It may happen in school or at the workplace—or maybe even standing in line for a movie. The tone may be hostile or sincere. The challenge may take many forms: “Why do you believe in God?” “The Bible is full of myths!” “Do you really think all those miracle stories are true?”
What do you say when someone challenges you about your belief in the Bible? As Christians we all need to be ready to answer such a challenge (1 Peter 3:15-16). The Bible is the bedrock of our faith, and any challenge to our faith ultimately leads back to the truth of the Bible.
Now if we really examine ourselves, most of us would probably say that the reason we believe the Bible is that it speaks to our heart. We have the testimony of the Holy Spirit inside us confirming the Bible’s validity. It just rings true.
Very good. But what about the person who doesn’t have the Holy Spirit? Do we just tell him or her, “Read the Bible and ask God to speak to you?” Is that really “giving an answer,” as Peter tells us to do? We should definitely encourage people to read the Bible and ask God to speak to them, but we should also be able to give some “reasons” for why they should seriously consider the truth of the Bible. We should be ready to cast down arguments (1 Corinthians 10:5 NIV), to strike a blow against the deceptions that people have believed about the Bible, the obstacles that can keep them from coming to the truth.
So let’s look at some of those reasons for belief. Obviously we can’t deal here with every argument against the Bible that someone may introduce. But we can present some basic evidence to support the Bible being true. Let’s get started.
The best place to focus in defending the Bible’s truth is the gospels. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are central to our faith (1 Corinthians 15:3). Not only that, but they fulfill what was spoken of in the Old Testament. Add to this the fact that Jesus quoted the Old Testament as God’s Word, and the result is that confirming the accounts of Jesus in the gospels confirms the whole Bible!
So why believe the gospels? For the same reason that we would believe the testimony of an eyewitness in a court of law, especially if that testimony stands up under cross examination. Matthew and John were disciples of Jesus. Mark’s gospel, from all we know, is the story of Jesus as told to Mark by the apostle Peter. And Luke was an investigative reporter who talked to many eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry.
Naturally, critics of the Bible have tried to show that the gospels were not really written by the people whose names they bear. But the weight of the historical evidence points to their claimed authorship being genuine. And the character of the gospels itself points to their being genuine.
Here’s what I mean. We believe that Julius Caesar existed and did certain things. But how do we know that what we believe about him is true—or the things we believe about Socrates or Alexander the Great or any other historical figure? The reason we believe these things is because of the historical documents. Sometimes for a historical person there are also monuments or inscriptions, coins with the person’s image and so forth, but sometimes not. Sometimes all we have are the writings of other people about that historical person.
But how do we decide if historical documents are true? Some might be made-up stories, legends, etc. That’s where we examine what the documents have to say. Do they bear the marks of being myths, frauds or fanciful tales? And how do they stack up against other things we know about that historical period?
Myths, legends, frauds...or historical truth?
If the gospels are not true historical accounts, then what are they? There are a few different possibilities:
1. They could be myths or other entertaining stories. One of the main characteristics of myths is their entertainment value. Myths were the ancient world’s version of sci-fi or fantasy stories. Their purpose was to transport the hearer to a world of amazing feats, fantastic monsters and magical happenings.
The gospels don’t follow the definition of myths because they claim to be historical reports about events in the time and place (first-century Palestine) of the authors and their audience. They also include lots of historical details—names of known rulers and places, even long genealogies (those of Jesus). Myths don’t normally contain these things—certainly they don’t include them to the same extent as historical writings. Myths usually pretend to be about things that happened “a long time ago in a galaxy far away” (to use an example of today’s myth-making)—or at least somehow removed from the here and now.
And the long genealogies of Christ show that entertainment was not the primary goal of the gospels. Let’s face it, those genealogies are boring. But that’s a mark of a sober historical report, rather than something made up just to be entertaining.
It’s true that the gospels contain some amazing happenings—walking on water, resurrections from the dead, etc. But these are isolated incidents in the context of a lot of material about Jesus’ teachings and other everyday events. Most of Jesus’ miracles—healings, multiplying bread and fish, etc.—were pretty restrained compared to the few that are really spectacular, like stilling a storm or raising a dead person. A myth-maker would go for the big, spectacular miracle every time.
Contrast the gospels with Buddhist writings about the life of the Buddha and you’ll see how the Buddhist writers went all out trying to invent fantastic tales about what the Buddha did. Not so with the gospels. They weren’t written as myth.
2. If they’re not myths, then maybe the gospels were legends, tales of some ordinary religious teacher that got embellished with stories of miracles as they were retold down through time.
The biggest problem with this idea is that there was not enough time for embellishment. All the evidence shows that the gospels were written within one generation of the life of Christ. So there wouldn’t have been a lot of passing the story down from one person to another, especially since the authors had been living at the very time when the incidents they wrote about happened!
In addition to the fact that the incidents reported in the gospels were recent when the gospels were written, those incidents were also public. This includes many of Jesus’ miracles. These two important facts make it very unlikely that the gospels could have been accepted as true if they were not substantially true. People would still have been around who knew what really happened—lots of people, since many of the events occurred in front of large crowds. If the events were false, they would probably have been exposed as false. This is all the more true since there were people at the time like the Jewish leaders who had strong motives for proving the stories to be false if they could have done so.
It’s as if someone today, in 2007, claimed that Elvis, when he was alive, raised people from the dead and cured lepers and blind men, all in front of crowds of people. Not only that, but they named the specific towns where some of these miracles occurred. If someone wanted to disprove these claims, all they would have to do is go to one of these towns and talk to people who lived there. “Yeah, I remember when Elvis came here and did a concert. I was at the concert. A guy raised from the dead? No, I didn’t see anybody being raised from the dead. Didn’t even hear about anything like that.”
Compare the gospels with the Book of Mormon, for example, and you’ll see the glaring difference: the events in the gospels are said to have occurred in the time and place of those who would have been reading them when they were first written. The events in the Book of Mormon, by contrast, are said to have occurred in the distant past, in another part of the world from where Joseph Smith first published it.
3. Finally there’s the possibility that the gospels were a deliberate fraud, a massive hoax. This immediately raises the question, “If they were a fraud, what was the purpose of this fraud?” The most obvious purpose would be that some cult leader or group of leaders wanted to legitimize themselves as leaders of their movement. Using such propaganda has been a common practice of many cult leaders throughout history.
But if that was the purpose, the gospels went about it in a very strange way. Yes, in the gospels Jesus chose twelve disciples who went on to become church leaders. So in that sense the gospels promote those leaders. But if the gospels were written solely for the purpose of promoting the leadership of the twelve, they also seem to undermine that purpose by relating some very embarrassing details about those leaders. The disciples are portrayed as lacking in faith and understanding, being selfish and petty (Mark 10:35-41), and all being so cowardly that they deserted Jesus when he was crucified. Peter is portrayed as the leader of the apostles, and yet he shamefully denied Jesus three times.
A religious book written mainly to promote a movement’s leader or leaders just isn’t written in that way. Compare, for example the Qur’an, and how nothing shameful is ever said about Mohammed; on the contrary, he is always presented as the one to whom people should listen, the one who is given special privileges by Allah, etc.
But we have to consider one final version of the fraud theory, because it’s a charge that some people will make. Perhaps Jesus himself was a fraud, a charlatan who just pulled the wool over people’s eyes (including those of his own disciples) with conjuring tricks or the like.
But this theory also has problems—the biggest being the question of how Jesus faked his own crucifixion. If it really was Jesus up there on the cross, the Romans would have had to be in on the hoax, to make sure they didn’t let him actually die up there. But what motive would the Romans have had for helping Jesus perpetrate such a hoax? And it’s pretty hard to imagine how Jesus could have survived having a sword plunged into his side, as the eyewitness accounts relate.
But maybe it was a double for Jesus on the cross—someone who looked just like him (don’t laugh, people have actually said this). Well, if so, Jesus would have had to somehow persuade that double to voluntarily be crucified and die! Or else Jesus would have had to force the double to unwillingly be crucified, and Jesus would have had to make sure his double didn’t get any opportunities to speak up and tell the Romans that they had the wrong man. If it was a double, Jesus would have also had to fool everyone who had known him into thinking that it was he who was up there dying on that cross, speaking to them from the cross, etc.
And if Jesus was a charlatan and he did pull off such a hoax, why did he do it? What did he gain from it? After his death he appeared to his disciples as raised from the dead, but then he disappeared again forty days later. He didn’t even stick around to capitalize on his success. And how did he pull off that ascension into the clouds, anyway?
All these questions just point out the absurdity of the idea that Jesus (assuming he was a mere man) could have faked his own death and resurrection.
The most reasonable conclusion based on the character of the gospels is that they were written as serious historical accounts. And based on the fact that the events they speak of were recent and public, we can assume that they were also accurate. But how do they fit with the historical facts that we know from other sources?
First, we have verification from non-biblical sources that Jesus lived, sources like Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Josephus and the Talmud. From Tacitus and Pliny we also learn that by their own time (just after 100 A.D.), Christianity was a widespread movement in the Roman Empire (Tacitus tells us it had reached Rome by the time of Nero, in 64 A.D.). This confirms that Christianity began even earlier, at a time when there were still eyewitnesses around who could confirm or refute its claims.
The facts reported in the gospels fit with history. Luke, the author of the gospel of Luke as well as of Acts, mentions a wealth of historical details—names of rulers, their titles (which varied from place to place), cities from many parts of the Roman world. Time and again archeology has confirmed Luke’s accuracy, even when skeptics had previously been certain that he was mistaken.
Everything we know about the gospels points to their being accurate accounts of the life of Christ. Even the fact that they seem to differ on minor details (even if it’s only an appearance of difference) confirms their being based on eyewitness accounts, rather than the result of a coordinated effort to tell the same story. Eyewitness accounts usually do differ in some details; people trying to pull off a hoax usually worry much more about getting all their stories to look the same.
But now comes the big stumbling block for many people. For all their historical trustworthiness, the gospels contain reports of miracles. How can anybody be expected to believe in the truth of miracle stories based solely on writings that are almost two thousand years old?
What can we say to someone who poses this question? “Well,” we could say, “this is where faith steps in. But remember—even though you are two thousand years removed from the events of Jesus’ life, you can look back through time and see the reactions of people who lived in the very same time period as Jesus. And many of them trusted in him to the point of giving their lives for what they believed in. You can choose to join those people in following Jesus, if you think that the Jesus who is accurately portrayed in the Bible is someone worth following. Read what the Bible says about Jesus and ask God to speak to you.”
For more information on the truth of the Bible, the following books are very helpful:
The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel
Faith on Trial by Pamela Binnings Ewen