How Atheists Should Read the Bible

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So you are convinced that God doesn’t exist and that the Bible is simply a collection of fairytales. But you would like to know more about the Bible so you can debate Christians more effectively. In most cases you will probably start by reading through the bible looking for contradictions and inaccuracies.

Fine. But if you’re done with that and would like to try something new you might consider another approach. You know the old proverb about how you shouldn’t judge a man before you walked a mile in his shoes… I suggest giving the Bible another read from the perspective of a believer.

However, not just any typical believer… but someone who actually reasons through the process.

So to start, ask yourself this question:

If there was a god, and if this god were to leave a written message for humanity, how would he go about doing that?

Here are some possibilities:

1) God writes a book himself and just hands it down to humanity. (like the golden plates of Mormon)
2) God leaves the actual writing to man but dictates it word for word and man copies it down exactly. (like the Quran)
3) God explains the message to man but then lets man use his own words to write it down

And, on the opposite extreme,

5) God leaves it entirely up to man to write the book.
Or, less extreme,
4) God inspires some parts of it and man writes some of the other parts by himself.

Now already, looking at these possibilities, we can rule out some of them when it comes to the Bible. The first one obviously does not apply to the Bible since the Bible was not handed down all at once and it repeatedly states that it was written by human authors.

We can also eliminate possibility “5” since, if the Bible was written entirely by man, what it has to say is of no more value than any other book and therefore would tell us nothing essential about God.

Possibility 4 however is a bit trickier. It depends on how essential to the overall message the parts written by man are. If the parts that man wrote from his own imagination deal with essential topics and contradict the parts inspired by God and if the reader has no way to tell the difference then the overall message of the Book is lost. We can rule out this version of Possibility “4” since, even if god did try to communicate with us this way, it would be impossible for us to know what he intended to say.

If however the parts that god inspires cover the essentials while the parts contributed by man do not and neither do they take away from the essential message, then this Possibility could still be valid. In other words, it IS possible that a god would choose to communicate with humanity in writing and, to his messages people add some of their own ideas but, since the essential message is not lost, God would choose to just let it be.

So in summary, when it comes to the Bible, there isn’t just one method, but a range of possible methods in which the Book might have been inspired by god. Atheists often make the mistake of choosing just one of these and then trying to debate that alone (often Verbal Inspiration, no. 2 above.) But, having ruled out this one method still lives several other methods unchallenged. Instead, when the atheist reads the Bible he should consider the whole range of valid possibilities.

One more slightly different point here. There is no reason to restrict God to direct inspiration only. In other words, if god has a message, he might choose to inspire a person to write down that message. But, he might also choose to inspire this person to collect and publish the writings of people god had inspired in the past. Or he might even have this person collect and publish previously uninspired writings simply because they correctly articulate what god is trying to say. In essence, if it turns out that some book of the Bible was not written by a particular author but rather that someone collected the writings of previous authors, even from secular sources; this does not mean that god did not want that book in the Bible anyway. God might inspire writers or he might inspire collectors. As long as the final message he intends to bring across is not lost, any of these options work.

So having addressed potential views of inspiration lets now discuss the actual reading and studying of the Bible.

It is best, before studying any particular topic, to read the entire book once through. This will help provide background context for further study.

Having done that, this is how the study of a specific subject should be undertaken:

1) Start with a blank slate. Whatever you think you already know regarding what the Bible teaches on a topic set aside and start again as if you knew nothing.
 
2) Take the topic and examine it through the entire Bible. Collect everything the Bible has to say about it from Genesis through Revelation instead of forming an opinion based on only a few verses. A concordance or Bible program will prove useful.
 
3) Once collected, examine these passages in the order they appear chronologically. Consider that a later passage could be written with an expectation that the reader is already familiar with the earlier passage and might be meant to be understood in light of what was previously said.
 
4) Be mindful of translation bias. Sometimes, because the people who translated the Bible already held certain beliefs, they might have inadvertently superimposed their beliefs on the Bible in their translation. Double-check with other translations or with the original language if needed.

And that’s it. Notice how the 4 steps mentioned above are just the sensible things that someone would do if they really wanted to know what a particular document says. Unfortunately, hardly anyone ever does this with the Bible.

First, most people are convinced they already know what the Bible says before they ever read it and, as a result, when they do read it, they tend to read their own beliefs into it.

Second, most people base their opinion of what the Bible says on a few passages here and there.

Third, most people start with the New Testament and then read the Old Testament in the light of the New instead of reading it the way it was written. The first generation Jewish Christians to whom much of the New Testament was originally addressed were very familiar with the Old Testament so the N.T. writers wrote for an audience well versed in previous revelation.

Lastly, most people usually choose a translation and then do all their study of the Bible from that translation only.

If an atheist actually took the time to do all this they would have a far more accurate picture of what the Bible actually teaches then most Christians do. And, if someone really wants to become well versed in counter-apologetics, they need to put the time into understanding this essential document.

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