How can intellectual people believe the incredulous stories in the Bible?

This will be my last post in the series examining objections to the Gospel. I hope you have found it helpful. I have certainly appreciated all your comments.

What distinguishes Christians from other theists is that we don't just believe in a god, but we believe in the God who has revealed himself through the Scriptures - the Bible. But why do we have such a high confidence in this ancient manuscript? And why do we accept some of the accounts that some find so hard to believe? The creation of the world in six days. All the animals in Noah's Ark during a worldwide flood. Jonah in the belly of a fish for three days, and so on.

First, how do we know that these stories have not been embellished over the years? After all some of these accounts are several thousand years old. Well, this is easy to answer, because the Bible is the most accurately preserved ancient document bar none. The sheer volume of documents from all over the ancient world, means that if any one copyist introduced an error, it would be easy to spot by cross-referencing against the thousands of other manuscripts in existence. Indeed some minor inconsistencies were inevitably found this way. Any good translation of the Bible that you can buy today will not hide these but provide a footnote saying what the alternative manuscripts say. However the differences in meaning these alternative renderings give are almost always subtle, usually inconsequential, and never do they introduce a whole new concept out of thin-air!

So we know that the Bible we have today is an accurate version of the original documents as they were first recorded. We cannot therefore just dismiss what the Bible says, we must either accept it or reject it.

I want to focus on just one of these miraculous accounts. The account of the resurrection. For if the resurrection of Christ is untrue, then Christianity is false, the Bible is irrelevant, and there is no point continuing any further. But if the resurrection is fact, then it means that God can do anything - nothing is impossible for him. If Jesus was truly raised then this surely means that he was who he claimed to be - God incarnate, and everything he said, including his validation of all these Old Testament accounts is also true.

It all stands or falls on the resurrection. If Christ is raised from the dead, then no matter what other intellectual questions you still have, Christianity must be true. If he was not raised, no matter how accurately preserved the Bible is, it must be false.

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. (1Corinthians 15:17)

Now we have already asserted that our New Testament is an accurate version of what was originally written. But we also know that the New Testament was finished around 70AD only 40 years after the death of Christ, and some of the manuscripts date from as early as 50AD only 20 years after his death. We also know that Jesus preached to thousands. If what was written about Jesus' life was fictitious there would have still been multitudes of people who could have come forward and denounced it.

F. F. Bruce, Rylands professor of biblical criticism and exegesis at the University of Manchester, says concerning the value of the New Testament records as primary sources: "Had there been any tendency to depart from the facts in any material respect, the possible presence of hostile witnesses in the audience would have served as a further corrective."

But the same is also true for his resurrection:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. (1Corinthians 15:3-6)

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life. (1John 1:1)

As well as the authors, there were over five hundred eye-witnesses at the time the manuscripts were written who could testify that Jesus was raised from the dead. Substantial evidence by any standards.

But the evidence does not end there for Jesus said that after he was raised from the dead, he would pour out the Holy Spirit upon his believers, and that they would continue to do the works that he had done. Healing the sick, delivering the oppressed, and other signs that would follow. The ongoing miraculous power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers is further proof that Jesus was indeed raised.

Athanasius writing in the fourth century after Christ said this:

In a word, then, those who disbelieve in the resurrection have no support in facts, if their gods and evil spirits do not drive away the supposedly dead Christ. Rather, it is He Who convicts them of being dead.

We are agreed that a dead person can do nothing: yet the Savior works mightily every day, drawing men to religion, persuading them to virtue, teaching them about immortality, quickening their thirst for heavenly things, revealing the knowledge of the Father, inspiring strength in face of death, manifesting Himself to each, and displacing the irreligion of idols; while the gods and evil spirits of the unbelievers can do none of these things, but rather become dead at Christ's presence, all their ostentation barren and void.

By the sign of the cross, on the contrary, all magic is stayed, all sorcery confounded, all the idols are abandoned and deserted, and all senseless pleasure ceases, as the eye of faith looks up from earth to heaven. Whom, then, are we to call dead? Shall we call Christ dead, Who effects all this? But the dead have not the faculty to effect anything. Or shall we call death dead, which effects nothing whatever, but lies as lifeless and ineffective as are the evil spirits and the idols?

The Son of God, "living and effective," is active every day and effects the salvation of all; but death is daily proved to be stripped of all its strength, and it is the idols and the evil spirits who are dead, not He. No room for doubt remains, therefore, concerning the resurrection of His body.

So the short answer to the original question is faith. Faith that Jesus was raised from the dead, without which none can claim to be a Christian. Faith that this proves who he said he was, the Son of God. Faith that is means that every word from his mouth is trustworthy and true, and so his validation of the Scriptures are all we need. Faith that the God who raised Jesus from the dead, can do anything.

I'm impressed with the scientist who can solve three-dimensional differential equations in his head, but I'm more impressed in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. I'm impressed with the astronomer whose telescope can look back to the dawn of time, but I'm more impressed with the God who was there when it happened. I'm impressed with all the clever people from whatever their field, zoology, palaeontology, geology; but I'm more impressed by the one who spoke everything that they study into existence. Why do I believe it? Because the Jesus who rose from the dead said that not the smallest letter from all the Scriptures would ever be shown false or void. That's good enough for me!


Mark H said...

It's been a great series, and this is a great last post. Thank you so much for hosting such a profitable conversation.

Matthew said...

I love that the lengthy quote from Athanasius begins, "In a word then..." it's up ther with Paul writing, "finally brothers" when he is only half way through Philippians.

And people say we use long sentances and big words!

Ricky Carvel said...

Chris HH: So we know that the Bible we have today is an accurate version of the original documents as they were first recorded. We cannot therefore just dismiss what the Bible says, we must either accept it or reject it.

Here is where we part company for a bit Chris. I agree that we have an accurate version of documents dating back to biblical times. And that some may be accurate versions of the original versions. But I'm not sure that you can make such sweeping statements about the earliest books in the OT. There is pretty good academic consensus that many of the books describing the history of the Israelites up to the time of the first kings were, in all likelihood, edited and compiled from older writings sometime around the time of the exile. Thus all the stories of Genesis, the Exodus, the wilderness years, the time of the Judges and even the events around the time of David and Solomon have a huge question mark hanging over them.

Who compiled the books?
What was their agenda?
What were their beliefs? (this is critical as it would govern what they cut out and what they included)

And many of the very oldest stories were almost certainly never written down at the time, but were passed down as part of an oral tradition, possibly for thousands of years before they were ever written down.

I can't blindly accept these books as accurate history. I believe they contain history and myth. But which is which?

But I'm with you on the reliability of the NT gospels and letters. Those were widely distributed within a few years of being written.

Joel Gill said...

With regards to the resurrection... i heard someone say once that sometimes people will die for something they believe (but don't know!) to be true! But rarely, if ever, will people die for what they know to be a lie.

The disciples will have known whether or not Jesus really came back to life. They were willing to die (and many were tortured and killed), for what they would have known to have been a truth, or a lie. If they knew it to be a lie would they have been willing to die for it?

In the end it comes down to faith, but it isn't a blind faith, it's a faith that makes sense!

Thanks for these posts Chris!

Matthew said...

Ricky - the fact that Jesus seemed happy to associate himself with the OT scriptures in the form they existed in his day is perhaps the best endorsement of their accuracy to the original intention of God.

We know that we have the same OT that was in common circulation at the time of Christ - the Greek Septuagint (though Jesus probably read the scriptures in Aramaic in the synagogues).

Ricky Carvel said...

Matthew, that is an issue I'm still working my way through. How much did Jesus 'endorse' the OT? He refers to a few bits of it, but there are many bits he is not recorded as mentioning - although that probably doesn't mean much, I'm sure he said a lot that is not recorded.

But even if Jesus uses a passage of scripture to make a point, does that mean that it is historically accurate? Preachers often use fictitious or exaggerated stories to demonstrate the point they are making.

Steven Carr said...

Christians once again repeat the fallacious nonsense that the disciples were prepared to die for their belief in the resurrection.....

Even Paul, who was there, claims in Galatians 6 that circumcision not resurrection was the issue, and that Christian leaders would compromise their beliefs to avoid persecution.

And . of course, Christians happily changed whatever they wanted in the New Testament.

For example, Vaticanus and Sinaiticus (the only Greek work before the 8th century to contain all 27 NT books, even if it adds others), both say in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus was pierced *before* he died.

It is pretty certain that Luke 24:12 was added to have a visit to the tomb.

'Son of God' was added to Mark 1:1.

The eucharistic formula was changed in Luke...

And so on, and so on.

See Reliability for more details.

With the growth of the Internet, more and more people can check out these Christian claims and realise that they are being systematically duped.

Mark H said...

The Internet is a publishing system whereby anybody can easily share their opinions with the world. It is not an authority in it's own right.

On the other hand, the Bible is an authorative text used by historians (secular and Christian) as a reliable baseline for studies of ancient history.

I have a relative who studied the Bible in order to study ancient history to degree level. Her studies did not lead her to question the authenticity of the text. In fact, it led her to accept it's authenticity supported by much archeological evidence. However, she wrestled with explaining certain facts as supernatural, and she wrestled with accepting certain accounts as anything more than mythology. She remains an atheist.

What's my point? The Bible is a uniquely reliable source of ancient history. You don't need to dis' it. You simply interpret it based upon what you choose to believe, i.e. we all bring baggage to the text. John Piper puts it this way (he is addressing believers but I believe the insight applies equally to us all):

Can we fallen creatures, who proudly love our own glory so much, ever do good
exegesis? Will we not use every connivance to hide our ignorance or rebellion? Will we
not twist and distort the meaning of Scripture so that it always supports our own view and
our own ego? We all know this happens every day. But must it always happen?

We need to know how to interpret historical texts, to learn what the author was trying to communicate. But by and large we're content with being spoon-fed by those who hold a similar opinion to our own. So believers and non-believers alike throw around isolated verses out of context and are unable adequately explain the conclusions that we didn't find for ourselves in the first place!

But most importantly, if we want to know what God wanted to communicate in the text then we need to invite Holy Spirit as our tutor. If you don't believe, then it can do no harm to invite Him anyway, and see what occurs to your intellect after that fruitless exercise ;-) If you do believe, then put down the Christian books every now and again, and pick up the Bible, pray, and read. It's an amazing journey.

Andrew B said...

I am very much with Ricky on the historical accuracy of the early books. But, like him, I am still working through the issue and it relates to a question I put on the opening post to this series:

"So how does truth within the scope of the scientific method, stuff we can measure and prove by logic and mathematics, fit with the truth of God which plays on both the spiritual level and the temporal physical level?"

At the end of his current post Chris HH says:
"I'm impressed with the astronomer whose telescope can look back to the dawn of time, but I'm more impressed with the God who was there when it happened."

And he also refers to "The creation of the world in six days." as one of the true stories of the Bible.

Chris can you say something about how you relate the Genesis account of creation to the account of planetary formation which the astronomer provides?

My perspective is that the Genesis account is clearly positioning God as creator of everything and the position of man in relation to God and in relation to the rest of creation. And it explains God's intention of the basis of His relationship with man and how man broke the relationship by sinning. All this is important truth, mainly on the spiritual level. But the six days creation timetable and the various attempts to work out the age of planet earth by constructing the calendar of events from then onwards through the OT - those do not seem to me to be reliable facts on the temporal physical level by comparison with those the astonomer looking back to the dawn of time can produce.

Any thoughts?

Chris HH said...

Andrew B, Thanks for your question and the grace with which you ask it.

People often make a big deal about Genesis not being a scientific account, which is true, but irrelevant. The Gospels aren't a scientific account of how Jesus walked on the water, turned water into wine, healed the sick or rose from the dead. There is no scientific explanation for these things because they are by nature miraculous. God is not confined to the "laws" of nature that he himself instituted. So to try to explain everything solely by natural means already has a bias towards atheism.

Whatever way you look at it Creation, it is a miracle that cannot be explained by the laws of Science as we now know them.

So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 2:3)

This encapsulates one of the best known scientific laws: the conservation of matter and energy. There is no more true creation in the Universe. Everything that we now observe is merely conversion of one form or another. The total amount of matter-energy in the Universe is set and fixed.

I find it highly ironic that Scientists dismiss the notion that all this matter-energy was created in six days because it is "unscientific", and then counter-propose that it was all created in a fraction of a second!

You see there is a bias towards atheism in modern science. It's ok to postulate gravity working backwards in the first proto-history of the Universe. It's ok to back up your explanations with postulations that 90% of the matter in the Universe is like the Emperor's new clothes. It's ok to make up entirely new forms of energy and matter that have never been observed... but to postulate any notion that a supernatural hand was involved... "Hey! That's unscientific!"

So, what I was driving at, is that we live for a very short time compared to the age of the Universe, in a very small part compared to the size of the Universe. For all our scientific advances we still see in part.

It's like walking into a movie late. You could analyse the plot and the characters and extrapolating backwards deduce what happened when the film started... or you could just turn to the person sat next to you and ask, "What did I miss?" It may not be scientific... but it's far more effective!

Ricky Carvel said...

Nice cinema analogy Chris!


Andrew B said...

Hey Chris, Thanks so much for taking the trouble to respond to my comment 30 hours after your baby was born! I guess you got your share of the morning chores done extra quickly so you could sneak in a bit of blogging.

I think we are fairly close to being on the same page about the relationship between biblical truth and scientific truth. Anyway, I am not going to pursue it now. You should be enjoying your fresh little piece of creation.

And great Scot, what a great name you gave him. ;-)

Thanks again for this series,

I'll keep a eye on my feed reader to see when you surface again from the nappy changing.

Andrew B