An Atheist Reads Evidence That Demands a Verdict
Chapters 1 and 2
Part One: The Case for the Bible
Chapter 1: The Uniqueness of the Bible
- McDowell begins by arguing with the notion that the Bible is merely “one of the classics,” that it belongs in the top shelf alongside the works of Homer and Shakespeare. The Bible, McDowell declares, is unique. He insists he came to this conclusion during his grand attempt to refute the Bible when he was a non-Christian.
- McDowell insists the Bible is unique among all books in a multitude of ways. Of this multitude, he describes seven:
Unique In Its Continuity
- McDowell describes how the Bible is the only book that was written over a span of 1500 years, by dozens of authors from all walks of life, writing in different circumstances, at different times, in different moods, on multiple continents, in multiple languages, and in a variety of literary styles. And despite all this, it is unified and consistent in its story and its themes. Or as McDowell says:
- “In spite of its diversity, the Bible presents a single unfolding story: God’s redemption of human beings.” (Josh McDowell, THE NEW EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT, p. 6)
- McDowell contrasts the Bible with the literary compilation, The Great Books of the Western World.
- “The Great Books contain selections from more than 450 works by close to 100 authors spanning a period of about twenty-five centuries . . . While these individuals are all part of the Western tradition of ideas, they often display an incredible diversity of views on just about every subject. . . . In fact, they often go out of their way to critique and refute key ideas proposed by their predecessors.” (p. 7)
- Not so with the Bible, says McDowell, who writes that he once converted a Great Books of the Western World salesman who came to his door by demonstrating the consistency of the Bible compared to the diversity of the Great Books compilation.
- Did you hear that? He convinced a man to accept Christ merely by pointing out the differences between the Bible and The Great Books of the Western World! Do any of you still doubt this man could have become Governor of Michigan if he’d wanted to?
- The claim that the Bible consistently maintains continuity is important, because without that, the circumstances of its creation, however unique and fascinating on a historical or literary level, do nothing to prove or even suggest that it was divinely inspired. It’s true that the books that comprise the Bible were written over a great length of time, by a lot of different people in a lot of different circumstances, but unless you can demonstrate that these various authors in their various times and places were involved in a single, continuous act of creation, all you’ve got is a collection of separate texts that were collected into a single book by other people to suit their own purposes — in other words, an anthology. So, is it true what McDowell says? Is the Bible consistent?
- The short answer is, “No.” The various books of the Bible are just as inconsistent and contradictory as you would expect a collection of texts written by dozens of authors across many centuries to be. Many of these contradictions and inconsistencies occur in the details — dates that don’t match up, conflicting accounts of the same event — but there are also quite a few disagreements among the various Biblical authors on some big issues like the nature and character of God. Here, with some help from the indispensable Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, are a few examples:
- Does God help in times of need? According to Psalm 145:18, among other passages, the answer is yes: “The Lord is near to all who call upon him.” According to Isaiah 45:15, among many other passages (including elsewhere in the Book of Psalms), the answer is no: “Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself.”
- Can God do anything? According to the Book of Job 42:1-2, the answer is yes: “Then Job answered the LORD, and said, I know that thou canst do every thing.” According to Hebrews 6:18, however, there is at least one thing God can’t do: “It was impossible for God to lie.”
- But is it really true that God can’t lie? The writers of the Bible don’t agree on that one, either. The author of Titus, among others, agrees with the author of Hebrews. In Titus 1:2, he writes of eternal life: “which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began.” But according to the author of Ezekiel, not only does God lie, but God himself admits it. Ezekiel 14:9: “And if a prophet be deceived when he hath spoken a thing, I the Lord have deceived that prophet.”
- One more. What about the question of who bears the punishment for sin? Are we responsible for our own sins? Or are children punished for the sins of their parents? Let’s remain with Ezekiel a moment, see what he has to say. Ezekiel 18:20: “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.” Seems fair. But what, then, do we make of Moses, the traditional author of the Book of Deuteronomy, who writes in Deuteronomy 5:9, while presenting the Ten Commandments to the Israelites, “I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”
- And those are just a tiny fraction of the possible examples. The Bible clearly contains significant contradictions. Its various authors clearly were not always in agreement with each other about who God was, what God can do, or what God wanted them to do — and why should they have been? As McDowell points out, the Bible is a collection of dozens of texts written by dozens of authors, in different times and places, responding to different circumstances. Even if all these authors are worshipping the same God, we should expect to find disagreements and inconsistencies in their thoughts and feelings and beliefs about this god. And we do find those disagreements and inconsistencies.
- But what about McDowell’s claim that the Bible’s overarching story is the same throughout? I previously quoted him describing the entire Bible as the story of God’s redemption of humanity. Here, he puts it another way:
- “From cover to cover, the Bible is Christocentric.” (p. 6)
- In other words, the entire Bible, from Old Testament to New, is devoted to either predicting and preparing the way for the coming of Christ, or to recording and propagating the stories of the life and teachings of Christ.
- The problem with this claim is obvious: the interpretation of the Old Testament as specifically predicting the coming of Jesus is being imposed retroactively. It was originated by followers of Jesus who were intentionally portraying him as the fulfillment of promises made in the Old Testament. It is Christians who have hammered their scriptures and those of the ancient Hebrews together and claimed that it’s all one, unified book. Plenty of people, including most modern Jews, don’t see it that way. They view the New Testament for what it is: an appendage attached to a pre-existing religious tradition after the fact, not the natural and continuous fulfillment of that tradition.
Unique In Its Circulation
Unique In Its Translation
- The Bible is by far the most circulated book in human history. McDowell acknowledges that this doesn’t prove that the Bible is the Word of God. But it demonstrates the uniqueness of the Bible.
- No other book in history has ever been translated as many different times, or into as many different languages, as the Bible.
- My response to the uniqueness of the Bible in its circulation and its translation is the same: So? As McDowell himself acknowledges, these facts do nothing whatsoever to demonstrate that there is anything divine about the Bible. In fact, they can both be explained quite naturally if we remember that the Bible is the holy text of a church that rose to a position of unprecedented power and influence. There are political and cultural factors that account for the ubiquity of the Bible in the Western world with no appeals to the divine being necessary.
Unique In Its Survival
- Despite originating long ago, the Bible remains with us today in more or less its original written form, having been preserved better and more consistently than any other ancient book.
- And it’s survived not only time, but also persecution and criticism.
- As to persecution, McDowell describes how Diocletian, Roman emperor in the year 303 ordered Christians to abandon their religion and destroy their scriptures.
- “The historic irony of this event is recorded by the fourth-century church historian Eusebius, who wrote that twenty-five years after Diocletian’s edict the Roman emperor Constantine issued an edict ordering that fifty copies of the Scriptures should be prepared at the government’s expense.” (p. 10)
- The support of the church by Constantine isn’t an historic irony so much as it is the actual explanation of why the Bible, and Christianity in general, survived and went on to flourish despite the persecution during its early centuries.
- McDowell also cites the great philosopher and writer Voltaire, who predicted (optimistically) that within a hundred years Christianity would no longer exist. McDowell quotes Sidney Collette:
- “But what has happened? Voltaire has passed into history, while the circulation of the Bible continues to increase In almost all parts of the world . . .” (Sidney Collette, ALL ABOUT THE BIBLE, p. 63)
- McDowell concludes:
- “The Bible’s enemies come and go, but the Bible remains. Jesus was right when he said, ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away’ (Mark 13:31 NKJV).” (McDowell, p. 10)
- I should note that Voltaire has only “passed into history,” as it were, for people who don’t read or study the humanities or literature or philosophy. And if Voltaire the enemy of the Bible has been forgotten, then by that same standard so have many champions of the Bible, like Josephus and Origen and Eusebius, and far more prominent early Christian figures like Augustine and Aquinas, and pretty much every other writer whose work isn’t read outside of a relatively small group of students and scholars.
- As to surviving criticism, McDowell points out that despite being criticized, refuted, and attacked for centuries, the Bible is still read and loved and believed by billions of people all over the world.
- And so is the Qur’an, and so are the Vedas. The Bible is not unique in this regard, either.
Unique In Its Teachings
- McDowell claims the Bible’s teachings are unique in their prophecy, their history, and their character.
- First: prophecy. McDowell cites Wilbur Smith, who declared the Bible to be uniquely prophetic. From Smith’s book, The Incomparable Book:
- “Mohammedanism cannot point to any prophecies of the coming of Mohammed uttered hundreds of years before his birth. Neither can the founders of any cult in this country rightly identify any ancient text specifically foretelling their appearance.” (Wilbur Smith, THE INCOMPARABLE BOOK, pp. 9-10)
- And neither can Christianity. As I said a few minutes ago, the notion that the Old Testament predicted Jesus is an interpretation imposed by Christians after the fact. It’s what we comic book readers would call a retcon.
- Next: history. The Bible is unique in its recording of the ancient history of the Israelites, including their tribal and family origins. No other people has such a history of their cultural history.
- Unfortunately for McDowell, this unique history of the Israelites includes many events (such as the Egyptian enslavement and the exodus that followed) that most likely never happened, and is inextricably rooted in myth. Yes, we can find the bits that do seem to match up to what we know of the actual history of this people and these times and places. But we can’t forget about things like the creation, the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood, the Tower of Babel, and other episodes of this supposedly unique and reliable history that are pure mythology. Nor do the historically accurate bits compel us to accept the mythology as historical.
- Finally: character. The Bible portrays its characters frankly, warts and all, even when their flaws reflect poorly on people on God’s side.
- “The Bible as a book focuses on reality, not fantasy. It presents the good and bad, the right and wrong, the best and worst, the hope and despair, the joy and pain of life.” (McDowell, p. 13)
- And how does that make it unique, let alone suggest it’s the Word of God?
- Also, why should we pat the authors of these Bible stories on their backs for portraying the flaws of their characters, when the moral of virtually every story in the Bible that deals with flawed, sinful characters is that people are inherently weak and untrustworthy, and therefore they need to trust God? The authors of the Bible don’t include unflattering details about the characters out of a dedication to unflinching honesty — they do it to make a point. You might as well claim there’s something supernatural about Aesop’s fables or the Grimm fairy tales. The fact that McDowell is so impressed that the Bible portrays the negative traits of its heroes doesn’t say much for him as a reader or a writer.
Unique In Its Influence On Literature
Unique In Its Influence On Civilization
A Reasonable Conclusion
- McDowell spends the final two and a half pages of the chapter quoting various sources to establish that no other book has had the influence on literature or civilization that the Bible has had.
- As with the Bible’s impressive circulation and frequency of translation, its influence on our culture can be explained by the prominence of the church, particularly in centuries past, and doesn’t suggest anything unique or supernatural about the Bible itself.
- Also, noting the influence of the Bible on literature and civilization is a very culturally biased observation. The Bible has been very influential in Western culture. Its influence in the culture of, say, China, is not nearly so notable.
- McDowell reiterates that the uniqueness of the Bible as described in this chapter doesn’t prove that it’s the Word of God. It does indicate, however, that the Bible is “superior to any and all other books.”
- But “superior” in what sense? If the uniqueness doesn’t prove it’s divine and therefore superior to other books in that sense, how is the Bible superior? As history? But it’s history is significantly intermixed with mythology. As philosophy? McDowell hasn’t touched on the actual ideas or teachings presented in the Bible at all yet. As literature? That’s a matter of taste, and also something McDowell hasn’t dealt with at this point. He declares that the Bible is uniquely superior, and just leaves it at that, which renders it an empty and impotent statement.
- “A professor once remarked to me, ‘If you are an intelligent person, you will read the one book that has drawn more attention than any other, if you are searching for the truth.’ The Bible certainly qualifies as this one book.” (p. 16)
- And if you are an intelligent person who really cares about finding the truth, you will read many more books than the Bible, and when you read the Bible, you’ll examine it critically and make up your own mind as to how much truth it contains, rather than just blindly accepting everything it tells you.
Chapter 2: How We Got the Bible
- This chapter is divided broadly into two sections. The first deals with the mechanics of how the Bible was actually written — what materials were used, what forms the original books took, how they were later divided into chapters and verses. The second deals with the compilation of the canon — who decided what was included in the canon and what was left out, and the criteria used in making these decisions.
How Was the Bible Written?
- McDowell spends most of this section describing the materials and instruments used by ancient writers. Manuscripts were written on papyrus, parchment, or vellum, using pens cut from reeds and ink made from a compound of charcoal and water. Books were either in the form of scrolls or codices.
- This is all fascinating information, and I appreciate the effort to acknowledge that these books were actually written by ancient people using what we would now consider primitive materials. I think many modern Christians (encouraged in no small part by evangelists like McDowell) have this fantasy that their black leather-bound King James Bibles just sort of descended from the sky at some point in the misty days of yore. That was not the case. These books were written down and subsequently copied time and time again, by hand, centuries before the invention of the printing press. McDowell shares this information with us, I think, in the hopes that, combined with the belief in inerrancy, it will increase our reverence for the Word of God. But all it does for me is reinforce how preposterous it is to insist that the Bible is totally without error, when we know it was originally scratched onto papyrus thousands of years ago and went through dozens, perhaps hundreds of generations of copies before the oldest surviving manuscripts we have today were created.
- Oh, and by the way, McDowell makes no mention whatsoever of the oral traditions wherein the stories written in the Bible actually originated. I suppose he expects us to believe that Moses, a real person, just sat down with his scroll of papyrus and reed pen one day and started writing the Book of Genesis.
- When discussing papyrus, McDowell notes how fragile it is, and cites F.F. Bruce in attributing the loss of all the original autographs of the Bible to them being written on this not very durable material.
- The mention of the lack of autographs for Biblical texts reminds me of one of the silliest claims made by many evangelical Christian churches. If you go to the website of an evangelical church and look on the page where they present their church creed — most church websites have such a “What We Believe” page — you might see a declaration like “We believe the Bible to be perfect in its original autograph.” I’ve seen that phrase, “its original autograph,” pop up over and over again. And I think, “What a stupid thing to say. You’ve never seen the Bible’s original autograph. No one alive today has, no one has for thousands of years. How can you possibly have any beliefs about it at all, especially such an absolute one as to believe it was perfect?” Though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since most Christians are in the habit of speaking with authority about things no one has ever seen.
Who Decided What to Include in the Bible?
- McDowell explains what the word “canon” means (literally, a standard, and in this context, a list of accepted books). Then he says
- “It is important to note that the church did not create the canon; it did not determine which books would be called Scripture . . . Instead, the church recognized, or discovered, which books had been inspired from their inception.” (p. 21)
- McDowell goes on to state that it is not the people who give the book its authority, but rather God. The people merely recognize the authority God has given the book.
- So how did the church determine which books belonged in the canon? What tests were used to recognize which books were the Word of God, and which weren’t?
- McDowell, citing Norman Geisler and William Nix, describes five criteria that were considered when deciding whether or not a given book should be canonized (pp. 21-22):
- Was the book written by a prophet of God?
- Was the writer confirmed by acts of God?
- Did the message tell the truth about God?
- Does the book come with the power of God?
- Was the book accepted by contemporary believers?
- The only source for determining if a book met criteria 1, 2 or 3 would seem to be the Bible itself — and, apparently, even the books being considered, themselves. In describing No. 2, McDowell (still citing Geisler and Nix) quotes from the Book of Exodus — the book supposedly written by Moses — to establish that Moses’s call from God was proven by his gift of miraculous powers. In other words, Moses wrote a book describing himself as a prophet, and claimed that God had given him miraculous powers, and that was good enough for the church to check that requirement off the list.
- Additionally, the main test for inclusion in the New Testament canon was apostolic authority. The apostles were the foundation of the church, and books which were written by them or those close to them, or at least consistent with their teachings, were deemed acceptable.
- And apostolic authority was derived directly from the authority of Christ himself. As an example, McDowell cites Paul writing in I Corinthians, where he claims his authority to teach and direct the church comes from his commission from the Lord.
- Paul himself being the only source for the existence of said commission. Don’t you love the selective skepticism of apologists? “Paul claimed his authority came from Christ, and that’s good enough for me!”
- So why were these books collected into the canon in the first place? McDowell lists and briefly describes six reasons: they were prophetic (and therefore valuable and worthy of preservation), the early church needed to know which books were legit Word of God and which weren’t, heretics like Marcion were collecting and distributing canons of their own, the church needed a standard book of scripture to take on missions to spread the good news, and the church members needed to know which books were truly sacred so they knew which books to be willing to die for during persecution.
- Marcion was declared a heretic for being a dualist, by the way. He held that the God of the Old Testament was evil and that Jesus had actually been the son of the true, benevolent God. They couldn’t have someone running around telling people that the God who had once drowned the entire world wasn’t the perfect God of Love, so they kicked him out.
- The modern New Testament canon was finally codified in the 4th century by Athanasius of Alexandria, and soon accepted by other church fathers of the time like Augustine and Jerome. This canon was already fully accepted by the time of the Synod of Hippo in 393, when the twenty-seven books of the New Testament canon were officially approved.
- McDowell fails to mention that only the New Testament canon of Athanasius corresponds to the modern canon. Athanasius also had an Old Testament canon that included the Book of Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah, both of which are now considered to be part of the Apocrypha by Protestants, and omitted the Book of Esther, which is now part of the Protestant canon.
- Speaking of the Old Testament, McDowell now moves on to describe how it came to be as we know it. He mentions the Council of Jamnia in A.D. 90, to which many scholars date the creation of the modern Jewish canon, but then agrees with David Ewert that the Jewish canon, like the Christian one, was actually determined by God and came to be recognized as a result of long usage in the Jewish community.
- McDowell then lists a series of verses from the New Testament where Jesus refers to the authority of Old Testament scripture.
- Do you catch how often McDowell reiterates that the canon is determined by God, not by people? Am I reading too much into this to infer that McDowell thinks that churches with canons other than the Protestant one he accepts — for instance, the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches — have allowed their canons to be determined by factors other than recognizing God’s Word? If I’m not just seeing things, it certainly wouldn’t be the first instance of anti-Catholicism I’ve ever encountered in Protestant literature. I’m not surprised. I’m just amused by how easily religious people can attack and denigrate other churches that hold beliefs essentially identical to their own.
- McDowell devotes the remaining few pages of the chapter to listing extra-Biblical sources that affirm the scriptural authority of the Old Testament, summarizing the books of the Old Testament Apocrypha (which Catholics consider canon and call the Deuterocanon), and explaining why these apocryphal books were rejected from the Protestant canon. The point of all of this is summarized by McDowell at the very end, in a concluding quote from the book Foundations for Biblical Interpretation:
- “No Christian, confident in the providential working of his God and informed about the true nature of canonicity of his Word, should be disturbed about the dependability of the Bible we now possess.” (David Dockery, Kenneth Matthews, and Robert Sloan, FOUNDATIONS FOR BIBLICAL INTERPRETATION, pp. 77-78)
- So if you’re a Christian who’s having doubts about the reliability of the Bible, given its ancient and mysterious origins and the manner in which the canon (or at least your particular version of the canon) was assembled, consider that quote — and indeed, this entire chapter — the reassuring pat on the head you’ve been so desperately hoping for.
Next: Conclude Part One: The Case for the Bible
Chapter 3: Is the New Testament Historically Reliable?
Chapter 4: Is the Old Testament Historically Reliable?.