Let’s continue our look at the ways Christian apologists respond to embarrassments in the Bible and Christianity and see how well they work. (Part 1 here.)
Tactic 3: God put them there on purpose
Let’s start with a palate cleanser and hear from “Dr.” Kent Hovind (whose “doctoral dissertation” memorably opened with the line, “Hello, my name is Kent Hovind”). Hovind admits that, yes, there are contradictions in the Bible, but don’t worry about them because God put them there on purpose. According to Hovind’s thinking, the contradictions are there to throw off those who aren’t serious. Let those people become atheists and leave the flock with stronger believers.
Tactic 4: Things were different back then
Slavery was always wrong, y’see, but God needed to work within the social context of the Israelites 3000 years ago. And that’s also true for genocide. And human sacrifice. God knew they were wrong, of course, but he needed to ease the Israelites into this new thinking.
This creates the Janus Bible, a Bible that doesn’t tell you the unchanging, difficult moral truth whether it suits you or not but a Bible that looks forward and backward at the same time. Or maybe it’s the Quantum Bible, the superposition of moral rightness and moral evil at the same time.
If God was working within the context of those social customs, why did he impose the Ten Commandments and the hundreds of other laws in the Old Testament with no grace period? And if he could impose prohibitions against murder, lying, and stealing in an instant, why not add prohibitions against slavery, human sacrifice, and genocide?
Do the Bible’s archaic customs sound like a god easing in a new policy, or do they just sound like the Bronze Age thinking that was popular back then? And what happens to the claim of objective morality, moral truths that are unchanging through time? If “slavery is wrong” is objectively true, then the Old Testament shows God dictating a flawed morality.
No, “things were different back then” or “God’s hands were tied” don’t help when God is omnipotent. The ancient Israelites had our brains and could’ve understood modern morality as well as we do.
The Bible can’t be timeless and stuck in the past at the same time.
Tactic 5: Use context selectively
The Stand to Reason ministry has some surprising Bible advice: “Never read a Bible verse.” What they mean is, never read just a Bible verse but use the context of its paragraph or chapter to understand it correctly.
That’s a good step, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. The maxim should read: Never quote a Bible verse until you know that its point isn’t challenged anywhere else in the Bible. (More.)
The Bible is a big book, and you can find just about everything in it. God hates the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt, but he later establishes the rules for how to do it properly to other people in Israel. God knows everything, but he had to send scouts to Sodom to learn what was going on. Good comes from God, but so does evil.
Tactic 6: “Interpret difficult passages in the light of clear ones”
By this, the Christian means that embarrassing passages like God’s support for human sacrifice or slavery should be subordinate to passages that reject human sacrifice or emphasize God’s love. So the distinction actually isn’t difficult vs. clear passages but rather embarrassing vs. pleasing. That every clash of passages always gives a result that preserves the Christian position is a clue that this isn’t an honest following of the evidence.
The Muslim rule of abrogation neatly sidesteps any contradictions in the Quran, but (like me) Christians are quick to wonder how the Prophet could get something wrong (even if it’s overruled with the correct message later) when he was basically taking dictation from an angel. With tactic 6, Christians bring the same challenge on themselves. Their job is easier—just pick the verse(s) that you like and handwave some rationalization for why you can overrule the competing verse(s)—but problems remain. They’ve opened the door for every Christian to make their own personal evaluation for which verses to keep, and, like the Muslims, they’ve admitted that the Bible is contradictory.
Here’s a clear declaration of this philosophy from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978):
The truthfulness of Scripture is not negated by the appearance in it of . . . seeming discrepancies between one passage and another. . . . Solution of [apparent inconsistencies], where this can be convincingly achieved, will encourage our faith, and where for the present no convincing solution is at hand we shall significantly honor God by trusting His assurance that His Word is true, despite these appearances.
Concluded in part 3.
If there were a single consistent and demonstrable version of it,
it would be called physics.
Image from Bring Back Words, CC license