The Errancy of Fundamentalism Disproves the God of the Bible (1996)

Niclas Berggren


1. Introduction

This essay will investigate the often-made claim from Christians, that the Bible is the inspired word of god, a corollary of which is that it is perfectly without error. This view is exemplified by the following statement of Jimmy Swaggart, a Pentecostal pastor: "One of the most basic tenants of the Christian faith is that the Scriptures are inerrant. Because the Bible is God's Word, it is entirely error-free." (Swaggart, 1987, p. 8) [1] It will be argued that this view - which will be referred to as Fundamentalism - is the only possible logical view of the Bible for a Christian, but that it is incorrect and, therefore, that the Christian god[2] does not exist. More formally, the argument of this essay can be expressed in the following manner:

1. If the Christian god (as defined in footnote [2]) exists, there is a being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. [propositonal function]
2. If there is a being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good, his revelation is error-free, unambiguously clear, and objectively verifiable as true. [propositional function]
3. The Bible is neither error-free, unambiguously clear, nor objectively verifiable. [proposition based on observation]
C. The Christian god does not exist.

We shall begin by examining the nature of this god and what implications it has for our analysis of the Bible.

2. The Logic of Fundamentalism

Let us, for the sake of argument, proceed under the premise that the Christian god does, indeed, exist (although there are convincing reasons, independent of the arguments of this essay, to reject a belief in his existence; see, e.g., Smith, 1979, and Martin, 1990, 1991). The Christian view of god is that he is omnipotent[3], omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipresent and eternally existing. Furthermore, he is perfect in all of his being, as well as the utmost cause and sustainer of everything.[4] It is the belief of Christians that their god inspired some humans to write the 66 books of the Bible, a belief which is in line with the following statement of Paul regarding the books of the Old Testament: "All Scripture is God-breathed..." (2 Tim. 3:16, NIV). Apparently, god wanted to make some information known to humanity, which is why he decided to make people convey it in written form. Let us now turn to an analysis of what the Bible would be like if it is the document of the Christian god; four theoretical arguments expanding on this will be presented.

2.1 The original text

Since god is perfect in every way and, furthermore, all-powerful and all-knowing, it is only logical to hold that his only written revelation is inerrant in every respect. After all, a perfect god could not possibly want to produce an imperfect revelation, and since he can do anything he wants, he could not possibly bring about an imperfect revelation. Thus, Fundamentalism is the logical view of the Bible, given a belief in the Christian god. If the Bible turned out to be less than perfect, that forcefully and unambiguously implies that the Christian god cannot possibly exist.

But, the more liberally inclined Christian may object, if we find one error in any other book, say a school book, we do not thereby throw out the entirety of what has been written in that book: while realising the mistake, we do not automatically assume everything else to be incorrect. So why do we not find this approach appealing when dealing with the Bible? There is a vital difference, and that is that the Bible is said to be the written revelation of an almighty and perfect god. Such a deity cannot, by definition, make a mistake. So if there is just one mistake in the Bible, that mistake makes it clear to us that the Christian god cannot exist.

2.2 Translations

First, the Fundamentalist is correct in believing that a perfect, omnipotent god would produce nothing but an inerrant revelation. But let us continue to use this logic to its full extent and ask ourselves, Does this doctrine of inerrancy also apply to translations and later original-language manuscripts of the Bible? The above-mentioned Jimmy Swaggart has the following to say on this matter: "So while the Bible's original text is without error, mistakes may have crept into the translated versions." (Swaggart, 1987, p. 8)

Let us think about this for a moment. The logic of the claim that the original text is inerrant is that an omnipotent and perfect god wanted to reveal some things to humanity, therefore his revelation could not possibly contain any errors. Note that god used humans to write his revelation. Now if god is interested in conveying his divine information to others than those who speak Hebrew and ancient Greek, he must see to it that his revelation becomes available in other languages. Is there any reason for god to not use his omnipotence in producing correct translations? Note that god could just as easily use humans to translate his word as he used humans to write it in the first place - he is, after all, all-powerful. And since he is perfect, it is not in his interest to provide an imperfect revelation in any place or at any time.

Hence, as a matter of logical consistency, it must necessarily hold that god has provided error-free translations. If one claims that god wanted to produce a perfect revelation but that the versions which we can understand today are imperfect, one must explain why god did not want or could see to it that the translations are also error-free. Clearly, any such attempt to an explanation is doomed to fail while retaining the Christian concept of god. Thus, if it can be shown that any translation of the Bible contains just one error, the Christian god cannot exist.

But does this mean that there is just one correct translation in every language? First, it is interesting to note that the Bible has not been and still is not available in all languages in the world. What this implies about a god who supposedly does not show favouritism (Acts 10:34) is left for the reader to ponder upon. In any case, the logic of Fundamentalism does not necessarily imply that there is just one error-free Bible translation in any language; but it does necessarily imply that all Bible translations are inerrant.

Now Jimmy Swaggart and his fellow Fundamentalists must explain why a perfect and omnipotent god was able to produce an error-free original manuscript of the Bible while at the same time not wanting to produce error-free translations of this original manuscript. Does their god only want those fluent in Hebrew and ancient Greek to get his perfect revelation? After all, he could do anything, including provide error-free translations.

A related conundrum for the Fundamentalist who claims that the original document is inerrant but that later manuscripts and translations may contain errors is: How is it possible to know what the original document said, exactly? After all, we are only in possession of possibly errant documents today, and yet the Fundamentalist clings to these documents as if they are inerrant - which, by his own admission, they are not. (Of course, given the true logic of Fundamentalism, as explained above, later manuscripts and translations must also be inerrant.)

2.3 Clarity

Let us continue our logical journey of Bible scrutiny and ask ourselves, Would it be in God's interest and capacity to provide an unambiguous revelation? That is to say, assuming for the moment that the Bible is error-free, could it plausibly be the revelation of god if its message is in any way unclear? We know that the Christian god is omnipotent and omniscient: the former characteristic indicates that he could very well have produced a revelation without any ambiguity, and the latter characteristic indicates that god knew before producing his revelation that a less-than-unambiguous rendering would lead not only to internal struggles amongst his followers, but also to strong attacks from anti-theists. Both of these phenomena must be considered undesirable from the point of view of god, and if any of them can be shown to have existed or exist on the basis of Bible ambiguities, then the Christian god is not real.

2.4 Competing revelations

Let us ask, Would god provide objective means to verify that his written revelation is the only divine revelation there is? As he is almighty, he could do so if he wished. And since competing religious scriptures lure some people away from the verity of the Bible, it is undoubtedly in line with the Christian god's interest to wish just that. This means that if there is no objective way to decide upon the authenticity of the Bible, the Christian god cannot possibly exist.

2.5 Some possible objections

Before inspecting the evidence concerning the inerrancy and truth of the Bible and the Christian god, it is proper to analyse four possible objections to the theoretical exercise of logic presented above. First, if human beings have a free will, is it not logically impossible for the Christian god to use his omnipotence to induce, or "force", people to write his revelation without errors? That is, is Fundamentalism not illogical at its core? The answer is "No", for the following three reasons. (1) The doctrine of the general existence of a free will is at odds with the Bible's teachings. Suffice it to mention that the Bible instructs us that no one can avoid sinning, i.e., break some moral rule pronounced by the Christian god (see, e.g., Rom. 3:23, Rom. 5:12 and 1 John 1:8-10). Hence, if any human being necessarily commits sin, there is no general existence of a free will.[5] (2) If a free will generally exists, there is nothing that prevents a person to want to be an instrument of the Christian god and hence willingly submit to serving him in writing down his revelation perfectly. In fact, we would expect any Christian to be willing to contribute to the provision of a perfect divine revelation. And since, with free will, it is perfectly legitimate for someone to delegate influence over one's actions to someone else, such as the Christian god, the argument above falls. (3) If, indeed, human beings have a free will (which we argue is not the case, if we adhere to the Bible's teaching), and if this precludes the writing of an inerrant revelation from the Christian god (which we argue is not the case, if Christians can be shown to want to assist in producing a divine revelation), then we must conclude, on the basis of this god's characteristics, that he would have used some other means of producing this revelation, so that it could be perfect (e.g., he could have let a perfectly written manuscript sail down from heaven on a cloud). This he did not do. Thus, the conclusion is that the doctrine of free will is incorrect: it is at odds with biblical teaching and, to the extent that it implies that the Christian god could not produce an inerrant written revelation, it violates the logic of how an omnipotent, perfect god would act. If he could not produce a perfect revelation by letting men write it, he would have used another method.

Second, a related point, which unlike the previous one deals not with the issue of human will, but with the character of human beings, states that since god worked by using fallible and frail human beings, is it not to be expected that the writers of the Bible may have made some mistakes? It needs first to be stressed that if one accepts the idea that the original manuscript of the Bible does not contain any errors, it is not logically possible to claim that translations of the Bible may contain mistakes. But it is logically consistent to believe that both the original manuscript and subsequent translations are inerrant or errant. However, this latter view of general errancy violates the nature of the Christian god. Remember: this god is perfect and omnipotent. Why would he bring forth a written revelation with errors in it? The answer is: he would not do that. Even though the writers of the Bible were humans, as was and is the case with translators, god is able to guide them and prevent them from making any mistakes. Remember: he is almighty and can do anything.

Third, are not the demands that are put on god too heavy? Certainly not, if we take god to be omnipotent, omniscient, perfect, etc. These words are not just empty terms but they entail a precise meaning. For instance, being omnipotent means being able to do anything which is logically possible, without any conceivable exception. Thus, because of these infinite qualities of god, it is in no way possible to put too heavy demands on him, in the sense that he is not in any way limited (except by logic).

Fourth, are we not limited in our wisdom and capacity to comprehend divine matters? Even if the reasoning above appears correct, we may not be able to trust it. This is a rather frequent argument from Christians when they encounter things which they are unable to understand; these things are then termed "mysteries." However, if we surrender our ability to reason and make things intelligible, what can we possibly resort to in its place? Blind faith in "mysteries" unsolved? That hardly seems a more reliable approach. Let us instead continue to make use of logic and rational discourse to analyse the claims of mystics and others, and let us continue to do it in a critical manner. In that spirit, we turn to some revealing evidence.

3. The Evidence

We have now arrived at a brief albeit illuminating analysis of how the theoretical analysis above can be used to prove that the Christian god cannot possibly exist. As the reader knows by now, the basis for this argument is that the qualities ascribed to the Christian god assist us in determining what kind of written revelation he would bring about and compare it to the Bible. If it can be demonstrated that the Bible violates any of the basic demands on a divine revelation, then the Christian god cannot exist. If we do not succeed in demonstrating this, this still does not mean that the Christian god exists, but that other methods (aside from the epistemological one of this essay) shall have to be used if we are to disprove his existence.[6] However, we boldly assert that the following demonstration is indeed sufficient to prove the Christian god's non-existence. There will be one point corresponding to each argument above.

  • Argument: The original document of the Bible is inerrant. Counter-argument: There is a problem with the verification of this claim, and that is that we are not in possession of the original document of the Bible. But let us continue to investigate the argument, using available translations (e.g., the KJV, the NIV, the NASB, the RSV, the Darby, and the YLT). In combination, they use the available documents, including the Masoretic Hebrew text, the Septuagint, and the Dead-Sea Scrolls. Hence, our method brings us as close as we can possibly get to the original text. We will look at three Bible passages: Acts 13:17-22, 1 Chron. 29:27-28 and 1 Kings 6:1. The first two in conjunction inform us that Solomon's reign began at least 530 years after the Hebrews left Egypt. But 1 Kings 6:1 claims that Solomon's reign began 476 years after the Hebrews left Egypt - a discrepancy of at least 54 years.[7] Hence, the original manuscript of the Bible contained at least one error (no matter if the Septuagint is correct with reference to 1 Kings 6:1 or if all the other translations mentioned above are correct), which means that the Christian god cannot possibly exist.

  • Argument: Any Bible translation is inerrant. Counter-argument: One example which disproves the just-made argument will be provided from the King James Version (the same error is provided in the RSV, the Darby, and the YLT). 2 Chron. 9:25 says, "And Solomon had four thousand stalls for horses and chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen..." while 1 Kings 4:26 says, "And Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen." This contradiction is de facto in place in the KJV, which renders that translation imperfect. Hence, the Christian god - omnipotent and perfect - cannot possibly exist. (It is to be noted that the Masoretic Hebrew text contains this contradiction, but some Septuagint manuscripts do not. Thus, it is possible that this contradiction is not in the original text, although we do not know that; but it is certainly in most Bible translations.)

  • Argument: The Bible is clear and unambiguous. Counter-argument: To claim this is quite stark, because history tells us that Christian unity on doctrinal issues, even fundamental ones, as well as convincing anti-Christian challenges, have been abundantly present. This is one of the issues debated between Michael Martin and John Frame (http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ michael_martin/), and Martin convincingly states, "Let us recall that there are differences among Christians over, among other things, the morality of the death penalty, war, abortion, premarital sex, homosexuality, private property, social drinking, and gambling. Most of these differences are based on different interpretations of Christian revelation. To suppose that there is a rational way to reconcile these controversies by appealing to revelation stretches credibility to the breaking point." And the list of intra-Christian controversies could be made much longer: suffice it to mention the papacy, the doctrine regarding Mary, the trinity, baptism, speaking in tongues (where, interestingly, Fundamentalist Baptists and Fundamentalist Pentecostals disagree), the issue of creationism, predestination, purgatory, consciousness after death, and so on. Since the Christian god is perfect and omnipotent, could he have produced the Bible, on which perfect agreement cannot be reached by humans? No. In addition, these type of unclear matters give anti-theists plenty of ammunition, which god surely would have prevented, should he have existed. In all, it is clear that he cannot exist.

  • Argument: There is an objective way of determining which document is the written revelation of god. Counter-argument: There is no such objective way of determining whether the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavadgita, the Book of Mormon, the Edda, or Homer are true divine revelations. It is often possible to prove that a certain document is not a true revelation of a certain god (which is what this essay is doing with reference to the Bible and the Christian god), but to prove that a document is truly divine in an objective manner, one would need some type of additional revelation from god, which in itself must be unambiguous. However, if this god can provide such an unambiguous revelation, the question is why he did not produce such absolute clarity in the first place. Without such self-contained evidence, one could never be certain that a document is truly divine. (As an aside, necessary but certainly not sufficient conditions for true divine inspiration are complete logical consistency and inerrancy with regard to all facts external to the document itself.) And since such evidence is not in existence, the Christian god cannot possibly exist.
    Any one of these points is, in itself, sufficient for us to understand that the Christian god cannot exist. Taken together, they constitute overwhelming evidence to this effect.

4. Conclusion

We began this essay by generously granting the Christian the assumption that the Christian god does, indeed, exist. We then used logic to derive what the characteristics of this god's revelation would be like, and found that (i) the original text must be inerrant; (ii) all later manuscripts and translations must be inerrant; (iii) this revelation must be unambiguously clear in every respect; and (iv) there must be some objective way for humans to know that this document is "the real thing." These four demands follow directly from the characteristics of the Christian god, most notably those of perfection, omnipotence, and omniscience: this god not only must want his only written revelation to be inerrant in all dimensions, he is also capable of seeing to its being produced in such a way.

We then proceeded by scrutinising how the Bible does on these four points. The result was overwhelmingly clear: the Bible is not inerrant in its original text, to the best of human knowledge; it is not inerrant in all its later manuscripts and translations; it is not unambiguously clear; and there is no way to determine objectively if it, rather than, say, the Koran, is divine.

The only possible conclusion from this is that the Christian god - i.e., the god of the Bible - cannot possibly exist. If one assumes that he does, as we did, and looks at the implications of this assumption, one finds that the implications are such as to violate what we detect in the real world.

Now it does not take much knowledge of psychology to understand that the argument of this essay is very disturbing to a Christian. He may bend over backways to try to rescue his specific version of theism, but he must, if he is to retain intellectual credibility, explicitly point out how a perfect and omnipotent god can provide a revelation which violates his very nature. Or he may resort to the classical way out: misology, i.e., to claim that his god is a mystery which cannot be understood. One wonders why one should believe in something which cannot be understood when it is possible to opt for the alternative: to believe only in things which are understandable.

So where does this leave one? Clearly, with some useful knowledge, viz., that Christianity is false. It is then advisable for one to proceed by analysing the larger issue, if theism is true or false. Reading Smith (1979) is one way of doing this, and that leaves one an atheist - and a basis for dealing with life as it is.

Footnotes

  1. For a similar statement, see Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell (1987, p. 150).
  2. It should be noted at the outset that "the Christian god" is equivalent to the deity presented in the Bible; and this is the only god being discussed in this essay. This implies that it is not possible to say that the Christian god exists without any relationship to the Bible. This approach is shared by (Fundamentalist) Christians, who refer to the Bible to get information about what and who their god is.
  3. The term "omnipotent" and the terms "almighty" and "all-powerful" are used interchangeably. It is, following standard Christian thinking, defined as being able to do anything which is logically possible. There are definite problems with "omnipotence" in its relationship to logic, as discussed by philosopher Michael Martin in a debate with theologian John Frame at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/michael_martin/ , but we disregard that objection for the sake of argument.
  4. This description of the Christian god is in line with that of Robertson (1987, pp. 45-46).
  5. On the concepts of free will and original sin, see philosopher Ayn Rand (1961, p. 168 ff.).
  6. That is, failing to prove not-X does not necessarily imply X.
  7. It should be noted that one translation, the Septuagint, puts the number 440 instead of 480 in 1 Kings 6:1, but that need not concern us here, for the following reason. If all other translations are correct, then the discrepancy of at least 54 years holds. If the Septuagint is correct, then this discrepancy does not vanish, but it is made greater (in fact, at least 94 years).

Literary References

  1. Falwell, J. (1987). Strength for the Journey. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.
  2. Martin, M. (1990). Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
  3. Martin, M. (1991). The Case Against Christianity. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
  4. Rand, A. (1961). For the New Intellectual. New York, NY: Random House.
  5. Robertson, P. (1987). Answers to 200 of Life's Most Probing Questions. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
  6. Smith, G. H. (1979). Atheism: The Case Against God. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.
  7. Swaggart, J. (1987). Straight Answers to Tough Questions. Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt.

 


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