Posted in: Atheism

Atheism vs. Christianity, A Response to Unanswered Questions

Copyright 1993 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino

On June 27, 1993, atheist Frank Zindler and Christian Dr. William Lane Craig debated “Atheism or Christianity: Where Does the Evidence Lead?” (Video and audio copies of the debate are available from Zondervan Publishing House. The debate was held before 8,000 people in Illinois at Willow Creek Community Church. During that debate, Zindler raised a number of questions that had nothing to do with the existence of God, but only with his opinion of Christianity and the Bible.

One key to effective debating is the ability to discern which points of contention within a debate constitute major issues that must be dealt with in the limited time available and which points are minor or secondary and so, given the time constraints, safely may be left aside. In this debate there is a welter of such minor points which do not deal directly with the existence of God, usually in the form of unsupported assertions made by Mr. Zindler and quite properly left unanswered by Dr. Craig. This addendum to the debate is designed as a supplement to assist those who may be interested in knowing how a Christian might respond to such assertions. While Mr. Zindler did not articulate all these points clearly, they are spelled out here in their most commonly presented forms, along with a brief refutation and suggestions for further reading. The points are dealt with in the order in which they were raised by Mr. Zindler in the course of the debate.

1. Today’s Christians have narrowed the definition of “Christian” so much that it excludes everything and everyone embarrassing to Christianity. Hitler was baptized a Christian and said he was promoting “Positive Christianity.” David Koresh and Jim Jones were Christians. You Christians try to avoid responsibility for all these evil Christians by arbitrarily excluding them by definition.

A: This is an equivocation fallacy. While atheists often accuse Christians of limiting the definition of Christianity, they expand it to the extent that it is meaningless – such as calling Hitler a Christian when his definition of “Positive Christianity” was “Positive Christianity is National Socialism . . . . The Fuehrer is the herald of a new revelation” [William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (NY: Fawcett Crest, 1960, p. 330)]. To indict Christianity because of evil people who attempt to identify themselves as Christians, the atheist must first establish that the leader of Christianity (Jesus Christ) and his teachings (as found in the New Testament) condone, command, or encourage such evil. They don’t. This is reviewed succinctly in Wilbur M. Smith’s classic Therefore Stand: Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1934, 1974, 24-32).

2. Jesus was a man and needed to breathe to live. How, for example, according to Acts, could he have “ascended” into space, which has too little oxygen to support human life?

A: Atheists who attempt to ridicule the Bible by ignoring normal rules of literary interpretation and usage end up ridiculing themselves. Abundant general literary precedent, as well as specific Hebrew and Greek literary techniques, affirm that phrases including geographical references to non-geographical states such as heaven, hell, death, and despair are not meant to refer to actual geographic or spatial locations. Jesus didn’t need to find oxygen to breathe in space because he didn’t go into space. Heaven is a different dimension, not some place past the galaxy! A contemporary example would be the common phrase, “You’re driving me crazy,” which no one should interpret to mean that you are physically restraining me in your vehicle as you transport me to the geographical location of lunacy (probably California!). For further information on literary interpretation and the Bible, see Leland Ryken’s Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987, second edition 1992).

3. The Bible teaches that there is a flat earth. For example, Satan couldn’t have shown Jesus all the kingdoms of the world at once if the world weren’t flat. Also, if “every eye shall see him” refers to Jesus’ Second Coming, the Bible must assume the earth is flat.

A: Neither passage cited can be used to infer a flat earth assumption on the part of the Bible. Even if the earth were flat, the distances involved would preclude both Jesus’ human eyes seeing far enough to see all kingdoms and also each human seeing far enough to see Jesus at His Second Coming. The verses have nothing to do with any assumptions about the shape of the earth. Additionally, neither passage says how either all the kingdoms could be seen at once, or Jesus could be seen by everyone at once. If man, in the relative infancy of his technological creativity, can “show” a football game in Florida to an audience in Oregon via satellite, surely it wouldn’t be hard to believe that an evil angel in the one example, or God Himself in the second example, could reveal either the kingdoms of the world to one person, or one person to the entire world. Again, the atheist must accord the same literary sophistication to the Bible as he would to any other literary work, including the figurative “four corners of the earth” (a Greek idiom) in Revelation 20:8 and the “circle of the earth” in Isaiah 40:22. Frankly, if the atheist is willing to believe Satan and Jesus talked, and that Jesus is coming again, he doesn’t have far to go to believe that one can see either the kingdoms of the world or the Son of God. Information on the erroneous view that Christianity and/or the Bible teaches a flat earth is in Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1991), and information about the Bible and the earth in general is in Bernard Ramm’s The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1954).

4. The Greek word for “breath” is pneuma, and is used to refer to the Holy Spirit and/or the human spirit or life force. The Bible compounds its ignorance by ascribing physical breath to God, who is allegedly non-physical, and then calling that physical breath the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit!

A: Atheists who dogmatically assert that biblical words such as “spirit” can have only one meaning (are univocal) betray their ignorance of common word usage. Any good biblical language aid recognizes the variety of terms used to refer to the immaterial part of man (his spirit) and the variety of uses for the one word pneuma. For example, generally when pneuma refers to the third person of the Trinity, it is used with the definite article (a definite article is like “the”). Good information about how words are used in the New Testament is in Moisés Silva’s Biblical Words and Their Meaning (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), and in W. E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Greek New Testament Words (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. J Revell, Inc., 1966).

5. The Bible is not only internally inconsistent, but also medically ridiculous. The Old Testament says “the life is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11), and New Testament verses ascribe life to “breath.” Neither ignorant biblical view recognizes the facts of modern medical science, which understands animal life as ending with brain death and/or heart failure.

A: Both “blood” and “breath” are used metaphorically to refer to one’s life. This is common in many other cultural traditions and ages as well as in the biblical world. In this kind of metaphor, called synechdoche, “the whole is named by the part,” as in the common nautical designation of “the fleet is in” when we mean to include the personnel as well as the vessels. Use of various kinds of metaphors is in Ryken’s Words of Delight. Additionally, the plain sense of the passage is an indisputable “medical” observation – those with no blood or no breath do not live.

6. We know that man evolved and therefore Adam and Eve are fictional characters. All mankind is not descended from one human couple. If the story of Adam and Eve is fiction, then so is the universality of the Fall. If the Fall is fiction, then there is no need for atonement to be provided by Jesus Christ. If there is no need for atonement, then Jesus is out of a job and has joined the ranks of the unemployed.

A: There are several different approaches to this question that show it is not a valid objection to the existence of the Christian God. First, whether or not the biblical account of creation is accurate or Jesus is “unemployed,” God could still exist and the Bible could be flawed. Second, it does not follow logically that the theory of macro or general evolution contradicts the idea of a historical Adam and Eve. Some people who believe the Bible speculate that man could have developed through primate evolution until a specific point when the first fully human pair were infused with “the image of God,” including moral responsibility. Third, evolutionary science is not nearly so monolithic or universally trouble free as Zindler believes. As a matter of fact, serious non-Christian scientists have called into question not only particular details of common evolutionary theory, but have also raised serious challenges to the foundation of evolutionary theory. Further information on this is available in Hoimar V. Ditfurth’s The Origins of Life (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (Bethesda, MD: Adler & Adler, Publishers, Inc., 1985), Philip E. Johnson’s Darwin on Trial (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley, and Roger L. Olsen’s The Mystery of Life’s Origin: Reassessing Current Theories (New York: Philosophical Library, 1984), and Robert Shapiro’s Origins: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth(New York: Bantam Books, 1986). Fourth, that every human being commits sin (moral transgression) is self-evident and socially documented, regardless of the explanation (such as the Adam and Eve account) for that propensity to sin. Since every human being commits sin, we are in need of a remedy, which the Bible says is provided through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on our behalf according to the scriptures – so Jesus Christ would not be “unemployed” even if the Adam and Eve account were not true. In conclusion, the Adam and Eve account is not conclusively disproved by the theory of evolution, which itself has scientific problems, and even if it were, every human being’s sinfulness still needs atonement.

7. The Bible has a primitive idea of humanity and without any evidence assumes that man has an independent, immaterial soul. Because science has shown us evidence of the validity of evolution, we know the idea of some sort of immaterial soul is foolish.

A: This is a variation on question number six. This atheist argument contains two false assumptions. First, that science has proved evolution; and second, that scientific testing, designed to test physical things, can adequately disprove nonphysical things such as the soul. The atheist’s unwarranted naturalistic bias makes him think his argument is valid. A good summary of the scientific inadequacies of evolution is in Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis; see also Philip E. Johnson’s Darwin on Trial. A good critique of physicalism is in J. P. Moreland’s Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987). An excellent argument demonstrating the plausability of psycho-physical dualism can be found in Richard Swinburne’s The Evolution of the Soul (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).

8. The Bible arrogantly describes man as a special creation of God, qualitatively different from any other life form. However, modern science has proved that genetically we are 98% similar to apes – we are only separated by a 2% genetic difference.

A: The atheist who broaches this argument has made no argument at all. Percentages prove nothing. After all, we’re mostly water, but Zindler would not claim we are close cousins to lettuce. When the Bible describes humans as qualitatively different from any other created thing, including other animals, it refers to man in the image of God, that is, with attributes relating to the immaterial part of his nature, not to his physical body. What distinguishes humans from animals are attributes such as personality, will, self-determination, self-cognizance, creativity, and rational discourse. None of these attributes are physical. In fact, since both humans and animals are created by the one God, it should not surprise us that both share many physical similarities. Far from disproving the Bible, such similarities can point to a common Designer. Interesting information about the creation of humanity is in John W. Klotz’s Genes, Genesis, and Evolution (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955).

9. Another example of the Bible’s scientific foolishness is the claim made in 2 Peter 3:5 that the earth was made out of water!

A: The atheist who seeks to ridicule the Bible for its purported scientific sophistry should not by his very ridicule reveal his own biblical and literary sophistry. A careful reading of this verse and its meaning in a good commentary shows that it is not saying that the earth is composed or made out of water at all. Simon J. Kistemaker says, for example, “The land itself, then, comes forth out of the water. This interpretation relates more to origin than to substance; that is, the text explains how the earth was formed, and does not disclose the source of matter” [Peter and Jude: New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987) 328)]. Scientific evidence and the Bible do not disagree as to the prevalence of water and the molten state of the ancient earth.

10. Every scholar knows that the book of Daniel is a forgery, composed centuries after its purported date of the 500’s B.C. It was actually a late composition, reflecting recent Jewish history as prophecy, as though it had not yet happened, when in fact it had happened. It was probably composed one or two hundred years before Christ, and it also contains numerous historical mistakes, such as (1) misnaming the last king of Judah, (2) misnaming the liberator of the Jews from Babylon and (3) misnaming the last king of Babylon.

A: Careful historical, geographical, lexical (word usage), and etymological (origin of words) study points to the composition of Daniel in its final form during the beginning of the Persian reign over Babylon (during the sixth century B.C.). Gleason Archer, for instance, in A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974) shows how the literary, linguistic, and grammatical evidence of the text points to an early date for the book of Daniel. He says, “The most likely date for the final edition of the book, therefore, would be about 530 B.C.” (379). Archaeology has amply demonstrated the historicity of the Babylonian captivity of Judah. Daniel does not say that Jehoiakim was the last king of Judah. Jehoiakim’s son was not permitted to remain on the throne (a fulfillment of Jeremiah 36:30’s prophecy). Instead, the son’s uncle, Zedekiah, was made a vassal king under Babylon. Regarding the Jews’ liberation from Babylon, it is important to note that while Cyrus allowed them to return and begin building the second temple, the work was suspended until the second year of Darius the Great, about 520 or 519 B.C. Darius ordered the temple to be completed and it was finished in 516 B.C., the sixth year of his reign. Concerning the issue of the last king of Babylon, several points of reconciliation prevent this from becoming a problem that stands against the trustworthiness of Daniel. king of Babylon problem prevent this argument from standing against the trustworthiness of Daniel. Belshazzar was named co-regent by his natural father, Nabonidus, who lived in retirement in North Arabia. Also, on the night of the fatal feast (Daniel 5), Nabonidus had been in the hands of the Medo-Persians for four months; therefore, Belshazzar was the last king in actual fact. Problems such as this are discussed not only in Archer’s Old Testament book, but also in his Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982).

11. The book of Acts is filled with historical errors. For example, Acts quotes Gamaliel referring to two false messiahs, Theudas and Judas the Galilean. The quote mistakenly dates Theudas before Judas, who is linked to the “time of the census” (around A.D. 7). The Jewish historian Josephus correctly dates Theudus to an uprising against the Romans in A.D. 44. Obviously, Acts is a late composition of the Church purporting to be an “eyewitness” account.

A: The atheist has made the mistake of assuming that there could only have been one rebel messiah named Theudas. However, there was also a Theudas who revolted in A.D. 6, the year Herod Archelaus was deposed from the throne. In this case, the revolt of Judas against the legate of Syria, P. Sulpicius Quirinius, would have occurred one year later. Two books which address this problem are Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties and Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe’s When Critics Ask (Wheaton, IL: SP Publications, 1992). The book of Acts is one of the most reliable ancient historical documents and abundant evidence has been presented in books such as I. Howard Marshall’s Luke: Historian and Theologian (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970), William M. Ramsay’s St. Paul: The Traveller and the Roman Citizen (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1962), Colin Hemer’s The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Tübingen, Germany: J. C. B. Mohr, 1989), and Darrell L. Bock’s two volume Luke: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1994, 1996).

12. The Old Testament conquest stories regarding the Jews’ various conquests in Palestine have been disproved by current archeological investigation.

A: This bold statement makes two mistakes about archeology. First, it assumes that archeological evidence is not open to interpretation or bias. Second, it assumes that the evidence is overwhelming against the Old Testament record. Neither assumption is true. In fact, while we have a wealth of archeological evidence, we have unearthed only a small fraction of the remains that exist in the Middle East, and what we have unearthed is open to interpretation not only about the identity of the sites, but also about the significance of the remains. For example, the noted archeologist Kathleen Kenyon’s work at Jericho is frequently cited against the historicity of the Old Testament’s account of the Jews’ conquest of Jericho. However, more recent independent examination of Kenyon’s evidence has turned up discrepancies in some of her opinions and instead affirms the reliability of the biblical account. Archaeologist Bryant Wood concludes, “When the final Bronze Age city at Jericho is properly dated, it is seen that there is a remarkable correlation between the biblical narrative and archaeological findings” [“Uncovering the Truth at Jericho” by Bryant Wood in Archaeology and Biblical Research (Autumn 1987), 16]. See also Edwin Yamauchi’s The Stones and the Scriptures (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1972), and Kenneth Kitchen’s Ancient Orient and the Old Testament (Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1966).

13. Many of the blatant historical errors of the New Testament are evidence that the New Testament books were composed long after the supposed events they record by a Church that invented its own mythology. For example, Bethany, Bethphage, Nazareth, and Capernaum, all towns that were listed in the gospels as important towns in Jesus’ life and ministry, did not even exist at the time of Christ.

A: Historical and archeological investigation has disproved skeptics’ suppositions and affirmed the historical reliability of the New Testament. The particular examples of Bethany, Bethphage, Capernaum, and Nazareth illustrate the problems atheists invent regarding New Testament accuracy.

BETHANY: This suburb of Jerusalem (less than two miles away on the southeast slopes of the Mt. of Olives) is not mentioned in the Old Testament, except possibly with a variation on its name in Nehemiah 11:32. In addition, its precise location and extent has not been pinpointed since it has grown and shrunk over the centuries. However, archeological work provides us with lamps, vessels, and coinage from the first century, and continuous occupancy of the area from about the sixth century B.C. to the fourteenth century A.D., certainly covering the time period of Jesus. Today Bethany is called el-‘Azariyeh, a corrupted form of “Lazarus,” because it was here that Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead (John 11). Definitive excavations have not been done because many significant historical buildings, including churches and memorials to the raising of Lazarus, occupy the area and cannot be destroyed to discover the ruins beneath them.

BETHPHAGE: Bethphage is between Bethany and Jerusalem on the southeast slopes of the Mt. of Olives. Archeological evidence from this settlement includes caves, coins, cisterns, pools, and tombs ranging from the second century B.C. to about the eighth century A.D., again covering Jesus’ time. Bethphage is also not mentioned in the Old Testament, but this argument from silence ignores the archeological evidence.

CAPERNAUM: For many years historians and archaeologists argued about the precise location of Capernaum, but the area of Tell Hum is now widely and certainly accepted. The name of Capernaum was confirmed in an Aramaic inscription found in an ancient synagogue ruin. Capernaum is not mentioned in the Old Testament, but is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus and is in the Jewish Talmud, and was evidently settled and grew after the Jewish return from captivity (after the Old Testament was completed). The area of the ancient town itself, on the northwest shore of Galilee, has not been excavated to any great extent for its first century ruins since those lie below still-standing structures from succeeding centuries, including an important fourth century A.D. synagogue. The remains of a first century house, which has been identified as Peter’s, as well as the ruins of a first century synagogue, have been uncovered.

NAZARETH: Nazareth today, with its traditional churches, shrines, and memorials is not on the same exact site as Nazareth in Jesus’ day. However, both towns were anchored by the same well, the only one in the area, today called “Mary’s Well.” During Jesus’ day it was a small village of about 400, four miles from the prospering Roman city of Sepphoris. Archeological evidence shows it was inhabited continually from a thousand years before and during the Roman period, including the time of Christ. Artifacts found in area tombs date from the first to the fourth centuries A.D. Contrary to Mr. Zindler, Nazareth was not merely a necropolis; the pottery remains give evidence of the small vase-making industry located there, which produced vessels widely used for agricultural purposes. Moreover, beneath the convent of the Dames de Nazareth the remains of a first century house have been discovered. First century A.D. Nazareth is identified in an inscription in Hebrew found in Caesarea. The “Nazareth Decree” is a response from the Emperor Claudius, probably composed between A.D. 44 and 50, commanding that no one disturb a grave or tomb, violate its seals, or remove its body, under penalty of death. Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament or by the Jewish historian Josephus, no doubt due to its insignificance.

Mr. Zindler’s dismissal of these towns’ historicity is based on a faulty understanding of archeology and history which is so faulty as to border on wilful ignorance. It ignores the long gap between the completion of the Old Testament and the birth of Christ, when many towns were newly settled. Its arguments from the silence of the Old Testament, the Talmud, and/or Josephus are inconclusive. Its ignorance of archeology is inexcusable. The archeological evidence we have is, as scholar Edwin Yamauchi says, “but a fraction of a fraction of the possible evidence” The Stones and the Scriptures, 146. Only a fraction of what was built or written has survived, only a fraction of what survived has been surveyed, only a fraction of what has been surveyed has been excavated, only a fraction of what has been excavated has been examined, and only a fraction of what has been examined has been published (Yamauchi, 146-160). To dismiss the historicity of scripture based on absence of data is academically irresponsible and has been overturned time after time by new discoveries. Yamauchi notes, for example, Homer constantly refers to the bronze greaves and cors-lets (breastplates) of his heroes. H. L. Lorimer in 1950 wished to delete the lines that mentioned bronze corslets as late interpolations, because no known corslets of an early date had been dis-covered. In 1960 at Dendra in Greece the first known metal cor-slet of the Bronze Age was dis-covered. Then three years later a second bronze corslet was found (161).

Many books provide abundant historical and archeological evidence of biblical reliability, including J. A. Thompson’s The Bible and Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982) and E. M. Blaiklock and R. K. Harrison’s Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983). For a good discussion of the gospel sites, see Rainer Riesner’s article “Archaeology and Geography” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992).

14. The Bible is so internally inconsistent it can’t even settle on if anyone other than God is eternal. Hebrews 7:3 says Melchizedek, like God, is eternal. He must be older than the universe!

A: Hebrews 7:3 does not say that Melchizedek is eternal. It simply says that his ancestry is not recorded in scripture, so “without father or mother, without genealogy,” in that sense he is “without [recorded] beginning of days or end of life.” The Greek preserves a literary device, alliteration (multiple words beginning with the same sound) at this point: apat?r, am?t?r, agenealog?tos (without father, without mother, without recorded genealogy). Noted Greek scholar A. T. Robertson says, “He is not to be understood as a miraculous being without birth or death. Melchizedek has been made more mysterious than he is by reading into this interpretation what is not there” [Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1932), Vol. V, 381]. As a type of Christ, Melchizedek, like Jesus, is given all the honors of the most high priest and yet demonstrates no ancestral ties to the priestly class. Yet, the Bible does not call Melchizedek eternal, because the end of the verse in the Greek says he “has been made” like the Son of God. [See R. C. H. Lenski’s The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistle of James (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1966), 213.]

15. The Old Testament God is cruel and arbitrary in his orders to the Israelites to savagely murder and carry out ethnic cleansing on the original inhabitants of Canaan. Of course, this is also the God who sends people to hell for eternity for only exercising the free will he gave them!

A: First, even if this kind of argument were valid, the atheist could only prove God was mean, not that he did not exist. Second, the atheist who charges God with immorality must have some absolute, universal, and invariant system of morality by which he can judge God. Christians get their system of justice and morality from God’s revelation, but from where does the atheist’s sense of morality come? From his own subjective opinion? Then he has no right to criticize anyone else’s system. From society? Then in Hitler’s society ethnic cleansing is “good.” From the innate survival mechanisms of nature? Then whatever humans (part of nature) do must be “good” because their actions are products of their natures and thus “good.” From some moral agent beyond this material universe who has the authority to impose morality on this material universe and its inhabitants? And so we come back to the idea of a transcendent moral God, exactly what the Christian affirms to exist. Now, the Christian deals with this problem further by arguing that the God who created, gives life to, and sustains people has the proprietary “right” to extinguish people according to his own will, even if it appears to us to be “immoral.” As Jeremiah says, the potter has the right to make one clay pot beautiful and to destroy another (Jeremiah 18:1-10). God, the author and sustainer of life and the source of morality and justice, as a being categorically different than we are, has rights we do not have. Just as a father has the right to tell his child to go to bed but the father can stay up late, so God has the right to take a human life while we do not. Third, if one agrees to adopt the morality of the God of the Bible and to believe the historical narratives of the Bible (concerning the conquest of Canaan, etc.), one must also agree to accept the Bible’s consistent and logical answers to this paradox. The Bible gives answers to this problem, including the very important notes that God repeatedly warned the Canaanites, who had already received multiple opportunities to repent of their idolatry and immorality (which included a religion involving cultic sex acts and perhaps even human sacrifice); and that hell, or eternal separation from the presence of God, is the just place for people who hate God, want nothing to do with him, and desire to be away from him at any cost (Matthew 25:46). Two books that deal with this subject are Peter C. Craigie’s The Problem of War in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978) and John H. Wenham’s The Goodness of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1974). See also question number eighteen.

16. Christians claim the Bible is a book of love, and that Jesus always preached love. But in Luke 14:26 Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters . . . he cannot be my disciple.” And in Matthew 10:35 and Luke 12:53 he says he came to divide families (father against son, daughter against mothers, etc.). In Matthew 12:47-50, Mark 3:32-35, and Luke 8:21, Jesus rejects his mother and brothers and says his followers have become his new “mother and brothers.” Finally, in Romans 9:13, Paul carries on the tradition by quoting God as saying, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What happened to the Jesus of “family values” and love?

A: Atheists, especially those like Zindler who claim a facility in linguistics, should be able to understand common forms of literary expression such as the hyperbole Jesus uses in Luke 14:26. English professor Leland Ryken notes concerning this passage:

Such overstatements are of course not intended to be taken literally. Jesus was not stating a reasoned ethical position when he said that “if any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). He was using hyperbole to assert the priority that a person must give to God over other relationships (Words of Life, 103).

This interpretation is supported by the parallel passage in Matthew 10:37, which states the same theme, but without hyperbole: “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

In Luke 12:53, Jesus merely notes what happens when he comes to bring the peace of reconciliation to God: family members become divided between those who follow God and those who do not (see also Matthew 10:35). Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe comment: “We must distinguish between the purpose of Christ’s coming to earth and the result of it. His design was to bring peace . . . . However, the immediate consequence of Christ’s coming was to divide those who were for Him and those who were against Him – the children of God from the children of this world” (When Critics Ask, 340).

The parallel gospel passages regarding Jesus’ supposed rejection of his natural mother and brothers in favor of his “spiritual” family use a subtle form of hyperbole to emphasis a spiritual truth: the family of God is rooted, nurtured, and developed by faith, not genetic linkage. In fact, the same gospels that the atheist here misinterprets to denigrate “family values” contain numerous passages about how much Jesus did love and care for his family, including his obedience to Mary and Joseph in the temple at age 12, his indulgence of his mother’s request to make wine at the wedding of Cana, and his charge to the disciple John to care for his mother after his death.

Romans 9:13 also uses hyperbole and evidently couples it with another literary technique already discussed, synecdoche, or naming the whole by the part. Romans 9-11 concerns God’s actions toward the nation of Israel and here Esau and Jacob stand for their respective descendants – the non-Jews descended from Esau, and the Jews descended from Jacob. In a hyperbolic way, Paul is saying that the sovereign God has the authority to act specially toward one group of people (those descended from Jacob), and not toward another group of people (those descended from Esau). In other words, although Esau himself, and his descendants after him, received many blessings from God, the covenant was established only with Jacob and his descendants.

None of these passages or any similar ones give the atheist reason to reject the claim that the Bible teaches that God is love.

17. If Adam and Eve were ordered not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, because then they would know good and evil, they must not have known good and evil before. If they didn’t, then it hardly would have been fair for God to judge them for doing something “evil.” How could they sin without the knowledge of good and evil?

A: It is not true that in all cases one must experience something to know it. There are many different ways to know things, including by intuition (or foundational mental categories), analogy, and apposition [see Stuart Hackett’s The Reconstruction of the Christian Revelation Claim (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984)]. For example, one does not have to experience hitting the ground after jumping from a ten story building to know it would hurt; or to experience inheriting a million dollars to know it would change his lifestyle. Most atheists believe that they don’t have to experience being “born-again” to know it is a foolish delusion, even though in this case their “knowledge” is false! Much theoretical science is based on the belief that one can know new things by analogy or apposition to what is known, and this presupposition has allowed scientific experimentation and knowledge to grow by leaps and bounds. For example, if we did not believe we could know about weightlessness by analogy (the relative lightness of bodies in water as opposed to air, for example), we could not have developed our space program. While it is true that our knowledge may be imperfect or limited if it is not experiential, that does not mean that we can know nothing or that we cannot be responsible for what we do know. In the same way, God’s command to Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil must have had some analogous or appositive significance or the command would have been totally meaningless. When Genesis 2:17 records God’s command to Adam and Eve, it does not assume that they “knew” good and evil experientially, but rationally; after all, they were created “in God’s image,” which included the ability to reason.

In this limited sense, as God “knows” evil perfectly or fully without ever participating in evil, so Adam and Eve were able to “know” evil, although not as fully, without having yet participated in it. The atheist who will argue against the goodness of God on the basis of the text must also accept the context of the text and its rational assumptions. A more lengthy discussion of this kind of problem is in Norman L. Geisler and Winfried Corduan’s Philosophy of Religion (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, second edition 1988) and Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg’s Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980).

18. The Old Testament is a blood-thirsty, primitive religious writing, including instructions for acceptable human sacrifices (Leviticus). Jeptha was admired for sacrificing his daughter to the cruel Old Testament God (Judges 11), and God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac (Genesis 22).

A: The God of the Bible does not condone human sacrifice, and in fact, one of the features that distinguishes Old Testament Judaism from its religious contemporaries is its prohibition of human sacrifice (Lev. 18:21; 20:2). Leviticus discusses different kinds of sacrifices within the Hebrew religion, and condemns all other sacrifices, including human, of other religions.

The story of Jeptha in Judges 11 does not provide sufficient detail to know exactly what happened. Jeptha vowed that if he won an important battle against Ammon, he would dedicate “whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return peace . . . I will offer it up as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:31). Unfortunately, the first to come out was his only child, his daughter. The passage completes the story by relating that Jeptha was sorrowful and his daughter “mourned her virginity” for two months before he father fulfilled his vow. Either of two plausible interpretations have been proposed by scholars: (1) Jeptha made a rash vow apart from God’s will, and then mistakenly followed through with sacrificing the life of his daughter anyway, out of a misguided sense of duty to his vow; or (2) Jeptha dedicated his only child, his daughter, to a lifetime of service to God in the temple, sealing their dedication with a burnt offering, with both of them sorrowful because her obligation to the temple would preclude her ever marrying and having children, and consequently Jeptha’s family line died out. For detailed discussion of these alternatives, see Geisler and Howe’s When Critics Ask, Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. John W. Haley’s Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible (Springdale, PA: Whitaker House, n.d.), 238-241, gives seven good reasons why he believes Jeptha did not kill his daughter, but instead consecrated her to the temple.

The focus of the story of Abraham offering up his only son Isaac, of whom God prophesied that the world would be blessed through his descendant, Jesus, is on Abraham’s willingness to lose everything, even his son, for God. Haley remarks, “God’s design was not to secure a certain outward act, but a certain state of mind, a willingness to give up the beloved object to Jehovah” (238). The accuracy of this interpretation is supported by the fact that God did provide an animal for Abraham to offer instead of Isaac, and so Abraham did not become guilty of human sacrifice. Archer explains, “It is a mistake to interpret Genesis 22:2 as a command by God for Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar. On the contrary, God actually (through his angel, at least) restrained Abraham’s hand just as he was about to plunge the knife into his son’s body” (96). (Geisler and Howe also discuss this passage.)

19. It is not true that “nothing comes from nothing.” In fact, science has observed the emergence of something from nothing in the quantum physic process involving virtual particle pairs. The emergence of the universe itself could be analogous to this quantum fluctuation of something coming from nothing.

A: First, if the atheist can believe that something (e.g., the universe, the material world) can come from nothing, it certainly shouldn’t be difficult for him to believe that the universe came about materially from nothing by the agency of an intelligent, purposeful creator, God. Second, so-called virtual particles do not, in fact, come from nothing. Rather they borrow energy from fluctuations in the sub-atomic vacuum in order to form, and then they quickly re-convert to energy again. The quantum vacuum, unlike the popular notion of a vacuum, is definitely not “nothing,” but is a sea of fluctuating energy. Third, it is far from clear that virtual particles even really exist. They are the theoretical constructs useful for making scientific predictions (and not even necessary for that), but no one knows whether there really are such things. Fourth, in any case, attempts to explain the origin of the universe as a vacuum fluctuation are now widely recognized to have failed. See especially the debate between William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith, Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 125-129 and 148-157; also the revised article by Craig, “The Caused Beginning of the Universe,” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 44 (1993). See also Stanley L. Jaki’s The Absolute Beneath the Relative (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990).

In general, atheists make a false dichotomy between science and religion, regarding the former as a matter of fact and the latter as a matter of faith. However, science has “faith” in its basic assumptions, postulates, and interpretive frameworks, and religion that is rational, coherent, and corresponding to reality does not contradict any scientific truth, although it may contradict a favorite unproven scientific theory or “faith” proposition. For further discussion see J. P. Morelend’s Christianity and the Nature of Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989) and Nicholas Herbert’s Quantum Reality (New York: Ancho/Doubleday, 1985).

20. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, lived after Jesus but did not mention him. Christians who point to Josephus’ supposed reference to Christ are actually referring to Christian interpolations or forgery additions to Josephus.

A: Although Josephus was not a New Testament writer and consequently disputes with him are not disputes with the Bible, atheists often misrepresent Josephus and the Christian use of Josephus to underscore their rejection of the historicity of the New Testament documents and claims, and so it is addressed in concluding our discussion of Mr. Zindler’s biblical objections to God.

The passage of Josephus about Christianity most disputed reads as follows:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one should call him a man. For he was a performer of astonishing deeds, a teacher of men who are happy to accept the truth. He won over many Jews, and indeed also many Greeks. He was the Messiah. In response to a charge presented by the leading men among us, Pilatus condemned him to the cross; but those who had loved him at first did not give up, for he appeared to them on the third day alive again, as the prophets of God had spoken this and thousands of other wonders about him. And still to this day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not disap-peared [Antiquities XVIII. 63-64, quoted in R. T. France’s The Evidence for Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 28-29].

The importance of this quote lies in Josephus’ credibility as an ancient historian, the fact that his history was of the Jews from creation to A.D. 66, and in his close historical and geographical proximity to the time of Christ (he wrote toward the end of the first century, or within sixty or so years of Christ’s ministry, death, and resurrection). However, we should also remember that he was only one historian, writing as a conquered religious minority to please his Roman rulers, and Christianity was not yet a significant, highly visible movement.

Those who argue against the authenticity of this and one other, less disputed, reference to Christ (Antiquities XX.200), argue that (1) Josephus, a Jew and not a Christian, would be unlikely to express faith in Jesus; (2) Josephus’ works were preserved largely by the Church and so subject to alteration without much chance of detection; (3) this passage does not fit the chronology of his written history; and (4) we have no early copies of Josephus’ works.

In response (1) Josephus may have been recording the beliefs of the Christians about Jesus without necessarily endorsing them himself (but his record still attests to the historicity of Jesus as a religious leader, martyr, and founder of a new movement); (2) simply because the Church preserved Josephus’ work doesn’t prove the Church changed them (especially when the Church claims to follow the teachings of the One who called Himself “Truth”); (3) several other out-of-sequence stories appear in this larger section of Josephus, a technique his uses elsewhere as well; and (4) this passage is quoted from Josephus in early Church writers such as Origen in the first half of the third century, Eusebius in the early fourth century, and additionally we have a similar text in an early tenth century Arabic manuscript. Despite the conjectures regarding the particulars of the passage, scholars like Dr. Gary Habermas conclude their examination of the evidence positively:

Josephus presented an important account of several major facts about Jesus and the origins of Christianity. In spite of some question as to the exact wording of his original writing, we can view his statements as providing probably attestation, in particular, to the death of Jesus by crucifixion, the disciples’ report of his resurrection and their subsequent teaching of Jesus’ message [Ancient Evidence for the Life of Jesus (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), 93].

In conclusion, Mr. Zindler’s sideswipes against the Bible in the midst of a debate on the existence of God are not legitimate protestations either to the existence of the God described in the Bible nor to the reliability of the sixty-six books that collectively form the Christian Bible.