Bible Quandaries

Welcome to Bible Quandaries. We all have questions about the Bible. Does it sync with science? Is it really inspired? Should we trust it? How did we get the Bible in the first place?This page will answer some of those questions.

Scroll down to see if there is a question that intrigues you. I will post new questions/answers over time, so check back now and then to see new posts. All questions and answers are excerpted from my book The Bible for Skepticcs: A Conversation for Thinking People. Go to my Books and Resources tab if you want more information about the book or to purchase a copy for yourself or for a skeptic in your life. Enjoy!

Isn’t the Bible just a bunch of rules?

There are some. The Bible does teach how we should be living. There are many who steer away from reading the Bible because they are sure that it will tell them to do a lot of things they cannot do and they simply are not ready to give up the lifestyle they like.  I do understand that, but usually counsel people to begin to read without too many pre-conceived expectations of what it says.  Much of what we have heard taught about the Bible might be human beings’ opinions and not the actual reality.  So, even if we are not ready to do everything the Bible says, I think we should begin to read it to see what the true message is.  I have to admit that the Bible has some negatives, but it has some great positive direction, too, as we will see in a minute.

“Chief Drowning Bear (c. 1759-1839), who held his people firm to the old Cherokee religion in these mountains, once allowed a Christian missionary to read several chapters of the Bible to him. After the missionary had finished, Drowning Bear remarked thoughtfully, ‘It seems to be a good book – strange that the white people are not better, after having had it so long.’”(1)

The Old Testament set a standard that God required of all who would be rightly related to him. The Ten Commandments were the beginning and became the foundation for all the biblical requirements that would follow. Even as He spoke them, God knew that mankind would not be able to keep even ten simple commands, so a sacrificial system was set up to provide a way to be reconciled to a holy God once failure occurred.

In the New Testament, Jesus fulfilled all the requirements of the law by living a perfect, sinless life.  He forever met all the requirements of atonement and sacrifice by dying on the cross. His resurrection from the grave is the Father’s acceptance of the once-for-all offering that he made.  Now, instead of a list of Old Testament laws to keep, we have only two rules to follow: We are to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, minds, souls, and strength; and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  So, if you are afraid that the Bible will saddle you with a list of rules, think again.  There are only two, and they are very hard (in fact, really impossible) to live up to in their entirety.  But they are both about relationships and I think we’d have to admit that if everyone even attempted to live in keeping with these two simple rules, this world would be a wonderful place!

So, while the Bible sets a standard and requires our meeting of it, it acknowledges our weakness and provides a means by which forgiveness can be obtained when we fail to reach the standard.  Even today when we live in a fairly open culture, guilt is an emotion that haunts many people. The Bible provides a way to get rid of that guilt.  The Bible is the only holy book that doesn’t just require penance for our sinfulness, but actually eliminates the guilt.  That is not slavery to a set of rules.  That is true freedom.

Once we experience the forgiveness offered by God through Jesus, we have a change of heart and truly want to live the way God wants us to live. Following the “rules” at that point does not earn favor with God, but out of gratitude for what He has done for us, we find that we desire to know what His guidelines are for living life to the full.

While the Bible is not primarily a rule book, it does provide us a great deal of wisdom for living good, productive, healthy, and satisfying lives. The wisdom books of the Old Testament (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job) are filled with guidance for living.  And the instructions, advice, and insights given in these books are every bit as appropriate today as they were when they were written.  True wisdom transcends time and culture.  The Ten Commandments, too, are as valid today as they ever were and show us how to live well in this world.

The New Testament epistles are full of commands and guidelines from the early church leaders on how we are to conduct ourselves with one another and within the church.  Here are a few from Romans 12:

  • Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.
  • Honor one another above yourselves.
  • Be joyful in hope.
  • Be patient in affliction.
  • Be faithful in prayer.
  • Share with God’s people who are in need.
  • Practice hospitality.
  • Bless those who persecute you.
  • Rejoice with those who rejoice.
  • Mourn with those who mourn.
  • Live in harmony with one another.
  • Do not be proud.
  • Be willing to associate with those of low position.
  • Do not be conceited.

If we read the Bible for no other reason, we might read it just to gain wisdom that will allow us to live meaningful, productive, and relationally successful lives.  Even those who don’t believe the Bible to be inspired and inerrant could benefit financially, personally, and relationally by reading and following its teachings.

The whole plan for the world and the future is written for us in the book God has given.  Those who understand that are usually captured by the story it tells and are eager to know and follow the wisdom and guidelines it gives.  It doesn’t take long to realize that the Bible is much more than just a set of rules.

  1. Gail Godwin, Evensong (New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1999), p. 214.

 

If this book is God’s message to humans, why?  We are insignificant specks in the universe – how can God even notice us, let alone love us? 

There was an advertisement on television a few years ago that showed a successful and physically powerful man going happily about his business.  Then, almost instantly, he is flattened and incapable of doing what he had been doing a moment earlier. It wasn’t a Mack truck that hit him, it was a blood clot.  He was felled by something smaller than a pea.  The message is about getting the right medicine, but the underlying theme is that we can take from it is that small things can be very important.

So, the fact that Earth is a small planet does not necessarily make it insignificant.  And the fact that those who live on this planet are mere specks in the universe doesn’t make us insignificant either.  Is a twelve-year-old less important than an eighteen-year-old just because she is smaller in size?  Even children’s literature understands the concept that small size does not indicate insignificance (e.g. Stuart Little, Mighty Mouse).

Secondly, let’s think about what gives something value.  One thing is its rarity.  We pay dearly for diamonds of the right color and clarity.  Why?  Because they are hard to find.  In the area where I live, waterfront property carries a high price tag.  Why?  Because it is desirable in terms of beauty and recreation and it is of limited quantity.  The same may be true of us humans.  In this vast universe, we are indeed miniscule in terms of size and numbers.  But that doesn’t make us less valuable.  In some cases, our very rarity might make us more valuable!

Then, I think we realize that sometimes worth is given from the outside by someone as opposed having an intrinsic quality of its own.  When I was growing up, my little brother had a beloved teddy bear.  Teddy got pretty worn out over time.  He was dirty from many walks in the woods for teddy bear picnics and from some overnights in the backyard pup tent.  He was also losing his stuffing and was down to one eye.  So, the decision was made between my parents and my brother (now getting old enough to sleep without the bear nearby) that it was time for Teddy to leave us.  My Dad was taking a Saturday morning trip to the town dump with some cast-offs from the basement and with Teddy in tow.  When he returned an hour later, all the basement junk was gone, but Teddy was riding proudly in the back seat.  My Dad couldn’t leave him at the dump.  Why? Teddy was an old bear, not even a Gund, and he was pretty ugly.  Nobody would have given us a nickel for old Ted.

But in my brother’s eyes, Teddy was of inestimable value and my Dad knew that. The only reason Teddy had value at all was not because of Teddy but because of my brother. Teddy’s value came from what my brother saw in him, not from the fabric and fluff that made him up.

Do you see the parallel?  Human beings do not have value because we are big or beautiful or wise or wonderful or rich or powerful.  Human beings have value because God says we do.  He created us and it is an unusual thing for a creator not to value what he has made.  Because we belong to God, he has infused value into us that we would have in no other way.  We are told in Genesis that this happened when he created man in his image.  God made man to be like him in some mysterious way and to relate to him as no other created being could do.  If we know that, then it does not seem so unlikely that God would deal with mankind as he does even though we are small and insignificant in light of the immensity of the universe in which we live.

Another thought before we leave this subject:  While the Bible gives the story of Planet Earth and the Earthlings who inhabit it, what is to say that there is not another planet with created beings on it to whom God also relates?  Maybe there is a Bible for that planet, too, that is as different from our Bible as that planet and its inhabitants might be different from us.  It is probably arrogant for us as humans to think that we are the only created beings God relates to.  There is a lot we don’t know about this huge universe we are a part of. (If you want to read a good fantasy story on this, you might check out C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra.)

 

If God is all good and all powerful, why do evil and suffering exist in our world?

The bottom-line answer to that question is that when God created human beings, he gave them free will.  They could decide whether or not to follow him, whether or not to obey him.  The third chapter of Genesis tells us that humankind (in the persons of Adam and Eve) was not committed enough to God and did not really trust him not to be holding out on them.  So they chose to turn their backs on him and go their own way.  The result was that sin entered the world and everything that was created perfect and good became corrupted.  The ground began to grow weeds, bodies began to age, and people began to be cruel to one another.  In fact, we have the first murder in the world recorded in the very next chapter of Genesis.  It did not take fallen man very long to figure out how to behave in hatred toward his own brother!

From there, it’s been pretty much downhill all the way.  We have wars, abuse, lies, stealing, and murders dominating the world in which we live.  Even natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, and famine result from the curse on nature that occurred because of the choice man made to introduce evil into the world.  That same curse has resulted in sickness, birth defects, cancer, dementia, and depression. Everything negative and mean and cruel has grown out of the free will options that humans were given.

So, if God is all powerful, why doesn’t he step in and fix everything?  Why does he let drunk drivers kill husbands and fathers?  Why does he allow drug dealers to peddle their poisons in school yards?  Because God values free will above almost everything else.  He wants us to have a choice.  We can be an Adolf Hitler or a Mother Theresa.  We can abuse children or educate them.  We can use our voices to shout profanities at our families or we can use them to sing beautiful songs.  Without free will, there would be no evil in this world, but we simply would be pawns on the giant chessboard of life.  We would not have choices and God would not experience having people who want to love and follow him – and that is his ultimate goal.

“If God is going to give free wills to the creatures, He has to allow for the possibility of them misusing that freedom, even if this means hurting others. To be significantly free is to be morally responsible, and to be morally responsible means being morally responsible to each other. What is the freedom to love or not love unless it is freedom to enrich or harm another? God structured things this way because the alternative would be to have a race of robots who can’t genuinely love – but that’s hardly worth creating, is it?” (1)

The good news is that eventually God will step in and make everything right.  The book of Revelation in the Bible spells it out pretty clearly (as do a number of other passages throughout the Bible).  Jesus eventually will return, will judge the world, will eliminate evil, and will start all over with a new Earth and new heavens and with people who have already exercised their free will to follow him instead of following the ways of evil.  Until then, though, he is allowing evil to run its course.  And unfortunately, in that process, people get hurt.  We weep, we wail, we protest, and we want God to take care of the miserable state in which we find ourselves.

Those who believe that God is just and good and all-powerful, believe also that this life is only a speck in time of our entire lives which include eternity.  It is worth it to put up with suffering and pain for this relatively short period of time in order to experience free will and eternal life with God whom we have chosen to love and follow because we trust him to be good and wise and loving.  Eliminating suffering at the expense of our free will is too big a price to pay!  At least that what God has decided. And if we could see the big picture as he does, I am sure we would agree.

  1. Edward K. Boyd and Gregory A. Boyd, Letters from a Skeptic (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Victor, 1994), p. 23.

 

Does the Bible tell us how old the earth is?

 It seems that there are essentially two theories about the age of the Earth.  There are those who say the Earth is less than ten thousand years old and others who measure the age of the Earth in billions of years, not thousands.  There’s a huge gap there and that gap makes it difficult for many to give any credibility to the biblical account of creation and, if that is in doubt, they see the entire Bible as questionable.  So, this is an important question to deal with. There are several ways to approach this problem.  The Bible clearly describes six days of creation in the first chapter of Genesis.

One question that could be raised is whether or not those days were literal twenty-four hour days or whether they are describing spans of time such as when your grandmother says, “In my day . . .” There are those who believe that all of them were literal twenty-four hour days.  Others contend that the first three days could be of any length, but once the sun was created on the fourth day, then the rotation of the Earth on its axis would predetermine twenty-four hour days.

There are other Bible followers who believe that the six days described in Genesis 1 are days of re-creation of an original world that was in chaos by the time we get to Genesis 1, verse 2.  In this view, the first verse of the Bible is an introductory verse and the actual re-creation account begins in verse 2.  If that were the case, then the original creation could have occurred thousands or millions or billions of years prior to the re-creation. Here is a summary of that thought: “The Genesis text does not describe the original creation of the world ex nihilo . . . but rather describes God’s re-creation of the world from a state of chaos and, perhaps, judgment described by the words formless and void . . .We are not told why the world is in this state in Genesis 1, but it may be that Satan fell after the original creation, and in Genesis 1 and 2, God is bringing salvation to the world by bringing order out of chaos in his re-creation.  The days of re-creation are six twenty-four-hour days” (1)

Then there is the somewhat similar gap theory which proposes that eons of time passed between the first two verses of the Bible.  The formless universe was created and put on the back burner, so to speak, until God was ready to focus on making something out of the formless void.  If that theory is correct, it helps to close the gap between the billions of years theorists and the thousands of years literalists. Where the Bible is silent, science and history step in and begin to fill in blanks. The controversy that exists over the age of this planet on which we live does not make the biblical account inaccurate in what it says.  We just know that there is more to the story than has been told in the Bible.

  1. J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Baker Book House Company, 1987), p. 214.

 

Did Jesus get married?

Jesus was born and then, after a brief side trip to Egypt, was raised in Nazareth, a small village in Israel.  After thirty years or so, he became a public figure, going from town to town teaching about God, quoting often from the Old Testament Scriptures, and talking about a strange new concept called the Kingdom of God.  As an adult, then, would he not choose a typical life which would include marrying and raising a family?

There is nothing in Scripture (nor in any of the gospels or books of acts that were not included in the New Testament canon) that indicates that Jesus ever married.  Nor is there any reference to a widow left at the time of his death.  It was only his mother who was called out as the one for whom Jesus had concern as he was dying on the cross (John 29:25-27).

When Paul writes to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 9:5), he actually names other apostles and disciples who had wives.  He was trying to make a case here for ministers of the Gospel having the right to have a wife.  What stronger argument could he have given than that Jesus had a wife?  But he does not say that, mostly likely because it would not have been a true statement. Apparently, it was not uncommon for rabbis to remain single during the years of their lives when they were itinerate teachers (as Jesus was) and then to marry late in their thirties or forties.  Since Jesus was killed at the approximate age of thirty- three, it would not have been unusual at all for him, as a rabbi, not to have yet married.

Nor is there any non-biblical source that gives any indication that Jesus was married or that he had romantic relationship with Mary Magdalene.  Recent popular writing indicates that the Gospel of Philip refers to Mary as Jesus’ spouse stating that the word used in Aramaic could mean companion or spouse.

From that, the secular novelist concludes that Mary was probably Jesus’ wife.  Without any corroborating evidence from the Bible or any other historical writings, it is a stretch, I believe, to choose spouse over companion in that translation.  But there is more to the weakness of that approach when we realize that the Gospel of Philip was not written in Aramaic, but in Coptic.  And the Coptic word clearly means friend.  So, when we look at unbiased manuscript evidence, it is clear that Mary Magdalene was a disciple of Jesus (as were other women – see Luke 8:1-3) and she is described by virtually all writers (except novelists) as a companion or friend, not as his wife. (1)

Those who suppose that Jesus was married, also tend to suppose that he had children. There is no physical evidence of this either.  Isaiah 53 is a prophecy that foretells the coming of the Messiah and indicates what his life would be like.  In verse 8, it says, “By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants?  For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken.”  The prophet is foretelling that the Messiah would have no descendants because his death would be untimely, cutting him off in the prime of life.  Even those who doubt that Jesus was the true Messiah and say that he only pretended to be would have to admit that a pretend Messiah would have to get around this passage (which Jews would have taken literally) in order to qualify as the Messiah they were looking for.  Having children would have taken him out of the running immediately!

So, if Jesus wasn’t married and did not have children, did he even have sexual desires?  Did he find women attractive?  Did he find specific women more attractive than others?  We are told that he was both human and divine.  We know that human adults have sexual appetites.  But, with Jesus, because of his divinity, we can be sure that those desires were always experienced without his committing any sin.  I think it safe to say that he enjoyed and appreciated women (many followed him and learned from him, he went out of his way to visit with the Samaritan woman at the well, he stayed often at the home of Mary and Martha, etc.), but there is no record or even a hint that he had any relationship with any woman that was sexually oriented or that included marriage.

  1. Erwin W. Lutzer, The DaVinci Deception (Carol Stream, Illinois:  Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2006), p. 66.

 

Can the Bible and evolution both be right? And does it matter?

Scientists and biblical scholars have been working on this question for some time now and, seemingly, have not come to satisfactory resolution.  From the Bible, we are told certain things about how our world began:

  • The narration of the Bible begins with the creation of the Earth and the universe as we know it.
  • The credit for the creation goes to God, who is identified in the Bible as the Creator.
  • The creation process seems to have involved a great deal of God’s personal attention as he separated waters from dry land, put planets and stars in place, dreamed up and then made varieties of plants and trees, animals, fish, and birds.
  • The crowning achievement of God’s efforts, according to the biblical account, was the creation of human beings. He created both male and female people who, we are told, reflect God’s very own image.

There are facts about this creation that the Bible does not give:

  • It does not tell us what happened in time and space before the first verse of the Bible.
  • It does not tell whether the six days of creation described in the first chapter of the Bible are literal twenty-four-hour days as we experience them today or whether they somehow involve long eons of time (as discussed above) or whether the account is written in poetic and/or allegoric (thus memorable) form for oral transmission from generation to generation. In that case, the days and methods referenced could be poetic, not literal.
  • It does not tell us that everything was created in final form, thus allowing for the possibility that the creation changed over time into the forms we have now.
  • It does not tell us if the flood told about in chapter 6 of Genesis changed the environment of the earth substantially so that what we see today has been affected by those changes.

Is there a way to reconcile the biblical account of the beginnings of the universe we know with science or with evolutionary theory?  There is a way, I think, to at least acknowledge that they are not mutually exclusive.  Just as we have outlined the biblical account of creation above, let’s look at the basic tenets put forward by those who favor evolution:

  • “First, it can mean simply a theory about what happened – more complex species appeared on earth – and when, as shown by the fossil record.
  • “Second, it can mean a theory about how this happened:  by ‘natural selection’, ‘the survival of the fittest.
  • “Third, it can mean the absence of a divine design, as distinct from God using natural selection.” (1)

The first two points given above are based on archaeology and science and could be utterly consistent with the biblical account, if we apply the correct interpretation to what the Bible says and if we have a complete enough understanding of science to ensure the validity of the discoveries and the conclusions drawn.  There is no reason to assume inconsistency between the Bible and science based on these issues.

However, as the author of the above three summary points goes on to say, the third point is not science but philosophy. To the extent that evolutionary philosophy requires a dismissal of the mind of God behind the universe as it was created or as it has come to be, the two accounts are at odds.  God is inseparable from the creation process from the biblical perspective.

In his book, The Language of God, Dr. Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, points out that before Darwin, there was no real controversy about how the world was created and there were very few proponents of a literal reading of the first two chapters of Genesis. Darwin’s theory of evolution has been widely accepted by the scientific community (by both Christians and atheists/agnostics in various fields of study) as credible and probable based on science, history, and continuing proofs. This seems to have made some Bible believers skittish, thinking that evolutionary theory puts the Bible’s creation account at risk. Thus, we have set up two camps: one made up of conservative Bible students and one of outspoken atheistic evolutionists. In my way of thinking, the Bible does not rule out evolution as a process of creation. We simply have to read the Bible wisely in order to see ways in which it meshes perfectly with good and well-founded science as it unfolds.

Jews and Christians who claim the Bible as their holy book and hold opinions on the matter, might be interested in thinking about this comment from Benjamin Warfield, a conservative Protestant and professor of theology at Princeton Seminary from 1887 to 1921: “We must not, then as Christians assume an attitude of antagonism toward the truths of reason, or the truths of philosophy, or the truths of science, or the truths of history, or the truths of criticism. As children of the light, we must be careful to keep ourselves open to every ray of light. Let us, then, cultivate an attitude of courage as over against investigations of the day. None should be more zealous in them than we. None should be quicker to discern truth in every field, more hospitable to receive it, more loyal to follow it, whithersoever it leads.” (2)

The point I would like to leave you with on the subjects of creation, the flood, and the age of the Earth is this: It is not logical to assume the Bible is scientifically flawed in what it says on these matters, but we have to acknowledge that those who read the Bible interpret it in different ways. The Bible is sometimes mysterious in its presentation, partly because of the cultural setting in which it was given and partly because we as humans will never be able to fully understand the mind of God.

If the Bible and science do not seem to agree, it is fair to look at our interpretation of the biblical account and equally fair to look at our interpretation of the scientific evidence.  Given the credibility of the Bible in so many areas where its meanings are crystal-clear, given the fact of various possible interpretations of the biblical narrative, and given the nature of scientific and historical inquiry when trying to ascertain facts that go back for millions or even billions of years, we are wise to keep open minds and to continue to find an understanding of these very important issues.

When it comes to values, theology, and meaning of life, it does matter if human life was planned or if it was accidental. “If we evolved simply by blind chance, not divine design, then our lives have no overarching meaning, no preset divine plan, no script.  The only meaning, purpose or values that exist are the ones we invent for ourselves.  These can never be right or wrong, justified or not justified by a higher standard than our own desires, which created them.  Thus, there is no real reason to prefer Christian ethics to Stalinist ethics, for instance, except one’s own desires themselves. Desire becomes its own reason, its own justification.” (3)

  1. Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, Pocket Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 38.
  2. Benjamin Warfield as quoted by Francis S. Collins, The Language of God (New York: Free Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, 2006), p. 179.
  3. Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, op.cit., p. 38