Western Christianity’s Biggest Problem: the Bible?!

Western Christianity Problem
Much of Westernized Christianity’s recent decline has been blamed on the failure of churches and denominations to adapt to modern times, becoming irrelevant, or contrarily, becoming too commercialized and “fake,” creating a superficial form of faith that drives parishioners away from institutionalized religion.

Lost in the conversation is a much deeper issue, one that revolves around losing confidence in the Bible.

For years churches have glossed over, rationalized, and provided shallow answers to thorny Biblical problems that are no longer being ignored—and it’s becoming harder to defend texts that appear contradictory and culturally irrelevant.

When you consider that the Bible was written by over 40 separate authors and compiled from thousands of manuscripts, in different languages, over hundreds of years, from a variety of locations around the world, with little collaboration, and ultimately interpreted into hundreds of translations—there are bound to be ambiguities.

Given the endless array of unique components that went into its construction, the Bible is extremely complex in origin yet miraculously consistent in theme. But eventually, followers of Christ must wrestle with the fact that the Bible isn’t as neat as we want it to be.

Through academic study, apologetics, and theological training, Christians can put to rest many apparent biblical contradictions such as conflicting dates, times, and descriptions. But the most serious contradictions aren’t specifically textual—they’re ideological.

Related: The Myth of Redemptive Violence – by Shane Claiborne

Even if you believe scripture is inspired by God—as I do—there are major theological and philosophical hurdles that must be overcome. Oftentimes, there are no easy answers.

But Christians often cherry-pick the Bible, ripping the most inspirational and lovely verses out of context and plastering them on Facebook walls, Twitter feeds, and Tumblr pages. Very little attention is given to the darker verses, the stories that are sad, depressing, and horrendously ugly.

For example, how can we reconcile the loving person of Christ with the violent God of the Old Testament? How can God forgive the sins of the world yet kill a man for simply trying to stabilize the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam. 6)? How can an unchanging God preach to us about loving our enemies yet facilitate the destruction of entire people groups—including children (Deut. 7:1-2; 20: 16-18)?

In modern marriage ceremonies, we use the Bible to recite verses about love and commitment, but some of the most “righteous” characters throughout scripture were polygamous (Gen. 16), adulterers (2 Sam. 11), and even performed incest (Gen. 38). In fact, hardly any examples of what we would now consider “Godly” marriage can be found within the Bible.

We’re instructed to follow Christ’s example of being forgiving, patient, and kind, yet God immediately kills Lot’s wife for simply “looking back” at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:26). A few chapters later God kills a man named Onan for failing to impregnate his dead brother’s wife (Genesis 38).

These stories are hard to explain, and they strike at the very center of our spirituality. As Christians, we are faced with a Bible that teaches us that God is seemingly peaceful and violent, caring and cold, kind and cruel, graceful and legalistic, patient and intolerant, forgiving and vengeful, good and bad.

Furthermore, biblical accounts that are filled with miracles, supernatural events, and unexplainable phenomenon directly contradict with our modern understanding of science and reason, pushing us to question the overall reliability of the Bible’s content. Can we trust something that is so unbelievable?

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The old-fashioned traditions and customs of the Bible don’t just appear to contradict themselves, they radically contradict today’s culture and society and widely accepted morals.

Ultimately, all of these biblical issues force Christians to ask some huge questions: Is God true? Is God good? Is God relevant?

For years, Christians have resorted to using the Old vs. New Covenant as an explanation for the seemingly dramatic contradictions in God’s character. But to the average person—and Christian—this reasoning (no matter how legitimate it is) often sounds foolish and confusing and unsatisfying.

In the end, rationalizing the violent and gruesome images of the Old Testament sounds like a bad excuse, where illogical and confusing theological antidotes are used as a failed effort at trying to save God’s reputation.

Is an intricate knowledge of Biblical Jewish culture and history, combined with a fluent grasp of Hebrew, an expansive knowledge of scripture, a conviction that the Bible still applies to today’s world, and the belief in the supernatural all required to understand biblical contradictions? Maybe.

Also by Stephen: When Worship SUCKS!

We often treat the Bible as an all-or-nothing decision, where we entirely accept or completely reject it. Many people totally discredit the Bible simply because they struggle with just a few contradictions. Will you?

To make matters worse, many people discard Christianity because Christians contradict the message of the Gospel itself. Instead of following Christ’s example of service, sacrifice, and love, we’re guilty of being hypocrites—hating, hurting, ignoring, and exploiting those around us.

The hard truth is that there are no simple solutions to these contradictions, and finding resolution may require lots of time, energy, and work—but God desires that we try. Our faith is a journey filled with doubt, struggles, and trials…we may never find a satisfactory answer to our biggest questions—but that’s OK.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, He continually admonished those who were the most certain about their faith—the Pharisees. They thought they knew everything and had all the answers. Ironically, the people who were the most unsure and desperate were the ones that Jesus used to change the world. Certainty and confidence don’t necessarily equate to holiness and righteousness. We must accept the Bible in its entirety instead of avoiding the hardest parts and embrace the idea that our faith will exist within the tension of these difficult dilemmas.

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About the Author

Stephen Mattson

Stephen MattsonStephen Mattson has written for Relevant, Sojourners, and The Burnside Writer's Collective. He graduated from the Moody Bible Institute and is currently on staff at University of Northwestern – St. Paul. Follow him on Twitter @mikta and on his personal blog stephenjmattson.comView all posts by Stephen Mattson →

  • otrotierra

    Yep, we follow Jesus who is The Word, not the idolatry of following a book or letter or law or sentence. This is upsetting to the (Sanhedrin) religious elite, then and now.

  • saltofearth

    Thanks…this reconfirms that we should struggle with and wrestle with the word. And it will challenge us and change us…The Living Word did use those who did know that they did not know everything. No we cannot fit everything together and make it free of contradictions. But then we are called to have faith (which God gives us) and not all the answers

  • Frank

    Yes the bible is Christianities biggest problem in the west. The question is will we try to conform Gods Word to our current culture or conform our current culture to the Word of God. The former is a comp,ete abandonment of Gods Will and the latter would be living in Gods Will. Where do you fall?

    • John

      What’s interesting Frank is that I agree with your statement, but based on our different interpretations of things such as violence, money, the history of marriage, and the clarity of parables, to name a few, we mean sometimes opposite things within the same statement.

      Not meaning to open any particular can of worms, just found it interesting to read your comment and think, “Yes, I agree with that statement! Wait a sec… But we disagree about what the statement means.”

      • Frank

        I guess that’s why Jesus talks about how many will come to him saying “Lord, Lord” and he will not recognize them. A warning all of us should give careful, prayerful consideration of.

        • John

          I agree. :)

  • Camp Whisperer

    I have my thinking face on now…and probably will for a while. Thanks for the challenge.

  • Stephen, keep reading, my friend! The more you see of Him on His terms, and the more you become detached from a human-centric world-view, the more you’ll find your shallow contradictions give way to revelations of His inscrutability. :o) (Romans 16:25 and Ephesians 3:3-13)

    • jonathan starkey

      Agreed. Well put.

  • Barbara Mack Blackburn

    You nailed it — where an atheist acquaintance was throwing arguments up at me. He noticed the contradictions while I tried to justify them and talked about the New Testament Jesus. The truth is, my faith was in Jesus before I was old enough to read the Bible. He is the living word, and the Scripture helps. I still wrestle with God over some of the passages. I remember crying as I read about the firstborn in Egypt dying, because I had lost my daughter. I can’t just ignore that pain and the questions I have about it.

  • David Brattle

    Thank you for this article. Often I feel I am one of only a few who struggles with this. My struggle with the God of violence of the OT is usually met with “well, that is because God abhors sin”. I am not sure that Jesus abhored sin any less in the NT (God is the same yesterday today etc….??) and yet he has a totally different approach. I grew up venerating the book as God’s Word. Actually Jesus is God’s word. The bible is a book written by humans with fallen minds who were inspired by God. Come to that many ‘worship leaders’ say that their music is inspired by God….i.e. God speaking into their lives and they write words and music that is relevant to the culture around them. What is the difference? I dont need to have all these questions answered to believe in God. I do. Because, even though right now I am seriously struggling with life, I have faith that the wonder of the world around me (I am a physics teacher) is the product of awesome God. I have moved from a conservative position where others had ticked all the boxes for me to an honest position where I have to acknowledge the many mysteries of the Christian faith.

    • Dave

      Hi David. Thanks for sharing honestly. I’m in a similar boat. Your statement “I dont need to have all these questions answered to believe in God” makes sense to me in that if all those questions were answered we wouldn’t be believing in an indescribable, mysterious entity/being but a small god who can fit in a box (or tick boxes). Not that it necessarily helps with the struggle with “the God of violence of the OT” which I also relate to.

      • John

        I suspect that to understand God perfectly is to understand God not at all.

  • Drew

    This is why I like Reformed theology. In terms of taking the entire Bible seriously and not changing or taking any parts we do not like, I think Reformed theology does the best job of sorting through the questions. That being said, it’s where I’m at now – I didn’t always think this way, not sure if I will always think this way.

    I agree with the notion that confidence does not always equal correctness. We can be confident about the wrong things. I think that is what the Pharisees demonstrated – not that it is wrong to be confident, but that it is wrong to be confident about the wrong things. Some folks throw their hands up then and embrace postmodernism because of this, something I strongly disagree with.

    • jonathan starkey

      I think the main problem with the Pharisees is that they were willing to break a command in order to judge someone. They were willing to murder, in order to keep the law.

      I think if you can spot a Pharisee you probably are one. It’s soooo easily flung about.

    • John

      Drew, I really like this. I think you show the maturity of having been through a change, and understanding that something which has happened once might happen again. You’re leaving yourself open, which I think too many Christians take to be a sign of weakness, or lack of faith, when I think it shows real strength. Your faith isn’t a house of cards, easily toppled. You trust it to find a better path if such a path presents itself. Thanks for the encouragement.

  • jonathan starkey

    I think this is a good article about the problem of approaching the Bible with a secular mindset. Allowing secular arguments to set the stage of how we assess the Bible and the Church.

    The first paragraph is already loaded with problems. I mean do you think the church needs to adapt to modern times, or do the times need to adapt to the church? The church will never become irrelevant. The world will pass away, but the church is eternal. We need to stop assessing the church as if it were a business, or something that can be changed like you own it or something. I’m reading a book from the 60’s in which people back then were writing the same claims as the whole first paragraph of this article.

    Do we need to dig deep to find the inconsistencies. In order to make the Bible more palatable for my flesh. Searching the Hebrew, quoting the studies and findings of new scholars… So an So thinks this, and statistics think that, just to have an apologetic to appease the mind of secular society. Why not approach these things with a Christian mind.

    • jonathan starkey

      As long as people need salvation the church will never be irrelevant. Ultimately the issue is between people and God and the Church has the solution for that Jesus Christ. Who is the head of the Church.

  • Stu Davies

    I find it interesting many view the OT God as more ‘violent’, it definitely is the more accepted view (and one I had until recently), but then we seem to miss out the book of revelation from the NT.

    If you include this, I would say the balance is even! God is consistent throughout the bible if we include the whole thing.

  • 5DRW5

    We need to do some honest appraisal of our faith and realize it’s about God and God’s mission in creation, not about beginning with biblical assumptions simply because some person told us we should. The Bible is indeed inspired as an instrument of God in loving all that God has made.

  • colin

    Biblical ignorance is a real problem. As a favourite commentator says, a text without a context is a pretext

  • David R

    Doubt doubt doubt…I was an ordained minister for 7 years. Due to some major issues in my life I left the ministry. Recently, in my new life, I have been reading all sorts of blogs, many of them Christian blogs with a large atheist contingent piling on. I cannot lie, the atheist make some very strong points that cast major doubts on the validity of the Bible and cast monsterous doubts about the very existence of God. The nimbers of people leaving the church increases every year. I fear for my children’s faith. I fear for the faith of all children. The world is increasingly hostile to our faith and the goal is to wipe religion off the map. The Bible’s inconsistency isn’t helping.I struggle to hang on to my belief, but it is a major struggle.

  • jtorrey1

    As a writer and professor of theology at UNC- Chapel Hill said in on of his lectures, “The Bible is one of the Greatest Books written by man, but because of that there are discrepancies. But what is important to Christians is the message Jesus gives us to live by.”

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