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?

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Build a Better Bible in 3 Easy Steps

Photo: John Snyder

A Christian member of the Atheist Christian Book Club raised an interesting quandary at our last meeting, one which I’ve honestly struggled to address. It goes like this:

Of course atheists don’t believe the Gospels are reliable! If they agree, you say they’re untrustworthy because they copy from each other! But if they disagree, you say they’re untrustworthy because they tell different stories!

A valid point? Maybe on the surface, but let’s dig a little deeper here. What if there was a way to avoid these questions entirely? I’ve already done a post suggesting that maybe God wouldn’t have bothered with a book at all, but let’s say God wanted to leave us a book for reference, or some other reason that only he understands. How could God provide the message he wants to present in the gospels in a way that will not provide additional stumbling blocks or difficulties?

  • Tell the same stories with no contradictions – This is the most obvious idea. Why would God inspire the gospel authors to write incompatible narratives? This is not to say that you can’t have differences in the gospel stories, i.e. you can still tell the same story from different perspectives, or you can have one gospel tell a story that another leaves out. However, contradictions only serve to inhibit understanding; they actively undermine belief in biblical authority, and any god worth his salt would make sure there were none in his magnum opus.
  • Inspire a single, authoritative gospel – It’s hard to have contradictions in a single narrative! This solution may not be as ideal as you don’t have three more gospels which could theoretically provide additional corroboration, but you could also have the account supported by extrabiblical evidence (hell, it would be nice to have this with the current gospels).
  • Combine the book with signs that could only come from God – Here’s an idea that also doesn’t require changing the Bible as it is, it just gives it some extra divine oomph. Anyone remember 90’s PC games and their analog anti-piracy measures? You might have to go to a certain page and count a certain number of words, and that would be the password to allow you access. What if God came to you in a dream and said, “You know that Bible on your shelf? On page 769, the fourth word from the top is ‘Verily.'” If that actually matches, that would be hard to rationalize away, right? How could you coincidentally hallucinate that exact word on that exact page? There may still be skeptics (as there will be for any evidence), but most people would find this hard to explain away.

There you have it! Three easy ways to fix troublesome problems with the Bible. Next time, God should check with me first – I promise to keep my consulting fees reasonable!

Moses Died for Your Sins: An Alternate Timeline

Things are looking grim for the people of Israel. Oppressed by a foreign power, they seek a great leader who will break their chains of bondage. Finally, the man himself arrives! Not only does he perform great miracles, he provides his people instructions on how to live a life pleasing to God.

Jesus Christ? No, the man is Moses, and I would like to propose a way that God could have saved a lot of time (and given us a much more concise Bible) by making Moses the savior of humanity.

Picture the backstory: we’re only a few chapters into the Bible, and sin is already wreaking havoc on God’s creation. God has already tried and failed to cut off the infection by firebombing Sodom and Gomorrah and rebooting all life on Earth with the Great Flood. Is the solution to create a temporary fix which will redeem only one specific people? Why not sent the savior of humanity now, instead of waiting a few thousand years?

In the Bible, Moses speaks to Pharaoh on behalf of his people, Pharaoh finally lets the Israelites go after ten plagues, but he still pursues them until Moses parts the Red Sea and closes it on the Egyptian army. I’d like to propose an alternate scenario that is essentially similar, but with a few key tweaks.

In my scenario, Moses is the Son of God. His birth narrative in Exodus is already pretty unlikely, floating down the Nile in a basket and allowed to survive when all other Israelite sons were being killed. We just need to make him born of a virgin to give him a truly miraculous origin story.

The story proceeds from there until Moses is grown and makes his escape into Midian. In a classic hero’s journey trope, he encounters God in the burning bush, where he learns of his divine provenance. God then instructs Moses to not only be Israel’s liaison to Pharaoh, but to beseech the Israelites to turn from their sinful ways (as Moses will do in the Sinai anyway) and follow Jehovah only. Moses obeys, performing signs and wonders to prove that God has sent him.

When the time comes for the tenth and final plague, Israel is not spared by painting their doors with blood. Rather, Moses allows himself to be captured by Pharaoh, who has once again had his heart hardened by God. The next morning, Pharaoh executes him, an innocent man, just as the spirit of the Lord passes over Egypt. The firstborn of Israel are spared by Moses’ sacrifice, but the firstborn of Egypt are not. The people of Israel now escape thanks to the distraction.

They proceed to the Red Sea, where they find themselves trapped between the army of Egypt and the water. Suddenly, Moses reappears! He has defeated death, and proceeds to part the Red Sea and allow Israel to pass through, closing it again over the pursuing Egyptians. Safe on the other side, Moses presents God’s message to his people and all of humanity: accept Moses into your heart, repent of your sins and you will be saved.

This alternate scenario solves a number of problems with the overarching biblical narrative. Many stumbling blocks are removed from prospective believers – God never commands genocide, never demands the stoning of homosexuals, never condones slavery or allows slaves to be beaten. You no longer have to cherry pick which Levitical laws are important (gays are bad but blended fabrics are fine?). You no longer have to contrast the vengeful Old Testament God with the loving New Testament God and wonder how an “unchanging” god has changed. Most importantly, millions more souls have the opportunity to be made right with God sooner.

Meta-Question: Why a Book?

Photo: John Snyder

Every discussion we might ever have about Christianity comes back to the Bible. It is the ultimate source of Christian doctrine, and as such Christians cling to it tenaciously. We can, and do, argue endlessly about interpreting the Bible literally or metaphorically, about it’s historical accuracy, and about it’s original authorship, but there’s a bigger question here that overshadows all of these.

Why would a God, with the most important message of all time, with the power to communicate it any way he choose, choose to transmit this message via the printed word? A book is relatively slow to transmit, easy to cherry-pick and misinterpret, and every translation into another language runs the risk of losing the nuance of the original. A book may appear to be “just another magic book” when compared to the Quran, the Vedas, the Agamas, the Guru Granth Sahib, the Avesta, the Book of Mormon, Dianetics, the Tao Te Ching, and on and on.

This is God we’re talking about here! If he wants to set himself apart from all the impostor gods out there, he should do something no other god could do! He could appear to everyone, personally, under no uncertain terms – speaking to them directly in their own language, so clearly that his message could not be misunderstood. I’ve heard it argued that it would be a violation of free will for God to appear in person, because how could you not choose God once you’ve basked in his glory?

Well, a skeptic could easily remain hard-hearted and dismiss the appearance as a dream or hallucination. Furthermore, we know Lucifer and his rebel angels were once in God’s presence, and yet they still chose to turn against him. God’s personal appearance would do no more to take away our free will than Jesus appearing to his disciples took away their free will.

Instead, we’re left with just another magic book. How are we to ascribe divine qualities to a message presented in the most human of methods?