Five Big Rocks (part three)

This is the third in a series of articles exploring five major hurdles I encountered to faith in Christianity, culminating in my deconversion:

1. The Problem of Evil
2. The Problem of Communication
3. The Problem of Scriptural Errancy
4. The Problem of Theological Incoherence
5. The Problem of Religious Toxicity

Read on...and get ready to rock on!

3. The Problem of Scriptural Errancy

The third rock is closely related to the second one, but I believe it deserves to stand on its own. Put simply, there are numerous factual, historical, textual, theological, and moral errors in the Bible—errors of such number, degree, and character as to cast serious doubt that the Scriptures are truly the work of a superior intelligence to that of man.

I have found that most mature Christians are not shocked by the common Biblical discrepancies brought up by unbelievers. After all, there is a whole segment of the Christian book market aimed at inoculating believers against such attacks on the integrity of Scripture, with books starting at 5 lbs, 3 inches thick. Like many readers, I grew up on John Haley’s Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, and Norm Geisler’s When Critics Ask. Soon after I was baptized, my Dad gave me a well-worn copy of Haley’s handbook to equip me to handle the skeptic's arguments. I vaguely remember at the time being in awe of both the size of the book and the number of discrepancies it dealt with. However, whatever tiny seeds of doubt this engendered were quickly squashed by the excitement of my newfound faith and my increased involvement in church ministry.

I will say right from the outset that I am not a big fan of picking Biblical texts apart to find the minutest mistakes. Maybe it was my smart-aleck friend back in middle school who soured me on this kind of critical spirit. As a consequence, the present article will not be taking issue with where Cain got his wife (I can accept that it was his sister) or why rainbows appeared for the first time after Noah’s Flood (I can accept that some measure of poetry is used in Bible stories—-after all, who can resist a rainbow for a happy ending?).

Having said this, the Bible's scientific and factual errors are some of the easiest to spot. By now, everyone should know about the classic rabbit who “chews the cud” (Leviticus 11:6; Deuteronomy 14:7). Lesser known is Jacob’s hair-brained method of breeding spotted animals, in apparent defiance of the laws of genetics (but according to Genesis 30:37-43, it worked). John has previously written about the strange cosmology of the Hebrews, complete with its novel view of a firmament in the heavens, a flat earth, and a geocentric universe. A great many stories in the book of Genesis were preceded by the myths of Sumerian culture, from which the Torah borrows quite liberally. The situation is little improved when we come to the New Testament. Here demons are believed to cause epilepsy and muteness (Mark 9:17-22; Matthew 9:33) and an evil eye is feared for its bewitching powers. All this is indicative of primitive, pre-scientific worldview and outright superstition. If the Bible has no credibility in earthly matters, how can it be trusted in spiritual matters?

Other glaring errors take the form of contradictions and discrepancies. Did David take 700 or 7,000 horsemen from Hadadezer? (cf. 2 Samuel 8:3-4; 1 Chronicles 18:3-4). Did Solomon’s horse stalls number 4,000 or 40,000? (cf. 1 Kings 4:26; 2 Chronicles 9:25). Was Ahaziah 22 when he began to reign or 42? (cf. 2 Kings 8:26; 2 Chronicles 22:2). How old was Jehoiachin when he began to reign—8 or 18? (cf. 2 Chronicles 36:9; 2 Kings 24:8). How about Jesus healing the blind man Bartimaeus as he was leaving Jericho (Matthew 20:29)....or was it he healed as Jesus entered Jericho? (Mark 10:46; Luke 18:35). One might attribute these problems to a scribal error and dismiss them with a smirk. Fine. The big question is, why weren’t these obvious mistakes corrected millennia ago? They would have been easy to correct had someone actually known the correct answer! Of course, none of this would matter so much were it not for the fact that evangelical Christians claim the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, and infallible word of God.

Perhaps the most serious form of Scriptural errancy comes in the form of moral incongruence from—-of all characters—-God himself! The same God who “so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son” to save it (John 3:16), who is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9) is the God who is responsible for atrocities worthy of a whole new series of horror films (Tarantino, are you listening?). Atrocities like the global flood sent by God (if the story is taken at face value) to maliciously drown every man, woman, child, and animal (Genesis 7:4). What Christian hasn’t been shocked by the methodical cruelness of Yahweh, as he commands the Israelites to go from city to city, exterminating whole races of people along the way (Deuteronomy 20:16), until the land of Canaan is claimed as their own? Here we read of the most vicious, hateful, and bloodthirsty acts of aggression in the entire Bible targeted towards men, women, and children (Joshua chapters 6, 8, 10, 11).

While historians are skeptical about the exact nature of the Canaanite conquest and liberal Christians seek to spiritualize these passages, one problem won’t go away: how can you reconcile—-even as fiction—-such savage acts of destruction with the familiar ethic, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)? Either the God of Christian theology is schizophrenic or there is a serious moral flaw in his character. Remember, we're judging by his OWN standards, here! (By the way, Jim Benton has written an insightful series of articles here, here, here, here, and here analyzing the questionable moral underpinnings of Scripture.) It is entertaining to watch the most conservative of Christians become moral relativists in the processes of trying to defend Jehovah’s genocidal tendencies (not to mention his endorsement of human slavery). Exit reason, enter cognitive dissonance.

I haven’t even begun to comment on the other categories of Biblical errancy, such as false prophecy, impossible promises, conflicting spiritual ideas, and problems in the transmission and translation of key texts.

For the fair-minded Christians among us, I ask: how long of a leash are you willing to give the Bible for its misstatements, contradictions, and inconsistencies? How many errors do you need to be confronted with before you realize that the "Good Book" is human, rather than divine, in origin? Indeed, the Bible can be explained more satisfactorily through natural, rather than supernatural, means.