Since you graciously agreed (in our recent conversation) to let me present you with some examples of the Bible’s problems, I decided to do it in this way so it would have its own comment thread. As I’ve said, when I was a Christian, one strike against the Bible was not enough to shake my faith — maybe it only seemed problematic, maybe there was an explanation we hadn’t uncovered yet, maybe the historical accounts were wrong, etc. But as the problems began to mount up, I reached a point where I could no longer deny the fact that the Bible had actual errors.
A couple of suggestions before we begin. Try to be as open-minded about this as possible. As you go through these examples, ask yourself if God would allow such problems to exist in a message that he wanted all people to accept and believe? According to the Bible, whenever God sent someone a message, whether it was Pharaoh or Gideon or Nebuchadnezzar or Paul, they had no question whom it was from. They didn’t always follow it, as we see with people like Pharaoh and Solomon, but they didn’t question the source of the message or what it stated. So why would God operate differently today? Why would he want us to be so confused about his message that we’re able to question whether or not it’s really from him?
Another thing to keep in mind is that even if you come to the conclusion that the Bible has actual problems, that doesn’t mean you have to stop believing in God. There are a number of Christians who don’t believe in inerrancy. And even if you lose faith in the Christian god, that still doesn’t mean you have to stop believing in God. A number of people, including several of our founding fathers, were deists. I have a lot of sympathy for that view and plan to do a post on it soon.
Some of the items listed here will have links that provide additional information, especially when the issue is too detailed to list here. I hope that you’ll check out those links, since some of them are quite significant points. And regardless of how this article strikes you, I hope it will help serve as a great springboard to launch you into your own research.
Some of the Problems
The creation accounts in Genesis do not match what we’ve learned through science. This isn’t shocking news, but it bears looking into. Evolution and the Big Bang Theory had nothing to do with my deconversion, but I’ve learned more about both since leaving Christianity. It’s shocking how much misinformation I had been operating under. Not to say that all Christians are that way — that was simply my experience. But the evidence for both evolution and the Big Bang are far more substantial than I had ever realized. Two good resources for learning more about these issues are the following (though I’d also recommend checking out the recent Cosmos series, as well as some of the PBS NOVA specials):
Another problem with the creation accounts is that Genesis 1 says that plants and trees were made on the 3rd day, while man was made on the 6th. But Genesis 2:5-9 says that man was created before there were any plants or trees in the land. Also, the 1st chapter says that man was created after all the animals, but the 2nd chapter implies that it was the other way around. It seems strange that such discrepancies would exist only a chapter apart, but there are a number of textual clues that suggest the first 5 books of the Bible were assembled over a long period of time from various writings written by a number of different people. Many scholars believe that Genesis 1 and 2 represent two separate versions of the creation story that were both included because the compilers didn’t know which was more accurate. Whatever the reason, there’s no question that the differences exist and are hard to explain.
During the 10 plagues, God afflicts all of Egypt’s livestock with a disease (Ex 9:1-7), and it specifies that it would affect the “horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks.” We’re told that all of Egypt’s livestock died. But the later plague of boils was said to affect both man and beast (verse 10 of chapter 9). Maybe it meant non-livestock animals. But Ex 11:5 says that the death of the firstborn would also affect Egypt’s cattle, and in Exodus 14, Pharaoh pursues the Israelites with horses.
Hares Chew the Cud
Leviticus 11:6 tells us that hares chew the cud. They do not. Animals that chew the cud are called ruminants. When they eat plant matter, it goes to their first stomach to soften, and then it’s regurgitated to their mouth. They spend time re-chewing it, and then it is swallowed and fully digested. Ruminants (cows, sheep, goats, etc.) are recognizable because their chewing of the cud is very obvious. Hares (rabbits) don’t chew the cud; however, their mouths do move frequently, so it’s possible to see why some people may have assumed that they do chew the cud. Of course, God would know they didn’t, and this is why the passage is problematic. You can read more about this here.
In the genealogy given in Genesis 11:10-12, we see that Noah fathered Shem and Shem fathered Arphaxad. At the age of 35, Arphaxad fathered Shelah. This information is confirmed in 1 Chron 1:18. But Luke 3:35-36 tells us that Arphaxad’s son was Cainan, and he was the father of Shelah.
Where does Luke get this information? It disagrees with the Old Testament, so who should we believe? Some have suggested that Genesis and 1 Chronicles simply left out Cainan for some reason. But why would they do that? To further complicate it, how could Cainan have fit in there? Genesis tells us that Arphaxad was 35 when he fathered Shelah. Does it really seem likely that Arphaxad became a grandfather by 35, especially when you consider the extreme old ages that people lived to at that time?
Another explanation is that some copyist messed up when copying Luke and Cainan is just a mistake. But this is not much better. First of all, the error would have needed to occur early for it to be in all our copies of Luke. Secondly, are we really comfortable saying that we have the inspired word of our creator, but it got messed up by some guy who wasn’t paying close attention? To me, that doesn’t lend a lot of credence to the idea of inspiration or inerrancy.
Instead, the most likely explanation is that Luke made a mistake. This, of course, would indicate that he was not inspired.
Problems in the Book of Daniel
In Daniel 5, the writer refers to Belshazzar as the son of Nebuchadnezzar 7 different times. Yet we know from multiple contemporary sources that Belshazzar’s father was Nabonidus, who was not related to Nebuchadnezzar. The same chapter says that Darius the Mede took over Babylon, but this person does not seem to have ever existed. Daniel says that he was the son of Ahaseurus, and in mentioning this, the author of Daniel indicates that he was thinking of a later ruler — the persian emperor Darius the Great, whose son was Ahaseurus. This post in particular goes into the problems surrounding the 5th chapter, but if you’d like to learn about the problems in the rest of the book, you can access each article in the series here.
In Mark 5:23, Jairus finds Jesus and says that his daughter is at the point of death. While they’re on their way to the house, some of his servants find them on the way and say that she has died and there’s no point in troubling Jesus further.
However, in Matthew 9:18, Jairus already knows that his daughter has died, but tells Jesus that if he’ll lay his hands on her, she’ll live. This may seem like a minor difference, but honestly, there’s only one scenario that could be true. Either the girl was already dead, or she wasn’t. And if Jairus already knew she was dead, then there was no point in his servants coming to tell him that (so of course, they don’t appear in Matthew’s account).
This is similar to the previous issue. Matthew and Luke both record a centurion who asks Jesus to heal his sick servant. Matthew 8:5-13 says that the centurion himself comes before Jesus to ask for help. Luke 7:1-10 says that the Jewish elders went on his behalf, and then he sent servants to follow up. In Luke, Jesus never speaks to, or even sees, the centurion at all.
In Mark 2:23-28, Jesus talks about the occasion from the Old Testament when David ate the showbread, which Jesus said was in the days of Abiathar the high priest. However, in 1 Samuel 21:1-6, it appears that Ahimelech was the high priest. Some have tried to answer this problem by saying that Abiathar was alive during that particular episode, so Jesus’ statement is still true. But that’s obviously not the intent of the passage. After all, we would correct anyone who said that the tragedy of 9/11 occurred during the days of President Barack Obama. He may have been alive at the time, but that event did not happen while he was President.
Galatians 3:16-17 says this:
The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise.
Here, Paul says that the law came 430 years after the promises were made to Abraham. But in Exodus 12:40-41, we see:
Now the length of time the Israelite people lived in Egypt was 430 years. At the end of the 430 years, to the very day, all the LORD’s divisions left Egypt.
If the Israelites were in Egypt 430 years, then there could not have been 430 years between Abraham’s promises and the law. God made the promises to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3, and as we read on through Genesis, we see that Abraham had no children at this time. Later, he had a son named Isaac. When Isaac was 60 years old, he had Jacob (Gen 25:24-26), and Jacob had 12 sons that produced the 12 tribes of Israel. Already, we can see that some time has passed since Abraham received the promise. Once Jacob’s sons were all grown with families of their own, they finally settled in Egypt. Jacob was 130 years old at this time (Gen 47:9), and this marks the beginning of that 430 year period that the Israelites spent in Egypt.
That means that the time between the promise to Abraham and the giving of the law was actually over 600 years. So why did Paul say 430 years? I think it’s obvious that this was a simple mistake. He remembered the 430 year figure because that’s how much time the Israelites spent in Egypt, and so he simply misspoke. It’s not a big deal… except that he’s supposed to be inspired by God.
There are a number of issues surrounding Jesus’ birth. First, Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts contradict one another on virtually all the details, which you can read about here. Secondly, Matthew seems to invent an episode where Herod kills all the children in Bethlehem who are 2 and under, causing Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to flee to Egypt (instead of just returning home to Nazareth, because only Luke says that they started in Nazareth). Matthew does this in order to “fulfill” some Old Testament passages that actually have nothing to do with Jesus or killing babies. You can read about Matthew’s misuse of the Old Testament here — it’s quite blatant.
The Virgin Birth is one of the most famous aspects of Jesus’ story, and it was supposedly done in fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah. But it turns out that Isaiah was prophesying no such thing — he was talking about an event that was happening in his own time, and Matthew (once again) just appropriated the “prophecy” for his own devices. You can read all the details here.
Another problem concerning Jesus’ birth narratives is that Matthew and Luke both offer genealogies for Jesus, but they are completely different from one another. Worse, they don’t match the genealogies listed in the Old Testament, either. And Matthew claims that there was a pattern in the number of generations between Abraham and David, between David and the Babylonian captivity, and between the Babylonian captivity and Christ. But to get this neat division, he is forced to leave out some names. In other words, that pattern didn’t happen. You can read more about that here.
The Triumphal Entry
While not as blatant as most of these other issues, when Matthew recounts Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he once again borrows from the Old Testament, but seems to make a mistake in his implementation. See here for more info.
Judas is well known for being the disciple that betrayed Jesus, but what’s not as well known is there are two different accounts of his death, and it’s very hard to reconcile them. According to Matthew, Judas threw his money down at the chief priests’ feet and went out and hanged himself. We’re not told where he did this. The priests then take the money, and instead of putting it back in the treasury (since it’s blood money), they buy a field to use for burying strangers. Because they bought the field with this money, it’s called the “Field of Blood.”
According to Acts, Judas bought a field with his money (we’re not told that he was remorseful), and he somehow fell down, bursting open in the middle and bleeding to death. The field was called “Field of Blood” after that because of the manner in which Judas died.
To make things more complicated, Matthew (of course) says that this happened in accordance with Jeremiah’s prophecy, but there’s nothing in Jeremiah that matches up. The closest reference comes from Zechariah, not Jeremiah.
These issues really complicate the notion of divine inspiration, and you can read more about them here.
There are several big problems with the way the gospels record the events of Jesus’ death, including the fact that different times of day are given for it, and even different days altogether. You can read more about this here.
The Problem of Hell
The notion of Hell is fraught with problems. It might even surprise you to learn that the Bible’s teachings on the afterlife change dramatically between the Old and New Testaments. I go into detail about Hell’s problems here, here, and here.
The Bible’s Morality
While a number of people believe that the Christian god is the source of all morality, the Bible is actually filled with some monstrous acts that are either commanded by God, done with his consent, or carried out by him directly. I talk about some specific examples here, and I address some of the common responses to them here.
Kathy, there are a number of other examples that could be given, including the prophecy of Tyre that we’ve been discussing. But to me, these are some of the most significant and clear-cut problems. We could try to manufacture explanations for every one of these — some might be more believable than others. But why should we have to? If a perfect God inspired this book, why should it contain so many discrepancies? And honestly, some of these issues can’t be explained. They’re just wrong. The problems go well beyond internal contradictions and unfulfilled prophecies. There are problems of authorship, problems with the doctrines, and problems with the way the texts were written, transcribed, and compiled.
I’m sure you’ve spent your time as a Christian trying to reach those who are lost. You’ve always believed that Christianity is truth, and it’s the one thing that everyone needs. But could it be that Christianity is just as false as every other religion in the world? And if that’s the case, wouldn’t you want to leave it behind? When one is dedicated to finding truth, they have to be prepared to follow it wherever it leads. It’s not always easy or popular. It’s not even a guarantee that you’re right. All it means is that you follow the evidence where it leads to the best of your ability. If you find out that you’re wrong about something, you adjust course when the evidence dictates. If God exists, and if he’s righteous, what more could he ask for than that? I’ll close with my favorite quote:
Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.
— Marcus Aurelius