Are Atheists Trying to Have It Both Ways?

This week’s post was inspired by a point that’s come up several times in our Atheist Christian Book Club. In discussions about the historicity of the Bible, the Christian contingent has raised an objection that goes something like this:

Atheists are trying to have it both ways! If the gospels say the same thing, it’s because they’re plagiarizing! But if they don’t say the same thing, it’s because they’re embellishing!

The idea is that atheists won’t give the Bible any credit. When the same story is repeated in multiple gospels, atheists ignore the corroboration, and when the story is recorded in only one gospel, atheists call out the lack of corroboration! I’m going to address these two points separately, as I believe they stem from different misunderstandings.

On the point that atheists dismiss multiple accounts as plagiarism, it’s important to emphasize the difference between corroboration and collaboration. When evaluating the historicity of an event, it’s important to not just have multiple sources, but multiple independent sources. We know the writers of the gospels were not independent; Matthew and Luke used Mark as one source (sometimes quoting Mark verbatim), and a predominant theory also has them using a second “Q” source as well. If Matthew and Luke are taking stories from Mark, you don’t have three sources – you have one source: Mark.

Ideally, we’re looking for corroboration without collaboration. You have corroboration when 4 accounts told from differing perspectives tell the same story; this is evidence that the story is legit. You have collaboration when 4 accounts remix, reuse, recycle, and generally crib off of each other. Collaboration in the gospels doesn’t by itself prove that the gospels are false, but it should be a red flag. If scripture is divinely inspired, why does God need to plagiarize himself?

One the idea that atheists dismiss unique accounts as embellishment, I see two separate situations where atheists may object. One is where accounts differ but can be harmonized, and the other is where accounts contradict and cannot be harmonized. Sometimes, harmonization is easy: if a story takes place in one gospel as an isolated incident and has no obvious connection to any other events (for instance, the blind man of Bethsaida in Mark 8), you can slot it into the overall narrative with no qualms.

Other times, harmonization may be technically possible, but doing so only raises more questions. The empty tomb is a classic example. Who did the women see on arriving: an angel (Matthew 28), two angels (John 20), a young man (Mark 16), or two men (Luke 24)? Reconciling these differences requires some mental gymnastics to understand what the gospel writers were trying to accomplish.

If there were only men at the tomb, whoever said there were angels is embellishing the narrative. If there were angels at the tomb, why say there were men instead? What is to be gained by diminishing one miraculous detail from an unabashedly miraculous story?

If there was one figure at the tomb, whoever said there were two is also guilty of embellishment. If there were in fact two, why say there was only one? How does reducing the number of figures help the narrative in any way?

Alternatively, if the gospel writers didn’t change these details, were they getting their information from competing oral traditions? If the original traditions were exaggerated, perhaps they’re not as reliable as apologists would have us believe. Once again, this should be a red flag. If scripture is divinely inspired, why is he inspiring such crummy writing?

Even if we were to set aside accounts that can technically be harmonized, we’re still left with contradictions. I shouldn’t have to say that contradictions are never evidence for the veracity of a story, and while some atheists like to bring out long lists of “contradictions” that are really nothing of the sort, I believe some are nigh impossible to reconcile.

  • Were Joseph and Mary originally from Bethlehem and relocated to Nazareth, as in Matthew? Or were they from Nazareth and went to Bethlehem for the census, as in Luke?
  • Did Simon Peter become Jesus’ disciple after being brought by his brother Andrew, as in John? Or was it after Jesus helped him catch fish, as in Luke?
  • After Jesus’ death, did the disciples stay in Jerusalem, as in Acts? Or did they proceed to Galilee, as in Matthew?

Overall, the biggest problem with the Christians’ objection is how easily it can be turned back around on their own arguments:

Christians are trying to have it both ways! If the gospels say the same thing, it’s because they’re trustworthy! But if they don’t say the same thing, it’s because they’re independent sources!

Similarity and dissimilarity are not both evidence for the same thing. If the gospels are independent sources, why are they copying each other? And if they are trustworthy, why are they so difficult to reconcile?

Advertisements

Day Two After The Fall

There was evening, and there was morning. It was the second day after Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge. The disgraced man and woman have left the garden, but the repercussion of their sin still remains.

Wolves, lions, bears, sharks, and tyrannosaurs convulse in pain. Their teeth are morphing from flat to sharp. Their intestines are spontaneously shrinking, and their stomaches have suddenly begun secreting more acidic enzymes to help digest their new diet.

A bee flies to its favorite flower, which now closes down upon it with brand new jaws. A rabbit eats its favorite berry, which now poisons it. All through out the animal kingdom, once-benign bacteria and viruses are now causing a previously-unknown phenomenon called “disease”.

The very Earth itself is changing. The surface cracks, and regions along the edges will now be subject to earthquakes. The water cycle, which previously only wrought gentle, sustaining rains, will now generate hurricanes and tornadoes.

These worldwide effects are all supposedly caused by one man and one woman eating the wrong fruit. This single sin is said to impact all of creation, and yet the Bible does not describe a mechanism for how sin would interact with the world to create these changes. We have a cause, and we have an effect, but we have no connection between them.

Moreover, the Bible does not indicate why these changes would even follow from the first sin. Why doesn’t the fall of man only affect man? Paul says in Romans that “creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it” (8:20), but why was creation as a whole subjected to any consequences? Did the wolves sin? Did the bee disobey? Did the rabbit offend God’s honor?

God set this system up. If the rule is that sin affects all of creation, that’s his rule. If “creation was subjected to futility,” God appears to be “him who subjected it.” We’re left with a Genesis account that appears nonsensical enough that you should doubt it, but casts doubt on God’s goodness even if you believe.

God the Delinquent Dad

The Bible frequently refers to God by using human titles: King of Kings, the Good Shepherd, and so forth. No title is more ubiquitous, however, than God the Father. According to the Bible, we are the children of a loving Heavenly Father, but how does God compare to a responsible human parent?

Sometimes parents need to discipline their children to train them in proper behavior and help them grow in moral character. However, the discipline must be proportional to the offense, and a disproportionate response crosses the line from discipline to child abuse. If your child calls their sibling a nasty name, do you give them a time out, or do you exile them from your house for the rest of their lives? Which one sounds more like what God does with us? No parent worth emulating would torture their child for the remainder of their earthly life, after the opportunity to grow has long passed, for a first offense.

Discipline can be seen as a temporary suffering for a greater good, and indeed most Christians view suffering as a whole in these terms. What if our pain is momentary, and God’s higher perspective allows him to see the good which will come out of it? Bringing in the father analogy, I’ve encountered multiple writers who compare it to a child getting a vaccine. They may scream and cry when the needle goes in, but as a parent, you know the fleeting pain is worth preventing a debilitating illness.

But what if you could accomplish the same goal with no pain at all? What if you were all-powerful, and instead of taking your child in for a shot, you could cast a ward over them to inoculate them from all disease? Why would you not take this option? At that point, if you still have your child vaccinated, you are actually the one introducing undue suffering into their life.

How then is God not a monster for allowing so much suffering in the world when he has the power to prevent all of it? It’s problematic enough to introduce unnecessary suffering into our finite lives on Earth, but what about our eternal fates? How many would be going to hell since the incomprehensibility of suffering has caused them to reject God? Why would God introduce an arbitrary impediment to belief?

“But God wants us to come to him freely! It’s not a free decision unless the option is there to choose otherwise!” Okay, how does God the Father handle this?

God is not a helicopter parent. We all hate parents like this, and so we may be glad God doesn’t obsessively try and control every aspect of our lives. That said, going all the way in the opposite direction is problematic as well! Good parents don’t let their children do whatever they want, especially when they want to do something that puts themselves at risk.

Think of it this way: you’re a parent, and you’ve dealt with enough helicopter parents over the years that you know you don’t want to be like them. However, your children still act foolishly on occasion, and one day you notice that your son has gotten his hands on your gun.

What do you do? You could say to yourself, “Well, I don’t want to take the gun away from him. That’s what one of those helicopter parents would do! My son should be free to make his own decisions, even if they’re mistakes.” Or, you could take the gun away! What would a good parent do?

According to the Bible, we are staring down the barrel of an eternity in hell, and God seems content to sit back and see how everything plays out. If, as a Christian, you want to say that God actually did do something about this by sending his Son to die for our sins, I would point to this as God’s ultimate failure as a father. A good father wouldn’t let things get so out of control that the only solution was for his own son to die.

 

 

Damnation: To Infinity and Beyond!

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for ex-Christians is the idea of infinite punishment for finite crimes. The notion that a single lie, a lustful thought, or a covetous desire is enough to doom a soul to an eternity of torment seems at odds with a loving and merciful God. Christian apologists have an answer, which I usually see phrased as analogous to earthly royalty:

  1. Offenses become greater with the honor due the offended, e.g. stealing a penny from the king incurs a much greater penalty than stealing a penny from a commoner.
  2. God is due infinite honor, therefore offenses against God incur an infinite penalty.

This seems to make some intuitive sense, but the problem is that the same analogy can be used to support the exact opposite point. Doesn’t a king’s greater power and status also bring with it a greater ability to brush off minor offenses? If a peasant steals a penny from a king who has millions and millions of pennies in his coffers, and the king issues the death penalty for the offense, wouldn’t the king be considered a tyrant? Or, more appropriate to the Christian God, if a peasant lusts after a woman, or tells a white lie to his neighbor, or covets another man’s fancy hat, must he pay the ultimate price?

If you want to use the royalty analogy and claim God has infinitely greater honor than an earthly king, one should also be able to say that God also has an infinitely greater capacity to forgive. The Bible itself even gives examples of rulers who deliberately set aside their disciplinary powers and instead offered clemency. Did Joseph use his authority over Egypt to exact revenge on his brothers, who sold him into slavery, or did he extend an olive branch? Upon becoming king, did David exterminate the line of Saul, who made multiple attempts on his life, or did he seek out Saul’s grandson and grant him Saul’s lands?

What lesson are we to glean from these stories? In Sunday school, these stories were used to demonstrate that there is no transgression too great to be forgiven. But isn’t this the opposite of how God acts? The Bible’s own models of magnanimous rulers make God look like a divine dictator by comparison.