Mars Hill Forum #117 with Atheist Dan Barker: Is the Bible Completely Trustworthy? Three More Questions in View
Guest: Dan Barker, Co-President of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, at the First Church of Christ, Wethersfield, CT, June 15, 2006
Prepared Text by John C. Rankin
Good evening. Tonight, the question concerns what is trustworthy.
In a recent forum, Dan and I looked at evolution and intelligent design. I argued for the logical power of intelligent design, and Dan said he believes in “unintelligent design.” But if unintelligent design produced the universe, and the human intelligence found in the universe, then unintelligence is greater than intelligence – at least in Dan’s universe.
So Dan faces a daunting question: Why engage in the futility of seeking to be intelligent? It will be swallowed up into cosmic dust at the end. Also, why does it matter if the Bible or anything else is trustworthy?
It matters because I do not believe Dan is really an atheist. In our seven prior forums, he has railed passionately against the God of the Bible as a liar and unjust. He says he is only arguing against “a literary figure,” not a real God, but I have never seen such invested passion against something “known” to be fictional. I believe the real issue is one of “theological baggage” – that is, the fear of being violated by imposed religion, and how to deal with the problem of evil.
That which is trustworthy is both positive and proactive, having no need to start with a negative or reactive comparison. But Dan’s definition of “freedom from religion” is both negative and reactive. It is not a freedom for something, but from something. But what does “freedom from religion” produce, if in the end an unintelligent universe violates us, and swallows up all intelligence and freedom? Are we not but slaves? In fact, it is my observation that Dan is enslaved by his fear of the Bible and Christianity, spending a life consumed by trying to find faults with it, being consumed with what he is fleeing. This is not freedom.
So, tonight, Dan must be asked if he has any positive foundation for the universe and his own life, in face of the nature of the Bible on its own terms.
Of all origin stories in human history, only the Bible starts off completely positive, proactive and hence, trustworthy. It is the only text that has a positive order of creation. In contrast, the Babylonian genesis starts with the assumptions of distrust, war and sexual promiscuity, and there is no escape from its violence. Buddhism’s starting point is: “Suffering is.” There is no good order of creation, and no resurrection hope. The Epicurean swerve of secular thought cannot rise above pagan ethics.
In East Hartford last night, Dan challenged me, saying many non-biblical origin stories are equally positive, and cited some American Indian myths. I answered him showing the presence of their negative assumptions. So he told me to read the Crow myth of how “Old Man Coyote Makes the World.” I did. This story, written in the 1800s, has the creator making tribes of men from the outset to 1) engage in war with other tribes, 2) to steal their horses, and 3) to steal their wives. Is this Dan’s best attempt to locate the positive or good outside the Bible?
Now, how does the Bible communicate its trustworthiness? It does not demand we trust it; rather, it simply is what it is, trusting us to examine its truth claims. Unlike the Qur’an which demands submission. How is the Bible inspired? It is not like the Qur’an, where Muhammad is simply a passive conduit for Allah. The Qur’an comes to us through one person alone, with no checks and balances and no questions allowed regarding its claim to authority.
In prior contrast, the Bible comes to us through God’s acts in verifiable history, through covenant communities of believers who have the freedom to pose him and each other the toughest of questions. It comes to us in history through this means of checks and balances. Just as water is purified by extrusion as it returns to the mountain spring, so the Bible comes to us through the work of the Holy Spirit in human beings.
The proactive basis for the Bible begins with the ethics of Genesis 1-2 – what I call “Only Genesis.” Indeed, there is no more intelligent and comprehensive source for knowledge than what is found here.
The Bible is the true story line as it defines the good order of creation, where trust and intelligence are fully in place; it defines the painful reversal; then defines the reversal of the reversal. In Genesis 3, the reversal begins as brokenness of trust, and cascades across human history. Then, the Messianic promise begins, reverses the reversal, and in Jesus restores the original trajectory of goodness and trust.
Only Genesis can be summed up in ten positive assumptions.
First: Only Genesis has a positive view of God’s nature.
Yahweh Elohim is greater than space, time and number, his nature is good, and his unlimited power is the power to give. That which is trustworthy.
Second: Only Genesis has a positive view of communication.
Communication requires light, and the Bible describes the physics, ethics and spiritual domains of light versus darkness. Where light is present, darkness by definition cannot be. Thus, openness in communication, honesty and integrity are the assumptions of biblical faith – the power to live in the light. That which is trustworthy.
Third: Only Genesis has a positive view of human nature.
In God’s image, we are made for peace, order, stability and hope; to live, to love, to laugh and to learn. To enjoy the good creation as a gift. That which is trustworthy.
Fourth: Only Genesis has a positive view of human freedom.
The first words by Yahweh to the first man, Adam, in Genesis 2, are words of freedom. The Hebrew language is rooted in the metaphor of an unlimited menu of good choices on the one hand, versus the one poisonous choice on the other. In other words, the goodness of life is a gift, and gifts cannot be imposed. Thus there is no freedom to say yes to God without the equal freedom to say no. The true banquet of freedom is robbed by brokenness of trust, the root definition of sin. Thus, the power of informed choice for all people is equally honored, that which is trustworthy, and thus, theological baggage can be overcome.
Fifth: Only Genesis has a positive view of hard questions.
This power to love hard questions is a cognate of the power of informed choice, traces across the pages of the Bible, and is the essence of the rabbinic teaching style modeled by Jesus. It celebrates a level playing field where all questions are received equally. That which is trustworthy.
Sixth: Only Genesis has a positive view of human sexuality.
Genesis 1-2 is unique in affirming the equality and complementarity of man and woman, the goodness of marriage. That which is trustworthy.
Seventh: Only Genesis has a positive view of science and the scientific method.
In Genesis on forward, the text describes reality consistent with scientific observation. Then the scientific method is based on the principle of falsification, where if one test disproves 1000 others, the theory must be recalibrated. The only ethical basis for this in history is found in how Hebrew prophets were required to have a 1.000 batting average, a 100 percent accuracy; and Jesus was accountable to the same principle of falsification. That which is trustworthy.
Eighth: Only Genesis has a positive view of verifiable history.
Genesis 1-2 identifies who the first man and woman are, where exactly they lived, who their descendants were, and then the Bible traces the genealogy all the way to Jesus. This is verifiable eye-witness history with no concept of mythology. That which is trustworthy.
Ninth:Only Genesis has a positive view of covenantal law.
The first covenant God made with Adam and Eve was the gift of freedom, and all covenantal law in the Bible thereafter is in service to the restoration of freedom, where the consent of the governed is honored, and where God holds himself accountable to fulfilling his good promises. That which is trustworthy.
Tenth: Only Genesis has a positive view of unalienable rights.
In the Declaration of Independence, the Creator, the God of Genesis 1-2, is appealed to as the only Source for the unalienable rights of life, liberty, property and hence the power to pursue happiness. That which is trustworthy.
This summary covers huge biblical territory – but such a foundation is necessary. Dan argues that the Bible is not fully trustworthy, and yet, when the Bible is taken on its own terms, it is the unique basis for intelligence and trust to begin with.
Now, in Dan’s supposed atheism, it is negative and reactive to all these positive biblical assumptions – it is untrustworthy. It replaces the good God with a hostile and unintelligent universe; darkness swallows up light in the end; we are no more than evolved animals where it is the “survival of the fittest;” it is slavery to a reactive “freedom from religion;” it avoids the question of what preceded the universe, choosing unintelligence over intelligence; it has no basis to overcome male chauvinism and protect marriage; its science cuts off the possibility of a Creator, and has no ethical basis for the principle of falsification; like pagan religion, atheism traces back to mythological sources, not verifiable history; its political laws cannot rise above “might makes right;” and unalienable rights are not possible, since these rights by definition transcends human law.
On the basis of the proactive and positive biblical assumptions, we can easily look at the three questions before us.
First: “Does Deuteronomy 32:8-9 show that the God of Israel is really a pagan god?” No.
The text in question says:
When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
when he divided all mankind,
he set up boundaries for the peoples
according to the numbers of the sons of Israel.
For Yahweh’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted inheritance.
Dan believes that the Hebrew term elyon, translated as “the Most High,” in reality refers to the chief Canaanite god. Part of his assumption lies in the mid-nineteenth century Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, which says the Old Testament is a compilation of four contradictory sources, where polytheistic and pagan religion evolved into Jewish monotheism. In Deuteronomy 32, Dan believes the older pagan deity is the real god of Israel. In Introduction to the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1969), by R.K. Harrison, and in Rethinking Genesis (Baker, 1991) by Duane Garrett, the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis is put to rest. The text and substance of the Pentateuch well pre-date pagan religions. The Bible starts with the one God, Yahweh Elohim, and after the Tower of Babel, various forms of polytheism arise, including the Canaanite deities. As the Canaanites descended into polytheism, they dimmed in their recollections of the true God. Thus, they slid from the one true God to many false gods, opposite Dan’s logic.
This is the Bible on its own terms. Let’s look at the first use of elyon in the Bible, then second, its context in Deuteronomy 32.
- Elyon is used in Genesis 14:19 by Melchizedek the Canaanite king-priest. He was blessing Abram, the servant of Yahweh, and he equated elyon with “the Creator of heaven and earth.” This roots elyon not in the Canaanite creation myths of warring and finite deities, but in the one good Creator, Yahweh Elohim. Immediately thereafter, Abram says to the pagan king of Sodom, “I have raised my hand to Yahweh, God Most High (elyon), Creator of heaven and earth.” In other words, Abram and the Bible place elyon under the name of Yahweh, not the other way around. Elyon is among many secondary names for Yahweh God in the Bible.
- In the song of Deuteronomy 32, Moses proclaims “the name of Yahweh” and “the greatness of our God” in parallel construct. The term for “God” is elohim, the honorific plural which means the “God above all the so-called gods” including Canaanite deities. Elyon is then used in parallel construct with Yahweh as was elohim earlier. Later Moses calls Yahweh our Father and Creator, rebukes Israel for abandoning elohim to foreign gods and idols, and for sacrificing to demons “which are not God (ehohay/elohim).” Toward the end Moses also gives these words from Yahweh, “See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me.”
Thus, Dan not only has the biblical language and text backwards, but as well, his logic says that Moses and Yahweh are schizophrenic, for they apparently allow a pagan deity to hide in their midst while saying there is no God but Yahweh.
Second: “Was Ezekiel wrong when he prophesied that Tyre would be destroyed?” No.
In Ezekiel 26, in a prophecy against Tyre; vv. 3-6 read:
… therefore this is what the Sovereign Yahweh says: I am against you O Tyre, and I
will bring many nations against you, like the sea casting up its waves. They will
destroy the walls of Tyre and pull down her towers; I will scrape away her rubble and
make her a bare rock. Out in the sea she will become a place to spread fishnets, for I
have spoken, declares the Sovereign Yahweh. She will become plunder for the
nations, and her settlements on the mainland will be ravaged by the sword. Then they
will know that I am Yahweh.
In v. 14, Yahweh also says to Tyre, “You will never be rebuilt.”
Dan argues that Tyre was rebuilt and continues to this day, that Ezekiel was wrong. But when the whole context and specific language is grasped, we learn otherwise.
- In Ezekiel’s day, Tyre involved mainland settlements and a small island not far off shore. The island had two harbors, one to the north and one to the south. The one to the south was where the fortified island city of Tyre was located.
- Tyre was a powerful and wealthy trading city, famous for slave-trading, and pleased with the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.
- Shortly thereafter, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon attacked and devastated the mainland settlements, so that by 572 B.C. it meant the destruction of Phoenician national life – the very political identity of Tyre which is prophetically lamented in Ezekiel 27.
- The island city recovered somewhat, but after Alexander the Great defeated the Persians at Issus in 333 B.C., he laid siege to Tyre. He did so by building a causeway a half-mile long and sixty feet wide, largely with the remains of the mainland settlements. After seven months Tyre fell, Alexander hanged its two thousand leaders, and the other 30,000 inhabitants were sold into slavery. Then Alexander reduced the fortified city to rubble, “scraping it like a bare rock,” and all the rubble was thrown “out in the sea.”
- Tyre managed to continue as a smaller and non-fortified city, but by 1321 A.D., following Muslim destruction, it was reduced to a small fishing village on the north harbor, and where in both harbors, it has become “a place to spread fishnets.”
- The rubble of the old fortified city of Tyre is still there today, “out in the sea,” some fifty feet under the water of the south harbor, Alexander’s causeway remains, and the sands have come to dominate.
Dan’s problem is this – he has a reactionary agenda to try and prove the Bible wrong. Thus he took the language of “never being rebuilt” as referring to any form of remaining civilization on the island. But Ezekiel was referring to the trading city of Tyre, with its fortified center on the south harbor, with its high walls, towers and splendid buildings – its political and mercantile entity. This city was scraped bare like a rock, is used for the spreading of fishnets to this day by the village that remained on the north harbor, and has not been rebuilt.
Since I do not believe Dan is a real atheist, I wonder if he does not have some personal reason for leaving the faith, perhaps also a problem with evil; and the devil has succeeded in taking down a minister of the Gospel, scraping him bare across the rock, and leaving him to bake, as it were, in the hot Mediterranean sun. I have a better hope for Dan, that unlike the island city of Tyre, his faith can still be rebuilt.
Third: “Do the resurrection accounts in the New Testament contradict each other?” No.
This question involves five principal accounts, twelve different post-resurrection appearances, and very many eye-witnesses, consistent with the Law of Moses. Many scholars have spent years lining up all the details. As well, the Gospel writers each selected the material appropriate for their chosen readers. As the apostle John says, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” As such, this is a topic too large for one or several evenings.
In his article, “Leave No Stone Unturned,” Dan merely asks for “at least one plausible explanation of all the facts.” So for Dan, I have here two synopses that line up all the facts most logically (given to Dan in person at the forum).
But for a concrete example, let’s look at the first problem he raises. In his article, Dan says that Matthew 28:2 and Luke 24:2 contradict each other. Matthew says the women watched the angel roll back the stone, and Luke says, “They found the stone rolled away from the tomb.” Dan believes Matthew says the stone was rolled away while the women were present (possibly), but that Luke necessarily says it was rolled away before they arrived (not so).
The key is the Greek grammar in Luke 24:2: euron is in the active aorist tense, a simple completed action, meaning “they found.” By definition, the aorist tense in Greek is malleable. If Luke wanted to specifically say that the stone had been rolled away before the women arrived, he would not have used the simple aorist, but would have used the pluperfect, “they had found.” The Greek language is known for its great precision in meaning and artistic nuance, yet Luke did not choose it here.
The women found the stone rolled away, but when? The “when” is not determined by the aorist tense, but by the context. The two prior times Luke uses the active aorist in his gospel are 17:33, “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it,” and 20:18, “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces.” Both of these refer to completed actions pointing to future consequences; not pointing to past actions which is what Dan’s atomized grammar would demand.
Thus, Luke uses the simple aorist in a standard condensation of details that editors know well. Also, Matthew and Luke wrote in a time when there were hundreds of eye-witnesses still alive, all the details had circulated among multiplying thousands of others across the Roman world, and the freedom to sum up and describe from different angles etc. was as common then as it is now. They write with the understated confidence and conversational ease of known reality; not like the artificial and manipulated profiles of the Pharaohs or the Bhagavad Gita.
In conclusion, the Bible is completely trustworthy, it is both positive and proactive; and in its face, a negative and reactive “freedom from religion” has nothing to offer.
In Matthew 28:2, the Greek translated as “There was” is idou, which is an announcement term in the indicative aorist, “Look!” or “Behold!” or possibly, “Now there had been.” This term often stands above a concern for time sequence, focusing more on the content of the event.
euron is the third person plural of the verb, in the active voice and indicative aorist tense. Also, Luke could have made it most clear by using the passive voice of the indicative pluperfect, which would say, “The stone had (already) been rolled away.”
Seven indicative tenses: 1) the present, “they are finding;” 2) the imperfect, “they were finding;” 3) the perfect, “they have found;” 4) the pluperfect, “they had found;” 5) the aorist, “they found;” 6) the future, “they will find” or “they will be finding;” and 7) the future perfect, “they will have found.”
- Is there anything I have said concerning the biblical understanding of elyon, the historical facts concerning Tyre, or the Greek grammar of Luke 24:2 that is not factual? If so, please succinctly specify.
- At a deeper level Dan, I believe that your “freedom from religion” is really a self-chosen slavery, where you do not have the freedom to be positive, but you live in the negative, you need a foil to attack, and your life is dominated by a need to find any fault possible in the Bible and the faith of Christians. After the forum in Killingworth last November, you pointedly and repeatedly told a teenage girl, in the presence of her father, that she was deceived and needed to forsake Jesus and become an atheist. Last night in East Hartford, when a questioner overreached in his scientific knowledge, you kept pressing him hard with the goal to embarrass him; and after you made a passing allusion to the mental instability of some religious thinking, and a teenager reactively mused, half under his breath, that you might be mentally unstable – you pressed him hard with a voraciousness that was uncomfortable for all present. I have three questions. First, have I ever told you what to believe or not to believe? Second, do I not treat you as I wish to be treated? And third, in all my experience with professing atheists, they all bring up experiences at being burned by the betrayal and hypocrisy of Christians or church authority. In seven forums before tonight, I have seen you erupt from time to time like an unpredictable volcano against “the literary figure” of God, and against the opinions of real persons. Can you tell me that your atheism is strictly intellectual, or do not your emotions betray deeper relational issues?