This is the third and final installment of our third small-group Wednesday-night discussion on The Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask (inspired by the book by Mark Mittelberg). The third week’s topic is the reliability of scripture. You can read the first and second installments of the third week here and here. My husband wrote about the first two weeks here in a combined post. I may share more of my own thoughts through conversation in the comments, but for now I’ll mostly just offer you the conversation I heard and participated in. As I typed the last comment of the discussion (the last line of this post), I honestly didn’t know what else to say after that. It was sort of like a gaudy bow that wrapped up this week’s discussion, and I can’t skillfully explain on a keyboard why the comment jarred me at the end of what felt at times like a straw-man bonfire. How can we ever progress to the point of understanding each other if we don’t recognize what the real problem is? This isn’t a word game. You might see what I mean when you get to the end (if you don’t, just ask—I’ll try to articulate). For now, my friends, let’s start at the beginning:
The next video clip replayed a section of the sermon where the pastor discussed what he believes is a popular claim against Christianity: The Bible is filled with contradictions and myths. In this section, he provided an example of a “contradiction” and his reply to it. The example he gave involved the words in John 3:16 and in 1 John 2:15, written below.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” 1 John 2:15
The pastor explained that John used apparent contradiction many times as a tool to get his message across. He said that these verses seem like a contradiction, but that it’s important to read the whole picture instead of reading scripture out of its context. He believes that the verse in 1 John is not really contradicting the words in John 3:16; instead, the writer is simply warning us in 1 John not to let our hearts pursue the world before God.
The video ended, and the pastor opened up the live discussion, saying, “People accuse Christians of taking the Bible literally. Any response to that?”
“Not all of us do,” said one man—“It was written by imperfect men. But I dare someone to try to write something that is as applicable 2000 years later as the Bible is.”
“I do,” said the woman who rebuked the skeptics’ biases in the early portion of the discussion. “The parables were meant to be understood as parables, but the rest of it I take literally.”
“I don’t,” I said. “At least not all of it.”
“Tell us about that,” the pastor probed—a response I expected and appreciated. I gave the example of the 6-day creation, but I also explained my feelings that people could adopt a looser understanding of some parts of scripture without necessarily having to forsake their belief in God. My friend Pascal has asked before, “What happened before the Big Bang?” His own answer?—“God spoke.”
The pastor made an assertion that we shouldn’t take the Bible literally—“It’s not written that way.” He explained that we have to understand the nature of language and literature, and that there is symbolism like what we find in Song of Solomon 4:1-4. Our interpretation of those verses as metaphorical is evidence that we don’t take scripture literally, and that can be our response when others accuse us of incorrectly doing so. I wanted to point out that obvious metaphors are not likely what skeptics are referring to when they challenge a literal interpretation of scripture and that it probably has more to do with sections that do not seem compatible with scientific evidence. The rest of the group considered the case closed and moved on, and I didn’t speak up.
He went on to discuss the importance of context and the author’s intent, using Proverbs 26:4-5 as an example:
“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”
“What do we do there?” he asked. “Which one is right? Is this a contradiction? You could easily see how someone reading that passage could conclude that there are inconsistencies in scripture.”
After the example in John and 1 John, he was now 0/2, and I wanted to tell him. “I do identify contradictions in scripture,” I began, “but this is not something I would point to. Neither is the example you gave earlier about loving the world. This is just a paradox. The first line tells us not to argue with fools the way they argue. The second line tells that sometimes foolishness needs to be confronted. Maybe it’s saying that you just can’t win when you’re reasoning with fools. I don’t know—but I see it as a literary tool, not a contradiction.” I stopped before I said what I wanted to say: “If you’re going to respond to the difficult issues that skeptics raise, you’re going to need to start by doing a better job of identifying them.” I’ve never heard a skeptic bring up either of these two “apparent contradictions.”
The pastor moved on from the context of “author’s intent” to the historical context. He read some statistics about scripture: “Greater than 5000 fragments of manuscripts. The next closest to scripture in number of manuscript fragments is Homer’s Iliad with around 600. The time between the first writings and the copies of scripture to the original is 30-40 years. 99.5% of those copies agree, with the only differences being spelling errors.” I have recently been hearing this number, and I made a mental note to look into it later. At that moment, it sounded absurd, and if I had the ability to raise only one eyebrow, I would have done it.
Another voice in the group of more than 30 commented on the objection to contradictions and myths, asking “What myths are they talking about? I think their perception might be off.” She explained how she has a son who takes everything literally, and she continued, “When adults think that way, I see them as very immature, and I think we need to explain to them that not everything is to be taken literally. I am a believer that the Bible is the word of the Lord, but sometimes it’s a map with clear instruction, and sometimes it’s a compass with general guidance.”
Her next question shocked me: “Do you want to take it literally that Jesus died on the cross and rose three days later? Really?!”
Things happened quickly from here. An emphatic “YES!” rang from across the room. The woman who asked the question backed down. “Well, it’s what the Bible says, and that’s what I believe,” she retreated. I may be misinterpreting, but it seemed to me that her question was genuine. I felt that her statement of belief came only after the enthusiastic affirmative response to her question—that she felt that there wasn’t room for doubt in the face of another’s confidence. Maybe I’m projecting. Maybe I’ll ask her in the future.
The pastor jumped in and offered examples of what skeptical people are sometimes thinking of when they point out parts of scripture that resemble mythology. He mentioned the flood and the story of Noah’s Ark. “People say there’s no way Noah could have put all those animals in the boat.”
“Well, the animals probably weren’t adult sized,” one attendee offered. “And if God wants something to happen, it’s going to happen.”
“That’s right,” the emphatic “YES” voice added. “God provided everything Noah needed to complete his task, because God can do ANYTHING.” I started, and I was not the only one who jumped. Her last word was loud and strangely spiteful-sounding.
The words that startled me moved me to speak, and I spoke to the pastor. “You said in the sermon that if we know who God is and can trust that, we can believe scripture. So many people aren’t coming from that standpoint, and they’re evaluating scripture to see if they can believe in God at all—not approaching it with a currently held belief in God. When you tell them that they can trust scripture—even the impossible parts—because God is trustworthy and can do the impossible, they’re going to say “I’m not there yet.”
A woman responded before the pastor could. “You have to be careful about the person you’re speaking with,” she warned, “because they are either very immature or they have no knowledge of these things. It can be tricky to—”
Another woman interrupted her, adding, “Or they just want to prove you wrong. You do have to be careful.”
Be careful. Like they’re dangerous. Like I’m dangerous. “I don’t think they’re necessarily any less intellectual than anyone else or setting out to prove someone wrong. They may have a good intellectual reason for doubt, and if they don’t know God already, they are going to have a hard time reconciling some of the issues they encounter in scripture.”
The pastor had my back. “Excellent point,” he offered before other arrows could fly. “There are those who are intellectually pursuing and asking whether or not God even exists. Some are angry and immature and out to prove Christians as stupid, but I think a larger segment are not. If you truly believe we all have a God-shaped void, then all these people really are searching for something.”
The participants’ tones softened. They spoke of planting seeds and acknowledged that it may not be up to them to ultimately convince. They spoke of praying for the lost. They spoke of love. The well-spoken college-aged girl contributed her thoughts, and she reminded me of myself 8 or so years ago. “Even as a Christian I’ve had questions like these. God doesn’t fear my questions, and we shouldn’t fear each others’ either. Some of us have legitimate questions, and we should have the freedom to ask them, even of each other.”
Yes, sister. Where were you a few years ago? I told her I agreed, and I added that I agreed with the earlier statement that it’s not up to individuals to convince each other, although we should each be able to give reasons for what we believe. I asked them to not consider skeptical people as automatically less intelligent or more stubborn or devoid of morality—it’s simply not a fair assumption. “If all else fails, just love them and let that be how you show them who Jesus is to you.”
The pastor brought the conversation to a close. “Gone are the days when you can walk up to a non-believer and say ‘The Bible says…’. It comes down to whether or not we believe that God loves all people. We believe he does, so we need to do everything we can to reach those people—with the goal not being to show them their error, but to show them Jesus. Our motivation is love—but we need to know why we believe what we believe. We can’t boil the Bible down to proof and lectures and context and criticism. It does change lives. It does point us to Jesus—and I hope that is our goal: that those we discuss this with will be able to see Jesus through the scriptures.”
That would have been a good place to end. That’s not how it happened.
A contributor chose that moment to add, “When people ask me if I’m a Christian, I say ‘No. I am a Christ follower.’ Christianity has such a bad reputation these days.”