‘Just your version of Christianity’?
A skeptic wrote in:
Why should I believe in your version of Christianity over the thousands of others that exist? Because the Bible says so? Your opponents will say the same thing. The Bible can be used to justify almost if not all interpretations and versions of Christianity. Every Christian believes that they’re right, god is on their side and if you don’t adhere to their interpretation the punishment is to burn in hell forever. Christians everywhere are all pointing fingers at each other threatening one another with the prospect of burning in hell forever. That being the case, why should any of us take the Bible and Christianity seriously?
CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds
This is a common question, but justified in an odd way. After all, surely if “Every Christian believes that they’re right, god is on their side and if you don’t adhere to their interpretation the punishment is to burn in hell forever”, then we don’t think it’s going to be any better for people who reject all forms of Christianity. And surely that’s a concern worth being concerned about!
Indeed, even the possibility of Hell for ignoring or rejecting a set of claims should make us take the claims seriously. That isn’t by itself a basis to believe the claims; but it should at least make us want to investigate them carefully to see if they are true. And we’d want to be pretty sure that the claims are false before treating the threat of Hell attached to them with contempt. I mean, Islam makes similar claims. I don’t take those claims lightly; I’ve investigated Islam enough to be confident in rejecting their claims. (And no, not just because I believe Christianity is true. Even if I rejected Christianity, I’d still reject Islam.) Have you done the same for Christianity?
Interpreting the Bible properly
The only argument I see in what you’ve written is this: “The Bible can be used to justify almost if not all interpretations and versions of Christianity.” Question: does that involve versions of Christianity that deny the reality of Hell? We don’t agree with them, but they are out there. Clearly those versions of Christianity wouldn’t believe that “if you don’t adhere to their interpretation the punishment is to burn in hell forever”.
At any rate, your statement is utterly irrelevant. I can use a top-of-the-line power drill as a hammer if I want; clearly that doesn’t mean I’m using it properly. Similarly, just because some people use the Bible badly doesn’t mean we should just ignore the Bible.
Of course, your whole assertion is that we can’t know who’s using the Bible well and who’s using it badly because disagreement exists on what it says. But that doesn’t make any sense. It assumes, at a minimum, that we should reject a knowledge claim if experts don’t all agree on it. But experts in the epistemology of disagreement themselves disagree about whether we should reject a knowledge claim if experts disagree on it. So, the claim on which your argument rests (i.e. we should reject a knowledge claim if experts disagree) doesn’t satisfy its own criterion of acceptability, and thus refutes itself. So, it’s necessarily false that we need agreement among experts to believe a knowledge claim—including a knowledge claim about what the Bible means.1 And if we don’t even need agreement among experts on the Bible to know something of what the Bible says, we clearly don’t need agreement among all self-professing Christians. It’s a bit like saying, ‘There are various types of counterfeit money, so real money must not exist.’
But how do we go about discerning between good and bad readings of the Bible? Well, how do you know The Lord of the Rings isn’t a cookbook? Because you can read, right? Because you understand that words arranged in particular ways can’t mean just anything; the syntax and context limit the possible meanings we can legitimately derive. Those same basic principles of interpretation that tell us The Lord of the Rings is high-fantasy fiction also help us to understand the Bible. The process tends to be a bit more complicated for us with the Bible, since it’s a corpus of different types of literature, and it was written in different languages, times, and cultures to our own. We should take all that into account when we interpret the Bible. But it’s still the same basic process we use for discerning the meaning of The Lord of the Rings or the newspaper. Give it a try! (See Is there a universal way Christians should interpret the Bible? and The Bible and hermeneutics.)
‘Ah, but the stakes are so high! One minor misinterpretation, and we’re going to Hell!’ No. Christians disagree on all sorts of issues of doctrine and biblical interpretation and still think of each other as genuine Christians. Of course, there are limits. But this simply means that some doctrines are more central to the faith than others. For instance, Christians disagree on many matters of ‘end times prophecy’ like the Millennium of Revelation 20 (i.e. will Christ come back before or after the still future Millennium? Or are we in the Millennium now?). But practically nobody thinks people who hold other views must be heretics headed for Hell merely based on their view of the Millennium! But if someone calls himself a ‘Christian’ while denying that God raised Jesus from the dead bodily and historically, then he’s deluding himself. I challenge you to read 1 Corinthians 15:1–19 and conclude anything different.
Do we need to prove everything we believe all at once?
But there’s another issue here. You seem to think that, in trying to show that our faith is true, we should start off building a case for our particular interpretation of Christianity. Question: why can’t we ‘home in’ on our particular interpretation of Christianity with a series of arguments that each successively narrow the scope of acceptable worldviews (e.g. Evidence for young-earth creationism)? And interestingly, if we do that, you’ll find us at some point in that process saying: “From this point on I’m not dealing with ‘eternal life or death’ matters. I think many of these issues are important, but most mistakes on these matters from here on in won’t automatically get you a ticket to Hell.” Do you want to know where I draw the line? You can see it for yourself right here: Do I have to believe in a historical Genesis to be saved? In this article, I lay out the basic claims of the Gospel; all the claims we need to believe to be saved. And it’s really not that much, and it’s all found in the most basic confessional statements you’ll find in the Bible: Deuteronomy 6:4, Romans 10:9, 1 Corinthians 15:3–4. Many different traditions in Christendom embrace these claims, even though we disagree on a whole bunch of other issues.
So, why should you take the Bible and Christianity seriously? First, your eternal destiny is at least possibly at stake. Where are your instincts of self-preservation? Second, you can know the difference between good and bad readings of the Bible. You know how to read. Third, everything we must believe to be saved is plain in the Bible, and it isn’t a long list of claims. Anyone with a reasonable grasp of English can understand a few basic confessional statements in the Bible. As such, I suggest working on dealing with less central matters after you’ve solidified yourself on the basics.
References and notes
- This argument comes from: Moreland, J.P., Scientism and Secularism, Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois, p. 104, 2018. He uses it to address the faulty claim that we can’t know anything philosophical since philosophers can’t agree on anything. Return to text.