"Answering Objections" part 3
The Troubling Parts of the Bible
by Greg Hanson

TWe're in a message series right now called "Answering Objections." During this series, we're looking at some of the most common objections that skeptics and cynics raise about the Bible, about Christianity, about the Church. And to start the series off, we're spending a bit of time just talking about the Bible.

Last week, we talked about the historical merit of the Bible. Is the Bible just a book of stories and myths, or does it talk about real history? And what we saw was that new archaeological evidence time and time again has verified the historical claims of the Bible. Leading archaeologists and historians have recognized the accuracy of many of its claims. By way of review…

Objection #1: The Bible is a work of fiction that might be useful as a book of morality, but it shouldn’t be taken as anything more.

And what we discovered is…

•    Archaeology and historians consistently verify the historic claims of the Bible.

We looked at some examples of the historical claims of the Bible--people that existed and events that happened--that for a long time people used to attack the Bible. They accused the Bible of being inaccurate. But when new evidence was discovered, it backed up what the Bible had said all along.

Now, we also admitted that we do not have evidence to support everything the Bible says and that there are still discoveries to be made. But the problem is not with contradictory evidence; it's with undiscovered evidence. And the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because there might not be evidence to support all the different claims of the Bible--especially in relation to some of the earliest parts of the Old Testament--that doesn't mean they're not true or that the evidence will not someday be uncovered.

And ultimately, what we learned was that the Bible is not just one book; it's a collection of books that were written over the span of more than a thousand years by several different authors in a number of different styles for a variety of purposes, and that there's a remarkable consistency throughout. There's the overarching story of a God who has intervened in human history at various times, climaxing with the Cross and the Resurrection.

That was all last week, and if you weren't here and want to catch up, you can find that message on our website. This morning, we're going to continue to talk about the Bible... specifically, about some of the troubling content of the Bible.

Objection #2: Doesn't the Bible endorse slavery?

That's a fairly common accusation that's made against God and against the Bible. And to respond to it, you've got to put it into context. Because the slavery back then was not the same as the slavery of the past few centuries. That's in your notes...

•    Slavery in Bible times was different than more recent slavery.

When we talk about slavery, we're generally thinking about slavery based on race (which we agree is a terrible thing). We think about people who were forcefully taken away from their homeland--usually Africa--and treated, traded, and disposed of as property.

But jump back a few thousand years and that wasn't always the case. Back then, many people actually chose to be slaves. Often it was because they owed money, and so they sold themselves as slaves to pay off their debts and to ensure their families would be taken care of. In such a case, the slavery may only last as long as it would take to pay off the debt. It would have been kind of like washing dishes at a restaurant to pay your bill. Exodus chapter 21 even specifies that a slave should be set free after six years.

We see this type of thing all the time; we just don't call it slavery. For example, our court system can assign a person to perform a certain amount of community service without getting paid. In by strict definition, that's slavery... working without pay, being controlled by someone else. A synonym for that kind of slavery is "bondservant," and Perhaps that's a less confusing term for us. However, it should also be noted that...

•    The Bible condemns race-based slavery.

Consider the Hebrews themselves. They were treated as slaves in Egypt for several centuries--not by choice or because they had debts to pay off--but because of their race. And the Bible portrays this as a great injustice. The plagues God poured out on Egypt reveals how God felt about that kind of slavery.

•    The Bible explicitly warns against "man-stealing."

No, this isn't about how teenage girls treat each others' boyfriends. It's about stealing someone away from their home. Again, our concept of slavery generally involves someone being taken from their home or homeland against their will and being forced into slavery. But look at what the Bible says about this...

Exodus 21:16 (NLT)
"Kidnappers must be put to death, whether they are caught in possession of their victims or have already sold them as slaves."

1 Timothy 1:9-11 (NLT)
For the law was not intended for people who do what is right. It is for people who are lawless and rebellious, who are ungodly and sinful, who consider nothing sacred and defile what is holy, who kill their father or mother or commit other murders. The law is for people who are sexually immoral, or who practice homosexuality, or are slave traders, liars, promise breakers, or who do anything else that contradicts the wholesome teaching that comes from the glorious Good News entrusted to me by our blessed God.

Does that sound like the Bible condones kidnapping people away from their homeland and selling them as slaves? Obviously not.

•    The Bible treated slavery as a reality, but not as the way it should be.

In passages like Exodus chapter 21 the Bible records instructions on how slaves should be treated. But that should not be understood to mean that slavery was condoned. Instead, it was meant to limit the abuse of slaves.

Let me illustrate it this way. My son Nate is three years old. At this point in his life, I'd be happy if I could get him to just stop hitting his baby brother. He'll learn more about generosity and sharing and self-sacrifice late on. But it's one step at a time.

In most ancient societies, slaves had no rights. They could be abused by their owners and had no legal protection. So by giving instruction on how to treat slaves, the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) was actually improving their condition.

You see this kind of progress in other areas of the Bible, too. Early in Old Testament times, say you stole someone's shirt. They might kill you for it. So God set some limits...

Deuteronomy 19:21 (NLT)
"Your rule should be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot."

That seems regressive from our perspective today. But at the time, it was a radical progression. God was saying, "Seek justice, but don't go overboard." And when the people learned to use restraint in getting justice and not revenge, Jesus showed up and said...

Matthew 5:17, 38-39 (NLT)
"Don't misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose....
"You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: 'An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also."

So there was a progression. God's allowing of slavery does not mean it's the way He wanted it to be. It just means that it was a reality at the time. And the direction God set with his instructions on how to treat slaves led to a reduction in slavery and eventually to the abolition of slavery.

•    Biblical values have led to the abolition of slavery.

You see, God works from the inside out, not the outside in. Instead of focusing on transforming a society, He focuses on transforming a life. Because He knows that when a life is transformed, the society will eventually be transformed.

When a person experiences the love, grace and mercy of God, it will change the way they think. It will change the way they treat others. It will change the way society acts.

Look at slavery over the past couple thousand years. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, slavery was almost completely wiped out--to the point that it only existed in the outskirts of the Empire.

But then slavery had a resurgence as the Empire became corrupted and began to fall, so again during the Middle Ages Christians lead the fight against slavery. Think about the people most influential in getting rid of slavery:

John Wesley, after whom our church and denomination is named, spoke out during the eighteenth century against the evils of race-based slavery. The Methodist movement which was begun by Wesley continued that fight. Our denomination--the Wesleyan Church--was formed in America primarily because of our opposition to slavery based on verses like...

Galatians 3:28 (NLT)
"There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus."

A friend of Wesley’s--William Wilberforce—played a huge role in ending slavery in Britain. Wilberforce was an English politician who because of his Christian faith led an almost three decades-long fight to abolish the slave trade. In fact, Wilberforce died just three days after he was assured of the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act.

You may know that William Wilberforce was a friend of John Newton. John Newton had been a slave trader himself, became a devoted Christ-follower, was convicted about his involvement in the slave trade so he got out of it, and then wrote a self-reflective song about how God had rescued him from such a terrible background. We know the song and still sing it today... "Amazing Grace." (If you want to know more about the story of John Newton and William Wilberforce and the fight against the slave trade, there's a great movie about it called "Amazing Grace.")

Of course, just south of our border we know that slavery was a big issue of the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln--because of his strong Christian faith--was committed to fighting against slavery.

Plus, you know about the Underground Railroad. Christians were instrumental in helping slaves escape to freedom in the north. Again, our own denomination was part of that.

And then you get to more recent history. Who led the civil rights movement through the 1950s and 1960s? An ordained Christian minister by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. Who refused to hold an event in South Africa until he was assured the audience would not be segregated? We talked about him just a few weeks ago... Billy Graham.

Even today, there remains a major problem of human trafficking around the world. And at the forefront of the battle against it are Christians and churches along with hundreds of humanitarian and political organizations, many of which (if not most of which) are motivated by strong Christian faith-based values. We've even sent money from Sunrise to provide protection for young women who were in danger of being trapped by the sex-slave trade.

So does that mean that there have not been Christians who have owned slaves? No, there certainly have been. But I would suggest that those Christian slave owners were operating in opposition to their faith and not in harmony with it. And you cannot judge a book or a faith by those who abuse it.

As you can see, those who talk about how the Bible and the Christian Church have endorsed slavery obviously don't know the history. So...

Objection #3: How about all the violence in the Old Testament?

When I was in high school, I remember sitting in my twelfth grade English class talking about some work of Shakespeare when the teacher started talking about how the Bible talks about two Gods: the God of the Old Testament who was vengeful and violent and the God of the New Testament who was loving and kind.

I was compelled to raise my hand and disagree. I didn't really know how to respond, but I did have verses like these memorized...

Malachi 3:6 (NLT)
"I am the Lord, and I do not change."

Hebrews 13:8 (NLT)
"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever."

I don't think I made my point very well, and it bothered me that I didn't have a good response. Because I know that the God of the Old Testament who had the ground swallow up people who were disobedient and order the extermination of entire civilizations is the same God of the New Testament who forgives sin and isn't willing that any should perish. So how can I reconcile the two?

I think the answer lies in the purposes of God. What is He trying to accomplish? What is His end goal? And was the violence of the Old Testament necessary?

So, how about God’s command for the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites—men, women and children? Such a command is disturbing to us because it offends our moral sensibilities. Ironic, since our moral sensibilities at least in Western culture have been shaped more than anything else by the Bible.

But why would God make such an order? Well, here are a few things to keep in mind…

First, God had held back for at least four centuries as the Canaanite communities descended into idol worship, bestiality, child sacrifice… They weren’t exactly innocent. As early as the time of Abraham, God was talking about the iniquity of the Amorites (one of the Canaanite tribes), but He also said they weren’t evil enough for Him to respond with drastic measures. God was not exactly quick to exercise judgment on them.

•    The holiness of God demands that evil be punished.

Plus, you can see the results when the Israelites did not listen and left survivors. For centuries, the descendents of survivors were a thorn in the side of the Israelites… attacking them and suppressing them, deceiving them, leading them into idol worship and away from God… there were all kinds of problems that resulted.

Was God's ordering for the killing of all those people extreme? Sure. But was it necessary? Yes. I don't believe for a second that God hated the Canaanites or that He enjoyed giving the order for them to be exterminated, but His holiness demanded it and it was the best thing to do to accomplish His greater purpose.

You see, God's purpose was to prepare the people of Israel to be the channel through which He would convey His message to the world through the Person of Jesus. As a result, He gave instructions that would have maintained the integrity and purity of the nation.

•    God did not prefer violence, but when necessary He used it to accomplish His purposes.

Isn't that the majority view of war and violence even today? It's not preferred, but there are times it's necessary. Sometimes there are greater purposes that make it unavoidable.

To say that God was evil in what He told the Israelites to do, you have to prove that He did not have good reason to do so. God sees the big picture even when we can't, and so He operates accordingly. He knows the ramifications of every possible action, every possible choice. Does that fully answer the question of God-ordained violence? Maybe not. But it’s at least a start, and you can understand that there might be some legitimate reason for it.

Does that validate other occurrences of mass violence throughout history such as the Crusades? No, it doesn’t—because God’s purposes are different now than they were then, and His way of communicating with us is different, too. So don’t make that leap. We’ll talk more about that later on in this series. But that explains some of the large-scale violence of the Old Testament. And we've already talked about some of the smaller scale violence.

•    God set limitations on seeking personal justice and pointed the way toward forgiveness and grace.

"Eye for eye, tooth for tooth" may sound vengeful, but it was at a time when there weren't any cops or any justice system like we have today. People would dole out their own brand of justice. So what God did was institute a proportional justice system. It wasn't the endgame; it was just a step in the direction God was taking them... toward forgiveness and turning the other cheek.

Objection #4: Isn't the Bible full of contradictions?

This is a pretty common objection that people raise. And no, we're not going to go through them all here this morning. There are hundreds of websites devoted to attacking the Bible based on contradictions, and there are just as many websites devoted to responding and explaining how those contradictions really aren't contradictions at all.

And again, like most of these objections that we're looking at throughout this series, the majority of people who raise this one and start to accuse the Bible of containing contradictions have never actually looked into it for themselves. They are merely repeating what they've heard someone else say. "You say the Bible's full of contradictions? Okay, name them." Most people aren't going to be able to.

However, there really are some passages that might seem to be contradictory. So here are some things you need to understand about that...

•    Variations in secondary details actually adds to their authenticity.

Let me explain. If you want to believe that what the Bible says about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was simply made up, then you've got to assume that the writers of the Gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke and John--got together at some point and intentionally concocted the story. If they had done that, then these variations would have been ironed out. They would have read and proofread their writings to make sure their stories were consistent.

Like with the resurrection. Matthew and Mark write that there was one angel at the tomb; Luke and John write that there were two. Matthew writes that Peter denied Jesus before the rooster crowed once; Mark says the rooster crowed two times. But the very fact that there are slight differences like this in secondary details actually lends credibility to the idea that the writers wrote independently of each other. They wrote based on their perspectives, based on what they had seen and heard for themselves.

In a criminal investigation, if an investigator is questioning different witnesses they expect to have some amount of variation in the accounts. In fact, if all the details line up perfectly it's cause for them to question what's going on. If all the stories agree on every point of detail, it's actually seen as a sign that it might be made up.

This shows that the writers of the Gospels and then the early Church were committed to preserving the accounts of the eyewitnesses, even if there were slight variations. And really, debating about these secondary details distracts from the headline: namely, dead man rises from the grave. All the accounts agree on the major points.

•    Some of the alleged contradictions are just different ways of saying the same thing.

Matthew chapter seven talks about how a Roman centurion went to see Jesus. Luke talks about this event, too (in Luke 8), but in his account the centurion sent representatives to see Jesus. He didn't go himself.

Which one is correct? If one’s right, doesn’t that mean the other one is wrong? Isn’t that a contradiction? That’s how some people will look at this. “It says two different contradictory things, so the Bible can’t be trusted.”

But is that a valid conclusion? Is that really the way we should look at it?

Think about it this way... What if you turned on the news tonight and you heard a reporter telling you that the Prime Minister has announced that all our taxes were going to be cut in half? Once you got over the initial shook followed by your dance of joy and then realized that it was just a campaign promise, what if you then found out that the statement was actually written by a speech writer and read by a press secretary? Who actually made the announcement? The Prime Minister, the speech writer, or the press secretary? I suppose any one of those would be true. You could also say that it was the Canadian government, the Conservative Party, the Harper government, Ottawa, or even the Prime Minister’s office (though I’m not sure how an office can talk).

The point is, you can say the same thing different ways. Writers will write things from different perspectives, highlight specific things while kind of brushing past other things, and will tell the same story different ways.

•    Some of the alleged contradictions reflect the different perspectives or purposes of the writers.

What time did the sun rise this morning? Anyone know? Actually, the sun didn't rise at all. It didn't go anywhere. It was the earth that moved. So am I wrong in saying that the sun rose, or am I just stating something from my perspective?

I went to FutureShop last Friday to buy the new iPad. That statement is true. But it’s also true that several other people were there, too. Some of the were there to buy an iPad, and others were there to buy something else. And I’m sure there were other people there just browsing. I also took Nate and Noah with me, but just because I didn’t mention all these other people when I initially told you that I went to FutureShop doesn’t mean that my statement is false.

Plus, sometimes when you’re recounting a story you’ll combine facts for simplicity. Before Shera and I moved here to Charlottetown, I worked at a church in Bedford. That's where Shera and I met, and her parents who are visiting with us this weekend still attend that church. I worked at that church in Bedford for five years. During that time I also taught piano lessons, cleaned a condo building, worked as a meat cutter in a grocery store, designed websites... I even worked for an explosives company which was a real blast. But you don’t hear me talk about all of those other things very often because primarily I was working as a pastor. All of those other things are really secondary details that aren’t really all that important. And so I don't usually mention them.

After I graduated from high school, I went to Bible College. I also went to UNB for a couple years in between where I studied science, but I don’t always point that out if it’s not important to the message I'm trying to convey. Usually, I just lump it all together for simplicity.

Last week after it snowed, I put Nate in the van and told him to watch the wind blow the snow off the hood while we drove. But here’s the thing... there wasn’t any wind. It was actually the motion of the van causing a difference in air pressure combined with some effects from friction and Newton’s Third Law that caused the snow to “blow” off the hood. So when I told Nate that the wind was blowing the snow off the hood, was I telling the truth? Of course I was. And you all understand what I mean when I say that. I may not have been technically accurate, but I was truthful.

All of that is just to illustrate to you that factual things can be expressed different ways that may appear contradictory, but that doesn’t mean they actually are.

Many of the apparent contradictions in the Bible can be easily explained by understand the perspectives of the writers and their purposes in writing. They could combine things, leave details out, and simplify their accounts in order to highlight what was really important.

•    Different writing styles may lead to apparent contradictions.

We talked about this some last week. The Bible is not just “a” book. It’s a collection of 66 books written by many different authors over the span of over a thousand years. And different books and sections of books contain different kinds of writings. Some of the writings are historical, some are figurative, some are poetic, some are biographical, some are narrative, some are correspondence, some are prophecy, some are emotional, some are instructive, some are doctrinal...

Something written poetically may appear to contradict something written historically. And you can run into trouble when you try to reconcile the two. The example we used last week was about the Psalm that talks about how God gathers his children under His wing. Does that mean that God literally has wings? Does that contradict passages that talk about how God is spirit and has no physical form? Of course not. It's just a poetic way of expressing the care that God gives those who trust in Him.

Okay, so those are a few of the trouble spots that people have when it comes to the Bible... some of the objections people raise about its content. But once you understand the passages in context, the problems begin to disappear.

Next week, we're going to continue this series and talk about how our Bible was compiled, how it has been passed down through the centuries, and about how we should handle it today.


Copyright © 2011 Greg Hanson