It’s not like I go through life looking for arguments. I’m just a happy-go-lucky, tousle-headed scamp skipping through life and whistling a tune who unaccountably gets blindsided by nutty Christian arguments just begging for a good thrashing. It would be rude to not comply.
In fact, I’m happy to agree with Christians when I can, and just to prove that, let me point out an article by Greg Koukl, “Never Read a Bible Verse.” His point is that you should never read just a Bible verse but rather read the entire paragraph to understand the context.
That’s good advice as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. It’s true that broadening your reading to the local context can clarify the meaning of the verse and is a fairer way to approach that verse. Unfortunately, this doesn’t assure us that the Bible doesn’t say something contradictory elsewhere—it’s a big book. Said another way, the actual context is the entire Bible. Don’t quote the Bible as an authority until you can assure me that the Bible never undercuts this message elsewhere.
The problem can be illustrated with a familiar source of simplistic Christian apologetics.
Chick tracts are small comic pamphlets that illustrate conservative Christian principles (or attack the usual suspects of Catholicism, Islam, Mormonism, evolution, and so on) through an illustrated story. A typical story will have a sinner scared straight by a glimpse of hell, for example. The printed tracts are cheap enough that street evangelists can hand them out to potential converts.
Let’s use Chick tracts as examples where a broader biblical context would give a very different interpretation of the point they’re making.
1. Bogus prophecy. “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is the condensed gospel story, and it can’t resist repeating several of the five claims of fulfilled prophecy in the first two chapters of Matthew. It first quotes Isaiah 7:14, “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” No, this isn’t a prophecy of Jesus. Simply following the “never read a Bible verse” rule, we can find from the context that this claim was to be fulfilled just a few years after it was spoken, in Isaiah’s own time. (More here.)
The tract also says, “The Bible prophesied that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:1–2).” Wrong again, and you’d discover that if you’d read the context. Those verses talk about a ruler who will turn back the Assyrians, who began conquering Israel in 740 BCE. Micah 5:9 says, “Your hand will be lifted up in triumph over your enemies, and all your foes will be destroyed.” Whose gospel story is this? Certainly not that of Jesus.
2. Belief in Jesus is mandatory. “Back from the Dead?” is the hilarious tale of someone who visits hell during a near-death experience. In it, Jesus is quoted from John 14:6, “No man cometh unto the Father but by me.” “It’s Not Your Fault” quotes John 3:18, which makes a similar point: “He that believes not is condemned already.”
This is one where the whole Bible is the context. Romans 5:19 says, “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.” That is, we didn’t opt in to get the sin of Adam, and we needn’t opt in to get the salvation of Jesus. No belief is necessary.
Christians seem endlessly eager to harmonize ill-fitting verses like these, but they’re still ill-fitting. An omniscient Creator would have made sure that his message got into the world clearly and unambiguously.
3. Works don’t get you into heaven. God turns revenge to love in “The Hit!” Someone says, “The only way anyone gets to heaven is through faith in Christ alone” with a reference to Acts 4:12. This is standard Chick: making a statement and then backing it up with just a Bible reference. I’ll agree that this verse does back it up (“Salvation is found in no one else”), but it’s just a context-free reference.
A character in “Back from the Dead?” says, “You can’t make it [to heaven] by good works” and cites Ephesians 2:8–9 and Titus 3:5. In “It’s the Law” we read, “No … good works will not take away our sins!”
4. God hates slavery. “Kidnapped!” is about child slavery, and it tries to portray the Old Testament as anti-slavery by quoting Exodus 21:16, “And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him … shall surely be put to death.” (Unsurprisingly, Chick prefers the King James Version.)
Nope. God has no problem with slavery. In fact, biblical slavery was pretty much identical to American slavery.
5. God hates fags. In “Birds and the Bees,” a little girl lectures us about homosexuality. Referring to the people of Sodom: “Today those same kind of people are back, but now they’re called Gays!” with a reference to Genesis 13:13.
Sorry, little girl, read the story. The “sin of Sodom” was rape. Yes, that’s a bad thing, but it’s bad whether it’s homosexual or heterosexual.
Little girl then says, “But God still says being Gay is an abomination!” with a reference to Leviticus 18:22, but she needs to “never read a Bible verse.” Read more widely, and it’s clear that Leviticus 18–20 are full of ritual abominations. Don’t plant your field with two kinds of seed or wear clothing woven of two kinds of material (Leviticus 19:19); don’t cut your hair (19:28); don’t use fortune tellers (19:31) (and kill them, by the way—that’s in 20:27); the death penalty is the punishment for cursing your father or mother (20:9); and don’t forget your kosher food laws (20:25).
Today, we ignore these ritual abominations. You can’t go back to retrieve one you’re fond of.
6. Only through Jesus can sins be forgiven. A gang killing gone wrong is the tale in “Gomez is Coming.” In the thrilling conclusion, we are told, “Only someone who was sinless could pay the price for our sins” (1 Peter 3:18).
Not really. In Matthew 16:19, Jesus tells his followers, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Binding means to forbid and loosing means to permit, both by an indisputable authority. The parallel verse in John 20:23 is, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
If Christians today say that the Great Commission doesn’t just apply to Jesus’s original disciples but applies to them as well (it doesn’t), perhaps they’re bold enough to tell us that they can forgive sins, too.
7. The Ten Commandments. “It’s the Law” cites Exodus 20 and 34 in its references to the Ten Commandments. Whoops—here’s where being honest about the context bites them. Exodus 20 lists the original set of Ten Commandments. But remember that Moses smashed them in anger and went back up to get another set, which was put in the Ark of the Covenant. The second set is listed in Exodus 34, and it’s a very different set.
Never quote a Bible verse to pass along God’s position on a matter unless you’re certain that it is unambiguously what the entire Bible says on that subject.
Anyone who actually does everything the Bible commands
would be a criminal in every country on this planet.
— Aron Ra
Image credit: Kamil Porembiński, flickr, CC