Bears Mauling “Little Children” in II Kings 2

There’s a rather obscure objection, but one I’ve heard raised, about the Bible in II Kings 2. After God takes Elijah up to Heaven in a sign of approval of his prophetic ministry, his successor Elisha is traveling to Bethel. Verses 23-24 in the KJV: “And as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city and mocked him and said unto him, ‘Go up thou baldhead. Go up thou baldhead.’ And he turned back and looked on them and cursed them in the name of the LORD, and there came forth two she-bears out of the wood and tore forty and two children of them.” Now, any atheist worth his salt knows that this is petty of Elisha and unfathomably cruel of God (I speak as a man) to curse little children and send bears to attack them, so let’s do a little case study.

In the first place, we might not need to have this discussion at all. It could be that the KJV translation is not particularly accurate in this case. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) The Hebrew word can mean children, but it is used elsewhere in Kings to denote Ben-Hadad’s troops (I Kings 20:17-20). In Samuel, it’s used for Kish’s domestic servant who accompanies Saul (I Samuel 9:3). I think the idea is more of someone in subordinate status rather than necessarily a Kindergartener. It’s like when a British officer refers to “my brave boys” or “my lads” when his troops are all grown men or when we call a waiter garcon(French for “boy”). The connotation of this word, however, is that that subordinate is not acting very subordinate, as here. It’s quite possible that the 42 “little children” in question are a gang of young ruffians out looking for trouble.

But when we consider the rest of Elisha’s life, do we see a primitive barbarian who we would expect to do something so obscene and frightful as to curse a toddler? Far from it! Kings tells two stories, one for Elijah and one for Elisha, of the prophets pleading with God for the resurrection of their hostess’s sons, which is granted. In Elijah’s case, this is after God has provided for a foreign widow and her son and brought her to faith in the God of Israel. In Elisha’s case, it’s after he’s prayed to God for his hostess to have a son when it looks like her husband is too old to sire one. Elisha, in addition to cursing the “children,” is willing to cleanse Syria’s best general of leprosy, in spite of the danger that might cause to Israel to restore him to the prime of life. When the Syrians send raiders to kill him and they are blinded by God, Elisha takes them to Samaria to have them captured, but then he refuses to allow the King of Israel to slaughter his prisoners of war. When someone loses an expensive iron axe head he has borrowed, Elisha retrieves it from the water. He weeps when he foresees the bloody judgment Hazael is going to bring on Israel. One of the recurring themes in Kings is condemnation of child sacrifice, and Elisha would definitely have agreed with that denunciation. He himself appears to have had a very caring personality.

So, what happened here? Was Elisha still so stressed about losing his beloved mentor or so vain about his baldness that he just snapped? Well, the one thing Elijah and Elisha were not gentle and understanding about was rebellion against God, which this clearly was. God had shown His almost unparalleled approval of Elijah by sparing him the pains of death, and these “children” were laughing it to scorn. This act of judgment is an object lesson in the fate of all mockers of God’s truth who don’t repent. We only think it’s overly harsh if we don’t take defiance of God when He warns us for our own good seriously. Moreover, this action demonstrates Elisha’s succession to Elijah’s place of prophethood, which was obviously intended to support his credibility before a very skeptical Israel.

One rather vexing controversy in Christianity is what happens in God’s justice to children who don’t have fully developed moral compasses. Does God send children to Hell? Well, the Bible isn’t absolutely clear on this, but here’s what we do know. The children are born sinners. They are not blank slates society makes a stain on. David, when he feels the weight of the most crushing guilt in his life, traces his evil nature back to the womb. “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). The Bible is clear that Adam passed on a sinful nature to all of his posterity. If this seems unfair, Paul explains that Adam was our representative in Eden. Since he was created as a morally perfect being and fell anyway, we must accept that all of us would have done as our representative did, so we are all under the curse. After all, would God make a representative in a perfect world who didn’t perfectly represent us?

On the other hand, Isaiah does make a reference in one of his prophecies to, “Before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good” (7:16). It seems that God in His justice does take into account children’s less developed moral compasses. Also, when David’s newborn son with Bathsheba dies as judgment on his horrendous sin, David reassures himself, “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (II Samuel 12:23). The traditional Reformed interpretation is that, when God takes the life of a child, it is because He intends to take their soul to Heaven. Certainly, there is no Biblical reason for parents of children who have died before they were old enough to have faith in Christ to think they will never see their children again because they are in Hell. After all, Ecclesiastes 6 refers to stillborn children having rest.

Whatever age the “children” here are, they clearly don’t have that excuse. They apparently are old enough to appreciate that all people die and express skepticism and downright scorn that anyone should go straight to Heaven without dying because they have served the Lord faithfully. So much for wide-eyed innocent babes.

What we have here is not an egregious act of barbarism on the part of the prophet, but a just punishment for rejecting God’s loving words of warning. We don’t actually know how old the “children” were or whether they were really children at all. One thing we do know is that the punishment for their rejection of a miracle was not unjust on the part of God, who wants His messengers taken very seriously when they speak His words.

Six More Stupid Things People Think the Bible Says, Which It Doesn’t

A while back I did a post demonstrating with six examples that to find something manifestly ridiculous in the Bible to criticize about it, you have to make it up (if you missed it, check it out here: Anyway, here are 6 more:

  1. Racism- People think that the Bible condones racism against people of African descent. It’s true that that was the position of Southern slaveholders to justify themselves, but that’s really not what the Bible says. They said that in Genesis 9, when Noah got so drunk he passed out naked in his tent and his son Ham looked on him, Noah cursed Ham and his descendants into servitude to Shem and Japheth. Since the traditional understanding was that Africans descended from Ham and Europeans descended from Japheth, they reasoned that they had Biblical grounds for enslaving Africans. Well, actually, Noah curses Ham’s son Canaan, and this curse was played out in Israel’s conquest of Canaan in the Book of Joshua. As far as racism against Africans goes, consider Numbers 12, wherein it’s related that a Hebrew as saintly as Moses married an Ethiopian. Aaron and Miriam take offense at this, and in response to Miriam’s racism, God makes her white as snow- with leprosy! It definitely doesn’t look like interracial marriage bothers God at all.
  2. Male domination- Some people think the Bible was written by tyrannical patriarchs to support some sort of agenda to subjugate women. Yes, it’s true that the Bible states that the husband and father is the spiritual head of the household. Yes, women are told to submit to and honor their husbands. Yes, the Bible is very strict about the grounds over which a woman can divorce her husband. But the Bible has no comforts for an abusive husband and father. In Roman society, the paterfamilias had almost unrestricted control over his household, even getting to say when a baby would be exposed on a mountainside or trash heap to die. They were also notorious for their adultery, be it with slaves or prostitutes. To counteract this “toxic masculinity,” Paul told Roman husbands to “love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church and gave himself for her […] so ought men to love their wives as their own bodies […] for no man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the Church” (Ephesians 5:25, 28, 29, KJV). Yes, he’s the boss, and he’s the tiebreaking vote, but he’s not a tyrant. Peter tells husbands to “dwell with them according to knowledge [and here some translations have “understanding” or “consideration”], giving honor unto the wife as unto the weaker vessel” (I Peter 3:7), and he warns abusive husbands that being abusive will “hinder” their prayers. If a feminist has trouble submitting to a husband like Peter and Paul’s model for him, then that’s on her, not Scripture.
  3. Adornment- While we’re on I Peter 3, let’s back up a few verses to verse 3, wherein Peter states that, with regards to “adorning, let it not be that outward adorning, of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel.” Some people interpret this as a prohibition against all make-up and jewelry, but here as so often in Scripture, the “not” here means “not so much as.” Clearly, we have to interpret it this way, as an absolute “not” would ban wearing clothes! The point is that the Bible prescribes modesty in our outward appearance and a focus on inward thoughts and attitudes. Focusing too much on appearance or trying to call people’s attention to our outward beauty is unhealthy and causes us to overlook more important matters. Still, gold and make-up are allowed if reasonable. God Himself metaphorically says He gave Israel bracelets, a necklace, and earrings in Ezekiel 16, and God tells the Israelites in Exodus 3:22 to ask for jewelry from the Egyptians as they are leaving.
  4. Shellfish- I saw on a site titled, “25 Things the Bible Says Not to Do, But You Do Anyway,” or something like that, the prohibition against eating shellfish. Yes, there’s a whole list of things Old Testament Israel was not supposed to eat. Besides being limited to food that was safer with their primitive means of preparing it, this was a symbol to Israel of being set apart from the pagan Gentiles. Now that God has opened His Gospel call to all nations, these laws are no longer necessary. In fact, God specifically rescinds the kosher laws when he shows Peter a blanket full of unclean animals and says, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat” (Acts 10:13), tellingly, right before Peter meets with Gentiles who are interested in hearing the Gospel. I don’t care for shellfish myself, but if you do, God won’t condemn you for eating it.
  5. Women wearing pants- On the basis of Deuteronomy 22:5, some people have a problem with women wearing pants. The typical translation follows the KJV: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth to a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment.” Well, for one thing, this is not a particularly good translation. The Hebrew is closer to prohibiting a woman from “bearing the accoutrements of a gibbor.” A gibbor is the term used for David’s “mighty men,” his elite warriors. But, really, the intent is for both sexes to maintain a distinct appearance based on what their culture associates with each gender. It seems pretty easy to me to tell women’s pants from guys’ pants, so that shouldn’t be a problem. A lot of this is cultural, as demonstrated by the fact that some of Britain’s finest gibborim, the Highlanders, wore kilts, whereas we would think of that as a decidedly feminine look. But in the wet ground of the Highlands, men working in bogs and heaths found skirts more practical than trousers, which were more for the rich gentlemen who had servants to carry them over water so their feet wouldn’t get wet. There’s a deeper issue than just a blanket prohibition on one type of clothes for everybody.
  6. God wants us to be miserable for our sin- When people think of the Puritans, they think of dour, humorless people oppressed by guilt. Besides the fact that this image isn’t true of most Puritans, it shouldn’t be true of any Christian either. God wants us to repent of our sin, and while much of that involves grief for the evil we’ve done, the other major part is finding joy in God’s ways rather than in our fleshly ways. Tellingly, there are only 7 psalms that include a really marked penitential element, but there are far more praising God. Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22. In fact, several times in his writings, the great Puritan Thomas Watson says that Christians going around all sulky and miserable is an insult to God that would turn people away from following Him.

Did the Orthodox Winners Write the History Books?

“The winners write the history books.” It’s a common enough saying and one that came up prominently when I was in high school and The Da Vinci Code was published. The story went that the Christians who came up with orthodox Christianity squeezed out the other legitimate (and less demanding) forms of Christianity at the Council of Nicaea and proceeded to write them out of the Scriptures. With Gnostic gospels coming to light due to continuing archaeological work, this seemed an attractive theory for those opposed to Christ’s divinity and lordship over them. Well, the adage may be old and trusted, but it is not correct.

At the time, I had read in Lee Strobel’s The Case for the Real Jesus that Thucydides the Athenian wrote the most-cited history of the Peloponnesian War, in which Sparta defeated Athens. My teacher dismissed this as, “The exception that proves the rule.” Since then I have encountered many other “exceptions,” many of them from Biblical times. Our most reliable history of the rise of the Roman Empire was written by the Greek Polybius, who wanted to analyze for his countrymen how the Romans had been able to conquer them. In the case of the destruction of Samaria in 722 BC and the destructions of Jerusalem in 586 BC and 70 AD, for most of the time since, our main sources were from the Jews who were defeated and slaughtered/enslaved, be they the Old Testament prophets like Hosea and Jeremiah or the Jewish historian Josephus (although he and Polybius, it must be admitted, had joined the Romans by the time they wrote their histories).

Nearer to home, most anyone who is familiar with the Jacobite revolts in Scotland is caught up with the romanticism of Bonnie Prince Charlie and repulsed by the brutal, even genocidal, repression of his opponent the Duke of Cumberland (aka the Butcher). The problem is that it’s not exactly true and, more relevantly for our purposes, the Jacobites lost the war disastrously. The winners praised and lauded Cumberland at the time with honors and bonfires. Now their descendants call him the evilest Briton of the 18thcentury. Stuart Reid and Jonathan Oates in their writings do a good job of demonstrating how the Hanoverians’ suppression of the Jacobite revolt, while sometimes brutal, was nowhere near “genocidal” and in large measure motivated by revenge for earlier Jacobite brutalities against their comrades. These historians are in a marked minority, however, as the winners most definitely did not write those history books (or songs, romanticized Jacobitism being probably the most popular theme in Scottish folk music). The historiography of the Civil War and Reconstruction is complex, but for the longest time romantic notions of Southern gallantry in the war and Northern repression in Reconstruction had a hold on the popular imagination, as shown in the blockbusters Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation. Times have definitely moved on, but in 1940 you couldn’t argue against the crowds that the Northern winners had written the history books. Almost every Mutiny on the Bounty movie features the tale of heroic Mr. Christian overthrowing the tyranny of brutal Mr. Bligh even after the Royal Navy had promoted Bligh and the British public had lauded him as a hero.

So, the adage should be amended to say, “History is written by those who care enough to pass it on.” Today’s winners may be tomorrow’s losers, and an effective propaganda machine can turn even traitors and criminals into romantic heroes. Winners often do write the history books, but they can be overruled by those with a better story or a more literate group of descendants.

So, did the orthodox winners write the books in the Bible? Yes, but only because the orthodox party had been THE party from the start. I did a much more involved study of the New Testament’s authenticity as a first century account in my blog post, so I’ll just summarize here. The earliest scrap of Scripture dates to 125 AD (and ironically enough it is from the book of the Bible that most emphasizes Christ’s divinity), but strong evidence indicates that many important books were written long before that. The most compelling reason that Acts ends with one of literature’s greatest anticlimaxes is that there hadn’t been the climax yet- that is, that Luke wrote Acts before Paul’s trial before Caesar. This would be sometime around 62 AD, and Luke clearly wrote his Gospel first, so that was written earlier. Then we back up to the Gospel most people think Luke drew on, Mark, and we have a New Testament book from the 50s AD referring to events of around 30 AD. There are well-respected Civil War memoirs that were written with a comparable separation of time from events, so this is clearly not unreasonable. No Gnostic gospel has anywhere close to that kind of pedigree.

So, did the orthodox winners write the books in the Bible? Yes, but only because the orthodox party had been THE party from the start.

So, if the original books were written by the first Christians, did the orthodox party change them in any way later to accord with its views? By the time of Nicaea, after all, almost everybody reading the Bible would have been reading a handwritten copy (not Xeroxes) of the previous copies copied from the originals. Well, this may seem odd for an orthodox Christian to say, but there is some evidence that tampering did take place. This is the most plausible explanation for many textual variants between the manuscripts. For instance, why did a scribe deliberately go to the trouble of changing references to “Jesus’s parents” to “Mary and Joseph,” other than to counter claims that Jesus was a mere human with only human parents? But in all the variations in the New Testament manuscripts, only an estimated 1% both actually impact the meaning of the verse and also have a reasonable chance of being the original reading. Changing 1 word in 100 over the course of 300 years doesn’t look like wholesale revision to me. And no one has ever found THE manuscript with THE textual variant that undoes the orthodox Christian doctrine, though the job never wants for volunteers. For every variant reading that casts the slightest doubt as to Christ’s divinity or perfections, there are multiple other verses on more secure footing that say the same thing. The authors of the Bible, while pursuing their own emphases and writing to their own audiences, wrote a very coherent book, often echoing the same points as their colleagues in another book. The winners wrote this book because they had been right all along!

Stupid Things People Think the Bible Says, Which It Doesn’t

Despite all the good the Bible’s done in the world, people love to find fault with it. It’s easily the most criticized, most censored book of all time. While it’s true that people often hate the things the Bible really teaches, to find something manifestly ridiculous to lampoon and hate about it, people have to make it up. I’m going to give six examples of stupid things people believe the Bible says when it clearly teaches the opposite.

To start at the beginning, there seems to be a growing belief that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis 3 had something to do with sexual knowledge. I heard a rabbi, who should have known better, propound that that’s what the original Hebrew refers to, and the Star Trek TOS episode “The Apple” used the idea as a large part of the plot. I don’t know much Hebrew, but I know that calling it the Tree of Sexual Knowledge flies in the face of common sense. At the same time that Adam and Eve are forbidden to eat of the tree, God tells them to, “Be fruitful and multiply.” Since He’s talking to the first husband and wife, there’s no reason to suppose He has anything in mind other than sexual reproduction. Besides, it’s only after they eat from the tree that Adam and Eve no longer want to be naked in front of each other.

This attempt to make the Bible more prudish than it really is is even more widespread in the Catholic religion, which teaches that its clergy has to be celibate. This is a gross distortion of Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 7. What he actually says is that, while it would be great for every Christian to be like himself and able to devote all their time to the Lord without the distraction of a family, the normal human sex drive makes this the exception rather than the rule. In fact, he says, “Let him do what he will. He sinneth not; let them marry” (verse 36, KJV). The Bible is more than happy to have married clergy. In fact, Israelite clergy had to marry to perpetuate the priestly line, the Pastorals call for elders and deacons to be evaluated based on their relationships with their wives and children, and Peter himself is said to have a mother-in-law whom Jesus heals. To have one of those, he had to have been married. In fact, Paul says in I Timothy 4:3 that forbidding marriage is the teaching of demons.

One huge misconception is that the Bible permits the imposition of Christianity by force. Any skeptic worth his salt knows all about the Crusades, the Inquisition, Charlemagne’s slaughter of the pagan Saxons, etc. and knows they’re unethical. Well, they’re also unscriptural. What happened is that the later Roman emperors, medieval kings, and Popes realized that the Christian God is more powerful than anyone else they could pray to, so they decided to try to harness that power for their own worldly pursuits. If you read the book of Acts, you know that the Apostles did not convert by the sword.

But, wait, the skeptic says! He doubles down by pointing to the multiple commands to Israel to massacre its foes in the Old Testament. The practice of herem, or putting under the ban, is clearly an Old Testament principle no longer applicable today. It was important when God’s Kingdom was a political one. Israel was the sole nation of God, surrounded by pagans hateful to its existence, and thus had its purity as well as its security to consider. By the way, while the other nations of the Ancient Near East could be barbarously cruel in the name of their gods, there’s no Old Testament command to blind, mutilate, or torture prisoners, unlike, say, the infamous Assyrians. Under the New Testament, God’s Kingdom is not tied to any political entity and is supposed to spread its love to every nation. In fact, Jesus told Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world. If My Kingdom were of this world, then would My servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews” (John 18:36, KJV). While Christians are to hold their governments accountable for basic moral standards of justice, they’re not to use it to impose religion on others. (By the same token, it’s not how Progressives are to impose their secularism on others either.)

Anyone who has heard about the exclusivity of Christianity will demand, “But what about innocent people who’ve never heard of Jesus? How can God send them to Hell for rejecting Jesus when they’ve never heard of Him?” Well, He doesn’t. It’s the difference in what theologians call General versus Special Revelation. General Revelation, according to Romans 1, is what everyone instinctively knows from Creation and conscience. They know, even if they won’t admit it, that they are a created being made to conform to certain moral laws by their Creator. Everyone, Paul tells us at length, is guilty before God of rebelling against this knowledge. Special Revelation is the Gospel message telling people how they can be reconciled to God. To reject this is a serious sin, but God obviously is not going to condemn you for rejecting something you’ve never heard of. The point is that General Revelation rules out anyone being innocent; all are under sin, as Paul says.

One grievous error is the belief that the Bible teaches hatred of homosexuals. Now, the Bible makes it quite clear that this is a serious sin of which they must repent, but it nowhere says to treat them differently from any other kind of sinner. Both sides should take a lesson from Paul when he writes, “Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind (and here the KJV is trying to delicately describe passive and active homosexuals), nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners shall inherit the Kingdom of God. And such were some of you, but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the Name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (I Corinthians 6:9-11, KJV). From this, we can see that (1) the homosexuals could and did repent of their sin (though no one said it would be any easier than the drunkard giving up his wine) and (2) that Paul extended his ministry to them as lovingly as to anyone else.

Some people think that because the Old Testament is full of saints who practice polygamy that the Bible teaches that it’s okay. Well, anyone familiar with those stories should see that the Bible does not endorse that practice. It just reports the facts as they occurred, and universally they tell of the unhappiness and conflict that polygamy brings. In the Old Testament, in fact, the principles of the king in Deuteronomy forbid him practicing polygamy. In the New Testament, Paul explicitly says, “Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband” (I Corinthians 7:2, KJV). No one in their right mind should want to practice polygamy after they read the Bible.

The list is really endless all the stupid things people think the Bible teaches when it in fact says the opposite. It’s like they’re trying to find excuses not to believe, which is in fact what they’re trying to do.

My Choice of Apologetics, Part IV: What Do You Suppose about That?

So, by now you’ve figured out Presuppositionalism is the one I have a problem with. I suppose part of it is that my first encounter with it was the video series How to Answer the Fool, which it seemed the producer was trying to present in the most confusing manner possible. He had the film cutting back from scene to scene in a most disjointed manner. I think I got the gist of it well enough, though, and I didn’t like what I understood. The basic premise, I believe, is that subjecting God to the kind of objective human analysis involved in Classical apologetics and Evidentialism is an affront to His dignity and sovereignty and that your senses are too unreliable to base any conclusions off of them anyway. The answer, they say, is to start with the assumption that God exists, and then everything makes sense and you have a 100% sure basis for your knowledge.

Now, I respect that the Presuppositionalists want to uphold the glory of God. I also agree that, once you start off with the premise that God is good and man is evil, everything starts to make more sense. What they do, though, is, I think, different from the way Scripture does it. First of all, I don’t think it’s demeaning to God to try to reason with others based on evidence and logic. What then is the point of all the signs throughout the Bible? Dr. Sproul would have stood me down that the miracles in the Bible are to validate the prophet’s authority rather than prove God’s existence, which is already assumed in the Bible, and that’s true for many, if not most of them, but there are some signs that are clearly for God proving Himself. Just looking at Isaiah, God welcomes Ahaz to request any sign he wants to prove His promised deliverance. He gives Hezekiah at least two signs of that deliverance, which is clearly not to validate Isaiah since Hezekiah knows he’s a prophet already. Most importantly, He challenges the idolaters in Chapter 41 to pick their God/gods based off of whose prophecy comes true in a manner very pleasing to an Evidentialist. And let’s not forget that the whole point of the sign in Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal is to show Israel that the Lord is their God and Baal isn’t. Granted God gets very angry at those who demand more proof than He has given them, but He doesn’t seem to mind giving us reasons to believe.

In what I think is Presuppositionalism’s biggest flaw, though, take Romans 1. Paul says that we know God exists by seeing Creation and reasoning back to a Creator. That’s what Classical apologetics and Evidentialism do, but not only do Presuppositionalists refuse to do that, some of them say the others are ethically wrong to. Paul also refers to God writing His law on humanity’s heart in Romans, so the Moral argument is also Biblical.

As far as sensory perception goes, I agree it’s not 100% reliable. I will also point out, however, that the Apostle John makes his apologetic defense in the first verses of I John based off of his senses: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled of the word of life.” That’s three of the five senses right there! John is giving his senses as one of the reasons he believes. In other words, they’re usually reliable enough to form reasonable opinions based on.

Not only that, but this approach is a logically flawed theory that rests on circular reasoning. Circular reasoning, from a logician’s point-of-view, is where you start with your conclusion as one of the premises. Basically, Presuppositionalism says, “God exists. This further premise. That further premise. Therefore, God exists.” You haven’t proved anything because you assumed what you were setting out to prove from the get-go!

I don’t know how effective Presuppositionalism is in practice (if it converts souls, never mind my objections!), but it’s not nearly as logically sound as Classical Apologetics, Evidentialism, or the Moral Standard. I take strong exception to the claim that those three are sinful methods because I can find them in the most apologetic chapter in the Bible (Romans 1). Presuppositionalists are of course right when they point out that the Bible assumes the existence of God on page 1 of Genesis and works from there, but consider the context. Moses was writing to a nation whose fathers had worshipped God for centuries and who had just seen miracle after miracle performed by them. He didn’t have any reason to go into proving the existence of God! When Paul is writing to Gentiles who are the first in their family line to believe in God, however, he takes a few words to explain how they know who He is, and it’s not with Presuppositionalism.

It’s worth pointing out that the man behind the series How to Answer the Fool admitted he himself was converted by Evidentialism. The Moral Standard was the method preferred by one of the great apologeticists of all time, C.S. Lewis. And Classical Apologetics is called that because it used to be the standard apologetics used by the Church’s influential thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas. I hope you found an approach you can use in these posts and urge you to follow through with it with the sources I’ve mentioned so that you can “give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.”

My Choice of Apologetics, Part III: The Moral Dimension

The moral argument for God comes in its classic form from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Dr. Sproul liked to trace it back to Immanuel Kant, who rejected the Classical Apologetic view and inserted this one instead. I would recommend Lewis, who didn’t blatantly contradict Romans 1 like Kant did.

Lewis pointed out that humans everywhere have a moral compass. Every culture has values that it calls good and vices that it calls evil. Everyone, in other words, has a conscience with a standard of good and evil. That is, at least as far as everyone else goes. We all expect others to behave with certain propriety towards us even if we don’t feel like reciprocating. Even Hitler felt he had been badly wronged when Himmler tried to desert to the Allies. To feel wronged like that, you need a rule of good and evil.

Lewis agreed that there were variations between what behaviors cultures would accept or not. He did not see this, as some do, as indicating that there is no fundamental moral standard, since if you drill down far enough you eventually get to some common ground. His example was that, in the West, we mandate monogamy, whereas other societies have no problem with polygamy. He couldn’t name a culture, however, where you could sleep with just anyone you wanted without moral censure of some kind.

Many people believe good and evil are just concepts built into the human race as a survival mechanism, but Lewis had answers for that too. He said that when someone wrongs us by accident, we aren’t as angry with them as we are with someone who tries to wrong us on purpose and fails. Didn’t the accidental person do more real damage? Or consider a soldier who falls on a grenade to save his buddies. I don’t think anyone with any heart would consider that anything but a good action, but that person has just terminated all possibility of passing on his genes to the next generation, and that’s what the survival mechanism in animals is all about. They’re so craven about risking the slightest injury that a handful of wolves can put a herd of buffalo, each many times their size and armed with powerful hooves and sharp horns, into panicked flight. When humans desert their comrades, however, we view that as a morally reprehensible action. That’s not the way the survival mechanism works in nature.

Lewis and Kant pointed out that, if this moral standard is to mean anything, there have to be rewards for good behavior and punishments for bad. We know that life tends to do that, but it doesn’t always. Hitler went one country too far when he declared war on us and wound up having to shoot himself, but Stalin and Mao, who actually killed more people, died with their supreme power over Russia and China still theirs to enjoy right up to the end. Evidently, in order for us to say they were wrong when they in the end got what they wanted, there’d have to be some kind of punishment for all the evil they’d done after their deaths.

That would require there to be a judge over the human race. He needs to be omniscient so that he knows what we do, he needs to be omnipotent so he can enforce his judgment, he needs to be incorruptible so he can’t be bribed, and he needs to have created the human race so he has the authority to judge them. In other words, you need the Christian God. Indeed, without a perfect God to set the standard for good and evil, you can’t have a standard at all. No human has the authority or infallibility on earth to lay down perfect rules for how humans should behave. Without God, there’s no reason someone should be a Martin Luther King rather than a Joseph Stalin.

My Choice of Apologetics, Part II: The Rules of Evidence

Evidential apologetics you’ll find most clearly in the works of Lee Strobel in his “The Case for…” series. I get the impression this is more popular than Classical apologetics even though Dr. Sproul didn’t like it and disavowed the common conception that he was an Evidentialist. Basically, evidentialism looks at all the unlikely circumstances and events that have developed in the history of the universe and the trend that they point towards being deliberate and conclude that a personal, omnipotent God is directing them. AKA the dreaded Intelligent Design. (For the record, Dr. Sproul didn’t like evidentialism because he felt it leaves a 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000… chance that all these things are coincidental, whereas he felt Classical apologetics is airtight and irrefutable.)

Evidentialism draws heavily on science. A particular favorite is the fine-tuning of the constants of the universe. If you remember your high school science classes, these constants are the numbers in the equations that you have to memorize (or not, depending on if your teacher was nice enough to give you those with the test questions themselves) because they’re the same each time you run the equations. There’s a gravitational constant of the universe, specific heat for water, the speed of light, and many other things that don’t change. What impresses the evidentialists is how these constants have to be set to an extremely precise value in a relatively very narrow range to support life in the universe. To use an example from Strobel’s The Case for a Creator, if the gravitational constant were to increase just a relatively little, the earth would be compressed too small to maintain any real life, and anything that did live on it would be practically stuck to it because it wouldn’t have the strength to lift itself. The list goes on and on from there.

Taking Chance as our straw man here, as in Classical Apologetics, the evidentialists ask, what’s the likelihood of all these fine-tunings being coincidental? We don’t know of any reason why the universe had to spit out these values, which presumably could have been set at any of an infinite array of numbers, at the precise setting for life, so did Chance rig them all? Well, running all those probabilities, The Case for a Creator points out, leads to a decimal so small it takes more zeroes to write it out than there are atoms in the universe. Many Christian scientists conclude the logical explanation is an omnipotent being intending to make life in the universe set it up that way.

Life itself is another angle of the evidentialists. The cell, the most basic unit of life, is extremely complex. They’re so complex that it would take millions of coincidences to create one just by natural causes. There’s, say, 150 amino acids in the simplest protein times twenty amino acids for each spot in the chain, all having to be exactly right for the protein to function, times hundreds of proteins in each cell times three base pairs of DNA per amino acid times the billions of triplets of base pairs in DNA, all needing to be in the precise order to get even one working cell. Chance must be really lucky to get all those probabilities right (and quick since the product of those all occurring exceeds the number of milliseconds since the Earth began).

Once you get a cell and then higher-level organisms, the problem multiplies because of a concept called irreducible complexity. Most organisms have adaptations that are very complex. They require all the pieces to be there in working order, or the whole thing doesn’t work. The eye and the flagellum motor in bacteria are the examples most often cited. If one of those components is missing, the feature is a useless liability, the kind of thing natural selection would select against. Chance had to get all those mutations right on the first try!

The Cambrian explosion is linked to this concept. The Modern Synthesis of biology maintains that mutations in DNA lead to different characteristics that make organisms over the course of time better suited to their environment, which traits they pass on. The process takes time, presumably a lot of it since you’re going one or two mutations at a time. At the opening of the Cambrian period, though, you have every phylum of animal suddenly coming into existence without intermediate species in a space of time so short it would require mountains of coincidences to produce them. Darwin himself admitted that the fossil record didn’t bear him out, and something the scale of the Cambrian explosion in the big picture far outweighs the rare finds evolutionists later got ahold of, like Archaeopteryx.

Personally, I would add history to the mix of evidence. Is there any more unlikely religion to have spread worldwide than Christianity? Through centuries of onslaughts and oppressions including three Holocausts (massacres by the Assyrians/Babylonians, Romans, and Nazis), the Jews have survived as a nation long enough to produce a Messiah with the possibility remaining that they will one day turn back to Him like Paul predicted. The Church has grown in size and influence against all odds. In its beginning, after being founded by an executed convict followed by uneducated fishermen, it ticked off both the religious leaders of its parent religion and the most powerful empire of the day, but neither could destroy it. No one else has succeeded in stomping it out either despite all the attempts. Basically, every evil empire in history has wanted to wipe out Christianity, and yet it has still grown.

It always seems that some miracle saves it. When barbarians brought down the civilization Christianity had built in the Roman Empire, Clovis experienced a sudden turnaround in battle just in time to bring the Franks to convert. When the Church was languishing in superstition, the printing press came into existence just in time to disseminate the Reformation’s writings. When Suleiman the Magnificent came to conquer a Europe divided by the Reformation, remarkably heavy rains deprived him of his heavy siege guns outside of Vienna. And even when the bad guys win, they can’t take out the Church. Coincidences, all, or intentional, all?

Since I have decided to make my posts shorter, I can’t go into all the evidences for God’s intervention in the universe. In my faith, we believe that everything points to the glory of God since He directs it all to Himself (Romans 11:36). I think you’ll find this paradigm helpful when you drill down into it to try to win over your friends who for all their lives have been told science disproves God’s creation. Please refer to my very first post for a list of the giants of science who have believed in God. We match their appeal to science with a bigger appeal to science.

My Choice of Apologetics, Part I: Brushing Up on the Classics

“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear,” Peter wrote in his first letter (3:15, KJV). Thus, apologetics is a duty for every Christian. Every Christian should know why they believe in God and have answers for those who don’t. I would like to discuss in four posts the four schools of apologetics I am familiar with: Classical, Evidentialist, the Moral Standard, and Presuppositional. It’s impossible to go into the full details of what proves the existence of God (because that would involve discussing everything in the universe), but I’ll direct you to the sources I found on them for your further study. In short, I think all but one of them are Scripturally sound. First, Classical Apologetics.

I encountered Classical apologetics while studying the works of R. C. Sproul, but I believe he said it goes back to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. (He elaborates on his views in Defending Your Faith: An Overview of Classical Apologetics and Not a Chance!) True to Dr. Sproul’s philosophy background, Classical apologetics looks at the question from logic. Starting with the premise that the universe had a beginning, it says that, since the universe had a beginning, it is not self-existent and something self-existent must have created it.

The key concept is creation ex nihilo(out of nothing). An old scientific principle maintains, “Ex nihilo, nihil fit”- “Out of nothing, nothing comes.” Nothing is the absence of any conceivable thing. The minute you go beyond that with “Nothing is such and such,” you’ve just described something, which is by definition not Nothing. So, if you can say, “Nothing is able to create such and such,” that nothing is no longer nothing. Thus, the universe could not have been created from Nothing.

Nor could it create itself. To create itself, it has to be something (because Nothing can’t do anything), so it had to be something before it created itself. So it exists before it exists (i.e., while it does not exist). That’s a contradiction more glaring than anything the critics think they have on the Bible!

The cop-out that everyone knows is that the universe was created by Chance. Basically, Chance is assumed to be this chaotic force of some kind (dare I say magical?) that causes events to happen with no natural cause. I hope you can see the duplicity of atheists who maintain that scientific laws are so established and immovable that a supernatural force never intervenes to overrule them, but Chance can intervene whenever they need it to, to balance the equation.

Dr. Sproul believed in probability and forming expectations even though we don’t know for sure what’s going to happen, but that’s different from assigning the result to some injection of chaos. The fact that we don’t know why something happened doesn’t mean there’s no natural explanation. Somehow, a culture devoted to rationalism and empiricism has convinced itself that there’s this magical force going around performing miracles. Chance apparently determines which way dice roll, cards are shuffled, or coins are flipped, as if the laws of physics were suddenly suspended just because we can’t predict the outcome. Chance is powerful enough to account for every attribute of every living thing (through mutations that get naturally selected), but still we study laws of biology, which seem to apply so consistently in spite of the fact that it owes so much to random Chance.

In reality, it’s not like those base pairs in the DNA are moving around chaotically. We know that the laws of physics and chemistry operate at the minutest levels. Textbooks say gas is a state of matter where molecules are moving at random, but somehow they never defy scientific laws like Pascal’s or changes in their state of matter when the variables change. When you flip a coin, it goes where all the interactions of the physical forces direct it, not where Chance takes over and directs it based on its whim.

To people not wanting to believe, Chance is the new god. He’s pretty capricious, but at least he’s not going to judge you or demand any commitment. He’s a funny fish. He can create an entire universe and an astonishing variety of life, but he can’t do miracles like suspending a scientific law. He’s omnipotent but hamstrung.

Classical apologists like Dr. Sproul say Chance can’t create anything because it isn’t anything itself. It’s just a figment of our imagination, an omnipotent impersonal force rather than an omnipotent personal being. Is that any more scientific than creationism?

I like Classical apologetics, but I’m not sure it’s for everyone. After all, it relies heavily on philosophy. Your listener would have to comprehend the absoluteness of the term Nothing and reject the idea of Chance as a force that impacts things, which is practically second nature to most of us. I found it tricky to put all the references in this post to Nothing, something, Chance, existence, etc. into phraseology I thought would make sense to someone who hasn’t listened through Dr. Sproul’s lecture series, so I think a better approach to the current culture is my next topic: Evidentialism.

Getting Ready for Christmas… for Centuries

If you’re like me, Christmas Season is as enjoyable, if not more so, than Christmas itself. First we break out the decorations. We relish the memories from all the years for each item while listening to CDs of the Nutcracker and O Holy Night. We get to sing songs we’ve been waiting for all year. Then there are the parties with coworkers and friends. Don’t forget all the treats! (Whether picking out the gifts is enjoyable or not depends on what the selection’s like on Amazon.) Anyway, there’s too much delight there to pack into one day. I love our Christmas traditions and look forward to them for months before they actually get here.

Well, the first Christmas took a lot of planning itself. Centuries of it, in fact. Paul says in Romans 5:6 that Christ died “in due time” (KJV). The life of Christ was the most carefully planned event in history. If you look at the forces at play, you’ll find that they created an opportunity for the work of the Messiah and the creation of His Church at the most favorable time like never before or ever since. What’s astonishing is that the very things you think would hinder God’s plan of salvation actually paved the way for it.

Technically, God had been preparing for Christ’s coming since the beginning of history. In Genesis 3, a matter of hours after the first sin, God promises that He will send someone to crush the serpent’s head and vanquish sin forever. I’m just going to focus on the immediately preceding centuries, though.

I’ll start with the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 586 BC. You wouldn’t think that a tragedy that could inspire the Book of Lamentations and that saw mothers eating their babies would have anything to do with mankind’s salvation, but it did. This campaign led to the Jewish Diaspora. Fleeing the Babylonians’ wrath, Jews settled throughout the known world. That way, when Christ came and commanded His people to spread the Gospel throughout the world, there were ready-made nuclei of churches in the Jewish synagogues all around the Mediterranean. Yes, most Jews were hostile to the early Church, but you see the pattern again and again of Paul preaching as a rabbi in a Jewish synagogue and starting his church-planting there. Rodney Stark, in Cities of God, demonstrated that a Greco-Roman city with a Jewish community was more likely to have a church earlier than one without one.

These Jews had been given a list of prophecies to verify who the Messiah would be and what His plan of salvation would be like when He did come. The Jews in Judea completely missed the point, but there were Jews in the Diaspora like the Bereans who confirmed what Paul taught them by searching the Old Testament. The canon of the Old Testament was not universally agreed upon yet, but all the books were in existence and well known. In fact, there hadn’t been a prophetic word in Israel for over 400 years by the time Christ was born around 6-4 BC. That way, when it did come, in the person of John the Baptist around 29 AD, people were thirsting for it.

Interestingly, during that time of silence, Judaism had actually deteriorated. Jesus found them “like sheep without a shepherd.” The two leading religious groups were the Pharisees, who believed they could earn their way into the New Jerusalem, and the Sadduccees, who denied there would even be a New Jerusalem. When Jesus told them both they were wrong, they killed Him. It’s kind of surprising that God would let His people fall into such unpreparedness before He visited them, but when you consider that their rejection of their visitation led to the extension of God’s offer of salvation to the whole world, it makes perfect sense.

Also, the ruler at Christ’s birth was a raging tyrant. Herod the Great would kill anyone he even remotely considered a threat, be they his family members or even little babies in Bethlehem. I’m sure God had a reason for putting Herod in power before the first Christmas, but I don’t know what it is. The only thing I can think of is that he built one of the most magnificent temples in the ancient world, which the early Church was wont to worship in until its destruction in AD 70. (As an aside, I once asked my pastor how Herod was able to build a more splendid temple than Solomon when he ruled a smaller kingdom. He replied that he was just that much better at fleecing his people. That’s saying something when you consider that Israel eventually broke off from Solomon’s kingdom because of his rigorous taxes.)

300 years before Christ came, Alexander the Great conquered the known world. The conquered peoples actually took up Greek culture enthusiastically. That way, when Paul set out to evangelize or write his epistles to churches he had planted, he could do so in one language. It is a very descriptive one at that. It has four words for our word love, for instance, not all of which the New Testament needed. Thanks to the Ptolemies in Egypt’s desire for an exhaustive library at Alexandria, the Gentiles could read the New Testament in that language as well instead of having to learn Hebrew. The New Testament uses the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament to cite prophecies. Even Rome went crazy for Greek. As one Roman put it, “Conquered Greece conquered Rome.” When Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans, he wrote it in Greek because the Romans had so thoroughly adopted the Hellenistic culture.

The Greek tongue was the major contribution of the Greeks to the preparations for Christmas, but their culture was part of it too. John 1 makes extensive use of the Greek concept of the overarching Logos (in English, the Word) overseeing the universe. Paul had a lot to criticize about the Greeks and their idolatry, but he didn’t hesitate to refer to Greek culture when reaching out to them. He quotes two Greek authors talking about Zeus in his speech to the Athenians at the Areopagus and maybe makes an allusion to Polyphemus’s blinding in the Odyssey when he talks about mankind groping for God. Even when writing to his friend Titus, he quotes a Greek poet about the Cretans. Years later, when the Church had to define its orthodox position, it relied heavily on Greek philosophy with all that talk about essences and substances.

By far the most conspicuous development in the years before Christ’s coming was the rise of the Roman Empire. By this time it encompassed virtually the whole Mediterranean. Now, you might think that an empire that fed Christians to lions and insisted that sacrifices be made to its emperors would be an obstacle for the Church to overcome rather than a factor in its success, but God didn’t ordain their authority over the known world for nothing.

First of all, there was the famous Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. On the frontiers, Roman emperors still sent out armies to conquer lands and glory, but all around the Mediterranean they had established an area of relative peace and stability. Thus when Paul sent his couriers with his epistles, they could travel with comparative security, and churches in, say, Ephesus were not wiped out in a sack of their city. The contrast between Julio-Claudian order and the preceding centuries of war between Alexander’s successors or feuding Roman generals couldn’t be starker.

Even though the Roman Empire turned on the Christians before a full generation had passed, for the Church’s most formative years, it largely protected it. Since it recognized Judaism as a legal religion, until it came to see Christianity as a separate religion, it had no real problem with it. You see Paul several times in Acts using his Roman citizenship to secure protection from hostile Jews. In all likelihood, Nero martyred Paul in 67 AD, but the mobs in Ephesus and Jerusalem would’ve been happy to do it for him many years before. If the Roman soldiers hadn’t carried Paul away from the frenzied Jews trying to pull him apart, we wouldn’t have the Prison Epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) or the Pastorals (I and II Timothy and Titus).

Moreover, there’s the Roman infrastructure to consider. Rome’s economy was very primitive compared with ours, but they could support what was for that time large cities that it could supply with food and water along roads and with aqueducts. This was important because Christianity largely spread through cities. Luke reports Paul’s activities in Acts according to the city where he was preaching, and most of Paul’s epistles are grouped by the city the church is in (so are the seven letters to the churches in Revelation). The word pagan, in fact, comes from the Latin for field because the rural populations were the holdouts for the old religions as Christianity spread.

There’s another interesting historical aside I’d like to pursue. The concept of adoption is crucial to the New Testament and our identity as God’s children, but it’s almost entirely absent from the Old Testament. Other than Mordecai adopting Esther, I can’t think of any Jews doing that. The Romans, however, were all about adoption. They even took it to the most farcical extremes. Augustus adopted his wife Livia in his will. Earlier, Roman patricians had had plebeians adopt them so they could run for the influential office of tribune without forfeiting their patrician status. One of Julius Caesar’s opponents had had himself adopted by a plebeian who was younger than himself! Anyway, however ridiculous the Romans got, it would be a theme Paul’s readers would readily relate to. In the same vein, he describes Christ’s Second Coming with the imagery of a Roman triumph, a parade that often celebrated the most unjust wars and ruthless campaigns.

So the first Christmas came at exactly the right moment, one that took centuries to lead up to. Never has the Mediterranean world experienced such unity and stability of language and politics as it did in under the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It proved a splendid nursery for the infant Church.

Something you probably noticed throughout this post is how surprising these developments were. Jeremiah bewailed the miseries that befell his people under Nebuchadnezzar’s army, but God used it to pave the way for the expansion of His kingdom. You wouldn’t think God would let the world become saturated by a culture as perverse as the Greco-Roman one before He sent His Son into it, but that was the one He deliberately set up to work with. He put in power a man who tried to murder His Son right after He was born, and He put influence in the hands of those who finally did find a way to murder Him. This Christmas, I hope you’ll enjoy Matthew and Luke’s accounts but also say with Paul, “O the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33, KJV).

What about All the “Contradictions” in the Bible?

The inerrancy of Scripture is a powerful doctrine. What could be more reassuring than knowing that you have a 100% reliable guide to attaining a blissfully happy eternity? It is also one of the most attacked doctrines of Christianity. This seems odd when you think about it, given how much time we devote to securing our own happiness and the amount of ink and money we spend on other books telling us how to achieve it. Of course, the Bible also says that the means of attaining that happiness are impossible for you to achieve on your own and that if you don’t, you will inherit an eternity of misery. Naturally, that’s the part people don’t want to be true.

One of the most common methods of attack is to find some sort of contradiction in the Bible. Often this involves a contradiction between the Bible and other nations’ histories of the time. Evidently, the critics believe the boastings of egotistical conqueror-kings are more reliable than the chronicles of historians willing to admit when their heroes commit incest, adultery, and murder. From the materialistic standpoint of the critics, any author who believes that God intervenes in history is automatically starting from a flawed premise and is therefore less reliable. (Or perhaps I should say, “anyone who believes that the Christian God intervenes in history,” since the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian cultures they rank as more reliable than the Bible also believed their gods intervened in their histories.) Of course, we all know how many contradictions are supposed to exist between the Bible and modern scientific theories. I dealt with that issue in my first blog post, so I won’t say anything more about it here.

Instead, I should like to devote this post to equipping you for wading through the sea of supposed contradictions within the Bible itself. For anyone who actually bothers to read the Bible before attacking it and the bloggers who take their word for it, this is one of the most popular means of criticizing it. That makes sense because, if one Biblical writer says the opposite of another, they can’t both be right and the Bible is ipso facto in error on a point. Q.E.D. Certainly, the Bible contains enough material to keep them very busy with its variations.

First, let’s specify our terminology. As Dr. R. C. Sproul says, drawing on his philosophy background (though I can’t remember his exact words), “The Law of Noncontradiction maintains that something cannot be A and not A at the same time and in the same way.” So I’ll give you an example of a genuine contradiction. At the Battle of Minden in 1759, six British infantry battalions pierced the French center after withstanding attacks from artillery, cavalry, and infantry. In an early history of the battle, someone wrote that one of the British commanders, General Kingsley, fell from his horse when his brigade was for the moment pushed back by fresh troops. Kingsley himself read a copy of this work and made his own annotations. He took exception with many of the things the historian said and wrote in the margin, “Kingsley did not fall from his horse.” So, here are two authors saying something happened and did not happen at the same time in the same way. Unless you can find Scripture doing that, you don’t have it contradicting itself.

Most people find the contradictions in the implication rather than the explication. Here’s an example of what they do. If I tell one friend, “I heard from James that the party will be at 6:00” and another friend that, “I heard from John that the party will be at 6:00,” a Biblical critic will say that I contradicted myself. The implication they read into it is that the second time I said, “I heard from John (and not James).” Makes sense, right? But, in actuality, there’s no logical necessity that one of those statements is false. Who’s to say I didn’t hear it first from James and then later from John?

Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, tells a story that illustrates the danger of disbelieving the Bible based off of implication and assumption. He says that Zedekiah refused to repent and surrender to Nebuchadnezzar because he ultimately relied on his false prophets rather than the true ones. The true ones he rejected because he thought they had contradicted themselves. Jeremiah had told him that Nebuchadnezzar would capture him and take him into exile in Babylon, but he had heard that Ezekiel had said he would never see Babylon. Contradictory, right? Well, actually, Nebuchadnezzar captured Zedekiah, had him blinded, and then took him prisoner to Babylon. Both prophets were right; they just focused on different aspects. I don’t know if that story is true or not, but I expect that will be the experience on Judgment Day of everyone who eased their conscience with a supposed contradiction in the Bible.

In addition, it really makes no sense to go after the Bible’s “contradictions” with the viciousness its critics resort to. We’re talking about the most powerful religion in history. It has withstood, off and on, millennia of persecution from the various superpowers of the day, rising to reshape Western culture and make inroads in every other one. Slavery was for millennia the socio-economic basis of Western civilization, but thanks to Christianity, it is now illegal throughout the West. The Bible turns fierce enemies into sincere friends and brings troubled people to unfathomable peace. Martin Luther appeared to many to be insane from the way he agonized over his sins, real or imagined, but one verse from Romans salved his conscience and relieved his fears. Yet, the critics say, the people who made up this earth-shaking religion were so stupid and disorganized that they couldn’t keep their story straight for two pages!

So here are some ways of interpreting why one part of Scripture says one thing and another part says the “opposite”:

First of all, the Bible is rich in paradox. This happens when two seemingly opposite things are true, but in different ways. This results from the Bible contrasting our natural earthly perspective with our new heavenly perspective (that’s the whole point of Ecclesiastes). Jesus says in Mark 10:44 that a Christian wanting to be first must make himself the last. Contradictory, right? Well, what He’s saying is that a Christian who subordinates his own interests to others’ in a way that loves his neighbor as himself will be from the world’s perspective the very least successful of people, but that in God’s eyes he’s one of the best Christians there is. There’s another paradox that has tripped up a lot of people: the Bible teaches that we are not saved by works but that we are not saved without works. The simple truth reconciling this is that God justifies us by faith without reference to our works, but on a human level those who have faith must have a new nature that will by necessity delight in doing good works.

It seems paradoxical that II Samuel says God moved David to foolishly take a census of Israel and for I Chronicles to say that Satan did it while James adds that God tempts no one. Surely it’s a contradiction for the Bible to say Satan and God did the same thing, right? Especially when it involves someone being led to sin. Well, does II Samuel say, “God moved David, and Satan didn’t”? What all these authors mean is that God, in His eternal decrees, had decided that His wisdom and justice called for David conducting a census at that moment in time and that He therefore permitted Satan, who was more than willing to oblige, to tempt David to it. God allowed it, but Satan did the tempting. What looks like a paradox is actually an object lesson in how God ordains that all things, even sin, should come to pass as He planned them. The fact that God plans something and works good out of it doesn’t make it good in and of itself. The ends don’t justify the means, as we say.

You must also allow for everyday things like approximations, exaggerations, figurative language, etc. If I say π is equal to 3.14159, I doubt most of you would correct me when technically π is a number consisting of infinite digits. Sometimes one Bible writer is being more precise than another or emphasizing something more than another because he has a different objective or audience in mind. I Kings gives the circumference of Solomon’s “Sea” in the Temple as 30 cubits when, at 10 cubits in diameter, it would have been 31.4159 cubits (approximately). Either the writer of Kings is measuring the inner circumference after accounting for the handbreadth of thickness between outer and inner rims, or he is making a rounding approximation only a pedant would find objectionable. We do that sort of thing all the time, and nobody calls us liars for it, so I don’t see why we should refuse the Biblical writers that same latitude.

You must also consider the summarizing nature of the Bible. Its history covers, starting with dates we can establish with reasonable certainty, as many as 2,200 years between Abraham’s birth and Paul’s captivity in Rome, and its ethical principles seek to govern the entirety of human behavior. Naturally some things are going to be telescoped. Therefore, when Kings says a King of Judah was bad and did not remove the high places of idol worship and Chronicles says the opposite, or vice versa, maybe they’re referring to different phases of the king’s reign. Maybe he started doing one thing and later changed his mind. That is not without precedent. Joseph II of Austria is remembered as an emperor who tried to enact sweeping reforms in keeping with the Enlightenment, but, towards the end of his life, when he was a broken, disillusioned man, he repudiated many of his reforms. Chronicles presents Manasseh going through such a personality change, but Kings does not. Is one contradicting the other, or is one just emphasizing a matter more important to his story? Kings, written during the Babylonian Exile, explains how Manasseh corrupted Judah to the point of no return, and Chronicles, written after the Restoration, explains how God could restore even such a wicked king like He had the Jews from their exile.

Sometimes Matthew and Luke disagree on how many people Jesus healed in a particular story- Luke might say there was one and Matthew that there were two. Neither says, “There was one, and only one.” Instead, one evangelist chooses to be more exact whereas the other focuses on the one who interacted with Jesus the most. Matthew says the man Legion possessed had a confederate; Luke mentioned just the man with the multitude of demons because he was clearly the major player in the drama.

Summary, I think, is the source of most of the really conspicuous “contradictions” in the Bible. The Passion and Resurrection narratives differ in details from one Gospel to the other, so some think they’re garbled accounts of what actually happened. But, really, why would John have bothered to write his Gospel if he was just going to copy what Mark had written? They all have their different emphases and therefore include different details. What you don’t have is John saying, “Mary Magdalene was the first to see Christ,” and Matthew saying, “Mary Magdalene was not the first to see Christ.” Or you don’t see Matthew writing, “And the two thieves on the cross mocked Jesus,” and Luke saying, “The one on His left, and only the one on His left, mocked Him.” Presumably, both of the thieves mocked Jesus, but when the one on His right saw how Jesus bore all the torment and mockery with fortitude, he realized his mistake and repented. Matthew wants to emphasize that Jesus’s humiliation was so great that even people suffering the same loathsome fate as He felt He was below them, and Luke wants to point to the power of faith that can save someone even at the point of death. If every Biblical author included all the details that everyone else wrote about his particular story- well, in the first place you’d have a pretty boring, unmanageable tome to sift through, and in the second, you’d have one that didn’t focus well and tell its story in artistically crafted themes.

One aspect of Biblical variations is the influence of translation. Jesus spoke to His audience in Aramaic while the Gospel writers were composing their works in Greek, so obviously they couldn’t give the exact words He spoke (in most cases, that is- every now and then they give the original Aramaic, like, “Talitha cumi” in Mark 5). Thus, they had a certain degree of liberty in how they worded their quotation, just like any other translator. When Jesus is asked in Mark if He is the Son of God, He says, “I am,” but in Matthew and Luke He says, “You say that I am.” It’s obvious from the priests’ reaction (and the fact that He used similar words to unquestionably affirm that Judas was the treacherous disciple) that Jesus was affirming His deity in Matthew and Luke just as in Mark. Mark just translated a little bit less literally than Matthew and Luke to make it less ambiguous.

Translation probably accounts for the famous “contradiction” where Jesus says David ate the showbread “in the days of Abiathar the High Priest” (Mark 2:26). Biblical critic Bart Ehrman lost his faith by thinking Jesus meant that David ate the bread during the term of Abiathar as High Priest, which isn’t true since his father Ahimelech was High Priest at the time (at least for a little while before Saul slaughtered the priests and Abiathar as the survivor did become High Priest). Some say the “epi” in the Greek should be translated, “in the story of Abiathar the High Priest.” At this time the Bible did not have chapters and verses but had to be referenced by subject matter of the passage. Makes sense. Or Jesus was referring to the fact that this happened during the life of Abiathar, who became High Priest, which is also true. It’s like the book Napoleon in Egypt, where the author referred to his subject as “Napoleon” after admitting that in 1798, when he invaded Egypt, he was still known as General Bonaparte. He only became Emperor Napoleon (and was referred to on a first-name basis) in 1804. Looking back, though, we almost always refer to him as Napoleon, not General Bonaparte, and only a pedant is going to insist on a book entitled General Bonaparte in Egypt. If I say, “Mrs. Jones went to elementary school at Such and Such Academy,” are you really going to contradict me even though it’s obvious Mrs. Jones was not Mrs. Jones at the time but rather Miss Smith (or whatever her maiden name is)? In all these cases the speaker is just referring to the subjects by the titles they assumed and became famous for so we’ll know whom exactly he means.

Lastly, the fall-back position is that there was an error in the scribal transmission. With all the textual variations in the Bible, they can’t all go back to the original reading, so we know it did happen. Just because Samuel and Chronicles sometimes differ by essentially a decimal point in their casualty figures doesn’t mean that when they were originally written they didn’t both agree on the correct figure. Sometimes these are downright obvious. Yes, II Samuel 21 says in the Hebrew manuscripts that Jaare-Oregim slew Goliath the Gittite after I Samuel 17 made a whole pericope out of David slaying him, but who really thinks a historian capable of writing an epic story on the level of the Book of Samuel would forget that his hero David played the pivotal part in what is the best-known story of the work? Homer nodded, yes, but never on anything that big. Of course the author of Samuel originally wrote, “slew the brother of Goliath the Gittite,” like Chronicles! Some scribe just messed up and was copied by others; anyone fabricating the story could have done a better job than making such an obvious blunder. Inerrancy doesn’t claim that every manuscript we possess is 100% accurate; the original authors would have had to have been crazy to write all those variations. It claims that the originals are completely trustworthy, so when you have the original wording, you have the words of God. (When I discussed C.S. Lewis’s trilemma in the prior blog post, I went into the reliability of our New Testament manuscripts in preserving the original meaning.)

The Bible nowhere says something along the lines of, “Joab fell from his horse at the Battle of Rabbah,” and then elsewhere, “Joab did not fall from his horse at the Battle of Rabbah.” If we think it is contradicting itself, we’re not considering the subtle nuances one would expect in a work written by dozens of authors over the course of at least thirteen centuries. A measure of variation is the mark of one author following his own style and emphases, not an indication that one of two authors is necessarily mistaken. Don’t be like Zedekiah.