A couple weeks ago, I posted to facebook a link to a page on our church website introducing my then new series of messages. It’s a series where I promised to tackle some of the biggest questions of life and faith. However, an atheist friend of a lady in our church saw the post and posted a number of questions of her own. I thought I would take some time to write some blog posts about the questions she posed.
You can see the first post in this series here: Questions from an Atheist: Part 1.
How can I accept the authority of the Bible when it is filled with scientific flaws and logical contradictions?
The reports of the Bible’s problems are widely circulated, but deeply flawed. My responses to this one will be fairly brief.
The scientific flaws found in the Bible are simply the way normal people talk. For example, there are lines in the Bible mentioning the sun traveling across the sky. That is scientifically inaccurate statement is actually experientially true. When someone says they saw the sun rise or set, no one accuses him or her of being scientifically inaccurate. The vast majority of the claims against the Bible are like that.
However, there are also a few apparent scientific flaws that aren’t flaws at all. For example, the book of Genesis talks about the creation of the world happening in six days. The accusation is that the Bible directly opposes the scientific discoveries of geology, paleontology, and cosmology. However, the accusation is based on a faulty understanding of what the book of Genesis is actually trying to teach.
I don’t have time to go through every single purported scientific problem with the Bible, but I can. I have degrees in Mathematics, Philosophy, and Biblical Studies, and I have never come across an accusation of scientific inaccuracies in the Bible that could not be explained by a better knowledge of the teaching of the Bible or a better understanding of the science.
Similarly, the logical contradictions people talk about in the Bible are also not dealbreakers because they are not actually “logical contradictions.” Rather, they are “eyewitness differences.” Here’s an example. Survivors of the sinking of the Titanic were interviewed the day after the event, and many of them described hearing an explosion as the ship sank, many others described the ship breaking in two before sinking, and many others described the ship going down intact. What should we do with these contradicting claims? Of course, it’s ludicrous to conclude by these accounts that the Titanic never sank. Rather, the smart thing is to take the divergent accounts as pieces of evidence of the larger story. Almost all the accounts can be harmonized by saying the ship made a dramatic sound when it split in two, but many people were too far away to hear it or were at the wrong angle to see it. The “contradictions” in the Bible are of the very same kind.
Finally, there’s an even more important way of answering this question. You don’t have to accept the authority of the Bible. As a matter of fact, the Bible itself encourages us to test people who make faith claims. Therefore, I’m not worried when I meet someone who doesn’t trust the Bible. When I do, I don’t defend the Bible. Instead, I always start with the same basic foundation. As I said in my recent message to my church on this topic, the historical evidence of the resurrection of Jesus is the item of central importance. I don’t believe the resurrection because of the Bible; it’s actually the other way around. The reason I believe the Bible is because the man who rose from the dead told me the Bible was speaking truth. My role is to try to understand the truth it is actually teaching and not to push it aside when I don’t agree with what I think it says.
How can I believe in any religious system in the face of a perfectly consistent alternate explanations for all religious experience? (e.g. cognitive bias, Julian Jaynes’ theory of consciousness, or the “God Helmet”)
When I first heard of the “God Helmet,” I admit I was shaken. These scientists had found a way to induce spiritual experiences in people through the use of high electromagnetic fields. It made me (and others) think that if spiritual experiences could be manufactured, then that was evidence they weren’t “spiritual” in the first place.
My sense of unease didn’t last long, though, because I quickly realized two problems.
- First, just because something can be induced doesn’t mean it’s not real. For example, when I watch a movie, I sometimes cry during moments of noble sacrifice or painful loss. My emotion was clearly induced by the producers of the film, but that doesn’t make it less real. Similarly, inducing someone to feel an awareness of a spiritual world is not proof that the spiritual world is false.
- Secondly, the Christian faith isn’t based on experience anyway. Yes, there are stories of people who have had spiritual experiences, but the central teaching of Christianity is not based on a spiritual experience at all. The central teaching is that a man died and then rose again. That’s a historical claim. Even if no one in history ever had a true “spiritual experience” the central claim of Christianity wouldn’t change.
My personal faith is not based on spiritual or religious experience. My personal faith is based upon the implications of a historical event. As a result, I don’t personally believe in any religious system. Instead, I believe in the historical claim of the resurrection, the teachings of the man who rose, and the implications of those teachings.
How can I believe anything as complex as religion when “there is no God” is a simpler hypothesis?
There is a standard rule of thumb in philosophy and science. It is sometimes known as Occam’s Razor, and it basically says that if you have a number of competing hypotheses about something, the one with the fewest assumptions is probably right. Therefore, if you have two equal hypotheses about the world, but one of them assumes the existence of an all powerful, uncreated, divine intellect who demands your obedience, you should choose the simpler hypothesis, the one that doesn’t include God.
Of course, it’s ironic that Occam was a devoutly religious monk.
I have three very simple answers to this question:
- I’m not asking anyone to believe in anything as complex as religion. I’m only asking people to seriously consider the evidence pointing to the resurrection of Jesus and to follow the evidence where it leads.
- No matter what Occam said, simplicity is not the ultimate indicator of truth. Einstein’s theories are far more complicated than Newton’s were, but they are verifiably more true.
- Even so, I contend that the postulate “God exists” actually makes things simpler. For one thing, it is the only adequate explanation for why anything exists at all.
Honest inquiry requires that we not follow some arbitrary idea of what is “simple” and what isn’t. Honest inquiry requires that we pursue the truth regardless of where it leads.
There is much that science can explain apart from religious claims. There are many ways religious thought appears to conflict with science. However, neither of those realities invalidate the existence of a spiritual world or a God behind it all.
Throughout this series, I have attempted to address some very serious questions. They have all been good questions that deserve good answers, but they also are questions that miss the core of the issue.
Is there a God? Scientifically, logically, and anecdotally, human experience says, “Maybe.”
But there is a definitive answer to be found in something that isn’t story, myth, theory, or religion. It is found in history. Jesus rose from the dead.
You may have doubts about a lot of things in the Bible. You may have doubts about a lot of things in Christianity, faith, the afterlife, or the spiritual world, but don’t let any of those things distract you from this central claim of Christianity. There was a man who claimed to be divine and a new kind of king, was killed for those claims by Roman experts, and a few days later showed up again in a physical body that could eat and hug. That man convinced over 500 people that he was truly alive again so that even his brothers would later refer to him as their God.
Jesus rose from the dead. People saw and touched him. That’s the foundation for everything.