By David Madison
It took me a long time to detect the fatal flaw in the claim that the Bible is the revealed Word of God. I was well beyond my teenage-Bible-geek years when it happened.
While I had never been a fundamentalist—I could admit the flaws and errors in scripture—I studied the Bible because I assumed that God’s thoughts and wishes for humanity could be discerned in its pages. In some sense, God had inspired the authors; the ideas they had committed to writing were God’s ideas.
But eventually, I had to come to grips with the mechanics of that. Just how would inspiration work? It turns out to be beyond verification, and other problems pile on as well, virtually eliminating the Bible as a source of trustworthy information about God. It has no standing whatever; Christianity is without a famous anchor. Demonstrating that, in detail, is Knockout Punch Number 3.
Five Insurmountable Bible Deficiencies
1. We’re not mind readers
Rembrandt depicted the charming scene of Matthew’s inspiration: an angel sits at his right shoulder and whispers the gospel in his ear. Of course, adding a mythological creature to the process doesn’t help. How does it happen that the brain responds to signals from God? Does this happen?
Even without the angel, we can imagine the ancient authors of Bible texts sitting at their writing desks, the words flowing onto the page. Here is the question I posed long ago when I was in seminary—I had spotted the fatal flaw: “How do we know if the author’s words are coming from his own brain, or are they coming through his brain from God?”
In other words, we’d surely like to know if they are a product of revelation, imagination, or hallucination. How can we possibly know? The apostle Paul had no doubt, as he stated so confidently in his letter to the Galatians, “…the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11-12). But so have said thousands of seers over the centuries who have claimed to be in direct touch with their gods.
Is this really a thing? Do the devout receive signals—bona fide information of any kind—from their gods? Ordinarily, this is known as prayer, and Christians have claimed vastly different messages from God that cannot be reconciled. It would seem that many people are confident that their own thoughts are God’s thoughts. So isn’t it likely that this is how scripture happens? When we hear Paul brag about knowing things “through a revelation of Jesus Christ,” well, this sounds suspiciously like a hallucination: he was hearing a dead man speak to him. To think otherwise we would have to grant that Jesus wasn’t dead after all, i.e., there had been the miracle of resurrection. But resurrection is a common motif in ancient religion; so yes, we’re suspicious, especially when the author of Matthew’s gospel claims there were lots of resurrections that Easter weekend (Matthew 27:52-53).
The devout are sure that their faith in biblical revelation is sufficient, but we need far more than that for verification. How can revelation be untangled from imagination and hallucination? Probability suggests that imagination is being passed off as revelation. So perhaps—is this a viable alternative?—can we are confident God guided the writing of scripture because of its quality. Is that a way out of this dilemma? Unfortunately…
2. How can such so much bad theology come from a good God?
It’s not really hard to spot the bad theology, but most Christians aren’t normally avid Bible readers, on the lookout for stuff that disconfirms the Bible as Word of God. But those who read it cover-to-cover might go running in alarm to their pastors or priests for explanations of the bad stuff, which is obvious from even a superficial reading of the texts; a little probing reveals deeper problems. Dr. Jaco Gericke has called it correctly: “If you read the scriptures and are not shocked out of all your religious beliefs, you have not understood them.” (from his essay, “Can God Exist If Yahweh Doesn’t?” at The End of Christianity, ed. John W. Loftus)
By deeper probing I mean, for example, reading the gospel of Mark several times and coming to grips with what it says—and what it doesn’t. Jesus the Great Moral Teacher doesn’t show up in this gospel; in fact, not much is said about the content of his preaching, although the main thrust seems to be that the kingdom of God is about to happen. It’s largely on the basis of Mark’s portrayal of Jesus that some scholars argue that he was an apocalyptic prophet.
He predicts at his trial that those in his audience will see him coming on the clouds of heaven. And the occasion will be marked by as much suffering as there was at the time of Noah (see Mark 13 especially). It would also be appropriate to add a subtitle to Mark’s gospel, “Jesus and the Demons.” Christians who embrace Mark’s theology are well on their way to accepting full-throttle crazy religion. This is just one disturbing aspect of the New Testament.
What about the Old Testament? So much of it is distasteful and even alarming. The wrathful God described by the prophets promises utter destruction for violation of his laws; he commissions brutal warfare against the inhabitants of “the promised land.” His detailed instructions for the slaughtering of sacrificial animals are off-putting—and, in the New Testament, a human sacrifice replaces the butchering of animals: “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).
Why is so much missing from the Ten Commandments? Moses and those famous tablets received directly from God on Mt. Sinai—wasn’t this God’s opportunity to give us his best revelation? Yet war, slavery, racism, and misogyny are not outlawed. In other words, these famous commandments reflect the standards of an ancient patriarchal society that owned slaves, mistreated women, and savored the conquest of other tribes. No, we can’t see God behind these commandments.
Scripture is a mixed bag of the good, bad, and the ugly. Its quality is by no verification that it comes from God.
Also see my essay, “Five Inconvenient Truths that Falsify Biblical Revelation,” in the new John Loftus anthology, The Case Against Miracles.
3. God only knows how to interpret the Bible—and he’s not telling
In the 8th century BCE, the prophet Hosea wrote, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” The author of Matthew’s gospel put in his two cents’ worth about what this meant, ignoring the explicit reference to Israel. Matthew claimed that this meant the return of baby Jesus from Egypt. This is an example of Bible commentary within the Bible. It’s there in more subtle ways as well, i.e., the manipulation of meaning according to the opinion of an author. Matthew famously wrote, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Luke didn’t feel this was quite right, so he changed the wording—and the meaning: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
There have been hundreds of commentaries on these texts—and all other texts in the Bible. My 230-page doctoral dissertation was on the history of the interpretation of one half of one verse of the Old Testament; there have been hundreds of thousands such as dissertations and commentaries. This vast industry exists because opinions differ substantially—sometimes radically—about what Bible texts mean. Moreover, Christians can’t get along because they can’t agree on what the Bible means; by some estimates, there are now 30-40,000 Christian denominations, brands, divisions, factions, and sects.
Hence, so what if God inspired a holy book, i.e., his word is right there for us to read. How easy is that…well, not at all? Because no one can be sure what any particular verse means. Not even “Thou shalt not kill” is crystal clear, is it? Christians aren’t too bothered by it—certainly don’t feel bound by it—as they march off to war, as they have done hundreds of times since their Prince of Peace carried a sword as he walked the earth.
There is a simple way out of this mess: if God himself inspired the Bible, why can’t he write a definitive commentary on every verse of the Bible? (And maybe do a bit of editing as well.) A thousand devout theists—those who are so sure that they hear from God in their prayers—could wake up one morning and alert the media: “We’ve all heard from God, and the only Bible commentary we’ll ever need will appear miraculously in a vault in Gringotts—no, wait a minute, in the Vatican Bank—this coming Sunday.” This would certainly vouchsafe that the Bible is indeed the Word of God.
4. So much evil in the wake of doing “what the Bible says”
In Richard Tarnas’ chapter, “The Triumph of Secularism,” he references “…Christianity long history of bigotry and violent intolerance—its forcible conversion of other peoples, its ruthless suppression of other cultural perspectives, its persecution of heretics, its crusades against Muslims, its oppression of Jews, its depreciation of women’s spirituality and exclusion of women from positions of religious authority, its association with slavery and colonial exploitation, its pervasive spirit of prejudice and religious arrogance maintained against all those outside the fold.” (p. 318, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View)
That’s quite a list of sins, and each one of them has been justified by what the Bible says. What the original authors may or may not have meant or intended is not the issue. The danger is the belief that God’s rules have been codified in an infallible book—and all we have to do is follow them, as guided by religious bureaucrats who are ordained by God. How is it that a wise deity—presumably tuned into the human capacity for extremism—couldn’t have foreseen the nasty consequences? And as Christians have pursued their crusades and persecutions, slavery and colonialism, why hasn’t God intervened to say, “You’ve got it all wrong!”? God’s silence is mysterious indeed.
5. That Bible on the church altar isn’t the real thing anyway
Do you think you have the Bible? This comes close to “fooling all of the people all of the time.” We no longer have the original copies of any of the books of the Bible. They all vanished long ago. So we’re expected to believe the God who inspired a thousand pages of text dropped the ball at the next step? That is, he failed to protect and preserve all those original documents; he failed to prevent hundreds of thousands of copying errors. There are scholars who devote their careers to comparing ancient manuscripts—thousands of them—trying to eliminate the mistakes and figure out the wording of the originals. The earliest complete manuscripts of the New Testament were created centuries after the NT documents were written. The original Bible is gone.
The next step in getting the reconstructed Bible to you—making it accessible—is translation. Just as many hands have been responsible for piecing together the possible original text, so too there have been lots of translators, few of whom—they are usually devout believers—is free of agenda and doctrinal bias. So their own beliefs may influence how a text is rendered into English. They also sometimes add headings to divert attention, e.g., the New RSV labels Luke 14:25-33, The Cost of Discipleship. That might soften the details, e.g., “you have to hate your family to be a disciple” (v.26) and “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (v.33).
There is blatant malpractice, moreover, in printing the words of Jesus in red. We have no way of knowing the actual words of Jesus—the gospels were written so long after Jesus lived, and we know for sure that so much Jesus script is pure invention. He spoke in Aramaic, and any of his words that may have been passed down orally for decades—which is a stretch anyway—were then translated into Greek. We read them now in English, French, German or whatever. That’s a lot of processing, hence printing the words of Jesus in red—as if they were real—is an exercise in deception.
Centuries of Christian posturing that the Bible is the Word of God has sold well, thanks, among other things, to the Gideons and their billion Bible giveaway. But these five deficiencies demonstrate that Word of God is an unevidenced faith claim—in fact, there is so much evidence against it. Taken together, they are indeed Knockout Punch, Number 3.
About Author: David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years and has a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.
Debunking Christianity: Ten Knockout Punches