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Why Should We Believe the Bible?
Part 1 of 2
In light of the fact that there are so many “holy books” out there in the spiritual marketplace, why should we believe the Bible? Isn’t it possible that this collection of ancient documents is really just a work of pious fiction or the ramblings of mad men? If you’ve never thought about ideas like these, be assured that some of your neighbors have. Whenever I’ve asked questions of this kind on various college campuses, I’ve found that many of today’s students tend to view the Bible this way — which is why they don’t end up trusting its claims or following its advice.
So what about you? Have you thought deeply about the foundation of your faith? Have you taken the time to put your convictions to the test? Now at this point, it must be said that there are a lot of Christians who believe this approach to be an impious affair. We don’t need to think through questions like this, because, well, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” But in an increasingly pluralistic culture, this form of dogmatism simply isn’t persuasive. How would such a person making such a statement respond to a Muslim friend who insists that “The Qur’an says it, I believe it, and that settles it!” In either case, what appears to settle the argument is personal faith, but the question to pose in each of these situations is why a person should have this particular faith, in contrast to all the other faith options?
In 1Thes 5:21, Paul encourages Christian believers to “Test all things,” and to “hold on to the good.” Similarly, in 1Jn 4:1 we’re instructed “not to believe every spirit,” but instead to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” But how are we to test the spirits, and how is a person to distinguish between true and false prophets? This first text I’d like you to consider as you think about this important question is the fascinating scene from Exodus chapter 3, in which God appears to Moses at the site of the burning bush.
After he was appointed to announce God’s message of liberation to the elders of Israel, the former prince of Egypt began to consider the complete implausibility of his own story — particularly in light of the fact that he recently had a conversation with a talking bush! So this led Moses to ask, “What if they will not believe me or listen to what I say?” (Ex 4:1). If you’re familiar with the story, you’ll remember that God never rebuked him for asking such a question. Instead, he promised to empower Moses to perform a variety of signs and wonders which would have the effect of confirming the authenticity of his words: “If they will not believe you nor pay attention to the evidence of the first sign, they may believe the evidence of the last sign” (Ex. 4:8, NASB). Now, when Moses did finally report all that God revealed to the elders of Israel, we’re told that he “performed the signs in the sight of the people,” just as God instructed. And the end result was that “the people believed” (Ex 4:29-31 NASB). In other words, from the very beginning, biblical faith was never seen as a kind of “spiritual sixth sense,” or “blind leap in the dark,” but was always presented as a trustworthy and reliable conviction, grounded in external evidence and real-world events.
Notice what happens later at the foot of Mt. Sinai as recorded in Exodus chapters 19 and 20. Speaking to Moses, God declares, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever” (19:9). Soon after this, God descended upon the mountain just as he had promised:
On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder…Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (Ex 19:16-19; 20:18-19).
Now, if the events described here really occurred, then the people of Israel who gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai wouldn’t have had any reason to doubt God’s existence. They would have walked through the waters of the Red Sea, and would have seen with their own eyes the great cloud descend upon Mount Sinai, and they would have heard God’s voice with their own ears. But what’s particularly interesting is the fact that according to Ex 19:9, the signs and wonders seen at Mt. Sinai served not only to prove to the Israelites that God really existed, but also had the secondary effect of establishing Moses’ authority as well. When the people “hear when I speak with you,” God told Moses, they will have a sure foundation to “believe you forever.”
Why did so many generations of Israelites come to believe that Moses spoke for God, and why did they end up concluding that the words he wrote down were divinely inspired? I believe the explanation is found here in Exodus. You see, Moses was directly involved in all the miracles witnessed by the Israelites. When he struck the water of the Nile with his staff, it turned to blood (Ex 7:20); when he raised his staff over the sea, the waters were divided (Ex 14:21); the people witnessed the pillar of cloud and fire and heard God’s voice as he spoke directly with Moses. None of these things could be explained naturally, which is why they ended up concluding that his writings were authoritative and inspired, which is why they copied them with such great care and taught them diligently to their children, and their children’s children. Of course, if you’re wondering whether the entire account has simply been made up, hold that thought for a moment. At this point, I just want you to consider the specific claims that the Bible itself is making.
Instructions Concerning Future Prophets
In a few places in the book of Deuteronomy, God promises to send other prophets who will speak his word and shepherd his people. But the question arises, how will the people of Israel be able to distinguish true prophets from false and deceptive ones? God addresses this issue specifically by giving two criteria for determining authentic prophets, the first of which appears in the first 5 verses of chapter 13:
If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery…
The basic thrust of this passage is that even if a person is somehow able to perform what appears to be a miraculous sign, according to the Bible, he is still to be rejected as a false prophet if he ends up leading the people to worship foreign gods. In short, a prophet’s teaching must be consistent with all that God had already revealed through his servant Moses. He must lead them to the exclusive worship of Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The second criteria is found in Deuteronomy 18:17-22:
The LORD said to [Moses], “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.
In this passage, the people of Israel are specifically warned about false prophets, and are warned not to immediately trust those who merely claim to speak for God. Rather, they were instructed to reserve their judgment until a prophet’s words concerning future events were actually verified. Notice that the people of Israel were not instructed to pray for a kind of “burning in the bosom,” or any form of religious experience as a test of truth. They were also never told to put the words of a potential prophet into practice to see whether doing so would increase their own prosperity. Instead, they were specifically instructed to look for objective evidence that a prophet was able to describe future events before they occurred. This is how Israel was called to distinguish between true and false prophets.
Once again, a close examination of this foundational biblical story ends up revealing that from the very beginning, Israel’s faith was anything but blind. As Moses records, the people of Israel were not only encouraged to exercise discernment, since false prophecy was a very real threat, but they were also instructed to look for supernatural signs which served to authenticate and establish the inspiration and authority of any person who claimed to speak for God.
A few decades ago, a man by the name of Neale Donald Walsch claimed that as he was writing out his concerns in a letter addressed to God, to his utter astonishment, God began to take over his pen and answer him back. According to Walsch, God told him that “leaders, ministers, books, and even the Bible itself are not authoritative sources.” Instead, he was told, “Listen to your feelings...Listen to your experience. Whenever any one of these differ from what you've been told by your teachers, or read in your books, forget the words. Words are the least reliable purveyors of truth.” Ironically, of course, Walsch then wrote down these words in a book, which eventually became a bestseller. But think about how this account violates both criteria from Deuteronomy. First of all, we’re told to forget the words of all other teachers and books, which of course would include the writings of Moses and the rest of the Bible. Secondly, Walsch never provided any external evidence that he was actually speaking for God — instead, his readers were simply encouraged to turn inward, to trust their subjective feelings.
There also happens to be interesting passage in the Qur’an in which Mohammed asks Allah what he should say if the people who demand signs and wonders in order to prove that he really is an inspired prophet. Allah then tells Mohammed to respond to such people by saying, “The signs belong to Allah, and I am only a public preacher.” “Is it not enough,” Allah went on to say, “that we have revealed to you the Book which is recited to them?” (Q29 50-51, Shakir). In short, no signs were to be given — nothing outside the Qur’an itself attests to its supernatural character and authority. As in the case of Neale Donald Walsch, it is merely an assertion asking to be believed.
What’s odd is the fact that so many people in our day, whether believers or unbelievers, seem to think that this is the approach we find in the Bible. It’s not a question of evidence, but personal faith. In fact, you’ll sometimes hear Christians themselves making the claim that the words of scripture are “self-authenticating.” Personally, I don’t believe this is a good way to summarize the material we just looked at from the book of Deuteronomy. What we find there instead is that the words of a true prophet were to be externally authenticated, by comparing a given utterance with things that would later come to pass.
I will grant that often it’s a later book of the Bible that ends up recording the historical fulfillment of earlier prophetic utterances — which is perhaps what some people mean when they speak of the self-authenticating nature of Scripture. To put it another way, if you study the all the texts of Scripture, in the same way that you might look at all the collected documents related to an important public trial, all the recorded facts of the case become clear and self-evident. However, I’m convinced that when we use this language of the self-authenticating nature of Scripture, I think we end up communicating something closer to the statement made by Allah in the Qur’an.
From the very beginning, the Bible insisted that a person’s internal feelings were not the proper way to authenticate the words of an inspired prophet. Rather, the biblical approach always promoted external and objective means of confirming the supernatural character of true prophetic speech. These two criteria, then, from Deuteronomy 13 and 18 served to guide Israel throughout the centuries as she evaluated the messages of those who rose up within her ranks claiming to speak for God. A true prophet was one who continued to promote the exclusive worship of Yahweh, and who accurately described future events before they happened.
Click here to read Part 2 of this post.