red Book by at least a factor of 3. It’s also available for free on many websites now. If you want to tell me that “few have even read the Bible,” you have to either provide me with some reason to think that is the case, or realize you are making an assertion about people who consider themselves Christian and probably own at least one copy of the Bible. I wouldn’t argue with the point that few Christians have really read the Bible. I’ve been praised by a couple of devoutly Christian friends when they learned that I’ve read the whole thing — something they are just now beginning to attempt, something which was apparently not part of their religious college education. But then, these people surely don’t “go along with the popular delusion [sic] that the Bible is full of mistakes and no longer relevant,” do they? Maybe reading the Bible is what teaches you these things, and not reading it is what allows you to go on believing that it is true. Hmm.

I’m not going to quote the entire article in this post, but I do want to include the next two paragraphs of the introduction.

Nevertheless the Bible writers claimed repeatedly that they were transmitting the very Word of God, infallible and authoritative in the highest degree. This is an amazing thing for any writer to say, and if the forty or so men who wrote the Scriptures were wrong in these claims, then they must have been lying, or insane, or both.

But, on the other hand, if the greatest and most influential book of the ages, containing the most beautiful literature and the most perfect moral code ever devised, was written by deceiving fanatics, then what hope is there for ever finding meaning and purpose in this world?

Is the Bible really the most beautiful literature? I have shelves full of novels I would rather read … but I guess beauty’s in the eye of the beholder. Does the Bible really contain the most perfect moral code? It’s conceivable you might think that, if you like genocide, gleefully murdering children, subjugating women, and torture. But that’s not really my cup of tea.

And it breaks my heart that there are really people out there who believe that “finding meaning and purpose in this world” is completely contingent on the Bible’s truth. It’s not. But this is an extremely successful strategy for meme propagation: when the meme is communicated, it comes also with the idea that questioning, doubting, or rejecting it will completely destroy your life as you know it. This essay begins with the assumption that if the Bible weren’t true, we’d all be doomed to hopeless lives of desolate misery. I’m not really expecting an objective evaluation of the evidence after that.

At any rate, this article is divided up into five sections: Fulfilled Prophecies, Unique Historical Accuracy, Scientific Accuracy, Unique Structure, and Bible’s Unique Effect. I’ll deal with each of them in turn.

Fulfilled Prophecies

This section makes grandiose claims: “Hundreds of Bible prophecies have been fulfilled, specifically and meticulously;” “all of [the prophecies concerning history] have been literally fulfilled;” “There is no other book, ancient or modern, like this.” Gee, if I wasn’t doing any fact-checking or critical thinking of my own, this would sound really impressive!

Let’s take a look at the only specific example given here, that Daniel 9:24-27 predicted “that Christ would come as Israel’s promised Savior and Prince 483 years after the Persian emperor would give the Jews authority to rebuild Jerusalem, which was then in ruins.” Is that what it says in Daniel? In those verses, Daniel is describing a vision given to him by the archangel Gabriel. It contains nothing about 483 years, nor does it mention a Persian emperor. Instead, Gabriel says that Daniel’s people had 70 weeks (~1 year, 4 mo.) to clean up their act and “anoint the most holy,” the messiah. He says there will be some order to rebuild Jerusalem, and 69 weeks later the messiah will arrive. (Presumably, then, this means that the messiah should show up one week after Daniel’s meeting with Gabriel, max. But modern scholars believe the book was written in the second century BCE, and traditional belief is that it was written 400 years earlier than that!) Then Jerusalem gets destroyed again by “the people of the prince that shall come,” and the events of the following week are described in a way that’s honestly extremely confusing. It sounds like a lot of apocalyptic language, but it’s mostly gibberish to me.

Bottom line, this is not a fulfilled prophecy. Even if you compromise and say it should count as prophesying the arrival of a messiah at some point in the future, and the rebuilding of Jerusalem at some point in the future, you must admit that 69 weeks does not equal 483 years and thus this is neither specific, meticulous, or literal. I think it’s also worth pointing out that we shouldn’t count as proof any prophecy in the Bible that gets fulfilled elsewhere in the Bible. (This disqualifies most of the other prophecies alluded to in this article, including the “more than 300 … fulfilled by Christ himself.”) I mean, if something is predicted in chapter 2 of a novel you’re reading, and then it actually happens in chapter 15, do you call it fulfilled prophecy and start believing every word of that novel as literal truth? Of course not. It’s called foreshadowing.

I’ve read plenty of articles about supposedly fulfilled Biblical prophecy, and every one of them turns out to be full of crap just like this one. If prophecy is supposed to show us that the Bible is true, then why isn’t there a single prophecy about anything noteworthy and non-obvious that has happened in modern times, which we’ve seen fulfilled to the letter? If you know of a prophecy like this, please let me know in the comments, but until then I have to say — it’s because the Bible was made up by people, not by an omniscient deity.

Unique Historical Accuracy

This is just laughable. The article attributes to “Dr. Nelson Glueck, probably the greatest modern authority on Israeli archeology” the statement, “No archeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference.” And while that’s very hard to believe, it may be true — I don’t have encyclopedic knowledge of archaeology, I admit — but there are a couple glaring flaws when it comes to using this quotation to argue the Bible’s veracity. First: a lack of archeological evidence against the Bible would be a good start, but is still an incomplete statement about its historicity. We still have to take into account all the cosmological, geological, biological, and anthropological evidence that disproves it. Second: including real people, places, and civilizations in a story does not demonstrate that that story is factually true. Consider the thriving genre of historical fiction. Certainly no archeological discovery has ever controverted any of those novels, either! But we would be seriously mistaken to conclude that any one of them is perfectly accurate in every way, much less that they tell an ultimately true story in the big picture.

I think it’s also interesting to note that Nelson Glueck, cited here as such a great and authoritative expert, was actually not an evangelical Christian but rather a Reform Jew who “always maintained that his faith was not based on a literal interpretation of the bible. To do that, he once said, would be to ‘confuse fact with faith, history with holiness, science with religion.’”

Scientific Accuracy

This section almost made me cry. It claims that “many of the principles of modern science were recorded as facts of nature in the Bible long before scientist [sic] confirmed them experimentally.” Right. Because if there’s anything Christians have been known for throughout history, it’s their unwavering support of scientific inquiry, and it never fails to confirm the major tenets of their beliefs. (Pro Tip: That was sarcasm. Follow the links.)

Worse than that, there’s a list with some examples of Bible verses that demonstrate advanced scientific knowledge. The first one I clicked on was for 2 Peter 3:7, which allegedly demonstrates the “Law of conservation of mass and energy.” The translation they link to gives:

But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men.

I guess they are resting all that on the phrase, “kept in store”…? You have to try really, really hard to make this fit, and even then I’m not sure it does. I read it as saying that God is watching out for the universe for now and making sure it’s intact, but it’s going to get all blown up on Judgment Day. Nothing to do with physical laws. I mean, I do get that these wouldn’t be “stated in the technical jargon of modern science … but in terms of the basic world of man’s everyday experience.” But if the point was to communicate mass-energy equivalence, it could have easily said something mentioning, oh I don’t know, how about the concept of mass, the concept of energy, and the fact of their conservation and equivalence?! No one would have read this verse to have this scientific meaning before scientists made the relevant discoveries. That’s because the scientific meaning isn’t there; it’s just being forced onto irrelevant sentences by desperate apologists.

The other examples are no better. Isaiah 40:22 is said to describe the “roundness of the Earth,” but in fact it says that the Earth is a “circle,” not a “sphere.” (I guess that’s still round, but not scientifically accurate.) Given that the verse goes on describe the sky as a tent overhead, I’d say this does not correspond to known scientific truth at all. I’m not going to go through each one, as the blatant misrepresentation of scripture and science is just making me angrier and angrier, but if you find one particularly compelling just say so in the comments and I’ll tell you why it’s ridiculous.

The section ends with a neat little inoculation against any of those pesky scientific or historical errors you might think you found in the Bible:

It is significant also that no real mistake has ever been demonstrated in the Bible—in science, in history, or in any other subject. Many have been claimed, of course, but conservative Bible scholars have always been able to work out reasonable solutions to all such problems.

Translation: Don’t worry, no matter what you hear from those mean atheists who want to take away all of your “hope … for finding meaning and purpose in this world,” you can rest easy with the knowledge that “conservative Biblical scholars” have found “reasonable solutions” to every single factual objection to the Bible. We don’t need to provide any evidence for this claim, or even any examples to illustrate this claim. A simple argument from authority will do just fine!

Unique Structure

The article makes three claims here, two very wrong and one at best irrelevant to the question at hand. The first:

Although [the Bible] is a collection of 66 books, written by 40 or more different men over a period of 2,000 years, it is clearly one Book, with perfect unity and consistency throughout.

No. Unless you have defined “unity” and “consistency” to mean blatant contradiction, the Bible demonstrates neither unity nor consistency. The second claim:

Anyone who diligently studies the Bible will continually find remarkable structural and mathematical patterns woven throughout its fabric, with an intricacy and symmetry incapable of explanation by chance or collusion.

There’s no elaboration on this, so I don’t know for sure what they are getting at, but it sure sounds a lot like they are referring to the thoroughly debunked and discredited “Bible Code.” Finally, the last claim:

The one consistent theme of the Bible, developing in grandeur from Genesis to Revelation, is God’s great work in the creation and redemption of all things, through His only Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Perhaps; this is arguable. But even if we grant this — all it would show is that this work of fiction called the Bible has a main character and a central theme. Great. Doesn’t make it true. Doesn’t make it a good idea to center your life around it.

Bible’s Unique Effect

After scrolling past an ad for a $60 documentary DVD set about the Bible, we get to the final section of this article. It asserts one last reason for the Bible’s truth: that it’s very popular.

The Bible is unique also in terms of its effect on individual men and on the history of nations. It is the all-time best seller, appealing both to hearts and minds … . No other book has ever held such universal appeal nor produced such lasting effects.

Multitudes of people, past and present, have found from personal experience that its promises are true, its counsel is sound, its commands and restrictions are wise, and its wonderful message of salvation meets every need for both time and eternity.

Wait — didn’t this article start with a statement that few people today have even read the Bible in the first place, and that “many people tend to go along with the popular delusion that the Bible is full of mistakes and is no longer relevant to our modern world”? Why yes. Yes it did. That sure doesn’t sound like “universal appeal” to “hearts and minds” to me. The apologist who wrote this article is probably just so desensitized to the internal contradictions of the Bible, they can’t help but imitate it in their own writing.

But I won’t use the author’s own words to refute this here, because I disagreed with those words earlier on. And of course the Bible is a best-seller. Of course it has had lasting effects on global culture. While this might constitute a reason to look into Christianity and see what it’s got to offer — all those people might be on to something, after all — it’s not a reason to actually conclude that Christianity is 100% true. Popularity is not proof. (The cynic in me wants to add: And if you’ve met enough of the people out there, you might come to believe that popularity is more like disproof. I can think of all sorts of dreadful things that are much more popular than they should be. Ugg boots with leggings. Sarah Palin. Homeopathy.) You have to go on and examine the particular claims, and see how they stack up against the evidence.

So that’s it. Not a single thing proven that suggests the Bible has any value as a true, authoritative document. The unfortunate thing, for Wes and for Jorge and for anyone else who tries this general approach to witnessing to nonbelievers (in which you dodge their questions and then refer them to some supposedly better authority), is that when your expert apologist turns out to be completely incoherent, not only do you look foolish for having believed that they were so brilliant, but your entire religion looks foolish. I’m even less convinced of your religion’s truth than I was before (to the extent that such a thing is even possible). After all, you just told me that these were some of the best arguments out there for believing what you believe! So, having debunked that, it leaves … nothing.

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5 Comments

  1. Not to mention that this:

    “Nevertheless the Bible writers claimed repeatedly that they were transmitting the very Word of God, infallible and authoritative in the highest degree. ”

    is simply wrong. When the Word of God is mentioned (as in John 1 or the 2 Peter passage you quoted), it is clearly NOT the Bible that is being referred to, but a heavenly power. Except for the book of Revelation, no New Testament book claims to be inspired by God, much less infallible. I wonder how much of the Bible this author has read?

  2. jorge alvarado

     /  August 26, 2010 at 9:04 pm

    @NFQ
    No, no, no. We sure got off on the wrong foot. Bible prophecy is a “science” in itself. The fact that you think the 70 weeks = (~1 year, 4 mo.) speaks volumes. Here’s a little help on just that one prophecy: http://www.bible.ca/ef/expository-daniel-9-24-27.htm.
    But more importantly, this shows just how much work has to be put in, and how we could spend months going back and forth with our thoughts with just ONE issue (which was never my intent).
    The bottom line is: Evidence is there as long as you want to invest the time to study it. I know this doesn’t satisfy you (I refer to your list of what you would consider evidence), but I believe the evidence there is is good enough. Just the fact that the Bible was written over thousands of years, by many different writers, with harmony among them, and that it speaks to issues even today is enough for me.
    Re “Unless you have defined “unity” and “consistency” to mean blatant contradiction, the Bible demonstrates neither unity nor consistency”
    We’ve already established that if the “contradictions” (and I’ve seen better examples than what you link to) were explained, it wouldn’t do any good. You’d just come up with another list. Again, I’ll refer to the “harmony” of the whole of scripture (meaning 66 books, written over thousands of years can maintain the central point of God’s redemptive revelation). I’d like to know how many novels can claim that.
    Re “So that’s it. Not a single thing proven that suggests the Bible has any value as a true, authoritative document.”
    I was just trying to show you there are answers out there, some more better explained than others. I could refer you to former hardcore atheists who have become believers, and what it took for them to believe, but both you and I know that wouldn’t to any good either.
    Re “After all, you just told me that these were some of the best arguments out there for believing what you believe! So, having debunked that, it leaves … nothing.”
    First of all, I, for one, never claimed that these were the best arguments. Secondly, I don’t think you’ve “debunked” anything. You just gave us your thoughts and opinions. Debunking something takes much, much more than that. Just like “proving” something, would take much, much more than what I provided.
    @Mr. Oerter
    Hi, Robert, the “Word of God” is ALL of scripture.
    2Pe 1:20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.
    2Pe 1:21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
    And…
    2Ti 3:16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
    2Ti 3:17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
    And others, clearly imply that the Bible, both Old and New testaments, are the very word of God (“infallibility” is just one of it’s attributes).

  3. I’ve recently had some discussion with a conservative believing friend regarding the bible and how the historical accuracy plays into confirming it’s truthfulness.

    I was at first impressed by how convinced he was in stating the historical and archaeological, but in the end it just showed me that A) He’s caught in the circular logic of the validity of the bible and B) His scope of interpreting the data has been to confirm what he believes, not to be objective. As you’ve stated, the loose interpretation of “confirmed” prophecies was one of his methods to state the bible is true.

    I challenged him. I said (paraphrasing for the sake of space/time):

    “Imagine you found a 1500 year old book. No cover, first 30-40 pages missing, half of it easily readable, the other half a mix of legible and destroyed. It takes people tens, even hundreds of years to decipher the old language, but what’s translated starts having relevance in today’s world. Landmarks, names, events, times…all pieces of history documented elsewhere. It would seem to be a record of historical events.

    Now imagine that book was a Dan Brown novel. Accurate names, accurate events, accurate locations, even down to the colors and landscape. Those items are real and may reference items that happened in the real world. But the story within those pages are pure fiction. Yet how would we know? There’s no other document to refute it, it points to science and archeology and history, so it MUST be true!”

    But in all of this, is that really the point? The fact is, Christians don’t need the bible to be factually true in order for it to provide some meaning to their lives. And I’m not convinced it needs to be. It’s some atheists and many anti-theists that need the bible to be false, but Christians just need a phrase in the book from God saying the book is true and *poof*, all items support their faith.

    So keep they can keep the book that supports their faith, but I’ll never understand why they try to inspire higher meaning in black ink just because a passage describes a mountain or city that still exists today. Was the bible less valid for their faith before they discovered that mountain still exists today?

  4. does it matter

     /  July 4, 2012 at 3:56 pm

    grow -up!

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