CAN WE TRUST THE BIBLE?
Written by Doug Ponder on February 3, 2013
If you want to understand the Bible it helps to have some idea of what it is, where it came from, and what it’s all about. This is the second article in four-part series devoted to giving you just that. You can read the first article here.
Questions about the Bible
Love it or hate it, the Bible is an indisputably significant book. Its status as the best-selling, most published, most translated, most read, and most quoted book in the world makes it the most influential book in the history of humanity.
“Yes, but influence doesn’t equal truth,” you might say. “And hasn’t the Bible been proven wrong? Isn’t it full of contradictions? Weren’t the authors deeply biased and self-serving?”
These are reasonable questions that thinking people everywhere are asking today. Of course, it’s not a crime for people to wonder whether the Bible is reliable, accurate, or true. But it is a great injustice—to yourself and to others—to make up your mind about the Bible without really considering the quality of its content.
Common Arguments for the Reliability of the Bible
There are many ways that people have gone about trying to demonstrate the accuracy and reliability of the Bible. Here are just a few:
You could look to the fulfilled prophecies of Scripture. No other religious text claiming to be divinely inspired contains fulfilled prophecies as numerous and specific as those in the Bible.
You could look to archaeological evidence as proof of the Bible’s accuracy, since there have been no discoveries yet that contradict any of the Bible’s records of people and places. Additionally, archaeology has uncovered more than 25,000 manuscripts (surviving hand-written copies) of biblical texts, giving us an unparalleled degree of certainty concerning the accuracy of the Bible’s transmission through history.
You could look to the Bible’s coherence, or internal consistency. That is, despite having been written by nearly 40 authors over a span of more than 1,000 years, the Bible’s teachings are remarkably consistent and harmonious with one another.
You could look to the biblical author’s embarrassing forthrightness about their own mistakes. If you were writing a book that your friends would read, would you include the worst mistakes of your life? Probably not. Yet the biblical authors honestly record things like their own adulterous affairs, their petty arguments over who’s the greatest disciple, their catnaps while Jesus told them to stay awake, and a public denial of Jesus while he was away dying for that author’s sins.
You could look to the power of the Bible’s message to transform people’s lives. Even though Christianity is given a bad rap in some circles, the truth is that the Bible’s presence has historically had a tremendously good impact upon society. Not only has it changed the lives of individuals who come to believe its message; it has consistently led to things like: an increase in hospitals, schools, and orphanages; an increase in humanitarian relief for the poor; an increase in the work equality of men and women; an increase in the literacy rate the country, and so forth. What other book has a résumé this good?
Taken together, these are powerful and persuasive reasons for the trusting the goodness and reliability of the Bible. But I think there is an even more convincing proof than all of these combined: Jesus himself.
Jesus and the Bible
Jesus trusted the Bible (which, at the time when he was living would have been what we call the “Old Testament”). Jesus loved the Bible. Jesus obeyed the Bible. For Jesus, the story of the Bible was the central, defining story for the whole world. Therefore, if Jesus was who he claimed to be, then we’d be fools not to trust, love, and obey the same book that he trusted, loved, and obeyed.
I know what you’re thinking. How can we possibly know whether Jesus was who he claimed to be? Wouldn’t we have to use the Bible in order to do so? Isn’t that circular reasoning?
Well, it would be circular if I said the following:
1. If Jesus is who he claimed to be, then he can be trusted about all things, including the Bible.
2. The Bible says that Jesus is who he claimed to be.
3. Therefore, Jesus can be trusted about the Bible.
But that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that the accounts in the Bible of the life of Jesus of Nazareth have been confirmed by more than 30 non-biblical writings from the first century A.D. Some of these were written by Jesus’ enemies, who would have had no motivation to give him any credit. Indeed, there is no historical question that Jesus was a popular teacher who was purported to have performed miracles and who was sentenced to crucifixion at the hands of the Romans. Virtually all scholars—Christian and non-Christian—agree that this much is true.
What scholars don’t agree on is what happened next. Was Jesus really resurrected from the dead? If so, don’t we have to take him (and, by extension, the Bible) seriously? If not, how can we explain the sudden origin of the Christian faith, which centers on the belief of Jesus’ resurrection?
The Resurrection of Jesus and the Rise of the Church
Here are some arguments that skeptics have put forward as alternative explanations to the resurrection:
1. Jesus didn’t really die on the cross; he only looked dead, and he revived in the tomb. Response: The Romans knew how to kill people. They would break the legs of their victims as they hung vertically for hours, effectively cutting off their ability to breathe. (And don’t forget that Jesus had been whipped 39 times before his crucifixion.) Plus, no one would have been fooled by a half-dead, thoroughly bloody Jesus into thinking that he’d defeated death and inaugurated the kingdom of God.
2. When the women went to Jesus’ tomb, they met someone (maybe his half-brother, James) whom they thought was Jesus. Response: Cases of mistaken identity can’t last forever. Nor are they the sort of thing that people found new religions upon.
3. Jesus’ disciples wanted so strongly to believe that he had risen that they experienced some sort of collective hallucination. Response: “Doubting Thomas” and the apostle Paul, who had previously persecuted Jesus’ people, are clear examples of some who did not expect or want Jesus to have risen from the dead. Yet they saw him and were convinced.
4. Jesus’ disciples were embarrassed that their would-be Messiah was put to death, so they stole the body from the tomb and made up a lie about his resurrection. Response: A rag-tag group of untrained and unarmed ex-fishermen hardly would have hardly stood a chance against the professionally trained and well-armed Roman soldiers that guarded Jesus’ tomb. Secondly, Jews didn’t do this sort of thing. There were many Messiah-claimants before and after Jesus; but when they were put to death, their followers would simply move on to the next available candidate. They never went around saying that their leader had risen from the grave, because that wasn’t a belief they shared in their Jewish worldview.
In addition to these responses, we should also consider the following arguments, which help demonstrate the explanatory power of the resurrection:
1. We know from history that Jewish tombs, especially those of martyrs like Jesus, were venerated and often became shrines. Yet there is not a shred of historical evidence that this happened with Jesus’ grave, despite his incredible popularity. (This strongly suggests that the tomb was empty.)
2. The early church worshipped on the first day of the week, Sunday, not the customary Sabbath day (Saturday) that Jews had kept holy for over a thousand years. This sort of shift is very hard to explain unless something striking—like a resurrection—really did happen on this day of the week.
3. Jesus’ disciples were hardly likely to suffer and die for something they knew to be false. They at least believed that Jesus had been risen from the dead, and, as we said above, this wasn’t the sort of belief that they would have inherited from their existing worldview. Yet none of them recanted this belief, even after being tortured and put to death.
All the evidence seems to be pointing in the same direction. The alternative explanations for the rise of the early church and its insistence on the resurrection of Jesus simply cannot account for all these details with sufficient explanatory power. As crazy as it may seem, the best explanation is the one the Bible offers: Jesus of Nazareth, having been killed and buried, really was raised to life just as he said he would be.
Now, the significance of Jesus’ resurrection for our life is much, much greater than merely proving the reliability of the Bible. Nevertheless, his identity as the resurrected Lord adds undeniable credibility to what he thought about things. So if Jesus trusted, loved, and obeyed the Bible, then shouldn’t we?
To be fair, sometimes people get worried when they come across what seems to be a contradiction between two of the Bible’s teachings, or between one of the Bible’s teachings and some scientific discovery. Concerning the first worry, you need not have much fear. Teachings that seem contradictory are almost always a result of misreading or misinterpretation. Most of these tensions are resolved with a little study of the context for the teachings in question. Concerning the second worry, you should know that science is not the enemy of the Bible. When all the facts are known and rightly interpreted, there will be no final conflict between the findings of science and the teachings of the Bible. Why should there be? God authored them both.
At the end of the matter, it’s important to realize that most people don’t distrust the Bible because of a lack of evidence (even if they say otherwise). The deepest motivation for distrusting the Bible comes from disliking what it says. Sometimes this happens because people have misunderstood the actual meaning of the Bible’s message. Other times this happens because people have observed the behavior of a few people who call themselves “Christians” but who don’t look anything like Jesus. Yet for most people it seems that distrust of the Bible stems from the thought of having to trust and obey someone other than themselves. The proper response to such people isn’t brow-beating them with arguments about the reliability of the Bible. Rather, Jesus calls us to love them, serve them, and show them just how great it is to trust and obey someone who died and rose again to rescue broken and needy people like us. That is always the order of things, isn’t it? Trust in Jesus produces trust in the Bible that points to him.
Continue to the third article, “The Bible Isn’t About You”.
 The arguments for the resurrection have been summarized from N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, 61-64.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.