I had always known about them. They were always there, lurking in the corners of Scripture, waiting for discovery, waiting to become catalysts of ignorant doubt; of the questionings of God and His Word.
Problem passages. Those passages that, at first, and even second glance, seemed to pose real, spiritual problems: doctrinal difficulties, or contradictions of known facts about the world, or even of other passages in scripture! But always, there’s an answer, for those willing to look below “just the surface;” for those with the mustard-seed faith to trust at least enough to ask God: “Lord, show me the answers I’m not seeing.” By responding with the humility to seek God and have faith that there is more to these seeming difficulties than first meets the eye, I allow God to open His vaults of wisdom, to grant me a mere kernel of insight, of greater knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of His Word. Rather than becoming jaded and disillusioned, I will instead become a little stronger, a little more secure, in the knowledge that God’s Word is perfect. God’s Word never fails.
Take a popular example; James’ words in the latter half of the second chapter of his book seem to fly in the face of Paul’s constant assertions that Christians are saved through faith, not by our deeds (Eph 2:8-9): “faith without deeds is useless” (Jas 2:20), “faith without deeds is dead” (2:26), “What good is it… if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” (2:14), and fatally, “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (2:24). (The scriptural concept of “justification” is approximately equal to, or at least strongly tied with, salvation.)
Is there any conceivable answer to this? Is it even remotely possible to reconcile these blatant contradictions?
And yet, when one humbles himself before the Lord, and honestly and open-mindedly seeks the answer to this mystery, acknowledging that there is or at least may be one, one is greeted with the clear, sound, answer. A closer scrutiny of James’ second chapter reveals that, in fact, James seems to be quite careful to never actually say what at first glance he seems to be: that salvation is obtained by our deeds, rather than by faith. Even the “inescapable” verse 24 says that “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (emphasis added). The other verses never actually say that faith is useless, or that faith is dead—only that it is that way when unaccompanied by works. The language in verse 14, “claims to have faith…”, and the previously unmentioned verse 17, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead,” (both with my emphasis), make it clear that James is in fact arguing that faith must be combined with works, otherwise it isn’t genuine faith at all.
You see what happened? We encountered a scriptural passage that seemed at first to so clearly contradict other scriptures, as to spell certain doom to the concept that the Word of God is inerrant (and therefore entirely consistent); and yet, through trusting in God’s Wisdom, we see that even the impossible is made plainly true. And so I may start to become convinced that no matter the difficulty, a plain and reasonable explanation is available for every apparent scriptural problem.
Less plain, less reasonable
And so, on my faith in the absolute infallibility of the Scripture continues. But, over time, I start to accumulate some other difficult passages. These still have ready answers, easily obtained from spiritually mature, well-versed Christians. Yet some of these answers don’t sit quite as comfortably as I’m accustomed to.
Jesus anointed by a woman
For example, the gospels of Matthew (26:6-16), Mark (14:3-11), Luke (7:36-50), and John (12:1-10) all give stories of a woman who anoints Jesus with expensive perfume from an alabaster jar while he eats at the home of a man named Simon (except John, who doesn’t mention whose house it is). However, in Matthew, Mark, and John’s version,
- Simon is a Pharisee (Matt. and Mark; not mentioned by John)
- The event is clearly placed immediately prior to Jesus’ betrayal (a week before, according to John). Jesus declares it as being early burial preparations.
- The disciples complain about wasting such expensive oil, when it could’ve been sold for charity.
In Luke’s version, however,
- Simon is a leper
- The event is clearly placed well before the Last Supper, as Jesus is then described as “[a]fter this” having plenty of time to travel about from village to village, giving sermons and parables.
- The complaint is from Simon, regarding the character of the woman performing the anointing, and from Simon’s other guests, regarding Jesus’ audacious presumption to forgive the woman of her sins.
Now, of course, the point is immediately made that Simon could have been both a leper and a Pharisee, or could have been a leper in the past and retained the designation after having been healed, which is fair enough. And, of course, it could be true that both Simon and his guests and the disciples were all feeling relatively gripey that evening.
The time presents a larger problem; usually the claim is put forth that the gospels aren’t in chronological order. That’d be fine, except that all four gospels use very specific wording that places it immediately before the next-described event; in the case of Matthew, Mark and John, the betrayal and Last Supper, with Jesus going to Jerusalem for the week of Passover the very next day (it’s clear that he was in Jerusalem for the full week of Passover); and in the case of Luke, a traveling outreach ministry of preaching “from one town and village to another,” specifically using the words “[a]fter this” (referring to the anointing). He couldn’t have done both.
This still leaves the possibility that Luke is referring to an entirely separate incident. This is probably the most promising explanation, but it still smells a lot less plausible than a simple explanation that one or more of the gospel writers simply varied the story a bit (there seem to be several passages in this category within the Bible).
And can Paul really not have been as sexist as he appears to be when in 1 Corinthians 14:33b-35 he says:
As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.
Or how about in 1 Timothy 2:11-15?
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
(There are comparatively very few churches, in the US at least, that interpret these passages as literally and as plainly as Paul lays them out. Apparently, this is one of those cases where frequently even Christians’ faith is unequal to the task of taking God’s Word at its word. Note, too, that there are plenty of other places in Paul’s writings where he makes statements that are very depreciative towards women; I’ve simply chosen a couple obvious examples.)
The answers to this one are various, and include justifications from the viewpoint of cultural norms, and explanations that the men and women were segregated in the churches and therefore the women would have to shout questions across at the men or discuss it amongst themselves during the service (which, of course, still fails to address the issue of men who might wish to ask questions—why aren’t they admonished to keep quiet?). This is usually coupled with misdirection in the form of pointing out that the Bible isn’t really sexist, because look at how Jesus went against the cultural grain in how he treated the women he came in contact with! (Of course, the existence of chivalry in one part of the Bible can’t somehow cancel out chauvinism in another part.)
And none of this really deals with the style in which Paul delivers his instructions, which, particularly in the 1 Timothy passage, seems abundantly, clearly, vitriolic and depreciative towards women. I mean, is it just me, or did he just place the bulk of humankind’s greatest supposed calamity squarely on the shoulders of womankind, placing their value at little more than vessels for childbirth, while deriding them as ignorant and gullible in comparison with men? Christians are quick to point out that the pain of childbirth was Eve’s punishment for her part in the fall, and that Paul applauds some specific women elsewhere in his writings; but that does little for me in the way of offsetting the acidity in this passage.
Dead or alive?
Matthew (9:18-26), Mark (5:22-43) and Luke (8:41-56) all tell a story of Jairus, a synagogue ruler, who approaches Jesus and asks him to heal his deathly ill daughter, but en route is interrupted by a woman who avails herself of Jesus’ healing power to cure herself of vaginal bleeding. Many critics of the Bible, when examining this passage, will focus on the fact that Jesus claims the girl is not dead, but only lies sleeping, whereas the mourners “knew her to be dead”; but that argument does not bear close scrutiny particularly well.
Instead, I’d like to focus on the fact that the gospel stories don’t agree on whether Jairus himself believed his daughter to have died or merely still on the point of death. Mark and Luke both clearly describe Jairus as believing that his daughter was or at least might be still alive at the time he came to Jesus. Luke says that Jairus came to him “because his only daughter… was dying,” and Mark specifically says that Jairus said, “My little daughter is dying.” It is then clearly news to him when, after the woman is healed of her bleeding, a messenger arrives to describe his daughter to him as dead, and advise him to leave Jesus alone now as there’s nothing to be done. Jesus then reassures him that He is able to heal her, and continues on to do just that.
Matthew, on the other hand, presents Jairus as already knowing his daughter to be dead, saying to Jesus, “My daughter has just died. But come and put your hand on her, and she will live.” The story of the bleeding woman is then relayed, and Jesus then goes to Jairus’ house to resurrect the daughter.
Are there answers? Sure, but none of them really fit. You could try to claim that Jairus’ words in Matthew were uttered after he received the news that his daughter was dead… but Mark and Luke both clearly indicate that this news was received after the bleeding woman received her healing, whereas the Matthew account has him saying these words to Jesus before that event. You can fix this by saying there was more than one messenger, one coming after and one coming before the healed woman, and have Jairus say these words after hearing from the first messenger, but then why would Jesus need to reassure Jairus upon hearing the “news” that his daughter was dead (since he already knew that)?
Finally, since Matthew never actually names the synagogue ruler as Jairus, as both Mark and Luke do, one could again try to claim that it’s actually a different ruler with a similar story. Of course, one would also have to accept the coincidence of a bleeding woman who touched Jesus’ clothes to obtain instant healing, and Jesus having arrived in the town by crossing the lake in a boat in both instances.
Adding it all up
I’ve already written about the problems with the story of Jesus healing a centurion’s servant.
The thing is, over time a devout student of God’s Word slowly accumulates many different passages like the ones I’ve described. Many of them have easier explanations than some of the ones I’ve presented here, and some of those explanations, perhaps like the problem in James we encountered, can even be resolved to utter satisfaction.
Many others, however, just plain don’t “sit right”. you can explain them away to a sort of uneasy satisfaction, but you have that tiny prick in your conscience that tells you that you’ve just made some major leaps in reasoning. Having been raised in a very loving, caring, and understanding Christian family, and experiencing the rapture of God’s great love every time I sat at the piano to lead the congregation to express through music my adoration and devotion to our Wonderful, Merciful God, there was an intense amount of emotional pressure within myself to find any way to rectify these problems. For that reason, I generally wouldn’t spend an awful lot of energy trying to resolve them; I would get just enough of an answer to satisfy myself that, surely, there was a more complete version of the answer if I’d just take the time to pursue it.
In my field of Software Engineering, though, I am frequently exposed to real exercises in logic and reasoning—though I’m also quite frequently exposed to computer programmers and the like that are extremely poor with logic and reasoning: nerds are a strange breed. However, as one of a particularly eccentric flavor of nerd who enjoys things like reading several-hundred-page programming language specifications, and then debating with other “language lawyers” over some of the fine nuances of what the implications of some small strip of text means, and whether a particular, minor behavioral idiosyncrasy on the part of a language implementation is “conforming” or not, I have over time gained a sharper understanding of just what sorts of arguments are reasonable, and what sorts are clearly fallacious. It is very like arguing theological points, and we use our language specifications as our Bibles.
The difference is, we know our “Bible” to have been written by fallible humans, and when we see something that, after careful reasoning, is either excessively vague or in direct contradiction with other passages in the specification, we acknowledge it to be human error (and lobby the specification committee to resolve the problem).
Over time, in reading the Bible and asking God to explain His wisdom to me, I started to notice more and more acutely that the sorts of reasoning and arguments I was employing to justify scriptural accounts and instructions to myself, or that I was accepting from other, knowledgeable Christians, were precisely the sorts of incredible reasoning and pseudo-logic that I would never actually accept from anyone about anything else. In fact, for the most part, I wouldn’t even accept it in explanation of the very same problem or circumstance, if it were alleged to be happening today. I had become a hypocrite, willing to employ selective judgment as to what varieties of arguments were justifiable, depending on what they were intended to justify.
After encountering the centurion story discrepancies, I became very disturbed, and troubled in my spirit. So, like a mature and obedient Christian, I immediately turned to God for help, in constant prayer and anguish, and meditation on Scripture. I read more Scripture to give God the opportunity to use them to answer my prayers and my questions, but instead of receiving insight and peace, I would immediately encounter more problem passages (I was in Luke at the time, which apparently has several inconsistencies with the other gospels). So then I’d have more questions for God, with no answers. At some point, I had to stop reading as frequently and intensively, as I was already overloaded with difficult passages. And all this time, I never heard God’s voice.
After about six months, I no longer struggled with God’s word; it was clear that at least a few of the problem passages could not be explained away by reason: they were, in fact, bona fide problems. After a lifetime of faith built upon the constancy and inerrancy of the Bible, I accepted the fact that the Bible could not have been inerrant, on the grounds that it wasn’t even internally consistent or reconcilable.
And so began another six months, of possibly deeper anguish. My entire life had been built upon the Bible: was my faith now to be discarded? I still sought the Lord’s answer every day, pleading with Him to give me the answer that would lead me to His peace. I didn’t believe in the Bible any longer; could I yet believe in Jesus as the Son of God, as my Lord and Savior? But what about the clear Scriptural principles of spreading the gospel to all others, and the doctrine of salvation through faith in Christ alone?
Clearly, I could no longer attempt to convince those I met that Christianity was the only way to escape eternal damnation, when the very foundation of that belief had crumbled away. The best I could hope for was the sort of liberal Christianity I’d been raised to disdain. A Christianity that held the Bible as a book of stories and guidelines, but not as Gospel Truth; that held Jesus to be a not-necessarily-historical figure but an excellent model nonetheless. But I still clamored for the Christianity I wanted: a conservative Evangelical Christianity.
So, another six months, spent every day with total uncertainty of what I believed, what I could live for—my very identity. I made no progress at all in that time; in the meantime, I was still in a position of some leadership in my church, leading praise songs for God, still heartfelt—in fact, in some ways, more heartfelt than ever before, as I was also crying out to God for His spiritual healing. I would still waver back and forth in my own mind as to what I believed, whether Jesus could be my Savior. I wanted to step down from my position, as I felt like such a hypocrite; and yet, I would frequently lapse into temporary confidence and assurance that I could yet trust Jesus, and God, and that perhaps there was even still hope for resolution of the scriptural problems I’d seen.
But after six months of this anguishing, of laying awake at night in mental and emotional battle for my spiritual wellfare, I realized: enough is enough. After half a year of day-to-day madness, I can, at the very least, no longer pretend to myself, and to everyone else, that I believe in Jesus. I didn’t yet disbelieve Him, and yet, I clearly didn’t have a strong and substantial belief in Him.
So, just before Easter of 2006, I withdrew from my position, and from participation, at the church I had been attending. I announced my lack of faith to the people at the church with whom I had regular contact, and to my family. Even as I announced my loss of faith, I had hoped that God, if He was real, would take it as the cue to reveal Himself to me anew, and my tumultuous period of doubt and disbelief would serve as an exercise in character-strengthening. But the release was palpable. I felt my spirit at peace again, my burden lifted from me. I even experienced the familiar signs of God’s guidance (or so I’d always interpreted it before), a “peace” about the step I was about to take.
And, although I didn’t, on that day, actually disbelieve in Jesus and the teachings of the Bible (as opposed to the details of some accounts within the Bible), yet the action of making myself plain, of shedding the façade of faith that I’d been wearing, and of publicly acknowledging that I didn’t have an actual faith in these things, freed me to admit to myself the self-deception I had put myself through regarding what I had previously interpreted as God’s interventions, of miraculous more-than-coincidences, and God’s teaching and guiding voice that I’d always “heard” so clearly. In a matter of a handful of days, I could no longer even really claim a lack of disbelief in Jesus. I had become firmly convinced that the God of Christianity was not real.
So, what if I’m wrong? What if God is real, He’s the God the Bible says he is, and the minor discrepancies in the Bible are really just minor discrepancies? What if, upon shedding my mortal coil upon this earth, I am confronted with the prospect of eternal suffering in the unending fires of Hell?
If that’s the case, then how can God claim to be good? I desperately wanted to believe, to continue having a relationship with Almighty God as my Daddy. If He gave me the gift of faith (Eph 2:8), then He also took it away from me, and despite every indication in the Scriptures to the contrary, refused to hear my cry, answer my call, or respond to my prayers. I did not choose to become an unbeliever, because I did not choose to stop believing. What I chose to do was look a little too closely at Biblical passages that do not bear such scrutiny, and lost the evidence upon which I might have based faith. Without any foundation for belief, it ceased to be a matter of choice: no matter how desperately I desired it, I could not choose to believe in something without a basis for belief.