Agnosticism, Atheism, Bible Study, Christianity, Faith, God, Morality, Religion

Is It Fair to Expect Inerrancy from the Bible When We Don’t Expect It from Other Sources?

In the comment thread of my last post, some of us mentioned that it’s hard for us to understand the point of view of Christians who believe the Bible can be inspired by God, without holding to the doctrine of inerrancy. unkleE left the following comment:

How is it that in everything else in life – whether it be ethics, or politics, relationships, science, history, law, even disbelief – we are willing to make decisions based on non-inerrant evidence and reasoning, but when it is belief in God we require inerrant evidence? I reckon your first thought might be that the stakes are so much higher. But that logic applies to disbelief as well. If we applied that logic, no-one would be an atheist because they didn’t have inerrant knowledge for that conclusion. You would not have any belief either way until you gained inerrant knowledge.

He then suggested that I might want to do a post on this topic (you’re reading it!), but there were also a couple of other comments that I think are worth including here. nonsupernaturalist said this:

My answer would be that ethics, politics, relationships, science, history, and law do not involve supernatural claims. When someone makes a supernatural claim, the standard of evidence required by most educated people in the western world to believe that claim is much, much higher than a claim involving natural evidence.

Let’s look at “history”. If someone tells me that most historians believe that Caesar crossed the Rubicon or that Alexander the Great sacked the city of Tyre, I accept those claims without demanding a great deal of evidence. However, if someone claims that the Buddha caused a water buffalo to speak in a human language for over one half hour or that Mohammad rode on a winged horse to heaven, I am going to demand MASSIVE quantities of evidence to believe these claims.

I think that most Christians would agree with my thinking, here, until I make the same assertion regarding the bodily Resurrection of Jesus. Then Christians will shake their heads in disgust and accuse me of being biased and unreasonable.

No. I am not being biased and unreasonable. I am being consistent. It is the Christian who is being inconsistent: demanding more evidence to believe the supernatural claims of other religions than he or she demands of his own.

And it isn’t just supernatural claims. Most educated people in the western world would demand much more evidence for very rare natural claims than we would for non-rare natural claims.

Imagine if someone at work tells you that his sister just gave birth to twins. How much evidence would you demand to believe this claim? Probably not much. You would probably take the guy’s word for it. Now imagine if the same coworker tells you that, yesterday, in the local hospital, his sister gave birth to twelve babies! Would you take the guy’s word for it? I doubt it.

So it isn’t that we skeptics are biased against Christianity or even that we are biased against the supernatural. We are simply applying the same reason, logic, and skepticism to YOUR very extra-ordinary religious claim that we apply to ALL very rare, extra-ordinary claims, including very rare, extraordinary natural claims.

And Arkenaten said this:

I cannot fathom how you can disregard something like Noah’s Ark as nonsense and yet accept that a narrative construct called Jesus of Nazareth could come back from the dead.


Personally, I feel very much the same way that nonsupernaturalist does. The first part of unkleE’s question that I’d like to address is his statement about nonbelief:

If we applied that logic, no-one would be an atheist because they didn’t have inerrant knowledge for that conclusion.

I think this depends on what one means by “atheism.” I’m not really interested in trying to determine what the official definition of the term is; rather, I’d like to make sure we’re all talking about the same thing within the confines of this discussion. When I refer to myself as an atheist, I simply mean that I don’t believe any of the proposed god claims that I’ve encountered. I’m not necessarily saying that I think no gods exist, period. And if I were to say that, I’d give the caveat that I could easily be wrong about such a belief. This notion of atheism, the position that one hasn’t been convinced of any god claims, is often referred to as “weak atheism” or “soft atheism.” Personally, I think that should be everyone’s default position. No one should be a Muslim, a Hindu, or a Christian until he or she has been convinced that the god(s) of that particular religion exist(s). If we didn’t operate in this way, then we’d all immediately accept the proposition of every religion we encountered, until its claims could be disproven. This would make most of us Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, pagans, and atheists all at the same time. Obviously, that’s ridiculous. So on those grounds, I don’t agree with unkleE’s assertion that we would need inerrant information to not believe something.

Furthermore, when it comes to the claims of Christianity, I can accept or reject them completely independently of what I think about the existence of god(s). Many times, discussions about the evidence for and against Christianity slide into discussions about whether or not a god exists. People bring up the cosmological and teleological arguments. While those discussions can be important, I think they are really just distractions when we’re talking about a specific religion. I’m okay conceding that a god might exist, so I’d rather focus on the pros and cons of Christianity to see if it could possibly be true. After all, it could be the case that God is real, but Christianity is false.

unkleE’s comment started like this:

How is it that in everything else in life – whether it be ethics, or politics, relationships, science, history, law, even disbelief – we are willing to make decisions based on non-inerrant evidence and reasoning, but when it is belief in God we require inerrant evidence?

To piggy-back off the comments I just made, I don’t necessarily require inerrant evidence to believe in God. I think the necessity for inerrancy comes from the kind of god being argued for. The Abrahamic religions teach that there is one God who is supreme. He is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, completely just, etc. I know there are sometimes caveats placed on those labels. For instance, can God create a rock so large that he can’t lift it? Arguments like that illustrate that being all-powerful doesn’t mean he’s outside the laws of logic. And the same goes for all-knowing. It’s sometimes argued that he knows all that can be known… perhaps there are some things that can’t be known? The waters can get muddy pretty quickly, so I think it’s best to refer back to the religion’s source material (the Bible, in this case) to learn more about the characteristics of this god.

In the Bible, God seems to be big on proofs. When God wanted Noah to build an ark, he spoke to him directly. Noah didn’t have to decide between a handful of prophets each telling him different things — God made sure that Noah knew exactly what was required of him. The same was done for Abraham when God wanted him to move into the land of Canaan, and when God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac. When God called Moses to deliver the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, he also spoke directly to Moses. And on top of that, he even offered additional proofs by performing signs for Moses. And when Moses appeared before Pharaoh, God again used signs to show Pharaoh that Moses did indeed speak on God’s behalf. Miraculous signs were used throughout the period of time that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. And we can fast forward to the time of Gideon and see that God used signs as evidence then as well. Throughout the Old Testament, signs were given to people to show God’s involvement and desires. There are even examples where God punished those who listened to false prophets who hadn’t shown such signs, such as the man of God who listened to the instruction of an old prophet who was actually lying to him. God sent a lion to kill the man (I Kings 13:11-32).

The New Testament is no different. Jesus and his apostles perform all kinds of miracles as evidence of Jesus’s power. When the Pharisees accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan, he pointed out how nonsensical that would be, showing that such miracles were intended as a display of God’s approval (Matt 12:24-28). And the Gospel of John also argues that these miracles were intended as evidence:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
— John 20:30-31

Not only did Jesus and his disciples use miracles to make their case, they also appealed to Scripture. Throughout the New Testament, you find references to the Old: “as it is written,” “as spoken by the prophet,” etc. That in itself doesn’t necessarily make the case for inerrancy, but it at least shows that they expected the scriptures to be accurate.

If God cared so much during the time periods talked about in the Bible, why wouldn’t he care just as much today? How can Jesus say that “not one jot or tittle of the law will pass away” if God’s not really all that concerned about how accurate the “jots” and “tittles” are? And yes, like unkleE said in his comment, I do think the fact that the stakes are tremendously high on this question makes it that much more necessary to have good evidence. While the Bible gives us countless examples of those who received direct communication from God or one of his representatives, we find ourselves living in a time when we’re surrounded by competing claims about which god is true, and which doctrines are the right ones. I used to believe that the one tool we had to cut through all that noise was the Bible. It was the one source we could go to to find what God wanted from us. And we could trust that it was his word because of the amazing prophecy fulfillments that it contained and that despite its length and antiquity, it was completely without error. In other words, I thought it was a final miracle to last throughout the ages. And because of its existence and availability, we no longer needed individuals who went around performing miracles and spreading the gospel.

That’s how I saw the world. Of course, since then, I’ve discovered that the Bible doesn’t live up to that high standard. I have many other posts that deal with its various problems, so I won’t try to detail them now. But I simply don’t see how the God portrayed in the Bible, a god who is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, etc, would inspire individuals to write down his incredibly important message to all of mankind, yet not make sure they relay it completely accurately. It doesn’t always agree with itself, it contains historical and scientific mistakes, and sometimes it advocates things that are outright immoral. It’s understandable why a number of people would fail to be convinced by such a book; therefore, it would be impossible for an all-loving and completely just God to punish people when they’re merely trying to avoid the same fate as the man of God who trusted the old (false) prophet.

328 thoughts on “Is It Fair to Expect Inerrancy from the Bible When We Don’t Expect It from Other Sources?”

  1. Ah, yes. Makes sense.

    Jesus’ “To do” list:

    -proclaim I was sent by God…check
    – call scribes and Pharisees a brood of vipers…check
    – throw a temple tantrum…check
    – correct false myths about Jewish religion…meh, better not rock the boat. I might offend someone.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. one of the things that bothered me as I was losing my faith was the many issues that could have easily been avoided, but weren’t.

    Jesus’ genealogies, the historical issues, the scientific issues, Matthew’s issues, the gospels’ issues, and on and on… a perfect, all knowing God could have easily negated many of the issues we all discuss now, but didn’t. Had he done so, had he just been a little clearer, a little more accurate, there’d be far less we’d have to argue about.

    If he’s real, if he’s what the bible claims he is, why didn’t he?

    It makes much more sense to me that the apparent errors and contradictions in the bible appear that way, because they really are errors and contradictions. Those easily correctable items weren’t corrected, because a perfect and all knowing god had nothing to do with its composition.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. If you start from the premise that the resurrected Lord Jesus MUST exist because I feel him in my heart and have experienced very rare, unexplainable miracles (which might also be rare, random, but natural coincidences), then any apparently contradictory statements in the Bible MUST have a resolution, no matter how silly these “harmonizations” may appear to non-believers.

    My feelings and experiences can’t be wrong.

    Ask Jesus to prove his existence by levitating a lamp or by reattaching the severed limb of an amputee—that’s not fair! Invisible Jesus doesn’t like to be tested!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. one of the things that bothered me as I was losing my faith was the many issues that could have easily been avoided, but weren’t.

    Jesus’ genealogies, the historical issues, the scientific issues, Matthew’s issues, the gospels’ issues, and on and on..

    To his credit, UnkleE has acknowledged some of these discrepancies. However, like so much of the Bible he does not see them having any major bearing on his faith/belief in Jesus and the Resurrection.
    Therefore, I believe it only fair/honest that he explain the criteria the experts use to differentiate between myth in the Old Testament and non Myth in the new?

    For example if a secular historian/biblical scholar found that the tales of Noah’s ark and Exodus to be myth then by using the same methodology would he not find the Resurrection stories (Lazarus, the girl and Jesus) also myth?
    And if not, why not?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I would bet that even if we found the bones of Jesus and could somehow verify with 99.999% accuracy that the bones in question were his by DNA testing, believers such as UnkleE would refuse to accept this evidence because the Voice that speaks to them in their head is stronger proof, to them, of the Resurrection than ANY other evidence.

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  6. What evidence would he accept that would refute the existence of the supernatural? How can you refute something that is invisible, defies the laws of nature, and cannot be examined by standards means of scientific investigation?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Until we are able to help UnkleE see that the voice in his head is himself, and, that the few “miracles” he has experienced were merely rare, random, but very natural coincidences, I doubt that ANY evidence is going to change his mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Clement of Rome is considered by many as the First Father of the “Church” after Peter that is, and is mentioned in the NT (Philippians 4:3). In approx 96 C.E. he wrote a letter to a church in Corinth, where he uses the mythical bird Phoenix to describe the death and resurrection of Jesus.

    Many think Clement believed the myth to be true. The Catholic Encyclopedia refers to this passage as “curious”. Of course back in the day, many popular myths were thought to be real.

    My point is, it appears that Clement put as much credence in the story of the Phoenix as he did the story of the resurrection of Jesus. So why wouldn’t unkleE use the Phoenix to prove the existence of the resurrection today ?

    (https://www.vision.org/visionmedia/legend-of-the-phoenix-new-testament-church/50364.aspx)

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  9. @KC

    Unklee’s personal experience – his ”tipping point” or whatever Christians call their turning to god – convinced him of the veracity of Jesus’.
    He then appears to have spent much of his life to date shoring up any doubt by studying the ”experts”’.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. What evidence would he accept that would refute the existence of the supernatural?

    Adequate evidence that refuted the Resurrection ( for any given value for adequate I suppose.)

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  11. I am involved in a conversation with another Christian on my blog on this exact issue. Here is this Christian’s comment:

    “…if you know Jesus, you KNOW. There is no doubt. If I had not experienced God in this way I wouldn’t have believed it either. But I have and I KNOW. It is NOT emotion (I have told you this several times before but will repeat it as you seem to have a tough time grasping that fact) but it is a real thing.”

    I believe that if UnkeE would admit it, this is how he feels. His personal experiences are the real evidence for the resurrected Jesus. However, my question to Christians like UnkleE and the Christian on my blog is this: “Is it possible that the “miracles” which you believe you have experienced were just rare but natural coincidences? If not, why not? Please give us an example.”

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  12. I seem to recall he has gone to some length on his own blog to explain this.

    We know it is subjective but while he might acknowledge it is in part he brings up numbers in his defense.
    I have read that when it comes to the historical method religion gets somewhat of a free pass, or at least more leeway than other history (not sure how true this is), but if he is prepared to explain the difference ( if any ) in criteria then we would, once and for all, have a reasonable foundation
    to understand how he arrives at the conclusions he does.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. But the only numbers he can bring up are for the Empty Tomb. There are no “numbers” for virgin births, water walking, resurrections, and non-mechanical ascensions/levitations into space.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Another Christian I know uses the following story as his proof of the existence of Lord Jesus, Creator of the universe:

    One day “God” led him to call a friend whom he had not spoken to for quite some time. When he called the friend, he told him that “God” had moved him to call him and to tell him that he (the friend) should go visit his father right away. The friend went that weekend to see his father whom he had not seen for quite some time. His father told him he had incurable cancer and died a few days later.

    -Could this “messaging” have been a miracle/act of God? Yes.
    -Could this have been a very rare, very odd, but very random coincidence? Yes.

    Why do “miracles” always involve events for which a natural explanation is possible, even if it is a very unlikely, rare, natural explanation? Why doesn’t Lord Jesus ever reattach the limbs (arms or legs) of amputees? Why doesn’t Lord Jesus ever raise decapitees (people who have been beheaded) from the dead? Why doesn’t Lord Jesus ever raise from the dead, people who have blown into a thousand tiny pieces by a bomb or airplane accident?

    What does Lord Jesus have against amputees, decapitees, bombing, and airplane crash victims? Why does he NEVER heal/resurrect these people?

    Liked by 1 person

  15. “Why do “miracles” always involve events for which a natural explanation is possible, even if it is a very unlikely, rare, natural explanation?”

    and even so, the rare natural explanation is still less rare, and more plausible, than the rare supernatural explanation.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. If someone told me that their dead grandfather was brought back to life, I wouldn’t believe them.

    If Someone brought my grandfather back to life, that would be convincing – unless he was something the like the evil, monster type of Resurrection…

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  17. Nonsupernaturalist

    I would bet that even if we found the bones of Jesus and could somehow verify with 99.999% accuracy that the bones in question were his by DNA testing, believers such as UnkleE would refuse to accept this evidence because the Voice that speaks to them in their head is stronger proof, to them, of the Resurrection than ANY other evidence.

    Actually, biblical scholar James Tabor believes the Talpiot tomb contains the ossuary and bones of Jesus and he says that does not undermine the Christian faith, either, because the resurrection does not have to be understood as a literal flesh-and-blood event. (He’s almost certainly wrong about the Talpiot tomb, but that’s another topic)

    Theology and apologetics are Calvinball. Anything can be reconciled with a sufficiently flexible hermeneutic.

    At some point, you just have to accept that people reach different conclusions. I agree with Unklee (and other Christians) on some issues and disagree on others. Some of our disagreements are open to reconciliation — for example, in the past, Unklee has had his mind changed about evolution (huzzah!) and I have had my mind changed about the historicity of David and about Josephus’ reference to James and Jesus — but some of our premises and conclusions simply are not reconcilable.

    It’s no use getting mad about it. People disagree about stuff. Most people in the world have strong beliefs that are utterly irreconcilable to those of most other people in the world. At some point, you just have to wish them the best and stop worrying about it. We’re all trying to do the best we can. Ultimately, while beliefs are important, they are not the most important thing. I’d rather spend time with a wonderful Christian than an atheist asshole. Having solid metaphysics does not, unfortunately, translate to being a decent person.

    As Carl Sagan wrote, sometimes “the only sensible approach is tentatively to reject the [god] hypothesis, to be open to future physical data, and to wonder what the cause might be that so many apparently sane and sober people share the same strange delusion.”

    Liked by 4 people

  18. Earlier this week I was discussing my current status as a “non-believer” with one of my Christian cousins. I pointed out to him some of the many errors in the Bible. He didn’t care.

    “Look, Gary. I know that Jesus is real because he healed me of my “bone on bone”, very painful arthritis in my knee. I could barely walk on it. I prayed to Jesus and he healed me. I no longer have pain.”

    I tried to suggest that his “cure” was a rare coincidence, but he would have none of it. In his mind, Jesus had healed him, so all the evidence against the Bible wouldn’t matter to him. Jesus had made himself personally real. That was all the evidence he needed.

    Here is what I should have said to my cousin:

    “Dear Cousin, on the day that Jesus allegedly healed your arthritic knee, 20,000 people died of cancer, 21,000 people died of starvation (most of them little children), and every two minutes on that day, a woman or child was raped. Jesus did nothing to prevent these horrific tragedies, but he found the time to cure your painful knee.

    Seriously??”

    Liked by 4 people

  19. that’s because the “effectual, fervent prayer of the righteous availeth much…,” so all those people died because they weren’t faithful praying people – in effect, it was their fault Jesus didn’t help them.

    Glad to hear about your cousin’s recovery.

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  20. I agree with you 100%, Jon. Most of my friends are Christians, although not particularly religious Christians (most are Roman Catholic). However, I do think it is important for skeptics such as Nate, I, and others to “preach” the REAL truth to theists: the supernatural is not something that should dominate our lives and politics in the way that it has since time immemoral, and, it should not be allowed to cause people to live in fear of eternal punishment for “thought crimes”. It is an evil belief system that should be confronted and debunked, in my humble opinion.

    Yes, sometimes I come across as an asshole. I try not to but I am very passionate in my “crusade” to debunk supernaturalism. I try to remind myself that where Christians like UnkleE are today, I once was myself, and I did NOT appreciate obnoxious, know-it-all atheists talking to me as if I was an idiot. So I get it.

    I believe we all should have some sympathy and compassion for not only UnkleE but for all theists whose lives revolve around their belief that invisible beings control their lives and destiny. It is sad. They are NOT stupid or ignorant. They are deceived, as we all once were.

    I will attempt to do better to give UnkleE some slack.

    🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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