As many of you know, my next book is not a Pocket Guide, but a more personal book from Zondervan titled O Me of Little Faith: True Confessions of a Spiritual Weakling. It’s about my personal struggles with spiritual doubt — where they come from, what kind of impact the have, and how I’m learning to admit and even embrace them.
There are a lot of things that cause me — and others — to doubt, from circumstances and stress to unanswered prayer to the perceived absence of God. In my experience, all of those are legitimate sources of spiritual uncertainty, but they’re manageable. I can handle those, because they’re all tied to my human perspective, which changes.
But one of the biggest sources of doubt — and the kind that’s hardest to deal with — is doubt based on the history of Christianity and the trustworthiness of the Bible. These kinds of doubts aren’t new for me. I’ve had them since late high school, when I started reading the Bible more seriously. (And eventually writing a book about the Bible didn’t help.)
A few days back, I asked you guys to discuss hell and eternal punishment, and asked how we should answer when people have big, messy afterlife questions. Today I have a new question: What do we do when the Bible seems (worst-case scenario) to contradict itself…or (best-case) is really unclear about an important event? What do we do when the historical accuracy of the Bible is a big question mark?
I’ll give you an example. Consider the account of the empty tomb in the four Gospels. This, of course, is a vital event in Christianity, but as many skeptics and scholars have pointed out over the years, the four Gospels each offer different and conflicting details about what happened. Here’s what we get:
The women arrive at the tomb and seem to see an angel roll the stone away from the tomb — while they are there. Then the angel sits on the stone, in an interesting bit of detail. The guards see the angel and become afraid. The angel tells them Jesus has risen.
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen.” Matthew 28:1-6
The women head to the tomb and are worried about rolling the stone away, but it’s already been moved when they get there. Inside the tomb, they see a man in white clothes who tells them Jesus has risen.
As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here.” Mark 16:5-6
The women discover the stone rolled away from the tomb. Inside, they meet two men in gleaming clothes. These men tell them Jesus has risen.
They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” Luke 24:2-6
The women find the stone rolled away, think Jesus’ body has been stolen, and flee to get Peter and another disciple. Then those two disciples return to the tomb, enter it, and discover that it’s empty.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” John 20:1-2
So the testimonies about what the disciples discover at the tomb are all different. In Matthew, the women hear from an angel sitting on the stone. In Mark, the women see a man inside the tomb. In Luke, the women see two men inside the tomb. In John, the women see the tomb and take off, so Peter and the other disciple are the ones who enter the tomb. They don’t find angels, but do find evidence that the body is gone.
These aren’t just stories with different minor details reported. These are stories that seem in conflict with each other. What impact does this have on your faith? Should it have an impact? How do you deal with it?
The most common “explanation” for discrepancies like this one — between different biblical accounts of the same event — is that each one is only giving part of the picture. That each witness or Gospel writer is telling part of the story. So what you have to do is take the full story — the full biblical account — and assemble all the accounts together and that’s how you get accurate historical detail. (Therefore, in the example above, we conclude that there must have been two men/angels in the tomb, though Mark only mentions one…and at one point, apparently, one of them sat down on the stone, as Matthew reports. And John just didn’t find it important enough to mention either of the angels.)
I’ll be honest. That explanation doesn’t satisfy me completely, because the underlying idea behind it is that neither Gospel is complete or authoritative. What you have to have is the full story by way of some comprehensive “fifth” Gospel we put together ourselves, outside the New Testament, using all the details from the four actual Gospels — a “Gospel” only available to us centuries later as readers of the four Gospels in tandem. So is it only that fifth Gospel that’s inspired and inerrant and authoritative? Is that really how it’s supposed to work? Because if so, it completely diminishes the perspective of the original authors, each of whom were writing separate from each other, without knowing they’d eventually be compiled into the New Testament alongside other versions of the story. (This is a point Bart Ehrman discusses in Jesus, Interrupted, which I reviewed here.)
Anyway, enough rambling. The point is that there are some biblical issues that aren’t easily explained away. How do you deal with these? Do you let them impact your faith? If so, to what extent?