April 16, 2017
Should OT Difficulties Be an Obstacle to Christian Belief?
Dear Dr. Craig,
I am a great admirer of yours despite being a non-religious theist myself. For the sake of full disclosure, I have never been able to bring myself to take atheism seriously and am convinced on purely philosophical grounds that the atheist worldview is consigned to logical absurdity. That said, I have never been able to bring myself to subscribe wholeheartedly to any one religion either, and this for a variety different reasons depending on the religion under discussion. However, since you are a Christian I will limit myself to the principal reason why I cannot bring myself to accept Christianity, to which I have yet to receive a satisfying response. I figure if I won't get a compelling answer from Dr. William Lane Craig, then most likely no such answer is available at least for now.
The root of my problem with the Christianity (and all the Abrahamic religions for that matter) leads back to a number of Old Testament accounts, in particular the book Genesis. I have listened to all 21 parts of your Defenders' series on the Doctrine of Creation. However, when I read the Book of Genesis through (as I have done many times), based on the various exegetical analyses I have reviewed of the Genesis accounts I find it very difficult to avoid the necessity of a literal interpretation. The first two chapters concerning the creation account - first of the whole world, then of man - seems to afford some scope for a non-literal hermeneutic, but even if this were so, that still leaves me with the whole wild account of Noah's ark and the Deluge, the inordinate life expectancy of the first men which for some reason decreased with each generation, not to mention references to the existence of giants and accounts of women copulating with evil spirits (Genesis 6:4), among many other things which I've no doubt you are aware. These accounts incorporate very specific language and do not seem to lend themselves to figurative interpretation.
Now I know I could dispense with the belief in Biblical Inerrancy, which is what you usually propose to those who, like me, have confronted this stumbling block to faith in Christ. However, if I concede that the book of Genesis as a whole (or a significant portion thereof) is not true, then that leaves me with the awkward fact that Jesus Christ - the deity to whom I would owe my allegiance - on more than one occasion affirmed these errors as truths (Luke 17:26; Mark 10:6–9; Matthew 19:4-5). I hasten to add that Paul in his letters reiterates many of these affirmations. The only way it seems to me one can resolve this problem is by saying that Christ affirmed these truths in a "metaphorical sense," but I find this justification unsatisfying, mainly because the most reasonable interpretation of Jesus' words is that he really did believe these events were literally true. If you say that the gospel writers misquoted Jesus on all of these counts, then that raises the question of what else they might have got wrong. Needless to say, that strikes right at the heart of the Bible as a whole.
Now, your response to this would probably be that none of what I have said above detracts from your historical case for Jesus' resurrection. That is true, although it also means that I am left with this one argument, for an event which supposedly took place 2000 years ago, upon which to erect the whole rational foundation of my Christian faith. It's an awfully heavy rational burden to sustain for just one argument. However, even I were to acknowledge that Jesus rose from the dead, it seems to me that I am not in a position to know for certain what God wants from me since his repository for truth is in effect fundamentally tainted and therefore can't be trusted. So, here are my two questions to you:
1. If I reject Biblical Inerrancy, what use is the Bible to me as a Christian? More specifically; what epistemological referent am I left with to determine whether certain aspects of my would-be Christian faith are true or untrue? Am I to be left only with the voice of conscience? If so, this does not seem to be a position too different than the one I am in now.
2. Secondly; what is your position on the other accounts in Genesis besides the Creation account? In particular I am interested to know your thoughts on Noah and the Flood since I do not believe you have ever directly confronted this question.
I would like nothing more than for you to resolve this conundrum for me since I do have a very special affinity for the Christ figure, and would like nothing more than to believe that it is true. Many of my non-religious friends and acquaintances have confronted this same problem vis-a-vis Christianity, and I would love nothing more than to be able to refer them to a compelling answer.
When people ask me what unanswered questions I still have, I tell them, “I don’t know what to do with these Old Testament stories about Noah and the ark, the Tower of Babel, and so on.” So I find myself in the same boat as you, Jon. I don’t have any good answer how to resolve these problems. Yet these unanswered difficulties have not kept me from Christian faith or from abandoning Christian faith. Why not?
Well, a large part of the reason, as you note, is that the truth of what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” doesn’t stand or fall with such questions. “Mere Christianity” denotes those central truths of a Christian worldview. If a person believes that God exists and raised Jesus from the dead in vindication of his allegedly blasphemous personal clams, then one ought to be a Christian, and the rest is details, a matter of in-house debate among Christians. Questions about the historical reliability of these ancient Jewish texts just has no direct bearing on whether God exists or Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. Can you imagine any historian denying the historicity of some event in the Gospels because, say, the story of the Tower of Babel is a myth?
Moreover, I’m persuaded that we have really solid reasons for thinking mere Christianity to be true. When I debate other philosophers on God’s existence, I find myself thinking, “Wow, these arguments really are powerful!” The historical credibility of the Gospels commends itself increasingly to historical scholars. It just amazes me that the central facts undergirding the inference to Jesus’ resurrection are accepted today by the wide majority of scholars, and the flimsiness of the objections of sceptical scholars is shocking.
I wouldn’t worry that this leaves us depending on just one argument for something that happened 2,000 years ago. The crucial time gap is between the time of the original events and the time when they were recorded, not between the time they were recorded and today. Good evidence doesn’t become bad evidence just because of the passage of time! So long as the gap between the events and the recording of them is short, it doesn’t matter how far into the past both the events and the records of them have receded. Moreover, it’s misleading to say this is just one argument. We’re talking here about historical records of the life and teachings of Jesus that are far better than what we have for many of the major figures of antiquity. And, as you note, Jesus of Nazareth is an incredibly compelling figure in his own right whom we ought to take seriously rather than dismiss. In fact, I’d want to turn the tables on you and say that you’re placing an awfully heavy burden on just one argument, namely, Jesus’ citation of these Old Testament stories, as a basis for denying either the historical credibility of the Gospels or the inference to Jesus’ resurrection.
The most important move you make dialectically is exploiting the Christological implications of rejecting the historicity of the problematic Old Testament narratives. Your claim is that since Jesus evidently believed in the historicity of these stories, then if we allow that these narratives are not historical, we allow that Christ has erred. But what are the Christological implications of that?
Now that’s a really good question which theologians need to explore! Did Jesus hold false beliefs in his human consciousness? Did he think the sun goes around the Earth? Did he think the Earth was at the center of the universe? Did he think there were any stars beyond those we can see at night? I’m not going to try to answer those questions, but I think they’re worth asking. Did God stoop so low in condescending to become a man that he took on such cognitive limitations that Jesus shared false beliefs typically held by other ordinary first century Jews? Since I have good reason to believe in his deity, as explained above, I would sooner admit that Jesus could hold false beliefs (that ultimately don’t matter) rather than deny his divinity. Rather than impose on him our a priori conceptions of what divinity implies, we need to be open to learning from the Gospels what the incarnation entailed.
In any case, I don’t feel pushed that far yet. I think the texts you cite for showing that Jesus held false beliefs about the Old Testament are fairly weak. Mark 10.6–9; Matthew 19.4-5, for example, are just quotations from Genesis about the purpose for which God created man and woman. Making such a theological point in no way commits one to the historicity of the narrative. So your only example of any force is Luke 17:26-7, where Jesus says, “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them.” But this reference, like Jesus’ reference to Jonah, is compatible with citing a story to make one’s point. I might say to someone “Just as Robinson Crusoe had his man Friday to assist him, so I have my wife Jan to help me,” without thinking to commit myself to the historicity of Robinson Crusoe!
We seem to have New Testament examples of this phenomenon. For example, Jude 9 mentions an incident in The Assumption of Moses, an apocryphal work which was never part of the Jewish canon of Scripture. 1 Timothy 3:8 makes a comparison to a couple of characters named in Jewish targums, Dead Sea scrolls, and rabbinic traditions, which were similarly never part of the Jewish canon. Such comparisons do not commit the authors to the historicity of the characters or events. We may have something similar in Romans 5.7, where Paul says, “Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.” Simon Gathercole, a fine New Testament scholar, points out that Paul is appealing to a common motif in Greco-Roman culture of someone’s stepping forward to die in the place of another. The most famous example in antiquity was Alcestis in Euripides’ play by that name, who volunteered to die in the place of her husband King Admetus. Alcestis was celebrated for centuries, and her name is to be found even in epitaphs on Christian graves. Gathercole thinks that in Roman 5.7 Paul may actually be thinking of Alcestis. He says, in effect, “Alcestis was willing to die for her beloved husband, but Christ died for his enemies.” So saying would not commit Paul to the historicity of this purely literary figure!
In any case, how can we be sure that the Old Testament stories are false? Several years ago, an article caught my eye about two secular geophysicists who think that the flood of Noah could have been a catastrophic, local event caused when the Bosporus straits, which were formerly closed, opened up, causing the Mediterranean Sea to spill through and create what is today the Black Sea! I never cared to look into it because, as explained above, I just don’t think it matters much. But maybe something of the sort really happened.
So I’m not convinced that the Christological consequences you fear are so drastic as you think.
So as to your specific questions:
1. If I reject Biblical Inerrancy, what use is the Bible to me as a Christian? More specifically; what epistemological referent am I left with to determine whether certain aspects of my would-be Christian faith are true or untrue? I’m not advocating that you reject biblical inerrancy, but if you did, the Bible would be of use to you as a guide to theological truth. Galileo wisely said that God gave us the Scriptures to tell us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. The great literature of the world shows us that works which are non-historical, like the plays of Shakespeare or the novels of Dostoyevsky or the fables of Aesop, have important truths to teach us. It wouldn’t follow from the non-historicity of certain Old Testament narratives that God’s “repository for truth is in effect fundamentally tainted and therefore can't be trusted.” We know, for example, that the Gospels are credible historical sources, whatever you think of the early chapters of Genesis. Just use good principles of biblical interpretation and follow the evidence where it leads, while retaining an attitude of humility.
2. What is your position on the other accounts in Genesis besides the Creation account? As explained, I don’t know what to think. Like you, I am baffled by some of them. I accept historicity as a sort of default position. But I have an open mind. I can live with uncertainty, confident in the truth of mere Christianity.