An Atheist and a Christian are debating the Bible
“It’s God’s Word!” exclaims the Christian. “It can be trusted to be taken word-for-word as God’s divinely inspired message to all of his people, and all of creation!”
“It’s all made up!” decries the Atheist. “It is nothing more than a story concocted by ordinary people, of an imaginary being that is designed to keep people deluded and subservient to the powers that be.”
So who is right? Who is wrong? Can anyone honestly tell with certainty? How do Christians know that the Bible is God’s word to the people? Because it says so itself? And how do Atheists know that it isn’t? Because they’ve given up believing in something that has let them down too many times, or they’ve never had a biblical upbringing and see it all as nonsense? Or something entirely different?
I’ve seen many debates over the Bible amongst believers and unbelievers alike who argue over the authenticity of its scriptures as a wholly accurate transposition of history. So did it all happen at a trustworthy level, or is it all a fantasy, and not worthy of notice at all?
A flawed approach
Of course both of these approaches begin with an erroneous premise: that its literal interpretation is a necessity for it to be taken seriously. I personally believe that some of the Bible is a reasonably accurate historical account, but I also don’t hold to any of it so tightly as to be shaken by revelations of any inaccuracy contained within. The whole of scripture could be completely made up, but for me, it still wouldn’t lose its power for positive transformation.
For me, the Bible beautifully displays the growth of human awareness as we develop an understanding of the divine underpinnings of life in this world. We see an ancient Israel advancing their theology throughout scripture, from the polytheistic understanding of Egypt and the surrounding Canaanite nations to an acceptance of a revolutionary monotheistic projection of culture and religious life. Their views on everything, from worship and sacrifice, how to treat the neighbouring nations who continually sought to oppress them, the nature and origin of evil, right down to the rituals and practices that governed their daily lives - were in an ongoing state of flux over the course of thousands of years.
Even their understanding of God’s nature and character was refined over and over again. Prophets override the prophets who had gone before them, overturning God’s supposed judgments on the Israelites and other nations, declaring that previous generations have gotten God wrong. They continually reexamine and redefine God’s nature and his intentions towards his people in light of the circumstances they experience and the evolution of understanding through which their culture has grown.
Following Jesus’ example
Even Jesus rejected Moses, the supreme authority for Jewish culture. He countered many of Moses’ teachings – supposedly written by God’s own hand no less – and gave completely contradictory instructions to the Jewish community; a community who had been brought up memorising the entirety of Moses’ revelation, such was the importance and significance of God’s direct download to the founder of their nation and culture. And when Peter tried to erect shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration – highlighting his own elevation of the trio to the same lofty heights of divine fidelity – God tells him to get out of town. “This is my Son," God says, referring to Jesus, “listen to him!”
The inference is clear: here in the incarnation is the most accurate representation and understanding of who God is. Where Moses and the prophets fail to align with Jesus theologically, they are to be rejected. “But Jesus came to fulfill the law, not abolish it!” one may well say, but Jesus’ own actions show a fulfilment of the spirit of the law, as he often rejected the letter of the law, and he often went out of his way to break the latter in order to enunciate the former as clearly as possible.
The Bible does not clearly say…
So when the Genesis says that God sent a flood to punish his sinful creation, I stand with a crucified Jesus and cry, “Bullshit!”
Where passages condone slavery, rape, the subjugation of women and the genocide of neighbouring nations, there are countless others rejecting such claims.
When Christians claim that homosexuals are perverse and will be judged for their unrepentant sin, because, “… the Bible clearly says…” I’ll gladly point out that there are many other Christians who have rejected such opinions because of their own reading of the Bible.
And when Atheists point out that the archeological record shows absolutely no evidence of a massive Jewish nation emerging out of Egypt or of wandering in the desert for 40 years or of other events that occur in scripture, I shrug my shoulders with an emphatic, “Who cares?”
So why should we care about the Bible?
For me, the greater significance of the Bible is not in its historical accuracy or theological inerrancy, because it will continue to fail many of those simple tests as science and culture and understanding continue to advance.
Its significance lies in presenting the development of the human conceptualisation of God, over perhaps thousands of years, every factious addition of which is held as important enough to canonise for posterity, so that future generations can see that we have always wrestled with our understanding of the Divine.
The Protestant reformation alone, with its 500 years of developing new ideas and understandings of the human/God relationship from scripture, should be proof enough for even the most staunch fundamentalist – evangelical, atheist or otherwise – to accept that while God may not ever change, our understanding of who or what God is certainly does, and by necessity, it should.
If we do not acknowledge the sweeping changes in theology that occur throughout the scriptures (even in the New Testament) and instead look to see the development of faith across the overarching narrative and the journey it invites us to continue, we will continue to have flawed debates over a flawed view of scripture. Our faith may be shaken when we finally accept that the Bible does often give us the wrong answers. Or we may just end up blindly claiming victory in a false and futile argument.
Russell Croft has a heart for community and reaching out to the marginalised and forgotten. He is getting to know the God of infinite goodness and is living a joy-filled life with his wife Belinda and three children in South-East Queensland, Australia.
See all previous articles by Russell Croft