One of the best approaches an atheist can take when debating a Christian is to confront them with some of the absurdities written in the Bible. Most churches focus on the love of God and doing good things but don’t hit on topics like the Strange Case of Balaam and the Talking Donkey (Numbers 22) or the more draconian parts of the Bible’s teachings.
The problem here is that most modern Christians simply write off the entire Old Testament – It’s only meant to be a metaphor (?!) or that was the old covenant and it doesn’t apply any more (?!). The real reasons are simple: It’s bad business for most churches to talk about killing homosexuals and raping the wives of dead enemy soldiers. This doesn’t fit with the new “Hour of Power” business model of most modern churches.
What I have tried to compile here is a series of questions and rebuttals for “Starbucks” Christians who think that God is Love and that Puppies are Cute. The strategy here is to do the following: (1) Show a clear connection between Old and New Testaments; (2) Attempt to pin them down on the more supernatural aspects of their beliefs; (3) Emphasize that Jesus’ words contain some of the more inflammatory pronouncements found in the Bible. Starbucks Christians ignore most of the Bible – Let’s convince them to ignore ALL of the Bible.
Think about the idea that if a Christian rejects or ignores the Old Testament and does not consider Paul’s writing to be authoritative, the only thing left is the gospels. But fair enough – these are the writings surrounding the life of the single most pivotal figure for Christians. But most Christians confronted with serious questions from non-believers will have a hard time answering the following questions:
- Do you believe in the virgin birth?
- Do you believe in the miraculous resurrection of Jesus as described in the gospels?
- Do you believe in heaven? (this one is easy)
- Do you believe in hell? (this one is NOT so easy)
A Christian who has already rejected the other parts of the Bible but can not make definite, clear statements regarding these questions has absolutely no business calling themselves a Christian. This is because these deal with the beginning and end of Jesus’ life, as well as the most critical parts of Jesus’ teaching while he was alive. Your Christian may say that these things don’t matter (once again – ?!) or that they simply don’t know. If they don’t matter, why bother with being a Christian? If you don’t know, again, why bother being a Christian? Whatever the case, here are clear responses straight from the Bible that you can use to clarify where the gospels stand on these issues.
The Virgin Birth
The Gospel of Mark (which was written before the others, despite the order of appearance in the Bible) makes no mention of a virgin birth. The Gospel of Matthew is where this idea originates. Matt 1:23 has an angel of the Lord reciting a prophecy that a virgin will conceive a child and he will be called Immanuel. This “prophecy” is found in Isaiah 7:14. Here Isaiah is telling King Ahaz (who reigned from 732-716 BC) that a young woman will give birth to a child with certain characteristics, and this will be a sign to Ahaz regarding the impending war with neighboring tribes.
But how did we go from a “young woman” to a virgin? And how did this get construed to be a prophecy of an event 730 years in the future? Matthew was a Jewish Roman official who was likely fluent in Aramaic and Greek, but not Hebrew. The translation of the Bible he used at the time would have been the Greek Septuagint (written in the 3rd Century BC). This translation took the Hebrew word “almah” from Isaiah 7:14 and translated this to the Greek “parthenos”. Almah in Hebrew literally means young woman but parthenos is Greek for virgin. There is a perfectly clear Hebrew word for virgin, which is “bethulah”, which surely would have been used were this the intent of the writing. The word almah is used in other parts of the Old Testament as well and is not construed to refer to a virgin (see Proverbs 30:19). Also, in the Septuagint, parthenos does not always mean virgin. So the road from “almah” to “virgin” is enormously shaky. Most translations of the Bible have an asterisk next to the words “young woman” in Isaiah with a footnote and explanation below. The Holy Spirit that most Christians describe would probably not need to use asterisks when handing down the perfect, divinely inspired Word of God.
The argument you might get from a more well-coached Christian is that “almah” in Aramaic was sometimes used to refer to a virgin. If this were the intent, this would be the only instance of Isaiah integrating an Aramaic word into his Hebrew text. Not a resonable argument.
While on the topic of the Old and New Testaments, it should be noted that any theological worldview that includes Jesus must include the Old Testament. A simple reading of the gospels makes absolutely clear that it is intended that there be continuity between the two. Why all the references to prophecies? The geneologies? The ideas of “fulfillment” of The Law? Don’t let Christians get away with ignoring the Old Testament simply because much of it is unpalatable. You don’t get Jesus without Yahweh. It’s a packaged deal.
Resurrection of Jesus
The only things that can be said of the resurrection stories of the four gospels is that when compared, they are contradictory at best. How many women went to the tomb? Where was Peter? How many angels? Where were the angels? Where were the Roman guards? Who’s on first? Attempts to rationalize the divergent stories are comical. At the end of the day, assuming that Jesus was a real person and truly was crucified as described in the gospels (quite an assumption in itself), there are a number of things we could choose to believe:
- The disciples stole his body
- The Jews hid his body and it was never found
- There was confusion about where the body went to begin with
- The entire story was fabricated 30 years after the fact
- The gospels as written are true
Let’s pick one of these: The Jews hid his body and it was never found. Do I actually believe this happened? No. Why? Because there is no reason from textual evidence or archaeology to believe it to be the case. BUT, it is FAR more likely to be the correct explanation than the explanation that a miraculous cosmological singularity occurred causing Jesus’ body to be subsumed into the ether. Especially considering the fact that the only textual evidence we have is a group of contradictory gospels written at least 35 years after the fact.
Look at this way: If I claimed that on the way to work I ran over a squirrel, the squirrel died, I got out of my car, laid hands on it and prayed, and the squirrel came back to life and scampered off into the forest. Would you believe me? No. Why? Because this is an extroardinary claim and I have provided no evidence. Okay, let’s say I can produce 50 eye witnesses including a veterinarian who all corroborate my story. You have a few options when choosing what to believe:
- The story is true and a miracle has occurred
- The squirrel was not dead but was only injured
- All 50 people are honestly mistaken in their interpretation of the events
- I paid all 50 people to say what they said
- The 50 people are crazy
All of these arguments sound implausible, but only one of them is really, really implausible, given what we know about science and human nature. You may not like the non-miracle options but any of them is far better than the argument that a miracle did indeed occur.
Heaven and Hell
It’s easy to dwell on certain aspects of Jesus’ teachings. No reasonable person thinks that the idea of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is a bad axiom. However, many Christians fixate on these teachings and the idea of the love of Christ, while ignoring some of the more “old school” aspects of his teachings. Particularly when it comes to heaven and hell. When a Christian goes to church on Sunday, it is easy for them to blend into their own crowd and be either as liberal or literal as necessary in order to fit in. But it is quite another thing for a Christian to look a bunch of atheists in the face and state clearly that (1) there is a hell, and (2) you are going to it when you die. Even a more conservative Christian will say that hell isn’t really a pit of fire and torment – rather, it is merely separation from God.
But what does Jesus have to say about the matter?
Matthew 13:40 – 42
Just as the weeds are separated out and burned, so it will be at the end of the world. I, the Son of Man, will send my angels, and they will remove from my Kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil, and they will throw them into the furnace and burn them. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better to enter heaven with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands.
I’ll tell you whom to fear. Fear God, who has the power to kill people and then throw them into hell.
All who believe in God’s Son have eternal life. Those who don’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life, but the wrath of God remains upon them.
Finally an idea about which all four gospels are consistent. And Paul is not shy about this topic either, for what it’s worth. To me, separation from God is kind of like being separated from an overbearing boss – not too bad at all. But what Jesus describes here is like being separated from an overbearing boss by being thrown into an oven.
What is left?
So the Old Testament is out because Yahweh was mean. The Pauline epistles are out because Paul is too old fashioned, makes women submit to their husbands, and still doesn’t like gay people. If Jesus’ miraculous birth and resurrection are highly doubtful and we can’t latch on to his actual words, then what else is left? A few verses about being good to your neighbor and something about olive trees. Your Christian needs to find a different book.
Or better yet, no book at all.