We have exchanged perhaps two dozen e-mails so far. Our topic has generally revolved around the validity of the Bible but always expands to the abuses of the Christian Church. His contention is that Scripture cannot be trusted, as evidenced by the actions of those who claim to believe in it — centuries of violence, oppression, corruption in the Church, contradictory interpretations, contaminated translations. We’ve stomped through the cosmos for around two weeks now.
Then, yesterday, I started getting impatient. I was having a horrific week, working too much, including graveyard shifts, then trying unsuccessfully to sleep during the day while a neighbor ran noisy machinery right outside my bedroom window. Finally, sleep deprived and seeing little justification for my existence, I read the latest from my companion, a written tirade about fundamentalist thugs who claim their putrescent doctrines originate in scripture. These things, he wrote, prove that the Bible can be interpreted to mean anything the reader wants.
You completely missed my main point, which is that what you are looking at 90 percent of the time isn’t even Christianity ― it’s a bunch of jackasses that use the Christian religion to make themselves feel better, or to go along with their families, or to get into others’ wallets, or to wield power. Most of what you are calling various interpretations of the Bible is just people making s*** up. The problem is that the world is filled with dingalings who think they can invent their own doctrines and still be Christians. This is essentially a rejection of the Bible, since that book says of itself that it is the divinely inspired foundation for Christianity (2 Timothy 3:16) and is opposed to most of what you are upset about. Without a foundation, these psychopathic knuckleheads have lost their faith, if they had it in the first place. Hence, they are basically secularists who call themselves Christians.
Your idea that the West isn’t secularized is false. Most Westerners who claim to believe in Jesus are not looking at Christ; they’re looking at a contrivance, an imaginary being who has no expectations, does no miracles, promises no judgment and doesn’t change their lives by one iota.
I got carried away. I said more than I should have, angry as I am about the heterodoxy that has spread like a brush fire in the last 50 years. I actually judged a huge group of people.
That’s when my combatant informed me that I clearly considered myself the “supreme authority…”—well, you read the quote. His reasoning was that it was arrogant for me to presume that I knew what the correct interpretation was of those scriptures that were purportedly being violated by all this mischief.
The nerve of me, to think I could know that “For in [Christ] all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9) means that Jesus is God, which many “Christian” churches and denominations now deny. How drenched in ego I must be to say that scripture’s prohibition against homosexuality is current and straightforward (Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9), which is also disputed by many Christians. How presumptuous of me to think that “Do not lie to each other” (Colossians 3:9) means do not lie to each other, when so many Christian leaders lie to their flocks.
So these Christian churches and denominations that deny the virgin birth, the miracles of Christ, the judgment of God, the imperative to personal holiness — they are actually just as right as I am about what the Bible means, if the relativist view is correct.
Of course, the Bible is malleable, up to a point. It has a good deal of allegory, hyperbole and unexplained mysteries in it. Just read the Book of Revelation and you’ll end up with your head spinning. However, the basic message of the Bible is very simple and impossible to screw up: mankind is hopelessly lost in wickedness and self-centeredness. God loves us and sent his son Jesus to save us. That’s it. The crucial doctrines of the Christian faith can be boiled down to a very small list.
I’m not surprised my opponent would object to my making categorical statements of truth. Such proclamations are quite out of vogue these days. Plenty of people are even saying that there is no objective truth. Never mind that this itself is a statement of objective truth.
I’m used to people saying that nothing is real. But I was taken aback when my opponent said that by stating the meaning of certain Bible verses, I was “imposing my beliefs on everyone.” His statement was especially surprising since he has an advanced education and is quite familiar with the concept of critical thinking. We all have the job of sorting the wheat from the chaff in our own minds. My argumentative friend knows this perfectly well. I ached for a way to get the message through to him: my statements demand nothing from anyone, because 1) I am merely a person with a finite mind and limited understanding, just like everyone else. 2) Everyone who is part of this discussion has free will. I have no authority to direct anyone’s behavior. Even Jesus, who has such authority, did not demand obedience from anyone. He laid out his statements and left people to choose what they would do with the information. I can only think that my opponent has made a habit of selecting the most stripped-down interpretations of scripture he can think of, and now, when I bring back those dreaded “traditional” interpretations, perhaps he begins to imagine God is standing in his living room, commanding him to “STOP COVETING YOUR NEIGHBOR’S WIFE!” in a thundering voice, and he starts to feel resentful.
Don’t people have the God-given right to exercise their choice to believe — or not? Sometimes they are rejecting God, other times the interpretation of others. God alone knows where that line is drawn in every instance, but people were never intended to have doctrine spoon-fed to them. Scripture gives us a clear example of how we are to receive the teaching of our leaders:
Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17:11)
Here we see that the Bible itself urges the Christian, ”Do your homework! Don’t let anyone give you wooden nickels!” If the Bible was written to take advantage of people, as so many naysayers claim, why would it command the reader to check up on his leaders?
But, some would say, that privilege has often been ripped away from us by totalitarian leaders who claim to be the very voice of God in the world. The obvious example is the medieval Catholic Church, which not only heralded its popes as the exact representation of God on earth (blasphemy) but suppressed the work of Bible translators, even burning people at the stake to preserve its power as the sole mediator of truth and salvation.
Frankly, I don’t understand why God did not bring swift, violent justice on these wicked men. But the real question is this: did corruption in the medieval Church compromise the message of the gospel? Much has been said about the fact that lay people didn’t have their own Bibles and hence were completely at the mercy of their leaders. However, it stands to reason that they were hearing the gospel, which gave them the opportunity to receive salvation. Christ was exalted and held out as the Savior. Surely there were some critical issues with idolatry going on as well as grave abuses — drunkenness, the selling of indulgences and extra-biblical ideas such as purgatory, which was used as a lever to generate contributions from people.
Ultimately, these disquieting stories call for a measure of faith in us. After all, if God simply lets the chips fall where they may, then corruption like this would be expected to cost many people their souls, not to mention quality of life in the meantime. But does he?
It makes no sense for God to send his Lamb into the world to suffer and die for humanity (through many supernatural acts) only to let the members of his Church be completely derailed by systematic corruption and not even lift a hand. Surely he gives everyone a fair shake through it all. Otherwise, our faith has some gaping holes in it. God becomes a schizophrenic deity, handing over his Son for us one minute, dismissing us the next. Truth comes to us through trust, not analysis.
Trust?! the cynic will howl. That’s the best recipe for disaster there is! Trust is exactly what permitted the popes to perpetrate their colossal fraud on the world. Trust is what drove 900 people to follow Jim Jones into the grave at his Guyana commune.
Trust in people, that is.
Here is some food for thought: Do we reject the law because of corruption in the legal system? Is the law invalid because of the horror stories about officers of the court who deliberately violate due process? Should we dismiss the importance of the Constitution because the Supreme Court has so often ignored our rights? Is science a worthwhile endeavor in spite of the glaring hoaxes (Piltdown Man, Archaeopteryx and many more) that have been set forth as science?
But some would argue that science is not a proper analogy since we have all seen the value of it in technological advances, cures and vaccines that push back horrible pestilences. We have undeniable proof that science, when used properly, works. Just look at the results.
However, the same can be said for Christianity. When people really put biblical principles to work, the results are spectacular: Mother Teresa of Calcutta; William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, whose services include charity shops, shelters for the homeless, disaster relief and humanitarian aid to developing countries, and which, in this age of sham charities, ensures that 84 percent of its revenues actually reach the intended recipients; Corrie Ten-Boom, whose family hid Jews in Nazi-occupied Denmark, resulting in their arrest and the deaths of Ten-Boom’s father and sister in concentration camps. After the war, Ten-Boom went back and extended forgiveness to demoralized Germans, including those who had actually participated in Nazi atrocities; early American Christians, who started the first hospitals to help the sick and injured.
There is a nearly inexhaustible list of benefits Christians have conferred on humanity. The skeptic, however, prefers to remember the bad things Christians have done. Jonestown has been called a massacre. But was it? Jim Jones was guilty of glaring abuse, but did he actually take the power of choice away from his flock, or did the people give it? We can rail against brainwashing all we want, but can anyone ever really deprive us of the power to choose? No. Jonestown was a mass suicide. I am convinced that each of those 909 people heard God whispering to them — perhaps right up to the moment they swallowed the Kool-Aid.
So where does that leave the rest of us? Are religious abuses sufficient grounds for dismissing Jesus? That is up to the individual to decide. If there were a Savior, and if he had a church in this world and also a solemn enemy (“the devil”), then we could expect things like Jonestown and the Spanish Inquisition and all sorts of other horrendous events. The Church and God’s people would be constant targets of demonic smear campaigns. In a very real sense, all the violence and foul play associated with Christianity is evidence of its authenticity. The enemy of our souls wants to heap as much dirt on Jesus as he can. By doing so, he sows confusion and unbelief. But he can’t eliminate us (Matt. 16:18).
For our part, if we aren’t willing to sincerely pray, seek and work through a modicum of confusion, then we are dismissing the contents of the box without ever opening it.